Poison In Power
By
Lewis Smith


www.gunmetalblack.com

 

Tizui Gao Yang walked along the hallway of his mansion, stopping every few steps to admire the tiny songbirds perched in their gilded cages. He smiled and spoke softly to each of them in turn as though they were guests in a receiving line, showing attention and affection on them. For their part, they regarded them with curiosity and the occasional chirp, but mostly cocked their heads back and forth at the sight of the strange old man who took time out of each day to dote on them.

Of all the things that Tizui’s great wealth had bought him perhaps the one closest to his heart was the birds. When he was younger, it was expected that a man of his stature would keep them—they were an accepted symbol of power, wealth and prestige, after all, and so he’d purchased a few, because he was young and did what was expected of him.

Then, I got older, and the trappings of wealth didn’t matter as much, he thought, smiling at a cageful of iridescent green parakeets. Then I came to value the little ones as friends, even confidantes—I never had to worry about them betraying a secret or pretending to listen to me.

Bless their little hearts. I couldn’t allow myself the luxury of a close family, but what love I have, has gone into you—you, who were only supposed to be an accessory.

And now, they’re the only ones who listen to me, he recognized. Now that the power and wealth take care of themselves, there are no more secrets.

Just my birds and I.

He smiled a little. When he thought of it like that, it almost seemed like enough. He sighed and moved to the far door, as fast as his ninety-five years would take him.

Once, decades ago, when he had more vigor within him, he’d built this house with his own hands, and when he couldn’t do it himself, had supervised every nail hammered, every brick laid. Now he wished he’d thought a little more about making the hallway a few feet shorter.

Ah well, he thought. I never imagined at fifty I would live so much longer, did I?

Do we ever think we will end up old and infirm, limping where once we ran, barely able to hear when we jumped at slightest noise?

I think not. We tell ourselves we plan for the future, and then we’re surprised there’s so much of it.

Something to think about.

He spared a glance around the hallway, at the polished wood walls, and the thick red carpet on the floor. Tizui built all of this, it was his reward for decades of work, and it was to be his palace.

And sometimes my prison, he thought.

So lost in thought was he that he missed the subtle change in the room—invisible, but profound. The birds picked up immediately. They began bouncing up and down in their cages and squawking louder and louder, as though there was something just outside the cage that was going to swallow them whole.

Finally, the din was so loud that it reached Tizui’s failing ears and he turned to see what the problem was. For a split-second, he was sure he saw something—the edges of something, at least. It seemed to slide through the air, somehow—there and not there at the same time.

Then the air thickened and warped, and something shimmered into view. It was a man, but once quite unlike a man appeared. It was like a three-dimensional shadow in the shape of a man, but then it took a step forward, stepping out of its own shadow and revealing itself.

It was a man, in a sense. He wore bright white armor, with the occasional bit of silver showing through. He was tall and thin—more of a skeleton than a man. Where his eyes should have been there was just one red eye that flashed back and forth like the angry glare of a demon.

Tizui’s eyes met the red eye as it swept back and forth, the brilliant beam of red filling his vision and blotting everything out.

It was perhaps kinder that way. Tizui didn’t see the man’s hand whip out, lightning-fast and snap his neck. Tizui let out a final wheeze, and was dead before he hit the floor.

The man in white stared at Tizui’s corpse for a few seconds, the red eye roving back and forth. What it might have been searching for, no one knew, and nor would they know why he suddenly turned and left, taking a few silent steps before shimmering back into nothingness.

Tizui’s body would lay there for another few hours before someone passing by heard the commotion the birds were making through the walls in one of the other rooms.

While it was soon determined that Tizui had been murdered—no effort had been made to hide that fact—figuring how Tizui had been murdered in the most secure wing of his mansion by someone who had left no evidence of his passing beyond the fact of his target’s corpse would remain a secret: the final one shared between Tizui and his beloved birds.

*        *        *

“Target destroyed.”

Terse as it was, the message spoke volumes to the man who read it, nodding and allowing himself a small smile as he tapped a series of keys at his desk, setting in motion a process of retrieval for his operative.

The thick shadows that draped the room in black were only alleviated by the soft glow of the monitor, which made his aged face all the more gaunt and cadaverous in the darkness. In the pale white light, the lines on his face seemed to be great dark rends, and the overall effect was something that was more shadow than man.

He paused for a moment, easing back in his chair. It had taken quite a while to get to this point, and while his plans were proceeding apace, he was well aware they were delicate, and could be upended by the smallest thing.

When the whole plan is to sow confusion and paranoia, that’s an inevitable consequence, he thought, resting his hands against his desk. Unpredictability is an inevitable by-product.  I’ve started a number of fires these past few days. 

Enough to get their attention, by now.

Now I’ll watch them burn for a little while—see what the response is.

He smiled a thin smile.  

It was all going according to plan. Given how predictable the opposition was, how could it not? When one knew the rules and the players so intimately, it was almost too easy to play them as he wanted.

It was one of the oldest tricks in the book: Give the enemy an obvious pattern in your attacks, but no frame of reference for that pattern. Watch the fear spread—watch them run themselves ragged trying to deal with a threat they don’t really understand.

And when they’re not looking, he mused, you get to do what you want.

*        *        *

Wong Sai Fan had never had his brother’s talent for playing the system and his love of intrigues, and that vital difference delineated perfectly their roles in the Blue Dragon Tong. Wong Sai Fan, owing to his skills at management, his ability to view a situation with clear eyes, to build a consensus based on meeting the self-interests of many disparate parties, and an unwillingness to manipulate the situation to his advantage had led him to an influential position in the Blue Dragons, as the majordomo for the ruling council of the organization.

It was, to be blunt, a position of no real power, but that suited Sai Fan just fine. He had just the level of power he wanted—and the office in which he presently sat; with its elegant appointments--were all the blandishments he needed.

What he lacked in political power, he made up for in indispensability: without him, nothing got done. Also, because he was a person of no apparent importance, but one whom everyone in the organization saw the value of, it was in everyone’s best interest to keep him alive.

His brother, Wong Sai Sci, had been groomed for a spot on the riling council from an early age. Sai Sci had a calculating mind, a brash manner, and a talent for using intrigue as a weapon to advance, without giving any sign he was involved at all.

It had worked for him splendidly, Sai Fan thought, studying the report.

Until it didn’t.

Sai Sci had been murdered when one of his intrigues blew up in his face. That happened to plenty of people in in the organization and that on its own wasn’t a surprise. It just happened to be a very public black eye at the worst time for the organization. Sai Sci’s blunder led to the dissolution of an entire branch of the Blue Dragons, and the loss of a major beach head. Worse still, it exploded a critical weakness in the organization.

Someone had to take the blame. Being dead, Sai Sci was a perfect scapegoat. The great young hope of the Blue Dragons was recast and reviled as the brash, decadent, reckless youth whose overreach had dealt the Blue Dragons a mortal wound. The four years since his death were marked by reactionary pull-backs from the ruling council, who--sensing nothing to could be done to change the overall course of things--decided to guard their holdings until the end came.

Their solution was to hew to the strictures that had served the Syndicate for millennia—even before man had made their way into outer space: Every man for himself.

That sort of thing only hastens the doom they fear, Sai Fan thought, resting his chin in his hand. Reports came into his office every day reflecting that—rival Syndicates were moving in on former strongholds, governments were cracking down on their illegal activities, and their legitimate business were suffering as well.

And now, today’s crisis, Sai Fan thought, setting the report down on the desk.

Someone’s murdering members of the ruling council.

Tizui Gao Yang, dead of a broken neck. No sign of a struggle, no sign of a murder weapon, no indication of  a struggle or a break-in. Shang Zhe—dead of a broken neck on the Valna colony—eight sectors away, and no sign of a struggle or murder weapon. Shou Hai Ren —the first, killed the same way as the other two.

All this in two weeks.

While Sai Fan had on occasion mused that a few strategic decapitations might clear out some of the deadwood, he would never have dared act on the impulse. And since the recent purges, neither would anyone close enough to the ruling council.

They’d been very judicious in eliminating that brand of ambition.

And even if there were, no one has the ability to perform a hit so perfect as to be invisible, Sai Fan thought.

 As soon as word gets around, the notion that even council members can be killed with impunity will just split everyone further apart.

Which may be the goal.

Sai Fan eased back in his plush leather chair, staring at the wall, deep in thought. However he responded to this crisis, it had to have the air of unanimity—the Blue Dragons had to demonstrate that they took care of their own, and they had to demonstrate that they would deal with someone who tried to attack the heart of their organization in swift, decisive fashion.

Sai Fan took a deep breath and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, glancing back at the sea of paperwork on his desk. One corner of one report stuck out and it only took a brief glance at the heading for Sai Fan to realize the answer had been there all along.

He knew who to call in for this job.

*        *        *

“We have a problem,” Sai Fan said. He was standing in the garden of the Blue Dragons’ complex. It was a peaceful, serene place—and given its place and the organization that created it, that made it all the more incongruous.

And if Sai Fan needed to find Tieren, this was most always where he was.

Tieren stood with his back to him, his body rigid and motionless. He wasn’t even breathing. His red and golden armor glittered in the late day sun, and for a moment, he could have easily been one of the dozen statues in the garden—eternally still but radiating quiet power.

