Gunmetal Black
Chapter 8 - Burning Down The House
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.

Vain and Mirage found themselves nearly engulfed by the swarm of droid fighters. Their twin Angelfish fighters were ablaze with the report from their weaponry. But no matter how much laser fire they managed to fire at the droid fighters, the droid fighters managed to utilize their superior speed to rocket away at the very last second.

"These are what we were hired to destroy?" Vain asked Mirage through the communications line. Vain attempted to focus on one of the fighters at a time, and perhaps destroy them one at a time.

"Looks like," Mirage replied, blasting one out of the stars with a strike from her missiles. "They're moving like lighting--I can just barely get a lock on them."

"We'll have to be better, then."

Vain pulled her ship upwards, chasing one of the fighters as the Angelfish's spaceframe spun with the g-forces of the turn, flinging the laser fire in all directions.

Two of the droid fighters came in behind her, firing their weapons at full strength. Vain felt the ship rocking as the shields absorbed the brunt of the attack. She engaged her maneuvering engines, turned one hundred and eighty degrees, and responded with a volley of laser fire, but the ships pulled away.

"Vain," Mirage said, tracking another fighter with rapid fire from her laser guns. "I'm not getting any lifeform reading from the fighters. They must be the droid brains."

Vain wheeled around, over, and behind one of the fighters, destroying it with a volley from her laser guns. "That means they'll have simple preprogrammed tactics," Vain said. "They'll try to swarm us, or outmaneuver our ships, but we can out-fight them, so long as they don't make us mad enough to make a mistake. Try to pick off one at a time."

"Do tell," Mirage said, banking her fighter a hair's breadth from a wall of fire from a trio of fighters. One of them launched two missiles towards her.

"Missiles, eh?" Mirage said to herself. She touched a button on the side of one of her flight sticks. "Too obvious. You should never try the obvious with a woman named Mirage. I'm never when you expect."

The pushed the button. Two small packs ejected from behind her ship, exploding into space. Inside the packs were small metallic strips covered in plastic. The missiles streaked towards them, exploding as they hit them, and their guidance systems scrambled without warning.

Mirage flew through the dying embers of the missiles' explosion and fired her own guns, destroying the droid fighter.

She glared at where the ships had been. "Told ya," she said.

"How many left?" Mirage asked Vain, returning to the big picture of the battle. Two down was good, but there were at least ten times that out there.

"Too many," Vain said. "If you can get it down to a one-to-one fight, it's easy to take them out. Trouble is that takes time, and we don’t have that. We're supposed to have rendezvoused with Kienan by now."

"Maybe we could take some out by going to full-fire?" Mirage asked. She began hitting switches in her cockpit, and secret panels began opening. She hit buttons on the panels, and panels on the outer shell of the Angelfish opened.

"Field Thunder, ready. Free Range, ready. Rail Guns, ready," the even computer voice said in Mirage's ear.

"Do what you want," Vain said. "I've got another idea, and about twenty of these bastards to practice on."

"Good hunting," Mirage said. She positioned the weapons and activated them. Two droid fighters were incapacitated and destroyed by a web of electromagnetic energy, two more were destroyed by multiple refractive laser weapons, and three more were pulverized by two heavy plasma guns fired from the underside of the Angelfish.

Mirage frowned. Seven destroyed, but the full-fire weapons were drained. She wouldn’t be able to fire them unless she diverted power from another system, and every system was necessary to keep her flying. Worse than that, her missile stock was down to ten.

Not much left after that, she thought. Just a few weapons made for atmospheric combat. I hope Vain's having better luck.

Valcuria tried to guide the droid fighters battle tactics, but it was slowly but surely dissolving into frustration. Damn it, she thought. My children are being destroyed, and I can't pilot the Cerberus and direct the battle from this distance at the same time.

She tried to squeeze more power from the engines, but it was no good. Azura's self-destruction may have incapacitated the Cerberus long enough for her to take command, but it had done major damage. Worse than that, the status screens were telling her a group of pirate rakes were coming after her.

If I go into Space Drive, I'll lose the rest of my fighters, and probably destroy myself in the process. If I try to proceed at the Cerberus' maximum speed, I'll be overtaken and destroyed by the pirate rakes behind me. I have no doubt Pirate Red is in the lead, ready to erase this ship from the stars with the planet gun.

She looked behind her, at Auriga and War Toy, her sworn protectors. Her daughters. She had already sacrificed one of them, and a plan that would save her was forming. The only trouble was that it would mean sacrificing the Cerberus and both Auriga and War Toy.

I could leave in my fighter-frame, she thought. Auriga could pilot the ship, and War Toy could protect her for a time, if they try to board the ship. But chances are even better that Red will destroy the ship.

