Reficul slid the data module into the cradle next to the terminal and tapped a series of keys. A small display inside the main monitor opened, displaying the progress of the data transfer. In a matter of seconds, every bit of information he'd been able to mine about Kyren's cloning projects would be saved to the module.
Though it's ultimately doomed to be a failure, and certainly not as advanced as other research into artificial life as other races, he mused, Kyren's accidentally uncovered some interesting wrinkles. They are certainly food for thought at a later time.
Behind him, the door slid open. Mendel stood in the doorway, his shoulder slumped, his features hidden in dark silhouette. His breaths were heavy and sighing, as if the weight of an entire planet was borne on his back.
"I couldnt tell her, Doctor," he said after a time. "I'd meant to, but . . .somehow I just couldnt."
Reficul's brow furrowed as the data module finished it's download and ejected from the main terminal. He slowly turned in his chair to face him.
"Mendel, you do her no favors keeping the truth from her."
"I know that," Mendel said. "Just like I know she's not really my sister. But when I tried to tell her I forgot, and it was so easy to pretend . . ."
Reficul absorbed all of this, his eyes regarding Mendel with as much pity as he was able. "You must not believe or pretend, Mendel," he said. "It will only lead to pain, for both of you."
Mendel walked into the room, pulling a chair up and sighing. "You make it sound so easy," he said. "I've lost so much, and honestly . . .yes, I really do want it to be her. Or close enough to pretend."
"That is merely self-deception," Reficul said. "You'll only beg more pain later on. For her and yourself."
"I know," he said. "But after all I've lost, honestly, the lie . . .it has an appeal."
Reficul folded his hands in his lap thoughtfully.
"Mendel," he began gently. "Would it be easier if I told her? I gave my word I would let you handle it, but if you cannot, then, I am willing."
Mendel stared straight ahead. I dont know," he said. "It seems like news like that should come from family--I know, I know." He sighed. "The next closest thing, then, if we're arguing semantics."
"I have no objection to informing her," Reficul said. "Oneirans don't form sentimental or familial attachments in the same fashion as humans do. Also, as I have the benefit of no figurative blood ties . . ."
Mendel balled his hand into a fist, pounding it quietly against the armrest of the chair. He looked up, and Reficul knew immediately what he was going to ask.
"No, Mendel," he said. "I am afraid there is nothing I can do for her. Even putting her back into stasis would not arrest the process."
Mendel looked away, blinking back tears.
"Maybe," he began, a hitch choking off his words for a moment. "Maybe . . .we should both tell her."
* * *
Ogress regarded her former pupil with as much affection as she was capable of. The Ghram, as a race, drove their protégés relentlessly--the reasoning being the stronger they were, the prouder the teacher could be for making them that way.
But there are hardly any of us left, she thought. And I am happy to see him.
She looked him up and down, her lips in a tight smile that barely qualified as one.
"I see you're still determined to wear your hair long, kinsman," she said, slowly walking around him, her boots clunking on the weathered metal deck. "I've warned you how unwise it is. Especially this long--it's bound to get pulled."
Kienan smiled, slightly embarrassed. "Believe me," he said. "It has. Thank you for letting us come aboard, Ogress."
"I could hardly refuse you, Kienan," she said, completing her circle around him. "After all, you've made a very dangerous trek to find me again."
Kienan winced imperceptibly as if struck. Ogress caught the reaction, then looked past him at his companions.
"Forgive me," she said. "Years ago I taught your captain many things, but clearly I should have spent more time on manners. Who have you brought to see me, kinsman?"
Kienan took a deep breath, struggling to keep his embarrassment below the surface.
"This is, uh, Vain and Mirage, and the lady is . . .Jayla-2," he said, rushing through introductions. "Everyone, this is Ogress. My old teacher."
"I thought Toriares was your old teacher," Jayla-2 said.
"Ogress taught him, too," Kienan said. "Toriares brought me to learn from her in an effort to "season" me."