In reality, Tieren was something else. He was a cyborg, one of three-a series of machines built in the image of the Blue Dragons’ greatest enemy, Kienan Ademetria.

The plan was that the Blue Dragons would have created an army indefatigable, implacable force of warriors. But the plan hadn’t come off quite as expected, however. The secrets of Tieren’s design had died with their creator (as had one of the prototype cyborgs) and with him went the Blue Dragon’s notion of an army of super-men. Thanks to Kienan, they only had the one now.

But Sai Sci had a gift for making use of what he had, and Tieren was still of use.

 “Did you hear me?” Sai Fan said, raising his voice. “You’re needed.”

Tieren moved, and the sudden transition from being so still to moving and acting like one of the living unnerved Sai Fan a little.

“One moment,” Tieren said, turning to face him. His face was masked, as always—clad in black so deep light slid off it and the only sign of emotion was his two burning red eyes.

“I was just eating.”

Sai Fan’s eyes went to the tube that was attached to Tieren’s shoulder. A beige and unpleasant-looking viscous glop was being slurped from its place in the tube into Tieren.

Sai Fan made a place. “That doesn’t . . . that’s food? How does it taste?”

“I don’t know,” Tieren said, looking at the tube. “I don’t have a sense of taste. It’s a rudimentary protein—it sustains my organic components.”

“I see,” Sai Fan replied, trying and failing not to look at the oozing matter in the tube. It made a subtle but unmistakable sucking noise as Tieren “ate.”

“I . . . we . . . the Blue Dragons need you for an assignment.”
          Tieren’s eyes narrowed. “Have you located Kienan Ademetria?”

“No,” Sai Fan said. “And for the duration of this assignment, Kienan is not your top priority. I have a much more important task for you.”

“I was created to end his life,” Tieren said, locking his gaze with Sai Fan’s.  “By design, there is nothing more important to me.”

“Now there is,” Sai Fan said. “Someone is murdering the members of the Blue Dragons’ ruling council. We need to find out who it is and stop them.”

“Perhaps it’s Ademetria,”Tieren said. Sai Fan almost detected a note of hope in his voice. Tieren’s single-mindedness may have seemed like an asset to his creator, but Sai Fan wished he were a bit more oriented to multi-tasking.

“I don’t think it’s him,” Sai Fan replied. “All our info on him says he’s utterly apolitical. He doesn’t get involved in the game at this high level. There’s nothing in it for him personally.”

“Another Syndicate could have hired him,” Tieren offered. “They would have reason to damage the organization.”

Sai Fan shook his head. “I’ve gone through my contacts in the other Syndicates—everyone’s hurting too much from the crackdown on the Frontier to wage war. Too much time is spent on mere survival.”

“If he’s not involved, why do you need me?”

“I need someone determined, capable, and, most importantly, of our organization without belonging to anyone in it,” Sai Fan said. “If the ruling council has turned on itself and the word gets out, the Syndicate will collapse, and at every level, there will be war as everyone starts looking out for themselves. We’ll tear ourselves apart.”

“No one from the other houses is qualified?”

“They might be, but for my purpose, not productive. We have to keep this contained. The moment the word gets out widely enough, the damage is done just as sure if the murders continue. We’ll have delayed the breakup instead of stopping it.”

Sai Fan paused, as if gathering the courage to say the rest.

”Plus, I don’t know who to trust. I need someone whose loyalty is to me . . . I mean, to the Blue Dragons, and someone everyone knows and trusts. That’s you.”

Tieren’s glare softened. “I wasn’t aware I was so highly regarded.”

Sai Fan smiled. “You’re the hero of the day,” he said. “You fought Kienan Ademetria to a standstill, and that’s more than anyone else in the Syndicate had achieved in five years of hunting him. You’re good news, Tieren. We haven’t had good news for a long time.

“In different circumstances, I might even call you our hero.”

“It’s what I was created for,” Tieren said. “Nothing deserving of praise. Or hero worship.”

“It’s good for us,” Sai Fan said. “You’re a symbol of unity, whether you wanted to be or not. Will you do it?”

“I will go where I am sent,” Tieren said. There was a small vomph as the now-empty tube of food ejected into his hand. His golden fingers closed around it.

 “But I would much rather hunt Admetria.”

“We don’t always get what we want, Tieren,” Sai Fan said. “Before I got involved in this thing, I wanted to be a chef. Life never takes us where we intend to go.”

He paused and turned to Tieren. ”Come with me,” he said. “I want to show you something.”

*        *        *

“I’ve made sure that you have everything you need—all the permissions, all the access required for you to investigate,” Sai Fan said. He was leaning against the bulkhead of the shuttlecraft, keeping a close eye on the pilot. Behind him, Teiren stood, his expression inscrutable.

“I’ve also given you access to our datanet—unlimited access,” he continued, ignoring the gentle lurch of the shuttle as it escaped the planet’s velocity and slid into a low orbit. “Typically, it’s not something I’d do for any operative, but, owing to the delicate nature of the assignment and how little we have to go on, I wanted you to have all available information at your fingertips.”

“That would be very useful,” Tieren said.

“That’s not the only thing I have to give you,” Sai Fan said. “Pilot, bring us on a longitudinal course, fifteen by twenty by twelve and put the forward lights on.” He turned to Tieren, a smile on his face.

“I figured the Blue Dragons’ symbol should have an equally symbolic mode of transportation. Take a look”

Tieren stepped up to the cockpit window, watching as the shuttle’s floodlights searched and sketched out the shape of the starship below them. It was larger than the shuttle, but not very much larger, and seemed composed entirely of elegant, sweeping curves that made it look like it was swimming through the stars even though it was standing still.

“The Lady of War,” Sai Fan said, pointing towards the ship. “Prototype of a new class of ship. We’ve stopped building the larger yachts for the ruling council members—this will be the ship that replaces them. It’s fast, armored, and it’s well-armed.”

Tieren examined the ship below him as the shuttle flew over dorsal section before banking into a slow curve and turning back towards the Lady of War.

“Pilot—bring us in for docking.”

The pilot nodded and plotted a course under the aft section of the Lady of War, maneuvering under the main engine and slipping between the two nacelles underneath, making course for the small docking bay in the belly of the ship. The pilot brought the ship to a landing in the Lady of War’s docking bay, and soon enough, Tieren had stepped out onto his new ship.

“What do you think?” Sai Fan asked, looking around and admiring the construction.

“It should be suitable for my needs,” Tieren said, his voice flat.

“More than that, I hope,” Sai Fan said, taking a few steps and turning to face Tieren. “You’ll have to forgive me, Tieren. The Lady of War is my baby. The first one to roll off the production line--I’m rather proud of her.”

“Of course,” Tieren said, looking around. “You must forgive me Sai Fan—my nature doesn’t allow for effusive praise, or appreciation of aesthetics.”

“Hm. I suppose not,” Sai Fan said, walking over to a smooth, black glass panel embedded in the wall of the docking bay. “But I’ll just be excited enough for both of us. Come here, Tieren— there’s something I want to show you.”

Tieren marched over to the black panel and watched as Sai Fan touched his hand to the glass. Instantly, the black panel glowed into a bright whiteness, and where Sai Fan’s fingertip touched the screen, there was a trio of concentric circles forming.

“I know how much you like my stone garden,” Sai Fan said. “I thought about putting one in for you, but fine sand in a variable-gravity environment was asking for trouble, I thought. But since I kept finding you in front of there, thinking or whatever it is you do, I figured I’d find some happy medium.

“The computer interface is designed to mimic the shapes in the stone garden,” he continued, putting his palm against the glass. “I’ll call up some information from the ships library with my left hand, and cross-reference against information I call up with the right.”

Circles formed against his palm, and then the circles turned, revealing text and images. Where the two sets of circles connected, straight lines connected the data, not unlike the circles and stones in Tieren’s beloved stone garden.

Sai Fan turned to him.

“I thought you might enjoy that extra touch. Of course, you don’t really need to use the panels,” he said. “I’ve linked the ship’s computer in with your interlink frequency—you can operate the ship entirely by remote control if need be, and you’ll have real-time data access through an always-on connection.”

“That will be very useful,” Tieren said. As usual, he was impassive, quiet, and seemed to be a perfect counterweight to Sai Fan’s enthusiasm. “But you still haven’t answered my question from earlier to my satisfaction.”

“Which one?”

“Why me?”

“The same reason I ordered these ships constructed,” Sai Fan said. “The future. This thing of ours . . . right now it’s balanced on the edge of a knife. We’ve got pressure from without, and the ruling council wants to fortify their own fiefs. The problem is, we spent the last one hundred years working together and binding the Syndicate closer and closer, and ripping that apart would be catastrophic. Du Xiao’s narcotics need to be moved by Shang Zhe’s shipping company, which needs safe passage by using the contacts Gan Ran has in the Earth government. Everything’s connected--one can’t exist without the other. It’s like building a house, and then years later, trying to pull bricks out of the foundation.”

He took his hands off the panel and turned to Tieren. “Things are changing, Tieren, and we’ll either be gone or be different by the end of it. Thanks to my brother, I won’t ever get any real benefit from it, but . . . part of me likes the idea of making it better. Fixing it. Making it work.”

“And my solving these murders will do that for you?”

Sai Fan shrugged. “It’s a start. It sends the message we’re stronger together than apart. If this goes public, the Syndicate gets dissolved in all but name. And they won’t have any need for a middleman like me.”

