Caress Of Steel
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.
Click here to see the story illustration for Caress Of Steel

The young man opened his emerald eyes slowly as the ray of light shone down on his face. On some unconscious level, he knew it was an illusion -- just light reflected from a nearby sun by a huge mirror and down into the space colony where he lived. But for a few seconds, he allowed himself to believe the illusion was real, that the sun was caressing his face like a lover waking him.

Then something drew his attention away, and the illusion slipped through his fingers.

Kienan Ademetria blinked, lying still, the shape of his muscled body gently rising and falling under the thin sheet. Something was wrong.

His fingers slid under the pillow. He listened. Music. From the living room.

He slid the long knife out from underneath the pillow. Its long serrated blade hissed softly as he pulled it free and slowly sat up. The tinkling and halting melody of a piano -- his piano -- murmured from the living room. Kienan frowned and slowly swung his legs over to the edge of the bed, the sheet sliding away from him. He looked at the pile of clothes on the floor and momentarily considered getting dressed, but decided against it. Too much noise.

He breathed shallow, quiet breaths, aware of the rustling noise his long chestnut hair made as it swished around his body. He crept along on the balls of his feet as the halting melody started again.

Kienan's green eyes narrowed as he recognized the melody being played. Whoever it was hadn't played piano before and couldn’t read sheet music. They were pausing to make sure they were hitting the right key. Usually they didn’t. That annoyed him.

Kienan put his hand on the doorframe of the bedroom, knife at the ready. Whoever it was would shortly find themselves taught a particularly brutal piano lesson.

The young girl playing the piano furrowed her brow as she tried once again to negotiate the first bar of the composition spread out at the piano. Her brown eyes were full and dark in the shaded daylight of the living room. There was stillness about the place, a tension that seemed to transfix everything.

As she neared the end of the bar, her finger hovered over the thin ebony key that she thought might be the proper note. Before she could hit it, she felt a hand grab her by the shirt collar and pull her backwards. Another hand grabbed her by the hair and shoved her forehead down on the piano keys, making a terrible collision of notes. She felt cold metal against the nape of her neck.

I think ... I might be busted, she thought.

"The next note is c sharp," a voice called behind her. It was low, sounding older than the man she knew who spoke those words. "That's a flat. If you’re going to break into my apartment and mess with my piano, the least you can do is get it right."

She didn’t say a word. She was feeling lightheaded from the pressure on her head and the fear. She had done this as a lark, but it suddenly felt like less of a joke and more terrifyingly real. Certainly as real as the blade now making a shallow cut in her neck.

"Nothing to say?" Kienan asked. "Better take advantage, you won’t have another chance."

"It's hard to talk when you’re stuffing my face into a keyboard," she replied, the words muffled.

Kienan looked down at her. Then he pulled her by her hair to look up at him, knife still ready to cleave her head from her shoulders. "I know you. From the streets."

"Hi," she replied. "Do you greet everyone by yanking them around by the hair?"

Kienan flipped the edge of his knife from her neck to her throat. "I don’t get many visitors."

The girl gulped, trying to stay calm. "No social skills, I see.”

Her eyes searched his face. He wasn't much older then her. In fact, he looked much younger than the haunted, gorgeous man she had seen on the streets of the colony. His gold skin stretched over heavily muscled body.

He's cute all right, she thought. But incredibly mental.

She looked up at him nervously. "Isn’t this where you ask why I'm in your apartment? How I got in?"

"No," Kienan retorted. "I don’t really care."

Her hands gripped the edges of the piano bench. She felt a hard weight underneath the bench and traced it with the index finger of her left hand.

"So, I guess I'm going to die?" the girl asked, her fingers gently freeing the object taped under the bench. Beads of sweat furrowed on her brow as the tape made a slight tearing noise, barely audible, but to her it was as loud as a gunshot.

"I don't like trespassers," Kienan said.

"Well," she said as she pulled the object free of the tape and turned it in her hand. "You'll like this even less."

She jammed the object -- a small pistol -- under Kienan's chin and pulled back the hammer. Kienan looked down in its direction but didn’t move the blade an inch.

"Stalemate, cutie," she said, raising an eyebrow. "You feel like playing this out to the finish, we're both going into the afterlife headless."

"I doubt that," Kienan said coolly. "You will, but I won't."

"What makes you say that?"

"You didn't take the safety off."

"I didn’t?" The girl looked at the pistol. She sighed. "I guess I am dead, then. I hate guns. They always get me in trouble."

Kienan glanced up at the door, and back down to her. Then he blinked and looked at the door again. "How did you get in? The door's not forced and unless you came in with the sunlight, you didn’t use the window."

"There are no locked doors to gypsies."

"Cute," Kienan said as he pressed the blade against her neck. "How?"

She sighed. "The ventilation duct in the bathroom. It took ages, but I'm small, wiry, and determined."

"Who are you? No street kid would break in this clean."

"The name's Nightshade.”

"No it isn't. Try again and this time, save the funny names for the comic books."

"Angela," the girl said, sighing. "Angela Anastazi."

"Well," Kienan said as he removed the blade away from her throat. "Angela, I see you’re more than a street kid. You're a hell of a sneak."

"Damn right I am," she said, rubbing her throat. "Best you've ever seen. She turned to look at him. "I guess you were too busy working out how to cut my head off to get dressed?"

Kienan walked back to his bedroom. "Don't move," he said as he grabbed his sweats. "I'm a crack shot and I don’t have to see you to tag you."

"Don't worry," she said, running a hand through her auburn hair, making sure he hadn’t yanked any out. "I've had quite enough scares for one morning."

Kienan padded back into the room, knife in hand. "Good. Because you've got a long hitch in juvenile detention coming. What'd you steal?"

"I didn’t steal anything."

"Don’t lie to me," Kienan said firmly.

"I didn't," Angela replied. "I don’t steal."

"Then why break into my apartment?"

"I wanted to see if I could."

"You must be suicidal, then."

"Not really," Angela said, twisting a lock of hair around her finger. "It's ... well, it's fun. The action is the juice."

"You weren't hired?"

