Gunmetal Black 5
Chapter 15 - What God Wants
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Sloane observed the approach of one of the ships he'd sent out after Judgment and Kienan on the screen; his console tapped into Metatron's traffic controllers as he did so. As ordered, the shuttle was approaching in absolute silence--Sloane hadn’t wanted to take the risk that any information about their mission would be broadcast anywhere where it could be recorded.

After all, whether they'd succeeded in their mission or not, I must still be in a position to direct events, he thought. And that means leaving no trace of anything I have done, as Ademetria hopefully learnt before the end.

They did say "No loose ends," after all.

He walked over to the small table on the opposite end of the office, pouring himself a cup of tea. He'd assumed the other shuttle had been lost in the battle--one didn’t bag prey as dangerous as Judgment and Ademetria without a sizable toll in terms of attrition, after all.

He pondered that as he added cream and sugar to his tea. The cost of the shuttle and the men aboard will justify what a danger they were to our plans, he thought, stirring the cup of tea. So that's accounted for, at least.

"Shuttle 029X, you are not presently cleared for approach, please stay where you are," The voice of the traffic controller said, the speaker on Sloane's console giving the edges of his words a wavy static.

"Looks like he's not stopping," another voice called.

"Shuttle, HALT YOUR APPROACH!"

Sloane took his seat behind his desk, setting the cup of tea down on the desk and watching the screen. This was unexpected--he'd ordered Wrath and War, upon their return to observe strict radio silence, not to land without clearance, and certainly not to force their way through the traffic pattern.

I don’t imagine they'd be that eager to report in, would they? Surely they hadn’t captured them alive, had they? Sloane wondered. No--I'd ordered them killed on sight. They wouldn’t have disobeyed that order.

"We're getting a signal from 029X," the controller's voice droned. "The . . .wages . . .of sin . . .are . . ."

Sloane slammed his hand down on the controls. "Control, this is Sloane. Destroy that ship. Blow it out of the sky!"
"But sir--"

"Do it! It's a trap!"

"Understood," the controller called back. "Weapons armed, and firing!"

Sloane watched the screen, his brow furrowing with concentration. The beginnings of terror began to seep into him. If Judgment and Ademetria had used 029X as a decoy, that meant only two things:

They survived the assault and escaped.

The question is, would they come here or would they be driven further into hiding? Sloane thought.

"Sir, it's no good--they're too close for our heaviest weapons to target them," the traffic controller said. "They're picking up speed. I'm sorry Archbishop, there's nothing we can do."

"Sounding collision alert!"

The shuttle crashed into the bay with such force that Sloane could feel it even in his office, miles above the shuttle bay. There was a burst of static that nearly pushed his eardrums in as the connection to the controller's was blown out.

Sloane stood up, shoving his chair behind him as he did so. "This is Archbishop Sloane," he said. "Is there anyone down there who can hear me?"

"Archbishop, this is Control again," the voice came back, visibly shaken. "On the second channel. The shuttle's crashed into the bay, blocking the way in or out and . . .oh God, no . . ."

"What is it, man? You’re not making any sense!"

"The shuttle's just blown it's emergency doors, sir, and . . ."

"Bodies! The shuttle's full of corpses!" Another voice shouted. "Oh my God!"

"Get a hold of yourselves--" Sloane said, attempting to get a handle on the situation.

"It's a plague ship!"

"It's not a plague ship!" Sloane demanded. "Controller, clear this line at . . ."

Sloane's voice trailed off as he heard something hit the window behind him, then again. He turned around just in time to see a flickering shadow pass quickly down over the top half of the window and then just as quickly skitter out of sight.

Sloane backed away from the window, his nerves already frayed by what he'd heard from the controllers. For a moment, he wondered if he were seeing things. It would be understandable, under the circumstances--after all, in the space of ten minutes he'd gone from confident assurance that he could direct events to a cold quiet panic that even now threatened to grip him like the coils of a constrictor.

With a high-pitched whine, Sloane's fears became reality. The window disintegrated, becoming a rain of pebble-like shards of glass and tumbling to the floor of his office. Soon after, two figures, silhouetted against the sunlight the station pulled in, swung into the now-open window.

Kienan drew his gun, aiming it right between Sloane's eyes as he moved closer to him. Sloane tried to back away further, but found himself running into the back wall of his office. Judgment came around from the other side of the desk.