Valcuria set the ship to automatic for a moment and walked over to the two of them, standing impassively behind her. She doted on them for a moment, the way a parent would dote on a favored child.

"Could you forgive me?" Valcuria asked them.

They said nothing. They didn’t have to really.

"I understand," she said. "It seems small comfort to sacrifice you. I can rebuild you . . .but I could never replace you."

She heard a proximity alarm. The ships pursuing her were coming into visual range. They could be on her in a second, weapons at the ready. Valucuria looked at Auriga, their eyes met. A dense and complicated series of directives were transmitted through narrow beams into Auriga's brain.

Auriga stiffly walked to the command console and took over the ship's functions. Wartoy walked closer to her, determined to guard whomever until the end of the line.

Valcuria made her way below decks to the hangar bay. Her fighter-frame stood ready and loaded. She stepped in, the heavy Hydraulics closing around her. She blinked as the green head-up display glowed to life in front of her eyes. The engines whined as they began to heat up.

The space doors opened and Valcuria launched out into space. The fighter streaked like a comet away from the Cerberus as its main thrusters kicked in, and Valcuria flew like a shooting star towards the rest of her fighters.

Kienan had been silent, unmoving, and breathing very little as he floated in space. But when the tone informing him of the arrival of the Starblade Reiven started in his ear, his eyes snapped open.

"It's here," was all he said.

The silver fighter floated before him, its engines holding it in position. Kienan allowed himself a smile. The Reiven was his fighter in every way, it even had a limited artificial intelligence that responded only to him. Even now Kienan couldn’t help but think of it as almost like as a pet dog.

But most people's pet dogs weren't fast-attack gunships capable of destroying a ship twice its size all by itself.

He watched as the cockpit opened, welcoming him. Kienan activated the pressure-jets on his suit and drifted towards the fighter, rolling into the cockpit. The canopy sealed shut and the interior repressurized.

Kienan began hitting switches on the control board. The Reiven was his own design, his own parts, and his own pet project. It was the sum total of everything he had learned from piloting, maintaining, and studying the Nighthawk--with one difference.

The Nighthawk had been primarily an infiltrator. The Starblade Reiven was a weapon, a weapon of mass destruction. It was as untraceable as the Nighthawk, but it was built less for stealth and more for battle.

And, Kienan was convinced, even at 80% completion, it was superior to any other fighter he had eve encountered.

He pulled the fighter into a turn as he simultaneously keyed into the communications channel to the one he shared with Vain and Mirage.

"Ladies," he said. "I apologize for the delay. My fighter was destroyed, so I had to wait for a replacement. What's the situation?"

"Bad," Vain said. "We're under attack by a squadron of fighters. We think they're using the droid brain. We've been chasing after them, trying to destroy them ship to ship, but it's tough--they're fast, highly maneuverable, and they have some rudimentary tactical knowledge. Enough to make us waste time on them trying to eliminate them one by one."

"More than that," Mirage chimed in. "I'm reading four pirate rakes on route to our position. Looks like reinforcements are on the way."

Kienan thought for a moment. "Do what you can with the fighters," he said. "I'll take care of the pirates."

"Kienan, is that wise?" Vain said. "I know you’re proud of that ship, but one fighter against that many?"

"You worry too much ladies. I'll meet up with you at your present position. Kienan out."

Kienan set course for the pirate ships. It was time for some payback, at which time he would get something very important to him back. He checked his weapons complement. Conscience had interpreted his signal perfectly. When he had sent the signal, the Starblade Reiven had been immediately loaded with weapons and moved into a launch position.

It hadn't been the first time Kienan had been dumped out of an airlock and left for dead. It was, however, the first time he would take revenge without taking the life of the person who ordered him spaced.

After all, he had to get his knife back.

"Hydra, Gorgon, take up positions behind us and fire on our signal," Pirate Red said, locking herself into the firing harness. "I want the Cerberus reduced to vapor."

"Planet gun power is available," Kilana said. "Targeting control released to your station."

"Give me fire control," Red said. Through the targeting scope, she focused on the critical part of the Cerberus. If the engines were destroyed, the ship couldn’t escape, and it would be easy to destroy it with the firepower available.

There, she thought as the computer locked onto the target. Her hands gripped the triggers and she squeezed them even tighter than she had to. She channeled all her anger, all the frustration, all the annoyances and delays Valcuria had imposed on Red's plans and prayed that she had enough time to realize it was Red who had pulled the trigger on her before she was destroyed.