"Hired? Me? I'm fourteen. The only place even hiring people that young is Gao's. I'm not that kinda girl. I have more to offer than good looks."

"I don't suppose it matters," Kienan retorted. "You’re going away. But I'll see you're well taken care of. Who do I call to meet us at the police station?"

"I got no one to call. In any case, you aren't going to put me away. I know all about you. I have more business making a citizen's arrest on you."

"You don’t know anything. You’re just a kid."

"Maybe," Angela replied. "But I make my own way. No one will do it for me, and I'll be damned if I lay down and die on the streets of this colony."

Kienan sighed and watched her, hand still on his knife. It didn't sound like a lie. The determination in her voice was too real, too honest, the quiet, proud defiance of someone who has endured the unendurable alone. He was an orphan himself and had been making his own way for the last few years. Of course, he traveled in much rougher circles than a street urchin. All the same, something in her story was working on him.

He wanted to dismiss her story, but something stopped him. He grimaced, realizing that it hit uncomfortably close to home. He sighed.

Having a lot of moments of soft-heartedness lately, he mused bitterly.

He reached for a pack of cigarettes on a nearby table, putting the knife down. "Why me?"

"Saw you on the street," Angela replied. "You looked like my big brother."

"I thought you didn’t have a family."

"I don’t. I thought it was time to get one."

Kienan frowned again. He closed his eyes and sighed.

"I say something wrong?"

"No," Kienan said sharply. "Look, you really want off the streets, or this a smooth line to keep you out of …?"

"If the asking price is what I think it is, you can shove it up your ass. I'm nobody's Lolita."

Kienan laughed. It was almost warm but hollow in the middle. "Big talker. No, not like that. Look, I don't want to get into specifics … I figure you're smart enough to know what's up … but I might need someone with your ability to sneak in places they shouldn't be."

"What do I get out of it?"

"You get to live," Kienan retorted. "And you get a roof over your head. I know someone who'll look after you. She owes me a favor. Just like you do, now. And knowing you Gypsies, you have to repay that debt."

Ever since it had changed owners, the Last House on the Left had tried to shake off the perceptions that it was a mobster's bar. But it was forever viewed as the kind of bar where local syndicates could drink and party without fear of reprisal, a black mark it could never erase.

Most people who came to settle in the colony were warned off it. And some, looking for an opportunity to make their fortune in the darkness between stars, came there for that very reason. It was a dark, dingy, smoke-filled stage for a particularly brutal series of auditions.

"Hey," the brunette woman said, waving a metallic silver hand at the passing waitress. Her voice was slurred and her breath reeked of several bottles of rum. "Another bottle! Do you hear me? Another bottle!"

The waitress nodded as she hurried past their booth.

The woman sitting next to the brunette sighed, her red-gloved finger circling the rum of the tumbler in front of her. "I think she heard you the first time, Silver," she said, brushing a lock of white hair behind her ear. "You've already downed three bottles, hon. Don’t you think you better switch to something else for awhile? Or at least go a little easier."

"Stop being a mother hen, Gold," Silver said, tapping her metal fingers against the hardwood table and laving small dents in it as she did. "I need this tonight."

Gold sighed and put her hand over Silver's. "Still hurting?"

"Ever since we left Axanar," Silver said. Her blue eyes darkened as she looked down at her hands. "They feel heavy. And they hurt all the time now."

Gold patted her hand. "Don’t worry about it. That's why we came here. We'll get noticed, get some money coming in and the first thing we'll do is fix you."

Silver frowned. "I hate when you say it like that. There's nothing wrong with me."

Gold sighed. After her third bottle, Silver was either mean and ready to fight or spiraling into depression. She took her hand, her golden skin scraping against Silver's metal hands with a dry scratching sound. Both of them tried to ignore it.

"I know that, dahlin," Gold said. "But I know you’re hurting, and I don’t want you to hurt."

Silver closed her eyes and nodded, sniffling as she tried and failed to bite back tears.

A hunched-over man passed by their table and sneered at them. Silver's eyes snapped open and glared at him. "Did you see how that bastard looked at us?" Gold nodded. "I ought to go over there and beat the hell out of him. Burn him."

"Silver, you’re in no shape to hurt anyone," Gold said quietly. "We'll finish this bottle and hit the road. Doesn’t look like anyone's looking tonight."

"You told me this was the place to go, Gold. We wasted a whole night here?"

"I know, hon," Gold sighed. "I'm sorry. I'll try to find another place tomorrow."

The waitress set the bottle down gently as Gold watched her. Silver took the bottle in her hands and twisted the cap off. "Hey Gold. Watch this."

The tip of her index finger began to glow. There was a soft "whumph" sound as the top of the bottle suddenly burst into a plume of soft blue flame. Gold, having seen it many times before, sighed and said nothing.

Silver blew it out and took a slug from the bottle. "Ugh. Losing my taste for this."

Her eyes searched out the man who'd given her the dirty look. She spotted him and started to get up. “C'mon. Let's go have some fun."

"Here?" Angela asked. "Are you serious??"

"Yes," Kienan replied. They stood in front of a corner storefront. "252 Hantu Street. Your new home."

"I broke in here once," Angela said. "Woman threatened to hit me with a baseball bat next time I showed my face."

Kienan pushed her through the door. "Must be the impression you make on people."

"Shut up.”

The place was dusty, but well kept. The well-worn white floors were mostly gray, and row upon row of bottles stood on sagging shelves. On the other side of Angela was the counter, and behind the counter was a heavyset woman in her late forties. Her eyes were gray but still lively despite her dowdy, matronly appearance.

At the sight of Angela she slid herself off the stool and reached under the counter. “I told you, kid, if I saw you again -- "

"Easy, Lil. She's with me."

Lil looked up at the man behind Angela. He was dressed in an immaculately tailored white suit, which made him stand out even more than the three-foot braid brushing off his shoulder.

"Kienan? You know this thief?"

"I'm not a thief," Angela retorted. "I didn’t steal anything."

"Caught her today," Kienan said. "She's looking for a job."

"She's in the wrong part of town to pick pockets," Lil muttered. 'Everyone around here's too poor."

"Can you keep her in the spare room?"