“And,” he began, eyeing Tieren. “They probably won’t need anyone to hunt down Ademetria, either. So we both have stakes in this game, wouldn’t you say?”

That seemed to get under Tieren’s skin, and in the spare light of the hangar bay, Sai Fan could almost swear he saw him bristle.

For a long time, they eyes one another cautiously

“I will find those responsible,” Tieren said, walking past Sai Fan towards the egress to the bridge. “Upload all the information you have on their deaths to the ship’s computer—I’ll study the data, contact you, and set a course. Tell whoever’s in charge at the murder sites to leave them as undisturbed as possible in anticipation of my arrival.”

“Thank you, Tieren,” Sai Fan said to his back. “I’ll be waiting to hear from you.”

*        *        *

They’d made their move, he thought, deleting the personal massage from his database, his shape barely sketched out in the darkness of his office. And it was just the move he expected them to make: an investigation was promised—something to calm everyone down, assure the heads of the Syndicate they were safe in their own homes and they were in control, despite the fact he’d made sure that they felt anything but and that they weren’t.

The game was on in earnest.

“What will you do now?” A voice called from behind him. He leaned back, eyeing his companion over his shoulder. Like him, he preferred the darkness. The only sign he was there at all was the faint red glow of his single eye, oscillating back and forth.

“For now, nothing,” he replied. “Let’s see how their investigation proceeds first. I want to know how much their panic is clouding their reason before we fan the fire any more.”

“That seems like wasted opportunity,” his companion replied. His voice was a tight, controlled hissed, like the breath of a ghost. 

“’Waste’ is the point, my friend,” he replied. “I want them running in all directions—everyone except the right one. There’s no harm in letting them run for a little while. If we’ve done our work properly, they’ll be out of our way while we move on to the next step. An exhausted enemy is an enemy who’s beaten before you lay a hand on him.”

“And if they aren’t?” The red light flickered in the dark.

The man at the desk said, his eyes going back to his screen. He let the question hang in the air for a moment, considering his answer.

“Let’s not be negative,” he said at last, tapping a series of commands out on the keyboard before him.

*        *        *

Three days later, the Lady of War slid out of Spice Drive and slid into orbit of Hsilgus. Sai Fan had been as good as his word—Tizui Gao Yang’s household greeted him and extended him every courtesy in allowing him to visit the site of the murder. Within fifteen minutes of achieving orbit, they granted him permission to land at Gao Yang’s private airfield, just outside his compound.

Tieren noticed with some amusement that his appearance tended to shock people who were unfamiliar with him. Word still hadn’t got around yet what the man who had fought and survived battle with Kienan Ademetria looked like, and at the sight of him, even the crimson-armored soldiers that every Blue Dragon chief retained gave him a wide berth.

Just as well—it meant he could view the scene of the crime as soon as possible, and Tieren was certainly eager to get to work. Moushi, Gao Yang’s majordomo, escorted him through the long, opulent corridors to the hallway where Ho Tsung kept his beloved birds.

The very second Moushi opened the door, the birds in the cages seemed to go crazy, chirping and flapping their wings and banging themselves against the cages with frantic, suicidal intensity.

“I’m sorry,” Moushi said, as Tieren squeezed past. “The birds . . . they’re usually very quiet. I’m not sure what set them off again.”

Tieren had immediately swept the room upon entry, his eyes flicking from one spectra to another, to one angle to another, to one level of magnification or another. His senses were such that even a minute particle would be flagged.

Or would have done, if there was anything to find.

Tieren squatted down on the carpet, his golden fingers gently brushing over the spot where the carpet underneath Gao Yang’s body had fallen. If the birds’ noise troubled him, he gave no sign.

It was obvious Moushi found the whole thing troubling, but whether it was because Tieren’s presence indicated the Syndicate didn’t believe his explanation or he didn’t like having an interloper in his territory was hard to determine.

“Again?”

Moushi blinked. That Tieren could make himself heard over the din of the birds gave him a brief start, and he’d missed when he turned his head to face him, as though he were ready to pounce.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The birds,” Tieren said. “You said something had set them off again.”

“Oh, yes,” Moushi said. “We found Gao Yang’s body because they were causing unbelievable commotion. By the time we had removed his body, they had calmed down, but a number of them were dead. The house staff thought they just missed Gao Yang that much. He loved his birds, you know--”

Tieren rose to his full height, and turned to the majordomo.

“Were they acting like this before?”

Moushi nodded.

Tieren looked at the birds, his red eyes narrowing on one cage.

And now it’s happening again, he thought, eyeing the birds.

What has changed?

“Would you say it’s the exact same reaction?”

“I don’t understand how that could be—“

“Trust me, Moushi,” Tieren snapped, cutting him off. “It is very important. Would you say it is the exact same behavior?”

Moushi seemed a bit troubled by the question, but nodded.

Tieren turned his head, looking around the room with slow, deliberate movements. After about a minute, he turned to Moushi.

“I should go,” he said.

“But you’ve hardly seen any—“

“I have what I need,” Tieren said, moving past him and pushing the door open.

“But—“

“I’ll be leaving as soon as the airfield gives me clearance,” Tieren said, striding down the hall, Moushi making hasty but dignified strides to keep up with him. “And don’t worry—I will inform Wong Sai Fan that you were most helpful.”

“I do appreciate that,” Moushi said, doing some combination of bowing and nodding. “If I may ask, what did you find there?”

“A room where a man died of a broken neck,” Tieren said. “But I believe what you found will be more useful to my investigation.”

Moushi didn’t understand. “What I found?”

Tieren’s red eyes met Moushi’s

“Dead birds.”

*        *        *

Back aboard the Lady of War, Tieren sat in his command chair on the bridge, staring into the barely-lit darkness and pondering things. The ship was on course to the next site—a two-day journey this time, but Tieren was occupied with weightier matters.

While he was reasonably sure that Sai Fan was trustworthy, Tieren’s experience in dealing with the Syndicate chiefs had been that they were quite willing to lie or obfuscate if they thought it achieved their ends, and in situations where they were testing or manipulating someone, it was virtually guaranteed that there was some larger plan behind it.

It seemed to be in their very nature to concoct these baroque schemes.

          Like them, Tieren had a larger plan, one that no one—not Sai Fan, not the Blue Dragons, not even his creator, Chen Lu Fan knew about. He had come to realize, even before he’d first encountered Kienan, that he and his target were two of a kind. Indeed, in a real sense, Tieren was almost his exact opposite.

          Or as he preferred to think of it, his shadow.

          But since shadows needed a shape to mirror, Tieren couldn’t let Admetria be harmed. To do so would jeopardize his own existence, and well, he couldn’t have that, could he?

          So while he’d fought Ademetria to a standstill, he hadn’t killed him. To his way of thinking, to do so would be a form of suicide, and Tieren had no intention of doing that.

          So Kienan had to live for Tieren to live. Simple as that.

          The Blue Dragons wouldn’t understand that—people so obsessed with the movement and accumulation of power were too involved in the temporal, and Tieren saw this as something spiritual. In a sense, Tieren and Kienan were reflections of one another, and because of that, closer than brothers on a deep level.

          Tieren had once had a “brother”—Shenron, to which he felt no kinship apart from being the product of the same creator. Shenron was an impediment (people should only have one shadow, after all), and Tieren had removed him. Even Chen Lu Fan, his creator, had proven himself obstructive and had also required removal.

          Nothing could impede his spiritual journey, not family, not “brothers,” not even the Syndicate they served. But Tieren wouldn’t prevent them from bankrolling that spiritual awakening—neither would he tell them his stake in it.

          They’re best spared things they wouldn’t understand, he thought, accessing the datanet using his remote access. He leaned back in his chair as he confirmed his access, and then uploaded a file from his own memory into the net’s application.

          He’d carried the file for months in the protected sectors of his memory. It was encrypted—a final gift from Chen Lu Fan, who’d passed away before he left the secrets of unlocking it. But Sai Fan had cleared him for unrestricted access. It stood to reason trying to open the file from within the datanet would unlock it, as Sai Fan had a higher level of clearance.

          Tieren’s eyes narrowed as the datanet worked his request—it was a very large file, and there were a number of checks that had to be made to unlock it. But Tieren was certain it was worth the effort, as he had a feeling it would solve Sai Fan’s problem, and his own, soon enough.

          The file unlocked, separating out into individual documents, video logs, performance data, all of which concerned Tieren, Shenron . . .

          . . .and another, Tieren thought, isolating and opening the file before him.

          I didn’t know about him.

          Tieren continued to read in silence, his thoughts as inscrutable as his expression.

          When Moushi had told him about the birds, Tieren knew why they’d had such an extreme reaction again—it was him. His presence. To be more specific, it was the high level of ionization the reactors in his system generated. Few humans would feel the change in the air, but to an animal, it would be almost unbearable.

          And so far as Tieren knew, the reactors used in his systems were custom-made. Other types of cyborgs or androids wouldn’t have such a disruptive energy signature.

          In fact, Tieren only knew of two: himself, and Shenron. Shenron had been dealt with months ago, but data indicated that there was a third.

          But only three, Tieren thought. Thank heaven for small mercies.

 I had at first thought this mission would be an annoying distraction, but perhaps I can help myself while I help Sai Fan.

          He expanded the file on his “brother” and began to pore through the information within.

