Gunmetal Black 5
Chapter 13 - Perfect Strangers
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Chapter 13: Perfect Strangers

Mendel sighed as he made his way through the halls of the Central Core, his eyes scanning the signs posted and the various maps at entrances and exits. A particularly breathless warning had reached him up in his persona office, prying him from looking over the last few documents covering the sale of the company's research and development arm.

Apparently someone had gained access to the Central Core with an unauthorized access code. Or rather, a code Mendel knew was authorized, but couldn't possibly be in use, as the person it was meant for had been dead for years, and hadn’t come into the building (or even the planet it was on) for years before that.

And Mendel had no clue how to explain to anyone, least of all himself, how it was even possible.

He sighed with relief as he found what he was searching for, pushing past a group of people filing out of a meeting room and slipping into the small, closet-like security office. Every level in the Central Core had at least one, except for the sub-basements. They allowed someone with proper clearance to tie into every surveillance camera and terminal in the entire building and track the usage of both.

The terminal was unused at the moment--it was break time for this section of the Core and the surveillance was being assumed by another office on the floor. He pulled one of the worker's chairs over to the station and tapped in his access code.

Almost immediately a map of the floor, coupled with a running list of the access codes and users in two columns on his right filled the screen of the terminal. He tapped a series of keys, refining the search for just one code.

Jayla's.

Two instances on the two floors above, he noticed, cycling through the access logs. She's further into the Core, all right, but why? J-3 would already be there--near as I can tell, apart from the time she's spent in the labs, she's been in the garden most of the time, and she's cleared for those sections without having to input an access code.

Then who?

He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He could delete the code, but not from where he was now, and whoever it was had enough of a head start that they could get far enough in well before he was in a terminal secure enough to delete the code.

So what should I do, then? Mendel wondered. He leaned back in his chair, staring into space, trying to figure it all out.

"Mendel," an unfamiliar voice called from the doorway behind him.

Mendel jumped. He'd forgotten the doors to the security stations were often left wide open, only the terminals secured to allow for a more rapid response. He spun in the chair very slowly to turn and face the voice that had called to him.

It was a girl, taller than he was. Also, apparently very alien--her grey skin and jet-black hair made her look like a shadow in the dark room.

"I have a feeling you’re looking for me," she said. Her voice was calm and she didn’t appear to be armed or hostile--the tone of her voice suggested a request more than an order or a threat.

"You know me," Mendel said, planting his feet on the floor and getting ready to stand. "But I don’t know you."

"No," she said. "No you don't know me at all, do you?"

"Why are you using my sister's code to break in here?" Mendel demanded. "Did you steal it from her?"

The girl shook her head. "I give you my word that I didn't steal it."

"Then how could you know it?" Mendel asked, rising to his feet. "I knew she'd gone a little crazy out on the Frontier, but I confess I hadn't thought she was associating with . . .aliens."

"She wasn't," the woman said, seeming to flinch a little at what he'd said. She shook it off and stared at him, her cat-like green eyes boring holes into his. "I need to know where she is."

"I thought you knew," Mendel said. "She died. Years ago."

"I know that," she replied. "The clone."

Mendel swallowed. "How . . .how did you . . ."

"I don’t really have time to get into it with you," she said. "All you need to know is that I know about her. I know she's dying."

Mendel's brow furrowed. His mind reeled for a moment, clutching at straws as he tried to logically explain how this strange woman he'd never seen, not only an alien, but an alien from a species he'd never seen could know Jayla's access code, know of Jayla, know of J-3 and know she was dying.

The problem was, no explanation seemed to fit. The girl seemed to know this; it seemed, which might have accounted for the lack of persuasion she was evincing to him, appealing more to his trust than his logic.

Even more irritating, it was working.

"Why should I help you?" Mendel asked. He leaned over the desk of the security office, shutting down the trace, and after a little while, closing the program and the security terminal altogether.

"Logically, I can’t really see any reason why you would," she sighed. "I'm only asking you to trust me."

"Trust someone I haven’t seen before today? Do you realize how you sound?"

"I know," the girl replied. She took a deep breath and reached into the pocket of the drab rain-cloak she wore. "All right. If there's nothing I can tell you to gain your trust . . .then maybe showing you this will."

She proffered the small case to Mendel, who took it and opened it quickly, his eyes flitting from the contents of the case and back to her.

"It's a data crystal and an injector. So what? How is this supposed to prove anything to me?"

"What's in that injector could save her," the girl replied. "That's why I came here. If you'll trust me, I can keep her from dying."

