Kienan's gamble had paid off--the Silhouette was only an hour behind him when they monitored the freighter bearing down on their position. Vain noted the approach and the Silhouette turned and rendezvoused with the ship just as Kienan's automated Space Drive sequence shut down and the battered freighter returned to normal space.
The Silhouette moved above the freighter, extending it's docking arms and securing the ship to the loading port on the belly of the ship, the automated loading arms immediately beginning the work of uncoupling the cargo containers from the freighter to the Silhouette's cargo bays.
Jayla-2 found Kienan aboard the ship, slumped in a corner of the cockpit, unconscious. She lifted him over her shoulder with ease surprising given her gentle manner and carried him to the medical bay.
Her black lips frowned as she walked through the corridors of the ship. Bad enough he'd used the Space Drive without safeties, she thought. But those wounds, however he got them, the strain of being in transit's not only re-opened them it's torn them even deeper.
I swear, it's like I cant trust him to behave himself when he goes out.
She laid him gently on the gurney in the medical bay, reaching for her tools. Whatever her failings and rough edges in piloting or the finer points of combat, she had a sureness and skill when it came to medicine that had impressed even Vain. She seemed to have a natural aptitude for it, and with Kienan constantly being injured, she usually had many opportunities to hone her craft.
She began by carefully cutting away the dressings, peeling them away, grimacing slightly as the red-white bandage peeled away to a wet red patch. She carefully cleaned each wound off, then applied some regen gel she kept handy.
It's no substitute for rest, she thought, peeling off a bandage, but Kienan's not one to listen to doctor's orders. And . . .I'm not a doctor anyway, so it doesnt matter.
Still, I wish he could go just once go someplace and not come back all beat up . . .
She carefully reapplied fresh dressings, feeling his pulse begin to quicken through her fingers. She worked slightly faster, because she knew if Kienan woke up he'd refuse any more help, and it was hard enough keeping him together when he was lying still and behaving himself.
She looked at him for a second, her cat-like green eyes looking at his placidly closed eyes. It was hard to believe she was seeing him like this--relaxed, quiet, helpless. She knew it wouldnt last, but to see it at all was as rare as seeing a ghost.
His eyes snapped open and he gasped for air, as if he'd just been saved from drowning. His emerald eyes saw hers and he slowly blinked, trying to convince himself this wasn't a dream.
"Jayla-2 . . ."
"Shhhh . . .try not to talk," she said, brushing his hair from his eyes. "I've just finished bandaging you up again, and you need to rest."
Kienan looked around, reality beginning to click back into sharper focus. "I . . .made it?"
"You nearly missed us," Jayla-2 said. "But not by much. We swung back and picked you up."
Kienan nodded slowly. His hands patted the pouches on his belt.
"I took them out," Jayla-2 said, waving the pack of cigarettes she held in her hand. "The last think you need right now is one of these. You need to rest, Kienan."
"I hate resting," Kienan said. Especially when I cant have my cigarettes, he added to himself.
"Besides," he said weakly. "I've got to set us on our new course. We're--"
"We have time," she said, running her hand over his forehead. "Several hours, anyway. Maybe during that time you can tell me what happened on Derroc."
Kienan sat up, rubbing the back of his head. "Same as always," he said. "I've gotten real popular since the Blue Dragons put that price on my head."
Jayla-2 looked worried. "Oh," she said. "I knew that we--"
"You did what you were supposed to," Kienan said quietly, the depth returning to his voice as the last of the cobwebs shook out. "I promised Id protect you, remember? That promise is more important that anything, even my life. I made my choice, and as long as I'm marked, every assassin, and gun-hunter's on the Frontier's going to be coming after me.
"But I wont have them come after you."
"So, what can we do?" Jayla-2 asked. "Leave the Frontier?"
Jayla-2 cocked an eyebrow in surprise.
* * *
Esperanza wrapped her white cloak around her body a little tighter. She quietly chided herself for being foolish--Espers were powerful telepaths, not seers of the future. She tried to wish away the strange feeling of dread she felt gripping her heart.