The planet gun surged to life, and sheared off one of the Cerberus' navigation fins. It tumbled away into space, the edges that had been sheared off glowing in space. The turret atop the Cerberus' dorsal fin responded with a stream of laser fire, which hit the Misericord amidships, punching through its shields, which were already at low power due to the energy needs of the planet gun.

Red was rocked even in the harness. She quickly unlocked herself from it. "Why the hell did we miss?" Red asked, incredulous. "That shot should have blown the Cerberus out of the stars."

"That's easy--they stopped," Kilana said. "The targeting systems lock on track a moving target. Whoever's piloting that ship knows that, and figured the easiest way to beat it, since we can’t rapid-fire the thing, is to stop in their tracks and return fire."

"Thanks for the lesson in tactics, sis," Red said sarcastically, activating the Misericord's defense grid. "How long until we can fire the planet gun again?"

"Unknown," Kilana said. "The plan was to take them out with the first shot. Now that we have to go toe to toe with the Cerberus, any power for a second shot is going into the standard guns, and they're nowhere near powerful enough to destroy that ship, even with a fourth of their ship sheared away."

"Any more good news?" Red asked.

"That shot we took cut our lines to the Space Drive," Kilana said. "We're stuck here if the Cerberus decides to jump. However, if they do, there's a good chance they'll destroy themselves with only one stabilizer if they go into Space Drive."

The Cerberus turned towards them, bringing all its remaining guns to bear on the trio of ships. The Misericord and her group did their best to return fire, but the Cerberus held on, firing every single weapon available and never once maneuvering out of the way of stray fire.

The Hydra and the Gorgon, however, were more inclined to self-preservation. They began to move away from the wall of fire the Cerberus was throwing forward, but unbeknownst to either of the captains, those maneuvers were putting the ships on a collision course.

"Kraid, Ridely!" Red screamed into her communications board. "Watch where you’re going! Break off, take evasive action!"

It wasn't enough, but not because they didn’t heed her warning. The Hydra and the Gorgon did manage to stop one second before they collided, but a second was all the Cerberus needed to bring it main guns to bear on the Hydra's engines. The Hydra, unable to activate its shields for fear of a critical reaction with the Gorgon's shields, had dropped theirs for a moment.

The Hydra's engines were struck, causing a chain reaction that blew up the ship, and took the Gorgon with it. The Misericord pulled back, turning its underside to the explosion and strengthening its shields as debris and released energy issued forth in every direction.

"Damn it," Red said. "Continue firing!"

"No good," Kilana said. "Main guns are out, the explosion's fragged our targeting systems. And she's moving away."

"Pursue!" Red commanded, slamming her hands against the armrests of her chair.

"We're burning our weapons out as it is," Kilana said. "We can’t target precisely, and we're taking heavy damage from her guns. The smart thing to do is pull back, because all we can do at this point is ram them, and that'll kill us anyway."

Red sighed. "All right," she said. "Fall back. Make a scan, see if there were any survivors from the ships. In the meantime, get me a clear channel back to Tartarus and tell them to mobilize every ship we have and have them proceed on the Cerberus' last known heading. I want that ship out of my sky."

"Good as done," Kilana said. "But what about the ship coming towards us now?"

Vain had dealt with several of the droid fighters without using the full-fire weapons, but at a heavier cost than Mirage's. As a result of standing her ground and taking whatever hits were necessary, her shields were worn down to nearly nothing. Just enough to keep micrometeoroids and other space debris from shredding the skin of the Angelfish, and that would leave her defenseless when another laser hit struck the ship.

Two more droid fighters had picked her up. Vain calmly loaded another magazine of missiles into the weapons bays. These were special missiles, often used for infiltration, but Vain had a plan.

The computer locked on to the two fighters chasing her, and positioned the launchers to fire. Two missiles locked onto the fighters and struck them full on.

The fighters weren't destroyed, but they were damaged. A thin, needlelike probe had pierced the outer shell of the fighters, and from that needle, a small capsule of nanomachines began working their way into the fighters' systems.

Within seconds, the ships stopped, re-engaged their engines and took up flanking positions beside Vain's ship. She smiled. She reminded herself to tell Kienan about this use of their Parasite missiles.

"Vain," Mirage's voice called. "Where are you? These bastards have started ganging up on me, I could use some help."

Vain set course for the tight knot of fighters and bore down on them, her weapons, and the weapons of the droid fighters she'd taken over, blazed as the droid fighters were scattered or destroyed.

"That enough help for you, Mirage?" Vain asked.

"How in the hell did you do that?" Mirage asked.

"Parasite missiles," Vain said. "They don’t seem to have the programming necessary to fight the nanomachines."

"In that case," Mirage said, locking on and hitting three other fighters. Her fingers worked frantically over a nearby keypad, and the enslaved fighters began rotating in a circle, their weapons smashing droid fighters in every direction.

