Jayla-2 passed Vain in the hallway just outside the garden and didnt even slow down. Vain had never seen her like this before, her head bowed low, hair covering her eyes, her steps slow and deliberate, almost as if she were shifting a heavy weight with every single step she took.
She's walking like Kienan does sometimes, she thought, trying to catch up with her.
"Jayla-2," Vain said quietly but firmly.
"I know," Jayla-2 said. There was no warmth in her voice, only a thick, ragged sadness. "Youre here to collect me, and I'm in trouble for running off. It was stupid, I'm stupid for running aw--"
"Well, that wasn't exactly what I was going to say," Vain said. "I just didn't want you going out alone. It's dangerous. You could have been hurt. Why did you--"
"Hurt," Jayla-2 repeated. "That's the understatement of the century." She raised her head and looked around, the wet streaks on her face told Vain she'd been crying silently the whole time they'd been walking.
"You dont appear damaged."
"Sometimes appearances dont tell the whole story, Vain."
She was standing in front of an access panel, and with one quick swipe of Mendel's card, she was granted entry, slipping through the door almost before it could open.
The room was small and nondescript, its white walls bare except for a desk with a computer terminal. In other days it might have been a research lab, but now it was just an empty white room.
"Why did you come?" Vain asked.
Jayla-2 didn't answer, leaning over the desk and sliding Mendel's card into the computer.
"I'm not ignoring you," she sighed. "I just dont know how to answer that question. I dont think I ever knew why I came here myself. I guess I was looking for something, but I never had a really clear idea what it was."
Vain crossed her arms, watching Jayla-2 as she placed the data crystal Ogress had given her into the computer's data port. There was a soft glow from within as the scanner read its data.
Jayla-2 blinked, rubbing her eyes.
It shouldn't be this easy, she thought. That soft glow just wiped out any chance of J-3 returning to life or of any sisters I might have had in the future.
She sighed. At least Ogress gets what she wanted, she thought ruefully.
I hope she chokes on it.
"Did you find it?" Vain asked.
"I found something, sure," Jayla-2 said, sitting on the edge of the desk and sliding the crystal and then the card out of the terminal. "I found a sister who doesnt want me, and a family I cant be a part of, a place I dont belong. In return I wrecked their family and . . . I killed my sister."
"Vain, I did it," Jayla-2 said, leaning forward. "I did it as surely as if I'd killed her with my bare hands. I wanted her to have a chance to live, just like I've had . . .but she didn't want anything from me."
"Jayla-2, killing isnt in your nature," Vain replied.
"You dont know the other half of it," Jayla-2 replied, lifting the crystal up. "This program I just installed into the mainframe is erasing all the data on the cloning process. Not only did I kill her; there cant be another one like us, now.
"I feel like a murderer, Vain. The worst kind, because I've killed what little family I have."
Jayla-2 began to cry in earnest. Vain pondered all this. It was hard to comprehend Jayla-2's sorrow--logically, given the circumstances of her existence, if the Kyren family was related at all it was at least at one remove from blood relation.
"Unless you killed her yourself, Jayla-2, you are not responsible for her actions," Vain said. "You cannot hold yourself responsible for her choice."
"But she'll barely have any time to live!"
"She'll have the time she's given, Jayla-2. Just like everyone else."
"That's not much of an answer, Vain."
"It's all the answer I have for you."
Jayla-2 sat on the desk, sobbing quietly for a time.
"Jayla-2, we should go back now."
Jayla-2 slid off the desk slowly, trying to hide her tears behind her hair.
"What am I going back to, Vain? I don't belong here . . .do I belong there?"
Vain sighed. "I'm uncertain how to answer that, Jayla-2. I don't have a grasp on what a "family" truly is. Ties of blood mean little to me--I dont have any to be tied with, nor do my sisters. I do know, however, that you have a place with us, with Mirage, Conscience, and myself. And with Kienan."
"Would Kienan call that his family, do you think?" Jayla-2 asked, opening the door and slowly walking outside.
Vain considered that for a moment before she answered. "I'm not certain Kienan has any concept of a family any more than I do. He has been on his own for many years, after all. He would perhaps consider it home, though he would never say it those terms.