Lil stared at Kienan like he'd lost his mind.

"Let me get this straight," Lil said slowly. "You want me to let that thief stay in my building and steal under my very nose?"

"I could've sworn I said I wasn't a thief," Angela said loudly.

"She'll be on her best behavior," Kienan said. "You have my word."

Lil looked at Angela, then at Kienan. "I don’t know how you managed to con him. Kienan has a heart of stone."

"I didn't," Angela said as she looked over her shoulder at Kienan. "Beginning to wonder if you shouldn’t have taken me on to juvie."

"Too late now," Kienan said. He looked at Lil and immediately wished he hadn’t. If someone could be said to have a look that spoke volumes, Lil was sending him entire lectures. "Go upstairs. Lil and I have things to discuss."

Angela thought about voicing protest but shrugged and trudged up the stairs. Kienan leaned against the counter and looked at Lil expectantly. "Well, let's have it.”

"Picking up strays now?"

"Wouldn’t be the first time this year," Kienan said, lighting a cigarette.

"Kienan, she's a thief."

"And I'm an assassin. What of it?"

"Kienan, forgive me for being blunt, but you're not really what this child needs as a role model. She's already a thief. Do you want her to be a killer like you? Do you want someone to hurt her trying to get to you? I know the business you're in. The people you deal with wouldn't think twice about killing a child."

"I just want her to have a chance. Besides. That's why I brought her to you. Anyone knows about second chances, it's you. I mean ... she doesn't have anyone, Lil."

Lil nodded. Lil had been on the streets of this colony for most of her life. She knew very well what it was like to be lost. In a way that was why she had become so fond of Kienan. Kienan was in his own way as lost as she had been.

She sighed. "This has "bad idea" written all over it, Kienan. But I'll look after her. For as long as she'll let me.”

"I appreciate this, Lil," Kienan said quietly. "I'll be gone for the rest of the day. I have some business on the Space Ring. I'll be back to check on her tomorrow."

As he walked towards the door, Lil called out to him. "You're welcome, by the way."

Kienan looked over his shoulder, blushing and smiling at the gentle admonishment. "Thanks, Lil."

Lil waved him off. The tin bell on the string over the door clanked with his passing.

"Hey," Silver said, standing unsteadily at one end of the alley. The man who had insulted her leaned against the exit door of the Last House. He recognized her immediately and started to walk away.

"Hey now," Silver called. "What's your hurry?"

The man started to walk even faster towards the open end of the alley, but found his way blocked by Gold, who put her hand on his shoulder. "Lady wants to talk to you," Gold said, shoving him back into the alley. "I think you’d better."

Silver stripped off her coat. Underneath she wore a tight black, white and blue bodysuit. Her face and skin were beautiful -- languid features and a smooth elegant beauty.

Except for her arms.

Just below the shoulder, flesh was replaced with blued metal, followed by silver hands that positively gleamed even in the late-afternoon darkness of the alley. Connected to her arms were two snake-like hoses that ran to a backpack between her shoulder blades.

Silver gestured for him to come closer. The man tried to run but Gold kept pushing him forward with a shove so strong it belied her feminine build. Silver began to smile, a sick, smug grin, like a spider looking down to see a fly trapped in her web.

"I didn’t like the way you looked at us in there," Silver said quietly. There was a soft whirring sound and strange stuffy warmth filled the tight confines of the alley. "It hurt my feelings."

"I didn't mean nothin' by it!"

"Too bad," Silver said, rising her right hand. Her palm was now glowing white-hot. "Hold him for me, would you please, Gold?"

Gold snaked her arms around the man as he began to squirm. "Look I didn't mean nothing by it, I swear!" he pleaded, his voice cracking as panic rose higher in him. "I swear! Look I'll make it up to ya! I got money ... Anything you want, just please don’t kill me!"

Silver shook her head, her expression one of patronizing false pity. "Oh, I don’t think you can make it up to me. So I'm just going to make sure you can't give anyone else dirty looks. Or any kind of looks at all."

Gold held him by the throat, pushing his face upwards. His face began dripping sweat as Silver approached him. She clamped her hand over the man's face.

Immediately, the alley filled with the rank smell of burning flesh and hair. Gold furrowed her nose as she held the spasming, suffocating man, his mouth and nose fused together before he had time to scream.

Silver disengaged her heating system. Her backpack filled the alley with steam.

Gold threw the smoking mangled remains of the man to the street and looked at Silver. "You didn’t like the way he looked? I don’t mind you killing him, but at least make something more out of it."

"Sorry," Silver said. "Guess I don’t have your flair for the theatrical."

"Well, since you've ruined this place for us for awhile, what do we do now?" Gold asked, handing Silver her coat. "No other meeting places I can think of that would be open this afternoon."

Silver sighed. "I don’t feel like waiting in bars anyways," she said. "But I'm getting low. Let's find some place to get something and then take in Lowtown."

Gold helped Silver out of the alley. "Three miles of colony and the only place you wanna go is the poor section of town."

"Just trying to think like you, dear," Silver said. "We're bound to run into someone around here with some connections. Isn't there some tong house or something around here?"

"The Blue Dragons," Gold said, taking her hand as they walked out of the alley. Were it not for Silver's drunken stagger and the fact that Gold looked like a metal sculpture, they could almost pass for a young couple in love. "No, I tried them. They don’t hire female muscle."

"Sexist pricks," Silver said. "Maybe I should burn them."

Gold looked pained. "Trouble like that we don't need. Local gangs are one thing; a syndicate that has branches all over the Frontier is another. We'd never have a moment’s peace. They'd hunt us to extinction."

"Hunt me to extinction," Silver said. "You're indestructible." She frowned, her mood darkening. "I wouldn’t mind living here, even in a slum like this. Hell we live in a foundry right now. Can’t sleep for all the noise."

Gold frowned and touched Silver’s face. "C'mon, now. Don’t get down. It won’t always be like that. I promise."

"I believe you, Gold," Silver sighed. "Just getting tired of waiting. I need ... I just need for things to go right for us for a change."

"Just trust in me, hon," Gold said, walking a bit faster. "Won't be long we'll be running this colony. You trust me?"

