Ripples In The Pool
By
Lewis Smith
www.gunmetalblack.com

 

Kienan Ademetria was running for his life.

He gunned the engine of his small craft, the RubyVroom, pushing it to the limits as another salvo of gunfire arced above hisship, only just missing him. In response, he threw his vehicle into a harddive; banking left to avoid the other ship's guns, then leveled off and sped upagain.

Hekept a firm grip on the controls, eyeing the readouts indicating his velocityand silently willing it to ignore the fact that he was redlining both enginesand go faster. But the ship was doing the best it could, and for the moment,"the best" was a small lead ahead of the two gunships in pursuit.

Heblinked as a klaxon sounded in the ship.

Missilelock. The tone became more urgent; indicating the missile had been fired andwas tracking him.

Kienanflipped a switch, and a ball of light ejected from the rear section of the Vroom,seeking out and destroying the missile before it could strike the ship.

Helooked over scans of the ships pursuit him as he banked to avoid the othership's fusillade of gunfire. He frowned as he weighed his options.

Ican't bring my heavy gun to bear, he thought. I need a pinpoint shot,and for that I'd need a gunner.

Andthere's just me.

Anotheralarm, another missile. Kienan fired another countermeasure from the rear pod,frowning as he pushed ahead. The ship shuddered as one of the gunships clippedthe Vroom. Kienan barrel-rolled away.

Kienanwas enraged. Stupid--shouldn't have let him tag me, he thought, firinganother countermeasure. The damage wasn't great--the Vroom's ablativearmor absorbed most of it, but the armor wouldn't last forever.

Forall the modifications he'd made, the Ruby Vroom was built more for speedthan sustained battle--in an one-on-one fight it could hold its own, but thesewere two heavily armed UEF gunships, flying arsenals with engines attached, andthe Vroom was simply outgunned.

Andundermanned, Kienan added, banking the ship so hard that his body liftedfrom the seat slightly. I could have brought Vain or Mirage, but I had themstay behind.

"Betteryou stay with the ship,"he recalled himself saying. "This should be a simple matter."

Nothingsimple about this, hethought.

Any of it.

Hecursed himself for being a fool as he pressed the countermeasure release again,firing the last at another missile that had targeted him. The last of thesimple options for avoiding their fire gone, Kienan weighed his options.

Firingon them was out--the Vroom didn't have weapons that could target bothgunships simultaneously and shooting down one gave the other a clear shot athim. He couldn't lose them, because there was nothing to lose them in--BarandiColony was, apart from one city, was little more than sagebrush and rocks.

Heneeded a third option, and soon.

Kienangrit his teeth as the Vroom shuddered beneath him. They'd hit him again,and this time, they'd cut deep. The armor plating on his starboard nacelle hadbeen breached and the engine within was reading damage.

Anylonger at redline, and I'll burn it out, he thought, ignoring theklaxon warning him that the gunships were launching missiles.

Nothingleft, he thought, taking a deep breath and tightening his hands on thecontrols. The seconds began to stretch out in his mind as Kienan became acutelyaware that his life was nearing its end. If the missile didn't destroy him, theresultant crash would.

Kienanopened his eyes, shut out the now-deafening sound of the klaxon and pressed aseries of buttons on the Vroom's console. Almost immediately, he wasslammed back in his seat and his ribcage seemed to be squeezing his heart asthe Vroom's orbital thrusters kicked in, sending Kienan into escapevelocity straight ahead.

It wasa suicidal maneuver--going that fast in a straight line in unfamiliar terrainmeant that by the time he'd see anything in his way, he'd have already crashedinto it, never mind that since he was pinned to the seat by the suddenacceleration, Kienan wouldn’t have the strength to fight the G-forces and pullaway.

Butthen, Barandi was utterly barren, and the odds of crashing into a rock on thisbarren sandheap were a lot more generous than the odds of maintaining thischase with an engine ready to blow and a missile mere seconds from contact.

Kienangambled his life, and won. By the time the orbital burst had bled off and the Vroom'sstandard engines kicked back in, he was half a planet away from his pursuers.

Andgood thing, he thought, unstrapping himself from the pilot's seat. It washard to breathe--his ribs felt like a bony fist around his heart.

Because I'm in bad shape.

Heclimbed out of his seat and walked to the after section of the craft, leaningagainst the rear terminal and punching up the master system display. Sureenough, his starboard engine was gone. The rest of the ship had taken a beatingas well, but provided a second round with the gunships wasn't in the offing, hecould limp to a repair station and patch up most of the damage, enough to gethim back to the Silhouette and replace the critical parts.

Kienansighed, rifling through one of the pouches on his belt for a cigarette andquickly lighting it as he returned to the pilot's chair, setting a course forBarandi City, where he was going to repair his ship and have a long talk withthe person who'd got him in this mess to begin with.

* * *

Thewoman who sat at the far end of the long dark table looked at the letter Kienanhad tossed in front of her with an unreadable expression. Her dark brown eyeslooked up at Kienan, meeting his blazing emerald eyes and sizing him up withthe cold analytical quality of a scientist peering through a microscope.

"Nicepiece of theatre," Kienan said, pointing a red-gloved finger at the notebefore her. "The message from a dead man."

"Itseemed the surest way to get your attention," the woman replied, her voicequiet and placid. Her attitude was a stark contrast to Kienan's, who loomed atthe other end, his muscled body tensed with so much anger, it seemed as thoughhe were waiting for any convenient excuse to leap over the table and go for herneck.

"You'vecertainly got it," Kienan said, pulling one of his pistols out of itsholster. The two white-suited men behind her reached for their weapons, but thewoman raised a hand, warning them back.

Kienanset his pistol on the table, turning it to face her, his finger inches from thetrigger.

"WhatI want to know is why."

"I'dlike to hire you for a job."

Kienan'seyes fixed on hers. She looked down at the pistol.

"Youdoubt me?"

"Thereare ways my clients contact me," Kienan said. He gestured to the note witha free hand. "That's not one of them."

"Itwas."

"Notany more."

Thewoman sighed, taking the note in her hands and folding it back into theenvelope, setting it aside. Through all of this, she kept her eyes on Kienan,watching him with a detached curiosity.

"Ineeded you to know we were serious," she said after a time. "That weweren't working for the Syndicates, and that this isn't a trap. Using Mao XaiJian's code served two purposes--getting your attention and letting you knowsome of our intent."

"Thatcode died with him," Kienan replied. "And so did any loyalty youmight hope to use as leverage. It tells me you don’t work for the Syndicate,but then, I don’t really care about that."

"Perhapsyou should."

Kienancocked an eyebrow.

"Make me."

"Iwasn't planning on trading on your loyalty to Mao Xai Jian. I planned to appealto your practical sense."

Kienanrolled his eyes.

"Howlong has it been since you worked for the Syndicates?" The woman began."Four years?"

Kienancontinued glowering at her.

"Iwonder if you've kept abreast of what's happening with them in the time sinceyou . . .resigned?"

"They'vebeen after me," Kienan said. "Them and everyone else in thegalaxy."

"That'spart of it," she replied. "But there's more. By killing off one ofthe heads of the Blue Dragon Syndicate, you did real damage to theirorganization. Not by killing them, of course, but by escaping, by surviving.You inflicted a grievous wound on a Syndicate that spans a whole galaxy andwalked away. You exposed how weak and fragile their control of this sector ofspace is. In a way, you do more damage simply by continuing to live than theactual killing.

"Sincethen, the Blue Dragons have been under threat. The other Syndicates are puttingpressure on them, taking over territory that was once solidly held by the BlueDragons, and the UEF is pressing everyone now that they've militarized theFrontier."

"Sofar, who cares?"

"Youdon't see it--by exposing their weakness, you've hurt them more than you evercould by attacking them directly," she added. "Now everyone's takingadvantage of that weakness to force them out completely, and their backs are tothe wall. In response, the Blue Dragons are undertaking extraordinary measuresto attack the root cause of the problem: You.

"Differentbranches are undertaking different approaches. Some will send their ownassassins after you, some will engage outside operatives . . .I hear one branchis trying to hire the Six Servants to kill you."

"Noquestion--I'm popular," Kienan smirked.

"Thebranch located here, however, has another approach in mind. They're convincedthe answer is not in hiring elite assassins to kill an elite assassin. Herethey're building a higher class of assassin, and all to eliminate KienanAdemetria."

* * *

"Gunships3 and 9, return to base," Chen Lu Fan said, stabbing a button that closedthe communication channel. He sat back in his soft leather chair, staring atthe readouts of the battle, the disgust and disappointment etched deep in hisface.

They'dhad him. It wasn't a false alarm, or an impostor--Kienan Ademetria hadbeen within their grasp. Another second, a half-second perhaps, and they wouldhave surely killed him.

Andhe'd gotten away. The gunships had done a sweep for miles in every directionand his people on the ground had combed the city for the past six hours.

Nothing.On one of the most barren, featureless colonies Earth had established,Ademetria had vanished, leaving no trace at all.

"Incompetents,"Chen said, glaring at the monitors. "To have Ademetria dead to rights andallow him to slip away. It's intolerable."

"Itmakes no sense to blame them," a voice behind him growled. It was deep andhollow, but filled the room like the sound of thunder. "You underestimatedAdemetria. The failure is yours, not theirs."

"I--?"Chen turned to face the speaker, dumbstruck. He stared at the black and redarmored figure before him, his eyes meeting his glowing red gaze. If hiswithering gaze made any impression on him, his face, obscured by a jet-blackmask, gave no indication of it.

"Howdare you speak to me this way, Tieren?"

"Ademetriawas never going to be provoked into a fight with a pair of gunships?"Tieren said. "He has nothing to prove by fighting--his goal was escape. Ifyou truly intended an ambush, then you should have sent more ships."

Hiseyes narrowed on Chen. "And if you wanted to make his death a certainty,you should have sent me."

"Master,Tieren meant no disrespect," the blue and white armored man standing nextto Tieren said, moving between Tieren and Chen.

Tierenwaved a hand at his companion. "Tieren can speak for himself, Shenron. Imeant what I said--you were a fool to think you could take him like this. He'snot some trespasser who can be dealt with by rattling your saber at him,Chen."

"Andhow are you so certain?"

Tieren'sred eyes narrowed. "I am as you made me. I understand Ademetria--I knowhow he thinks."

"Ademetria'sa renegade," Shenron said, walking over behind Chen's chair. "What isthere to understand?"

"Ifit's that simple, then why haven’t you dealt with him already, Shenron?"Tieren replied. "I offer facts and analysis, and all you offer is emptybravado. If you were so confident, why didn't Chen send you to deal withAdemetria? Why didn't you volunteer?"

"Tieren,I will--"

"Enough,both of you," Chen demanded. "However disrespectfully he may havephrased it, Tieren has a point. Continue with your analysis, then. What is hisnext move?"

Tierenbowed his head slightly. "Ademetria will return," he began. "Histrespass was reconnaissance, a prelude. When he comes, he will come in force,and this time, he will not run away from you. He won’t have to."

"Towhat intent?"

Tieren'sbrow furrowed under his mask. "I do not know--that depends on why he cameto Barandi in the first place. But it's plain this was anintelligence-gathering mission--when he comes again; he will be loaded forbear. Turning him back only gives him a clearer picture of our strength andallows him to more effectively prepare."

"Ifind your analysis somewhat wanting, Tieren," Shenron sneered. "It isobvious Ademetria will return, and in force, especially now that he's beenprovoked."

