A little while later, Jayla-2 came upon Kienan in a small (by Ghram standards) room on the command deck. He was surrounded by several bins of technology, bent over a workbench, furiously taking things apart and putting them back together again.
"Kienan?" Jayla-2 ventured nervously.
Kienan sighed wearily. From his posture and the sound of his sighs, Jayla-2 could tell the exertion was finally getting to him somewhat. Jayla-2 picked her way through piles of old machinery, some of it looking extensively cannibalized over time.
"Hi," he said drowsily.
"I . . .came to check on you, to make sure you weren't overworking yourself," Jayla-2 said, stepping over a large pile of circuit boards. "You are still hurt, after all."
"I've had worse," Kienan said indifferently. "Besides which, I had plenty of time to heal on our way here. Just thought Id get some work done before I took a longer rest."
"Uh-huh," Jayla-2 said. The bit about a longer rest was a lie--Kienan was pretending to be less hurt than he actually was for her benefit. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
"Well, I figured I might need some things from here once we went back out," Kienan said. "So I thought Id come down here to the junk room and see what I could cobble together."
Jayla-2 leaned against the workbench beside him. "I dont quite know how to say this," she said, groping for words that wouldnt insult him. "But I never took you for a mechanical genius."
Kienan looked at her for a moment, then smiled slowly, chuckling under his breath. "Well, I wouldn't say that either, really," he said. "Ogress taught me enough to where I sort of know what I'm doing. Without her I wouldnt have been able to build my fighter from hand, after all."
"She did well, then," Jayla-2 said. She ran her hand through her hair, hooking her hair behind her ear. "She seems to think very highly of you."
Kienan fumbled for a cigarette.
"There's no accounting for taste."
Jayla-2 rolled her eyes, then looked towards the far wall.
"Ogress is just proud of the fact that she took someone as hardheaded as me and got me to learn anything," Kienan said, a cigarette dangling from his lips as he looked for his lighter. "I can be pretty stubborn."
Understatement of the century, that, Jayla-2 thought.
"I was even more stubborn when we'd first met," Kienan continued, taking a drag of the cigarette. "Convinced I knew everything already, or least everything Id ever need. So at first I refused to cooperate. Then I challenged her to a fight because I was tired of her already. All on my first day here."
Jayla-2 looked at him, taking one of the bits of old machinery in her hands and passing it back and forth between her hands, trying to imagine a younger Kienan standing up to the giantess she'd just met.
"I'm guessing that didnt go well?"
Kienan laughed. "No, it didnt--she kicked the bitter hell out of me. But it got my attention and from then on, I was as good a student as I am to anyone, really. And I did end up learning a lot. In spite of myself."
"You sound almost fond of her," Jayla-2 said. "I . . .it's a little hard to imagine you could be that fond of someone after fighting and losing to them the same day."
"Not so hard," Kienan said. "All my lasting relationships, all my good friends . . .we've all started by trading blows. It's when they end that way I feel regret."
Jayla-2 couldnt help but wonder where she fell on that scale, but decided not to press the point.
"Is that why she calls you 'kinsman' then?"
Kienan's face hardened. "No," he said, a little colder. "That's . . .something else. And probably something you should ask her."
"All right," Jayla-2 said. She put her hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry if I upset you, Kienan."
"You didnt," he said, putting his hand over hers.
"You know," Jayla-2 began, sensing a change of subject would do them both a world of good. "I havent seen you this happy in months."
"Happy?" Kienan repeated, a little perplexed. It wasn't a word used very often to describe him.
"Yes, happy," Jayla-2 said, moving closer, her hand still on his shoulder. "After what happened on Kuran, and being on the run, you always seemed so tense, like you couldn't wait to get off the ship. I've . . .been worried about you."
Kienan slid off the workbench, turning his head to exhale a stream of smoke away from Jayla-2's face. He stared off in that direction for awhile, watching the streams of grey smoke uncoil in the quiet dim light.
"It hasnt always been easy," he said quietly. "I left a lot at Kuran. And . . . I cant get any of it back."
Jayla-2 knew what he meant there--they both had. She wrapped her arms around his waist and was mildly surprised that he didnt pull away.
"Hasn't helped being on the run, either," he said. "Every instinct says, 'stand up to them and meet them head on' but, well . . .I cant really do that anymore. Got responsibilities, after all."
"You dont have to worry about me," Jayla-2 said. "I'll always be here."
Kienan smiled, laying his cigarette aside.
"You'll probably outlive me," he said.
Jayla-2 moved closer, embracing him and laying her head on his chest. She felt Kienan's arms slide around the small of her back. One hand found her chin and tilted it up so she could look at him.