"I've only got your word for that."

"Then I guess you'll have to come with me," the girl replied.

Mendel laughed. "Escort you to where J-3 is, so you can do God knows what to her? Are you for real?"

The girl bit her bottom lip. "I really wanted to see her alone, but if taking you with me is the only way to get there, then you should come with me. My business involves you just as much as it does her, I guess."

"Well, thank you for including me in this, seeing as how this is my building, my company and it's a clone of my sister we're talking about," Mendel said. "What if I say no? Are you going to take me hostage and force it out of me?"

"No. I'll leave."

Mendel blinked. "You'd just turn around and leave?"

The girl nodded. "Why would I stay? I'm not here to threaten or hurt anyone. I don’t really like to, because it's not my nature and I'd probably be terrible at it. No, Mendel, I'd leave. And she'd die, and I'd feel terrible about it, but I'll know I tried my best to help her and did as much as I was able to. Now I know you have zero reason to trust me, but why would I ask you to come with me if I meant her any harm? Why didn’t I just force you to help me from the start?"

Mendel frowned. "I'm not sure. Honestly you didn’t have to stop here at all, did you?"

"Not really," she replied.

Mendel looked away for a second, looking down into the case.

"You knew Jayla?"

The girl considered that for a second, and Mendel could see the wheels turning in her mind as she considered how best to answer that.

"Better than most, I like to think," she said.

"Is that how you know about J-3? How you knew to help her?"

"That's kind of a long story," she replied.

"I need to know."

"I know you do," the girl said. "And if you'll go with me to her, I promise I'll tell you everything."

Mendel closed the case. He slipped it into the inside pocket of his jacket and looked back at the terminal, reaching towards it as if to trigger the alarm. Then he closed his hand, looking straight ahead and blinking.

He thought of J-3 and the utter irrationality of why he should consider her like his sister, as if she were some sort of reincarnation of her that had gone a little wrong, and how everything Reficul had asserted about her and how illogical it was absolutely, inescapably true.

And also totally wrong, he thought. Because I'm choosing to believe the lie, even in the face of the truth. And I can't explain it to anyone, even--hell, especially--myself.

I don’t really know J-3 at all, and yet I want to trust her and love her as my sister despite all the evidence that tells me that's impossible, and it's a lie.

And I find myself wanting to trust this girl too, for much the same reasons.

"Have you ever done anything despite totally understanding all the reasons why you shouldn't?" Mendel asked. "And yet you went ahead and did it anyway, that one lone voice speaking the truth to you the whole time?"

She nodded.

"I'd give anything to shut that voice in my head up right now," he said. "I've been listening to it all day, and it's led to nothing but trouble."

The girl blinked. "I'm afraid you lost me there. What does that mean?"

"It means we're going to go speak to J-3 now," he said, waiting for her to walk out of the security office and following her out. She stepped aside and waited for him to take the lead, walking side by side with him to the garden.

* * *

"Tell me, Ademetria," Judgment said. "Does the phrase "Judas Goat" mean anything to you?"

"Shut up," Kienan replied.

He stared out at the two men in the center of the larger force of Guardsmen, his pistol still pressed at Judgment's head. The numbers arrayed against him didn’t faze him--he'd been outnumbered even more greatly in the past after all.

The problem is, there's very little I can do hanging from this rope, he thought. And I can't just drop down before someone gets a lucky shot off. Can’t go up because I'd leave myself totally open for a free shot.

His hand tightened on his pistol. Judgment stared up at him, his blood-smeared face impassive. He was certain they both felt the tension in the air at that moment. They'd only let them live this long because they wanted Kienan and Judgment to know how utterly at the mercy of this new force they were, that they could kill them any time.

That won’t last, of course. In a situation this tense, someone was bound to fire and touch off a shooting war. My goal is to make that one shot work to my advantage.

Judgment's another problem. I let go, what's to stop him from grabbing me and using me as a shield? Apart from that gut wound I gave him. I can tell just from the way he's holding on that it's taking a lot out of him. So if I turn my attention away from him will he take his shot . . .or try to get away and rest?

It's pointless to try to tag one of the grunts and gain a distraction--there's at least ten other shooters who could take me out as I was coming down. No, taking a pawn won't give me what I need.

Kienan sighed, then stared at Judgment. He didn’t blink as his eyes met the man he'd been hired to kill, nor did he cut his eyes or otherwise signal his intentions. Judgment's severe expression relaxed slightly as a silent understanding passed between them.