Tierensneered. "I can analyze Ademetria's behavior, but I can't read his mind.His next move from here depends on how much damage the engagement with thegunships he incurred and how much he knows of our operation at Barandi, andwhat resources he has on hand to mount another incursion.

"Hewill return. The only question is when."

* * *

"Aresearch and development facility?" Ademetria said.

"Aweapons cache that also happens to house their R&D facility," thewoman said. "The Blue Dragons have recently been moving back into formerlyabandoned installations on barely-populated colonies that have been dying offsince the War. They're within striking distance of the Frontier, but far enoughaway to avoid any undue attention."

"Youfound them."

"Ihave people on the inside."

Kienangrimaced, sliding the pistol off the table and holding it in his hand. Itwasn't pointed at her, but he hadn't holstered it, either.

"Thenwhy do you need me? If you have people on the inside, use them to destroy thebase."

"Whosays I want it destroyed?"

Kienantook a deep breath. "You want the weapons, then."

Shenodded.

"Why?"

"Mypeople I represent need arms," she said. "Buying arms in the amount Ineed would attract attention from people I'd rather not have notice me, likethe Blue Dragons."

"Butstealing from them guarantees they notice you."

"I'mgoing to use them against the Blue Dragons," she said, her voice cold andtight. "There's a poetic justice in using their own arms against them thatI find appealing. This raid is as good a declaration of war as any."

"Sure,"Kienan said. "That still doesn't explain why you need me. Cargo runs inand out of hot zones aren't my specialty."

"No,"she said. "Your specialties, among others, are assassination, anddemolitions. And that's what I need. I need you to keep them busy while you’recrippling their research and development operation while my people move in andraid the weapons depot."

"Andafter?"

"Youcan raze it to the ground for all it matters to me."

"Uh-huh,"Kienan said. His eyes narrowed on her and his hand tightened around the pistol.

"Whodo you work for?" Kienan asked. "I like to know who I'm doingbusiness with. Who've you got backing you? You're anti-Syndicate . . .is it theWhite Dragons?"

"No."

"Thenwho?"

"Ithink you know."

"Iknow you're wasting my time," Kienan said, turning towards the door."Either put your cards on the table or I'm gone."

"Verywell," she said with a sigh. "My name is Kuan-Yin Xai Jian. Mao XaiJian was my father and your employer. And I represent an organization thatintends to destroy the Blue Dragon Syndicate by whatever means are available tous.

"Isthat direct enough for you?"

* * *

Tierenheld the smooth black stone in his hand, turning it in his golden fingers. Athis feet was a rectangle of fine white sand, smooth and undisturbed, like apool of still water.

Hiseyes narrowed on the stone, feeling it's smooth weight in the palm of hisarmored glove. He considered it for a moment, then stared past it to the fieldof sand below him.

Sometimesin the throes of this private ritual, Tieren saw the sand as himself, sometimesthe universe, sometimes a question, or another problem. But whatever meaning heattached to the sand, the stone was always the same.

Thisstone is Kienan Ademetria, he thought, cradling it in his palm and slowlyturning his hand down, letting the stone drop into the sand with the merestthud.

Tierenwatched where it landed, sinking to his knees before the garden. He consideredthe stone, the sand, and where it had hit as he reached for a small rake he'dlaid beside him.

Thestone was always Kienan, because Kienan was the entire reason for Tieren'sexistence. Physically, his strength had been enhanced; his mind boosted bycybernetic implants, filled with every bit of data the Blue Dragons had ontheir erstwhile assassin.

Everythingelse was gone. His name, his memories, all stripped away by telepaths, bydrugs, or the cybernetic implants.

Tierenheld the rake in his hands and began digging circles around the stone, as if ina trance. They scientists that had created him didn’t know about this ritual.

He wondered for a moment what they would do if theyknew. All Tieren had been designed for was to hunt down and kill KienanAdemetria. He wasn't supposed think about nor do anything else, even something asinnocuous as tending this garden.

And so, Tieren had decided not to tell them. It washis most precious secret, and he guarded it jealously. They may have taken theman he was before, but this they would not take away.

Thesand rippled out from the stone. Perhaps I am the ripple--the reaction tothe stone, to Kienan, he thought. Were it not for him, I would notexist. His actions caused my creation; thus I am the reaction to hisaction.

Tierenregarded his work momentarily. The stone, and the ripples, alone andundisturbed, surrounded by blank nothingness.

Tohim, the clarity of the image before him was almost beautiful--he and Kienanexisted, balanced perfectly. It was strange, he often thought, that he knew somuch about a man he'd never met.

Tierentook his rake and began drawing horizontal lines in the sand. Now the ripplesand the stone were constrained, hemmed in.

Trapped.

Hetook a deep breath, feeling the slight wheeze as the oxidizers in his lungsprocessed the air he took in as he looked at the patterns in the sand. Theperfect balance that he and Kienan existed in was limited, prevented fromgrowing.

Wasthis all we will ever be? Tieren wondered. And if Kienan is destroyed .. .what will become of me?

Whathappens when the purpose for which you have been created is achieved?

Behindhis mask, Tieren frowned, staring at the cruel, uniform, suffocating lines thattrapped he and Kienan together.

Tierenset his rake aside, his work finished.

I should have been sent after Kienan, not two idiotgunship pilots on a futile mission to take a man the entire Syndicate has beenchasing for four years with nothing to show for it.

Kienanis mine, he thought. It'sthat simple. I will be the one to kill him, and when the time comes, Iwill not be held back by Chen's dictates, or Shenron, or anyone.

Weare balanced--pitted--once against the other, and only one could kill theother.

* * *

Kienansighed. The remains of the Vroom's damaged starboard engine lay spreadout from the ship in a ripple pattern. He'd spent years tuning the ship to itspeak performance, years being smart and not getting in battles where the smallshuttle was overmatched, years perfecting the last-minute escape.

Thensome damn fool comes along and ruins it with a few lucky shots, he though,sighing and walking towards the workbench that ran along the far wall. He tookone of the tools from a rack above the workbench and set to work.

Was ita lucky shot, or was I just careless? Kienan wondered, leaning down intothe engine housing, his red-gloved fingers gently finding the singed anddamaged conduits and sealing them off.

Ithought I could handle it alone, thought if I really got in trouble, evenwithout Vain and Mirage along, I could handle it. If things got too hairy, justrun. Now I'm stuck here, the Vroom's crippled, and I'vegotten entangled with the damned Blue Dragons again.

Hestraightened up and set the tool on the engine housing.

Howmany years had he served the Blue Dragons? Five? Six? They seemed to geltogether into an almost indistinct long time he couldn't pin down more clearly.

Hemused on that as he walked over to the workbench, hefting a replacementignition module for the engine and carrying it over to the Vroom.

MaoXai Jian had employed him as an apprentice, and then finally his chiefassassin. Others had told Kienan that he saw such potential in him, but he'dnever really believed them--For Kienan, the work was its own end, and its ownreward.

Hedidn’t want anything else from it, and always bridled at Mao's attempts to pullhim closer to the fold. Kienan had insisted on doing freelance assignments evenwhen retained by the Blue Dragons, and had gotten his way. Kienan had refusedattempts to reassign him, even refused Mao's attempts to arrange a marriage betweenKienan and his eldest daughter, Korin.

Iremember him hating that, he thought, locking the module into place.But when I made it clear there was no way, that was it--he never said anythingelse to me.

Ifonly Korin had taken it as well.

Korinhad been the one to engineer her father's death. She'd joined a rival syndicateand arranged with another member of the Blue Dragons to conspire to remove Mao.And Kienan, being the well-known maverick, made an excellent scapegoat.

Kienanwent over for the next set of parts, lost in thought.

Thebitch of it was . . .it was a perfect plan, he thought. Because the moreI fought my way out, the further I ran from the Blue Dragons, the moreconvinced they were that I must have done it. After all--I never fully declaredmyself one of them, so I was already under suspicion.

It worked so well that even after she died, it'scontinued to work.

Heaffixed the parts with mechanical precision, giving each unit a harder thannecessary twist to ensure they locked into place, less because he wanted tomake certain everything would work but more due to how angry he was.

Justlike now, I was careless, and blundered into something I didn’t understand.

Justlike now, I'm stuck, and more than likely about to do it again.

He restedhis hands against the engine housing, staring down at his handiwork.

He allowed himself a small sigh. He wanted a cigarettemore than anything. His hands reached to his belt his fingers reaching past hiscigarettes to the small throwing knife hidden in the webbing of his belt.

"Youseem like a smart girl," Kienan said, frowning. "So why is it thatyou don't understand the words 'leave me alone?'"

"I wanted to see if you needed anything,"Kuan-Yin said.

"You already got me the parts I need," Kienansaid. "And the stuff for tomorrow night, and you got me those hoursago."

"I worried you might have second thoughts aboutour agreement."

"Second, third, fourth--I've lost count."

"And?"

"It's still on."

"Good."

"Yeah, but that's not the reason you came."

"I wanted to ask you something."

Kienan sighed and reached for another tool, tossinghis chesnut braid off his shoulder.

"Will answering this question get rid ofyou?"

"I wanted to know about my father."

Kienan leaned into the engine housing, tightening afew connections. He was quiet for minutes, only occasionally poking his headout of the Vroom to switch tools or plug in a part.

"Well?"

"It wasn't a question," Kienan said flatly,reaching for another part.

"What was he like?"

"Didn’t you know?"

"You probably knew him better than I did,"Kuan-Yin replied. "He kept most of us out of the business, except forKorin. That was a mistake."

"Don’t I know it," Kienan said, tighteningthe part he connected.

"Well, obviously, but I meant . . .the person whokilled him--my sister--even she knew him better than I did."

"And yet you're doing all this? Avenginghim?" Kienan asked. "Awful lot to go through for someone you hardlyknew."

"Family obligations," Kuan-Yin said, hervoice indifferent. "It fell to me to do it, and I have to do it for him.It doesn't matter whether I knew him or not--he left it for me to do. Youunderstand?"

"I don’t, and don’t want to."

"Was he . . .a good man?"

Kienan looked at her, his golden face stained withsweat and grease. His eyes met hers, and not for the first time he noticed howcalm and dark her eyes were. Her manner was very much like her father's hadbeen--in the face everything very cool, very calm, somewhat paternal.

But Kienan knew that behind that calm had been a mindcapable and ruthless enough to decide people's fates--their lives--in aninstant, and never so much as raise his voice.

And he had the feeling Kuan-Yin was like her father inthat way, too.

He was now an instrument of both their wills.

Stuck, he thought. Again.

"Does it matter?"

"What?"

"You're committed to this thing," Kienansaid, gathering his tools. "This . . .obligation. Wherever it takes you,you'll go. You've committed yourself, even before you brought me in, tofollowing in his footsteps."

"That doesn’t answer the ques--"

"It doesn’t, because I can't," Kienan said."You're walking the same road he did . . .ask him when you get to the endof it."

* * *

Chen walked through the corridors of the Blue Dragon'sfortress, flanked by Shenron. Despite the open contempt Tieren had shown him,Chen had taken his warning seriously and had spent most of the early eveninggoing from section to section, reviewing security details at each one.

Tieren could not determine why Ademetria would be attacking, he thoughtas he walked down the metal hallway. But I am certain that his target is theresearch and development facility.

It's an irresistible target.

