Vain sat in the center seat of the Silhouette's bridge, studying the 3D holographic map before her. Her brow furrowed as she studied the features of the quadrant before her.
The light from the holo-projector was the brightest source of light in the room, throwing a blue-green glow over Vain's severe features, making her already grim expression even grimmer, and not without reason.
Kienan's time is running out, she thought, zooming in for further details on the largest planet in the system they were currently hiding out in. Soon we'll have to move to the next rendezvous point, and with no way of communicating with him.
More than that, we're running to the end of our line, Vain thought, overlaying the next series of rendezvous points over the map of the system. We've spent a long time playing hide and seek in the nebulae and these uninhabited systems, but we're running out of those.
A few more light-years that way and we're in pirate territory, in open space, or in alien-controlled space, all of which have their own drawbacks. Plenty of people hunting us for plenty of reasons.
She brushed her long blonde hair from her eyes and looked over her shoulder at her companion on the bridge, who stared blankly back at her from her mooring in the column behind her.
"What do you think, Conscience?" Vain asked her "sister." "Kienan's only logged in one more rendezvous point, then nothing. We've run out of hiding places and any favors we had to call in, we've already done so."
"Frontier," Consicence said slowly.
Vain blinked. "Leave the Frontier? I thought about that, but we've only got one course going past the red line, and there's nothing there. What do we do if we need to resupply again?"
"Unknown," Conscience said. Her curtness was a sad fact of her life--irreparably damaged; Kienan had wired her directly into the Silhouette to keep her alive. However, tying her higher brain functions into a ship this massive meant that while everything might run smoothly, conversation was pretty sparse.
And every time Vain looked at her, she saw what might be. What could happen to her. And as much as she could be said to feel, she felt a kind of fear.
"Unknown," Vain repeated. Too much was unknown for her comfort. What would they do? How long could they keep running. What was happening to Kienan, and if he were to die, what would they do without him?
Vain had an answer for none of those questions.
Perhaps there isn't any, except for those we can make for our own.
She took a deep breath, drumming her white-gloved fingertips together as she leaned back in the command chair.
"Conscience," she said. "Bring up the last rendezvous point Kienan plotted. We're going to try to lay in our own course from where he finished."
"--Isnt here, Conscience," Vain said. "And we have to prepare whether he's coming back or . . .not."
* * *
Archbishop Joshua Duncan Sloane looked at the view from his window and saw that it was good, chuckling to himself at the mild presumption of his thought. The central tower of Metatron commanded a spectacular view of the interior gardens on this level, more so than anywhere on the station. And every time he looked out at the lush greenery he felt at home, and felt satisfied that he'd earned his lofty position all over again.
Initially he'd been a minor functionary--a travelling preacher for the Idyllist Church, trying to perpetuate the human spiritual primacy in a galaxy that had yanked the rug out of that theory over and over again.
He walked away from the window, past a shelf of various artifacts from both Earth and the various alien worlds on which he'd ministered. It had been a difficult time for men of the cloth, these past one hundred years.
Mankind's century-long plan to establish itself in space had initially been a boon for us, Sloane thought, picking up his battered leather Bible from his desk. It had been so long since he'd used in it in his ministering it felt as strange and alien to him as the artifacts on his shelf.
God pointed the way for His people to go, Sloane thought. Just as centuries before He had brought us to virgin lands on Earth and justified anything humans did to tame it, because it was His gift to us. Just as the heavens were.
The heavens, however, turned out to be far more crowded than we imagined, and the existence of aliens nearly made all this . . .irrelevant, he thought, setting the Bible down again. It's hard to motivate the human mind to work to join his God among the stars only to find out that once he gets there, there are others waiting for him.
And for a time, the church--the Universal Church, the Idyllists--they'd long ago abandoned the term "catholic," partly because people made horrible associations, and partly because one of the results of the Century Plan had been to simplify language as much as possible.
Spiritual drift, Sloane thought, looking out the window again. The two banks of solar panels perpendicular to Metatron's central shaft were starting to funnel light down into the shaft, making the day almost unbearably bright. The people working and taking their ease in the gardens below would look up at Sloane's office and know that they were ruled by the wise and they were themselves ruled by a God who was wiser still.
