Gunmetal Black
Chapter 4 - A Hundred Thousand Souls
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.

Kienan met Silence's opening attack with his own strike, and with such extreme force that sparks flew off of their swords. Kienan whipped out his Midare-Giri and swiped at Silence, nicking him in the stomach.

"First blood's mine," Kienan said.

Silence followed up by swiping at Kienan's back, slicing lightly into his spine. Kienan winced as he felt the blade sear into his flesh. He grimaced and swept Silence off of his feet with a low kick.

He drove his sword down, aiming for his head. Silence rolled away, running towards the Nighthawk, moored so close by. Kienan rushed after him. Silence leapt up onto one of the Nighthawk's attitude thrusters and backflipped into the air, falling back to the deck with a kick that struck Kienan hard in the chest. Kienan rolled with the force of the blow as he bit back the pain.

He drew himself up to his feet, wiping his red-gloved hand over his lips. He looked at the back of his glove. Dark red stains.

"I guess we're even, then," Kienan muttered, raising his sword again. They attacked each other, their swords shrieking as they struck the other, again and again. Kienan knew this was only killing time--despite all, he and Silence were equals more or less in a swordfight, but Kienan didn't care. He had to keep Silence busy while Mao returned to the ship. Despite his relationship with Kienan, Mao wouldn’t look kindly on Kienan murdering his bodyguard.

Besides, despite himself, Kienan didn’t want this dance to end just yet. Silence presented a challenge, and one Kienan was eager to match himself against.

Silence's blade flashed by his shoulder, and a thin line of blood drew itself along his shoulder. Kienan responded by slashing a line down his chest, a deeper cut than Silence's, but not enough to kill.

Not yet.

Valcuria balanced the small display on her lap, reading map coordinates with a cool, detached eye.

From Tartarus, into Khephren space, she thought, the display drawing a red line through the star-map. Then through Galactic Core--that'll be the real challenge. Once I'm past that . . .

"I hope you’re not busy," Pirate Red said, entering the room as though it were an act of aggression in and of itself. "You've got a lot of explaining to do, lady. The only way I won’t start anything over that incident at Kienan's ship."

Valcuria pressed a button, and the display switched to a wire-frame schematic.

"I certainly have," Valcuria said. "I'm almost finished with the final design of the droid fighter. Look." She proffered the display to Red, who looked at it cautiously.

"Not what I expected," Red said. "Doesn’t look much like a fighter."

"It doesn’t have to," Valcuria said. "Your fighter designs are too bound to older ideas. This design works equally well in the atmosphere and space, has unparalleled maneuverability, and can be mass-produced easily."

"Weapons?" Red asked.

"Missiles, phased pulse guns, and one crystal pulse laser," Valcuria said. "Enough to take on a small destroyer."

"We go after more than small destroyers, Valcuria," Red said.

"I know that," Valcuria said. "That's why their strategic program will follow the Chroan's combat directives--swarm, overwhelm, and destroy. If we can produce enough fighters, we will have the firepower to disable or destroy most ships in space."

"Better," Red said. "How do you propose to test the design?"

"I'm going to build a modified version--one that will accommodate me. I will test it myself."

"And if you're destroyed?"

"Then obviously, it's a flawed design."

"Mmm," Red said. "I like someone who stands behind their product. But I still have questions about what you were doing with Kienan Ademetria's gang."

"I don’t know who Kienan Ademetria is, Pirate Red," Valcuria said. "If you’re insinuating something--"

"Insinuating? No," Red sneered. "Flat out accusing is more like it. We know all about you Valcuira. Or more accurately, what you used to be. You’re like Kienan's girls."

"And what if I am?" Valcuria said.

"That's why I suspect a double-cross," Red said coolly. "Blood is thicker than water."

"I don't bleed."

"The point still stands," Red said, setting the display down on a nearby work-table. "I'm watching you like a hawk, as of now. And if you do double-cross us, no force in the stars is gonna save you."