He caught himself, wondering if he'd leapt to thatconclusion out of egotism. His project to manufacture superior grades of assassinsusing various technologies was his crown jewel, and Shenron and Tieren weregoing to be lasting proof that his approach to the Ademetriasituation--as the masters of the Dragons referred to it--was the right one.

All he needed to prove his argument was for one of hisprototypes to present Ademetria's severed head to them.

Easier said than done, of course, he thought. While Chen had never metAdemetria, his reputation spoke for itself. He was called the deadliest man inthe galaxy for a reason--he was really that dangerous. In one night, he wasable to paralyze two Syndicates with two murders, forced the UEF to back down,and then spent the next four years eluding everyone pursuing him.

And on those rare occasions when people found him,Kienan would escape again, to leave a trail of bodies behind him as a warningto anyone else.

Chen reasoned that the problem was one ofapproach--typically the Blue Dragons didn't care if they had to sacrifice adozen men, so long as one of them accomplished their mission, and when theirpower had been at its peak, that had been sensible enough.

But now, their circumstances were much different. Theylacked the manpower to overwhelm their foes, and there were so many enemies atthe gate now. The UEF, the other Syndicates, the Pirates--the Blue Dragons hadbeen giants in the sector of space once.

Now they were in danger of being exposed as a giantwith very weak legs.

It was as pure as logic can get, Chen remembered. Our enemies haveescalated the situation; we have to rise to meet the challenge.

The solution, he'd decided, was instead of a horde oftroopers who were good, but not great, why not create a small handful ofsuperior soldiers with enough enhancements to make it an even contest? Soldierspowerful, relentless, and most importantly, unquestionably loyal to theSyndicate.

The task had been easier said than done--of hisinitial 50 test subjects, he'd rejected 15 immediately as being unsuitable, 10had died of cybernetic necrosis after the initial implants, 6 had gone insanefrom having the memories forcibly removed with drugs and telepathic incursion,4 committed suicide before the second series of cybernetic implants couldbegin, 3 had to be destroyed when radiation leaks in their power supplieskilled their organic tissue, rendering them rotting cybernetic zombies, another8 just shut down completely, psychologically unable to accept what they'dbecome.

That left him with three--Hantu, Tieren, and Shenron.

As good a start as any. Chen had given orders for thethree to be given specialized training, to better demonstrate the flexibilityof his creations. Shenron was given combat training, Tieren was given advancedtactical data and defensive weaponry, and Hantu was put on ice and sent toanother laboratory to be fitted with more advanced technology than Barandicurrently possessed.

In the meantime, Chen has busied himself with Tierenand Shenron. Physically, they were exactly what he had planned--Shenron was anaggressive indefatigable combatant. Tieren, while not so demonstrative of hiscombat skills, could fight Shenron to a standstill and existed solely toanalyze and counter Kienan Ademetria.

Sometimes, I wonder if I did my job too well withTieren, he mused,reviewing the security preparations for the next section. Ademetria wasdangerous because he was uncontrollable, independent, and unpredictable.

He's positively obsessed with Ademetria, at times. IfI have created his opposite number--his shadow--I wonder what will happen whenKienan returns and the two of them fight?

He wouldn’t join him--Tieren is what he is, afterall--but I wonder--what happens when you show a man his shadow?

He nodded to the armored guard and waved him on hisway. Chen returned to his security preparations, a little unsettled by wherehis thoughts took him.

* * *

The Blue Dragons security facility was a fortressseveral miles in diameter. The five buildings lay behind a fence of solidmetal-reinforced stone, topped with plasma-edged guard wire. A half-mile beforeand behind the wall and over it were redundant security features--motiondetectors, infrared scopes, sonic sensors--layer after layer of detection thatwould easily identify an intruder, and the snipers in the guard tower was sureto take care of him soon after.

So Kienan decided to go through the front door.

He drummed his fingers on the control yoke of therefrigerated truck, the heavy repulsor engine thrumming underneath his feet.For all the layers of protection that the Blue Dragons had deployed, they'dignored one critical fact: If you were staffing a highly-secured outpost withanything except robots, they were going to have to eat, and food in thatquantity would have to be brought in from outside.

Theycould have had it dropped in from orbit, he mused. But in thequantities they needed, a drop big enough to feed this place even for a weekwould attract attention, and a secret installations wouldn't want that.

He kept calm, doing a passable job of acting bored andirritated at the delay as the guards at the front gate searched every inch ofthe rear hold of the truck. The guards would occasionally look at him, sneerand them turn away, seeing him as yet another in a long line of interchangeablepunks who delivered the food, left, and then were replaced by someone differentbut pretty much the same the very next week.

In other words, a nobody. Exactly what he wanted themto think. So let them search the holds, paw the sides of beef in therefrigeration units for weapons he knew weren't secreted within, let the guardslook at him with disdain.

They'd never know he was sizing them up at the sametime.

There's some local talent, some low-level Syndicateoperatives minding the gate,he mused. But they're flanked by the armored guardsmen in the gate's controlroom.

That's new--typically you don't see them out in theopen like this. Maybe whoever's in charge has upped the security detail sincemy little visit yesterday. I wonder how many of them are in the compound?

Kienan blinked. One of the plainclothes men wastapping on the window with the barrel of his gun.

He tapped the window button.

"Get out," the plainclothesman said,gesturing with his gun.

"What's this about?" Kienan demanded,jerking his thumb over his shoulder towards the back of the trunk. "I gotdeliveries inside."

"Out."

No gesture this time--the plainclothesman was pointingat his head.

"All right," Kienan said, opening the doorand slipping out. He reached back in quickly to shut the drive system off, butthis caused the man with the gun on him to suddenly get very agitated.

"Fine, fine," Kienan shrugged. "I don'tknow why you--"

"Hands on the vehicle. Now."

"I'm not carrying," Kienan said, his voicedefensive.

"Do it."

Kienan shook his head and snorted, leaning on the sideof the truck and spreading his arms and legs. The plainclothes men moved behindhim, shoving him against the truck and forcing his legs wider with a flick ofhis foot. Kienan felt the man's hands briskly pat him down, looking for anyconcealed weapons.

The plainclothesman paused at Kienan's back and Kienanwondered for a moment what the problem was. Out of the corner of his eye, hesaw two more plainclothes operatives emerge from the back of the truck, flankedby one of the armored guardsmen.

The plainclothesman who'd been frisking himstopped--apparently the three from the back were signaling something to him,something Kienan couldn't see.

A few seconds passed, which felt like minutes. Kienanbegan to wonder how easily he could get the plainclothesman's gun from him,kill the three in the back, and try to force the gate. It was even moresuicidal than the actual plan, but he'd always found when improvising, the riskfactor only ever went up.

Before he could get much further than trying to workout how to pilot a truck being rapidly shot to pieces through the gate andescaping before it exploded, the plainclothesmen shoved him again and told himto get his truck. Kienan made a show of being nervous and scrambling back intohis truck, watching as he was waved through the gate.

He drove in silence along the road past the gate tothe main building. He was sure every step along the way he was being scannedfor weapons or explosives at least ten different ways, and every move he madebehind the wheel was being scrutinized.

Kienan kept focused on the road.

Finally he reached the inner checkpoint and was wavedinside. Kienan smiled and pulled the battered cap off his head, running hisfingers through the black hair beneath it. He handed his delivery manifest tothe guard at the checkpoint, who glanced at it, flipped through a few pages andnodded to the second guard in the checkpoint.

Kienan watched the guard out of the corner of his eye,obviously confirming that the first checkpoint had searched the vehicle andallowed it to pass without incident. Kienan tried to whistle and stare straightahead, but was slightly off-key and decided to stop.

Two minutes later, the guard handed the manifest backto him and waved him through. Kienan followed a narrow road behind the mainbuilding which ended at a huge loading dock. Around him there were dozens oftrucks, which were being loaded an unloaded by deliverymen dressed much like hewas. Kienan.

Kienan tossed his cap into the passenger seat of histruck, opening the door and nervously stepping out of the car. He immediatelypicked out the guards watching the flow of activity around the trucks. Like theouter checkpoint, they were a mix of plainclothes guards and the larger armoredguards. The only difference Kienan could pick out was that they didn't reallyseem as tense as the guards at the front gate, a fact Kienan was just about totest.

He hunched his shoulders a little as he walked over toone of the guards. When they caught sight of his approach he could see themtense and watched as the plainclothes guards hand hovered at his waist, closeto the gun in his jacket.

Kienan offered them a nervous smile and put his handsup to show he wasn't armed.

"Uh, hey," he said. "Is there abathroom around here?"

* * *

Tieren stared down at the rocks and sand at his feet.The machines in his brain were going through all the available data on KienanAdemetria, the flow of information like a soft hum in the back of his mind. Thenon-machine part of his brain was analyzing the data, wargaming everypossibility, trying to answer the question that he had been hung up on for thelast 24 hours:

What would Kienan Ademetria do next?

The data and his own interpretation both being unequalto the task, Tieren had hit upon the idea of combining it with his littleritual with the rock and the sand, to see if adding an additional element wouldreveal the answer to the question.

His failure to predict Ademetria's actions botheredhim. He'd been designed to neutralize Ademetria's greatest gift--that he coulddo the unconventional and unpredictable and confound his opposition. ThatTieren had failed to do so unsettled him on an existential level.

What will you do? Tieren asked, focusing on the stone. It's unlikelyyou'd engage in a full frontal assault--you lack the means. And while you haveinfiltrated targets from time to time, you generally don’t infiltrate withoutassistance, and so far as I was able to determine from the gunship fight, youare alone.

So . . .what, then?

His mind lingered over a bit of data buried in areport on the death of Mao Xai Jian. It was mainly ten paragraphs ofsupposition--idle speculation on the causes and motivations of the peopleinvolved in Xai Jian's death. So much hot air, of course--none of theconspirators were alive or willing to go on the record--but he'd focused in onone particular line:

"Given Ademetria's demonstrated skill in alteringplans on the fly, it should generally be assumed that unlike typical assassins,Ademetria is more than willing to vary his methodology according to any numberof factors, including situational. His adaptability is, in fact, his greatestability."

Tieren pondered that for a moment, and tried to puthimself in Kienan's position. If he were mounting an assault on a heavilyfortified installation, how would he get in? It would be impossible to smuggleweapons or people in without help, and Chen had ensured that only guards hetrusted were left in charge of critical sections.

What will you do, Ademetria?

He stared at he pattern in the sand, eyeing theripples in the pool and the lines constraining them, and in that instantsomething came to him. Not an answer, but perhaps the edge of one.

Perhaps the flaw wasn't in his design, or in theritual, but his interpretation of both. Perhaps he'd been concentrating on thewrong thing.

Looking at it the wrong way.

And just like that . . .things were clearer to him.

He knew what Ademetria would do.

For a moment, he considered contacting Chen about it.Given that he'd had every guardsman in the compound on high alert doingeverything they could to cover every possibility, even the little bit ofclarity he'd been able to discern might allow him to formulate a more focusedresponse.

But instead, he decided to wait.

* * *

"Hey," the gunman said, leaning against thewall on the far side of the bathroom. He made no secret of his irritation andimpatience as he kept an eye on Kienan, who for his part seemed not to noticeit.

So the gunman tried again, with a little more volume.

"Hurry up."

Kienan zipped up and zipped his outer coveralls as hewalked to the sink, cocking an eyebrow at the gunman as he stepped over to thebasin. He heard the gunman's sigh of exasperation as he slowly washed his handsand shut the basin off.

"Come on," the gunman said. "I gotbetter things to do than watch you take a piss. Hurry it up."