Through the windows, Sloane could feel the funneled starlight warm his old weathered face and smiled, reflecting on how the Church had solved the problem and become relevant again.
All we had to do was re-think how we presented the end of things to the flock, Sloane thought. Once we stopped throwing hellfire and brimstone at the people and patiently explained that our race to space and dealing with the aliens we found was merely a macrocosm of the hundreds of years of human history previous to that.
Another rung on the ladder of evolution, but spiritual evolution, rather than biological. That had been the key that had brought the Idyllists back to prominence--as we made our way to the stars, we would be changed, we would find the way to Heaven.
Just a little bit further, Sloane thought, as he sighed and returned to the paperwork on his desk. Spiritual evolution would happen, but not before he finished the report about Adam Jericho.
* * *
"This is unbelievable," Reficul said quietly. "You humans shouldnt have this technology, much less the facility with it to be able to extensively modify genetic structures like this."
"It's nothing we'd make public," Mendel said. "Honestly, however amazing a breakthrough it is, this quantum leap in genetics cost my mother her sanity, so I'm not sure it's that acceptable a tradeoff to me."
"What happened to the scientists she had working on the project?" Reficul said, quickly shuffling through page after page of logs on multiple screens.
"Left before I got here, and no, I havent been able to track them down," Mendel said, staring at the strange and yet familiar figure suspended in the clone tank. "My father shuffled them off somewhere and "lost" the paperwork. In fact, except for the logs down here, none of this exists in our records. If you take it face value, this somehow fell from the sky and ended up here in our basement by . . .magic."
"Or theft," Reficul said. "There's a number of entries detail the difficulty of deciphering the clone tank's operation and reverse-engineering your technology to work with your own. That would imply technology that was stolen or procured by means your mother did not want to ever be made official."
Mendel stared at the figure, as if willing it to wake up and explain all this. "That makes sense. The clone tank looks pretty old. Have you seen anything like this before?"
Reficul's eyes narrowed on detailed pictures of the clone tank from the logs. "No," he said. "Not. . .exactly. Some elements I've seen in clone banks the Rigellians and the Oneirans use, but there are also significant differences. From a cursory study of the logs, all the scientists could determine when they examined it was that it was centuries old and preprogrammed to a degree to mass-produce a certain kind of clone."
"Preprogrammed?" Mendel asked. "Did they override the programming?"
"Not exactly," Reficul said, turning around to look at another screen, this one detailing a psychological profile of the clone within. "Apparently they worked around the preprogramming, and the compromise resulted in the clone appearing . . .well, how she is."
Mendel nodded. "Did they succeed? By that I mean, is she alive?"
Reficul went back to the other screen. "Yes," he said. "Alive, but kept in stasis. Apparently she was brought out a number of times for examinations, but the overall directive appeared to be to make her ready for Doctor Kyren herself to arrive and take full charge."
"Alive," Mendel said. "She's alive. My sister--"
"I caution you against that assumption, Mendel," Reficul said, raising a cautionary finger. "One thing cloning cant guarantee, or never has to any great extent is the ability of the replicant to assume the personality of the original."
"So she wouldnt be Jayla, then," Mendel said, not bothering to hide his disappointment.
"There is no way to be certain," Reficul said. "Clones can physically replicate the original but memories, learned experiences . . .these are very difficult to transfer. Oneiran cloners use psychics to transfer memories at the moment of death, but even then the clones never possess the emotional attachment to the memories the original would have. Something always fails to translate over to the clone."
"A soul?" Mendel asked, as Sabre bristled again behind Reficul. The armored warrior turned away as if shunning the clone in the room.
Uncomfortable memories, Sabre? Mendel wondered, looking back at the mysterious clone.
"If one believes in such things as a soul," Reficul said. "My people consider it more the essential element of being. Life is an infinite energy, ultimately beyond scientific understanding."
Mendel took all this in quietly, pondering what was really in there and what he really wanted to be in there. These past few years he'd lost everything that mattered as he gained money and power.
It meant nothing to him, and he was more than willing to sacrifice a little or all of it if it meant having a family again.