"It fits his definition of the term, in any case."
They turned down a hallway, heading for the elevators.
"Home is the place that when you go, they have to take you in, no matter what," Vain said. "That is Kienan's definition of "home.""
* * *
Michael Corinthos suddenly realized he was more terrified of what awaited him out there than he had been when he was being hunted by the Quintessence. And now, here he was, having triumphed over that, now having to face a daunting unknown future with no guns, no body armor, not even an alias to hide behind.
After all, Judgment was dead.
Now he was only Michael Corinthos.
Archbishop Corinthos, in a few minutes time, he thought, sitting alone in the rectory. Outside he could hear shuffling in the pews as people awaited his appointment ceremony.
It still sounds strange when I think of myself that way.
Mopping up Sloane's dirty dealings and exposing his misuse of the Church's resources had earned Esperanza and I a pardon for their misdeeds. She'd even been allowed to return to her studies at Metatron.
Unfortunately, I wasn't so lucky.
Michael had stood up against a corrupt man of the cloth, one who ultimately sought to replace God as the object of the Church's worship, and had done it while being relentlessly persecuted and hunted, finally triumphing by virtue of his righteousness, faith, and determination.
His story was too good not to exploit, or so the Lords Cardinal thought.
What better way to quickly gloss over the embarrassing public details of Sloane's crimes than to replace him with the man who'd deposed him, sweeping into the office on a mandate from the flock to clean up the corruption I'd rooted out?
Corinthos the Incorruptible, he thought, not even bothering to sugarcoat his sarcasm.
It doesn't feel right this way, he mused. I never wanted a high office, I never wanted lavish appointments and I certainly didn't ever want to be anyone's symbol. I just wanted to live right in my salvation.
I put my life in God's hands and was reborn. Then I fought for Him, rebelled because of Him, ran away from this place because of Him, and ultimately returned to fight Sloane because of Him.
I suppose You wouldn't all of a sudden put me somewhere you didnt think I should be, would you? And I cant turn back . . .not with Kienan still out there.
No. You closed that door behind me, and opened this one.
If this is the way it must be, then it's what is.
He could hear the people outside beginning to still, the hushed din of conversation dissipating like fog on the surface of the water. It was time. When we walked through that door, a new chapter of his life began.
Whether it was for better or worse looked a little cloudy at the moment.
Michael stood up and bowed to one knee, bowing his head and asking the one person he always trusted to lead him through confusion to guide his hand and his mind and direct him where he might do the most good.
Then, he rose to his feet and walked out the door.
* * *
Mendel stared down the path at the door Jayla-2 had disappeared into. For a few moments, the hope that he could create some sort of family for himself had kindled within him.
Not the usual kind, of course, he thought. But my "sisters" and myself. It wouldnt be much, it wouldnt be normal, but we'd have each other. It would be something.
I wouldnt be alone.
How long ago had she gone? Five minutes? Ten? How long ago had she taken his hopes out the door with her? How long ago since she said goodbye with a finality that broke his heart?
He was aware he'd been staring at the door for some time, face tense, trying not to blink or his tears would have come as easily as Jayla-2's. And right now he didnt feel like he could afford to do that. He had to be strong, and hold himself together, not just for himself but for J-3.
They were all that each other had in the universe, now.
Is this what you thought, Mother, when you created Jayla-2? Just trying to find a way to fill in the lonely gap Jayla left in all our lives?
I dont know if you succeeded, or if that's even really possible. I'll never know, because youre gone, now. I know Jayla-2 isnt my Jayla. Nothing like the sister I grew up with here at all. She's not even pretending to be, like J-3 is.
But, maybe if I'd had more time to spend with her, maybe I could have loved her like a sister. Like part of my family.
If only we'd had the time.
He turned away from the door, and feeling his nose begin to run, sniffed a bit, he closed his eyes tight, hiding his face from J-3 as he wiped his nose and his eyes on his shirt-sleeve.
He'd managed to compose himself a little better when J-3 came up behind him, gently touching his shoulders.
"Are you all right, Mendel?"