"Kienan . . ." she began, a quaver in his voice.
Kienan held her close, looking at her for what felt like a long time. Then he blinked and seemed to come out of it. Jayla-2 felt a little relief, but equal amounts of disappointment as he slid away
"I uh . . .better finish this," Kienan said, gesturing to the scattered piles of circuitry on the workbench.
Jayla-2 nodded. "I think I'll go find Ogress," she said.
Kienan looked over his shoulder as she carefully picked her way back out of the room. Jayla-2's eyes met his and they both knew what the other felt. They both knew also why they'd leapt at the chance to back away from it.
Jayla-2 left the room, the heavy door sliding shut behind her. Kienan sighed, looking at where she'd been as he grabbed the remains of his cigarette, intending to finish the rest of it.
After all, he never knew when he'd be able to get more.
Before he could however, a familiar ping sounded from one of the pouches on his belt. He slid it out of its compartment and flipped it open. The small communications device was reporting that the Silhouette had received a message through channels requesting a meeting.
A job, Kienan thought. After all this time?
* * *
The shuttle dropped out of Space Drive at the edge of the planetary system, drifting past the barren outer satellites as it made it's way further in. It had been at least six hours since they'd passed by any starship traffic on their scanners, even longer since they'd been within visual range.
That had been long enough for Michael to explain what he knew of the Church's true aims to Esperanza. Having finished that final task, the last of his nervous tension seemed to leave him and he could feel exhaustion chipping away at him. He tried as best he could not to blink his eyes, lest they suddenly become heavy and sleep grab him before he'd truly got them to safety.
It helped a little that Esperanza had a few questions about what he'd told hr, of course.
"Look, Michael, I'm not saying youre wrong, but how do you know any of this is actually true?" Esperanza asked, staring impassively out at the stars. "It's not as if churches don't usually cling to some esoteric concept of human origins or endings."
Michael nodded, rubbing his eyes. "I know," he said. "But the pieces all fit, even if the science is a little bit beyond me. My gut tells me they're serious about this, and everything theyre doing is gearing towards this."
"All right," Esperanza said. "After yesterday afternoon, I'm not going to question your instincts. But consider this--if every Esper like me, is supposed to be chaste, how is that 'selective breeding program' supposed to work?"
"Extraction of your genetic material," Michael said. "You know as well as I do people don't even have to touch each other these days to have a child. Only this would be much larger in scale."
"So they think that breeding the Esper gene into humans will counteract this . . .prophecy of human extinction?"
Judgment nodded. "That's one angle they've gone at it from. There are other programs. Cloning, alien crossbreeding--hell, I even read about some madman they set up to infuse his clones with energies from singularities."
"What happened to him?"
Judgment shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
Esperanza noted his ragged exhaustion and decided to change the subject.
"Where are we, anyway?"
"Close to Nova Rycon," he said. "A system that's been deserted since the Chroan War. Before that, this was one of the outer colonies Earth established at the end of the Century Plan. Back then they didnt bother building colonies in space, much."
"They just sent people down to planets like this?" Esperanza asked. It seemed like the stuff of fairytales to her--she'd never set foot on a planet in her life.
"Seemed like a good idea at the time," Judgment said, easing the shuttle into orbit of a small blue-green planet. "Earth prided itself on projecting an image of pioneer spirit to the other races--journeying to worlds and taming them, making them safe for families. Pioneer spirit--real Ancient West stuff.
"Fortunately for us, these colonies were deserted and stripped of anything scavengers could want, so they dont get much traffic. Even better, each of these colonies had a church, and each church could, unbeknownst to anyone but people like me, had a double function as a safehouse."
"So they wont find us here?"
Judgment shook his head. "Not for awhile," he said. "Should give us a little time to rest and plan our next move."
"Okay," Esperanza said. "And what is our next move?"
Judgment looked nervous as he did a quick fly-over of the abandoned colonial city. The church stood on a hill, overlooking the town. He banked the shuttle around and began his landing approach.
"I . . .dont really have one," he said. "Once I'd read what Jericho had stolen, I knew I'd be killed, just as he had. Apart from coming to get you, I really didnt have anything in mind except getting away."
Esperanza's brow furrowed, and despite a game attempt to hide it, she was annoyed.
"I'm sorry," he said, quiet and genuinely hurt. "I couldnt let anything happen to you. You know that."
"I know that, Michael, but . . ." Esperanza began, trying to parse her words in such a way as not to make him feel even worse. "Michael, dont you think that by taking me from Metatron and starting this that you've made things more dangerous for us and not less?"
Michael nodded, covering his face with his hand. "Yes," he said. "I'm sorry. I should have thought about . . ."