Time to take a king, Kienan thought.

In a flash, he raised his pistol away from Judgment's face and aimed for Wrath. Wrath attempted to shove Esperanza between himself and Kienan's gun, but Kienan, having calmly set up the shot, fired past Esperanza, grazing Wrath's skull with his shot as he let go of the rope.

He heard Wrath's screams, seeing and hearing the Guardsmen moving into position, the steady snap of weapon safeties being released as he somersaulted down, holstering his pistol as he landed catlike on his feet. He reached into one of the pouches he wore at his belt and produced a small around device that he hurled into the air.

He heard Judgment land with a thud as the flare went off like a crack of thunder, momentarily lighting the entire main hall as if the sun hung in the rafters. Kienan kept his eyes shut, unsnapping another pouch on his belt and produced a small canister, pressing one end as he raised his arms slightly, sprayed a thin stream of liquid from the canister.

There was a quiet whumph as the flammable liquid caught near one of the candelabras. Kienan rolled away as the blue flame-trail zipped along towards him and rose to a crouching position, pistols drawn. The noises had gone from the regimental sounds of professional soldiers to mild panic.

Kienan had his diversion, now. Attacking Wrath, who thought himself immune from any threat had drawn attention from Kienan long enough for him to gain an advantage.

All that remained now was to do something with it.

He fired a volley of shots at one of the Guardsman who was trying to move away from the rapidly-spreading fire. The Guardsman was thrown backwards into one of the pews, hitting it hard enough to knock it over, but he was already moving into position to return fire.

Of course, Kienan though, holstering one of his pistols. Body armor, same as Judgment.

Just then, another Guardsman tried to rush him from behind. Kienan stepped to the side, drawing his knife and plunging it into the Guardsman's chest, moving behind him as he shoved the blade past the armor plates into his flesh.

The Guardsman Kienan had shot at now raised his weapon. Kienan shoved the Guardsman he'd stabbed into the path of the fire, the human shield's body twitching and jerking with every shot. Kienan was reassured that while his bullets couldn't penetrate the Guardsman's armor, their own weapons seemed to do so easily.

He lifted the screaming Guardsman's arm up, pointing his gun at the one who'd shot him. Kienan squeezed the man's hand and fired a shot at the other Guardsman. His head vaporized in a red mist with the force of the blast. Kienan then snatched the weapon from his shield's hands and pointed it at his head, killing that Guardsman as well. The decapitated body sank to the floor of the church, and Kienan yanked his knife free from the body.

He fired a series of shots at the Guardsman, who were now pulling back as much from the fire as from him. He fired a few more shots into the ceiling, rying to keep them pulling back. He climbed over to the body of the other Guardsman he'd killed and took his weapon as well. He inspected it for the number of shots remaining and to see if it was damaged.

Then, hearing someone behind him, turned and pointed his purloined guns at him.

Judgment stood before him, one arm trying to hold his wound together as he shuffled over the body of the Guardsman.

"Don’t you have anything better to do today than shoot me?" Judgment said, a humorless smile crossing his lips.

Kienan's eyes narrowed and he raised the gun he held in his left hand up and fired. The shot zinged past Judgment and killed a Guardsman moving up behind him, blowing his chest out with the force of the shot.

"I guess I do," Kienan said.

Judgment nodded, taking the fallen Guardsman's weapon.

"Don’t go getting yourself killed, Judgment," Kienan said. "Once I finish with them, we're going to settle up."

"I wouldn’t want it any other way," Judgment said, taking a position beside Kienan as the pair of them opened up on the Guardsmen, trying to corner them in the main hall between their gunfire and the rapidly burning church.

* * *

Unlike Jayla-2, Vain was well versed in infiltrating complexes like this. She'd eschewed anything like walking in the front door and simply leapt out of her ship onto the roof from a few dozen feet. She'd landed with enough force that her boots left their footprints in the stone and immediately looked for a way inside.

One of the advantages of being a Marionette was the increased speed with which he mind could process information. The only outlet into the main building was a small door used no doubt by the janitorial staff in cleaning the structure. As such, apart from a few surveillance devices, the only real security precaution was a small keypad that controlled access to the door. Vain tapped the keys just once to determine how many numbers were in the code and, extrapolating the possible combinations of the five digits, kept trying them until it opened.

It would have taken a normal human perhaps the rest of their lived. It took Vain exactly nine minutes, her white-gloved hands blurring over the panel as she tapped the keys.