"Archbishop," Judgment said with equal parts acknowledgement and accusation.

"He's an archbishop now?" Kienan asked. "Funny, that--he's moved up in rank and yet, more than five years later I still have a gun on him."

"I don't know what you think you two have accomplished," Sloane said. "In coming here, you've only ensured you won't leave alive."

"Maybe so," Judgment said. "I'm prepared if it should come to that."

"He's speaking for himself there, of course," Kienan replied.

"But while we're worrying about that," Judgment said. "I intend to see that you pay for your crimes and answer a few questions."

"Questions?"

"Such as why you hired me to kill Judgment, then sent your goon squad after the pair of us," Kienan said, keeping his gun steadily on the Archbishop as he spoke.

"That's simple enough," Sloane said. "The Lords above me were watching my every move, and they might have dug through things I'd done in the past and found that one time I’d contracted you to perform services for me. The Church doesn’t much like it when I engage outside operators for Church business. It implies a weakness in the organization. I couldn’t have that, after all--so I decided to pit you one against the other, then use my own resources to dispose of the evidence."

"Tidy," Kienan said. "Problem was, your own resources weren't up to it."

"Perhaps not," Sloane said. "Then again, if I’d sent one more man along, you wouldn’t have had a chance at all."

"Think so?" Judgment said.

Sloane was thinking all right, but not about the two of them. He had one last card to play and if that tactic succeeded, there was a still a chance he could salvage this, and if anything become a public hero, which would more than make him look good in front of the Lords.

Joshua Sloane, defender of Metatron, he thought.

It has a certain ring to it.

"I have a question of my own," Judgment said. "Why? Why kill Jericho, why try to eliminate me? Why was it necessary to remove everyone who'd seen that document?"

Sloane smiled. "Because," he began, "That document is the basis for all my work since I began rising through the ranks of this church. Only when I intend for the information within it to go public will I release it, but not for the purpose of warning anyone about the end of humanity."

"What, then?" Judgment asked.

"The attempts to thwart the prophecy have failed, more or less," Sloane said. "The attempt to jumpstart human evolution, I have decided, is a dead end. But the experiments have not been a complete dead end. I intend to use that knowledge for more direct improvement of the human race.

"Immortality."

"You’re insane," Judgment said. "Man wasn't meant to be immortal."

"Or rather, we were, until our own ignorance cost us the gift before we understood what we were losing out on," Sloane said. "The Almighty could have at least given us the benefit of informed judgment, or at least a second chance. Only fair, wouldn’t you say?"

Kienan rolled his eyes.

"You disagree, Ademetria?"

Kienan shrugged, never losing his kill-shot on Sloane. "I'd find life extremely boring if I didn’t know I could die at any time," he said.

"A limited vision."

"It's worked for me so far."

"So you're going to make every human immortal," Judgment said.

"Not every human, Corinthos, only those within the Church," Sloane continued. "And even then, only a chosen few."

"Chosen by you, you mean."

Sloane nodded. "I will be the first. It will make my climbing the last few rungs of the Church hierarchy so much simpler."

"You're not going to live that long," Kienan said.

"Ironic," Sloane replied. "I was about to say the same thing to you."

"It's not for you to give anyone immortality," Judgment said. "You'd put yourself in God's place at the center of the church."

"I'm a student of history, Corinthos," Sloane said, walking over to the door to his office. "You'd be surprised how many people throughout history, despite being so-called temporal rulers, have used the power of the church as their own, and were, in their way, worshipped for it."

"Doesn't make it any more right for you to do it."

"It's not your decision any more," Sloane said, pressing a button on the door. He didn’t seem to be preparing himself to break into a run for the door, however.

"But if you're that determined, I suppose all that remains, then . . .is Death,"

The door slid open and the black-cloaked figure of Death lunged out, raising his heavy machine-gun up at Kienan and Judgment, who dove for the heaviest piece of cover they could see as the last of the Quintessence shredded Sloane's office with machine-gun fire as Sloane watched.

* * *

They stood in silence for a long time--Mendel feeling like he'd heard enough, Jayla-2 feeling like she'd said more than enough, and J-3 feeling completely out of patience with all the talking and listening.

And of course, it was she who finally broke the silence.

"You're a hypocrite," she said, pointing an accusing finger at Jayla-2.