Esperanza reached out for him. "But listen," she said. "We're here now, and that's what counts. Whatever you planned or didn't, it's up to us to make the best of it, and we will. Whatever happens I'll be by your side."
* * *
Jayla-2 came across Ogress standing beside of a large door with something inscribed in Ghram language on a decal in the center. One of the massive ship's running lights shone from above a window, casting a long shadow over the two of them.
"Ogress?" Jayla-2 asked, nervously.
Ogress turned on her heel so smoothly Jayla-2 could barely track the movement.
"You must excuse me," she said. "I was lost in thought. What can I do for you?"
"I . . .just wanted to talk to you," Jayla-2 said. She looked out at the stormy starscape outside the window. Her eyes narrowed. "What are you looking at?"
"My home," Ogress said. She pointed to a place around the upper right corner of the window. "It was two light years away, over there."
"I'm sorry," Jayla-2 said quietly.
"There is no need," Ogress said, her posture straightening as her bearing did. "What was it you wished to ask me?"
"I . . .well . . .I guess I was just curious. About you and Kienan."
"Were you?" Ogress asked, a thin smile attempting to creep its way across her lips. "In what way?"
"You call him 'kinsman,'" Jayla-2 said. "It's . . .not a term I'm familiar with."
"He is," she replied, as if the answer was obvious enough. "Kienan and I are bound. By similar tragedy, if not by blood."
"I dont understand," Jayla-2 asked. "You mean . . .what happened to him on Caldera?"
Ogress nodded. "Kienan clawed his way off that hellish planet, surrounded by aliens who murdered his family and would have done the same to him, given half a chance. It was his will, his determination that allowed him to survive. And in that way, we are very much kinsmen. We survived."
She gestured at the angry desolation filling the view.
"You may not believe this, Jayla-2 but this was one considered the center of the very universe," she said. "The Ghram Imperium was the most powerful, and most perfect empire ever to spread across the stars. Millennia ago we took to the stars and set ourselves the task of organizing the universe in as fair and as just a way as we were able.
"And we succeeded. We met other races and civilized them, binding them to our will, so the Khephren handled our money, the Sekhmet built our ships, the Oneirans perfected our technologies, and so on. Those needs that couldnt be met by our subjects, we created races of our own, having unlocked the secrets of life itself. Or so we thought."
"We forgot a lesson taught in our basic sciences," Ogress said, in a voice filled with long detached sorrow. "Anything that gets too big eventually collapses in on itself.
"Our subjects, we found, soon tired of our civilizing influence and wanted freedom for themselves, and we became less interested in helping them understand than forcing them to. And whether by our disinterest or laxness, we were made to pay for our arrogance.
"The few of my people who survived hid themselves away to digest this awful lesson and ponder over the centuries questions we never intended to ask of ourselves."
"The same question Kienan asks himself," Jayla-2 said, trying to follow her story.
Ogress nodded. "Why am I alive?"
"I admit, I dont really understand it," Jayla-2 said. "Why he has to ask himself that. I mean, he has Vain and Mirage and . . ."
"It's not something you could give him," Ogress said. "It's something he's denied himself."
"How did you answer it?"
Ogress smiled, letting her amusement creep across her face undisguised.
"Perhaps I never have," she said. "That's why I allowed Toriares and Kienan to receive my tutelage."
Jayla-2 looked at her, puzzled.
"Everyone gets lonely, after all."
* * *
"I want to know what youre keeping from me," J-3 said, waving a finger at Mendel and Reficul.
Mendel stood and took the admonishment she meted out, the guilty look that overtook his body language unmistakable.
"Tell her, Doctor," he said. "I'm . . .I'm tired of lying to her."
"Very well," Reficul said. He looked at J-3, trying to soften his icy demeanor, more for Mendel's sake than his own.
J-3 looked perplexed. "But how?"
"You may not feel it, but there is an imbalance on a fundamental level within your body," he said. "It is a function of a poor genetic blending. For the past two days, Mendel and myself have been searching for a possible cure for your condition."
"That's why I was kept in stasis, then?" J-3 demanded.
J-3 looked from Mendel to Reficul, then down at her hands. "So . . .that's it, then? I'm just waiting to die."
"The technology used to create you is old, and the means your mother used to bridge human technology with it were crude," Reficul said. "Part of the material used in your construction is from a race that died out centuries ago. We do not have the information at hand to explore the question further, and even if we could, we do not have time to pore over the records."
"You dont have time," J-3 repeated. "I guess that makes two of us."
She looked at Mendel, her eyes accusing, confused, and hurt.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I couldn't," he said, his voice quavering. "And honestly, I didnt want to. Jayla, I've lost my entire family bit by bit these past five years. You dont think I wanted to believe you were my sister, returned from the dead? That we could stay together. If I lied to you, I lied as much to myself as I did to you."