"I love you. Of course I trust you."

"Good," Gold said, squeezing Silver’s hand a little tight. It felt strange. Gold sighed softly as she realized she was holding the hand Silver had just used to kill the man in the alley.

Kienan stepped into the lift and punched in the code for his destination, all the while turning over what Lil had told him in his head.

Why had he put Angela up with Lil? It wasn't due to her skills as a burglar -- she was talented, but it took more skill than that for Kienan to spare her life.

So what was it? He disregarded Lil's implication that he wanted someone to shape in his image -- he had that already, four times over. And he doubted very seriously he was trying to save his own soul. Kienan had long ago made peace with the loss of that.

Kienan had been born far away from Kuran on a mining colony, living and working and dreaming of the stars beyond. But the true darkness had been found underneath the colony’s surface.

A plague of creatures were released one day. They slaughtered the inhabitants of the colony. Kienan’s family, his friends … his entire life was washed away in a tide of blood.

But Kienan had survived, and slowly destroyed every single one of the creatures. And when he escaped, he annihilated the entire colony.

Eventually he had found his way to Kuran. There he channeled his will to survive with his fists, eventually becoming an assassin for the ruling crime syndicate The Blue Dragons. He was paid to kill and destroy, although now not for survival, but for profit.

It had brought him much more than riches. He had friends, allies, enemies, and on occasion, love. But a heart was hard to hold onto in his blood-soaked hands.

The lift doors opened and Kienan stepped carefully out onto the deck of the Space Ring. Kuran was a trading post, the largest in the sector of space known as the Frontier. Ships were in and out of the docks all the time. And when Kienan was on downtime, his ship called these docks home.

He walked to the docking area where his ship was moored. The Silhouette was a freighter on the outside, but inside much more. Or it would be, once he had completed all the work it still needed. It lay there in dry-dock, its silvery arrow shape almost appearing to be moving even while standing still.

Kienan made his way to the transfer bridge and typed in another code. The airlock to his ship opened and he stepped aboard. It was dark, long shadows cast by pale blue light along long narrow corridors. Stillness lingered, deeper than the absence of movement.

Kienan made his way down the corridor and walked to the bridge. The door to the bridge slid open. Sitting at three bridge stations were three very pale women, tall, elegant and very beautiful.

"Hello ladies," Kienan said with a smile. It was a misnomer. They weren't ladies in the classic sort.

They were Marionettes -- the closest replica of a human woman available. Kienan had originally been hired to destroy them, but instead adopted them as the crew of his ship. For the past month they had lived aboard the ship, finishing the work on it as he trained them to better assist him.

I wonder what Lil would make of that, he thought to himself. I do seem to enjoy collecting strays. Or maybe I have I weakness for orphans.

"Hello, Kienan," Vain said. Vain was the de facto leader of the trio, a tall statuesque blonde who carried herself in a manner almost parodying Kienan's own tightly controlled poise. "We've nearly finished overhauling the Silhouette's engines."

"Correction," Mirage interjected. "I did most of the work. I spent an entire week in the main engine housing. Not fun." Mirage was more lighthearted than Vain. She was cheerful, but not annoyingly so. Of the three, she seemed to be the most human.

"That's nice, ladies, but I hadn’t really come by for a progress report," Kienan said, taking off his jacket and unbuttoning his shirt.

"Training then?" Conscience asked, bent over computer readouts, her red hair hanging in her face. The third of the androids, Conscience was pure intelligence and strategy -- calm, cool, collected, but still warm. If Vain and Mirage were a study in extremes, Conscience was the happy medium.

"Yes," Kienan said. "It's been a week and I need the workout."

"I should warn you," Conscience said. "We've been studying 2,916 new martial arts styles since last time."

Kienan raised an eyebrow. "Is that a challenge?"

Angela pushed the ratty broom along the aisles of Lil's place as Lil pored over her ledgers at the counter. From time to time she stopped and stared out the marbled glass windows, but within seconds Lil was on her to get back to work.

She rubbed her throat. The nick of Kienan's blade had scabbed over and it made her throat itch. More curious was that every time she thought of him, her hand went to that cut. She couldn’t understand how he had been ready to murder her one minute, and then ready to give her a home the next.

"Lil," she began, glancing over at Lil. "How do you know Kienan?"

"I broke into his house, same as you," Lil replied.

"Funny," Angela said indifferently, sweeping dust from under the shelves into a neat pile. "No, seriously. How do you know each other?"

Lil sighed. "I've helped him outta a bad place or two."

"You helped him?"

Lil looked up and her and raised an eyebrow. "Why do you say it like that?"

"Well, he seems like he's got everything under control. I mean he's so cool about everything -- "

Lil laughed, bemused and bitter. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> "That boy is anything but cool, Angela. I've seen him in all sorts of moods and the last word I'd use to describe him is "collected." That's the top part of the duck."

"What's a duck?" Angela asked, sweeping with renewed vigor.

Lil grimaced. Showing my age, she thought to herself. I keep forgetting not many people out here have seen Earth.

"Never mind," she said. "Let's just say underneath the calm exterior he's just as messed up as the rest of us."

Angela swept up the pile of dust she had accumulated into the dustpan and dumped it into the battered trashcan in front of the door. A thought was picking at the back of her mind. She had no good way to segue into it so she elected for the direct approach.

"Are you his ... girlfriend?"

Lil laughed again, even harder this time. "Honey, I'm old enough to be his mother, and I wouldn’t say yes if I was asked. I love him, but that boy has problems. Why do you ask, little gypsy? You wanna be his latest?"

"Well if you’re old enough to be his mom, that would make me his younger sister, wouldn't it?" Angela said, a smile creeping over her face. Lil returned it and they laughed together for the first time.

Angela opened her mouth to say something but the jangle of the bell cut her off. Lil nodded to Angela to go to the storeroom in the back.

Angela peered through the gauzy curtain separating the back from the rest of the store. She blinked and opened the curtain a bit to get a better look.

Weird, she thought. That woman has gold skin.

Kienan stood facing his three Marionettes, all dressed for battle. Kienan removed his twin automatic pistols from their holsters, his long braid dangling over his shoulder as he set them aside.