Even an imperfect one.
"Reficul," he said. "Is there any danger to bringing her out of it fully? Would she attack us?"
Reficul studied the logs and the charts attached to them. "No danger that I can ascertain from the logs," he said. "From what is here, it seems that she was quite lucid, even personable the few times she was brought out. There's no sign of any aggressive tendencies."
Mendel pondered that while at the same time weighing all the other unknown variables that swirled around this mysterious clone of his sister. So much they didnt know about, so much he didnt understand, and so much he'd never known about until now. Thin shreds of memories that were all that was left of his family.
Ironic that before I couldnt wait to be away from them, he thought. Now this slim chance is all I have.
"Let's bring her out of it," Mendel said.
Reficul nodded and began to activate the sequence to wake the clone named J-3 from her dreamless sleep.
* * *
The rain that had been pounding Derroc for the past month ran off the narrow walkways leading to the launch bays on the south side of town line dirty waterfalls. The metal structures were already showing the beginnings of ugly rust-patches, despite assurances from the people who made them that the alloys used in their construction would never rust.
Within the large circular column at the far end of the walkway was a ship, one Kienan had paid dearly for, but one that would allow him to keep running a little longer, and take care of the people back on the Silhouette just a little longer.
Long enough, I hope, to figure out what the hell I'm going to do about it, Kienan thought as he leaned against the far wall of the transport tube, a cigarette dangling from his lips. I don't like being on the run.
My first instinct had been to settle accounts with whoever I needed to no matter what happened, he thought. Even if I ended up dead before they did.
It's what I've done all my life, he thought, proud and confused all at once.
Kienan had been born on Caldera, a planetary colony that had come under attack from a terrible danger from within the planet. One that had slaughtered every person except himself. He fought them, unwilling to give up, sustained by a rage that sustained him when his muscles had tired and his mind had gone and urged him on to violence no matter what the odds were against him.
And that rage and determination had sustained him quite well and made him a feared assassin. So feared that only a coup from inside the organization that he'd served had undone him.
His first impulse had been to repay them in kind. Destroy the entire organization in revenge for what they'd cost him and what they'd done to him. Just as he'd done so long ago on Caldera. So what if they killed him? He'd certainly exact a dear cost before they could finally finish him off, if it came to that.
Had I been on my own, I certainly would have, and gladly died in the attempt, he thought. But I cant afford to think that way now. I have people who depend on me. Vain, Mirage, and Conscience, Jayla-2. They'd die without me, and . . .
I . . .
He paused, unwilling to even think what was on his mind. The dank transport car shuddered to a stop and the metal door rolled away as Kienan made the long walk to the launch bay, tossing his cigarette aside as he did. The wind whipped the rain through his hair and his rain-cloak as he walked alone to the door on the far side of the walkway.
He had just about crossed the walkway when someone stepped into view. He was slightly younger than Kienan by about a year, dressed in red and black and wearing a veritable arsenal of bladed weapons. He stood before Kienan, ignoring the rain that beaded on the slick black material of his outfit.
Kienan came to a stop and crossed his arms in front of him. The man's body language told him everything he needed to know about why he was there.
Looks like I'm not going to make it off Derroc without a fight after all, he thought.
The man brushed his white hair from his eyes, his dark brown eyes meeting Kienan's cold emerald gaze.
"Kienan Ademetria," he said. "Been waiting years to meet you."
Kienan stared straight ahead, arms still crossed, his gaze never leaving the man before him.
"The name's Doublecross, by the way," the man continued.
"Good for you," Kienan replied.
"I guess you know why I'm here," Doublecross said.
"I'm guessing it's not for the rain," Kienan sneered.
Doublecross smirked. "I grew up on Iczelian," he said. "Rains all the time there. That's where I learned to use these."
He slowly drew his two long swords, turning one of them in his hand so that the blade rested against his forearm. His eyes narrowed on Kienan, who still had his arms crossed in front of himself, looking unimpressed.
"You know, for a man who's about to die, you seem pretty nonchalant about it," Doublecross said. "I guess being hunted by everyone in the galaxy, even someone like you eventually has to accept the inevitable."