"Is this what's known as motivating your workforce?" Valcuria said.

"Take is as you like it," Red said, walking to the door.

Valcuria watched her leave. Slowly, rage boiled into her face. Accursed human, she thought ruefully. As if you could even get close to me unless I allowed it. You can watch me all you like. And my Ironmaidens will be watching you as well. On that you can be certain.

So short-sighted, Red. You only want the droid brain because it's cheap and easily replicable, like the fighter shells. You can’t conceive of what I'm planning to do. Your limited thug brain couldn’t comprehend that this is only the first step of my plan.

She turned back to the display, picking it up and looking back at the star-map.

Just the first step, she thought.

Kienan jammed his body between Silence's chest and shoulder, shoving him against the hull of the Nighthawk. He heard a soft tearing sound and knew that he'd snapped Silence's shoulder, that his favored arm was as good as useless to him now.

Silence switched hands, his left arm hanging limp by his side. He changed stances, using sword thrusts instead of the graceful sword arcs he had been using.

"Come on, Silence," Kienan said, dodging his attacks as if Silence were in slow motion. "I know you've got way more than this. This is your chance to finally shut me up, finish me off? Don’t you want it? Or are you too scared and hurt to go for it?"

That got his attention. Silence caught him across the chest with a sword arc, cutting into his vest and his flesh. Kienan tore off the rest of his vest and wrapped it around his hand quickly. When Silence came around again he caught his sword in the wrapped up hand, and snatched Silence's own sword away from him.

Kienan smiled and threw Silence's sword away from the site of battle.

"Hand to hand," he said. "Better this way for you."

Silence threw a pair of kicks towards Kienan, but Kienan was too fast for him, and they glanced off of his crossed arms. Kienan followed up by kicking harder into Silence's other leg.

"A fourth Marionette," Mirage repeated, pressing a series of buttons. There was a hiss of hydraulics as the last of the locks holding Kienan's prize in her frozen block slid into place. "I can't believe it."

"I met her," Vain said. "She calls herself Valcuria. I couldn’t believe the things she was saying, either. Like we're some sort of new lifeform or something. I probably should have blown her out of the stars, but I figured it was just idle talk. Then those blasted pirates attacked and I lost her."

"Any idea which pirate guild it was?" Mirage asked, checking the rest of the systems.

"Conscience said it was the Misericord," Vain began. "One of Pirate Red's ships."

"Pirate Red," Mirage said. "Kienan said something about her once, didn’t he? Something about her being a small-time operator on the Frontier?"

"If she's this far into space, that's obviously changed," Vain said. "That or there was something here that she wanted really bad."

"Maybe it was something she wanted back," Mirage said, following Vain out of the hold. The door double-sealed behind them.

"You think Valcuria and Red are working together?" Vain asked.

"It does seem awfully convenient--them being in the same place and all," Mirage said. "I think we had best let Kienan know about this."

"Where is he anyway?" Vain asked. "He wouldn't stay out this late, not even for the Blue Dragons."

Silence snagged Kienan by his braid and kicked him hard in the spine. Had Kienan not been expecting the kick, his spine would have snapped like a twig. As it was, the pain was explosive, shooting through him as though he'd just grabbed a live electrical wire.

Still and all, Kienan felt alive, just as he had during the fights on Kuran for the Midare-Giri. He had been the first human to win the tournaments, much less survive the first round of combat.

The Midare-Giri was as old as the galaxy. Apparently, it was started by an ancient race called the Hakaiden, who kidnapped other races and forced them to battle each other to the death. The Midare-Giri itself was one of the last known Hakaiden artifacts.

The Hakaiden had been gone for millennia, but the older races had adopted the custom, and had used the blade as a prize. Once a royal sport in the higher galactic courts, it had slowly passed down into the underground.

Where it had found Kienan.

Unlike most of the past Midare-Giri champions, Kienan had suffered very little in the way of scarring or damage from his time in the battle pit. Most champions at least had a limb missing by the time they won.

