They made their way quickly down the silver-white silent corridor. Esperanza stuck close to Michael, even though she wasn't quite sure why. Perhaps it was due to habit; perhaps it was because he was the only one who seemed calm at the moment.
And it was an eerie calm, given the circumstances. He cradled one of his golden pistols in his hands as the other was a blur of motion over one of the access panels.
"Michael," she whispered. "Where are we going?"
"We're leaving," he said. She noticed a change had come over him. The warmth and earnestness was gone from his voice, replaced with a cold, implacable resolve. "I think I can get us to the launch bay. After that, I know a place we can hide for awhile."
A klaxon blared a few corridors down. Footsteps echoed down the hallway and Michael pushed her forward.
"The false alarms should distract them for a little while," Michael said. "But they'll figure it out soon enough. If we're going to get out of here, we better move."
Esperanza shuffled forward, growing more confused with every step. "Michael . . .wait," she rasped. "The Guardsmen. They're . . .they're close!"
Michael was just about to turn down a hallway when he ran into two Guardsmen, their surprise at seeing him indicating they weren't part of the pursuit force. They raised their weapons at sight of his and he knew at this range, they wouldnt miss.
He drove his knee into the first Guardsman, the armor around his knee catching the trooper at precisely the point where his armor plates joined. He lunged forward and Michael rolled off the crumpling Guardsman's back, kicking the arm of the other Guardsman away, sending a bolt of energy into the wall just above Esperanza's head.
Michael hit the release on one of the Guardsman's helmets, snatching it off and punching him in the jaw, knocking him out. Esperanza stared at the results, at the two Guardsmen unconscious on the floor and the man she loved looking down at them, his face etched with a grim sadness.
The name "Judgment" that she'd heard inside the minds of the squad outside her room flashed through her head, seeming to connect with the worry and doubt in her mind. This was the same Michael she'd known, the same man she'd loved, but somehow, looking at him right now . . .he was almost unrecognizable.
Michael shook his head. "I'm not a killer," he said quietly. "They're just following orders. Like I was."
Esperanza blinked. "What?"
"Nothing," Michael said. "I'll explain later. The launch bay's two levels down, that way. Let's go."
* * *
"You busy?" Mendel asked. He approached J-3 carefully, as if he were sneaking up to catch a butterfly. She was sitting on her own in the garden, on one of the stone benches, illuminated by one of the skylights that funneled collected sunlight to the garden. She smiled broadly, and somehow that made Mendel hate himself that much more for what he had to tell her.
She's not really Jayla, he reminded himself. She's just an echo of it, just as false as the sunlight around her and the garden. It's all fake, so breaking the news should be easy. After all, it's just a facsimile. Illusion.
But at the moment, I much prefer the illusion to the reality.
"Hi Mendel," J-3 said, smiling and brushing her blonde hair off her shoulders. "I love this place. I'm glad your doctor friend is letting me stay here instead of that dark basement. I didnt realize how much I'd miss it."
Mendel sat beside her, on the edge of the bench, his back to her. The weight of what he had to tell her made him hunch his shoulders and rest his elbows on his knees.
How do you break something like this gently? Mendel thought.
"I was just talking to Sabre," she said.
Mendel blinked. "I . . .didnt know he could talk."
"He didnt," J-3 said. "I just . . .somehow knew what he was saying. I dont know Mendel, I feel like I know him, somehow. Like we've got something in common."
"Well, you have the same favorite color," Mendel said.
J-3 looked down at her purple outfit and giggled. "I guess we do," she said.
Mendel tried to join in, but his heart wasn't in it. The giggling trailed back off into silence.
"Are you OK?" Mendel asked.
"How do you mean?"
"Just wondering if you were feeling all right. I figure seeing me, being awakened again . . .it might be a little too much."
J-3 looked away for a moment, then at Mendel's hunched shoulders.
"Actually," she said slowly. "I kind of wanted to ask you about that."
Here it comes, Mendel thought. Does she know already?
"About what?" Mendel replied.
"Mendel . . .after I, uh, died . . .what happened? With you?"
Mendel blinked. This wasn't what he was expecting. He straightened up a little and turned to face her. "I'm . . .uh, not sure I understand, J- . . .Jayla."
"Well," she said. "Obviously . . .I dont remember dying, but . . .while I was gone, what happened? I know Mom and Dad are gone but . . .I guess I just want to know why?"