*        *        *

          “I told you, didn’t I?” The specter said, his voice still tight. “It appears Tieren is a better detective than you anticipated.”

          The man at the desk chuckled. When Tieren accessed the file, it had triggered a flag and sent a message to his terminal. And even now, he was remotely monitoring Tieren’s search history.  “He has a piece of the puzzle,” he said, his voice quiet and even. “But having the murder weapon doesn’t always unlock the whole mystery, does it?”

          “I don’t care about your mystery or your puzzle,” his companion retorted. “I care that he has the piece with my name on it. And knowing what he did to our ‘brother,’ I’d rather not offer myself up as a target.”

          “I wonder how he knew it was you?” The man at the desk said, ignoring his companion’s fretfulness. “I thought your stealth capabilities were supposed to prevent any detection.”

          The red eye flashed with something that almost seemed like anger.

          “What are you saying?”

          “Perhaps it’s not Tieren I estimated incorrectly?”

          “My stealth technology is perfect,” his companion insisted, his voice more sneering and agitated now. “None of the common signifiers would have bled through. I didn’t even leave footprints. What could he have possibly detected?”

          “Then it was something uncommon,” the man at the desk said. “Or common between the two of you, perhaps. I wonder what that might be?”

          “What a pity you can’t ask him yourself,” his companion sneered.

          “Unnecessary,” the man at the desk said, tapping some commands out on another keyboard. “I have a more proactive test in mind—I’m sending you out again.”

          The red light flashed again “What?”

          “We’re moving up our timetable,” he said, ignoring his companion’s irritability. “We can proceed to the next phase while Tieren is studying your file. Perhaps we’ll be even luckier and discover how he saw through your stealth tech. Pushing things up is a bit more risky, but--”

          “You’re risking me,” his companion said.

          “Tieren needs time to put things together,” the man responded. “Speeding up the crisis should rob him of that time. We should at least have enough time to take out the next target, then put you on ice before he can move against you.”

          “Against us.”

          “Of course—that’s what I meant.”

          “Of course.”        

*        *        *

The file was educational stuff. Two years ago, in the wake of Kienan Ademetria going rogue and all but decapitating the Blue Dragons when he murdered Wong Sai Sci, the Syndicate had engaged Chen Lu Fan to design and supervise a countermeasure. Several standard mechanisms had been engaged—every mercenary and gun for hire in the sector was promised a hefty bounty if they brought Kienan back, dead or alive. Every Syndicate chief on a colony world was instructed that, regardless of what their current operations were, Ademetria was to be captured or killed on sight—there was no higher priority.

But none of those had been effective, unless the intent had been to litter the galaxy with the corpses of assassins. So a fresh perspective was explored:

Lu Fan had elected to try to improve the quality of the Blue Dragon operatives—create a soldier who was Ademetria’s physical equal (if not superior) but who was programmed to be loyal to the Blue Dragons above all else, as a control measure.

By the time the project reached the prototype stage, three prototypes had been designed and built. Shenron, was designed to assimilate information with hot-swappable combat modules—essentially creating an unpredictable opponent who could change combat styles and strategy in an instant.

Tieren had been designed with the sole focus of proving a match for Kienan. Every bit of available knowledge about him and been downloaded into Tieren’s mind, and coupled with his physical gifts.

Wuxing—referred to in the file as “the ghost”—was a stealth unit. He‘d been spirited away from the research and development facility on Barandi before Tieren and Shenron had been brought online, to be fitted with an exotic and experimental piece of technology known as a “shroud.” With it, if the file could be believed, Wuxing would be able to cloak himself from all electronic, audio, and visual detection.

That made him an ideal weapon for someone looking to commit a series of invisible murders.

Like the three that had happened in the past two weeks.

The file ended with Wuxing was transferred off Barandi—when he was sent offworld to be fitted for the shroud.

Tieren eyed the documents and schematics floating in the air before him, suspended in concentric circles of light. He had a piece of the puzzle at last—he had the murder weapon.

But was Wuxing behind the attacks, or was he just someone else’s instrument?

And if so, to what end?

The pieces are there, he thought. I just have to find the connections between the circles, to find how it all fits.

Working on a hunch he couldn’t give a specific name to, he called up the list of victims again. Perhaps the answer was found there.

*        *        *

Shang Wei’s first day on the job as head of the Bo Ming shipping company had been a flurry of activity, stress, and bad luck from every corner. Bad enough that Gao Yang’s offices hadn’t provided him the records necessary to fully assume control of the company and prevent any interruption of the shipping schedule.

While he understood he’d only been moved up to head the shipping company in the wake of Gao Yang’s death (officially ruled death by natural causes, though Shang had his suspicions) and wouldn’t assume his seat in the Syndicate, he was fine with that. He had no patience or stomach for politics or intrigues, anyway, and ruling a branch of the Syndicate was one long game of politicking and intrigues.

Gao Yang thought it was wonderful, being at the center of a web of power and control, he thought.

I wonder if he gave any thought to the fact that there are other things in webs, and they’re usually someone else’s meal.

For thirty years he’d been in charge of the shipping routes and scheduling at Bo Ming, and in three decades, there’d never been a late shipment. He kept his head down in his figures and charts and focused only on making this one thing as perfect as he could.

It was a job he quite enjoyed, divorced as it was from the politics and the nonsense. But he wondered now if that very isolation and concentration he so loved made him a perfect target when the time came to slot in Gao Yang’s replacement. On paper, it made sense—in this uncertain time, a strong hand on the tiller would keep things from getting out of control, but not someone who had any ambition to try and make his temporary position permanent.

I was chosen, because I fit the suit. It’s a pity no one asked me how I might feel about it, he thought with a sigh.

 He took another look around his plush office—no, it was still Gao Yang’s office; he was just keeping the seat warm, he reminded himself. It was steeped in luxury, much more beautiful than Shang Wei’s offices.

He sighed and tapped out a sequence of commands on the polished glass surface of the desk before him. There was a pile of correspondence to sort through-offers from other chiefs of the Blue Dragons to buy the company—there were four from Zhi Zhe already and it was only lunchtime.

Not my decision, he thought, swiping his fingers across the desk and dragging the documents into folders.  And thank heaven for it. Quite frankly, I want to go right back to my own job when all this is over.

He spent the next thirty minutes shuffling through paperwork, and while most of it had nothing to do with him (his successor would field most of it) it was still labor-intensive and was keeping him away from lunch. He was looking forward to the fifteen quiet minutes that would bring, away from a promotion he’d never wanted and had taken him away from a job he did.

Finally dragging and dropping the last document in the last folder, he shut down his terminal. There was an odd flash on the surface of the desk just as he shut it down. Shang glanced at the screen, now shut off, and could see an image reflected in the glass.

Someone was behind him.

The red flash blinked across the surface of the desk as he squinted to make out just who it was. At the same time, a hand shot out from behind his chair and clamped down on his mouth as another hand settled on his head. In less time than it takes to tell, Shang’s head was forced to turn until the vertebra cracked, killing him instantly.

The hands let Shang fall to the desk’s surface, his own dead face reflecting back at him. Behind him, the figure stepped away from the desk, admiring his handiwork for a moment as the red scanner that was his eyes swept over Shang Wei’s corpse.

Then, as he’d done after he’d murdered Gao Yang, he shimmered out of sight.

*        *        *

 “Call from Wong Sai Fan,” the Lady of War’s computer said, its voice cool yet firm. “Urgent.”

Tieren’s eyes narrowed as he turned away from the data on the murdered Blue Dragon chiefs. He tapped at the thin air and the data collapsed back into circles, suspended until he could return to it.

“Accept and decode the call,” Tieren said. The air in his chamber shifted and an image of Sai Fan appeared in the air before him. “What is it, Sai Fan?”

“Our killer has struck again,” Sai Fan said. There was no warmth in his voice, just an iron tension. “I sent you out to stop these killings—what are you doing, Tieren?”

“I’ve tracked down who’s doing the killings,” Tieren replied, his voice calm. “It’s the other one, like me—Wuxing.”

“What?”

“Yes,” Tieren said. “At Gao Yang’s place, his majordomo told me the birds where his body were found were disturbed by something. When I investigated, they responded in the same way. My systems produce a high level of ionization in the air—I believe they were responding to that. Wuxing is a stealth unit, and while most of his radiant emissions are designed to be baffled, that is impossible to mask.”

“How did you know about the third?”

“It was a theory, at first,” Tieren responded, choosing his words with care. “Chen Lu Fan built us with unique parts—I assumed that other cyborgs would not cause this level of ionization. As I was not the murderer, and Shenron had been destroyed, logic dictated that there was a third model. I found the schematics and documentation on the Blue Dragon datanet and confirmed my theory.”

“I see,” Sai Fan said. His voice softened “So why haven’t you tracked him down yet?”

“Wuxing is the murder weapon,” Tieren said. “I doubt he’s masterminded this plot on his own—we were built to serve, after all. I believe he is acting on orders from another party. I am trying to determine who it is.”

“Your project’s protected information,” Sai Fan said. “No one but a chief of the Syndicate could access the file, much less requisition him.”

“The man who was killed,” Tieren said. “Who was he?”

“Shang Wei,” Sai Fan replied. “He oversaw day to day operations at Gao Yang’s shipping company—Bo Ming. They’d put him in place to keep the company on schedule while the council split Gao Yang’s action up between them.”