He brushed his braid back over his shoulder and looked at them. The Marionettes were six times as strong as he was, six times as fast and six times as smart. One punch from one of them would go right through him. Even an open-handed slap would break his jaw.

Kienan had overcome such disadvantages before. As an assassin, he was often sent after targets that were stronger than him, or better armed. He was used to being the underdog. He had been ever since the creatures overran his colony.

"Alright, ladies," Kienan said, touching a console on the far wall and quickly stepping over a marked line to stand a few feet away from them. "Today you all get to attack me at once. The challenge is for me to last five minutes with you or eliminate all of you from the ring."

"Kienan," Vain said. "Forgive me for saying so but the odds are not in your favor."

"Well the deck is certainly stacked against me," Kienan replied. "But there's a wild card. I've set the gravity in the G-room to randomize every ten seconds. So depending on when you attack me you could be heavy as a planet or light as a feather. I toss you out of bounds, you’re out of the game. Got it?"

They looked perplexed, but snapped to attention as Kienan hit a ready stance.

"Ready? GO!"

Kienan leapt at Vain, who quickly ducked down. Kienan went sailing over her, but managed to plant his feet in her back. He bent down for the belt of her black jumpsuit, pushing off her and using her momentum to toss her into Conscience.

The gravity randomized again and Kienan hit the floor with a thud as five times the gravity of Earth exerted its force on him. Kienan pushed hard to flip over onto his back just in time to see Mirage ready to stomp him flat. Kienan reached out and grabbed her by the ankle, keeping a count in his head of the seconds until the gravity changed again. When he felt the gravity return to Earth-normal he shoved her out of the gravity zone and rolled away from Vain, who tried to kick him in the head with a sweeping kick. Kienan retaliated with one aimed at her head but she swatted it aside and set Kienan flying toward the bulkhead as the gravity became much lighter.

Kienan put his arms out to keep from hitting the bulkhead and walked along with his hands, righting himself as Conscience tried to punch him. He ducked to the side, grabbing her arm and planting his feet as the gravity changed again, even heavier than before. Kienan summoned up all the strength he had to throw her over his shoulder and flip Conscience out of bounds. He stood and huffed, trying to get his breath. He looked over his shoulder for Vain, but she wasn't doing anything.

The gravity changed again. Half of Earth normal. Vain waited until Kienan turned around and threw a spin kick at his head. Kienan grabbed her and kicked her other leg out from under her. Vain floated around, thrashing in the limited gravity.

Kienan sighed and pushed her out of the zone as a child would bat a balloon. He waved at Mirage to shut off the gravity and glared at them, sighing and huffing with breath. "That was better," he said. "Vain, you hesitated after I eliminated Conscience. Why?"

"The gravity was so strong it exhausted you," Vain said. "I -- "

"You can't do that, Vain," Kienan retorted. "You can't show mercy, even to me, even in practice. In the real world people aren’t going to -- "

He was cut off by a sound from the ship's communication relay. His brow furrowed. His masters at the Blue Dragons wouldn’t use an open channel to summon him, and only one other person at the colony had this number.

A text message scrolled into the small screen of the terminal in the G-room. Kienan read slowly, and looked at the Marionettes. "I'm sorry, ladies. It looks like the lecture will have to wait."

Kienan began gathering his weapons up and holstering them again. The Marionettes watched him, puzzled by the sudden change.

"Kienan, did we do something wrong?" Mirage asked.

"What?" Kienan said curtly as he looked up, his sweaty bangs sticking to his forehead as he tried to brush them away. "Oh. No, Mirage, you didn’t do anything. There's just something I have to see to at the colony."

"If you need help -- "

"Thanks, but no," Kienan said. "No. I'll do this on my own. I don't want you off this ship until you're ready to handle yourselves."

He frowned as he realized how it sounded. He tended to forget how devoted they were to him, and how innocent unthinking words from him seemed to hurt them.

Hurt them, he pondered. They've even got me thinking of them as human.

Kienan sighed. "Look," he said. "Stay here. Work on the ship. I'll be back."

Gold glared at her companion, huddled, shaking and sitting across from her on the colony monorail.

"What the hell was the point of that?" Gold finally asked. "Do you even know?"

Silver pulled her knees up to her chest, the shadows and light casting a strobe pattern on her face. She looked like a ghost.

"I ... " Silver let the thought drift for a moment. "I don’t know. I just remember being mad and then ... I was burning her. I can't even remember what set me off."

Gold looked out the window at the colony lights below, and then cut her eyes back to Silver. "There was a kid in there. We didn’t used to act this crazy in front of civilians. The scumbags we usually run with, fine but no kids, no real people. What the hell's wrong with you?"

"I hurt, Gold," Silver said softly.

"I know you do," Gold said, her voice a little sharp. "But you can't do this. I need you to hold it together for me, hon. Just a bit longer."

I’m sick and tired of holding it together!!" Silver yelled, so loud it surprised even her.

Gold got up and took Silver's face in her hands. She sighed and kissed her forehead. "Shhh, it's alright." Gold started to gently rock Silver. "I didn’t mean to make you angry."

"Just sick and tired of hurting all the time," Silver said, starting to sob against Gold's cold metal skin.

Gold sighed, closed her eyes and tried not to think about killing Silver herself. Not out of malice or annoyance, but out of love and kindness.

It had been five years since Silver’s body started rejecting her cyborg parts. Gold knew there was no way to treat it by now. She hated myself sometimes for lying to Silver. And Gold hated herself even more for condemning Silver to slowly die in pain in front of her.

Silver would die soon. The connecting points had developed an infection that was slowly poisoning the rest of body. That was why Silver drank all the time, to blot out the pain that was spreading through her body and mind. Now she was dying, insane, and wracked with pain.

But Gold couldn’t let her go. She was too selfish to kill Silver and release her from her pain, but too much a coward to tell the truth.

Like every other building in the colony, the hospital was flat, square and nondescript.

Inside, nurses, doctors, and orderlies scurried around like rats in a firestorm.