Mendel took a deep breath. "It's . . .not really easy for me to say," he said. "For a long time, I blamed you for what happened to them."
"Me?" J-3 blinked.
"When you died, it took the heart out of everything, Jayla," Mendel said. The logical part of his mind tried to reassert itself, to remind himself that this was at best a pale copy of his sister, but he couldnt stop.
"When you died, Mom devoted herself to bringing you back somehow," she said. "She followed every lead, every theory, everything. And she got so obsessed trying to resurrect you that she forgot about the rest of us.
"For a long time . . .I remember hating you both for it. I hated that your ghost was more powerful than me."
"I'm sorry," she said. "You know I wouldn't have wanted that."
Mendel blinked, looking up to stop himself from crying. "No," he said. "I realized later it wasn't anything you did. Mom just . . .wouldnt accept what had happened, and rather than understand, all she wanted were things back the way she'd remembered them. It was easier than dealing with the unknown and the uncertain."
"And she died?"
Mendel nodded. "Spaced. They never found the body, obviously, but the lady who was working with her told me what had happened. That drove Dad into himself. I saw him less and less and finally I got a call that he'd died."
J-3 frowned. "So when I died . . ."
". . .everything went a little wrong, I guess."
J-3 put her hand out and rested it on his shoulder. "I'm sorry Mendel," she said. "But . . .maybe the fact that I'm here right now helps a little?"
Mendel put his hand over hers and nodded. A voice inside him cursed him for his naivete and his cowardice, but that voice was drowned out in relief.
"I wont leave you Mendel," J-3 said, wrapping her arms around him. "I promise."
* * *
Jayla-2 stared out the windows on the observation deck with equal parts awe and horror. Ghram space sprawled out before her eyes like an infinitely stormy sky. Dim stars and stormy nebulas pulsed in the darkness like celestial thunderheads. More than anything, it all seemed angry.
With good reason. From what she'd read, some kind of cataclysm had altered this part of space forever, and the anger and discord she could feel even from those dim and probably long dead stars in the distance sang out like a loud crack of thunder in stormy summer skies.
Space had never felt so lonely or so dangerous.
Her eyes narrowed as she heard footsteps behind her. Dimly outlined in the reflection of the window, she saw Vain behind her, her eyes impassive and unfathomable, her red lips set in a thin, but tight, neutrality.
"Kienan asked me to tell you we'd be at the rendezvous in a half-hour," Vain said.
"Did he say who we'd rendezvousing with?" Jayla-2 asked. "This place . . .what could survive out here?"
"We seem to be holding up admirably," Vain replied.
"Do you know what Kienan's up to?" Jayla-2 asked.
"If I did, he would ask I not tell you."
"But why?" Jayla-2 asked. "I just want to help."
Vain regarded her coolly for a moment. If Jayla-2 didnt know any better, she'd feel certain she was trying to stop herself from saying something. She looked away for a moment in a gesture that was almost human in its evasiveness.
Jayla-2 pondered that for a moment. She wondered sometimes if Kienan forgot that Vain and her sisters weren't human as often as she did.
"What do you think, Vain?"
Jayla-2 grimaced. "About Kienan."
Vain looked past her, out at the dismal star field outside.
"I think," she said slowly. "That he cares about you a great deal."
"Cares. . .you mean . . .?"
"I dont know what I mean," Vain said. "Remember, Jayla-2--I'm not like humans, and I'm not like you, and I have no idea how your emotions work. Often, it's all I can do not to be utterly confounded by them. I certainly cannot put a name to it, but I recognize that it's there."
"Uh, right," Jayla-2 said under her breath.
"But I do know he cares a lot for you and about you," Vain said.
"That doesnt prove anything," Jayla-2 said. "He cares for you, Vain and Conscience as well."
Vain nodded. "But more than that, he cares how you feel about him. If it's analysis of his behavior you want, here it is--I have a feeling he didn't tell you where we were going simply because he doesnt want to be wrong in front of you."
Jayla-2 turned around and looked at Vain as if she'd just grown a second head.
"Kienan?" Jayla-2 asked incredulously. Vain nodded calmly.
Jayla-2 shook her head, running a hand through her hair. "That's the silliest thing I've ever heard," she said. "I mean . . .it almost sounds childish."
"It is," Vain said.
Jayla-2 looked at her, cocking an eyebrow.
Vain shrugged. "I told you emotions are confounding."