She slipped inside the building, making her way down several flights of stark white stairs. Her steps seemed to echo down every single stairstep as she made her way down, her eyes busily searching for hidden cameras or other listening devices that could sound an alarm.

She didn’t fear any security measure, of course, only that dealing with them or evading them would take time.

And time is one thing I can’t control, she thought, moving lightly down another flight of stairs. Jayla-2 can’t possibly have gotten very far in here without being captured. She learns fast, but infiltration requires subtlety, and subtlety is something Jayla-2 does not excel at, despite her diligence and effort.

She carefully opened a door into another corridor, moving quietly, ever mindful of who might be watching her. It had occurred to her, of course, to simply strike the building with as much force as she could muster, as was her custom, extricate Jayla-2, and then leave.

Circumstances make that an unfavorable option, however, she thought. The last thing we need is to draw even more attention to ourselves, and I can’t imagine a better way to do that than for wanted renegades to instigate a firefight at a major Earth colony.

She sighed, looking around the corner. This part of the complex appeared to be deserted for the moment, a fact for which she was grateful. She walked down the hallway, hugging the wall as she did so.

Had Vain been disposed toward sentiment, she would have found this very much like a homecoming. She and her "sisters" had been created here on Ganymede, not at this building, but a place very much like it.

It had been an attempt, like many others Vain knew of, to create life in the image of humanity, with none of the weaknesses humans tended to have. And they'd succeeded admirably--Vain and Mirage were six times stronger and faster than humans, their minds equally as quick and agile, they never tired, they never got emotional, they were, on the face of it, perfect.

And of course, the corporate masters who made us intended us simply as sex surrogates, Vain thought, watching a group of office workers filing out of a meeting room and keeping out of sight. For all our "perfection," we were at best, major appliances on legs. That's a failure of vision or an astonishing lack of consistency on their part.

I have never quite determined which.

She made her way down another corridor. The information Ogress had given her led her to believe the item Jayla-2 sought would be in the complex's Central Core, the better to keep a close watch on the process and maintain absolute security.

Vain and her sisters had been kept in a location very similar, until Kienan had sprung them. Apparently he'd been ordered to destroy them as well--for some reason, as eager as humans were to create perfect life in their image, they became somewhat disturbed if that life were too perfect.

Hypocrisy, Vain mused. Another human tic I have never been able to understand.

Kienan had, more than likely to our creator's chagrin, trained us, as we have trained Jayla-2, to fight and kill. Certainly we have never been used for the purpose we were intended. And we pledged ourselves to Kienan's service for that.

What would we have said to our creator, had he lived for us to see him? Ironic that while he built us and gave us "life," we devoted ourselves to Kienan, who gave us some choice of what to do with that life.

She pondered that for a moment, finally discovering a deserted entrance to the Central Core, her fingers once again a blur as she tried all possible combinations.

This time, however, a security feature she hadn't anticipated thwarted her. A light just above the keypad pulsed red very slowly, locking the door and blocking any further input from the pad.

No doubt also sending an alarm to the security detail on the floor, Vain thought.

So, I suppose, I shall have to make something of a mess.

She reached for the seam between the twin panels of the door, at first only managing to prize her fingernails between them, then her fingers, then grabbing them with her hands and forcing the doors apart just wide enough for her to slip through.

"Attention: Door 809 to Central Core is damaged," the public address system droned, a bland neutral female voice. "Repair crews, please respond to report of damage."

Vain frowned as she began to quickly run down the halls. So long as she could slip through the corridors undetected, she would be free to get to Jayla-2 as swiftly as possible, with nothing slowing her advance through the building.

Now that she was in the Core, of course, it was only a matter of time until she found her, however, in ripping the door open she'd drawn attention to herself and there was every chance that getting out would be much more difficult.

Just as well, Vain said. Once I've gotten what I came here for, I won't have to be as gentle on our way out.

* * *

It made him sick inside to even think it, but the battle with the Guardsmen had revivified Judgment. His stomach wound, while still painful, seemed to be hurting less as he fired at the Guardsmen, who, having regrouped around the main entrance, were trying to pin he and Kienan down in the main hall and let the fire deal with them.

They've got cover, and we don’t have much ammunition left, Judgment thought ruefully, checking the readout on his weapon and cursing himself for not taking a few more packs to recharge it. It was too late for that now, the fire was consuming the church now, and the bodies of the Guardsmen they'd killed had been consumed minutes ago.