Inside, it was cold. White hallways stretched, white walls on white ceilings and floors. It looked like the corridor to a heaven that offered no comfort.

Kienan closed the white door and looked down at Lil, who lay in bed in the center of the room. Her arms lay limply beside her. An array of tubes and cords snaked from the crooks of her elbows to instruments and IV bags, all surrounding the head of her bed.

"I've seen you look better, Lil," Kienan said quietly, pulling up a chair and sitting beside her. It made such a loud scraping sound against the floor it made both of them wince.

"They tell me ... I'm lucky," Lil replied, her words slow from the painkillers dripping down from one of the bags around her, beckoning her to sleep. "They say ... say I could have died from the ... pain of the burns. All the same ... I'll be glad to burn you down one side of your back ... see which one of us mends faster."

"Burns." Kienan’s eyes narrowed. "Who burned you?"

"Dunno … women ... cyborgs. One of them ... all metal. One just had metal hands. She ... burned me."

"Why?" Kienan asked.

"She ... got crazy," Lil murmured. "A ... hard drinker, I think. Had all the signs. I wasn't moving fast enough, and she ... lost her temper. The other one ... tried to talk her out of it. But ... she burned me."

"They weren't there to rob you, then?"

"No …didn’t even take the bottle they asked for. The other one ... dragged the one who burned me out. Yelled at her."

Kienan closed his eyes. Lil was a friend. But she was a friend no one knew he had, except for Angela. And he didn’t know any cyborgs that bore a grudge against him.

Gradually, the fact that it was a senseless, random event began to sink in.

Kienan saw Lil's eyes fluttering closed and took her hand in his, standing up. “I'll settle things.”

"Don't do it ... for my benefit," Lil murmured. "You know damn well ... don’t need your help."

Kienan smiled. "I know. You’d do it yourself if you could just get out of bed."

"Kienan ... I'm serious," Lil raised the volume of her voice despite the pain of speaking. "What would it solve? Not worth ... it. It's ... I'm ... not worth it."

Kienan let her hand slip from his and looked at her. There was anger in his eyes, but not directed at her. He turned and walked out of the room, pausing as he turned the doorknob.

"No, Lil," Kienan said quietly. "That's where you’re wrong. Some things people have to pay for."

He closed the door quietly behind him, and walked to the chair on the wall opposite the door. Angela sat, arms wrapped around her knees, looking down at the floor hard. She knew if she even so much as glanced down the hall, she'd cry again.

Kienan stood over her, casting a long shadow over her and the white wall behind her. "Lil told me what happened.”

Angela squeezed her eyes shut. "She told me to hide. I shoulda done more. But I was ... I was scared."

"There wasn't anything you could have done," Kienan said, trying to deny the disappointment he felt in her. I would have fought them, he thought. Even scared, I wouldn’t have run. Why couldn’t you?

"That's what she told me when they put her in the room to rest," Angela said under her breath. "It sounds like a lie."

"She knew what would have happened. Lil knows these streets. She knows the risks. And she didn’t want you to suffer."

"Fat lot of good that did," Angela said harshly. "I'm suffering now."

Kienan put his hand on her head. "Not for long. Watch over her. I'll be back."

Anegla looked up at him. "You're going after them?"

Kienan looked at her disapprovingly. "You don't expect me to come out and tell you, do you?"

Angela blinked and looked down again. "I guess not." She looked at Kienan's shoes for a while and finally said what was on her mind.

"I wish I were like you."

Kienan looked at Angela, then turned around and started down the hall. "No you don't."

Silver lay next to Gold, the heat from the nearby foundries warming them even as the cacophonous noise of the mechanisms clanged on and on. Gold lay awake next to Silver's twitching, sleeping body.

It had been necessary to find a place to sleep. Here was the only squatter space not controlled by syndicates or regularly patrolled by colony police. There were several good reasons why. It was noisy, smelly, and most of all, oppressively hot. It was perfect for Gold and Silver -- they could endure the heat easily. It would do until they found a real place and started a real life together.

Gold sighed. Still holding on to a dream, she chided herself. She blinked and found herself quite surprised for a moment. She almost sounded normal.

People came to colonies like this one all the time in search of opportunities, a life for their families, a future. That was what Gold wanted. A ticket out of the quiet desperation she and Silver had been living with. A life to be proud of instead of living as scavengers, poorer than dirt. Despite being named after two of the most precious metals in existence.

The irony wasn't lost on her -- in fact it echoed in her head in every quiet moment.

Five years ago, she thought, being outlaws was fun. I was in the indestructible woman; Silver was the girl with the burning touch. People feared us. We were in love. The whole damn galaxy was wide open.

Now we're lying here in a factory because we can’t afford anything else, trying to make some noise so we can get a job as enforcers for the local mob. Clinging to a small hope that we'll be spotted.

Amazing how a universe that's supposed to be infinite seems like a small box with no way out .

"Thanks, Chang," Kienan said, severing the connection and pocketing the small communications unit. He leaned against the lamppost, then started down the deserted street, trying to put his thoughts in order.

He knew their names now. Gold and Silver. Two small-time operators from the inner colonies. Just off the transport, looking for work as muscle. He even had a tip on where they might be hiding out.

He had seen the type a million times before. Punk kids who took shortcuts -- chemical, mechanical, or artificial -- to set themselves up as major operators. Big shots. Thinking that strength or speed or the ability to fire lasers would pave the way to a better life, he thought derisively.

But it takes more than that, he thought. Something science can’t give you. And some things you can only take from yourself.

He tried to shake it off as he walked back down the street to his apartment. He didn’t like the sound of Gold and Silver. Not because of who they were, but because in them he saw a peculiar reflection of himself. The line between his determination and their pathetic desperation seemed very thinly drawn. He recognized the irrational violence that had allowed him to survive when his colony was attacked. The same sort of addled rage that had caused him to destroy it.

He had tried to convince himself he was past that. That the wild rage had been honed and shaped into the precise instrument it was now. Burning metal tempered and sharpened into a sword.

Then when did I feel that same hate when I learned what they did to Lil? Why was the rage right there, burning behind my eyes? Have I lied to myself? Was it always there? Is it all that's there?