* * *
Michael grimaced as he lay flat under the dorsal wing of one the shuttles. As he'd expected, the launch bay was crawling with Guardsmen, no doubt having determined this would be where he'd make his escape.
They were right of course, he and Esperanza would be leaving just as soon as he could make it to the shuttle he'd arrived in. The special routing codes within its computers would allow him to override the control tower and escape into open space.
Well, maybe not "escape," he thought. But at least we'll get a head start. I'm just trying to get out of here as quickly and as bloodless as possible.
His hand tightened around his pistol. In other days, he'd have shot his way through all of them, even used someone like Esperanza as a shield to get through. He'd be gone by now, in fact.
Even now the temptation of how quick and easy it was boiled within him, a red haze that simmered just below his eyes.
No, he willed himself. I follow another way, now.
He gestured to Esperanza, who was hiding among the fuel tanks for the shuttle, pointing her toward another nearby shuttle. She quietly walked over to the other shuttle, keeping to the shadows, the white of her cloak mixing with the brightness and pale light of the launch bay keeping her hidden, unless you just happened to be looking that way.
Like the Guardsman passing by the shuttle had been. His weapon snapped up to fire as Esperanza moved.
But Michael moved a little faster, sliding down the front of the shuttle and landing on the Guardsman, knocking him to the deck his weapon clattering away from them. Above and around him, other Guardsmen began rushing to the breach.
"RUN!" He called to Esperanza. She bolted for the shuttle on the far side of the launch bay as Michael drove the butt of his gun against the Guardsman's helmet, jarring the man inside hard enough to keep him reeling as he rolled off him, guns drawn.
The Guardsmen fanned out into a firing line, the silent hum from their assembled weapons throbbing in the cold air of the launch bay.
"You're to be detained, Judgment," the lead Guardsman said. "On the orders of Archbishop--"
"I know who wants me turned over," Michael said. "And I know what it's about. I'm giving you Guardsmen one chance. Let us go, let the shuttle through. I dont want to hurt any of you, but I'm leaving one way or the other, and youre not taking either of us, do you understand?"
"Empty bravado, Judgment," the leader replied. "As many men as we have on you, all it will take is a lucky shot to tag you. And Sister Esperanza wont jeopardize your life or the lives of anyone here for you. Surrender. We dont want to hurt you."
"I can't surrender," Judgment said. "Too much is at stake."
20 shots per pistol before I'd need to reload, he thought, sizing up his options. Not enough to stand my ground, but if I tagged the leader in the head, through the visor, he thought, the shock of it would confuse them, maybe long enough to get away. I'd only have to kill just the one . . .
No, he thought, willing the anger back. They dont know what this is about, and I swore I'd never kill an innocent again.
There's another way. There has to be.
Judgment took a step back, away from the prone Guardsmen he'd landed on.
"There's no other option, Judgment," the leader said again.
Michael looked down at his feet. The Guardsman's stun-gun lay next to his right foot. Guardsmen stun-guns were small, compact, and exceedingly painful to an unarmored human. Static energy pulses that jolted more than injured.
Shooting the Guardsmen with it wouldn't cause them to blink twice, he thought. But . . .
He holstered one of his pistols, taking another step backward.
"I told you I was leaving," Michael said. "And I intend to do just that. Right . . .NOW!"
He punted the gun along the floor, sending it skittering towards the Guardsmen. He took careful aim at the gun and fired his own weapon at it, striking it just where the power cell was and blowing it apart. Moreover, the release of the static energy would confound their scanners for a few seconds.
Not enough to make a stand, but enough to make a run for it, he thought, his boots pounding against the deck as he closed the distance between himself and the shuttle. He leapt through the door of the shuttle as gunfire began tracking his movements.
He punched a series of keys on the remote panel next to the door and the shuttle's engines hummed to life. He moved quickly past Esperanza, taking a seat behind the main controls and strapping himself in, gesturing for her to do the same as he frantically punched in the override code for the doors.
"Hang on," he told her.
"You do have a plan for getting out of here, dont you?" Esperanza said.
"Sort of," Michael said. "So far, I've been improvising."
"Believe me, it shows" she said.
The panel flashed red. Michael looked at it and frowned. He tapped at the keys again.
"Uh-oh," he said under his breath.
"What is it?"
"Nothing," he said. "Except that if I cant get the doors open, this is going to be a short and awful permanent escape."