The only scar Kienan ever bore from his time in the battlefields was the crossed scars on his back. The rest he had incurred later, when he had become the master assassin he was today.

The newest batch would come from this battle with Silence. Silence drew out his knife, which Kienan, angry at Silence's refusal to fight him hand to hand used the Midare-Giri to snap the blade in half.

"I told you," Kienan said. He whipped out a fist and cuffed Silence in the side of the head. "Hand to hand, you bastard."

Silence stopped for a second, snapping his shoulder back into place, and struck a ready stance.

"Better," Kienan said, easing into his own stance. Silence led in with a spinning punch, only to be blocked by Kienan, who threw a punch so hard, Silence's jaw shattered like glass. Kienan drove his knee into Silence's groin, then struck him twice with his hands, in rapid succession.

Silence spun and fell to the ground, blood seeping through the fabric of his uniform.

"How long until we dock with Temjin?" Mao asked the pilot.

"Twenty seconds," the pilot replied. "We'll have to use docking bay three. The main bay seems to be occupied at the moment."

"I can imagine," Mao said. "Have you been able to make any kind of contact with anyone on the ship?"

"Apart from the repeating signal Kienan sent five minutes ago, nothing active, sir," the pilot replied.

"Hm," Mao said. His mind was convulsing as he turned over the various worst-case scenarios in his mind. I'm half surprised Kienan hasn’t destroyed the Temjin. I'm sort of hoping he hasn’t--it's a brand new ship.

I have enough trouble explaining some of Kienan's . . .overzealousness . . .to the elders. Hopefuly, Kienan will be discreet enough to allow me to keep this matter in my own house.

I should have suspected Korin would try something like this. Eever since I suggested that Kienan cement his place with the Blue Dragon Tong by a marriage to my daughter, she has wished nothing but his death once he turned her down.

That's always been the problem with Korin,
he thought. Pride. Obviously, she's willing to sell me out to get her revenge on Kienan. Someone like that, even one who is blood must be dealt with as harshly as possible.

Mao pondered the anger within him. If Korin is very lucky, Kienan has already dealt with her. Death by his hands would be a kindness compared to the fate I have in mind for you, my dear daughter.

"It's been fun," Kienan began, pulling out his knife and walking towards Silence. "But to be honest, you really stopped being any fun five minutes ago."

Silence, in too much pain to even move, could only pitifully hold himself up on the palms of his hands.

"But it's OK, really," Kienan said. "I just thought of a new game. I'll tell you what it is . . .even though I know you can’t hear me. You see, I'm going to cut a piece of you off, little by little, until you scream."

Slience tried to get to his feet, but Kienan smashed his boot into his back and Silence crumpled under the strike.

"Now I know--you can't scream either," Kienan said. "But I've heard that some animals that don’t have vocal chords can scream. I'm sort of curious if the same happens to you?"

Before Kienan could begin, a laser shot sparked off of the hull of the Nighthawk, just past his face. Kienan turned slowly to see Korin, blood caked on her face, gun pointed right at his chest.

"Korin," Kienan said, nary a hint of surprise creeping into his voice. "Have you had your nose done?"

"I tried to do this as delicately as I could," Korin said, readying the gun for a second shot. "I removed Mao, so he couldn't protect you. I used every resource to give you a fair death."

"Happy to disappoint you," Kienan said. "If I thought for a second you could actually shoot me, I’d have dealt with that little pea-shooter of yours five seconds ago."

"Maybe I've learned how to shoot since then," Korin said.

"If that were the case, I’d have been dead long before I could have contacted Mao and brought him back," Kienan said, stomping Silence's back once more. He looked down at him, then hoisted him onto his shoulders. He shoved Silence forward, his weight tumbling towards Korin. Korin tried to back-step, but ended up landing on her rear end and dropping the gun. Silence's unconscious body thudded to the deck as Korin tried to grab the gun and get up.