"Jay . . .uh, J-3 don’t--"

"I'm sorry, Mendel," she said. "This may be working on you but it's not working on me. She had a sad life, a very sad life, but it's not my life."

"If you take her name, that's the life you're choosing to live," Jayla-2 said.

"No it isn't," J-3 said. "It's who I am. What I do with my name and my life to come is my business. If you really believed that, why do you call yourself Jayla-2 anyway?"

Jayla-2 opened her mouth to speak, but she didn’t have an answer for her. She'd always considered it her name, really. That Jayla's name was the root of it had never struck her as relating to Jayla Kyren at all--it was just her name.

Never considered I might be doing exactly what I accused J-3 of doing, she thought. Using Jayla's name without really understanding who she was. Then again, could I really ever have understood who she was and how she'd lived?

"If you really thought her name and her memory was so bad, you wouldn't have used it, and you wouldn’t have come here," J-3 continued.

"You're a hypocrite, just like I said. It's not the name people take that defines their life, or a life that happened before they were born. It's what they do with their own time that's important.

"My name is Jayla Kyren, and while I might have made some mistakes before, I won't make them this time. I have a second chance, and I'm going to take it, and I don’t need you coming here and telling me that's wrong!"

Jayla-2 wanted to come up with a counter-argument that swept everything J-3 said completely off the table, but she found it difficult. Because despite her child's logic, she was absolutely right. Jayla-2 had kept the name but tried very hard not to repeat the mistakes Jayla Kyren had. And now here she was trying to talk J-3 out of much the same choice. J-3, who had none of the memories she had of Jayla's later life, just the memories of early childhood and family and happiness untouched by darkness to come.

How could she force J-3 to make a decision she herself had never confronted?

"Well?" J-3 said. "Say something!"

What was there to say, really? Jayla-2 thought. She's right.

It was a mistake to come here. I don’t know what I hoped to find, but I know this wasn't it. I don’t belong here, and I'm not welcome.

"I can’t say anything," Jayla-2 said. "I guess I hoped coming here . . .the ghost of Jayla Kyren could be put to rest, and I could live my own life without second-guessing every decision I've made. And because I wanted to see how another one . . .like me . . .would handle living like that."

She turned to Mendel for a second. "And I guess I wanted to see what had become of her family. Try--"

"My family," J-3 corrected.

"--Try to explain to them what had happened to Jayla," Jayla-2 finished. "And to see you, and offer you a fair chance at life. Mendel, show her."

Mendel produced the packet he'd taken from Jayla-2, slipping the injector from its holder.

"That injector will stabilize your body chemistry," Jayla-2 said.

"What?"

"You won’t die in a matter of days, Jayla," Mendel said. J-3 smiled, despite the tension. He was calling her by her proper name again. "What Reficul was telling you about, what could happen . . ."

"I wouldn't die?"

"Everyone dies eventually, but you wouldn’t die right now," Jayla-2 said. "In fact, given how you’re made, you might outlive everyone if you take it."

J-3 took the injector in her hands, turning it in her azure fingers.

A chance at life, she thought. Possibilities ran through her mind in an instant. She could have more time with Mendel, with Sabre, if she could convince him to stay with her.

"Jayla couldn’t find a happy ending for her life, and I couldn't find one for her story," Jayla-2 said. "I've tried very hard not to make the same mistakes she did, to live as a different person. If you're so determined to continue where she left off, to live as the same person . . .well, I guess you might look at that as your chance to succeed where the two of us failed."

* * *

Judgment found himself very grateful that Sloane's need for extravagance had compelled him to buy such a large, extravagant desk, as it had ably stopped the bullets and given Kienan and himself cover to counterattack.

He was less grateful that he hadn’t come with any arms of his own. Certainly nothing that would take down an opponent as formidable as Death, in any case. He didn’t know much about his opponent--even to the other members of the Quintessence he was something of a mystery. Of the five, Death was seldom called forth, and even then, when he was through, no one was left alive to testify afterward.

And all Judgment had was the will that drove him, and a gift for improvisation.

Death had grown impatient and brought the scythe-like bayonet under the muzzle of his gun down into the desk, right where Judgment was crouched. He rolled out from under the desk and immediately seized the back of the chair, lifting it and slamming it into Death, who was trying to pry his blade out of the desk.