She blinked. If anything, she should be happy. She could feel Michael's presence. He was here. As close as they were to one another she could pick his thought patterns out in a crowd, and feeling him so close shone out like a star.
It's all the darkness around him that worries me, she thought. I can feel his mind . . .it's troubled. Something's worrying him, and he's blocking it from me. Or from someone else who might be listening.
She chewed her lip, pacing from one end of the room to the other, and then stopping. She'd never asked Michael what business called him away from Metatron so many times, or why he seemed to circumspect when she'd brought up the notion of them being reassigned together to a church on a colony outside, maybe on the Frontier.
He's been like this ever since Brother Adam left, she thought. It seemed to take him by surprise at first, and then, it seemed like the last night he was here he looked . . .angry, for some reason. But he wouldnt tell me why.
He seemed even more tense when he called and told me he was on his way back. Honestly, It would be so much easier if I could read him, hear his thoughts, but I won't violate his trust or the Church's rules to do it.
She frowned, staring out the window.
She jumped slightly at the sound of a catch being thrown behind her, then the quiet shush of the door being slid open. She turned, readying herself to punish whoever was coming through, only to relent when he saw it was Michael himself.
"Michael," she began. "Oh I was--"
He raised a gold-gloved finger to his lips. "Not now," he said quietly. "We have to go."
"I'll explain later," he said. "For now, you'll just have to trust me. I'm . . .we're . . .in danger."
He leaned against the door, hearing something in the distance. To Esperanza's horror he drew two pistols from holsters behind his back, leaning against the door and waiting.
"They're coming," he said. "We dont have much time. Damn it, I wanted to avoid this, if I could."
"Michael, who's coming?" Esperanza said, blanching slightly at his curse. "I dont understand any of this. Why are you dressed like that? What's going on?"
Michael grimaced. "Go take a look outside. That'll explain it better than I can right now."
Esperanza shrugged and walked past him, only to stop short one step outside of her room. Her mouth opened in a very surprised "O." Metatron was supposed to be a peaceful colony, the guardsmen that the Church retained were more formality than anything. So far as she knew, their weapons were only capable of stunning a target.
At the far end of the hall were twenty armed guardsman, weapons drawn, all fanned out along the corridor.
And all of them had their guns pointed at her.
* * *
Kienan sat on the edge of his seat, rapidly tapping coordinates into the Silhouette's navigational computer. Behind him, Mirage stood next to Conscience, plotting the course on the larger map and cross-referencing it with astronomical data. To cross into the wild space beyond the Frontier would take precise navigation, micro-jumps of no more than ten light-years at a time to avoid the various gravitational eddies and nova storms that waited for them on the other side.
The good news, he thought, we've done this before. Twice. So we're not flying totally blind.
I just hope this time we find something less disturbing waiting for us.
He programmed a sequence into the Silhouette's communication relay, a simple signal ping sent out at regular intervals.
If she's still out there, the signal will ping back, and the closer we get, the stronger it'll be, he thought, fumbling in his chair for the extra pack of cigarettes he kept secreted in his chair in case well-meaning body fascists confiscated the pack he kept on his person.
I dont dare risk direct contact, he thought, lifting the cigarette to his lips, lighting it. She'd be furious with me. Claim she taught me better than that.
He took a long slow drag off the cigarette, feeling a twinge of pain as he inhaled. Jayla-2's work had been excellent, but he still had some time to go before he was one hundred percent.
He leaned back, the cigarette dangling from his lips as he mulled over what they were about to do. He thought of an earlier time, three years ago, when they'd crossed over. They'd been led to an ancient place of power that still contained a map of the space beyond the Frontier.
It also contained an oracle, and the oracle had a warning for Kienan:
"The day you go to Earth is the day you die," he remembered the voice saying. Not that I'd ever have any reason to go to Earth. Even I'm not crazy enough to think I could hide from the Syndicates and the Earth forces right in their own backyard.
Still, far as I'm going in opposite direction, at this rate I should live forever.