* * *
With the establishment of the "ping," the Silhouette's plan of small precision Space Jumps soon became unnecessary, the haphazard method of navigation giving way to a more precise course, following the signal. The closer they got, the stronger the "ping."
Kienan checked the last few navigational charts against Conscience's findings. In front of him, Mirage kept a steady eye on the ships status as she watched Kienan from the corner of her eye.
"You could have told her where we're going," she said finally.
Kienan blinked. "What do you mean?" He asked, the cigarette between his lips wobbling up and down as he spoke.
"Jayla-2," she said. "She's curious about where we're going, is all."
"Hm," Kienan said. "I'd think the person we were trying to find wouldn't exactly appreciate that curiosity."
"Isn't that what she does, though? Be curious?"
Kienan blinked. "It's different, Mirage. I gave her my word I wouldnt tell anyone about what was out here. If I didnt think there was another way we'd wouldn't even be here."
"I understand that part of it," Mirage said. "You ask Vain and I to do that all the time. Keep your secrets. But what are you going to when we find her?"
Kienan pondered that as he took a long drag off his cigarette. "By that time, the problem will have solved itself."
Mirage went back to her console, and Kienan did the same. He grimaced around his cigarette.
There's no reason not to tell her, he thought. But I didn't, all the same, and I'm not sure why.
His mind drifted back over the past few months. In all that time since going on the run and losing his home, he hadnt much thought about things, about how the Silhouette was his new home, about how things had changed since she'd come on board.
Honestly, he really hadnt wanted to. Every reason to leave the ship, whether for small jobs or resupply, he'd virtually leapt at.
And he wasn't sure why that was, either.
Maybe I keep hoping if I pretend hard enough, this last year wont have happened, and I could go back home, he thought. Maybe that's why I didnt tell her. I want things back the way they were. But I know theyre not, so I still exclude her.
I mean, what else could it be?
"Kienan," Mirage said. "Sensors are picking up something on an intercept course with us. I think it's our rendezvous."
"Visual?" Kienan asked, stubbing out his cigarette and looking out at the main display.
"Not yet, but we're close enough for preliminary," Mirage said. "I'll punch up the silhouette on the screen."
The display shifted to a wireframe of the craft moving to intercept it. It looked like a great brick in space--a large flat slab with only a few surface features discernable.
But enough for Kienan to recognize it.
He tapped a panel on the side of his chair.
Guess the secret's just about out now, he thought.
"Vain, Jayla-2," he began. "I think you two might want to see this."
* * *
Sloane had been following the status of Judgment's escape at the same time he'd been drawing up plans on how to deal with it. Plans that would be far more effective in dealing with the newly minted renegade than some barely-trained Guardsmen with stun rifles.
After all, who more than I know who and what they're truly up against? Sloane mused, finishing the letter he'd been working on. On a display on the other side of the desk, the chaos in the launch bay was unspooling, his concentration broken every now and than by a Guardsman requesting instructions.
Sloane would deal with that momentarily. First, the letter. With the escape of Judgment added to the controversy about Jericho, Sloane knew he would be in for serious questions from above about his leadership of Metatron and even more the Quintessence, even with the documents reclaimed.
Since avoiding them is impossible, he thought, perhaps decisive action will vindicate me.
He pushed a series of buttons on the console. Signal transmitted, message sent. The seed was planted. Now all he needed to have was patience and time for that seed to bear fruit.
He lazily tapped a button on the console that had been playing the status reports, sighing wearily as he did so.
"Lead Guardsman," he said. "Situation report."
"For the moment, stalemate," the guardsman said, his cracked helmet making him seem almost comical. "Judgment's locked himself and Sister Esperanza in the shuttle and he's threatening to destroy himself and decompress the bay."
"None so far, sir, but this is a hair-trigger situation," the Guardsman said. "All it will take is one wrong move and everyone in here could die."
"Indeed," Sloane said. "Leader, you are to pull your men back. I will not see any of you harmed on account of Judgment going renegade. I will contact the tower to clear him for departure."
"But sir, you said--"
"I realize what I said," Sloane said calmly. "But I wont sacrifice you for the crimes of one man. If we allow him off Metatron, we will be able to track him and have a freer hand in dealing with him. Those are your orders, Leader."
"Archbishop, I--" The leader began. He sighed and stopped himself. "Understood, sir."
