The ship slowed as it approached the huge cross-shaped space station, turning and altering its position, matching its rotation as two brilliant lasers shone forth from the station to aid the ship in docking. Slowly, the small craft flew into the large docking bay and came to a rest on a clearly marked landing pad. There was a hiss as the hydraulics in the landing system released and the ship's ramp extended.
Michael palmed the box in his hands and walked out into the cold, polished steel deck, past faceless white-armored guards and white-suited technicians rushing past him on their various duties. Despite the activity in the landing bay, and eerie, hollow silence seemed to blanket everything. He blinked as he moved past them. It was like walking through ghosts. All these people. Beleivers, all of them. Committed to the Church's mission in space.
He didnt feel contempt for them as much as he felt isolated from them, disconnected from the same stream of consciousness. Perhaps because the information on the crystal had been so shocking, so revelatory that he couldnt go back to how he'd been before. He'd simply seen too much.
The scales fell from my eyes, he thought, moving past the cold sterile areas to a floor overlooking the lush courtyards below. So many times I would come up here and feel content that God was in space as surely as He was in Heaven, and that we had climbed a little closer to Him.
Well, man's in space. God . . .I'm not so sure about, anymore. This whole place is a tower of lies, built to usurp His power.
He couldnt stop thinking about the information he'd read. Over and over, after his conversion, he'd convinced himself that whatever the means, the end was just. Whatever else, he was doing God's work. It wasn't as it had been before, where he'd killed for money, or under orders. It wasn't.
As he made his way through the thickening crowd of people, more and more he felt alone, isolated. He could have been the only person there, walking alone through a mile-long space station, and it would have been just as real to him now.
Everything felt . . .wrong, now. Whether that was his own feeling of disorientation or what he knew instinctively was the calm before the storm, well, that remained to be seen.
He walked alone to the Sloane's office, his white boots echoing hollow in the metal solitude of the catwalk. Below him was Eden, or a kind of Eden. He surveyed the people milling below, then looked above him at the sentries in the watchtowers above him.
He blinked. The allusion stirred something in him.
Cast out of Eden, he thought. Out of paradise, out of contentment, in a garden all the same. I wonder if that applies more to them or me?
The metal door slid open and he stepped into Sloane's office. Sloane sat behind his desk, peering at Michael myopically. Michael set the box on Sloane's desk then stood back from him. Sloane never even bothered to get up from his chair. Behind him Michael could see the courtyard below, and wondered sardonically if his god's eye perspective on things was the first thing he'd thought about when he chose this office for himself, or the second.
Michael sighed a bit, then stood at ease, folding his hands behind him, his black tunic gathered between his wrists. He'd had mercifully few face-to-face dealings with Sloane, and even before now the supercilious nature of the man had grated on him.
After what he'd learned today, it was positively unbearable.
"Brother Michael," Sloane said. "You're . . .armed."
"I didn't have time to change," Michael said. "Your communication led me to believe it was important I return as quickly as possible, Archbishop."
"Yes," Sloane said. He eased back in his chair, his wiry grey hair catching the light from the window and giving him a halo that Michael found as offensively artificial as the structure they both dwelt in. "All the same, you'll forgive an old man for worrying slightly. It's not every day someone comes into this office carrying weapons."
"As I said, Archbishop," Michael began, his voice a little more terse than he'd intended to be. He set the case on Sloan's desk. "There was no time. You seemed so eager to have this back and hear my report, I felt it necessary to rush. If I've offended protocol, it was only because of your haste to settle the matter."
"Of course, Brother Michael," Sloane said. "Forgive me. The priorities of the Church seem very different from my desk than they would to you. What of Jericho?"
Michael blinked, not anticipating the sudden change.
"He's dead," Michael said with regret. "Blew himself up with his grenade rosary. I retrieved the item before the church collapsed around us and escaped. Given his proximity to the explosion and the fact he was in the epicenter of the imploding church, there's not much chance he survived."
"Be careful, Brother," Sloane said. "After all, he'd had the same training as you. And you've cheated death on many occasions, havent you?"
"Not this time, Archbishop," Michael said. "Adam . . .Jericho's . . .grenade rosary is composed of incendiary explosives. They burn, then explode. Some death's even people like us dont walk away from."
"Excellent. You've done well to deal with the traitor."
"That traitor used to be my brother, he was my friend--"
"He's a traitor and will live on in memory as one. God has no use for turncoats."
Michael's golden-armored fists clenched tightly. Don't lose it, he chided himself. Don't you dare lose control now.
He took a deep breath as Sloane hefted the case in his hands. His grey eyes met Michael's, and the look told him all he needed to know. Sloane was looking to find him out.
"You read none of this, I trust?"
"I only opened the case to ensure that everything was there, sir," Michael said. "I kept only to the specifics of my orders."
"Quite right," Sloane said, his hands setting the case down. His body language relaxed and he began speaking more easily, his hands accenting his words. "Well, I'm satisfied Brother Michael. You may feel free to return to your studies here on Metatron. But please keep yourself available to me in case I require any more inquiries."