"I hate to shatter your ego, but this isn't the first time someone's threatened me with a pair of swords and a line of tired bravado," Kienan said, uncrossing his arms. Moving too fast to track, his hand went to the two pistols holstered at his hips and drew them, raising them and taking aim directly at Doublecross' heart.
"Besides," he said. "It takes a special kind of idiot to bring a knife to a gunfight."
Doublecross's smirk expanded to a smile. "You think so?"
Kienan stared at him, fingers on the trigger, eyes focused tightly on Doublecross. He was focused on the tension in Doublecross' body, he could feel it in the air despite the rain. It was like the still surface of a pond.
The moment he moved and disturbed that stillness, Kienan was ready to pull the trigger. Even if he were skilled enough to block some of his bullets, some would still get through and rip him to pieces before he could take three steps.
"You know, you've got a point there," Doublecross said. "You know what makes up for that oversight?"
Kienan didnt say a word. He focused on that tension, waiting for that break, that change in the air that would break all this open into violence.
Behind Doublecross another figure stepped into view. A woman, dressed much like Doublecross was, except in blue and black as opposed to red and black. Her white-blue hair fell over one eye and framed the sanguine smile she had in a way Kienan didn't like.
He liked even less the two pistols she held in her hands, crossed over her chest.
"What Doublecross was about to say was that when one brings a knife to a gunfight, it doesn't hurt to have someone else with guns backing your play," she said, standing behind him and pointing her guns at Kienan.
"How do you like me now, Ademetria?" Doublecross said, not even bothering to hide his amusement.
Kienan blinked, holstering one of his pistols, never taking his eyes off Doublecross, sizing the pair of them up quietly.
"I'd keep both those guns drawn, if I were you," Doublecross said. "Cross and I, we're quite a pair."
"Two of a kind," Cross agreed.
Kienan ignored them, watching the pair of them.
They're used to working as a team, he thought. Their body language indicates theyre close--brother and sister, maybe. Or otherwise intimate. Even the slightest movement he makes, she compensates for. When they move, they'll move as one. And from the looks of it they can work without signals. All instinct.
Doublecross chattered on some more, but Kienan ignored it. One or the other of them will try to draw my attention to them, set me up for the other. Doublecross is already trying to get me to aim for him first, but if I do that I'm an easy target for Cross' gunfire.
Kienan stared at their shoes. Doublecross keeps his weight on his toes and the balls of his feet, he thought. The woman stands flat on her feet. Doublecross is the more mobile of the two. Cross will hold her ground and cover his advance with supressing fire.
He took a deep breath.
Two of them, one of me. I'll have to even the odds.
With his free hand he reached slowly for his rain-cloak, Cross' fingers tightened on her pistols and Doublecross crouched to spring, pointing one of his blades straight at Kienan's throat.
"Are you ready to die, Kienan Ademetria?"
Kienan's red-gloved hand tightened on the rain-cloak. His other hand kept his gun on the pair of them.
In an instant, he tore his rain-cloak off his body and tossed it into, the air, crouching as he did so, as expected, Cross fired at the rain-cloak, the plasma bursts her weapon fired ripping it to shreds as Doublecross made his move.
Kienan pivoted on his ankle, firing as he went from a crouch to a forward roll. Some of his shots glanced off of Doublecross' sword as he leapt forward at him, moving to close the distance just a little before he did. He drew his other pistol as Cross somersaulted overhead.
Kienan hooked his forearms under Doublecross' armpits, falling backwards and pressing his foot against Doublecross' stomach, throwing him into Cross, who staggered to one side, avoiding her partner's body as she came perilously close to slipping off the walkway.
Doublecross smiled, bringing his swords up again as Cross stood behind him.
"I told you he was clever, didn't I?" He said to his partner. "The two of us had him covered and he's still ready to fight us."
Kienan shut out Doublecross yammering again and focused himself on the task at hand, and quietly said a prayer to whatever fate really pulled the strings in this universe.
I'd been looking for a way to blow off some steam, he thought.
"You talk a great game, Doublecross," Kienan said coldly. "You said you'd waited for this for years?