The channel closed and Sloane sent the signal to the control tower to release the shuttle. Within minutes it was all over--the Guardsmen were being attended to by the medics and the signal from Judgement's shuttle indicated he was taking a heading into an unclaimed sector of space, near the Galactic Core.
Sloane knew it was only a matter of time before Judgment destroyed the homing device or switched shuttles, but every moment allowed him to minimize his search to a more and more specific area of space.
And bought his communications time to reach their destinations.
* * *
The enormous tetragonal shape hovering before it dwarfed the Silhouette. Jayla-2 could hardly believe her eyes. The ship seemed to be infinite, stretching for miles and miles like the flat horizon of the galaxy itself.
"What is it?" Jayla-2 asked, leaning against Kienan's seat, her black hair spilling over her shoulders and down onto him.
"That is a Ghram warship," Kienan said. "Todesrune class. It's almost a thousand years old. One of the last of its kind still flying."
"That's. . .great, I guess," Jayla-2 said.
Mirage suppressed a smile as her red-gloved hands blurred over her console.
"She's requesting communications," Mirage said, looking over her shoulder.
"Put her through," Kienan said, rising to his feet. Jayla-2 watched him from behind his chair, somewhat bemused by the change in him. Rather than his usually sullen demeanor or the evasiveness he'd shown since she'd been back, there was a new kind of spirit with him.
He seems almost . . .excited, Jayla-2 said.
There was a tone as the channel was established.
"It's been a long time, kinsman," a deep but feminine voice said.
"Ogress," Kienan said. "It's good . . .I mean, I'm glad to hear your voice again."
Ogress, Jayla-2 thought. Peculiar name for a girl. Then again, I suppose "Jayla-2" isnt exactly "Mary." And since when does Kienan ever fumble his words like that?
Who is this woman?
"You took quite a risk flying that child's toy through all this to find me," Ogress replied. "I thought I taught you better than that."
"Desperate times, Ogress," Kienan said. He bit his lip. "I'm . . .afraid I need a favor."
"Anything, kinsman. You know that. You would not have come merely to say "hello," would you?"
"I need . . .a place to hide for awhile."
"Certainly," Ogress responded. "I'll turn on the lights. Take the forward bay, the machinery will take you to a functional berth."
"Thank you, Ogress," Kienan said. The channel closed without another word from her, and suddenly, the featureless black ship lit up from inside with a glow that seemed even more brilliant in the dismal long dark they found themselves in.
Kienan looked over his shoulder. "She's all yours, Conscience."
Conscience guided the ship in very slowly, maneuvering the small freighter between the massive bay doors and down a long dark tunnel.
Gradually the Silhouette settled into a mechanical cradle. Machines so powerful Jayla-2 could feel the entire ship vibrate raised them up several levels, then down a track, and then, with a heavy jolt, into a locking mechanism.
"Secure," Conscience said. "Docking complete."
"Thank you, Conscience," Kienan said. He looked at Vain and Mirage, then over at Jayla-2. "Ladies, shall we go meet our hostess?"
"You want me to come too?" Jayla-2 asked.
"Figure there's no reason to leave you out," Kienan smiled.
He walked ahead of them, Vain and Mirage filing in behind him, Jayla-2 pulling up the rear. As they walked along the Silhouette's darkened corridors in silence, she wondered what to make of all this.
He really does seem anxious about all this, she thought. Maybe a bit . . .embarrassed?
He acts like we're going to meet his mother.
Jayla-2 walked with the rest of them out to the entry catwalk, noting with some puzzlement the ill fit between the catwalk and their ship's mooring clamp. While her studies on space travel were a little incomplete, she knew enough to know that things of that nature were almost always a standard size.
But that wasn't the only thing that seemed off-kilter. The doorway seemed to be much larger than it had to be, as if built for someone taller than they were. Jayla-2 wondered what kind of race would build something this oversized, and when the door slid open, the answer was clear.
Oh, that's why, she thought, chiding herself for ignoring the obvious answer.
Theyre just really very . . .tall.
She stood before the four of them, legs apart, hands folded behind her back. Her ramrod straight posture as much indicated her role, as did her green and black uniform, adored with various gold and silver medals of service. Her tawny skin was contrasted her by her long white hair, which seemed to magnify both her leonine features and her dark eyes.
"I am Lady Ogress, master of the Ghram Imperial Warship Malekith," she said. "You may consider yourselves my guests and my home as your own."