Michael stood at attention. "Of course sir."
"Good day, Brother. Go with God."
"Go with God, sir."
Michael turned and walked to the door. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sloane's mask beginning to slip, the genial façade resolving itself again into the hard visage of an interrogator.
Just as he'd thought. He hadn't believed a word
He walked through the door and made his way quickly back down the catwalk, heading for the southern sector of the station. He had a half-hour, maybe more, before Sloane acted on his suspicions, which meant Michael had no time to waste in appearing to walk slowly down the hallway, His haste would raise suspicion, he knew, but he had to get to Esperanza, and soon.
Before Sloane discovered what Michael had told him was a lie, and Michael joined Jericho as a target of the Church's wrath. The allusion to Eden that had drifted through his mind again, this time a little less vague.
It wouldnt be long before he was chased out of paradise.
* * *
"We're nearly there," Mirage said to Vain as they surveyed the 3D map of the Frontier. "This is the last rendezvous point, and Kienan should have come back at the last one. There's been so signal--"
"Kienan couldnt risk a transmission," Vain said, cutting her off. "That was the whole point behind his idea of timing every single facet of the resupply."
"But what if there was an emergency? What if he needed us? He'd ask would he?"
Vain peered through the holographic map at her "sister." If as emotionless machines they were capable of feeling anything, she knew Mirage and herself felt the same thing.
They wanted to go. Wanted to save him, or help him, and if they couldnt do that, die alongside him.
"He never has before," she said.
"Well, our situation's changed since those days," Mirage said.
"The situation, perhaps," Vain said. "Kienan will never change."
Mirage blinked and looked down. It was so strange to see her do it. Vain expected such a human reaction from Jayla-2, but Mirage and herself were only supposed to look human. To feel like them, that was something they would never know.
"I'm not so sure that's true, Vain." Mirage said. "What happened on Kuran shook him up bad. I've seen him sometimes. He's tense, easily distracted. If it were anyone else Id say he was afraid."
Vain shut off the map and sat in one of the command chairs on the bridge. Kienan's, actually, as the cigarette-butt choked ashtray in the armrest confirmed.
"I've seen the same thing," she said finally. "Kienan's not holding up as well as he would like us to believe."
"Why would he do that? Pretend nothing's changed?" Mirage said. "I've never understood that about him, and now, seeing him like this, I dont understand."
"Yes you do," Vain said, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees. "How many times have we really seen Kienan hurt?"
"Two hundred nine--"
"No, Mirage, not how many times we bandaged him up. How many times have we seen him hurt?"
"I really dont understand, now."
Vain sighed and leaned back. "Ever since we first met him, he's always been strong, always fearless, always determined. Even aboard the ship he acts this way. Except when that . . .woman comes, or Jayla-2 says something to him. Then we dont see him at all for a time.
"He does that so we dont have to see him genuinely hurt."
"I dont know, Mirage," Vain said. "I dont understand the way most humans behave and sometimes, Kienan is hard to understand at all. It's . . .important to him that we see him the way we've always seen him--strong, confident, and unafraid. Especially with what's happened to him. And if appearing strong to us is what helps him through this and what keeps him together, even when he may not be as strong as he feels he needs to be, then that's what we'll do for him."
Mirage took all that in and pursed her lips together, looking around the bridge.
"I miss him," she said finally.
"He'll be back," Vain said.
"It's hard to be confident of that, especially after what you just said about him not being strong anymore."
"He is," Vain said. "He's a lot stronger than he thinks he is. He could not have lived were he any less. He will return. He has to."
* * *
"I remember when we played hide and seek in here," J-3 said as she picked her way though the pine straw covered path. Mendel and Reficul walked a pace behind, slowly and quietly following her.
J-3 turned, looking over her shoulder. "Do you remember?"
Mendel blinked. "What?"
"Hide and seek," J-3 repeated. "Remember? We used to play here when we were small. Mom and Dad spent all their time in the labs and we'd stay out here in the arboretum, playing."
"I remember," Mendel said slowly. "You used to climb this one tree, and you could climb so high Id never find you. Even when I got a little older and knew you always went to that tree, Id stay there and try to wait you out and every time . . ."
". . .I waited for you to give up, jumped down, and ran for base," J-3 laughed. "I remember it, but where's the old tree? I've been looking for it . . ."
"I'm not sure," Mendel said. "They could have harvested the lumber and never planted a clone. It was a long time ago."
"No," J-3 said. "It's around here. I know it is, and I'll find it."
J-3 walked a little further ahead. Mendel was about to catch up when Reficul tapped her on the shoulder.
"Mendel, you know there is no logical way J-3 is your sister as you remember her," Reficul said flatly. "To . . .pretend like this is foolish and will only distress the two of you."
"That's just it, Doctor," Mendel whispered. "There's no logic to it--but I know what I feel. However which way she looks, I know that's my sister. I can feel it, somehow. I thought bringing her here might make the answers we're both looking for a little clearer."