"Kienan?" A familiar voice called behind him. Kienan turned the chair around to see Vain standing beside Jayla-2.
Unusually for her, Jayla-2 looked cross.
"What happened to resting?" Jayla-2 asked.
"I had things to do," Kienan said. "We've got a lot of work to do before we get to where we're going. I cant manage it from the medical bay."
Mirage looked over her shoulder at Jayla-2 and shrugged. "I'm sorry," she said. "He told me not to tell you he was on the bridge."
"I didnt tell you," Mirage said, returning to her work.
Jayla-2 sighed. Actually, given Kienan's reluctance to accept her help. That she'd gotten as much cooperation as she had from him was amazing enough. Sometimes, however, when he set himself to doing things, there was nothing for it but to let him.
"Where are we going?" Vain said, walking over to the map. She blinked as she processed the information before her. "Into Ghram space?"
Kienan nodded. "No way they'd follow us," he said. "The crossing's too treacherous if you cant negotiate it properly and they'd be flying blind. We passed the furthest beacon in the sector an hour and a half ago."
"But are we actually going somewhere, or are we going to hide out in another backwater system?" Vain asked.
"I'd . . .rather not say just yet," Kienan said. Bad enough to be stranded, but I'd hate to be stranded and wrong, he thought.
Jayla-2 stared at the map for a few moments. "This is close to the same course as where we met the Haxan, isnt it?"
Kienan raised an eyebrow. "You read the navigation logs?"
"That was my doing, Kienan," Vain interjected, pressing a series of buttons on the console next to Mirage. "We agreed if she were going to stay she'd have to pull her own weight. We've been teaching her everything we can while you've been gone."
Kienan looked from Vain to Jayla-2 then back to Vain. Of the Marionettes, Vain had always been the most forthright and true to her nature as a machine.
But Id swear she almost sounded proud of Jayla-2 just then, Kienan mused, smiling thinly around his cigarette.
* * *
Sabre stood on his own in a clearing in the garden, swinging his sword around himself, lost in the routine, in the quiet skill of the warrior. He extended his arm, forcing his will through the sword. The green-edges obsidian blade began to shift in shape, becoming two thin blades, then a more curved single blade, then an axe.
Finally, he willed it back to his own shape and sheathed the blade. He was just about to turn and find Reficul when he sensed someone behind him.
"I can see you really know how to use that," a voice called from behind him. "I've been watching you for the past five minutes."
Sabre turned slowly and saw J-3 leaning against a tree, arms crossed around her, looking at him with quiet curiosity. If Sabre objected or wished her to go, she had no way of knowing, as the blank features of his mask reinforced his silence.
"I . . .sort of remember stories about swordsmen," she said. "Humans who went to study with aliens. Youre one of them?"
Sabre's eyes narrowed on her, not with anger, but with a quiet, tense curiosity.
J-3 tilted her head, taking a step forward.
"You . . .cant speak, can you?"
Sabre's gaze softened as she moved closer.
"The mask . . .why do you wear the mask?"
Sabre lifted a white-gloved hand to his face, his fingers touching the smooth white mask with a curiosity that made J-3 wonder if it was the first time he'd ever touched it.
Did he even know it was on his face? J-3 wondered.
"It's OK," she said. "I dont want you to take it off. I just wanted to watch you. Something about you I feel like I know."
Sabre moved closer.
"Sometimes, when I was under, when I was sleeping . . .I dreamed of myself, dreamed of how I used to be," she said, looking at him curiously. "I dreamed I was an echo of myself. A copy of a copy. Like I was a silhouette of what I used to be--"
At that, Sabre seemed to bristle and took a step back.
"I just meant that everything seems like it should be there, but its not," J-3 said, reaching up to touch him, her fingers tracing over the purple armor on his chest, sliding up to touch his mask. "Things are missing."
"Seeing you makes me remember that dream. You understand what I mean, dont you?"
Sabre nodded, flinching slightly as she touched his mask. He relaxed when he fingers traced the smooth features of it, and finally he put his hand over hers, his white-gloved fingers caressing her black-gloved palm.