J-3's brow furrowed, her righteous fury thrown a bit by the honesty she could feel in his words.
She pondered her options, of which there only seemed to be one. She didnt want to go back into stasis--the idea of a sleep so deep she never knew she was sleeping terrified her. But how long a life could she live before the end?
She looked at her brother, who looked down at his shoes, ashamed and no doubt quietly cursing himself for his failure to save her. Again.
She took a deep breath, then looked at Reficul.
"I dont want to go back into stasis," she said. "Whatever happens, when the end comes . . .I want to be awake to see it."
She took Mendel's hand in hers.
"Right here . . .with my brother."
* * *
The three of them had received the call ten hours ago, each of them spread across the galaxy. The message had been short and to the point:
"Recalled to Metatron. Instructions to be given upon arrival."
The three men had obeyed as swiftly as possible, each arriving on Metatron the next day. They each of them noted the cleanup crews still attending to the remains of the chaos of Judgment's escape from the station walking briskly past them, to a rendezvous with the man upstairs.
Of the various covert activities the Church undertook to perpetuate its mission, one of the most infamous were its five enforcers.
The Holy Quintessence, or to their enemies, the Holy Terror.
As the name implied there were five of them, former assassins all, saved from their pasts as heartless killers to kill with God's sword and shield to protect them, each member anonymous to the other, each carrying a code name that indicated their specialty.
Adam Jericho, the original and no deceased renegade who'd indirectly started this dispute had been code named Wisdom. His specialty had been counter-intelligence and espionage. Until his rebellion, he had secured many of the secrets contained in the file he'd stolen.
Apparently, after he had fallen, Michael Corinthos--Judgment--had gone rogue as well.
The shortest of the three, clad in gilt and burgundy armor, his white hair covering one eye and framing his cruel smile and dead eyes was code named Wrath. His specialty was elimination--a merciful organization like the Church wouldn't use a term like "assassination," after all.
Walking beside him, clad in black and purple armor from head to toe was the agent code named War. As the name implied, he was the overall commander of the Guardsmen, his brief to oversee any applications of brute force on the part of the Church.
Behind the two of them, cloaked in black, was the final member of the Quintessence, and the one agent no one was briefed to know the identity of. He was only known by his code name:
Wrath and War had noticed his presence at once--as the tallest of the three, he was hard to miss, never mind his utterly silent manner and silence of movement. He seemed to drift silently behind them like a gloomy shade or specter of some kind.
The three of them boarded an elevator, each of them squeezing into the cramped car, throwing glances at each other nervously. Their anxiety was well founded--the Quintessence almost never worked together and on the rare occasions where they did, only in pairs.
Three of them in one place . . .whatever it meant, it meant trouble.
The door slid shut and the car began to move.
"Did anyone bother to tell you what this was all about?" Wrath asked his companion. He and War had worked together before and formed the kind of good working relationship as only two killers can have together.
"No one told me anything," War, his glowing red eyes his only discernable expression through his helmet. "I received the same message you did."
"I've heard things . . .Wisdom killed, Judgment shooting his way out of here," Wrath mused. "Nothing concrete on the first . . .but that cleanup we saw when we came in speaks to the last."
"You think they're going to send us after him?"
Wrath smiled. "If it takes a thief to catch a thief, I guess it takes a killer to kill a killer," he mused. "Who else is there, anyway? Judgment's too good to be eliminated by your average Guardsman, and the Church doesn't hire outside operators. Gotta be us."
"One man, even Judgment," War said, his voice flat and modulated. "The three of us seems a little like overkill."
"Dont tell me youre scared of him," Wrath said sardonically.
"Of course not," War replied. "I just meant we may not leave enough of him for a decent burial."
Wrath chuckled quietly as the door slid open. The three assassins made their way down the hall and to an office at the central core. The door slid open and they filed quietly into the office of the man who'd summoned them.
"Good morning, gentlemen," Sloane said, spinning his chair around to look at them.
"Archbishop," War said, bowing respectively. Wrath and Death stood behind him quietly.
"You'll forgive me if I dispense with any further formalities and plunge straight in to business," Sloane said. "Time is of the essence and immediately after my briefing, you and Wrath must depart. I have a task for each of you."
"You want us to take out Judgment," Wrath said.
"It was had to miss the mess he'd made in the landing bay," Wrath said. "And you wouldnt call the three of us here for anything smaller than eliminating another of the Quintessence."
"A clear enough analysis," Sloane said, his eyes regarding Wrath with cool disdain. "But you've been misinformed.
"Judgment isn't your only target."