Tieren nodded. “And who benefits most from Gao Yang’s holdings?”

“I’m . . . not really sure,” Sai Fan replied. “On paper, he doesn’t really have much—the shipping company is the big prize. It’s how we move most of our cargo through the Frontier. The rest is standard stuff—protection, women, drugs . . . Bo Ming was the big earner.”

Tieren pondered that for a moment, his ebony face unreadable.

“Can you send me the financial portfolios of the remaining chiefs of the Syndicate branches? Also—I need any correspondence sent between the time Gao Yang’s death was announced and Shang Wei was murdered.”

Sai Fan blinked. “What do you want with those?”

“Gao Yang was murdered, and a few days later, his trusted second in command is disposed of,” Tieren said. “Two murders in the same organization means that Bo Ming is the target. You said yourself it was the biggest earner for Gao Yang. Someone wants the shipping company vey much--When I review the data, I will discover who might want it that much, and I believe I will have your murderer.”

Sai Fan pondered his request for a bit and Tieren watched him consider it, panic about it, and then finally talk himself into it, all without saying a word. He leaned forward and tapped out a series of commands.

“That data is coming to you,” Sai Fan said. “But Tieren . . . I need results.”

“You’ll have it,” Tieren said, turning his back on Sai Fan. “But I need one thing more.”

“What?”

“Wherever this goes, however high it goes, I must be allowed to handle at my own discretion,” Tieren said.

“But I gave you—“

“Visiting is one thing,” Tieren said. “More decisive solutions may be required, and I may need your help cleaning up the mess later. I need your assurance, and your trust if I’m to do this properly.”

“Do it,” Sai Fan said. “I don’t care how, but do it. We’re out of time. This murder I can’t cover up, and in a few days at most . . . it’s all going to blow wide open.”

“It will be done,” Tieren said, waving his hand and closing the connection. With his left hand he re-opened the files on the victims and gestured with his right hand, opening the financial records.

*        *        *

With Gao Yang out of the way, the ruling council of the Blue Dragons numbered twenty-four men. The council liked to project the notion that they acted in unanimity in all things, but, in matters of policy, they tended to vote in blocs that lined up according to mutual interest.

The blocs were more or less even in terms of voting power—in order to build a majority there were five men who were courted by the two blocs to build a definitive majority. Otherwise, these five kept to their own affairs and hardly ever involved themselves with the rest of the council, and while their holdings were very powerful, they lacked the numbers or overall strength to be a threat to the larger Syndicate.

But their votes usually swung majorities, and that gave them power on a higher level that what was on paper.

Tieren scowled at the data before him. He thought back to what Sai Fan had told him about the operating system and how if it were possible, it would connect bits of data that were related to each other.

The way he’d said it sounded so simple—that if he had the right data, the connection would be made in an instant. But it wasn’t that simple at all—the answer wasn’t revealing itself. Sai Fan’s operating system was clever, but it wouldn’t reveal the culprit on its own.

What a pity.

Unbidden, something else Sai Fan had said pulled at the corners of his memory, a half-remembered bit of conversation four days old. It hadn’t come from the computer portion of his memory, which automatically recorded all his conversations, no this was from the organic part of his mind.

And there was something in it. Something that wouldn’t let him alone.

Tieren accessed his recordings and recalled the entire conversation in his mind:

”Du Xiao’s narcotics need to be moved by Shang Zhe’s shipping company, which needs safe passage by using the contacts Gan Ran has in the Earth government. Everything’s connected--one can’t exist without the other.”

Tieren played it again, isolating the part that his conscious memory was pulling at.

“Everything’s connected--one can’t exist without the other.”

Tieren scowled. The connection had been right in front of him, but he hadn’t seen it.

He isolated the five council members and overlaid the communication from Bo Ming on that data, searching for a hit.

All he had to do was learn which of the five council members would have the most to gain by buying out the shipping company. All of them would want it, but the one who wanted it the most wanted it because it was the missing piece of the puzzle—their business would need a shipping company under their direct control.

And that winnowed the five down to one: Zhi Zhe.

Zhi Zhe’s main earner was gun-running, and in a sector of space that was being increasingly militarized, that was too hot even for the Blue Dragons. Tieren expanded his file and read several subject headings from the past eight months wherein Zhi Zhe had tried to buy controlling interest in various shipping companies within the Blue Dragons, only to be blocked by actions from other councilmen.

He seemed to be valued for being an influential vote, but also kept apart from the rest of the council by intent. No one wanted to see him grow too powerful . . . but at one time or another, it seemed everyone owed him a favor, also.

For all their danger, weapons were big business on the Frontier. Someone was always buying. With the intensifying crackdown, if Zhi Zhe could distribute them with a free hand anywhere he wanted . . . that would increase his influence by a substantial amount in the Syndicate, or allow him to go independent.

Tieren didn’t know which. He wasn’t even certain Zhi Zhe was the man behind it. But it made sense—he had the most to benefit from Bo Ming being cut loose, and he had no guarantee he’d be allowed to acquire it by the other council members.

With that against him, a few well-timed murders of key people would keep the council off-balance and allow him to take over what he wanted with no one the wiser.

And someone like Zhi Zhe would certainly be able to covertly acquire something like Wuxing. Wuxing was the perfect instrument for something like this—an invisible murder weapon, unable to be traced back to him, and impossible to detect. Even better, the threat of invisible, unpredictable, murder was a perfect check against the council.

Tieren weighed the pros and cons in the space of half a minute, then altered the Lady of War’s course to Zhi Zhe’s home base in the Shuran system. He felt the ship shudder as it slipped into Space Drive, streaking for its final reckoning.

He had no evidence that Zhi Zhe was the culprit, just a theory that fit the available facts, and Tieren had no more time to gather any more.

So he decided to force the issue. If the Lady of War showed up at his home, Zhi Zhe’s reaction, he was certain, would be illuminating.

Rushing toward Shuran as fast as he could go, Tieren had the distinct feeling the next three hours would tell the tale.

*        *        *

The Lady of War slipped out of Space Drive into planet Shuran’s local space, where a light cruiser immediately moved into intercept it. It was standard operating procedure for the ship to investigate any ship that wandered into local space in this way—Zhi Zhe bought a planet on the fringes of traveled space because he liked his privacy.

Anyone violating it would need a good reason.

The Lady of War made no attempt to communicate apart from a basic signal that transmitted the ship’s ID, its passenger, and his authorization.

Apparently, Zhi Zhe thought, monitoring the situation at his desk, he believes that’s all that’s required.

Or he wants me to tip my hand.

It would be a simple enough matter to order his cruiser to fire on the ship, and depending on what the smaller ship had in the way of defenses, it was very probable it would be a short fight.

But I don’t know what he’s told his superiors, Zhi Zhe thought, taking a deep breath. And eliminating their operative right on my doorstep would  . . . look bad.

He spared Wuxing a brief glance, and then turned back to the screen. He’d had every intention of keeping Wuxing around—even after this power play was complete, the advantages of having your own invisible assassin at your beck and call were obvious to anyone.

But having him here with no explanation meant Wuxing was less of an asset and more of a smoking gun, and after so much work to hide his involvement in the murders, keeping his hands clean was the most important thing.

Even if it meant giving up the invisible assassin and the value that came from having one.

One cannot be afraid of taking short-term loss for long-term gain, he thought.

Unfortunately, an immediate solution hadn’t become clear as yet.

He sent an order to his cruiser to back away and let the smaller ship through. That bought him less than an hour to think of something.

*        *        *

The Lady of War came to rest on one of the four landing pads just off the main grounds of Zhi Zhe’s estate. There had been no challenges, no problems, everything seemed to be on the level. Zhi Zhe hadn’t been welcoming, but he hadn’t tried to delay or warn him off, either.

The main exit ramp folded down from the Lady of War’s cockpit and Tieren stepped out into the arid atmosphere or Shuran. The air was thick and leaden, and what little light made it to the gloomy little planet gave the sky beyond him an orange glow.

As he made his way off the landing pad, Tieren signaled the ship to lock itself down on his private channel. He noted with some curiosity he’d been allowed to land, but no one was there to greet him. Even at the end of the access path from the landing pad there were no guards, which was unusual—even low-priority installations usually kept a number of guards in visible locations—the red-armored troopers were am effective way of showing the flag and demonstrating one’s power.

But not here. It was like he was walking in to a house full of ghosts.

Tieren kept walking, observing everything as he went. The design of Zhi Zhe’s house was unusual as well. People at his level in the Blue Dragon hierarchy usually designed their homes in classic style—Tizui Gao Yang’s was a typical example.

Zhi Zhe, it seemed, preferred base function over aesthetics. The landing pads were blocky and functional in a rough, brute way. The observation tower he crossed into was a dull blockhouse—a great black block against the orange sky. Tieren couldn’t make out much of the grounds of the estate beyond, but from what he could make out, most of the surrounding buildings in the complex were almost identical—dark, forbidding.

Coupled with the silence and the eerie glow on the horizon, it was quite ominous, in its way.

The door to the observation tower slid open and Tieren stepped inside. He stepped into a reception lounge—bare, except for a few communication terminals, colored and lit with a cold, sterile white which, for an ordinary person, must have seemed blinding after the gloomy skies of Shuran.

Still no one around, but as Tieren passively scanned for active surveillance equipment, it seemed someone was watching.

Tieren walked over to a communications panel and accessed it.

“I want to speak with Zhi Zhe,” he said.

*        *        *

“Speaking,” Zhi Zhe replied. Wuxing stood behind him, his single cyclopean eye glowering at the image of his “brother” on the screen.

“What can I do for you, Tieren?”

“I have some questions for you.”

“Questions?” Zhi Zhe said, taking care that his voice never wavered from the imperious, haughty, arrogance that was inevitable in those of his station. “What sort of questions?”

“About the murders of several high-ranking chiefs.”

Zhi Zhe heard the motors within Wuxing stiffen. He ignored his ally’s apprehension. While Tieren was impossible to read with regards to body language, his approach spoke volumes—by demanding to speak to him without engaging in any formality, it was clear he knew something, or thought he did.

But what, and how much?

“I don’t know about any murders, Tieren,” Zhi Zhe said. “In general, I involve myself and my organization with the business of the Syndicate, apart from collective action.”

“I am aware of that,” Tieren said. “I’m also aware of a bid you put in to buy the Bo Ming shipping company.”

Zhi Zhe exhaled. “Mergers and acquisitions are common business activity,” he said. “Nothing sinister in that.”

“Yes, but your first bid came in three days before Tizui Gao Yang was murdered,” Tieren said. “The second came the same day that his successor was killed.”

“Correlation doesn’t prove causality,” Zhi Zhe parried. The tension was virtually arcing off Wuxing. He was grateful the visual feed was one way—Wuxing’s presence—let alone his inability to control his reactions—would have given the game away long ago.

“Perhaps not,” Tieren said. “But it does suggest motive and opportunity. And I believe one of your other . . . recent acquisitions . . . might offer the means.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” Zhi Zhe responded, his face hardening. Keeping his composure was becoming difficult, and not just because of Wuxing’s palpable fear.

“You recently acquired an experimental piece of technology,” Tieren said. “Someone trying to covertly acquire a company by decapitating its leadership could use that technology to keep them in disarray while keeping their hands clean.

“Hypothetically.”

“I sense an accusation in your words,” Zhi Zhe said, dialing up the imperiousness in his voice. “A very serious accusation. I trust you have evidence of this?”

“I do,” Tieren responded. “I would welcome the chance to discuss it with you.”

“So would I,” Zhi Zhe said. “I’ll clear you for access. We’ll meet in the main house.”

Tieren said nothing, and his image winked out of sight as Zhi Zhe closed the channel.

“He knows,” Wuxing said. “He knows everything.”

“He may suspect,” Zhi Zhe replied. “Not enough to prove his case, but . . . that’s not his plan. He’s daring me to make a move—he wants me to provide the final proof that confirms his suspicion.”

Zhi Zhe began tapping a series of commands out on his keypads.

“And what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to set up a jamming field that will blanket the entire system,” Zhi Zhe said. “I don’t want him confirming anything to the Syndicate. Not now.”

“And after that?”

Zhi Zhe finished inputting his commands.

“Once we’re certain he can’t get a signal out, we’ll do what we must to ensure that Tieren never leaves us.”

*        *        *

Tiren walked into the lobby of the main complex, a sterile, dimly-lit room where everything was polished to a bright gleam and every step seemed to echo with an emptiness that seemed several times larger than the room itself.

The heavy blast doors to the complex slid shut behind him, hidden bolts within propelling into locking position.  As it did, Tieren reached behind his back, his hands closing on the handle of the weapon sheathed on his back.

Tieren had no doubt that Zhi Zhe was leading him into a trap—his mask of accommodation was just that, and Tieren needed no special insight to see past it. But it suited Tieren’s purpose to play along for the moment.

At least until Wuxing could be dealt with.

A door in the upper level of the lobby slid open, and on the balcony above him, seven red-armored guards filed out, three of them staying on the balcony and keeping their weapons on Tieren while four of them descended the staircases, also maintaining a bead on Tieren.

The guardsmen were the elite soldiers of the Blue Dragon Syndicate, and every chief retained a squad of them to protect their households. They were assigned more as an honor guard than an actual security force, in theory, but were effective if used in that role.

Tieren scanned the room.

No sign of Wuxing.

He kept still as the four guardsmen closed in on him. He assessed the situation—whatever he was able to do against the four guards who were almost within reach, the three shooters above had the high ground and could take him out with overwhelming firepower.

One of the guards closed the distance, jabbing his rifle at Tieren’s bent arm.

“Get your hands where I can see them,” he demanded, his comrades training their guns on him. Tieren’s red eyes narrowed, as he turned to look into the black visor of the lead guardsman.

“If you insist.”

Tieren’s arm whipped out in the direction of the lead guardsman, his weapon expanding and unfolding to its full length as he moved with blinding speed. The blade of his spear slashed through the barrel of the guardsman’s rifle as his cohorts open fire.

Tieren activated his force-field, parrying their opening salvo as he ducked and turned, the edge of his blade skimming along the floor’s surface and slashing into one of the guard’s armor, sending him down to one knee as the guard above opened fire. His force-field needed time to re-charge, so he needed something else in the interim.

His movements seemed all the more stiff and brutal coupled as they were with the economy of his efforts. Every action was done with quick, brutal, efficiency, no movement wasted, and no effort more than what was needed.

While it was true that the Blue Dragon Guardsmen were, as a rule, very well trained and very dangerous operatives, Tieren was even more highly trained than they were—several times over. It wasn’t even a contest.

Someone viewing the battle from a distant remove would perhaps have remarked the Tieren seemed bored.

Tieren hurled his spear through the faceplate of another guardsman, smashing through his visor and killing him instantly as he grabbed another guardsman, spinning him around and using him as a shield. The rapid-fire plasma shots tore through the guardsman’s armor and within seconds, his flesh. Tieren snatched the rifle from his “shield’s” hand and used it to kill the three guards on the balcony with carefully-aimed shots.

One of the other guardsmen leapt on Tieren’s back, forcing him to let the corpse of the guardsman slip from his grasp. The guardsman whose leg he’s crippled lunched forward, laying on his belly and trying to fire up at Tieren.

Tieren activated his force-field again and blocked his shots, leaning forward and throwing the guardsman off his back onto the other guard, swinging the rifle over and killing the two of them. He retrieved his spear and killed the final guard with a sweep of the blade, beheading him with one swift stroke.

His opposition eliminated, he stepped over the corpses of the guardsmen, holding his weapon at the ready as he ascended the stairs. Tieren noted that Zhi Zhe couldn’t have underestimated him this much—this was an opening gambit, an attempt to see just how impressive Tieren was in person versus what the gossip among the Syndicate had said about him.

Tieren continued into the next room, waiting for the next test.

*        *        *

“He’s certainly effective,” Zhi Zhe said, nodding. “My guardsmen hardly seemed to slow him down.”

“I doubt he even considered them annoyances,” Wuxing replied with a sneer. “We’re far stronger than they could hope to be—to him, they would be beneath his notice.”

“Hm,” Zhi Zhe said. “Then I won’t waste more guardsmen in futilely trying to slow him down.”

Wuxing said nothing. His eye was focused on the screen, watching his “brother” cut a path to them.

“I’ll send you.”

“What?” Wuxing couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He turned to his cohort, a look of incredulousness on his face.

“You can deal with him,” Zhi Zhe said as though it were the most logical thing in the world. “If he’s all you say, you’re the only one of us who’s likely to be a match for him.”

“I will not! I’m too—“

“The alternative is that he comes here, and your battle is on terms of his choosing,” Zhi Zhe replied, unperturbed by his reticence. “Or I can let him go, he can report back, and he returns at the head of a force neither you nor I will be able to resist. I will doubtless be killed . . . I don’t know what they’d do with you. Disassemble you, perhaps?”

“You think that by appealing to my ego, you’ll get me to fight?”

Zhi Zhe chuckled. “It’s not your ego I’m addressing,” he began. “It’s your sense of self-preservation. Understand, Wuxing—if I go down, I won’t go down alone.”

Wuxing bristled. “Meaning you’ll give me up to save yourself?”

“It wouldn’t be my first choice,” Zhi Zhe replied. “But if a knight must be sacrificed so a king can survive . . . then yes, I’m afraid I would, and if our positions were reversed, you would as well.”

Wuxing frowned. He was right—he would in a heartbeat (if he’d still possessed a beating heart, of course) Moreover, Zhi Zhe had re-awakened him, taken him from that lab and given him a task, a purpose, and a position at Zhi Zhe’s right hand.

I . . .owe him.

And perhaps I owe myself, he thought, staring at Tieren as the security cameras on the monitors tracked him close.

Tieren was never deactivated and stored away. He survived. Perhaps even lived.

What made him so special?

Whoever this Ademetria person was, he couldn’t possibly match my powers of stealth, he thought. And my skills are more valuable than Tieren’s physical skills—I don’t need to out-fight him, after all—I can frustrate him at will until I decide to finish him.

“Herd him into the main atrium, then seal the exits” Wuxing said, stepping from behind Zhi Zhe.

“I will meet him there.”

Zhi Zhe smiled, almost as if he expected that would be Wuxing’s decision and keyed in the orders as Wuxing turned and left the room.

*        *        *

At the heart of Zhi Zhe’s complex was his actual house, situated in the middle of a web of buildings. Tieren imagined that was intentional—given the strategy he’d seen Zhi Zhe employ, he seemed the type to bait his prey, then get them to go into the web themselves.

Hence, after his initial skirmish, Tieren had encountered no other guardsmen. The only signs of life were the noises of personnel being evacuated from his general location, away from him.

From his visits to other estates the odds were that Tieren would have seen someone—a member of the household staff, a servant, whatever, but as he crossed into the giant empty chamber, so thick with looming dark shadows and a tense, cool, stillness, he seemed to be the only one there.

But he knew looks were deceiving.

“You may as well come out,” Tieren said, keeping his eyes fixed on the two double doors on the far side of the atrium.

“Clever,” Wuxing’s voice called. It echoed through the cavernous atrium so much, it seemed to whisper from every shadow.

“Could it be you can see me, after all? Did our creator gift you with that, I wonder?”

Tieren said nothing. Wuxing was trying to distract him so he couldn’t get a fix on where he was, trying to rattle him. Tieren concentrated his mind on his internal systems, trying to refine and isolate a specific frequency shift.

“You’ll never leave here alive, you know,” Wuxing continued.

Tieren was still concentrating, keeping his mind and body still. He’d recognized the distortion that Wuxing had left at Tizui Gao Yang’s house, and was tuning his sensors to detect it.

“This house will be your grave, Tieren,” Wuxing shouted. More echoes.

“Nothing to say to that?”

“WELL?!”

Nothing. Tieren seemed to be locked rigid, focused intently on tagging his invisible enemy.

“Pity,” Wuxing whispered. “I was giving you a gift of last words . . . and you’ve squandered them.”

Tieren’s eyes narrowed, as though he could see something before him. He kept himself perfectly still as his sensor’s locked on to the distortion of Wuxing’s shroud unit, and didn’t move a muscle as Wuxing skittered down one of the atrium’s giant wooden pillars a few feet behind him.

It was only when Wuxing leapt for him, shimmering and becoming visible, his single red eye glaring with hate that Tieren finally moved, sidestepping Wuxing’s leap and using the flat edge of his spear to knock him to the floor.

Wuxing hit with a clatter, rolling himself back up to his feet as he stood facing his “brother” for the first time. His mouth twisted into a grimace of rage.

Tieren sized up his “brother”—where he and Shenron had been built with armor and combat in mind, Wuxing was sleek—his body lithe and like a dancer’s. His armor seemed to be primarily solid black with large crystalline limbs, and while he lacked any obvious weaponry, his sharp golden claws seemed fierce and effective enough for someone who dealt in sneak attacks.

But Wuxing was now dealing with someone prepared for him, and someone who was designed to go toe to toe with anyone, and in a straight fight, his stealth and agility weren’t a match for Tieren’s raw strength and tactical skill.

Not to say he didn’t try. Over and over Wuxing vanished with the Shroud, slipped into the thick shadows of the chamber, then leapt out at Tieren, who seemed to always be facing him, and always be ready to swat him aside, or knock him back.

After five minutes of that, Wuxing decided it was time to admit the obvious.

 “Zhi Zhe was right,” he sneered. “It seems you can see through the Shroud.”

He lunged at Tieren again, who swatted his clawed fingers aside with rapid parries. He batted both of Wuxing’s hands aside, ducked a follow-up kick, and then activated his force-field, bouncing Wuxing to the floor.

“You just have to know what to look for,” Tieren replied, easing into a ready stance, holding his spear crosswise in front of him. “I knew that was your best trick . . . I am prepared for it.”

“It’s not my best trick,” Wuxing growled.

“Nor is it my only one.”

With that, a light erupted from within Wuxing that seemed to obliterate every shadow in the atrium in an instant. Tieren shielded his eyes, puzzled that his optics weren’t compensating.

They weren’t the only thing failing him—all his sensory equipment seemed to be interfered with. The entire room seemed to have vanished around him and there seemed to be some interference signal being broadcast that made his vision ripple and warp, a disorienting condition not helped by the way his balance mechanisms seemed to be malfunctioning.

He felt himself sinking into the ground, his grip slipping on his weapon and he tried to fix on something—a reference point, the horizon, anything which would allow him to get a firm foundation, but nothing seemed apparent. As far as Tieren could see, he was standing, or floating, in the dark. There was no up or down, no forward or backward.

He was nowhere, surrounded by nothing.

But not alone, as Wuxing soon reminded him. His “brother” tacked him from behind, smashing him down and raining blows on him. Tieren felt himself fall, but couldn’t tell whether it was forward or backward, or up or down.

“It’s a pity you can’t really hear me—“ Wuxing said. The sound seemed to be close by, then miles away, then above. He jammed his heel into Tieren’s spine, stomping on him over and over again.

“I want you to know how satisfying this is for me,” he continued, his voice rippling through the darkness. “We weren’t sure this would work.”

Wuxing bashed Tieren in the head, bringing the point of his elbow against his temple.

“One of Zhi Zhe’s ideas,” Wuxing said, hooking his foot into Tieren’s side. “Invert my stealth systems so I don’t make myself undetectable, but everything around me.”

“It rather neutralizes your strength when you’re not sure where to direct it, doesn’t it?” Wuxing taunted, walking over to Tieren’s spear and picking it up. He did a very showy twirl of the spear and pointed it at him.

“I’m right here, Tieren,” he whispered. “Just an inch to left . . .”

Tieren lunged to the right, and Wuxing smacked his left arm, the edge of Tieren’s weapon leaving a gash in his armor. Wuxing laughed and stepped over him, swatting his right leg.

“Over here,” he called. Tieren thrashed about, trying to move. Wuxing smacked him with his weapon again.

“I expected better from you,” Wuxing sneered. “After all, they didn’t shut you down, lock you away, and leave you to gather dust . . . you were the great success of the project.”

Wuxing dug his foot into Tieren’s side and rolled him over, standing before him and raising his spear.

“And now you’re going to die, helpless, lying on the floor,” Wuxing said. I suppose I should feel bad, but, really, Tieren—“

Wuxing jammed the blade into Tieren’s stomach, just under his armor.

“—I’m afraid I don’t

Tieren thrashed in silent pain underneath him as Wuxing put his whole weight into the spear, shoving it past armor, into flesh, and into viscera. Tieren shook for a while, then his burning red eyes faded and he went limp.

Wuxing’s lips parted in a smile so wide it seemed as though it would split his face. He kept his hands tight on the weapon until he was sure Tieren was dead. His sensors verified critical damage to his brother, but Wuxing knew the machines that powered Tieren would keep him “alive” for a few minutes even after his organics failed.

That’s fine, Wuxing thought.

I can wait.

Wuxing hovered over his fallen brother for a moment, letting go of the weapon.

He wasn’t kept waiting long, as Tieren’s eyes flashed red again. Before Wuxing could react, Tieren grabbed the shaft of his spear—still lodged inside him, and smacked Wuxing hard in the head, knocking him for a loop and causing him to stumble off him.

Tieren rose unsteadily to his feet, drawing the blade of his spear out of his body. He didn’t move with as much brutal efficiency as before—with a gaping wound in his abdomen, it wasn’t a good idea. His internal systems would heal most of the damage and allow him to function, in perhaps thirty minutes’ time.

But Tieren didn’t have thirty minutes. He’d “played dead” to get Wuxing to shut off his jamming field, and the shock of seeing him come back to life had the appropriate disorienting effect, but it wouldn’t last.

He had only a few seconds.

He leapt for Wuxing who, stunned and maddened by his return from the “dead” charged at him as well. The two of them flew towards each other, Tieren sweeping his spear back as he soared through the air, Wuxing leading with his claws. As they met in the air, Tieren slashed forward with all the strength he had.

They passed each other, Tieren falling to his knees, Wuxing landing a few feet behind. Tieren tried to rise, but couldn’t—the exertion had opened his stomach wound even wider. The pain was too much.

Behind him, Wuxing tried to rise from the floor, but found it difficult, as Tieren had sheared off his arms. They lay to either side of him, twitching and sparking, their clawed hands gripping the wooden floor from time to time.

Tieren rose to his feet, even slower than before, and turned to face Wuxing, who was trying to rise, using the stumps of what was left from his arms to get up off the floor.

He rose to one knee and for a single moment, Tieren’s eyes met his single red eye.

Then, with a final strike, Tieren took his head.

Wuxing’s body fell to the floor with a noise so loud it seemed to echo through the atrium for minutes after. Tieren stared at the body of his fallen brother, letting the enormity of the moment wash over him.

His self-repair systems were stopping the blood loss, closing the wounds and dulling the pain, but not fast enough. Even with his force-field still functional, his on-board systems estimated he would need four hours of complete downtime to get to even 75% operating capacity.

But he didn’t even have four minutes.

Tieren had accomplished his mission, in a sense. The actual murderer of the Syndicate chiefs, Wuxing was dead. Even better, it had coincided with Tieren’s own ambitions to remove the last of his “brothers.”

He hadn’t had a victory that serendipitous since the first battle with Kienan.

But the true architect of the plot, the man behind Wuxing, was still out there. And if he stayed true to his behavior, he’d monitored the fight with Wuxing. If Tieren had to guess, seeing his trump card murdered would send him into a panic, and Zhi Zhe was probably making good his escape.

So despite the pain, despite the wait, Tieren had to move. His steps were halting at first, and he had to use his spear as a crutch to keep himself balanced. But however uneasy he walked, his pace was inexorable.

The last impediment had been removed. Now there was only Zhi Zhe.

*        *        *

Zhi Zhe set there for an hour, perhaps more, wondering why he hadn’t left.

          He hadn’t decided to stay, or to leave—in fact, he couldn’t remember deciding anything at all, truth to tell.  Since ordering Wuxing to attack Tieren, he’d done nothing else, expect watch. He’d watched Wuxing “kill” Tieren, then saw Tieren return to life and kill Wuxing.

          And then he’d seen Tieren make his way towards his office.

          As Tieren made his way to him, very much wounded but never slowing down, Zhi Zhe had weighed his options.

          Tieren was wounded, and there were enough guards in the area that Zhi Zhe could order into battle. Unlike the first squad, they would be facing the walking wounded, and that might make a difference.

Something had to be done, after all—now that Tieren knew Wuxing had been here, any suspicions he had about Zhi Zhe and what his involvement in the murders were confirmed.

He tried to “read” the situation, to look at the evidence before him and formulate a plan, but this situation refused to be “read.” Whatever was going to happen when Tieren arrived, he wouldn’t be dealt with in the same way Zhi Zhe had dealt with his enemies in the past.

          He sighed and rolled his chair back from his desk. His eyes fell to one of the drawers. Inside was a pistol, with a full clip of ammunition.

          Perhaps he wouldn’t summon the guards. Perhaps he’d invite Tieren in and kill him with the gun in his desk. Tieren would be wounded and wouldn’t expect it—he’d pretend to surrender, and . . .

          And then what?

          It was amusing, in a dark sort of way. Zhi Zhe had spent all of his life crafting intricate plans—even now he was formulating ways that would furnish him a slim chance of escape, but the closer he looked at them, the major flaw seemed to be the chance was too slim.

          Zhi Zhe was no fool, the options were down to none. He’d played all his cards. Anything else was the voice of desperation, and nothing else.

          But he wanted to see Tieren, meet him face to face.

          Perhaps then he could “read” him at last. Perhaps then he’d know what to do.

*        *        *

          “I had thought you would attempt escape,” Tieren said, his blank red eyes meeting Zhi Zhe’s.

          “I would have done,” Zhi Zhe said. “But something stopped me.”

          “Why?”

          “An interesting question,” Zhi Zhe said. He saw Tieren glance at the gun on the desk, the one lying next to his right hand.

          Zhi Zhe laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to use that.”

          “On me?”

          “On either of us,” Zhi Zhe replied. “I certainly thought about it, but after seeing Wuxing do his worst and what you did to my guardsmen, I don’t imagine a poor shot like me could do much, do you think?”

          “Then you planned to kill yourself?”

          Zhi Zhe shook his head. “That’s never been my way. You’ve undone me, Tieren--and yes, I am afraid--but I won’t take my own life because of it. I won’t go down that way.”

          “You don’t sound afraid.”

          “Of dying?” Zhi Zhe said. “I’m not. I’m afraid of you.”

          “Of me,” Tieren repeated.

          Zhi Zhe nodded, rising from his chair. “The man who couldn’t be read, the one who couldn’t be manipulated, the one who can’t be intimidated, the one who can’t be controlled. I fear you, and what you represent. What you mean for people like me.”

          “I don’t follow you.”

          Zhi Zhe nodded. “Very true. I don’t imagine you can know. I amassed my fortune because I knew the type of people I was dealing with—I knew what drove them, because they’re the things that drive all men, especially those that are part of this thing we belong to. Power, ambition, money, the gross need that possesses us to possess everything. So long as I was dealing with people who were slaves to that . . . it was as if I could read their minds and make them do what I wanted.”

          “You know nothing about me, Zhi Zhe.”

          Zhi Zhe ignored the tremble within him as he fixed his gaze with Tieren’s

          “That’s true,” he said. “Because of what you are. We built you to be Ademetria’s opposite number—our retribution would be his reflection. But . . . but you’re more than that, aren’t you?

          “You’re our reflection, as well,” Zhi Zhe said, the false warmth dropping from his voice. “You’re an honest man, working for an organization of thieves.

          “I . . . I want to laugh,” Zhi Zhe continued, his voice wavering. Tieren held his gaze—neither man seemed able to look away. “Because it’s all a big joke. A joke on us. With you here, the old ways don’t work anymore. You’ll change it . . . pervert it. Maybe even ruin it. You’ll be the end of all of us.

“Yes, Tieren, you’re our reflection, our shadow. And our extinction.”

          “You’re insane.”

          “No I’m not,” Zhi Zhe said. “But perhaps we were. We were so crazy we built the perfect weapon, pointed it at our own heads, and never saw any wrong in it. Do you understand?”

          Tieren kept staring.

          “I sat here, wondering what to do about you, and thinking of what I could do, and suddenly . . . I understood. That’s why I called off the guards; that’s why when you leave this room there will be no retribution when you leave my home. Before . . .what happens happens, I want to look my own extinction in the face.”

          “I thought you said you wouldn’t use the gun,” Tieren said.

          “I did,” Zhi Zhe said. “I also said you were an honest man.

          “I never said I was.”

          Zhi Zhe’s hand snapped outward for the pistol, his fingers closing around the butt of it as he whipped it up to face Tieren, taking just long enough to center it between those burning red eyes.

          The dark room flashed with white light for a split second and then flickered again as Tieren’s fore field activated. The shot bounced off the barrier, ricocheting right back at Zhi Zhe, catching him in the chest, as the impact threw him back against his chair.

          The chair rolled against the wall as Zhi Zhe fell between the desk and the chair. Tieren took a step forward, walking to the edge of the desk and looking down on Zhi Zhe’s corpse.

          The expression frozen on the dead man’s face was one of relief. While his plan had failed, and his legacy would soon be dismantled, he didn’t look afraid of the shadow over him anymore.

*        *        *

          As he had when the whole thing began, Sai Fan found Tieren in his garden, gazing down at the stones in the sand. Circles and lines, one constraining the other, and Tieren standing over it, the midday sun throwing his long shadow over the white sand.

          “Sai Fan,” Tieren said. He didn’t look up.

          “The Council has finished deliberating,” Sai Fan said.

          “Do they need to see me again?”

          Sai Fan’s expression darkened. “No, they don’t. They wanted me to inform you of their decision.”

          “I see.”

          “They commend you for foiling the Zhi Zhe’s plot, and avenging the murders of Gao Yang and the others,” Sai Fan said. “You’re the hero of the day. Again. You’re not just the man who fought Admetria, you’re the man who saved the Syndicate.”

          “Ah,” Tieren said. “Then I’ve done what you wanted me to accomplish?”

          Sai Fan cleared his throat. “You . . . might say that.”

          “What did they say about my other recommendation?”

          “Tieren . . . why . . .”

          “Have they ruled?”

          “Yes, but—“

          Tieren turned around, his eyes meeting Sai Fan’s

“What did they say?”

“They’ve agreed,” he said, swallowing hard. “In two weeks’ time, I take over Zhi Zhe’s holdings and household, and his position on the council.”

“I commend them on their choice.”

“I . . .Tieren, I never wanted that.”

“The last time we stood in the garden, you told me we don’t always get what we wanted,” Tieren said. “Later, you told me you liked the idea of fixing things. Of making the Syndicate work. Now you are in a position to do so.”

Sai Fan blinked. Despite Tieren’s perfectly even tone, it sounded very much like he was tossing his words back at him.

“The only question for you now is: what will you do?”

Sai Fan pondered it for a moment, then met Tieren’s gaze.

“I guess I’ll make it work.”

Tieren nodded. “I look forward to seeing what you do with your opportunity.”

“You could always come and work with me,” Sai Fan said. “There’s sure to be a lot of resistance from Zhi Zhe’s people to me being inflicted on them. I could use someone watching my back.”

“I would,” Tieren said. “But I have procured some leads on Ademetria’s current location, and I will be leaving for the deep range in four hours’ time.”

“Oh. Back to work, then?”

“It’s why I’m here,” Tieren said. “Good luck, Wong Sai Fan.”

Sai Fan bowed. “To you, as well. I won’t forget what you’ve done, Tieren.

“You’re a good man. If you ever need anything, let me know.”

He turned and left, and Tieren watched him go until he disappeared from sight.

Tieren considered Sai Fan’s words for a few minutes, then began walking away from the garden, towards the hangar bay. He seemed very grateful for his suggestion—Sai Fan would have power, he would have a voice, and the stain of his brother’s failure could no long touch him.

It was quite a gift, and Tieren had given to put Sai Fan in a place where he would no longer order him around. With his power, Sai Fan would have enough to deal with bringing into some sort of order that interfering with Tieren would be very low on the list indeed.

Sai Fan was a capable and intelligent man, and an effective commander. If left in his current position, he would be in a position to dictate a final reckoning with Ademetria, and no one could be allowed to interfere with Tieren and Ademetria’s relationship.

So Tieren put him out of the way.

Tieren mused on that for a moment. The old way--Zhi Zhe’s way--had been to rule with terror and confusion—to murder his enemies under cover of darkness. Tieren’s way was to engineer their promotion out of the field, and in doing so, placed an ally in a high place of power, one who owed everything to him.

Yes, Tieren thought, heading for the Lady of War.

I think I will change the way we do things.