"Sensible idea," Reficul said. "However, there is nothing in her behavior that would indicate anything beyond skillful memory implants,"
"Except for how she finished my sentence," Mendel said. "That seems a little too genuine for implants, doesn't it?"
"Don't let your hope for a certain outcome convince you instead of facts," Reficul cautioned. "Your sister died years ago on Kuran colony. This is not her, no matter how much you may wish her to be. At least not as you knew her. What remains is to determine what in fact she is."
"I'm . . ." Mendel closed his mouth, because he knew what Reficul was saying was right. He was a little too hopeful, and a little too eager to believe the best possible outcome.
But there was more than just that bothering him. Something felt . . .wrong.
"Wait a minute," Mendel said, turning to his companion. "Where's Sabre?"
Reficul stared at him impassively.
"Mendel! Come quick!"
Mendel turned away in time to see J-3 motioning to the tree excitedly. There was a rustling noise in the branches, a flash of J-3's blonde hair, and a violet blur that came from the trees.
What happened next seemed to Mendel's eye to come in quick flashes. Sabre leapt down from the tree, sword drawn. He leapt down from and headed straight for J-3 who had just enough time to put her arms up.
What happened next was the most unexpected element.
Sabre seemed to bounce off two large pinkish crystalline protrusions that filled the gap between Sabre and J-3 in the blink of an eye. Sabre leapt back, as surprised as any of them that the crystalline shields had issued almost reflexively from J-3.
"As I told you Mendel," Reficul said gently. "Whatever she is, J-3 is not entirely the woman you knew."
* * *
Kienan ran his hand over the last of the bandages covering his wounds. One last time he checked the navigational calculations. What he was planning to do would gain him back some of the time he'd lost fighting Cross and Doublecross, but it was also dangerous, especially with him already injured.
He sighed and fumbled for a cigarette. Space Drives usually required a complicated series of safety protocols to operate effectively without harming the passengers within. Improper safeties could render the whole crew of a ship unconscious, dose them with lethal radiation, or kill them outright the moment it was engaged.
But it was either that or be left behind, Kienan thought. By now, the Silhouette's on the way to the final rendezvous point, and any delay would mean I completely miss them. I haven't had time to precisely calibrate the safeties on this ship. Got to trust it to luck and hope I'm fast enough and tough enough to stand it.
He walked over to the rear section of the cockpit, opening a large panel on the wall. Inside were medical supplies and provisions. Cargo ships such as the one he was on were built modularly. In case of damage, whole sections could be ejected, even if the salvaged components wouldnt necessarily be able to fly very far on its own. Kits like this designed to tide the survivors over until they were rescued.
He unfolded a small cloth blanket and sat on a small bench on the opposite side of the kit. A tone signaled the Space Drive's pre-fire sequence as Kienan lay on the bench, covering himself in the blanket. Ideally, when the Space Drive was engaged he'd be put into a deep sleep while the computer executed the flight plan. If he made it to the Silhouette, they'd be able to bring him out of it.
Kienan leaned back and closed his eyes.
Once I get back we'll have to plan a new route, he thought. We've exhausted all the places on the Frontier to hide. Any further and we'll be in someone's line of fire.
He grimaced, puffing on his cigarette. Five years ago, the Frontier was wide open and barely patrolled, he mused. Now, we're running out of places to go. And since I've gone rogue, we've got even fewer options.
The tone began to beep rapidly. Three minutes to Space Drive.
Unless . . .
Maybe that's the problem, he thought. Maybe it's time to go off the grid altogether.
That was easier said than done. Leaving the Frontier was a risky proposition. Beyond the Frontier was vaguely defined--a wilderness. The remains of the Ghram Empire, what used to be the hub of the galaxy, was rumored to be there, rendered uninhabitable centuries before humans ever left their solar system.
They'd tried to map sections of it before, but it wasn't possible yet. The Frontier was still in need of pacification before the massive undertaking of mapping and exploring the space beyond could begin.
Never mind whenever a mapping drone crossed into that space it was destroyed soon after. Whatever had annihilated the Ghram all those centuries had made that space a wild and dangerous place.
Only a lunatic would venture into it and have a hope of finding someplace safe with no way to guide them. The Silhouette had crossed over before, but they'd had the benefit of limited navigation and a guide. They wouldnt even have that this time.
A lunatic, a renegade, or a little of both, Kienan thought.
Kienan ground out his cigarette on the floor below him. The pulse became a keening tone. Less than a minute to go.
Maybe it's time to call in an old marker, he thought. One of the few I have left. We wouldnt have to go far, just far enough to send a signal the beacons on the edge of the Frontier couldn't pick up, and hope a certain someone's still there to answer.
Otherwise, we're going to spend a lot of time flying blind and going in circles.
He closed his eyes as the ship began to vibrate. There was a ripple through the viewports as the ship went into Space Drive. The effect hit Kienan harder than anything the previous fight had and soon a wave of blackness engulfed him. One way or the other, he was on his way.