She got unsteadily to her feet as Kienan walked towards her, silently, the slightest hint of a smile on his face.

"I'll shoot," she said, trying to sound commanding.

"Go ahead," Kienan said, getting closer. "I don’t really have to do anything, you know. I was just keeping you busy until Mao got back."

Korin raised the gun, but Kienan grabbed it and slapped her in the face in one fluid motion. Korin went screaming and sprawled out toward the deck again. Kienan raised the gun slowly, inspecting it. Then he shrugged and pointed towards Korin.

"KIENAN!" Mao's voice barked. Kienan immediately flipped the safety catch on the gun. Mao walked into the landing bay, flanked by a cadre of guards. He immediately moved between Kienan and Korin. "That will be quite enough."

"Speak of the devil," Kienan said. He looked at Mao. "They're all yours. I didn’t kill either of them. But I think the both of them could use a lesson in fealty. I'll leave it to you."

"I noticed you didn't blow up the ship or anything." Mao said. "Thank you."

"It looked new," Kienan said. "Besides. I was busy. If you'll excuse me, Mao, I have a job to get started on."

"Of course," Mao said, waving him away. "I wish you success as always."

Kienan walked to the Nighthawk, pressing a series of buttons on the cockpit. A hatch slid down and Kienan quickly slid into his flight suit. He clamped the helmet down and sat in the pilot chair. Motors and hydraulics whirred and hissed as he was raised into the cockpit. The hatch sealed below him. He hit a set of switches above his head. The on-board computer hummed to life, and he felt the throb of his engines.

He watched Mao and the guards clear out of the bay as the large space doors opened. He released the magnetic landing claws and felt the ship floating free in zero gravity. He gently used the maneuvering thrusters to position himself and slowly flew out of the ship's docking bay.

Once he was clear of the Temjin, he loaded the data crystal into his ship's computer and used the communicator to contact the Silhouette. Vaina nd Mirage's image snapped onscreen.

"Ladies," Kienan said. "We have a job. I'm uploading to you now."

He watched as Vain and Mirage both glanced at the data, absorbing it in the same time it took a human mind to look at a road sign. One of the advantages of having a brain that moves six times as fast.

He saw their faces cloud.

"What is it?" Kienan asked.

"We've had a little trouble why you were gone," Vain said. "And from the looks of this data, it seems to be related to it."

"All right," Kienan said. "I'm activating Space Drive right now. Meet me at the edge of the system. I'll see you in an hour."

Vain nodded and the channel closed. Now he was curious. It wasn't often jobs found him before he found them, but he didn’t mind having his curiosity piqued.

It would just make the job that much more interesting.

Silence's head rolled onto the deck. Korin watched in horror, almost not believing what she was seeing. Mao looked on impassively. He hated that he was put in this position, and had only come to this conclusion after an hour's worth of thought on the trip back.

"Silence knew the cost of his betrayal," Mao said. "But you, Korin. You present a problem. Honor prevents me from doing hard against my own house. My servants may be punished any way I see fit, but my family I am bonded to suffer."

Korin was being held in place by two of the armored guards Mao had brought with him back to the ship. Her body, already sore, was feeling crushed between their massive forms.

"But you must still be punished--this is not in dispute," Mao said. "And so I have judged. You are to be taken from this place. Your family is dead to you, Korin. You are no longer my daughter, and you are no longer a member of the Blue Dragon Tong."

Korin relaxed. That didn’t seem so bad.

"You will be taken back to Kuran, with nothing but the clothes on your back. As Kuran is one of the most hostile places imaginable to live, I don’t imagine someone like you--a spoiled child--will survive long alone. You will no doubt survive even less long when you discover the bounty that will be placed upon your head once you leave here."

"Father," she said. "Don’t do this."

"You have left me no choice," Mao said. "You were willing to betray your father and his house for the sake of petty vengeance. This is the one infraction I cannot brook. And so you must live with what you risked for Kienan, and what it has cost you. Take her away. I don’t want to look at her anymore."