"Season you?" Jayla-2 asked.
"Your friend and my kinsman had strength and will, but little in the way of the finer skills," Ogress said, placing a hand on Kienan's shoulder and stepping forward as if to shield him from Jayla-2's inquiry. She looked over her shoulder and down at Kienan. "But very much promise. How did Toriares put it?"
Kienan sighed. He wanted a cigarette desperately.
"He said I was a blunt pencil," he said quietly.
"I dont understand," Jayla-2 said.
"He meant that Kienan had potential, but without direction, it would have come to nothing," Ogress said. "Just as a pencil is all but useless without being sharpened."
"Ah, OK," Jayla-2 said, desperately trying to keep her mind from putting Kienan's head on top of a pencil.
"I'm sorry to drop in unannounced," Kienan said. "But we need a place to lie low and overhaul the ship. And this was the nearest friendly port."
"Trouble?" Ogress asked gently.
Kienan nodded, then nodded back at Jayla-2 and the Marionettes.
Ogress looked to the three of them. "You must excuse us for a moment while my kinsman and I discuss what he requires. Feel free to tour the ship--I've sealed off the less-used sections, but there is still plenty to see. I shall send for you once we're finished."
Jayla-2 looked at Kienan, who nodded gently. Jayla-2 cocked an eyebrow and shrugged, turning and following Vain and Mirage to another exit, leaving the docking bay to explore the huge ship.
Ogress stiffened. "All right," she said. "They are gone. Now, tell me what this is about, Kienan."
* * *
Michael was on his hands and knees on the deck of the shuttle, urgently prying one of the floor panels up. Esperanza hovered over him, looking beyond his form at the circuitry beneath the panel.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" She asked.
"No," Michael said. "Just looking for . . .there it is," he said, tugging at something that gave with a hard click. There was a soft moaning as the shuttle dropped out of Space Drive. Michael rose up, placing the panel back into position, a small black module cradled in his golden gloved hand.
"Homing beacon," he said, prying the black plastic case open. "Every shuttle in Metatron has one, and it went active the minute we cleared the station."
"And we don't want them finding us, so it had to come out?"
Michael nodded, cracking the case open and pulling out a circuit board. "Yes," he said, holding it up to the light. "Unfortunately, it's tied into the auto-pilot, which is why we just stopped."
"So we're hanging dead in space right now with heaven knows how many guardsmen bearing down on us?"
Michael nodded, grabbing two small plastic cases from a shelf above Esperanza's head. "But not for much longer."
"Do you even know where we're going?"
Michael nodded, removing the plastic casing from one of the devices and plugging the circuit board from the homing device into a small port on the other device, which he extruded another cable from and plugged into an access port on the main computer terminal. There was a series of beeps from terminal to device to circuit and back again.
"All right," he said. "I dont doubt Sloane is tracing that homing signal right now, and even if I destroy it, it'll still give him a point of reference to begin a search, and it's going to take quite awhile to get where we're going flying blind like this. So I've turned it back on."
Esperanza blinked. The more she heard the more she began to wonder if Michael hadnt simply gone insane.
"I've turned it back on and I'm going to plug it into the emergency buoy," he said. He pointed to the main terminal. "I'm programming its navigational system with random point-to-point coordinates. It'll fly to a point, activate the beacon long enough for them to get a fix, shut it off, and move to another point, and repeat the process until it's exhausted its propellant and it's power cell. It won't throw them off for very long, but maybe enough to give us a head start."
"Do you think they'll fall for the trick?"
"I doubt it'll confuse them very long," Michael said. "If God's on our side, maybe a day. But we need all the time we can possibly buy to get where we're going, and this is the best I can do right now."
Michael plugged the circuit into the buoy and carried the heavy module to the rear compartment, pumping the seal as he loaded it into the launcher. He pressed a release and the buoy fired out into space.