* * *
One of the guardsmen raised his weapon. Esperanza could feel his anxiety welling up--he didnt know yet that he wasn't aiming at Judgement (who was Judgement? She wondered) he was acting on pure reflex. The barrel of his weapon flashed and she could see, as if in slow motion, his finger tightening on the trigger.
No, she thought. No, dont. STOP!
He didnt fire. He didnt even move. She gasped in shock when the shot she'd been expecting didnt hit her.
None of them did. She looked at them, then back at the door. In her anxiety, she'd stopped them. Used one of the skills that she'd learned here at the Metatron.
Skills she was forbidden to use against anyone, most especially members of the Church.
What have I done? Esperanza thought, aghast.
Michael walked out of the door. He blinked with surprise when he saw the stance of the one Guardsman who'd been ready to take a shot.
"I thought they'd at warn me first," he said, more to himself than to her.
"I've stopped them," Esperanza said, equally disconnected. "I actually stopped a church guard."
Michael blinked, getting a handle on the situation again. "How long does it last?"
"The 'stop.' How long does it last?"
"They'll be out of it in a minute," Esperanza said. "Now will you tell me just what is going on? Why are they trying to shoot you? Why do they think of you as Judgment?"
Michael grimaced, raising his guns. He could see their breathing starting to return to normal. "We'll have to talk and walk," he said. "I think I can get us off Metatron, but we've got to hurry."
Esperanza looked at the guards, trying to keep them under a bit longer so she could get her answers from Michael. It wasn't working. Too many of them, too anxious. Maybe a few more seconds, but that was all she could hope for.
"Wait," she said. "Why should I go with you? If you've betrayed the Church--"
"I havent betrayed anyone, Esperanza," Michael said. "If anything the Church has betrayed us. Please come with me, now. I know this is a lot to take in, and I'll explain all I can on the way, but we have to go now.
"You'll just have to have faith in me."
* * *
Jayla-2 could feel the deck plates of the Silhouette vibrate under her feet as the fourteenth course change in Space Drive sent them on a new point along the curve.
She rested a hand on the back of Kienan's chair, looking at him. He was studying a small display on the console of his chair. It seemed to be fairly insignificant, merely a repeating signal display, but his eyes were more focused on it than that navigational data playing over the main screen.
"So," she said to him. "Ghram space?"
Kienan looked over his shoulder in surprise, composed himself and nodded.
"We're headed for what used to be one of their outer dominions," he said quietly.
"I read some old histories about them," Jayla-2 said. "Apparently they used to rule this entire quadrant. Almost everything but Earth, really."
Kienan nodded. "They were big in their day, all right," he said, eyes still fixed on the signal display.
"It's strange that they just all of a sudden vanished, died off," Jayla-2 continued. "There's not much about that in the histories Vain gave me to read."
"Who said they all died?" Kienan muttered quietly under his breath.
"What?" Jayla-2 said.
Kienan blinked. He'd gotten distracted again.
"I just meant, it didnt exactly happen that way," he covered. "Everything wasn't fine one day, then the next they were gone. It never happens that way, really."
"Then where are they?"
"Hiding out, probably," he murmured, returning to the readout. "Just like we are."
Jayla-2 leaned in a bit, closer, her hand resting against his shoulder. Kienan didnt react at first. "What's that?"
Kienan glanced over his shoulder at her, then over at his other shoulder, where her hand was resting, gently rubbing his shoulder.
"It's . . .uh . . .a locator," he said. "Scans dont work too well out here so this is . . .uh, to help us find our way."
Jayla-2 looked at him with puzzlement, trying to figure out why he was stammering so, then realized what she was doing and took her hand away. Kienan looked at her, his hard emerald eyes meeting her glowing green gaze, the two of them both realizing what had happened without either of them intending it.
Jayla-2 blinked. Kienan's expression became confused, then he looked back at the readout.
He suppressed a smile. Well, at least it still works, he thought. Now, we've just got to follow the trail.