He opened the door to his apartment and closed it, moving slowly and deliberately to his closet and opening a secret panel. From the compartment behind the panel he pulled out a small duffel bag and unzipped it. He pulled out his leather gun belt and placed it on a nearby table. He drew a pistol from the belt, making sure it was cleaned and loaded.

Gold reached out for Silver. The feeling of her hand reaching through her lover was enough to jar Gold quickly out of her rest.

Gold pulled herself up to a crouching position. Silver stood before her, held tightly by a man pressing a pistol under her chin.

He was younger than they were, just out of his teens. His hair was done up in a braid that Gold recognized was a sign of loyalty to a syndicate, probably one of the Chinese ones. He was dressed in red and black, and his colors blended in with the hellish tableau of the foundry. He looked like a burning demon coming to collect.

"I suggest you stay where you are," the young man said to Gold. "You aren’t fast enough to stop me from blowing her head off. You move, or she tries to burn anyone, she dies."

"Who the hell are you?" Gold asked, getting to her feet slowly. She moved tentatively, wishing that Silver was as indestructible as she was.

"My name is Kienan Ademetria," he said, grabbing a handful of Silver’s hair and pressing the barrel of his pistol into her chin.

"Good for you," Gold snapped. "You might as well let us go. We don’t have any money. We're not worth robbing."

"I'm not here for money," Kienan replied. "Just your lives."

"You'll play hell getting it done," Gold’s eyes met Silvers. "Do it now, Silver."

Silver reached up and grabbed the pistol, heating up her hand as she used her elbow to shove Kienan away. Kienan leaned back against an unused cart as Silver turned to him, crushing and melting his pistol in her hand.

"Look at the pretty boy, Gold," Silver said, the familiar sick smile crossing her face. "Thinks he can take us."

Gold moved alongside Silver. "He'll have a hard time of it without his gun. Should've done your homework, kid -- bullets aren’t much good against us."

Kienan reached behind him, his hand closing on the hilt of his knife. He played weak, surprised, wanting them closer.

Silver grasped her fists, her hands beginning to glow white hot. "You picked the wrong girls to mess with. You see, Gold is slowly going to crack every bone in your arrogant body and then I'm going to melt your pretty face and burn off that braid. What do you think about that?"

Kienan leaned forward and slashed at Silver's stomach, sheathing the knife before she even registered that he had moved.

"I think you talk too much."

Blood began to spread over Silver’s stomach.

"He ... cut me," Silver muttered, staring down.

Gold rushed forward and took a swing at Kienan. Kienan ducked as she punched through the cart like it was tissue paper. Silver started waving her hands, trying to cool them down lest she cauterize the slash in her stomach pulling apart her abdominal muscles.

"Cut me! He cut me!!"

Kienan flipped over Gold as she freed herself from the cart and kicked Silver in the face. She swiped at him with her hands. Kienan felt one of them breeze by his cheek and could tell the heat had nearly bled out of it. He snatched Silver’s wrist and turned it hard, kicking her in the side over and over again. He felt the weight of her arm shift and suddenly felt it detach from her shoulder.

"Bastard!" Gold cried, slapping at Kienan. Kienan turned around and smashed her with Silver's arm, tearing the conductive cable loose from the apparatus on her back.

Gold glared at him, more insulted than anything else. She punched Kienan hard in the stomach, yanking him to her eye level with his braid. "You idiot," she hissed. "I can't be hurt. You can't do anything to me."

Kienan licked his teeth, tasting blood. He sneered and spat bloody saliva in her face. "I can hurt you easy.” He flipped Silver's arm across her face, knocking Gold to the floor. "Through her."

Gold screamed, throwing another wild punch. Kienan stepped aside and finally tossed Silver's arm away. He leapt up in the air and seized hold of one of the support chains and rapidly climbed it to get away from Gold.

Gold attempted to climb the chain after him but it was too late. Kienan made his way to a scaffold above them and shoved a block of machinery back down on top of her. The block of machinery fell atop her, breaking into a million pieces and slamming to the metal floor.

Gold stepped out of it, unharmed, and bent down to look at Silver. Silver was on her knees, nearly catatonic from the shock of being cut and having her arm torn off. Gold carefully lifted her lover's face to hers, trying to make her focus.

"Silver?" Gold asked. Silver perked up. "I've got to get you out of here."

"He cut me, Gold," Silver muttered. "Why is he after us? How'd he find us?"

"I don’t know, hon," Gold replied. "I jus have to get you out of here before he hurts you. Then I can come back and finish him. There's time, I promise."

"You’re all out of time," Kienan's voice boomed. Gold heard something echoing in the foundry and looked up in time to have a length of chain bounce off her face. She had just enough time to notice the hooked end of the chain was looped around Silver before Silver shot upward.

"Gold! Help!!" Silver cried, thrashing her legs in the air as she ascended. Gold tried to jump up and grab her, but left herself open for Kienan to swing in, hanging onto the other end of the chain. He kicked her with both feet, knocking her into a vat of molten slag, which promptly fell over onto her.

Kienan seized the chain, pulling it taut. "I need you for a moment, metal girl," he sneered, dragging Silver up a flight of steps.

Silver grasped the chain with her other hand, and burned through it in a matter of seconds. Kienan fell to the ground as the chain snapped. Silver lunged for him, her burning grasp grazing his braid and singing his hair. Kienan used his legs to throw her forward and she banged into a bank of machinery, which whirred to life, its heavy grinding gears slowly turning like the works of a watch.

Kienan rolled to his feet and kicked Silver hard in the knee, causing her to stumble. She swiped at him with impotent waves of her hand, like a petulant child in a schoolyard fight.

"All I have to do is grab you once and you’re dead!" Silver yelled. Kienan smiled and gestured for her to come forward.

Silver tried to get to her feet, only to discover that Kienan had destroyed her knee's ability to support her. She could stand, but only with tremendous pain.

"Why," Silver began. "Why are you after us?"

Kienan's eyes narrowed. "Do you remember the owner of a liquor store you nearly killed this afternoon?"

"No," Silver snapped back. "Why the hell do you care? What does it matter?"