"All right," he said with a weary sigh, walking past her back to the cockpit. "I'd imagine I'm overdue for giving you an explanation."
"You could say that," Esperanza said. "I feel like I've been more than patient."
"All right," he said. He sighed as he began programming navigational coordinates. "First thing--Jericho and I weren't only ministers at Metatron. He and I belonged to a special group that reported to Sloane. Assassins."
"What would a church need with assassins?" Esperanza asked, sitting down next to him and strapping herself in. "What about being messengers of peace and salvation?"
"Not enough for the church's aims--their true aims," Michael said, activating the shuttle's Space Drive again. "Believe me, I know how this sounds, and you've barely heard a fourth of it. These are fanatics we're dealing with. So fanatical they want to defy God. You're part of that, Jericho was killed for it, and now we're running to get away from it."
"You make them sound like monsters," Esperanza said. "What do they want?"
Several expressions went across Michael's face: pain, sorrow, loss, and finally a slight smile at the mad irony of it.
"To save humanity."
* * *
"It's the worst possible trouble," Kienan said, lighting a cigarette. "Some of the people Toriares and I worked for staged a power play, and wanted me out of the way in the bargain. Unfortunately, that meant burning more than a few bridges."
"That would explain what a poor job you're doing in taking care of yourself," Ogress said, nodding to his bandaged wounds. "And that's why you want to hide here?"
"That's . . .part of it," Kienan said.
"What's the other part?"
"I just needed some place familiar to figure out what I'm going to do next," he said. "We've been lucky so far--I left the people who came after me in such disarray that they're too busy trying to rebuild to come after me, but they're not the only one's after me, and I've just about run out of cracks to slip through."
"If they catch us, I'm dead, simple as that," he said, exhaling a long thin trail of smoke. "Maybe I already am and I'm too much the stubborn fool to admit it."
"You have survived odds like that before," Ogress said, standing behind him. "Even before my tutelage."
"It's different now," Kienan said. "Before it didnt matter if I lived or died, because it was just me. I'm . . .responsible for people, now. And I hate it."
Kienan looked away, back towards his ship and the thousands of empty berths stretching on into darkness.
"Answer me," Ogress said.
"It's not who I thought I was," Kienan said slowly, dropping his cigarette to the ground and grinding it out.
"If you mean by that youre not the same person who survived Caldera, then no, you are not," Ogress said. "What I fail to understand is why this is anything new to you. You weren't that person when you first came to me, or when you left my service. Why are is this changes less tolerable to you than what came before?"
"I dont know," Kienan said.
Ogress looked at him, arms folded, her posture severe, even though her expression was not. Kienan looked at the deck, the stung pupil in the face of a disappointed teacher again.
"If you want me to leave, we will," Kienan said with a sigh. "I'll take my chances on this side of the Frontier alone."
"No," Ogress said. "You will not."
Kienan looked at her, as in younger days, fearing reproach.
"Yes," she said, smiling gently. "I'm not allowing you to talk yourself out of it, and I am allowing you to stay."
* * *
"Hi, Sabre!" J-3 said, coming on him standing alone in the hallway. Sabre turned to face her, his glowing green eyes staring silently at her. "How are you today?"
Sabre looked back towards the door at the far end of the corridor. There was no sound for a moment except for the clicking of his armor against itself as he breathed.
"Youre waiting on Dr. Reficul?" J-3 asked. "I'm waiting for Mendel. Can I wait with you?"
Sabre didnt even look in her direction.
"Have you seen Mendel?"
Sabre pointed at the door.
"Oh, he's in with Reficul, then," J-3 said. "That's good. Hopefully theyre giving me a clean bill of health. I was worried you see, because last time we talked Mendel seemed so sad. He's all alone, you know. No one left but me."
Sabre turned slowly to look at her, his green eyes fixed on hers.