We can't hold out in a stalemate, Judgment thought, dropping his weapon and dropping to the floor while Kienan covered him. He breathed the clearer, less smoke-filled air almost greedily. Either they'll get us or the fire will.

We have to break through, somehow.

But how do you do that with no weapons?

He blinked, looking up at the altar. The tapestry behind the lectern was dropping burning pieces of cloth onto the lectern, which was streaming smoke in a prelude to bursting into flame.

A plan began to form. It was completely insane, something he'd have thought of fairly readily back in the old days and thrown himself into it without a second thought.

He drew himself up into a crouching walk, gritting his teeth as he felt the wound in his stomach tearing a little. Crimson bolts of gunfire whizzed past his head as he slowly made his way towards the lectern, the heat so terrific it was scalding his lungs.

He wrapped his arms around the lectern, the acrid smell of the burning wood turning his stomach as he lifted it up. He tried to get it balanced, but a lucky shot struck the lectern and nearly tore it from his grasp.

He cradled it in his arms and planted his feet.

He was wounded, and if the wound weren't treated soon, he would bleed to death. There was every chance what he was planning would surely kill him, whether by the fire or the gunfire, it wouldn’t matter he'd be just as dead.

All I have is my faith, he thought.

And Esperanza.

Now let's see if both of them will see me through Hell.

Then he charged forward, holding the lectern out in front of him. A low growl in the back of his throat became a cry as he ran past Kienan, ignoring the gunfire that even now ripped the lectern apart and the fire that he bashed his way through.

The lectern came to a stop against the chest of one of the Guardsmen who'd had them pinned down, shattering his ribs as he and Judgment fell to the floor. Judgment grabbed for the Guardsman's weapon and killed two more of them as he rolled to his feet, grabbing another gun and lobbing one toward Kienan as he ran forward, knocking out one of the others with his spent weapon.

Kienan helped himself to the weapon the Guardsman he'd attacked dropped, killing him and one behind him with it as he and Judgment moved into the entrance of the Church. Only a few Guardsmen stood between them and the door.

Kienan brought another one down with a shot to the head, and his eyes narrowed another opponent stood in his way.

"Back away," the man ordered the Guardsmen. "He's mine."

Judgment pointed his weapon at the new combatant, but Kienan waved him off

"Kienan Ademetria," the purple-armored man said, the voice synthesizer in his helmet giving him a menacing baritone. "The so-called deadliest man in the universe, I believe. I've been looking forward to meeting you. You may call me War. Or your executioner. Whichever you prefer."

Kienan raised an eyebrow, then unloaded a volley of gunfire on War, who, to his surprise wasn't immediately killed. In fact he barely flinched under the onslaught.

"Are you done?" War said, chuckling as he drew two swords from their scabbards on his belt. "Perhaps you'd prefer a fair contest?"

Kienan threw his guns aside and drew his knife, his eyes cold flinty emeralds as he eyed his opponent.

What is it about me that makes enemies of people carrying swords? Kienan pondered.

War flipped his swords back and forth, the flats of the blades catching the light from the fire, trying to distract Kienan, who adopted a defensive stance, resting his weight on his back foot, waiting for his chance to spring forward.

War lunged forward, his short swords whirling and flashing in the firelight. Kienan stepped quickly aside, swatting aside War's gentler attacks and using his superior leverage to shove him aside when he attempted a fatal strike, all the time watching his opponent and how he was both deceptively quick and lumbering and clumsy in his heavy armor.

For future reference.

War reared back, his swords pointed at Kienan. Kienan looked down, noticing a thin red line of blood crossing his shoulder. He stared at War and could see the smile the cruel soldier was no doubt wearing under his armor.

"They said you were the deadliest man in the universe," War sneered. "So far you've only showed me you're the most defensive. You're falling short of your reputation. FIGHT!"

Kienan's eyes narrowed, his mind calm, his body and spirit focused on waiting for his moment to strike. War was about to find out why Kienan had earned his reputation, and he was going to learn it the hard way.

War's feet shifted and he spun his blades again as he leapt forward, a short hop meant to confuse Kienan and leave him open to War's attack. Kienan leapt forward at the same time, swatting War's arms away from his torso and driving his knife straight through the weak cloth under his right armpit and activating the circuitry within it.

War's body began to pour smoke from the plates of his armor as Kienan tore his blade loose from his foe. War held his arms straight out from his body, unable to let go of his swords as Kienan gripped the horns of his helmet and slashed at the chainmail at War's neck. He felt the point of his blade bang against the voice synthesizer and shatter it as War lurched forward. Kienan slid to the side, tripping his now debilitated foe as he slipped one of War's pistols from his holster.