Death tore his blade out of the desk and shattered the chair, just in time for Kienan to fire his guns at the silent opponent. Death didn’t even flinch as Kienan emptied both pistols into his head and his chest. Judgment's armor had been tough enough, but Death's was even moreso--the only sign any of Kienan's bullets had found their mark was a small scratch on the metal mask he wore.

He swept at Kienan with his scythe, but Kienan lunged backwards, holstering his guns and drawing his knife. Judgment leapt up onto what remained of Sloane's deck and planted his palms on it, driving his feet into Death's head. Death grabbed his ankle and twisted, throwing him off the desk and onto the floor.

Judgment rolled to his feet, looked over at Sloane.

Why hadn’t he tried to escape, he wondered?

Sloane ignored him, keeping close to the door and far from the fight.

Oh he's not stupid, then, he thought. If Death kills Kienan and I, he'll have valiantly fought and killed the terrorists who attacked Metatron. If it looks like Death might lose, he could always escape--he's closest to the door.

Death was busy trying to force Kienan out the window. Running him through with his scythe's blade seemed to be impossible for now, so instead, he tried to batter him backwards, forcing him to give a step every time he blocked.

Soon he'd run out of steps and tumble down to the grounds below.

And even though Ademetria was a dangerous foe who'd sworn to kill him, he was all the backup Judgment had.

Judgment looked around for a way to get Death's attention. There wasn't much to help. In the fight in the church last night, every fallen opponent meant a fresh weapon, all he had here was the trapping's of Sloane's office, and he had to make them work.

Judgment grabbed Sloane's teapot and flung it at Death's head. The silver pot dented as it struck Death's head, the warm brown liquid dribbling down his black cloak.

Death whipped his cloak away from his left arm, raising it towards Judgment. The launcher on his forearm fired a white spike at him, just missing Judgment and embedding the wall between himself and Sloane. Death lowered his arm to a small pouch strapped to his leg, reloading the launcher.

This shot caught Judgment in the shoulder, on the same side he'd been stabbed in. Unbelievable pain burned through him and he sank to his knees, unable to breathe, feeling the point of the spike grind against his shoulder joint.

He raised his left hand, focusing past the past, even the need to breathe. He willed his hand to move closer and closer to the spike. The pain was so unbearable it began to drown everything else out, and for a moment there was only him and what he had to do.

His hand rested on the spike and for a moment he knelt there, gasping as if he'd tried to lift a ton off himself. Then his grip tightened around the spike and the pain once again subsumed everything as he began to pull the spike loose, feeling sick as he felt it slipping out of his muscle and bone.

He gasped as it slipped loose. He stood there for a moment, trying to focus on things around him more than the pain. Breathing was still difficult, especially when all he really found himself wanting to do was throw up.

He heard a crash and reality blinked into sharp focus again. Kienan had thrown Death onto the desk, trying to wrest his weapon away from him. Their combined weight snapped the desk in half, and Death sank deeper into it as Kienan tried to bring his knife into position to stab his opponent through the eyes.

Judgment wished he'd had the strength to help him, but he couldn't. Besides--he had his own task to accomplish.

He rose to his feet, keeping his eye on Sloane as he got his bearings. He saw the treacherous Archbishop trying to dig the spike Death had fired out of the wall as he'd done to the one that had struck him.

Judgment moved past him, falling over as much as lunging at his target. The point of the spike caught the smooth metal panel of the door control and dug deep into it, shorting out the circuitry and effectively trapping the four of them within the office.

Just then, two things happened almost simultaneously. First, Death headbutted Kienan hard, forcing him off him and with a pair of follow-up strikes using his weapon as club, he sent him tumbling backwards out of the window. Death rose to his feet, scythe gun at the ready to cleave his arms from his body if he found Ademetria still clinging to the edge. The gentle winds outside the office caught Death's black and red cloak, gently fluttering it in the breeze as he covered his eyes with his free hand, shielding them from the lights so her could better see.

Before he could ascertain that, however, Sloane made his move, attacking Judgment with the spike he'd freed from the wall while he was trying to get to his feet. But Judgment had guessed Sloane's intentions well and grabbed him by the arms, pulling and twisting Sloane in front of him.

Death, hearing the struggle, reloaded his spike launcher and fired, then repeated the process twice more. His aim was perfect; despite having his back turned to Judgment at the time. At that range there was no way Death could have missed.

Unless Sloane stood between Death and his intended target.