"Just like us," she said. "I want to stay with him, at least until I get on my feet. After what happened with Mom and Dad, and . . .me, I guess, I dont want to leave him alone. I think it would be as if I died."
Sabre leaned forward, looking closely and deeply into her eyes and then back at the door.
J-3 looked at the door then back at Sabre. "What are you saying?"
He leaned his head back against the wall, folding his arms over his chest.
"You think theyre talking about me?"
J-3's first instinct was to dismiss it completely, but something about Sabre's reaction to what she'd said, coupled with her own confusion about Mendel's attitude when they'd last spoken was clicking into place, and she really didnt like how it was fitting together.
"You think . . ."
Sabre looked at her, his eyes were melancholy.
"He wouldnt, though. He wouldn't . . .!"
J-3 clenched her fists, feeling the crystal within her extrude from her forearms, then recede slightly. A small section of it remained above, turning a dull pink and breaking off, falling to the floor as J-3 opened her eyes.
"Wait here," she said. "I'm going to find out just what's going on."
J-3 stalked down the corridor. Sabre watched her go, then watched her bang on the access panel and shout for Mendel until the door opened and she stalked inside like a sullen child.
Sabre spied the tiny crystal on the ground and bent down to pick it up, looking at it intently and turning it in his white-gloved fingers. The pinkish tint was gone, replaced with a warm gray. The more he turned it, the cooler the grey got, until it became a duller, darker gray, desiccated and brittle.
It crumbled to dust in his fingers. He stared at his hand for a few moments, then resumed his watch on the door as if nothing had happened.
* * *
"I've never seen him like that," Jayla-2 said as they crossed over the ship's main corridor. Below them was a fleet of shuttlecraft, lined up as thought they were in some immobile parade. "He says she's his teacher, or mentor, but the only one I ever knew of was Toriares, and Kienan never seemed that deferential to him."
"It's different there," Mirage said. "Toriares and Kienan are friends first, everything else second."
"You dont think this woman's a friend?" Jayla-2 said. Seems a little less like sanctuary now, she thought. And that's putting aside how it feels being in this big empty ship.
It's like we're hiding in a tomb.
"It is a different kind of relationship Jayla-2," Vain chimed in. "Not unlike myself and my sisters' relationship with him."
Jayla-2 chewed that over for a moment. She didn't need more explanation about that--whatever youd call it, Vain, Mirage and Conscience's relationship with Kienan had more to due with duty than friendship, but still it was more than that.
"Sooooo . . .," Jayla-2 began, deciding on a change of subject. Air in the conversation was making the darkened silence in the ship oppressive. "What do you think of this place?"
"Everything's big," Mirage said. "But that's to be expected, I guess. The average height for a Ghram was . . .is . . .8-10 feet tall. At least things are within our reach if we need them."
"Provided youre in the mood to jump a lot," Jayla-2 said, smiling. Vain stared at her implacably.
"Sorry," she said. "It's just . . .it's so quiet here, and I guess I'm a little nervous."
"Youre used to being on the ship with us, and it's fairly quiet there," Vain said. She looked down at the shuttles, sleek black torpedoes that seemed to be moving even though they'd been stilled for centuries. "Why should being here bother you any more than being back aboard the Silhouette?"
"Actually, Vain, it used to bother me just as much," Jayla-2 said. "That's why I was so eager to learn and help out around the ship. If I hadnt, I'd have forgotten what people talking sounded like. Considering how quiet you and Kienan are, I've wondered sometimes how you get anything done."
Mirage suppressed a smirk. Jayla-2 saw her and smiled too, before finally breaking into a giggle.
"If you're so curious about Ogress' relationship with Kienan," Vain said flatly, smothering the giggled and smiles like a wet blanket. "Why not ask her yourself?"
"I though Id be busy helping you with the Silhouette?"
Vain shook her head. "Most the work will be done by Mirage and myself--delicate work. Outside and inside the ship."
"I'm not clumsy," Jayla-2 said.