"Fine," Kienan said. "Mind handing meone of those paper towels?"

"Sure," the gunman said, grabbing a fistfulall at once. He shoved them in Kienan's direction--anything to get him the hellout of the bathroom.

"Thanks," Kienan said, reaching for thetowels. His eyes met the gunman's for a moment, then he seized the gunman'swrist in his hand, pivoted, and pulled the gunman to him, bringing the point ofhis elbow against the gunman's throat, crushing the man's voicebox.

The gunman made a rattling noise like he was desperateto breathe and tried to reach for his gun, but whether it was because of thepain or the panic, or both, he couldn't do much more than thrash around wildly.

Kienan stepped behind him, grabbing the gunman's headin his hands and snapping his neck with a quick twist. The gunman's body wentlimp and his limbs flopped to his sides like a puppet whose strings had beencut.

Kienan fumbled around under the gunman's coat, findinghis pistol and sticking it in the waistband of his coveralls. Then he draggedthe dead gunman into one of the stalls and shoved him in.

Kienan checked the gunman's pistol out. It was aWhittaker semi-automatic--pretty standard, nothing special, but it would do forhis purposes. Kienan unzipped his coveralls and stepped out of them, revealingthe black, red, and blue body armor he wore underneath.

He stuck the gun back into the waistband of hisclothes, tossing the coveralls over the body of the gunman, followed soon afterby his hat and the black wig he'd been wearing.

He shook his long braid free of the tie it had been inand drew his pistol again, opening the door of the restroom and, upon seeing ifthere was anyone around, made his way down the corridors of the facility.

* * *

Chen sat as his desk, monitoring the various securitystations laid out around the facility. There were a few anomalies here andthere--security personnel where they shouldn’t be, but in general, nothing outof the ordinary. The extra security on the outer checkpoints had slowed downtheir resupply of the compound considerably, but Chen considered it a smallprice to pay.

He tapped his console; his eyes fixed on the securityreadouts. No sign of Ademetria. No sign of anyone, and it was very nearlytwenty-four hours since Ademetria had been spotted.

So why can’t I relax, then? Chen wondered, leaning back in his chair.He knew why, of course--Kienan was an x-factor, a rogue element, andunpredictable. Even Tieren had made no progress in predicting what he would doafter their first engagement.

Chen hadn't discounted anything, even the remotepossibility that Kienan would do absolutely nothing, let Chen run his peopleragged by keeping them on high alert while he made his escape from Barandi, orfinally made his move against the compound.

So many possibilities.

You're being a fool, he chided himself. You sound like those idiots onTallan, jumping at shadows as if Kienan's some sort of devil who could walkthrough the walls and kill them any time.

He remembered listening to their stories in the earlydays collecting data for his project. He diligently recorded every word oftheir testimony for his notes, but the whole time, he remembered thinking: Thoseidiots. However gifted he is, Ademetria's just a man.

Not a spirit, not a ghost, not the devil . . .just aproblem to be solved.

And now, he sighed, here I am acting just like them. Scared of my ownshadow.

He sighed and willed himself to look away from themonitors. He looked at Shenron, standing on the other side of the desk, keepingwatch on the door at the far side.

For a moment, Chen found himself envying the mentalconditioning he'd given Shenron. Shenron wasn't bothered one whit by Kienan'sreputation, and didn't obsess about his quarry like Tieren did.

Chen found himself envying that clarity and wishedhe'd kept a bit of it for himself. It might ease his nagging doubts.

The door to his private office slid open and Tierenstrode towards him. Shenron tensed momentarily, but Chen waved him off, curiousto know why his creation wanted to see him.

"Yes, Tieren?"

Tieren bowed his head to Chen, then got down tobusiness.

"Ademetria is here," Tieren said.

"How?" Shenron sneered.

"Quiet," Chen said, waving Shenron off. Heleaned forward, looking at Tieren. "What makes you say that? None of ourguardposts have reported anything, nor our sensor net."

"He's infiltrated the compound," Tierensaid. "I suspect he did so by hiding among the supply convoy."

"Every supply van was searched, as was everydriver," Chen said. "No weapons were found, no one matching Ademetria'sdescription was noted."

"You didn’t find any weapons, because there wereno weapons to find."

"You’re suggesting he walked in hereunarmed?" Shenron asked.

"We expected him to come in armed, perhapscarrying sufficient weapons for an assault on the compound," Tieren said."Given Ki--given Ademetria's talent for disguise, plus our naturalassumption that if he were to break in he would find some way smuggle anarsenal in with him, if he had no weapons . . .how would a cursory search pickhim out from anyone else?"

"What do you suggest, Tieren?"

"Lock down the entire compound," he said."No one gets in or out until we locate Ademetria. Allow me to conduct thesearch."

"Why you?"

"Because Shenron, of the three of us in thisroom, I'm best equipped to ferret him out."

Shenron snorted. Tieren glared at him for a moment,and briefly considered explaining how he'd finally hit upon Kienan's plan ofattack. Before he could, however, a deafening explosion sounded outside andcaused the building to shake with the force of the blast.

"What--?" Chen said, rising from his chair.He felt a bit unsteady on his feet and leaned on his desk, listening as themonitors started buzzing with activity: There had been an explosion in theloading bay, and several fires were spreading.

Chen looked at Tieren for awhile, then turned back tohis console. His thoughts drifted back to those fools from Tallan who hadtreated Kienan like some kind of malevolent spirit, and how he'd laughed at thenotion that a man could walk through walls like that.

It didn't feel so much like superstition, now.

* * *

Tieren had been half right--Kienan hadn’t brought anyweapons with him personally. He knew that any weapons would have been found inthe search, and if he needed any, well, the compound was a weapons depot. If heneeded something, he'd just grab it.

But Kienan hadn’t come in completely unarmed. Thetruck he'd been driving carried a passive detonation trigger in its freezercoils. So long as the truck's engine was running, the freezer coils kept itfrom activating, but when the coils returned to room temperature, the fuse wastriggered, and as it was wired into the truck's power plant, the resultantexplosion was all Kienan could have hoped for.

Kienan had felt a bit of it, but he was far away fromthe loading area when it finally went up. He was underground, in a dusty partof the sub-basement, opening a large box set into the wall.

They never learn, he thought, his mind ignoring the blaring klaxon thathad sounded after the explosion as his red-gloved fingers hovering over a bankof switches. People who take over these old spaceports never think tocut the lines to these emergency stations.

I guess they're so obsessed with building up theynever think about what's below.

Bad for them, good for me.

Kienan tapped two of the switches and heard asatisfying thunk as the ventilation system closed down. No one would suffocate,but the notion that the air was getting thin, coupled with the fire, wouldcause the Blue Dragons to panic, and that panic would give Kienan plenty oftime to do his work.

He took a fresh grip on the pistol and walked down thelong musty corridor, counting off access hatches until he came to the fourthone down. He climbed up the ladder rungs that had been set into the stone andstarted to climb up, pausing as he came to the hatch leading to the groundlevel.

He eased it open, listening for footsteps orscreaming, or anything. Hearing nothing, he climbed through the hatch, keepingcrouched to the bottom of the floor as he eased the hatch back down.

Kienan was about to lean against the wall and ease hisway down the corridor when a man walked blindly out of one of the adjoininghallways, catching sight of Kienan and opening his mouth as if to say somethingbefore Kienan cut him off by shooting him through the eye.

He was about to move down the hall when he saw asecurity camera wedged in the corner of the corridor behind him. Through thecorner of his eye he could see the red light that indicated it was stillactive.

He cocked his head, as if silently weighing hisoptions, then turned and walked towards the camera.

Might as well let them know I'm here.

Kienan stared into its convex lens and slowly raisingthe pistol. He offered a thin smile, then pulled the trigger, leaving thecamera a smoking, sparking, ruin.

* * *

Chen's eyes narrowed on the grainy image of Ademetriashooting at the camera as his fingertips hovered over his communicationssystem. Tieren watched his creator closely; noting how his fingers twitchedwith barely controlled anxiety.

In all the time he could remember he'd never seen Chenlose control. Like most of the Blue Dragons chiefs at his level, he cultivateda cool, serene, air of calm, logical, almost arrogant authority.

How easily that façade cracks, Tieren thought.

Before Tieren could explore the idea any further, hewas distracted by Chen's frantic typing on his console.

"What are you doing?"

"Ordering our elite guard to fall back andprotect the main building," Chen said, his voice tight with something thatsounded ever more like fear.

"Why?"

"You saw what he did," Chen snapped."He's coming for me."

"No."

"No? What--"

"Don't pull the guards away from theirpositions," Tieren said. "It's a feint."

"How can you be so sure?" Shenron said.

"Ademetria wanted us to see him,"Tieren said. "He was looking right in the camera--obviously stealth wasnot on his mind. He's hoping now that we know he's here that we'll panic, andpull our people back to the central complex, leaving his true objectiveunguarded."

"And what is his true objective, if not toeliminate another head of the Blue Dragons?"

"I'm working on it," Tieren said. He movedbetween Chen and the console, busily tapping out commands to bring up a layoutof the entire compound. Chen hadn't requested many modifications of theoriginal building, so the compound had retained its typical generalized layout.Several critical locations--communications and the weapons depot, forexample--were located in sub-buildings away from the main complex.

He didn't go for either of those, Tieren thought. And he hasn't made aneffort to engage our forces in the main complex. He's keeping to the servicelevels.

There had to be a reason.

"Tieren . . ."

"One moment," he said.

Nothing on the level he'd shot out the camera on. Whatabout the level above that?

"Tieren, I need to know what to do," Cheninterjected. That this sounded less like an order and almost like a plea wasnot lost on Tieren.

"Level 9," Tieren said as if those two wordsexplained everything.

"What's on level 9?"

"Our main communications hub," Tieren said."The explosion's confused our people, sent them into disarray. His nextstep will be to completely cripple our ability to coordinate a coherentresponse."

"And what do you suggest?"

"I suggest we pull our forces from that level,have them fall back to ready positions."

"What!?"

Tieren turned to Chen, his red eyes narrowing on theman before him. His dark eyes, once opaque and endlessly calm now seemed to beyawning holes of bottomless fear. Had Tieren the capacity for it, he might havebetter appreciated the irony that Chen, for all his cool confidence, wasrapidly losing control now that his nemesis was loose in his previously secureinstallation.

Instead Tieren thought he just seemed small.

He doesn't understand, he thought.

None of them do.

"Let him have his immediate objective,"Tieren clarified. "Then send a small force of your elite guards andShenron to close the trap. There's only one way in or out of the sectioncontaining the hub. He may knock it out, but you'll box him in and contain theproblem."

"That's the first of your analyses I've actuallyagreed with," Shenron said. He turned to Chen and bowed his head slightly."Send me, master."

"Go," Chen said. Shenron bolted from theroom like a dog let off his leash. Tieren watched him leave, then returned tostudying the layout of the floors Kienan would have to traverse to make it tothe communications hub, to the place Tieren had set his trap.

"You surprise me, Tieren."

"Why?" Tieren didn’t look up from the schematics.

"I would have assumed you would insistedon leading the squad going after Ademetria."

Tieren turned to look at him. If any clues to what hewas really thinking were to be found on his face, the mask hid them well.

"I can better coordinate the response fromhere," he said, his voice calm and neutral. "When the communicationshub is destroyed, we won’t have the advantage of being able to direct ourforces in real time, and the surveillance network will go down as well. IfShenron and the guards do their jobs properly, we may even be able to repairthe damage Ademetria will do to the system."