Kienan picked up the chain and threw one end out like an iron whip. "Nothing to you, everything to me," he said, catching her in her inner thigh and sending her painfully to the floor again. He walked over to her, kicking her thrashing hand aside with a flick of his foot and snaking the chain around her. He pulled it tight and dragged her to her feet.

Kienan pushed Silver into the machinery. Silver's burning hand was caught in the gears of the machine and was drawn slowly inside. She desperately sought to detach her arm before it went to work on her flesh.

Kienan drew his knife and slashed through her arm, freeing her. As Silver fell backward, Kienan grabbed the chain and drew her up to meet his fist, knocking her out.

Gold muttered under her breath as she peeled the cooling metal off her skin. She gave a quiet prayer of thanks to the doctor who'd grafted her impenetrable skin onto her. Not many people could have survived a bath in hot metal, but she was glad she could.

Now she was mad. Kienan was right. Gold couldn’t be hurt physically, but by hurting Silver he could twist a knife into her heart at will. Worse yet, he seemed to enjoy taunting her with the knowledge, all the while negating the advantages they had as cyborgs.

Gold made her way up a flight of stairs to one of the foundries controls. She began hitting light switches to see if she could find him and Silver. Her eyes filled with horror as she found Kienan behind her on a nearby catwalk, holding Silver tied in chains.

"Did you kill her?" Gold demanded.

Kienan smiled. "No. Just disarmed her. Since you two seem to have a problem taking responsibility for the violence you cause, I think I'll let you kill her."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Gold snapped. "There's no way you could make me hurt her."

Kienan shook his head. "It's all a game to you, isn’t it? It's fun. Hurting people, killing people. For no other reason than because you can. You’re spoiled little children with shiny new toys you can’t bear not to lord over everyone. You make me sick. You don’t deserve to hold anyone's life in your hands. Let me show you how to truly shoulder the responsibility."

He pushed Silver off the catwalk and leapt off the other side, holding the chain in his hand and diving past Gold. Gold looked down, just in time to see Kienan loop the chain behind her knees and pull her off her feet. Gold flailed her arms as she fell, tangled in the chain.

Gold opened her eyes and looked around, steadying herself on the chain. No sign of him. She looked over to Silver, her body slumped forward as she hung from the ceiling, suspended in the chain.

"Silver!" Gold called, extricating herself from the chain and pulling it forward. As she got closer, something that felt like cold fear began to well in her.

It didn't look right. Maybe it was the odd way Silver's neck was turned. Maybe it was the glazed over look in her eyes. Mostly it was because she wasn't breathing.


No reply.

"Silver, please ... "

Still no answer.


Nothing. Gold cradled her in her arms, feeling a deep hurt pass through her. Before she could say another word she felt the hot air around her being disturbed, like the air displaced when a punch is thrown. Only much bigger.

She had just enough time to register that a generator was sailing toward her before it smashed her in the face, knocking her off her feet and off the catwalk. She tumbled down into another vat of slag and quickly righted herself in the blazing hot waist-deep metal.

Then her world vanished for a second in steam. She looked at her hands and saw the liquid on her skin was crystallizing, freezing. The tears on her cheek were turning to beads of ice.

She tried to move but it was impossible. She was trapped up to her waist in the now-solid ingot of coolant. And in front of her, just out of reach, stood Kienan, his face dark save for his blazing green eyes. In one red-gloved hand, he dragged the body of Silver to Gold.

"Do you understand now?" Kienan asked quietly.

"I understand ... one thing," Gold said, gritting her teeth. "For what you did to Silver -- "

"What I did?" Kienan asked, amused by the suggestion. "You did it, Gold. Your weight stopped her from falling and broke her neck and her spine." He looked down at Gold with a cold glare. "I told you before. You don’t know how to take responsibility for the pain you cause. For the death you cause."

He pushed Silver's body into Gold's outstretched hands, and turned and walked away.

"Maybe now that you have no choice, you'll understand," he called to Gold. "Take a long look at it what it cost you."

He walked away as Gold cradled the dead and broken body of her lover in her arms.

The awful weight of what Gold had done, and what she allowed to happen sank in.

But there was no guilt. Only regret, recrimination, and finally understanding.

Kienan sat alone as dawn began to break over the colony. He sat on a bench in the middle a child's playground, far from his usual place, but quiet morning, or what passed for it in deep space, was beginning.

Soon there would be people and Kienan would be gone. Right now, he felt like being alone.

Gold and Silver had stirred up plenty of things in him. He wasn't a wild animal, lashing out just because he could at whomever he felt like. And he also wasn't the cold machine of rage.

He was both.

He chided himself about being the one to lecture Gold about the responsibility of taking a life. He had taken enough in his time and shown mercy as many times. Ultimately he knew the true cost of dealing death was the slow death of one's own soul.

Kienan had long since stopped regretting it or trying to fight it. It was simply the way things were.

He stared at the fine dirt under his feet. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the merry-go-round begin to turn and slowly looked up.

Angela sat, watching him quietly as the merry-go-round made slow revolutions.

"You didn’t come back to the hospital last night," she said finally.

"Didn’t feel like it," Kienan said. "Had some things to think about."

"The women who attacked Lil -- "

"I found them," Kienan said shortly. "I gave them a stern talking to. We won’t see them again."

Angela studied his face and decided not to pry.

"Look," she began. "I wanted to say thanks and that I'm sorry."

Kienan looked up at her and raised an eyebrow. "For what and for what?"

"Thanks for giving me a place to stay. For not kicking me back out or killing me."

Kienan smirked. "So long as I don’t end up regretting it, you’re welcome. Now what are you sorry about?"

"Being afraid," Angela said. She closed her eyes, waiting for a scolding.

"It's only natural," Kienan said quietly. He still felt disappointment in her for not doing what he did, but something had changed. She wasn't like him, he knew, and that wasn't so bad a thing. Especially not weighing what it had cost him.

He knew he wasn't like her, either. Fear and hope were things he had left behind long ago, and only now Kienan found himself taking an account of how much he had lost and what was left.

He stood up and gestured to her. "C'mon," he said. "Let's go."