As War fell forward, Kienan pointed his own gun at the back of his head and squeezed the trigger. A white-hot bolt of energy surged from the pistol, shattering both War's helmet and the man's unguarded head beneath it, vaporizing blood, brain, and bone in one awful flash of energy.

* * *

Sabre negotiated the hallways back to the central core, ignoring the workers who gasped and shrank from him as he strode through the halls, his gaze radiating nothing but a dull sort of anger at anyone who dared to cross his path.

He'd been about to make his way to the garden when he'd heard the familiar drone of the security alert about the door on 809, and, ever so slightly curious about the disturbance, diverted from his path for a few moments to see.

He crossed back over the main atrium of the Central Core, on a narrow catwalk about the garden when, he noticed something moving quickly from doorway to doorway. It was too fast to track if one had just happened to catch a glance of it, but Sabre willed himself to look for it, willing his eyes to track the movement.

The blur became a shape as it ducked from a doorway to an alcove, then the shape became a form he could discern and he moved to intercept it.

The shape made its way out into the open on the catwalk, where Sabre was waiting for whoever it was.

It was a woman as it turned out, clad in purple and black, much like Sabre himself. Or at least she appeared to be--Sabre could hear the whisper-like whine of servomotors within her body as she rose to her feet.

Almost immediately, she leapt and turned in the air, moving fluidly and whipping out her leg to cut him down with a spinning kick. Sabre drew his sword and blocked her with the flat of the blade, sending her spilling over the catwalk.

Almost. Sabre could see her holding on with one hand and raised his sword overhead. She pulled herself back up and onto the catwalk with one hand, landing in a crouch in front of him as he brought his blade down on her head.

Moving with the same speed which he'd first seen her employ as she stealthily made her way through the hallways, she clapped her hands around the flat of his blade, holding it tight and driving her knee into his stomach, then trying to kick his legs out from underneath him, and finally headbutting his mask.

Sabre took two steps backward, still holding his sword, his eyes no longer radiating the focused hate they'd shone on anyone who dared to look at him. Now he wore a glance of intense concentration, as the woman adopted a more aggressive stance, reaching behind her and unsheathing a pair of knives, each as long as her forearm, both of their serrated blades glowing with energy.

Her expression told him her intent--she intended to cross the bridge, and if she had to, go straight through him to do it.

Sabre's intention was to hold her back. So long as she stood in his way, she would not cross the catwalk.

All that remained was to determine whose will was strongest and whose would be done. And with the strike of Sabre's sword against her crossed knives, the battle began in earnest.

* * *

Esperanza was terrified. Terror had stilled her hand and made her hesitate when she'd had the drop on Kienan, and that same terror now gripped her as surely as Wrath held his clawed hands at her throat. He was busily shuffling backwards out the church, the remaining Guardsmen covering his retreat. Every now and again he whispered a hateful threat to her to hold still, lying to her that his claws were so sharp he could easily cut her throat by accident.

She could barely get a breath, not just because of the tight grip on her throat, but also the fear that weighed so heavy on her chest and caused her breath to shudder out of her like ragged sobs.

Wrath yanked her along, her feet banging down the church steps. He turned to the few Guardsmen surrounding him and waved them back.

"Return to the ships," he ordered. "Ready them for takeoff. We'll do what we should have done in the first place. Target them from orbit and rain fire on the miserable heathens."

He turned his attention back to Esperanza.

"Oh don’t worry," he whispered. "You’re coming with us. Sloane wanted proof of your deaths . . .your heads will do, I expect. All three would have been idea, but I'm sure he'll settle for one. And it appears you're elected.

"Now aren’t you pleased about that?" Wrath asked, licking her cheek. Esperanza tried to get out of the way, but Wrath tightened his grip on her throat. Esperanza felt her breath being choked off and darkness beginning to creep into the edges of her vision. Everything sounded so far away, especially that strange popping sound she kept hearing.

She blinked slowly, fighting to keep herself awake. Wrath's grip had loosened on her throat and she tried to draw in more air and get a grip on the situation.

"Come to save your woman?" Wrath said, staring at Judgment, who was standing at the top of the church steps, the latest set of weapons he'd stolen pointed at Wrath.

"Come on, then," the diminutive maniac demanded. "SHOOT!" He shoved Esperanza to the side, holding her hair in his clenched, clawed fist. Esperanza screamed in pain as Judgment fired.