The guards took her away, but Mao stopped the once more.

"Korin," he said. "Remember--in a wager, no one remembers the losers."

The guards then dragged her out of the chamber.

"What do you think?" Red asked Kilana.

Kiana studied the schematics of the droid fighter shell. They were alone on the bridge of the Misericord, in low Space Drive. "It's interesting stuff. A whole new design paradigm, certainly. It meets our needs better than we could have expected. And it's ugly as hell, too."

"Beggars can’t be choosers," Red said. She felt the ship shudder a little as it negotiated the eddies of compressed space. "When we're making money hand over fist, we can build a fleet of beautiful and deadly ships. In the meantime, though, we'll have to make do with this. Can we build her prototype?"

"Easily enough," Kilana said.

"She's willing to give us a demonstration of how it works, even willing to pilot the prototype frame," Red said.

"Determined, isn’t she?" Kilana said.

"I want you to build something into the frame," Red said. "This little tantrum she threw when we found Kienan's ship makes me more convinced that ever she's planning something."

"I'm convinced she is," Kilana said. "I checked her access records. She's been looking at starmaps quite a bit lately."

"Starmaps?" Red asked. "Show me?"

Kilana put her hands into the control yoke and the viewscreen came to life.

"Core space," Red said. "What could she want at Galactic Core?"

"I don’t think it's the Core she wants," Kilana said. "You know as well as I do what's just at the edge of Core space."

Red sat back in her chair, a smile slowly creeping over her face. "Chroan space. Makes sense Queen Calculator would want to go there. It's got to be a kind of Mecca for her."

"Yup," Kilana said. "Eever since the UEF and the allied empires shut down the Chroan and set up Galactic Core, they've quarantined that whole sector of space."

"Why?" Red asked.

"Well, some UEF scientists found out that the base technology for the Chroan technology was ancient Earth tech," Kilana said, bringing up some historical records on the viewscreen. "So they went digging through as many old records as they could to find a shutoff code. Once they did every Chroan ship, fighter, drone, base, turned off--just like that."

"So?" Red asked. "They self-destructed. It's a dead sector of space."

"They didn’t self-destruct," Kilana said, bringing up more records. "That's what UEF told everyone, but at least 30 million Chroan ships of various sizes and classes survived. Most of them are still floating in that sector of space like ghost ships. Some they destroy from time to time, on the pretense of cleaning up space junk. Some ships and pieces of ships got carted back to research labs so the major empires could study the technology."

"Which brings us back to the droid brain," Red said. "It's based on Chroan technology. But why would Valcuria want it? She's not Chroan, wasn't even created when the war went down. What's in it for her?"

"I'm still working on that," Kilana said. "But she's really over-protective of the droid brain. And I'm virtually convinced that once she gives us the droid fighters, we'll get forced out of the picture."

"The hell we will," Red said. "I'll smash her control circuits myself before I let that happen."

"Well, that's great, sis," Kilana said, shutting down the display. The ship rumbled and wobbled slightly. "Have you forgot her Ironmaidens?"

"Not at all," Red said. "I just had an idea that might aolve a lot of our problems in a very nice and neat fashion. If Kienan Ademetria's been sicced on us, and Valcuria's planning to double-cross us . . .maybe we can play both of them against each other. Deal ourselves out of the game."

"Well," Kilana said. "She did kind of mastermind the heist of the droid brain from the Archangel. All any records salvaged from the ship would show is her Ironmaidens stealing the droid brain."

"But they'd show the pirate rakes attacking the convoy," Red said. "No one uses ships like ours. Kienan's too smart to miss something obvious like that"

"Well," Kilana said. "Any real records would show that. But I can doctor up some records--replace our rakes with some nondescript old warships that any local gang could use. Maybe we should arrange to have the records we want found to be found?"

Pirate Red smiled. "Why Kilana, that's so devious, I wish I'd thought of it."