Judgment felt the impact of the spikes jerk through Sloane's body. While the first two strikes might have been painful for the Archbishop, any pain he felt was stilled by the third spike, which caught him between his eyes with such force it shattered his skull on the way to his brain.

He let Sloane's body drop to the ground as Death turned to face him.

Judgment weighed his options. Death had the advantage--he was still armed, and of the four of them, was the least injured. Judgment could feel the blood from the wound seeping down his shoulder under his arm, oddly cold, despite the warmth of the wound and his exertions.

Death, as much as any emotion could be divined under his mask, regarded him with curiosity. It was rare he encountered anyone who didn’t immediately react to his presence with crippling terror, even rarer people who looked him in the eyes without a trace of fear, even though their end was certain.

Judgment prepared himself, marshalling the last of his strength. He would charge at Death and with all his strength, force him through the window, and together they would fall to the grounds below.

Judgment watched Death calmly reload his scythe-gun and raise it to his head. He knew he would be dead long before they even began to fall, of course, but that didn’t matter now. Death would follow him into death, and the pair of them would walk hand in hand through the gates of Hell.

Judgment prepared to run as Death's finger slipped over the trigger.

* * *

Reficul stood on the catwalk next to their ship, watching as Sabre approached him. Already he knew something was wrong--his gait was uncertain, hesitant. He walked hastily over to his bodyguard, curious as to why he was acting so strangely.

After all, he thought. Hadn’t we worked hard to prevent emotions like that from controlling his actions?

"Sabre," he said. "What is the meaning of this? I thought you were going to see your precious J-3."

Sabre held the mask to his face, trying to keep it in place.

"You were attacked, were you? By whom?"

Reficul sighed, pulling his communications device from his belt and dialing Mendel's number.

"Calm yourself, Sabre," Reficul said. "I will soon get to the bottom of this."

He winced as the tones of the communication unit beeped in his ear, his expression softening as he finally reached Mendel.

"Mendel," Reficul said into the communications device. "This is Reficul. Yes, I was just about to depart when my bodyguard returned to me, and he looked as though he had been assaulted. Do you know--Ah, yes. I see. Well, do you require our assistance?"

Reficul's brow furrowed as he considered what he was hearing. He frowned slightly as Sabre continued to act strangely in front of him. Mendel's voice was calm, but there was something wrong, and even if there was an intruder, it seemed Mendel wanted to handle things himself.

"Very well," he said finally. "I apologize I could not say goodbye in person, but we are already slightly late for our rendezvous, and time does not permit it. I enjoyed working with you very much, Mendel, and I hope we will do so again. Yes, of course. Good bye, Mendel."

Reficul snapped the communications device closed and stared at Sabre.

"It appears you were correct," he said. "Something is going on there, though whether it transpires with Mendel's knowledge or not, I am uncertain. Our business here is concluded. We must be going."

Sabre turned to look back the way he'd come.

"Sabre, she is lost to you," Reficul said. "In a more ephemeral sense you were lost to one another before now, but for a certainty she is lost to you now due to circumstance. Let her go."

Sabre seemed to sigh, his shoulders falling as Reficul turned away, walking towards the ship that had brought them here. Sabre slowly, hesitatingly at first, began to follow him.

* * *

Judgment charged for Death as he saw him begin to squeeze the trigger. However, just as Death's weapon began to fire, the barrel jerked upward towards the ceiling, riddling it with bullets as Death began to backpedal Judgment slowed down in time to see Death being pulled backwards by his cloak--some weight on it seemed to be pulling it taut, somehow.

Kienan clambered back in through the window, holding tight to Death's cloak as he did. Death tried to shake him off, but it was no good--Kienan had him too tight to move very far, and without being able to turn around, it was impossible for him to bring his scythe-gun around and rip himself free of his cloak.

Kienan stood on Death's cloak, leaping onto his back and drawing his knife again. Death thrashed about, trying to either throw him off or back out the window or into a more favorable position to allow him to shoot him. He wrapped his arms around Death's neck, bringing the blade against his throat as he produced a small capsule he'd palmed from his belt. The battle at the church had caused him to run through most of his little tricks, but he had one more. One he rarely had occasion to use.

He pinched the capsule until it began to crack, then slipped it into the eyehole in Death's mask. As he expected, Death's mask, instead of using a sealed oxygen supply relied on filters.