Mendel blinked. He'd actually forgotten she was there, he'd been so focused on Jayla-2. So focused on the prospect that he could create a surrogate family as his mother had tried to create a surrogate Jayla.
I don't think either of us, succeeded, did we, Mom?
For a moment he felt annoyed by J-3, angry with her for being so stubborn about crushing the injector that might have saved her life, angrier still for driving Jayla-2 away.
Then, suddenly, he opened his eyes and the anger was gone.
What's the point of waiting for it to be perfect? Waiting for the family you lost to come back exactly as you remember it? Do you live in hope that someday the past will repeat itself or try to go forward, making the most of the time you have?
He sniffed again, feeling the tears trying to creep back.
"Did she say something to make you cry, Mendel?"
"N-no, Jayla," Mendel said. He sighed and closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "I just . . .felt a little sad. She's not coming back, and--"
"You dont need her, Mendel," J-3 said. "I'm here."
"She really was trying to help you," he said. "And she never gave up, either. Her last words to me were to take care of you."
"She's your sister," he said. "You may not feel the same way, but she does. You're . . .we're . . .family. You care about your family, even when they embarrass you or upset you."
"I didnt mean--"
"I'm not upset at you anymore, Jayla," Mendel said. "Look, I know you dont have too much time. But I intend to be here for it. All of it. I promised her, I promised Jayla, and I'm promising you."
J-3 looked up at him, smiling shyly.
"Promise youre not mad anymore?"
"No," Mendel said. "No point to it. If we're all the family we have . . .let's make use of the time we have."
J-3 smiled and pulled Mendel into her arms, positively beaming. Because she misjudged her strength, the force of her embrace lifted him off the ground, and for a moment, they both looked completely foolish, but it didn't matter.
The sorrow was gone in that moment, borne away by their laughter.
As was the long shadow the death of his sister had cast over Mendel.
* * *
Once Ogress activated the Interstellar Overdrive, Jayla-2 and Vain pushed their shuttles to the limit, speeding through the spatial conduit at speeds far above what the onboard systems recommended. As they approached the docking area, every status monitor on their control panels indicated a redline on multiple systems.
Despite Ogress' generosity with providing them with shuttles swift enough to cross a galaxy in a matter of hours, neither of them seemed all that concerned with returning the shuttles in pristine working condition.
Vain's main objective was to keep Jayla-2 from killing herself. Jayla-2's was simply to return to the ship as quickly as possible, hopefully before Kienan returned. Of the two, Vain was successful, guiding Jayla-2 in for a textbook perfect landing. Had she been able, she would have felt pride in her. All the training with in Mirage's Angelfish fighter had paid off.
Jayla-2, however, knew she was late, even before she'd disembarked from the shuttle. Despite this, panic didnt take hold of her. She stared straight ahead as she unhooked herself from the shuttle's safety harness, swinging her legs over the edge and getting out smoothly if inelegantly and quickly jogging up the stairs to the command level, Vain hard on her heels.
Jayla-2 sighed with frustration as the door to the command deck, slightly warped and refusing to open confronted her.
"Oh, now what's wrong with you?" Jayla-2 said with uncharacteristic impatience. "I really dont have time for this right now."
She stabbed at the keys to either open the door or manually release it, glowering as the heavy footsteps behind her indicated Vain had closed Jayla-2's lead.
"Jayla-2, I think you had best let me open the door," Vain said, pushing past her and sliding the door aside.
"I should have tried that right away," Jayla-2 said.
"You weren't to know," Vain said. "You weren't the one who broke it in the first place."
Jayla-2 and Vain squeezed through the ruined door to find Mirage and Ogress waiting for them. Mirage was leaning against the wall, looking at Ogress who stood with her arms folded behind her, staring out at the starless sky.
For some reason, the sight of her like that enraged Jayla-2. She took a few steps forward, her green eyes flashing with such rage she wished she could bore two holes through the back of Ogress' head.
"I did what you wanted," Jayla-2 said.
Mirage looked puzzled, but Vain waved off her inquisitive expression.
"Good," Ogress replied. She didnt turn around. "Then our technology is safe once again."