"You aren't, and I wasn't implying you were," Vain said. "But to teach you how to help us would take longer than the task itself. Best to occupy your time otherwise."
"Hmm," Jayla-2 said, looking down the catwalk at the door on the far side. "Vain . . .did you know where we were going?"
Vain nodded. "Kienan had told us he had resources and contacts on the far side of the Frontier," she said. "But no, I wasn't aware it was one of the Ghram. For all Id been able to learn, I'd assumed they were extinct."
"Extinct," Jayla-2 repeated. God, what a word to use, given the circumstances.
"Instead they're out here on the run. Hiding," Jayla-2 said, more to herself than to her companions. "Have to say--it sounds uncomfortably familiar."
* * *
"I assure you, sirs, everything is under control," Sloane said, his finger resting on the "speak" button of his communications unit. "Judgment escaped with minimal casualties, and I am already enacting a plan to ensure he will be neutralized."
"It shouldnt have happened at all, Sloane," the severe voice on the other end of the line snarled back. "You assured us there would be no leaks of the document, that your man Judgment could be trusted, you assurances to date do not inspire confidence, do you agree?"
"Yes sir, I do," Sloane said, choosing his words carefully. "I admit, I underestimated Judgment's relationship with Jericho. Clearly he turned him before he met his end, and this is some attempt to prolong Jericho's plans to expose our secrets."
"We cannot and will not allow that," the voice intoned.
"Of course not," Sloane said, "And I have every intention of neutralizing him. However, for that I require assistance from you and the other Lords."
"What do you need?"
"The rest of the Quintessence, for one," he said. "I'd like them recalled to Metatron to assist me in coordinating the search."
"Do you know were he's headed?"
Sloane nodded. "I suspect he'll make for the abandoned missions near Nova Rycon," he said. "They've been all but abandoned since the Century Plan ended, but we left provisions there so they could serve as safehouses for our agents. Cornering him there would allow us to prevent further leaks, to "keep it in the family," as it were."
"Is that all?"
"No all, sirs," Sloane said. "I will also need twenty million credits, in gold."
"For what purpose?"
"I would rather not say at this juncture, sirs," Sloane said, playing his cards as close to the vest as he dared, as he calmly and coolly spun his web of lies. "I would earmark it for a contingency, in case the search fails to produce Judgment."
There was a silence on the other end for a few minutes. Despite himself, Sloane felt his hands moistening, grateful his masters couldn't see the rather obvious tell of his duplicity.
"We shall send the twenty million along with the rest of the Quintessence," the voice said flatly. "We commend them to you with a warning--this matter has gone on far too long as it is. We want it quashed. No leaks, no loose ends. We are watching you very carefully, Sloane. Do not disappoint us."
"You may rely on me, my Lords," Sloane said, bowing in his chair as the communication was closed. He drummed his fingers on the desk, pondering his next moves.
He'd depended on Judgment to neutralize Jericho before Jericho could spread the Lords' dirty little secrets around. If anything, that had aggravated the situation. And even though the members of the Quintessence were celebrated for their fanatical loyalty to the Church, Sloane hadnt made it this far by putting all his eggs in one basket.
He had a resource, one he was loath to call on, but one whose loyalty wouldnt swayed by beliefs or the Church, or any other moral precept. He would do whatever the task demanded.
Occasionally we are called upon to use Satan's methods to do God's work, it appears, he pondered.
Perhaps what was needed here was an actual devil.
Sloane punched a secret code on the computer terminal embedded in his desk, calling up a secret file, full of a series of steps to establish contact with such a person. It was a rather involved process, but well worth it. Jericho had failed him, as had Judgment. Given the circumstances, he wasn't certain the rest of the Quintessence would fare any better.
But there were always other options.
"No loose ends," Sloane thought, remembering his master's words as he sent a message along. The message would end up at a dummy mailbox, but would begin the process of calling in his "devil."