Wrath cackled with laughter. "You imbecile," he said. "You poor deluded fool. Did you really think I'd offer you a free shot without being certain there's no way you can hit me through my shieldsuit?"

He yanked on Esperanza's hair, pulling her back into his arms.

"It's the woman, isn’t it, Corinthos?" Wrath taunted, extending a single clawed finger touching it to her throat. "You're afraid to hurt her, aren’t you? That's why you’re so uncertain, so weak?"

"If you hurt her," Judgment began, slowly making his way down the steps. "I'll make sure you're a long time dying."

"Talk is cheap, Corinthos," Wrath sneered, pressing his finger to her throat, breaking the skin even so slightly. Her blood trickled down the contour of her neck.

"You were never one of us," He said, pulling her hair tighter. "Not you or Jericho. You were too soft for what we have to do. But you were worse than Jericho, because you did have that killer instinct, once. Now you don't anymore. And that makes you less than nothing to me. Coward! Judas! TRAITOR!"

"Let her go," Judgment said, covering the last of the steps. His entire body was tight with rage, the fury coursing through him with such ease he could barely feel the wound. "Let her go, Wrath, and I'll show you exactly what kind of a coward I'm not. Just you and me, straight up."

"No weapons?"

"I don’t need a weapon," Judgment said. "Not for you. There's nothing wrong with you I can’t fix with my own two hands."

"Prove it, then," Wrath cackled, shoving Esperanza forward. Esperanza opened her arms, reaching for the man she loved, but was stopped short by something, her fingertips tantalizing close to his hands as she hung in midair for a moment in an almost comical effect.

Then Wrath tore her white cloak free from its moorings on her shoulders and she tumbled forward. Wrath straddled her and with one swipe of his taloned hand, sheared through her clothes and ripped four deep and very painful-looking gashes in her skin.

"I told you," Wrath laughed, licking her blood from his claws. "Weak." To emphasize his point, he turned and spat on her.

That particular bit of ill-timed sadism drew his attention away from Judgment long enough for Judgment to catch him with a hard kick to the stomach. Wrath backpedaled and Judgment rained down blows on his head, his silver-grey bangs matting blood from his broken nose and split lip.

"You want to see weak?" Judgment said, crushing his nose with a hard straight left. "You say I'm not a killer? I'll kill you with my bare hands, you son of a bitch!"

Judgment reached out, catching Wrath's hair in one hand and punching him over and over again with his right hand, lost in rage he was certain he'd buried long ago.

"COME ON!" Judgment demanded, the point of his knuckles catching against one of Wrath's eyes. "CALL ME A COWARD AGAIN!"

Judgment slapped Wrath with his open hand and spat on him, as the brutal cyborg had done to the woman he loved. Judgment's anger gave his blows tremendous force, and Wrath felt himself withering under the force of them. One eye had already been swollen shut and the other could only blearily make out the matted black fabric of Judgment's uniform.

"WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?! I WANT TO HEAR IT!"

Judgment whipped his arm back, preparing to strike Wrath hard enough to fracture his skull and hopefully kill him. As he brought his arm down in a arc, Wrath moved with all the speed his desperate flesh and machinery could manage and seized his arm before it could strike him, and while Judgment was surprised by his last-minute save, he shoved his claws into the weakened part of his armor, straight into Judgment's flesh.

"I . . .call you . . .d-dead," Wrath muttered, gouging his hand deeper inside the wound.

"NO!" A voice screamed.

Wrath's one relatively good eye opened wide and he slid his claws out of Judgment's side. He took a couple of very stiff steps backward as behind him, Esperanza rose from the ground, her eyes blazing with a fury Judgment had never seen.

"You're not going to h-hurt him," she said, sobbing with anger. Hot tears streamed down her face as she stood unsteadily behind the now docile cyborg. "You're . . .not going to hurt anyone. Not anymore."

Wrath raised his claws in front of his face.

"Stab out your own eyes," she commanded, shouting with ragged fury. "Stab them out, or I swear I'll push so hard, every blood vessel in your brain will explode."

Wrath began to cry out in pain. The veins on his temples stood up and pulsed as he fought against Esperanza's psychic assault.

"Die, you sick bastard . . .KILL YOURSELF! NOW!"

Wrath's claws inched closer to his face. Esperanza's chest heaved with effort as she willed herself to push even harder. Whether the force of her "push" killed him or his own claws did it, she was going to watch him die.

"Esperanza . . .don’t . . ."