"Good for you," Jayla-2 said. She sighed with exasperation. "That's all that's important to you, isn't it? Safeguarding your secrets. Protecting the last few little signs your people were ever alive."
"I do not expect you to understand, Jayla-2."
"Understand what?" Jayla-2 asked. "I know exactly what selfishness looks like--that's real simple to understand. What I want to know is this: Do you understand? Do you know the damage you've done? Do you know how many people you've harmed with that thing?"
"I have engineered the destruction of a rogue piece of our technology," Ogress said, looking up at something out in the storm-tossed darkness of space. "I have harmed the family of your predecessor--"
"Jayla isnt my predecessor."
"And I have cost them the chance to try again, if the other clone does not survive,"
"Well, she's not going to," Jayla-2 said. "I tried to save her."
"I . . .couldn't," Jayla-2 said. She sighed, trying to push the tears that threatened to engulf her back down again. She thought she'd put it behind her, that as Vain said, she'd done all she could, that J-3 had chosen for herself not to believe her.
So why does it feel like some lie I'm telling myself to feel better? Jayla-2 pondered. Why does it feel like what Ogress is doing right now?
Like I'm evading it?
"Then I have destroyed their hopes," Ogress said. There was no evidence in her voice that she felt any guilt. "But perhaps more tragically, I have manipulated you into doing the awful deed."
"I dont want your pity," Jayla-2 said. "I just want you to acknowledge what you did."
Ogress turned to her, slowly, her shadow falling over Jayla-2.
"What I have done," Ogress repeated. "I have hurt you, hurt my kinsman, and yet . . .in the eyes of my people, of the Imperium I served years before either of you even knew there were stars in the heavens, I have done nothing wrong. The Ghram never needed to know pity, Jayla-2. Whatever could be controlled, we controlled, whatever we could manipulate, we manipulated, and for those that could not be controlled or manipulated . . .we destroyed them. It was just the way we did things."
Jayla-2 blinked. "Like you said youd do to Ganymede, if I didnt go?"
Jayla-2 looked at her. "I'm sorry, Ogress," she said. "But I don't feel sorry for you. Not a bit. Because you're not sorry for what you and the other Ghram did. You just hate what it's brought you too. You dont even admit you were wrong. And "this is the way we always used to handle this" is no excuse. If anything it's cowardly. It's another lie."
"My people never had the perspective to know whether we were right or not," Ogress said. "But yes, we were wrong, Jayla-2. To play with lives, to play with others, and still try to remain above it all . . .is folly. Because we were not above, only apart. It never occurred to us that we were completely wrong. We were caught up in the hubris of it all . . .our subjects believed we were gods, and that was how we began to see ourselves. Perfect, infallible, omnipotent, and immortal. But we were none of these things, and the only thing that sustained our delusions of godhood was our belief in it.
"If it's answers you seek, Jayla-2, I have none to give you. We could not change our ways, and so we are dying, slowly fading from history and from memory. We could not adapt and are thusly all but extinct.
"And now I know that is what we deserve."
Jayla-2 stared at her, fists still clenched in rage. She understood some of what Ogress was saying, but it made her no less angry. The millennia-long angst of a dying race of people was hard to balance against her own anger at her failure and sorrow. She took out the data crystal Ogress had given her and tossed it at her feet.
"Well, you got what you wanted," Jayla-2 said. "I held up my end of our bargain, but don't expect me to feel sorry for you, Ogress."
"I do not ask for your pity," Ogress said. "But I will say to you now . . .I am sorry for the pain I caused you. Vain said you weren't ready for this, and I see that. You are not meant for this, Jayla-2. Cruelty is not in your nature. I am sorry for that. Perhaps I may yet mitigate that slight, however."
"I'm not doing anything else for you, Ogress," Jayla-2 said.
"Not for me," she said. "For Kienan."
Jayla-2 breathed. "So he is back, then"
Ogress nodded. "I ask no more for myself, only for my kinsman.
"After all, he can still be saved."