When he shielded his eyes against the sun, I figured it out. He's got nothing but sheer cloth under that mask. And now he's got a very potent tear-gas soaking into that cloth.

Right up against his eye.

Death screamed as the tear-gas began to oxidize, so painful it seemed to be burning his eye out of its socket with a lit match. Kienan let go of him, slipping to the side as he began to thrash about madly. He waved his scythe-gun around wildly, cutting into what little remained of the desk and occasionally firing the odd round wildly into one of the walls.

Kienan seized his moment and tore the gun from his hand, pivoting and turning to gain momentum, and then burying the scythe blade into Death's chest. Just like that, the screaming and wild thrashing stopped. Death seemed to lower his head down to look at himself, killed with his own weapon.

Kienan wondered if he could see how he looked, and wondered if he could appreciate the irony.

Then he planted his foot on Death's chest and shoved him off the blade, sending the now very dead assassin tumbling out through the window. Taking no chances, Kienan stood at the edge of the window, firing at the tumbling figure until he dropped out of sight.

Neither he nor Judgment said a word for a long time. After so long fighting, it seemed strange that the two of them stood there in silence. Far too peaceful a state for people like themselves. Finally, Kienan threw Death's scythe-gun down, and looked over his shoulder at Judgment.

"Sloane?" Kienan asked.

"Dead," Judgment said. He pressed his hand against his shoulder wound. "I don’t think he'll be getting on the immortality train after all."

"Guess not," Kienan said, reaching for his cigarettes. He frowned as he sifted through the shredded remains of the pack, until he finally found one only knocked crooked, raised it to his lips and lit it.

"Sloane was an underhanded son of a bitch," Kienan said, taking a long drag as he thought it all over. "Under the circumstances, I'm glad I asked for half up front."

"It's over," Judgment said. "No more Sloane, no more Quintessence, no more cloak and dagger in the name of God."

"It's not, thought," Kienan said, drawing his pistol and turning to Judgment. "I still have my fee to collect."

Judgment nodded, looking Kienan in the eye as he took aim.

There was a dry "click" as Kienan pulled the trigger. Judgment flinched with the sound, sure that death would come soon.

"You’re dead, Judgment," he said.

"Yes," Michael said, understanding his meaning. "Judgment is dead. Long live Michael Corinthos. Maybe I can finish the work he started, but this time do it in a way where I can still look myself in the mirror the next morning."

"That last bit's harder than anything else," Kienan said quietly. "In any case, you'd best succeed."

"I know," Michael said. He groaned as he tried to move his wounded arm. "The odds are against it--I'm really only one man, after all, but maybe, after this, after what Sloane's done comes to light . . .maybe I can start doing some good."

"That's not what I meant," Kienan said. "You'd better succeed . . .or I'll come back and this time, the gun will be loaded."

Michael blinked. "You don’t even believe in God," he said. "What do you care?"

"I hate hypocrites," Kienan said, giving up on the cigarette and tossing it to the floor, grinding it into the debris. "And I didn’t just risk my life to replace one Sloane with another. I'd feel like I was double-crossed, and if there's a lesson today it's that it's a bad idea to double-cross me. If I were you, Corinthos, whether by accident or intent--I'd make damn sure I just didn't."

"And if I don't? Or I can't?"

"I think there's something in your book about someone who pulled down a temple with his bare hands, isn’t there?"

Kienan walked to window. "I should be off," he said. "I figure you won't mind if I leave you to clean up this mess?"

"Hell, that's why I'm here."

"Good. Then I'm gone."

"Kienan?"

Kienan paused in rigging his rappelling line back up.

"Thanks."

"Don't thank me, Corinthos," he said. "I didn’t do it for you."

With that, Kienan began climbing back up the way he and Judgment had come. He quickly shuffled up the central tower that would eventually take him back up and out of Metatron, wondering exactly where he'd gone so wrong that after a clean record of avoiding them all his life he'd somehow managed to end up in two churches in as many days.

* * *

J-3 looked at the injector and then at Jayla-2, then back again.

"I could live," she said. "As long as you?"

"Probably longer," Jayla-2 said. "Provided you don’t behave as risky as I tend to."

J-3 looked at her. "I don’t want this. I don't want anything from you."

"J-3, whether you believe me or not about Jayla doesn’t matter," Jayla-2 said. "You need to take that, or your unstable biology will kill you a long time before you can prove to me or anyone else what you'll do with Jayla's name or her life. Please--I know you have no reason or desire to trust me, but trust me on that, at least."

"I don’t trust you and I never will," J-3 said, gripping the injector tightly. "You come here and claim I can't be Jayla Kyren, that because I choose that name I'm dooming myself to some sort of life I'm going to repeat--why? Because you say so? You use her name and you don't talk like your life is ruined. I mean, you even tried to turn my brother against me!'

"Jayla, she didn’t--" Mendel tried to interject, but J-3 had built up a full head of steam now. Even now she moved closer, until she and Jayla-2 were nose to nose with each other.

"And now, after all that you're going to trick me with this? I don’t know how you learned about me being sick but this is low. Is it poison?"

"It's not poison," Jayla-2 said, her voice becoming thick with grief. She could feel her throat closing and her eyes beginning to tear up. "J-3, listen to me--I would never poison you. We're sisters, for god's sake. I--"

"You already tried!" J-3 shouted. "You tried to with words now you're going to try with actual poison. Well, I'm tired of your words and I'm tired of you!"

J-3 threw the injector down on the ground and before anyone could stop her, crushed it underfoot. Mendel and Jayla-2 gasped, both understanding the full import of what she'd done, even if J-3 herself didn't.

She'd just killed herself.

"You have no place here, and no family," J-3 said, pointing an accusing finger at Jayla-2, who'd stopped trying to fight the tears that even now ran down her face. "And you’re no sister of mine."

"Get out!"

Jayla-2 closed her eyes, flinching as she said it.

"I SAID LEAVE!"

"That's enough!"

"Why aren’t you moving? I said--"
"I SAID THAT'S ENOUGH!"

Both of them turned to Mendel, who stood there shaking, hands balled into fists so tight his knuckles were white under the strain of it.

"You've heard her out now," he said to J-3, trying to bury the anger the argument had freed from him again. "Now let her go. Without more shouting at her. Can’t you see how much you've hurt her already?"

"But Mendel . . ."

"Don’t but me," Mendel said. "My sister wouldn't drive someone to tears like that. She wouldn't hurt someone who was only trying to help her."

Not it was J-3's turn to be driven to the point of tears. "Mendel, don't say--"

Mendel shook his head.

"No, Mendel, it's all right," Jayla-2 said, wrapping her arms around herself. "She was right. I shouldn’t have come. I wanted to make things right and I'll I've done is make them worse. I'll . . .I'll go."

Jayla-2 turned and walked down the path through the garden to the door. Mendel jogged to catch up with her.

"I'm sorry," he said. "She didn't mean--"

"She did," Jayla-2 said, tilting her head forward to hide her tears. "I know she did. Please, just let me go quietly."

Mendel sighed. "I guess this didn’t quite turn out like you expected."

"No," she said, sobbing gently. "It didn't."

"I wish there was something I could to help you," he said. "I mean, we are family after all. All the family we have, anyway."

"No, we're not," Jayla-2 said. "I'm going, Mendel, and when I'm gone . . .I'm gone for good. You won't see or ever hear from me again."

"Jayla-2 don’t be--"

"It's what she wants. And she's right . . .I have no place here. I have no place with you."

Mendel sighed. He could tell she meant it, and she wouldn’t be persuaded.

He'd lost his family, and he was no going to lose the brief echo of it he'd held onto for the past few days. The pain of the hope dying within him constricted around his heart.

"All right," he sighed. "But take these before you go."

"Mendel, I don't--"

"My passkey should get you out of the building and on your way to wherever you're going. And well, you came in with this."

Jayla-2 cradled the case in her hands. The injector was gone, of course, but the data crystal was still there.

Which means Ogress will get what she wanted out of this, she thought sadly. Lord knows I didn't.

I never even figured out what it was I wanted.

But I know I didn't get it.

"Jayla-2," he said. "Thanks."

Jayla-2 stopped. "For what?"

"For telling me what happened to Jayla," he said. "It wasn't easy to hear, but I needed to know."

"It's all right," Jayla-2 said. "I owed it to you to tell you."

Glad I did something right, at least, she thought.

She slid Mendel's card into the door and walked through.

"Take care of her," she said.

"I will," he said. "For as long as she has."

Jayla-2 nodded.

"It doesn’t matter she hates you?"

"It doesn't mean I don’t love her," Jayla-2 replied. "She's my sister."

"If you need anything," Mendel said. "Call me, all right?"

"I won't, Mendel. Thank you."

The doors slid shut.

It was the last time Mendel would ever see Jayla-2.

* * *

Kienan was the first to return to Ogress' ship, having pushed the Interstellar Overdrive to its limit to get there faster. He stumbled out of the small shuttle, feeling exhausted. The adrenaline reserves had receded long ago and the cumulative injuries of two days of heavy fighting were starting to wear on him.

More than anything, he felt exhausted. Not just physically, but emotionally. Had he really looked forward to this when he'd gotten the commission for the assignment?

I must have rocks in my head, he thought, making his way to the lifts. To look forward to something like that. It certainly wasn't what I'd anticipated.

Still, under the circumstances, it felt good to pay someone back for a double-cross, rather than having to go on the run because of it.

The lift reached its destination and the doors slid open. To his surprise, Ogress and Mirage both were waiting for him. This puzzled him on several levels. For one thing, he'd assumed Vain and Mirage would be together if the work on the Silhouette were finished. For another, Ogress usually stayed on the bridge, and they were ten levels below that at the moment.

"Kinsman," Ogress said. "There is something I should inform you about."

"Kienan, I think there's something you should know," Mirage said.

Kienan nervously stepped out of the lift and into the room. He eyed the pair of them, having the sudden nervous feeling that they both wanted to speak to him about the same thing and whatever it was, he wouldn't like it.

"What's happened?" Kienan asked, trying to steel himself against the bad news that was sure to come.

"Jayla-2 has left the ship," Ogress said.

"Vain, too," Mirage said.

Kienan sighed.

"How could you let Jayla-2 go off by herself?" Kienan asked Mirage.

"She didn't kinsman--I did."

Kienan turned back to Ogress.

"Why would you do that?"

"It was a personal matter for her," Ogress said. "A task only she could accomplish."

"Personal or not, she shouldn't have gone out on her own," Kienan said, the anger in his voice rising. "She's . . .she's not ready."

"Yeah, that's why Vain went after her," Mirage added.

"So Vain's with her, then?" Kienan asked. "That's something, I guess."

"She said she'd given her word to you that she would be protected," Ogress said. "She insisted on going."

Kienan nodded, trying to get his bearings. He suddenly felt even more exhausted than before, as if he'd gone through twice as many battles as he'd endured in the past two days, and despite wanting to explode in wholly justified rage, at the moment he was too tired to summon up the energy.

"I don’t suppose they let anyone know where they were going?"

"I gave my word I wouldn't tell you first, kinsman," Ogress said. "Given the unusual circumstances, she wanted to explain it to you herself. She would certainly do a better job than I."

Kienan slammed his fist against the bulkhead, teeth gritted, eyes blazing with fury. He was too tired to deal with this gently at the moment, and so made no effort to disguise the irritation he felt with Mirage and Ogress' coyness. Ogress had always been enigmatic, true, but she wasn't his master anymore and he wasn't the callow pupil and he just didn’t have time for this song and dance right now.

"Did either of them bother to tell me anything about where they were going? Just in case, oh I don’t know, I got back before they did and found them gone and no one would explain to me where and why they'd left?"

Mirage looked worried. "Jayla-2 left this for you. That's all I know."

Kienan scowled at the folded note she handed him and quickly unfolded it, completely out of patience with the whole business. He stared at the page for a long time, and after a time his expression turned from irritability to a more neutral expression, to one of absolute pain that he didn’t bother to conceal.

He took a deep breath, like the shocked gasp of someone who'd been stabbed through the heart. Then tension and anger seemed to drain from him, replaced with something that was equal parts shock and equal parts pain.

The kind that only comes from opening old wounds up again.

His arms fell to his sides and the note slipped from them as the tension and rage fell away from him. He walked forward slowly, his shoulders sagging, feeling wearier than ever. He didn't say anther word to either Ogress or Mirage as he crossed the room and opened the door, shutting it behind him.

"Kienan?" Mirage asked. Kienan kept walking, giving no sign he'd even heard her.

"Kinsman?" Ogress called. Kienan ignored her just as completely as he had Mirage.

He wasn't angry with them anymore, nor was he angry at anyone. He just had nothing to say to them or anyone. He just didn't feel like talking anymore.

He just wanted to be alone.