"I see," Chen said. "Then you believeShenron will succeed?"

"I would imagine, given that you created him, hewill perform as well as you designed," Tieren replied.

"I also created you."

Tieren stiffened, and even through his armour, Chencould tell he bristled at the reminder. But he didn't rise to the bait.

There was too much at stake now for him to bother withit. Kienan would be in position soon, as would Shenron.

All he had to do now was wait and be patient.

* * *

Kienan wasted no time with pleasantries, putting around in the chest of both the guards at the doorway to the stairs. Theycrumpled to the floor like puppets with the strings cut, and Kienan immediatelypatted them down, prying their sidearms from their hands and sticking them inthe waistband of his pants and, after a little hunting through their pockets,found their access keys to the upper levels.

The first guard's key was rejected and Kienan tossedit aside impatiently as he slammed the second guard's key in the doorway. Therewas a slight movement within the door as the deadbolt slid clear and a warmgreen light that indicated the way was clear. Kienan pocketed the key and madehis way up the stairs.

The confusion he'd generated with the explosion andthe trick with the air vents was already starting to wane. The Blue Dragonsweren't as good as he was, but they weren't fools either, and there was only solong they were going to be taken in by misdirection.

Kienan cleared the flights of stairs two and threesteps at a time, keeping his pistols cocked and ready. Climbing up like this,anyone who was waiting for him would have the high ground a split-secondadvantage over him, and a good enough--or lucky enough--man could take even thedeadliest man in the galaxy if it was his day.

But there was no one. In fact, the whole stairwellseemed quiet, hollow.

That's not right, Kienan said, putting the key in the lock leading outof the stairwell. The fire would have shut off the elevators, and withsomeone like me running around, they'd have had at least some people staked outin the stairwells.

Especially this close to a critical area.

Kienan pried open the door, his free hand drawinganother pistol.

Feels like a trap, he thought, flicking the door openwith his foot and slipping past it and the doorframe, keeping his guns at theready.

No one here, he thought. The communications hub for the entirecompound, middle of a crisis, and no one's here?

Definitely a trap.

Kienan sighed, slipping down the empty hallways bystaying against the walls for a time, then finally relenting and just rushingdown the hall. Trap or not, Kienan had one more thing to do before Kuan-Yin'speople could start their raid.

He ducked into the room containing the centralcommunications hub. Despite its critical nature it was a rather unassuminglocation--four terminals in front of a larger terminal, bleeping and flashingmore to itself than to anyone else.

In any other situation, Kienan would have blown itapart with a small explosive charge, but lacking his usual tools, he elected touse a more low-tech, but no less effective method.

He sat on the floor in front of the larger console,his red-gloved fingertips looking for the edge of the access panels to theconsole. He dug into it until he had sufficient leverage to pry it off and,once freed, he tossed it aside.

It was dark, but Kienan knew what he was looking forand found it soon enough. The feeder cable for the main console was bolted tothe floor inside the small bay, a dull gray cable that disappeared up into thecircuits of the console about a foot and a half off the ground.

Kienan put one of his pistols up against the middle ofthe cable and with a quick shot, blasted it apart. The flash and heat of theplasma round being discharged made the air momentarily hot and Kienan becameaware he was sweating.

Of courseI'm sweating, he thought. I'm about to do something incredibly stupid.

Just like everything else I've done since I set footon this planet.

Kienan looked down and lay on the floor, blinking asthe severed cable sparked and sputtered. He reached in carefully with andgrasped the cable a few inches above where his bullet had severed it.

He ignored the buzzing of the current through theinsulation in his gloves and pushed the sparking end of the cable against themetal of the access bay.

Kienan rolled away as the entire room seemed to hiss,grow hot, and then pop. The lights went first, flickering, then exploding, thenevery screen on every terminal burst as well.

It took seconds, but it felt like forever. The air wasthick with a dry, musty kind of smoke, and what Kienan thought was almostcertainly burnt hair. He ran a hand through his hair just to be sure, thenclosed his hands around one of his guns, as he got to his feet.

He drew the other gun, rising slowly to a standingposition.

If the had indeed laid a trap for him, this would bethe moment they'd spring it. He'd just accomplished what he set out to do, andthey could take him when he was feeling overconfident, and when it was dark,and when he'd walked into a room with only one exit.

They had not disappointed him. Silhouetted against thehellish red of the emergency lighting were a group of armored guards. Kienanrecognized them readily enough--they were the personal guards of high-rankingmembers of the Blue Dragons. Every chief had at least ten or twenty--usuallyused for ceremonial duty, but just as capable of serving as a heavily armedline of defense.

They were known quantities. The standing behind themKienan didn't know at all. His armor was a lot like theirs, but slimmer, lessceremonial and more functional.

"Kill him," the leader said, his golden eyesmeeting Kienan's.

At his word, the guards swung their heavy weapons upand opened fire on Kienan.

* * *

The six ships flew in a wedge towards the burningcompound, the three attack ships protecting the three cargo shuttles. Despitethe Blue Dragons squad of gunships that had nearly shot down Kienan daysbefore, none of them had been scrambled to protect the compound, partly becausethe problem was internal and using heavily armed gunships to shoot at their ownbuildings would be insane, and because, with their communications hub down,there was no way to launch or direct them.

And now there's one more reason, Kuan-Yin Xai Jianthought, her fingers flying over the keys on the weapons console.

There was a subtle shift under her feet as her attackship, flanked by its two brothers, fired its missiles toward the compound's airfield.The airfield went up in a wall of fire, her targeting computer reporting thatall the gunships the Blue Dragons had on the airfield were destroyed.

That was the good news. The better news was that theirattack had damaged their hangars, so it wouldn't be easy to roll out the restof their forces. With any luck, by the time they could, Kuan-Yin's people wouldbe gone, having robbed them blind and gotten away with it.

That act alone will be more damaging than anythingKienan or I do tonight,she thought, ordering her ship to a forward position to secure their landingzone. Her attack ships would stay in the air above the zone, to better providecovering fire as the cargo shuttles began to land.

Her advisors had suggested she remain at their base,but Kuan-Yin had ignored their concerns. Whether it had been to make a pointabout her organization taking an active role in their operations in contrast tothe Blue Dragons pulling the strings behind the scenes, or whether it wasbecause this was the first chance she'd had to actively fulfill her father'swish of vengeance against the organization that had engineered his murder, shecouldn't say.

The bit she could say but never would to anyone, wasthat she felt a little guilty. If Kienan saw them land in force like this, he'dlearn the truth: Her people could have launched an assault in force on thecompound at any time. It might not have been a lot messier, but they could havedone it.

So we needed Kienan, she thought. Not his skills, but his presence.His . . .endorsement. Something to announce my organizaton's presence withsufficient extravagance. Alone, we're just another group taking advantage of aSyndicate on the wane.

With Kienan, the first man to openly defy them andshow how weak they were . . .that was something else.

Kienan doesn’t give endorsements, however. So, I hadto conceal part of the truth. Give him something constructive to do . . .so Icould do what was needed.

And as this would just annoy Kienan, well, I justwon't tell him. If he wonders why people assume he's working for us, I canalways say that I'm not responsible for what people assume.

It wasn't lost on her, of course, that despite herpresence here showing that her people were above the Blue Dragon's tactic ofsitting back in their ivory towers and using catspaws to achieve their ends,she was doing exactly that to Kienan.

It was smart, an efficient use of resources, put to agood purpose. Kuan-Yin had no doubt the galaxy would be a better place withoutthe Blue Dragons, the logic of it all was airtight.

So why, on a deeper level, did it feel a bit wrong?

Would my father have done this kind of thing to him, Iwonder? Perhaps I am, as he says, walking down that same road.

The question is . . .why am I walking it as if Ialready knew the way?

As the last of the cargo shuttles touched down andsquads of blue-armored soldiers began spilling out of them, her attack shipdirected a salvo of fire at a nearby guard tower, which went up in flames.

Kuan-Yin had planned the raid on the depot to take nomore than fifteen minutes--five to secure the landing zone, five to attack andload the cargo shuttles, five to get out. Her people were good enough they'dfind some way to get it done in twelve.

She kept an eye out for any sign that the Blue Dragonsmight try to keep them here while they were on the ground, using the immediatecrisis as a shield to push her doubts aside.

The mission, she reminded herself. The mission is all thatmatters, not the right or wrong of it.

She bit the inside of her lip; feeling embarrassedthat she didn't sound all that convincing.

* * *

In terms of tactics, it was sound enough--spray theroom with gunfire, leave the target in a confined space with nowhere to hidefrom your overwhelming firepower. Anyone would have expected to kill Ademetriain a matter of seconds.

But Kienan had encountered this tactic several times,and knew well that what was expected to work didn't always work. So, while theguardsmen strafed the room with their plasma shotguns and ripped everything incommunication room apart, Kienan leapt forward, corkscrewing in mid-air as hehit the floor and, landing on his back, brought his two pistols up and put tworounds through the heads of the guards where their armor was weakest.

The guards fell forward and Kienan rolled to his feet,keeping low and passing in front of the doorway. More gunfire struck thedoorframe and Kienan could see that there were more where the two he'd justkilled came from.

Their leader had fallen back, but not to a place ofsafety, He stood out in the open, as if daring Kienan to come out and face him.It wasn't much a dare, because Kienan really had no choice in the matter--toget anywhere else, he needed to go through them, and the odds were in the otherman's favour, because there were still eight more guardsmen between him and theexit.

Kienan fired two more rounds out the door to give themsomething to do, then reached for one of the guardsman's shotguns. After hewrenched it from the guardsman's fingers, he checked its ammo level.

A little left. Kienan felt around on the guardsman'sbody for a replacement ammo pack as another blast from his opposition took abite out of the wall close by him. His hands closed around it as he saw theguardsmen concentrating their forces, ready to rush the door. They were beingmore careful than the two he'd killed, forming into a tight group, two men onthe outer flanks to cover any retaliatory fire.

Kienan decided not to disappoint them, rising to hisfeet as he cradled the ammo pack in one hand, the other holding the guardsman'sshotgun. He waited for the group to get a little closer, then lobbed the ammopack at them.

Before they could work out what was going on, Kienanstepped in front of the door, and using the last of the shotgun's ammunition, blewthe ammo pack apart, squeezing his eyes shut as the superheated plasma withinspread a flash of fire through the darkened room.

Kienan jammed the butt of his shotgun into the solarplexus of one of the guardsmen, not enough to hurt him, but enough to keep himoff-balance after the disorienting flash of the explosion. He grabbed hisshotgun from his hands and, using the guardsman as a shield, opened fire on therest.

Both did their work as well as could be expected.Against their armor, the shotgun blasts wouldn't do much more than weaken it,unless he got in a few lucky shots. Kienan kept as much of his body as he couldbehind the guardsman's letting him take fire even after the first twenty or soshots from his teammates had long since killed him.

The guardsman's shotgun spent, Kienan drew one of hispistols, dropping one of the guards by putting a bullet through a crack in hiseyepiece. He kept moving, never allowing them a clear shot.

He'd worked with guardsmen like this during his timewith the Blue Dragons. They were good, more skilled than the gunmen on thelower levels, but so many of them assumed, as people will do, that the heavybody armour would protect them from anything. The reassurance of protection alltoo soon led to arrogance.

These were, as a rule, an especially arrogant group.So confident in their invincibility and superior equipment that they'd assumedit was just a matter of laying down enough firepower that odds were, Kienanwould get killed by one of them.

Kienan, for his part, had no choice but to make allhis shots count.

And he did. He took another guardsman down by puttinga bullet in his heart, the shotgun blasts having weakened his armor enough togive him a kill shot. Tossing the spent pistol aside, he forced anotherGuardsman to the ground and used his shotgun to finish him at close range.

He was about to toss it aside, when he noticed thisshotgun was a bit different than the ones he'd taken before.

A grenade launcher? Kienan thought. Before he could explore the idea abit further, he leapt aside--apparently one of the other guardsmen had one too,and, had he not leapt away, the desk that had just been blown to shrapnelbehind him would have been him.

Kienan launched a grenade of his own in the directionof the shot, the explosion not telling him if he'd hit anything or not. Theonly thing he could see through the smoke and the debris was the blue-armoredleader, standing a safe distance from the action, and, if Kienan wasn'tmistaken, studying him.

In the middle of all this? It doesn’t seem possible, Kienan thought, popping up in time to firea grenade near point-blank at another of the Guardsmen, who flew backward andexploded.

Kienan checked his ammo level. Maybe two more grenadesleft, and two more guardsmen left, plus the leader. Moreover, with four oftheir people already killed, they were getting smart and falling back,converging on their leader.

Kienan crawled through the smoke. Taking the rest ofthem out depended on them pressing their attack, Kienan waiting for an opening,and punishing their mistakes. That was going to be hard to do from theirrespective positions.

He looked at the weapon he cradled in his hands.Shotguns didn't make for great long-range weapons, and really, neither did thegrenades. Worse yet, he only had two more pistols as backup, and once that wasgone, he didn't really expect an opportunity to steal any more--the people whohired him were the weapons shoppers, not him.

Only one thing to do, he thought. Change the terms of engagement.

He rose to his feet and fired the last two grenadesdirectly at the guardsmen's leader. He didn't expect the grenades to killanyone, or do any significant damage, but it would push them back a littlemore, make them wonder what he'd do next.

Kienan rushed through the smoke, encountering one ofthe guardsman, who immediately raised his weapon in his direction. Another ofthem moved to shoot at him, but Kienan was moving like greased lightning, usinghis weapon to knock the first guardsman's shot off, shattering a nearby window,and dropping down to block the second Guardsman's shot with the first's body.

He fired off a shot at the second and he planted hisfeet and shifted his weight, lifting the guardsman off the floor and, after ashort walk, dumping him out the window.

Kienan was gasping for air, the taste of the slightlyless smoky air from outside almost too sweet to imagine. Before he could dwelltoo long on that, the other guardsmen took another shot at him, just barelymissing. Kienan took two steps over to a nearby desk, picking up the remains ofa shattered monitor and throwing it at the guardsman.

The guardsman backpedaled, tumbling backwards over anoffice chair. He tried to keep his weapon pointed in Kienan's direction, butactually shooting him seemed to be more than he could handle at the moment,because before he knew it, Kienan was on him, snatching the weapon from hishand, jamming the muzzle under his helmet, and pulling the trigger.

The last guardsman fell with a brief twitch. Kienankept a firm grip on the weapon as he stepped away from the body. He heard thelast man moving behind him, but didn’t turn around.

"You're not much of a leader," Kienan said,nodding towards the body of the guardsman.

"I suppose I'm not," the man replied. Thetightness in his voice suggested to Kienan that he was just waiting--almostpraying--he'd make a move, do anything to give him a reason to attack him.

"I didn't feel like I needed them," hecontinued. Kienan heard him unclipping and activating something--the audiblepop and steady hum seemed almost musical. "But Tieren insisted."

"Who's he?"

"I guess . . . you could call him mybrother," Shenron said. "Not that it matters. You won't be meetinghim."

"Uh-huh," Kienan said. He pivoted on hisheels, spun around, and aimed the shotgun at Shenron, who was already leapingtowards him.

* * *

"I don't believe it," Chen said, squintingout the window at the action below. The fires and the nearly pitch-darknessmade it very difficult to see what was going on, but Chen could see whatever itwas, it was bad.

The compound was burning--not just from the explosionin the cargo bay, but this new assault near the weapons depot and the airfield.Even if he could have ordered fire teams in to subdue the blaze and give hispeople time to repulse the intruders, they'd done grievous damage to Chen'soperation.

"Ademetria must have had backup. Either that orthey've come to extract him."

"If that were the case," Tieren began,"Then why did they land so far from Ademetria's last location? He's in themain building, and they're making no move towards it. Plus: One ship, perhapstwo, would be sufficient to extract Ademetria, why send six, unless their aimwas something else entirely?"

Tieren stood behind Chen's desk. He was supposed to bestudying the information coming over Chen's computer system, but ever sinceKienan had knocked out both of networks, there was really nothing to see and nodata to analyze.

In truth, Tieren had far weightier matters on hismind, all of which seemed to focus on what he'd seen in the rock garden beforethis had happened and the loaded silver-plated pistol in Chen's desk drawer.

"And we have no way of scrambling our men toeffectively deal with them," Chen said.

"We committed ourselves to dealing with theimmediate problem of Kienan's assault," Tieren said, his voice flat andcontrolled. "Shenron has clearly failed to eliminate him and restore ourcommunications. Ademetria has successfully outmaneuvered us, it seems."

"He was following your tacticaladvice," Chen said, not even bothering to conceal the irritation andcontempt in his voice. "It was your plan to trap Kienan and allowhim to disrupt our networks. If there has been a failure here, it's been in yourtactical forecasts, Tieren!"

"I did the best with the information athand," Tieren said, his voice neutral as he eased the desk drawer open."Given how Kienan's allies typically conduct operations, this is highlyunusual--Kienan's allies would have conducted a simultaneous strike on multipletargets in the facility. That these hostiles have attacked an entire hour afterwe detected Kienan in the complex, indicates Kienan is working with otherparties, which means variables I didn’t anticipate."

"And now that you have that information, what doyou suggest we do now?" Chen sneered. "Given the mess you've made ofthings so far, I suggest you make this plan far better than the mess you've ledus into up to this point."

"It is," Tieren said. "I'm going toapologize."

Chen blinked, and turned to face him. The irritationwas etched deep in his face, and made an effective mask for the fear thatotherwise surrounded him.

"Apologize? What are you talking--"

He saw the glint of the pistol's silver plating, heldin Tieren's brushed-metal hands.

"Tieren, what are . . ."

"I feel it is necessary I take a more direct rolein dealing with Ademetria," Tieren said, stepping out from behind thedesk. "Tactically speaking, my ability to counteract his strategy has beenlimited by your cautious and inconsistent leadership, hence my failure to bemore effective in stopping him.

"So I believe you must be removed from theequation," Tieren said, the pistol pointed at Chen's heart. Chen wanted torun, but couldn’t. There was something almost hypnotic about how calm Tierenwas about this; as if he actually believed that murdering his creator was asound tactical decision.

Perhaps he really did believe it.

A million thoughts flashed through Chen's mind. He'dbegun this project with the intent of making a better class of Blue Dragonsoldier--stronger, more intelligent, more powerful. And he had been sosuccessful in that endeavor that his soldiers had decided he was of no use forhim anymore.

"Tieren, you can't expect to get away withthis."

"Ademetria knocked out the surveillancedevices," Tieren said. "And he has a history of killing Blue Dragonoperatives without a second thought. Your personal recording devices have alsobeen destroyed. It will look as though Kienan burst in here as I was trying toarrange your escape and shot you through the heart with your own gun. As mostof the guards are deployed away from the central tower, far from this level,and the small detail you built Shenron and myself to be unfailingly loyal tothe Blue Dragons . . .who will dispute my version of events?"

"Tieren, this is insane. You can't . . .I mean,you won't . . ."

Tieren pulled the trigger. The bullet struck Chen inthe center of his chest, throwing him backwards, then flat on the floor. Tierenstood over the body of his creator for a second, pistol still in hand.

There had been no malice in what he'd done. For Tierenthis was just a matter of tactics and efficiency: Chen had been too nervous togive Tieren the free hand he needed to deal with Ademetria in the mostefficient way, never giving him enough freedom to make decisions, yet relyingon his ability to analyze as though he were unfettered by his creator'sreluctance to allow him freer rein.

His hesitancy was the problem, Tieren mused, firing the gun a few moretimes close to where the body had hit to better indicate a firefight had takenplace in the office.

It was a question of logic, not an act of hatred. Idon't hate you for making me what I am, and costing me what I was.

You made certain I don't feel things like hatredanymore.

No, I'm beyond that now.

Tieren threw the gun aside, and turned and left Chen'soffice.

He thought of his place in the picture in the sand,and how the lines had constrained him and Kienan.

Now he was free. No one could divert him from hispurpose; no one could limit him.

All that was left now was to face Kienan Ademetria atlast.

* * *

Kuan-Yin's people were pulling out. The raid had goneaccording to plan: they'd only lost six men in engagements with what few guardshad survived to engage them. In a few seconds, three cargo shuttles full tobursting with Blue Dragon weapons would be lifting off, and her first battlewith the Blue Dragons would go down in the books as a success.

Would that all the ones to come will go as well, shethought, looking over the targeting information on her ship.

Her thoughts turned to Kienan. It seemed he hadn't hada chance to do any damage to the research and development labs. Whether thatwas because he'd been held up securing her people's access to the compound, orwhether he'd been killed, she didn't know.

The guilt of using him, of manipulating him, stillgnawed at her. She'd never tell him--not unless she had to--but still: sheknew, and the deception at the heart of her alleged "righteous"crusade made everything feel . . .a little tainted, and a lot guilty.

Kienan never asked us to secure an extraction pointfor him, she thought. "I'lltake care of that part myself," he said. We're about to leave--if I knewwhere he was, then we could get him out . . .

She shook the thought from her mind. However Kuan-Yinfelt about it, to Kienan it was just business. She envied the clean-cut way hesaw it for a moment, and she wished she could see it such stark black-and-whiteterms.

But her conscience suggested in a quiet voice thatperhaps that was the problem.

Around her, the crew of the ship was preparing toleave the area--the other two attack ships would guard the cargo shuttles, andtheir ship would hang back a little to cover their withdrawal.

I can't do anything else for him, and in alllikelihood, I've done enoughto him, Kuan-Yin thought, targeting the research and developmentfacility.

But perhaps there is something I can attend to on hisbehalf.

She ordered the attack ship to fire the last of itsmissiles at the R & D facility. It went up like a tinderbox; the explosionso brilliant against the early-morning sky that it silhouetted the attack shipas too escaped into the night.

* * *

Shenron leapt for Kienan, who met him halfway with thebutt of his rifle in the neck. Unlike the guardsmen, Shenron's armor seemed toprovide quite substantial protection for that area of his body, so it didn'tbring him down effectively enough to bring a quick end to the fight.

But it did knock him back slightly, and Kienan usedthat split-second to duck under Shenron's arms and drive the butt of the guninto the hinge of his knee, forcing him down to the ground and striking himagain with the rifle in a lightly armored spot to put him flat on the floor.

Shenron didn’t stay down there long. He flicked hisfoot back up at Kienan, who stood over him, rifle at the ready. Shenron's kicksplit the rifle in two and caused Kienan to backpedal a bit.

Shenron drew two small devices no larger thanflashlights from holsters at his thighs. There was a snap and a hum and twolong blades suddenly formed at the tops of the devices.

Energy blades, Kienan thought. They were the latest thing--flatplanes of shaped force-fields with a small plasma charge. Not very sharp, buthard enough to do damage to pretty much anything, especially since Kienandidn't have very much in terms of armament to equal it.

He drew his two pistols and fired a few shots atShenron as he retreated down the hall. Kienan didn’t expect them to hurt him orslow him down that much, and they didn't.

That Shenron did everything he could to rush straightthrough the hail of gunfire gave him a pretty clear picture of the kind ofwarrior he was dealing with, and what he needed to do to fight him.

He tucked the two pistols back into the waistband ofhis pants and ran back to the stairwells, taking every opportunity to blockShenron's path with whatever obstacle he could throw in his way--a desk, achair, whatever was to hand. Shenron cleaved each and every one apart with asingle strike of his blades, not even breaking stride to do so.

If he wants me bad enough to swat everything elseaside, maybe I can use that, Kienanthought, flinging open the door to the stairwells and leaping up one flight ofstairs, then the next.

He's too well-armored for the guns I've stolen topenetrate, and without any other weapons, I'm kind of at a disadvantage.

Except here, he thought, clearing another flight of stairs as heheard Shenron smash the door off its hinges. He rushed up another flight ofstairs.

Because up here I have the high ground, and if he'smad enough, or blinkered enough not to realize that, I have a chance.

Kienan spared Shenron a look from his vantage pointhigh above, then cleared another flight of stairs. Shenron charged up anotherflight of stairs, fast, but not fast enough to catch Kienan before he climbed abit higher, always waiting for a second or two, to bait his opponent, to remindhim how close, so very close he was to catching him.

It took two more flights before Shenron finally madethe move Kienan was waiting for. He deactivated his weapons and holstered them.Then he climbed up on the stair's railing and, steadying himself, for a second,leapt high into the air. Kienan heard the ringing of metal against metal asShenron's hands gripped the lower bar of the railing he was standing on.

Kienan took a step back as Shenron began pullinghimself up, watching his golden metal fingers sliding against the metal of therailing. Kienan stood there, watching the armored warrior grasp the top railwith both hands and pull himself up.

Kienan focused on Shenron's fingers, gripping therailing tightly and sliding a little as the brushed metal scraped against therailing and, taking one more step back, launched himself into the air, drivingthe flat of both feet against Shenron's hands. Kienan felt the thud against hisfeet and heard the soft ringing of the metal as it vibrated with the impact fora split second.

The next thing he heard was Shenron falling down thestairwell. Kienan watched as he tumbled through space down one flight of stairs,hit the railing, flipped in the air, then smashed face-first onto a lowerflight of stairs.

He lay there for a few seconds without moving orbreathing. Kienan didn't wait to see if he was dead or not--he doubted he was.He'd taken his shot and made it--what counted now was that he make the most ofthe opportunity and put some distance between him and his opponent and eitherfind an escape route or some heavier weapons, in case his opponent couldsurvive a couple floors' drop.

He took the first door out of the stairwell, walkinginto what he recognized was the main atrium. It was a lot like Mao Xai Jian'scourtyard in Kuran--very quiet, very elegant, very expensive, full to burstingwith all sorts of cultural touchstones from China, where the Blue Dragons hadbeen formed a millennia ago.

Everything except an armory, Kienan sighed, walkingthrough the silent courtyard. The adrenaline was backing off and the pain andfatigue were starting to creep in, carving deep ruts of exhaustion rightthrough him. The only saving grace he had was that, this far up, there wasn'tas much fire and smoke, and the fresh air at least kept him from collapsingaltogether.

He walked by a stone garden, sparing it only themerest glance, his footfalls echoing on the smooth round stones along the path.There was a terrible eerie silence to the place, and a palpable sense oftension.

To Kienan, the tension wasn't in what was here, butrather what wasn't. Typically, Blue Dragon chiefs used these kinds ofgardens as a waiting area, which meant he wasn't far from the main chambers.

And yet--no guards, he noted. The guardsmen are usually the personalbodyguards for the local head of the Syndicate. Either he deployed every man hecould to guard the main complex or . . .

. . .or someone moved them away on purpose.

Kienan found that thought a little worrying. He wentover all he knew. Kuan-Yin had people secreted in the Blue Dragons, but no onethis high up--in fact, the central part of their plan had been that the peoplewho aided his infiltration were so insignificant to the people who made thedecisions that they didn't even notice them, so long as everything seemed tofunction as normal.

That invisibility was what got him in the door in thefirst place.

Kienan frowned. He was tired, sore, grimy, and he feltlike he was being manipulated again and couldn’t work out why.

More than anything he wanted a cigarette.Unfortunately, they were in his belt, in the driver's seat of the Ruby Vroom,miles away.

Funny how I can picture exactly where I left the damn things, hemused.

He took a deep breath, feeling the hairs on the backof his neck stand on end. He stepped to the side in time to dodge one ofShenron's plasma blades as it embedded itself in a statue a foot away.

Shenron was making his way towards him, looking quitethe worse for wear after his trip down the stairs. His armor had a few dentsand cracks and he carried himself in such a way that Kienan could tell he musthave damaged one of his arms and legs in the fall as well.

He activated the second plasma blade and continued hisslow implacable march towards Kienan. Kienan glanced over his shoulder at wherethe plasma blade had struck the statue.

Kienan weighed his option in an instant. He'd woundedShenron, and yet he was still coming. He knew better than anyone when you havesomething cornered and wounded they were at their most dangerous, and he wasfresh out of tricks and stairwells this time.

He glanced down again.

Maybe something more direct, then.

Shenron lunged for Kienan, the edge of his plasmablade catching Kienan in the right shoulder as he ducked to avoid it. Kienanhissed in pain as the plasma charge singed his skin. It was glancing blow, butthe pain from even something as small as that was incredible.

BeforeShenron could pivot and attack again, Kienan's fingers closed around what hewas looking for. As Shenron lunged backwards, Kienan rose to his feet andsmashed Shenron in the face with the statue.

Shenron'splasma blade fell from his hands, his body turning in the air and falling tothe ground. Kienan stood over Shenron, hitting him over and over again untilthe stone cracked and finally crumbled to pieces in his hands.

Kienanstood over his fallen opponent, as if daring him to move.

Intruth, he really hoped he didn't. He was running on nothing but adrenaline now,the only thing allowing his arms and legs to keep moving was his desperate willto survive.

Hestepped off Shenron, taking a few steps away, but keeping close to the otherhalf of the statue, just in case.

Shenronwasn't moving. Kienan waited, until he was so focused on himself and Shenronthat the whole world grew still, except for the sound of his breath and hisheartbeat. The tension froze the moment.

Until Kienan heard movement behind him, and realizedhe was not alone.

* * *

Anotherwarrior, clad in armor a lot like Shenron's except red and black stepped fromthe shadows behind Shenron. Kienan immediately sized up the threat this newwarrior posed, but found he had trouble--for one thing, his face was covered ina black mask that only seemed to show his burning red eyes.

Foranother, unlike Shenron, if he had any hostile intent, he was good at hidingit. He was so casual it was almost as if he were out for a stroll, casuallypassing something from one hand to the other.

"Youmust be Tieren," Kienan said.

Tieren'shand closed around what he'd been playing with.

"Youknow me?"

"Hementioned you," Kienan said, nodded to Shenron's prone form. "Saidyou insisted he bring along so many guardsmen."

"Iassume you killed them."

Kienannodded.

"Good,"Tieren said, passing what was in his hands quickly back and forth. "Yourreputation, your history suggested you would. No matter how heavily the oddsare stacked against you, no matter the tactical disadvantage, you find a way tosucceed."

Tieren looked down at Shenron. "Even against him.You certainly don’t disappoint."

"Whatever."

Tieren took a step forward, hefting whatever he'd beenplaying with in his in his hand for a second, and pitching it underhanded toKienan, who snapped it out of the air.

Kienan looked down at it. It was a smooth black stone,like you might see in a zen garden.

"I thought you should have that," Tierensaid.

Kienan raised an eyebrow. He was about to ask whatTieren meant, when Shenron started rising to his feet--even more slowly thanlast time. Kienan could tell Shenron was damaged critically--that he evenmanaged to rise was probably due more to his obsessive need to kill Kienan thatany protection his armor had given him.

"T . . .Tieren," Shenron slurred out."You . . .came. Help me . . .finish . . .together . . ."

"I'm afraid not, Shenron," Tieren said, hisvoice quiet and measured, almost pitying his "brother." He moved withblinding speed, seizing Shenron around the neck and, mechanically enhancedmuscles straining against Shenron's desperate flailing attempts to resist,broke Shenron's neck.

Shenron fell to the ground again, and this time hewouldn't be getting back up.

"Nice move," Kienan said.

"Commensurate punishment for failure," Tierensaid. "But more than that, he was an impediment. I have no patience forimpediments anymore. I've decided nothing should come between you and I. It'sno good when our causes can't see their effects, wouldn't you say?"

"I wouldn’t know," Kienan said.

"I'm not much of a philosopher."

Kienan's hands fell to his sides, pulling the pistolsout of the waistband of his pants and unloading the rest of his ammunition atTieren. Tieren didn’t flinch. A half-second flash of light and a shimmer ofenergy appeared around him, deflecting the bullets away from him.

Kienan tossed aside his pistols and leapt forward,throwing a jump kick at Tieren's throat. Kienan was surprised when he didn'tbounce off Tieren's force field, and even more surprised that Tieren sidesteppedhim and swatted his leg away, causing him to land a bit unsteady on his feet.

He got his bearing soon enough and tried a spin kick,followed by a few punches to the less armored sections of Tieren's body. Tierenshrugged them off, but was unable to stop Kienan from getting inside, shiftinghis weight, and tossing Tieren to the ground.

He was about to drive his elbow into the base ofTieren's skull, when Tieren rolled back with an elbow strike of his own, whichKienan blocked with his arm. Tieren followed that by kicking up at Kienan, whoducked away as Tieren followed through, rolling back to his feet.

Kienan tried to get inside again and drive his kneeright between Tieren's red eyes, but Tieren grabbed his knee, shoved Kienandown, and drove his knee into Kienan's stomach. Kienan gasped at the pain andthe sudden oxygen deprivation and nearly fell face-first to the ground.

He was able to his focus back, if not his breath, andwhipped his shin into the bend of Tieren's knee, forcing him to the ground as well.Kienan grabbed one of Tieren's legs by the ankle, trying to twist it or breakit--anything to buy him a little time.

Tieren shoved Kienan off him with his other foot andgot to his feet; his gaze meeting Kienan's as they circled one another,crouched and ready to attack at any moment.

Tieren rose back to his full height and reached behindhim. From a hidden scabbard underneath the back plates of armor, he pulled outa blade--larger than Shenron's, and made of actual metal. There was the soundof metal against metal and the blade's handle expanded outwards, until it wasnearly Tieren's height.

* * *

Tieren twirled the blade a few times, spinning itaround his body and finally hitting a ready, defensive stance.

Kienan had been everything he hoped. Fighting him,feeling the connection they had was incredibly gratifying to Tieren, not justbecause he had countered everything Kienan had done and countered Kienan'scounters to Tieren's counters so expertly.

They circled each other, neither making a move. Tierenremained on the defensive, his thoughts racing.

The mere fact that he was able to meet him as an equalin combat ran deeper than that for him. His obsession with Kienan had beenacademic; his opposite number had existed for him, but only as a random collectionof data.

He didn’t seem real, Tieren thought. And as I was his opposite--hisabsolute opposite, I wondered if I was real.

Kienan lunged forward, ducking under the blade of thestaff and slipped between Tieren's arms, trying to break his hold on the staff.Tieren anticipated this and headbutted Kienan in the shoulder, sending himcrumpling to the ground.

But I am.

His existence felt justified, and he found he didn'tmiss the man he used to be, or might have been before any longer.

Because he knew what he was.

Kienan ducked the slash of the staff, driving his footinto Tieren's shin and sending him sprawling to the ground. Kienan spun overand sat on Tieren's back, grabbing the staff and pulling back.

Tieren didn't let go of the staff, but Kienan wascounting on that. Tieren felt the shaft pressing against this throat as Kienanreared back, trying to choke him to death, or more accurately, make him chokehimself to death.

Tieren activated the staff's retraction mechanism andas it collapsed, Kienan lost his grip and fell off Tieren's back. Tieren leaptto his feet, snapping the staff back to its full length with one hand.

Kienan was ready, and grabbed the staff again,twisting it and using the leverage it gave him to push Tieren against the wallof the atrium. Tieren planted his feet and turned, throwing Kienan against thewall. Kienan let go of the staff and Tieren activated his force field again,using it to push Kienan back against the wall, and when Kienan bounced backtowards Tieren, he backhanded him back to the ground.

Kienan rose back to his feet, wiping a trickle ofblood from the corner of his mouth. Tieren looked into his cold green eyes andcould see the wheels turning in his opponent's mind.

Yes Kienan, he thought, almost wishing he could speak tohim telepathically. I am strong enough to have taken your head offwith one blow.

I could kill you any time I want to. The question youshould be asking yourself, is . . .why don't I?

Tieren drove the blade of the spear into the wallinches from Kienan's head, and as Kienan moves to the side, Tieren seized hisbraid as it trailed through the air. Getting a good grip on it, he yanked handon it, pulling Kienan back in front of him, and Tieren clotheslined him backdown to the ground.

Kienan leapt forward, aiming for Tieren's solar plexusand driving him back before he could free his staff from the wall. Before hecould, Kienan had seized it and charged forward, meeting Tieren with aferocious attack, the blade flashing in the dim light of the room.

Tieren blocked every frantic strike, the bladesparking against his armor with every blow. Kienan was forcing back, throughthe garden, keeping the pressure on.

Tieren fell backwards into the fine white sand of thestone garden, watching the flash of his blade splash the sand into the air asKienan struck close by him. He was able to rise to his feet, but only just, asKienan frantically battered at him.

Tieren kept his arms up, using his gauntlets to parrythe rain of blows from Kienan. He watched several opportunities to retaliatepass by in between the flashes of his blade in the hands of his counterpart,but he didn't take advantage of them.

He didn't feel he needed to--he'd made his point.

Kienan had forced him towards the big round windowthat was the atrium's main source of sunlight. Tieren finally took thisopportunity to go on the offensive, grabbing the staff with one hand andgrabbing Kienan by the throat with the other. Tieren's golden grip tightenedaround Kienan's neck, and Tieren could feel Kienan struggling and planting hisfeet against him.

In an instant, Kienan let go off the staff, pushingTieren off him and throwing him backwards through the window. Tieren tumbledbackwards, still holding his blade as shards of glass and intricate woodworkrained down on him. He flipped backwards out the window and out of sight.

Tieren could hear footsteps crushing the glass abovehim. Kienan was looking for a body. He wouldn't find one, of course--the fireswere still raging and the sun hadn't come up yet, so visibility even a few feetaway was poor.

He listened for a long time, imagining Kienan takingevery precaution as he backed away from the window. Tieren smiled behind hismask. Shenron had taken enormous punishment and kept coming, and Kienan perhapsassumed that Tieren would do the same--hounding him until he was destroyed. Noneed in making your escape if the opponent you thought you'd lost or, betteryet, killed was shadowing you and waiting for you to drop your guard so hecould strike again.

But that wouldn’t happen.

Tieren climbed hand over hand across the staff, movingcloser to the ledge. His feet found purchase on the ledge for the floor belowand he climbed down to the window, shattering it with one blow and slippinginside.

The Blue Dragon Syndicate operation on Barandi was ashambles, and would never recover. The head of the Syndicate on the planet hadbeen murdered by their mortal enemy (or so Tieren would tell them), theirweapon stores raided, and Tieren assumed, 40% of the complex had been destroyedby fire.

As losses go, very decisive, Tieren thought, watching theplace of his creation burn.

But on a personal level, a most profound victory.

I've found myself, and my place in the pattern.

* * *

"I can’t thank you enough," Kuan-Yin said,wincing as Kienan smeared a glob of regen gel on the plasma burn Shenron hadgiven him. "You've helped me . . .us . . .score a major victory for thegood guys."

"Hmph," Kienan said, wiping his fingers on arag and reaching for his cigarettes. Kienan had heard the same thing many timesfrom many clients in his life, and had always known it was absolutenonsense--assassins didn’t think in terms of "good guys" and"bad guys"--and recognized it for what it was: the kind of thingself-deluded clients say to justify what they've done and grab some moral highground as they wait for the blowback.

Kienan locked eyes with her as he reached for hislighter and with a deft motion, lit his cigarette. She tried to move away butKienan kept his eyes on her.

As he was reaching for his cigarettes, he noticedsomething in his pocket and fished it out. It was the smooth black stone Tierenhad tossed him. He must have pocketed it without thinking before the fight.

He set it on the table next to the regen gel,recognizing it for what it was: a message.

He knew what had happened here: Kuan-Yin had declaredwar on the Blue Dragons, and made it seem like Kienan had thrown in with her.Now it would seem to the Blue Dragons as though Kienan was working for her, andalso that Kienan was going on the offensive against the Syndicate, that he wasthrough running from them.

It was good for Kuan-Yin and her people, good for hervendetta against the people who killed her father, bad for Kienan. Because theBlue Dragons would come, even harder than before. He'd hurt them bad, and theywould pay him back in kind, because that's exactly what he'd do.

He'd known from the start it was going that way, andhe had his own reasons for cooperating with her.

But he wanted her to know that he knew.

He stared at Kuan-Yin for a minute or so, exhaling athin stream of smoke while she managed to stammer out something.

"I . . .noticed you never hit their researchfacility."

"No," Kienan said, taking another puff."Ran out of time. But I noticed you did. Thanks."

"I thought it was the least I could do."

Kienan couldn't help but smirk.

"My people couldn't tell me if they were able toget that program running or not," she continued. "They . . .didn’treally have the clearance. Did they . . .?"

"At least two I know of," Kienan said,finally taking his eyes off her.

"Any more of them, you think?"

Kienan looked at the stone on the table.

"Probably."

Kuan-Yin frowned. "Then they'll be coming."

Kienan rolled his eyes. "Of course theywill. Kuan-Yin, you--we--hurt them bad and worse yet, we embarrassed them. Andlived to tell, worse yet. They won't let you off the hook for that."

Kuan-Yin nodded.

"I think it's . . .perhaps a good idea if westay away from each other for awhile," she said.

"I agree completely," Kienan said.

"I meant because if we split up, it gives themtwo targets to hunt rather than one big one."

"So I'm not getting an ongoingretainer?" Kienan said in mock disappointment.

"No," Kuan-Yin said. "Just a promisethat we'll be there when they come looking for you."

Kienan's face darkened. "I don’t need yourhelp."

"It's a sincere offer. I'm grateful for whatyou've helped us do. My father--"

"--is dead, and what he might or might not wantyou to do doesn't matter. This is your war now, not his."

Kuan-Yin flinched. It was as if her veneer of coolresolve had cracked and Kienan's words had finally broken through.

She opened her mouth to say something, but caughtherself. Kienan watched a number of emotions play out on her face, the onlysound in the room the whisper-quiet exhale of smoke.

His war . . .is my war, she thought.

His road . . .is my road.

Her eyes closed for a moment, and when she opened themagain, the moment had passed and her manner was calm and collected once more.

"It is at that," she said. She got up andmoved towards the door, pausing just as she reached for the handle.

"I'll see that the payment is taken care of bythe time you reach your ship."

* * *

Mao Tsung was one of the elder heads of the BlueDragons, and over the nintey-plus years of his life, his connection to all thatpower seemed to have warped him physically. He sat on the other side of thehuge mahogany desk, fingers steeped, his wizened, wrinkled face inscrutable andimpassive. His entire body curved in on itself, as though having spent alifetime coveting something more precious than his own life and using his bodyto shield it from prying eyes.

"It was a raid," he said. "Ademetriaattacked us in a feint, and another group moved in, raided the weapons cache,and destroyed our research and development facility."

"Yes, my lord," Tieren responded. He kneltin front of the desk, head bowed. Any other time, of course, they would haveoffered him a chair, but as Tieren was the highest-ranking member to survivethe assault, he had to answer for Chen's failure.

And he had to look appropriately contrite.

"Ademetria killed Chen, destroyed yourcounterpart, and you fought him to a standstill," Tsung said, his voiceeven and slow. If he believed it, he gave no indication.

"Yes."

"Why did he leave without killing you?"

"He . . .incapacitated me momentarily, mylord," Tieren said. "By the time I was able to free myself, he hadescaped. Given his demeanor when we fought, I suspect he was trying to delay melong enough to make his escape."

"I see."

Tsung stared at Tieren for a long time. He knew wellwhat would happen if Tsung didn't believe him--he'd be executed for treason, ordereliction of duty, or whatever change seemed appropriately scandalous enoughto make such a gruesome example out of him.

But he wasn't afraid of that. What Tieren feared morethan anything was being denied the opportunity to meet Kienan again, to matchhis skill against him, to feel as alive and connected to the world as he hadbefore.

If he couldn’t have that, he might as well be dead.

"What am I do with you, then?" Tusng asked,finally breaking the silence.

"Sir?"

"You did fail to avenge Chen, failed toprevent Ademetria's infiltration, failed to prevent the destruction of our baseon Barandi," he began. "With the loss of the research on yourcreation, the chances of building another like you are remote. On allpractical, tangible, points, you failed."

"On the other hand, you met Kienan Ademetria incombat and lived to tell the tale," he continued. "And that makes youvery valuable."

"Valuable?" Tieren repeated. He hadn'texpected this.

"Ademetria's continued survival, his repeatedinterference in our affairs, is a continued sign of weakness for us,"Tsung said. "But you fought the traitor, defended your master, and lived.And that makes you a symbol too, Tieren, of the power of the Blue Dragons, ofour resolve.

"Fighting Ademetria the man is difficult enough,but you managed it. Now, I intend to see how well you fight Ademetria thesymbol.

"So live, Tieren," Tsung said. "Live,and through you, the Blue Dragons will endure."

"And Ademetria?" Tieren asked, a little moreeager than he should have.

Tsung's eyes narrowed.

"I take it you wish to deal with him?"

"I owe it to the people he killed. Our people. Iowe it to Chen."

"Then rise."

Tieren rose to his feet, his red eyes meeting thesunken, squinting gaze of Tsung.

"As of this moment, I am giving you the freedomand the autonomy to do whatever is necessary to terminate Kienan Ademetria.When not requested to aid the Syndicate, you are empowered to requisitionwhatever you may need to deal with him decisively."

"Thank you, my lord."

Tsung leaned forward.

"I don’t want your thanks," Tsung said."Your success will be thanks enough."

Tieren bowed.

"You have my word, my lord."