* * *
When he'd first trained with Ogress, she had insisted Kienan quarter himself in the darkest, quietest room in the entire ship. What she'd found was an abandoned storage locker just below the command levels. It was tiny and cramped by Ghram standards, but ideal for a human, provided the human in question didn't mind hours and hours attempting to sleep surrounded by near suffocating darkness and tomblike silence.
"The better to hone your other senses," she'd claimed at the time. And hone them he had. After two nights in that silent room, he'd been able to pick out the hum of the ship's engines, feel the soft vibrations they sent through the deck plating with his fingertips.
The isolation hadnt bothered him any. Kienan was used to being alone, to being abandoned. On Caldera he'd been abandoned to the warped mercies of the creatures who'd slaughtered his family, fighting desperately to survive, alone with no one turn to or talk to. When he slept, he dreamt of darkness, when he dreamt at all.
When he'd escaped, drifting through the stars in an escape pod, he'd been even more alone, because now there weren't even any enemies to fight. His only foe was the inevitability of death--the slow death of cold and asphyxiation that crept into that small metal coffin more and more every day as he drifted through the empty expanse of space, a perpetually tumbling die, hoping to land on the lucky number that would find him rescued.
When he'd been found and brought aboard a rescue ship, the first word's he'd heard were, "He's all alone." He'd become so used to the suffocating silence, the words seemed loud enough to deafen him. Whether owing to the volume of the words or something else, he'd never forgotten that.
"He's all alone."
And even when it seems like it might be different, I always seem to end up that way, he thought. History always repeats itself . . .and I'm never ready for it.
He was sitting by himself in his old room, which was just as dark and silent as he remembered. He was sitting up against one of the bulkheads, arms resting on his thighs, cradling the note Jayla-2 had left him.
Jayla had left him a note like it, many years ago. At the time, Kienan took that news with an explosion of rage that broke like a summer thunderstorm, his anger swallowing him completely in destructive fury.
And just as suddenly, he'd stopped, those first words spoken when he'd been rescued echoing through his mind.
"He's all alone."
Of course, he had thought at the time. What else did I expect?
He'd fought against it back then though. As hard as he was able. He'd tried to bring her back, then to rescue her, and when that failed and she sent him away, to protect her without her knowing it was him.
And every time, he ended up alone.
This time, there had been no flash of anger, and he knew there would be no effort to chase after her. Only the bitter feeling that really, he should have known it was coming all the time.
Of course I was going to end up alone, he thought. Why do I keep hoping . . .keep expecting any different?
He was startled for a moment as the door slid open. Through the thin slice of light that was let into his room when the door opened, Kienan could see a familiar pair of grey work-boots walk into the room, only to be swallowed in darkness when it closed.
"It's very dark in here," Jayla-2 said.
"I prefer it dark," Kienan said. "I thought I'd locked that door."
"Ogress opened it back up."
"Huh," Kienan sighed. "Something told me I should have gone back to the Silhouette. Hard to be alone in someone else's house."
"Did you want to be alone?"
"I saw your note, Jayla-2," Kienan said.
"You didnt have to come back to say goodbye."
Kienan's brow furrowed in frustration.
"Kienan, I'm here to stay."
"I don't believe you."
Jayla-2 bit her lip, grateful for the darkness, so he couldnt see how much his sharp response had hurt her.
"I'm here to stay, Kienan. Unless you're throwing me out."
"I gave my word--"
"This isn't about your word, Kienan," Jayla-2 said. "This is about what you want. Do you want me to stay?"
"It doesnt matter what I want," he said. "I promised . . ."
"Kienan, I just argued with Ogress before I came to see you," Jayla-2 said, genuine impatience and irritation creeping into her tone. "I'm really not in the mood for more dodgy, evasive answers from anyone else, so please stop hiding behind your promise to protect me and listen to me: Yes, I left. I left against your explicit orders and went on my own back to Ganymede. But I had every intenion of coming back."
"Ganymede?" Kienan asked, trying to shift the subject. "Oh . . .your parents."
"Jayla's parents," she corrected. "And not even them. Just her brother and . . .my sister."
"Jayla didnt have a sister."
"There was another clone," Jayla-2 said. "Unlike me, however, she thinks she is Jayla. She may be right--she's certainly going to finish up the same way."