* * *
The crystal fragment floated lazily in the tube of solution, tumbling end over end in the blue liquid as a red laser ran vertically up and down the tube. Reficul's eyes followed the path of the laser, then glanced back at the screen with the chemical analysis.
He studied the readings and frowned, his red-gloved fingers flying over the keys. Another display on another screen displayed a broader readout of data. There was a blur of motion as the data began to change, slowly at first, then hastily, the numbers and values changing, running to double-digits, then down to zero.
He brought up more readings as he heard movement behind him. It was a visit he both expected and dreaded.
"You wanted to see me, Doctor?" Mendel called from behind him.
"Yes, Mendel," he said slowly. "I have been studying fragments of the crystal J-3 produced, cross-referencing it with data from cell samples taken while she was in stasis, and I wanted to share my findings with you."
"Of course," Mendel said, rolling a chair from a nearby workstation towards Reficul. "You told me when you took the sample that you thought it was an instinctive defense mechanism, like a reflex action."
"And the findings seem to corroborate that," Reficul said. "By accident or by design, J-3 has the ability to produce crystal shards from the apertures at her arms and legs. The crystal is initially elastic but soon hardens to a very high resiliency and strength upon contact with air."
"Have you ever seen anything like that before?" Mendel asked.
Reficul shook his head. "Given her size and body mass, I was initially puzzled as how her biology was able to generate the crystal, but these latest scans explain it. Observe."
A series of names, chemical formulas and data scrolled onto the big screen. Mendel's eyes narrowed. Some of it he could follow, but most was impenetrable data to him.
"I'm afraid it's lost on me, Doctor," he said. "Can you explain it for me?"
Reficul nodded. "She generates the crystal from a complex mixture of chemicals inside her body. Lacking a glandular process, the chemicals have to be transported through her circulatory system--one chemical from this region, another from this region.
"The problem as I see it is this--the transport of these chemicals through her bloodstream is highly toxic. The trace elements are accelerating her cellular decay."
"I thought that her genetic structure was stable," Mendel said. He was starting to dislike where this was leading.
"It is, for the most part," Reficul said. "But unforeseen incompatibilities can still exist. For the most part, these can be benign--mild anemia in a human/Rigellian crossbreed, for example. But in more advanced cases, especially in those involving growth accelerations, these minor flaws can be aggravated into terminal defects.
"That is why my people ultimately abandoned hybrid engineering. Cloning is a simple process--a unified group of cells merely grows cells just like themselves. But this . . .this is infinitely more complex. Your mother was a skilled geneticist, but she had no way of anticipating these complexities."
"Terminal," Mendel repeated. "So, if she uses the crystal, she'll die."
"I am afraid that the chemicals already in her system have already begun the process," Reficul said. "It is a question of "when" more than "if" at this point."
"But, can't we just clone her again?"
"The same thing would happen, unless we devoted several decades to studying how to create a stable genetic model, never mind time to study the machine she used to create J-3," Reficul said. "And we do not have that amount of time now that you are committed to selling the company."
Mendel leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees and staring at the floor. What Reficul was saying made sense, he knew. But his illusions, his hope that despite the destruction of his family and the selling off of the company, that somehow having her around would leaven that somewhat, had kept him from staring the truth in the face.
That hope's gone now, he thought, the admission shaking him to his core. And worse yet, I have to lose my sister all over again. I really will end up losing everything.
"How long . . .?"
"I am not certain," Reficul said. "It could be months or weeks. No more."
"And there's nothing we can do?"
Reficul shook his head.
Mendel stood up slowly, feeling weak as he eased the chair back with his legs. He looked around at the screens, at the data and wished he knew enough to find some flaw, something he could point to that would prove an error in Reficul's calculations.
But he knew that was unlikely.
"Doctor," he said. "I don't . . .I dont want her to know."
Reficul turned back to his work. "I will not tell her, Mendel. But she deserves to know before the end."
Mendel sighed. "Then let me be the one to tell her."