She shook her head, pushing harder. Wrath screamed as blood leaked from his nose and his ears.

"No, Michael . . .he's going to die," she said. "I'm going to make him die."

Judgment sank to his knees, reaching out for her as blood poured from his wound in earnest. Esperanza watched him fall down and blinked, gasping with terror as she realized what she'd been about to do.

She ran over to the man she loved, sinking to her knees to keep him from falling forward. She turned to Wrath, who stood limply before her, freed from her control, but far too damaged to attack them.

So easy, she thought. So easy to give in to rage, and pay them back as they'd do for us.

She brushed the hair from Judgment's eyes, her fingers tracing the "X" scar on his head.

Is this what you were like before? Is that what the hate felt like?

Judgment opened his eyes, looking at her and smiling. The color was draining from his face as the loss of blood became critical.

Panic ran through Esperanza like she'd been hit with cold water. She gently used her "push" to relax Judgment, to send him to sleep until she could repair the damage.

Then she turned to Wrath, her blue eyes hard and pale with rage. She pushed into his mind again, crushing every defense he had. Her intention wasn't to kill him, or force him to do it himself this time.

This time she found the trigger inside Wrath's mind that would make him pray for death, knowing all the while it was denied to him. Esperanza had reminded him all over again that he was nothing much a severed head grafted to a cyborg body and nothing he could touch or feel was real. And he was barely alive himself.

She reminded him he was less than dead and nowhere near alive. Reminded him that he was rotting from the neck up and forced him to feel it in excruciating detail. It would have perhaps been kinder, had she forced Wrath to kill himself after all. After a time, his screams and sobs were so loud they drowned out everything.

* * *

J-3 was sitting alone in her favorite tree in the garden when she heard the main doors open and, peeking through the branches, saw Mendel walking along the pathway through the garden area.

On the face of it, there was nothing different about this, at least as far as she could tell from where she was sitting. There was something different though, she could feel it, like a scent of danger in the air.

Her eyes narrowed and she slipped quietly out of the tree, landing quietly on the ground and walking towards him.

"Mendel," she called gently. The man she knew as her brother stopped and turned to her, reaching out to embrace her. J-3 let him, returning the embrace with a puzzled, confused slowness.

"Jayla," he whispered. "I . . .brought someone to see you."

"Reficul again?" J-3 asked. A look of excitement crossed her face.

"Is it Sabre?"

Mendel shook his head. There was a rustling and a crunching of foliage as Mendel's guest stepped into voice, her grey boots carefully choosing her way towards them. Her green eyes surveyed J-3 in a way that seemed to look right through her and made her shiver. She looked up at the tree, a sad frown crossing her lips, almost as if the strange woman recognized this place.

"Who are you?" J-3 asked, stepping between the strange woman and Mendel.

"I could ask you that question too, couldn't I?" the girl replied, removing her raincloak. It rustled to the floor and she stood before J-3, her black hair falling around her shoulders and covering the black markings she had there. Around her neck she wore a silver coin with a copper inset on a chain.

Her green eyes softened as she looked into J-3's silver eyes.

"I went over this moment so many times in my mind," she said. "I thought I'd know what to feel when I finally saw you. But I don’t."

"Here you are . . . and here I am."

J-3 shivered again at the sight of that coin. The feeling of danger was positively suffocating now. She could feel the crystals trying to slip through the apertures in her forearms, to protect her from the new threat. She willed them back inside, trying to push away the fear and the utter lack of control she felt at the moment.

"What are you talking about?" J-3 demanded. "My name's Jayla. Jayla Kyren. That's my bro--"

"Your brother. Mendel," the girl said. "I know. And I'm your sister . . .Jayla."

Mendel blinked. "Sister?"

The girl nodded and turned to him. "I guess I should tell you the truth, Mendel," she said. "I'm sorry I couldn't before, but if I had, you might not have brought me here. And I wanted you both to hear what I have to say."

Mendel stared at them, a shock of realization going through him like an electric shock. Of course--It all made sense now. How she knew about Jayla, why he'd trusted her implicitly despite every suspicion her presence triggered in his mind, how he'd talked himself into helping her.

It was that familiar gentle manner she'd had that disarmed him, the good and kind heart he could sense in her.

Just like my . . .

But before he could open his mouth, the strange girl said the words that explained it all, her words and her gaze piercing straight into J-3 who stood there, frozen in surprise as she said the following:

"I'm the first clone of Jayla Kyren. The one who came before you."

"My name is Jayla-2."