"Finish . . ?"
"It doesnt matter right now, Kienan," she said. "I'll explain later, I promise. The point is that there was nothing for me there. I was on my own, more or less. And when I thought of where I might belong in this whole galaxy . . .I thought of you."
"With the Marionettes and I, you mean?"
"No. I thought of you, Kienan."
"You're just saying that to make me feel better."
"Why is it so hard for you to see I'm telling you the truth?"
"Because. I've had other people say they were going to stay, and they left."
"And you dont want to risk believing me, because youre afraid you're going to get hurt."
"I gave my word I'd protect you, for as long as you stayed here," he said, ignoring her conclusion. "That still goes, for as long as you stay."
"What if I stay forever?"
"There's no such thing as "forever," Jayla-2," Kienan said.
Jayla-2 sighed. They were talking in circles. She desperately wanted to stay with him, but she wanted to know it was more than just his promise to protect her that kept them together. She wanted him to want her to stay.
For Kienan's part, he truly wanted to believe her. He knew Jayla-2 spoke the truth, almost to a fault sometimes. It wasn't a question of the honesty of her words or how she felt.
No, it was his own stubborn mistrust and suspicion that kept him from listening to her. It was the belief he was shackled to his loneliness forever that made him want to ignore what she was saying, and especially to ignore the part of him that wanted to believe her.
It was easier to believe loneliness would always be his fate, because it always had been.
"Kienan," Jayla-2 began, the darkness hiding the sight, but not the sound, of her tears. "I want to stay with you. I don't know how, or why, or how things could possibly have ended up the way they have . . .but I know this is where I belong. It's not because I owe you anything, or because I want you to protect me from what's out there."
"Then what do you want from me?" Kienan asked, irritated.
"I want you to be there, and I want to be there for you."
"That's not an answer, Jayla-2."
"I think it is."
There was a long silence, and Jayla-2 could hear Kienan slowly sigh in the darkness.
"I dont want to get the wrong idea," Kienan said. "Youre not Jayla, after all. You've told me that so many times."
"But I havent told you near enough you're not the same Kienan Jayla knew, have I?" Jayla-2 said. "You're not the man she knew, any more than I'm the woman she was.
"And in that case, maybe it's time we both stopped using it as an excuse."
Kienan closed his eyes, her words cutting deep within in him. Not in a way that caused him pain, but in a way that cut right through the anger, the sorrow, and the weight of years and disappointment and the loneliness that held all of the above together.
The truth, to a fault.
Seconds of silence turned into minutes. For a moment, Jayla-2 wondered not what Kienan would say, but rather if he were going to say anything at all. He was still there, of course, still awake--she could hear him breathing.
No answer, just the steady inhaling and exhaling of breath.
Should I go? Jayla-2 wondered, nervously chewing her bottom lip.
Does he want me to leave? No--he'd have said. He's waiting me out. Waiting for me to leave, to give up waiting for an answer.
Whatever happens, if I leave now, I'll have proved him right. I'll have left when he needed me, and even if all I do is go out that door, I might as well have crossed the galaxy.
I'll have left him, and proved him right.
And I wont do that to him.
She crouched down, fingers splayed on either side of her legs, her fingertips searching the floor so she didnt tumble into him as she crouched down, following the sound of his breath in the darkness.
No answer. Her fingers brushed against the edge of his boot and she sank to her knees, hoping she was right in front of him.
"I'm still here, Kienan."
She heard him take a deep breath, then silence returned. She furrowed her brow.
She felt something over her hands, something that seemed to dance over them lightly, then seemed to surround her hands and hold them fast. Panic went through her momentarily, followed soon after by embarrassment.
She'd been so focused on following the sound of his breath, she'd forgotten he could feel for her in the darkness as she'd done for him. Moreover, she'd forgotten his hands, which were holding hers tightly but not painfully so, as if to feel for himself that she was there, and he wasn't alone.
They stayed like that in silence for another few minutes. Jayla-2 began to feel butterflies in her stomach, not just because of the nearness of him, but because he was so close, and neither of them was alone.
Kienan finally spoke. It was the one word Jayla-2 had been waiting to hear: