Shadow On The Road Ahead
By
Lewis Smith
www.gunmetalblack.com

The black-clad woman sat on her own in a dark corner of the club. She stared at the shotglass on the table, holding it thoughtfully and paying little mind to the white-clad man sitting opposite her.


"Are you asking me to leave?" She asked, lifting the shotglass to her lips and downing the rest of the green liquid. She made a face as it went down. Altairian whiskey really wasn't her brand, but she had made the mistake of letting Toriares choose what they drank.

"I'm asking now," Toriares said, flicking a lock of his white hair from his face as he downed his shot. "In two days, I'll have to make you."

"Uh-huh," she said, pouring another shot. "What's the deal? Kuran's five days away from Khalis. I own this colony, Toriares, and unless you have serious power behind this request, I don't plan on giving it up. Not even to my own brother."

"Be reasonable, Marasi," Toriares said, his brown eyes meeting hers. "I think you know what I'm doing here. I'm trying to be nice about it, and I'm giving you all the time and warning I can."

"So what," Marasi said, downing her shot, quickly pouring another one and downing it. This was the kind of news that even terrible liquor should help get down. It didn't. "So my gang becomes lackeys for the Blue Dragons? No thanks. I know how they feel about women running the show. Besides, I was here first. Have been for five years. I made this place work. You should be asking me for permission to set up shop."

"So you're going to go to war with the Blue Dragons?" Toriares said. "Think about it, Marasi -- they're a galactic syndicate. You have a gang of 422 people. The Blue Dragons can always bring in more people."

"My people won't cooperate," Marasi said. "They trust me and the rackets I set up. They're not going to toe the line based solely on the Blue Dragon's reputation."

Toriares sighed and poured another shot. "I kind of knew it was pointless getting you to see reason."

Marasi laughed with contempt. "You thought I was going to toe the line and politely surrender just because a big bad syndicate sent my brother to get me drunk and persuade me? I know you're not that stupid and you can't think I am."

"I don't."

Marasi sighed. "Then why did you come?"

"Because," Toriares said. He looked at his hands at the rough bronze skin, callused by years and years of confrontations like the one Marasi was trying to force. "When the Blue Dragons decide to eliminate your gang and take over, they're going to send me to eliminate you."

"You'd do that?"

"I don't have a choice."

"Yes you do, you could quit."

"You could offer to negotiate."

"I won't."

"And I won't refuse the assignment."

"Toriares," Marasi said, her voice suddenly somber and less defiant. "Think about what you're saying. You're choosing service over family. We're the only family we've got. You and me."

"What about you?" Toriares said, emptying the bottle into his shotglass. "Would you back down if it meant we didn't have to kill each other?"

Marasi thought about it and picked up the bottle, peeling the label off. "No," she said. "I'd have to kill you."

"Why?" Toriares asked, downing the shot.

"Family is one thing," Marasi said. "But I made this for myself, alone. It's mine. I'd die to keep it. I came here after the war, just when this place came online -- not a credit to my name. But I was determined that this colony was going to be mine. And now I own it. Everyone pays me from Colony Control to the aliens who run the bloodmatches in Lowtown. Who the hell are you and your masters to take that?"

"You could go somewhere else," Toriares said, setting the shotglass down. "You did it before, you can do it again"

"You could go somewhere else," Marasi said. "Besides, wherever I went, those half-dead Chinamen you call boss would turn their eyes there before long and we'd be back to square one."

Toriares looked at her again, his eyes sad. "You're saying no."

"That's right," Marasi said, getting up from the table. "No negotiation, no cooperation. This is my colony. The Blue Dragons have no place here, you, Toriares, have no place here. I own Kuran, and if you want to take it, you've got a hell of a fight coming."

"You're pushing your luck," Toriares said, getting up slowly.

"Not worried about my luck," Marasi said. "It was good seeing you again, Toriares. Whatever happens, I'm glad I saw you again and we could talk, you know . . ."

" . . . like family," Toriares said.

"Yeah," Marasi said, walking over and hugging her brother. "I know, whatever happens, you'll remember what's really important, brother," she whispered.

After a time, she let go and walked away, looking over her shoulder for a second as she walked to the back offices of the club. Toriares sighed and threw down a 5-credit slip on the table. It was late, but he had to report in when all he wanted to do was forget this conversation had happened.

Marasi, he thought, you just don't understand.



Mao Xai Jan watched the movers carry huge plastic crates on lifters as he sat in the stone garden of his estate. It was a smaller, but no less opulent version of the estate he'd left behind on Khalis, only more economized due to being part of a space colony rather than a planetary colony.

He leaned on his ebony cane and closed his eyes. It had taken two weeks to move his household here, to take over for Mao Dourai. Dourai had been their observer on Kuran for many years, but now that Kuran was becoming more important as a port of call for an area of space rich with opportunity, the rulers of the Blue Dragon Tong had decided to establish a full presence on the colony. That meant sending one of their own to Kuran to oversee operations.
Mao Xai Jan had been chosen due to his youth and his success in opening up Khalis and the Khephren to trade deals with the Blue Dragons.

It hadn't taken as much of a miracle as the others imagined, Mao mused. Alien governments were more amenable to working with a "criminal society" than Earth colonies were, especially when the Khephren system of organized crime was so similar to our own. Ten years of peace, thanks to me.

Now I am being asked to work a similar miracle here on the Frontier, he pondered. I have to make the local gangs on Kuran and the myriad alien races in this sector of space submit or cooperate with the Blue Dragon Tong's policy.

Either the ruling council wants to punish me for my success or they truly believe I can work miracles.

He sighed and looked at the movers. The last of his things from Khalis would be unloaded soon and the true work would commence.

A white cane tapped the side of the bench Mao was sitting on. His wizened eyes looked up and saw a man with bronze skin and white hair, dressed immaculately in a white suit. He balanced on a narrow white cane he held in a black-gloved hand.

"I think we may have to prepare for open hostility," Toriares said. "I went to see Marasi, try to find a way to avoid it, but she's adamant, Mao. She's been here since the end of the Rigellian War and built a tight syndicate. She's not going to give up without a fight."

"She has a small number of soldiers at her command," Mao said. "But open warfare will do us no good. A long protracted battle in the streets between the Blue Dragons and her gang won't build any bridges. In fact, it will close all the doors we need opened. The Jade Tigers may believe in violence to achieve their aims, but we do not. Not if we can't help it."

"What do you want done?" Toriares said.

"Nothing, yet," Mao said. "This isn't the time for rash action, or any action at all. We're not in place yet and Marasi's no doubt gathering her forces to prepare for hostilities. We'd be stacking the deck against ourselves."

Toriares nodded. He agreed, but he didn't say anything. It'll buy me some time, he thought. Maybe time to persuade Marasi there's another solution . . .

"I must contemplate this matter more before a decision can be made," Mao said. "You will be busy with other matters."

"Other matters?"

"A man has come to see us, seeking employment much like yours," Mao said. "We need all the help we can get, so I've arranged for you to meet him. Test him, take his measure, and report to me."

"Isn't there someone else who could --"

Mao smiled. "It's past time you took a second," he said. "This isn't Khalis, Toriares. We're not running a minimal operation with the Khephren's arms around us anymore. You're First Assassin now, as I am in command of this sector. As I took you under my wing so must you take someone under your wing."

Toriares looked away. "I haven't forgotten what you did for me in Khalis, Mao," he said. "You got me off the streets, gave me my name and my life. You even helped me find my sister. I owe you everything. But . . . are you sure I'm teacher material?"

Mao smiled, leaning on his cane. "I wasn't at first," he said, standing up and placing a hand on Toriares' shoulder. "But I grew into it, as will you."



"Kienan Ademetria," Toriares said, looking at the young man sitting on the bench in the receiving room. He looked quite scruffy -- dressed in weathered denims and a black T-shirt that looked pulled over his chest like skin on a greyhound -- but most of the Blue Dragons' recruits started that way. Toriares hadn't even had a shirt.

At the sound of his name, Kienan looked up at Toriares. His emerald eyes were wide and still shone with something surrounded in darkness. His chestnut hair shadowed his eyes and made his gaze seem that much more intense. His hair was braided despite its short length. His braid swayed at his left shoulder.

"I know you," Toriares said, pointing his cane at him. "You were the kid who won the bloodmatches."

Kienan nodded. About six months ago he'd come to the colony and found a network of fights called bloodmatches. They were reserved for aliens, but Kienan had persuaded them to let him in. And despite being less strong and more easily hurt than most of the other combatants, he had triumphed.

"I think I lost 500 credits betting against you," Toriares said, smirking. His face dropped the smirk and suddenly became serious. "You know when you go into this, there's no going back, right?"

Kienan nodded.

"Still want to come along?"

Kienan nodded again. Toriares furrowed his brow and looked at him, a little puzzled. "You don't say much, do you?"

Kienan smiled and shook his head.



Marasi sat in her office in the back of her club, the Last House on The Left. She watched the strippers dancing onstage through the two-way mirror before a sea of men doing an impersonation of fish being sold at market.

"They're already trying to muscle in," the burly man in black said. He stood behind Marasi, ramrod straight. "My boys saw one of their men talking with one of the guys who runs a house on Lowtown, offering him a lower percentage if he could convince more of our people to turn to them."

"And how did the house owner -- what was his name?"

"Gao something."

"What did Gao say?"

"He said he'd think about it. He'd much rather work with his countrymen, I suppose. Should we lean on him?"

"Not right now, Androv," Marasi said. "Last thing I need right now is a war, and they're not gonna start one over a brothel in lowtown."

"You let Gao go over, it sets an example --"

"Gao's not going over," Marasi said. "Because you're going to be there to remind him who keeps that nice little house from burning down. Besides, you spend the weekends there anyway with that girl -- what's her name? Lil? So consider it a working vacation. Keep your eye on him and let him know we're watching him. Might not be so inclined to jump then."

"What happens when they send other people out?" Androv replied. "You gonna have one guy at every place?"

Marasi turned to him. "No need for that. Just keep your eyes on our key people. Show the flag, let them know we're not turning tail just because the big bad Blue Dragons showed up."

"That many guys on the street, things as tense as they are," Androv said, shaking his head.

 

"One itchy trigger finger could mean war."

"I know," Marasi said. "But not war right now."




Toriares rocked back and forth on his heels in the fine sand of the circle. Opposite him stood Kienan, staring impassively at him. Toriares has dressed down into his training gear -- though he could fight well in a suit, he preferred to have his full range of movement.

Toriares raised a small white club up in front of Kienan. "You got a weapon?"

Kienan reached behind him and pulled out a huge knife. The Midare-Giri had been his prize for winning the bloodmatches, and it was proof to anyone of what he had achieved. Toriares looked at it a little worried.

"Uh," Toriares said. "You do know I'm just testing you, right?"

Kienan nodded.

Toriares looked at the knife again and focused himself. "Then let's begin."

Kienan stepped in and kicked out at Toriares, who ducked and flipped Kienan onto the sand with his club. Kienan flipped back to his feet and swept Toriares' legs out from underneath him. Kienan kicked his leg up and drove it down onto Toriares, but Toriares rolled clear and caught him with a quick kick to Kienan's ribs. Kienan reeled and that gave Toriares time to get up and try to tag him with the club.

"You've got skill, all right," Toriares said, his club clanging against Kienan's knife. He turned, flipping Kienan over his shoulder. Kienan popped up, angry and threw a spinning kick that just missed Toriares.

Toriares smiled. While he knew very little about mentoring someone, he knew all you had to do to see someone's true face was to get them mad, and he was succeeding. He dodged Kienan's follow-up punches and elbowed him in the back of the head, forcing him down to the sand.

Kienan kicked his left leg up into Toriares' groin and tossed him onto the sand. Toriares swung his legs around and tossed Kienan to the sand as well, and they rolled clear and flipped to their feet.

Toriares shook the sand from his hair and pressed a hidden button on his club. It telescoped outwards, becoming the cane it usually was. He twirled it a few times, then gestured for Kienan to attack him.

Kienan glared and rushed him, knife out, stabbing forward two times and then trying an arc slash to catch him while he dodged the stabs. Toriares blocked it, and whipped the end of his cane into Kienan's shin, then again into his left thigh. Kienan reeled, his legs suddenly unsteady. He rocked back on his heels and leapt at Toriares, kicking out and spinning through the air.

Toriares sidestepped and whipped the tip of his cane onto Kienan's shoulder. Kienan grimaced in frustration and tried to strike him with his knife, but Toriares was ready for it. He blocked the knife with his cane and reached behind his back.

Kienan stood over Toriares, who was leaning back almost leisurely and smiling. Maybe it was because of the contemptuous ease with which he was blocking his blade.

Or maybe it was the small shotgun he was holding at Kienan's throat.

"You got the skill and you know how to use it," Toriares said. "Just remember -- someone pulls one of these, and all the skill in the world won't help you. You need more."

Kienan moved away and sheathed his knife, looking at his feet. Toriares raised an eyebrow as he regarded the young man before him.

"Hey," Toriares said gently. "You didn't fail. You passed. You've got the fundamental skill, you just need . . . a little polish."

Kienan looked surprised as he busily brushed away the sand that had stuck to his golden skin.

"Yeah," Toriares said. He gestured to his cane as Kienan rubbed the red spots where Toriares had hit him with the cane, "I prefer to use the cane or my own hands, myself. We pride ourselves on honorable combat, but sometimes it's not our call. It's no good being the best swordsman in the galaxy if everyone who challenges you carries a gun. You understand?"

Kienan nodded. He still looked sullen. Toriares wondered how long it had been since he'd lost at something.

"So most of the time, you pick the fight -- how it happens, what you use, where it happens. A good fighter will always control the battle instinctively. A good assassin can make any ground his killing ground, even outnumbered with only his naked hands," Toriares said. "Because you know how to play on any field, even their own, better than they do. Following me?"

Kienan smiled and nodded.

"Good. Now let's get cleaned up," Toriares said. "You've got a lot of horizons to broaden."



Mao knelt before the circular screen before him. On a small polished wood table, his wrinkled fingers worked quickly over a keyboard, each key in his native Mandarin, each key sending a septuple-encoded signal through space hopping from satellite to satellite across the galaxy back to Neptune. The screen filled with static, then the standby screen emblazoned with the blue dragon, its body and talons encircling a single ideogram.

"Control."

The screen went black, then resolved into a dimly lit room. In the center of the room a single light cast long shadows over twelve men, clad in the red, black and blue robes of their station.

 

This was the leadership of the Blue Dragon Tong in their lair.

"Report, Mao Xai Jan," one of the leaders said. Mao couldn't tell which, but it sounded like Mao Quo Chen. It had been so long since he had been at headquarters with his fellow leaders -- province-masters; that was what they called themselves, an echo of Ancient China that their voices had seemed to blur together.

After all, he thought, given what we are, should I be surprised we are so similar?

"I bring a report on the progress of our assumption of operations on the Frontier," Mao said, bowing while sitting on his knees. "Things are moving slowly, but so far we are still on our timetable."

"The Marasi organization," another of the province-masters said.

"Yes," Mao replied. "She is unwilling to fold her organization into ours or negotiate a settlement. Her people watch mine try to establish contacts in the colony. I fear open conflict will result before long."

"Have you considered simply eliminating her?"

"Yes," Mao said. "However, I do not believe that would solve the problem, it would only galvanize the colony authorities against us and strengthen her organization's resistance."

"I wonder if perhaps you simply have no stomach for an option involving force," the province-master replied.

"I was sent here to open the Frontier to our organization and establish our hegemony," Mao said. "I was not sent to create martyrs and needlessly complicate this task."

"We are delighted to hear your resolve is not diminished," the province-master replied. "But your time is short. Other syndicates are even now establishing themselves on Frontier colonies and haste is called for if we are to have a monopoly on the Frontier. So you have one week to break the stalemate, Mao Xai Jan. If not, you will be replaced."

Mao swallowed hard. It was a threat all right, and he knew it. Removal of province-masters were rare, but not unheard of, and that was exactly what the province-master was intimating.

"Do you understand your task, Mao Xai Jan?"

Mao nodded and bowed again. "I do," he said. "Upon my next transmission, I will report our assumption of command of activity on this colony."

"See that you do this," the province-master said. The screen flashed the standby screen again, then went dark.



"Ever used one of these before?" Toriares said, handing a small black pistol to Kienan.

 

Kienan hefted it in his hands and shook his head. They stood in front of four wood silhouettes of a man's shape, places twenty feet away.

"Well," Toriares said, sighing tersely at Kienan's continued silence. "It's an Avenger -- a cheap, disposable handgun. It only has 3 rounds and can't be re-loaded and it's about the worst firearm you can possibly use. It's balanced wrong, tough to aim and kicks too hard. The rounds are explosive-tip. See how many times you can make a kill shot on this target."

Toriares pointed to the target in front of Kienan. Kienan hefted the gun and took aim.

BLAM!

A perfect shot in the center of the silhouette. The explosive round blew the target to pieces leaving only a head attached to the mounting bracket.

BLAM!

Another shot, this one to the target to the left of the one he had destroyed. The head of the target disappeared in an explosion of splintered wood.

BLAM!

The target to the right of the first target was suddenly missing its right arm. There was a slow cracking noise as the rest of the target fell away. Kienan lowered the pistol. Toriares stared at him, his expression a mixture of exasperation and genuine awe.

Finally he broke into a smile. "You know," he said, pointing his cane at Kienan and winking. "No one likes a showoff."




A day later, Toriares was called before Mao. They walked through the stone garden, Mao wanting nothing more than to have to pass on the order her knew he would eventually have to give.

"What's your opinion of the new man?" Mao asked Toriares, looking down at the ripples the stones made in the fine sand.

Toriares leaned on his cane. "You want the honest answer?"

"Always," Mao said.

Toriares rocked back and forth, balancing on his cane. "He's some kind of prodigy," he said. "If one could say there was such a thing for our line of work. I know masters in the syndicate that don't have the natural gifts he has."

"He has your full confidence?"

Toriares grimaced. "I wouldn't say that. He needs some polish. I'm not exactly sure he knows yet when to fight and when to talk. I suppose there wasn't much need for negotiation in a bloodmatch pit."

"That's why you're in charge, Toriares," Mao said. "He will follow your direction. He doesn't have to talk, he only has to come to your aid should it come to a fight."

"That's a good thing for him," Toriares said. "He hasn't said a word since I've met him. He's not mute, just . . . quiet."

"Is he ready?"

Toriares looked at Mao. "For what?"

"I'm afraid the order has come," Mao said. "Something must be done about Marasi."

Toriares looked at the stones in the sand, their ripples static and yet disturbing the sands. He sighed, resting on his cane. "I figured," he said. "It's either that or war."

"Or we do nothing and our position is vacated," Mao said. "The other province-masters are quite adamant about making the Frontier ours. If we cannot do it, they will send others and . . . make an example of us."

"I understand," Toriares said. "So what's the plan?"

"The surest way to kill a snake it to cut off its head," Mao said. "Marasi must be removed."

"I see," Toriares said, stiffening. Duty and family, he thought. Seem I'll have to choose sooner than I thought.

"With Marasi out of the way, her subordinates will fall in line, or attempt to flee the colony, leaving a vacuum into which we will fill."

"It's a sensible enough plan," Toriares said. "But you assume her organization won't be galvanized by her death."

"I don't intend to have her killed," Mao said. "I intend to remove her. You can destroy a house of cards by pulling out a card in a critical space. Only a fool destroys the house by burning every card. It is wasteful."

"So how do you intend to . . . remove her?" Toriares asked, breathing a sigh of relief.

"I am already seeing to it," Mao said. "It's better you don't know the particulars of that part of the plan. Take your second to meet with her at her club tomorrow night and keep her occupied for exactly two hours."

"And at the end of two hours?"

Mao handed him a carefully folded sheet of paper. "Ten men from her organization will also be at this meeting," Mao said. "It has all been arranged. The names of the men written in red must be eliminated. Without Marasi to lead or rally around and without these men to assume power, the organization will be unable to oppose us and will be absorbed into our syndicate."

"What about the other ten men?" Toriares asked, reading the names and committing them to memory.

"If necessary, eliminate them too," Mao said. "They are unimportant. You have 36 hours until your meeting, Toriares. I'm afraid you will have to accelerate Kienan's indoctrination. You are the only two people I can spare to have at the meeting. From here on, the plan will only succeed if every order and every timetable is followed to perfection."

"I'll do it," Toriares said, bowing to Mao. "Thank you."

Mao smiled. "Understand this, Toriares Ata'e," he said, pointing at him. "This plan is not a personal favor to you. Keep that in mind should someone ask."

"If anyone asks me, I'm only following orders," Toriares said. "But unofficially, thank you Mao."

Mao bowed his head to Toriares and waved him off. As Toriares left the garden Mao took a stone from a pile next to the garden and turned it over in his hands. He held the stone in his hand, rubbing his thumb over the smooth rock. If he dropped in the stone, it would change everything. This new colony, the unknown Frontier beyond it, Toriares new second; they were all new things that would re-shape the future.

He looked at the rock and dropped it in.



The next night Toriares picked up Kienan at his place. He stared at it, more than a little disapproving. It wasn't dirty, or squalid, it just wasn't much of anything. The only furniture was a small shelf-like bed in the corner, there was no sign of food or furniture, just a travel bag with Kienan's clothes hanging out of it.

Somehow I thought a bloodmatch champion would live better than this, Toriares thought. Kienan walked in from the bathroom, dressed as he had been the previous nights he had seen him. Unbelievable. Does everything this man owns come in denim and black?

"Well," Toriares said, reaching behind and underneath his jacket. He pulled out a pistol and handed it to Kienan. "It's time."

Kienan took the pistol, ejected the clip, checked it and slapped the clip back in, chambering a round and tucking the pistol into his waistband.

Toriares watched him walking out the door and followed him to the car below, tapping his cane idly on the wall as they went to their sides and opened the car doors. He rested his hand on the roof of the car and stared at Kienan.

"You sure this is what you want?" Toriares said. "No change of mind?"

Kienan shook his head.

"Look," Toriares said. "A lot of guys get into this life before they really know what's involved. You're young. You could do a lot with your life besides this."

"Are you telling me to go?"

Toariares blinked. "You talked."

"Yes," Kienan said. "Yes, I did."

"Why did you wait until now to say anything?"

"I was listening to you," Kienan replied. His voice was smooth and calm, but the voice of someone who seemed much older than he seemed. "And to answer your question -- well, let's just say I've been in this life for awhile now. Even before the bloodmatches."

Toriares studied his eyes for the first time. The shadows in his eyes told him all he needed to know.

"Get in," he said. "Let's go."



They arrived at The Last House on the Left an hour later and were quickly shuffled inside. It was after hours, so the club was deserted except for Toriares, Kienan, and about ten of the leaders of Marasi's organization. Toriares was led into Marasi's office in the rear of the club while Kienan was kept there, disarmed by Androv, who sat across from him, eyeing the young man suspiciously.

"So who's the junior mechanic?" Marasi said, staring through the two-way glass.

"He's my second," Toriares said, balancing on his cane.

"He doesn't look like much," Marasi said. She turned back to face Toriares. "I got the word two hours ago. Mao said you'd be coming by with an agreement?"

"Yes," Toriares said. "You'll have to step down as head of your organization and let us take over, but you'll be taken care of, you'll still get your cut."

"Retired," Marasi said. "But not assassinated?"

"That's the plan."

"That money's got to come from somewhere," Marasi said. "Who pays?"

"We do," Toriares said, his fingers running over the buttons on his cane. This isn't right, he thought. She's stalling for time.

"That's very kind of you," Marasi said, walking behind her desk. "What happens if I don't want to be retired?"

"You get removed and we take over," Toriares said. "We totally cut you out."

"I figured," Marasi said. She raised the receiver on her visi-phone to her hear and tapped a number out "Excuse me," she said. "I need to make a call." She stared at the phone. "Yes, it's me," she said curtly. "It's done? Good." She set the phone down and looked at Toriares.

"I'm afraid it's out of your hands, brother," Marasi said. "I've just cut you out. Five of your runners just had their throats cut and were dumped outside Mao's estate. It's war."

"You can't win a war against us."

"I can if you're playing on my field," Marasi said. "I knew your deal was phony before you confirmed it to me. Mao just wanted you to keep me off-balance while more of his people got here. Well, he can bring an army if he feels like it, it won't do him any good. This is our colony; you have no place here. And, I'm afraid, I have to send you on your way as well."

Marasi opened one of her desk drawers and took out a small pistol. "I'm sorry it came to this, brother," she said. "But really, family has no place in a business like this. And if it comes down to a tie between keeping what I've built and keeping the family unit intact, well . . . I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."

She stepped from behind the desk. Toriares rocked against his cane, holding it horizontally in both hands. His thumb pressed a hidden button on the butt of the cane as she drew closer.

"Nothing to say?" Marasi asked, raising the pistol to his face.

"Nothing that would make a difference," Toriares said. "I think we made our choices a long time ago. This is just the inevitable collision."

"Philosophical," Marasi said, drawing back the hammer on the pistol. "I'll see it's put it on your headstone."

Toriares ducked and swept his cane at Marasi in a low arc. The cane strike was mirrored by the flight of a metal chair on the far end of the office that sailed through the air, hooked by a magnetic beam in the end of his cane.

Marasi blocked it with her arm, sending a bullet into the ceiling. Toriares whipped the tip of his cane into her forearm and knocked the pistol out of her hand. He followed up by shoving the butt of his cane into her stomach, pushing her forward and sending her sprawling against the wall.

She turned back to him, her lips contorted in a snarl of anger. She reached behind her and pulled out a length of weighted chain, twirling one end of it as she sized him up.



Kienan heard the shot and kicked one of the legs out of the table where his knife and pistol lay. The table leaned towards him, causing his gun and his knife to slide towards him. Androv shoved his chair up as he stood up and drew a bead on him, but not fast enough.

Kienan put a bullet in Androv's head as he kicked the table away. The room was suddenly alive with the sound of people pulling out weapons. Another of Marasi's men tried to get a bead on him, so Kienan used Androv as a shield as he returned fire. Three men fell, all of them hit by kill shots. Kienan looked around. Three more shots. He could hear one of the men trying to get behind him.

Kienan fired three more times to push the men in front of him back, drew his knife and turned on his heels to the man with the gun, shoving the blade through the man's stomach, then stealing his pistol from the man's waistband and opening fire on the remaining men. One of them took discretion as the better part of valor and ran for the door, only to be dropped as he grasped for the handle by a bullet in the spine.

Another man tried to rush him, only to be cut down by Kienan's knife as Kienan ducked and killed another man. Still another dove behind the bar, looking for the sawed-off shotgun he knew was kept there. Kienan took another pistol and fired at every bottle of whiskey at the bar, then grabbed a box of matches from another table, quickly striking one, holding it against the pack and lobbing the flaming matchbox at the bar. The man behind the bar stumbled out the other end, his black suit burning as he frantically tried to pat it out. Kienan kicked him in the temple, sending the man to the floor. The man rolled along the floor, extinguishing the flames and whipping his jacket off. He grabbed a chair, wrapped his jacket around it and laid it on the burning bar long enough for the jacket to burn. He charged at Kienan, shoving the burning chair at him. Kienan ducked and dodged it, trying to get a clear shot.

The man lowered the chair, the flames starting to catch on the dry wood of the chair and Kienan pulled the trigger, only to find his gun empty. The man smiled and dropped the chair, running for the door.

Kienan grabbed the gun by the barrel and pitched it at the man's feet. He threw it with such force that when the gun struck him in the knee he fell to the floor, clutching at his knee and howling with pain.

Kienan walked over to him, knife drawn.

The man looked up at him. Kienan looked at him with blank eyes and sheathed his knife.

"Are you going to kill me?" The man asked, his eyes fearful and pleading.

"Yes," Kienan said. "It's what I do."



Marasi whipped the chain into her desk, the razor edges on the links leaving a long cruel scar along its surface. Toriares tried to snag the chain on her follow-up strike but she was too fast for him. He had tried to snag it with his magnetic beam, but Marasi's chain was composed of a non-magnetic metal.

Besides, he reasoned. Tricks aren't going to win this fight.

The weight of her chain swung at him, he slapped it back at her with the tip of his cane, then turned and did the same with the other end she threw at him. Toriares reached a hand behind him, almost closing it against his shotgun, but halting before he could draw it.

"You have to know," Marasi said, throwing the chain at Toriares again. It smashed through a chair and tore the back of it to bits. "You don't have a prayer of leaving here alive. My men have already taken care of your second by now."

"I wouldn't bet on it," Toriares said, crouching and turning and swiping at Marasi's legs with his cane. Marasi leapt high above his strike and snaked the links of her chain around Toriares' neck. She wasted no time in cinching them around his neck, the razor-tipped links cutting into his bronze skin and staining it with blood. She leaned against his back, trying to break his neck with her weapon. Toriares felt his hands open and his cane slip from his grasp.

"I told you," she whispered in his ear. "You have no place here, and if you try to take what's mine, I'll put you in your graves, I --"

Before she could finish, the two-way glass between her and the club's stage shattered as a body came through it -- one of her men, but she could barely make it out. Behind him stood Toriares second, striding towards her, eyes set with anger.

Marasi pushed Toriares towards Kienan, her chain unwrapping from around his neck and Toriares fell forward onto his hands and knees over his cane. Marasi rocked back on her heels, getting her chain moving fast enough to punch it right through Kienan's chest.

Kienan rolled over Toriares back as she threw the chain, which shredded his black shirt as Kienan grabbed Toriares' shotgun from the holster on his back. As he did this, Toriares threw his cane along the floor. It sprang out to twice its length, tangled her legs and caused her to fall backwards. Her chain, still shredding Kienan's shirt, tore into his skin, making a diagonal slash along his back. Kienan bit back the pain and cocked the shotgun as he rolled to his feet, his foot on Marasi's stomach.

Marasi glared at him.

"Enough," an old, cultured voice called from the stage.

Mao Xai Jan surveyed the carnage as the men he brought with him put out the fires and guarded him in case. Kienan kept the gun on her as Toriares rose to his feet, using a handkerchief to sponge the blood coming from the cuts in his neck. Marasi glared in Mao's direction.

"You are undone, Marasi," Mao said. "I'm afraid colony authorities will be visiting you in the next hour. They will find this club is the center of your drug smuggling operations. You will, naturally, be going away for a very long time because of this."

"You stupid old man," Marasi said. "My smuggling operations aren't even in the colony."

"Yes, I know," Mao said. "You are very cautious to keep your drug caches in the docking ring, but nevertheless the authorities will find sizable caches of Orochi in the paneling of the bar and underneath the stage they will find several crates of Rush and eye-injectors."

"This is a frame," Marasi said.

"Yes, it is," Mao said. "But you can't dispute it without incriminating yourself, can you?"

Toriares looked at Kienan's back. Marasi had put a scar over another on his back, and a deep one at that. When the wound finally healed, he would have a huge "X" scar on his back.

I can't decide what's creepier, Toriares thought. The size of that cut or the fact that Kienan doesn't seem to feel it at all. He bent down and took his cane from under Marasi's leg.

"All right," Marasi said. "Since you've as good as ruined my operation, what happens to me?"

Mao looked at her. "That depends on you," he said. "If you cooperate with us, I will see you are jailed somewhere comfortably for a number of years, whereupon you will be released with enough funds to start your life over -- but believe me, wherever you go, I would advise it's far away from the Blue Dragons."

"And if I refuse?"

"People die in prison every day," Mao said.

Marasi milled it over, cursed and thew her chain away, putting up her hands. Kienan took his foot off her, while still keeping the shotgun pointed at her heart. Marasi looked at Toriares, who nodded to her.

"I'll take deal number one," she said, her voice weary.

"Excellent," Mao said. He gestured to Kienan and Toriares. "Now gentlemen, I suggest we leave and let my men do their work. I know of a doctor who will see you to repair those wounds."

Mao looked at Kienan up and down and frowned. "And after that, I think, we should see about dressing you befitting your station."



"It itches," Kienan said under his breath to Toriares. They stood in the rock garden of Mao's estate.

"It's your first time wearing a suit, isn't it?" Toriares replied with a smile.

Kienan nodded, a thin smile coming over his face.

"You'll get used to it," Toriares said, tapping his cane as they walked along the path past the sand garden. "By the way, thanks for saving me from getting strangled."

"I figured I owed you," Kienan said. "After all, you had the drop on me when you tested me and didn't take me out."

"I was supposed to test you, Kienan, not blow your head off," Toriares said.

"I'm tested every time I fight," Kienan said. "The next person might not stop the test before he fired."

He crouched down next to the stone garden. Toriares looked at it.

"Hm," he said, pointing his cane to a new stone in the sand and the ripple patterns around it.

  "Someone added a new stone. Changed the whole pattern."

"One stone changed that entire garden?"

Toriares smiled and rested his cane on his shoulder. "All it takes is one to change everything, Kienan," he said. "Come on, we've got a job waiting."

Kienan Ademetria pondered what Toriares had said, and smiled slowly, understanding at last.