"We've got 'em on the run, now," Mirage said.

"Wait," Vain said. "I'm picking up another fighter, on the far side of our position. The surviving fighters are breaking off and following it."

The remaining droid fighters flew off towards the fighter that had rocketed past them. The enslaved ships, finally consumed by the nanotechnology, hovered dead in space, their systems burned out.

"So," Mirage asked. "What do we do now?"

Vain turned and saw the Cerberus, trailing burning plasma, but still relatively intact, bearing towards them.

Vain grimaced. "I think that answers your question."

"My weapons are nearly gone," Mirage said. "What I haven’t totally spent, is either burnt out or ineffective against a ship that size."

Vain smiled. "There's more than one way to stop a giant, sister. Come on, I have an idea."

The Reiven rocketed towards the Misericord, weapon ports opened. Kienan didn’t fire, despite the inclination to. Instead, he maneuvered the Reiven in front of the Misericord's bridge. Then he opened a channel to the Misericord.

"Hello, Red," he said. "I said I'd be back for my knife. Now, seeing as how your ship's weapons are as good as burnt out, and seeing as how I have at least 10 laser cannons, 4 missile pods, among other weapons pointed at you. My knife. Now."

"And if I refuse?" Red said.

"Oh for God's sake, Red, we don’t have time for this," Kilana said, rolling her eyes. "Kienan--can you hear me? It's Kilana."

"Hello, Kilana," Kienan said. "I haven’t forgotten about that sonic blast you hit me with. I'm afraid you're going to die soon as well."

"Kienan, what if we were to . . .hire you?"

"What?" Red demanded.

"We'll pay you whatever you want," Kilana said. "Just destroy Valcuria, and destroy the droid brains."

Kienan smiled. "Kilana . . .you can’t afford me."

"And we don’t need you," Red sneered.

"Cristina, shut up!" Kilana said, freeing herself from the control yoke. She stalked over to Red, taking the Midare-Giri from her hands. "Here's the price."

Kienan smiled. "I don’t usually take another contract until I've completed the previous one."

"I'm hoping you'll make an exception, given the nature of the mission and the collateral I'm offering," Kilana said.

"Anything's possible," Kienan said.

"Don't tell me you trust us enough to keep the bargain after we threw you out into space," Red said.

"You?" Kienan said. "No. Kilana, yes. She's not stupid enough to try a double-cross with me. Given the nature of the assignment and the risk involved, I want my payment in advance."

"All right, all right," Kilana said. "Dock at the forward launch bay. I'll meet you down there."

Kilana closed the communications channel and looked at her sister.

"I wanted to keep that a bit longer," Red said.

"Well, it was either that or he would unload on us, and we would be done for sure. Then he'd pry the knife from your cold dead fingers in the hard vacuum of space, and you still wouldn’t have it."

Red nodded. "It wasn't like we could have stopped him, I guess. We're all but dead in space."

"After taking on the Cerberus? No," Kilana sighed. "Give him what he wants, and maybe he'll leave us alone and do the job for us. And then maybe an accident happens to him and you get your pound of flesh."

"You're talking about the ships we already sent to take care of Valcuria? I very seriously doubt they'll honor any agreement between Kienan and us."

"That's not our problem, is it?" Kilana asked.

Red sat down in her chair, smiling. "I guess it isn’t at that."

Valcuria led her team of fighters beyond the range of Vain and Mirage and prepared to activate the Space Drive. There weren't many left, only fifteen had survived the battle with Vain and Mirage intact, and some of them were too damaged to survive a Space Drive as far as they needed to go.

She sent a command to a group of them to find a isolated planetary body--a planet, an asteroid, it didn’t matter, so long as they were safe. Once there, they would shift of a mode to protect the droid brain. Much like when a butterfly enters a chrysalis stage. There they would lay--dormant, until they were needed.

For the future. It had never been Valcuria's way to rely solely on one plan, when she was clever enough to have a back up in mind.

The remaining ships launched into Space Drive, the small ships were rocketed through compressed space at fantastic speeds, heading away from the Frontier towards her final objective.

Statistics and galactic longitudes flashed by her eyes as she charted a course through to Khephren space. The Khephren were a small collective of traders with very little military strength, and they would be no trouble for her fighters, even at drastically reduced strength like this.

At least I hope so, she thought. I feel a peculiar sense of apprehension. It's hard to believe my entire life has been building to this moment. Ever since Dr. Gora showed me the true nature of the human who had created me, and when I saw it proved for myself I began planning this. My revenge.

The Earth humbled my creator's people, the Rigellians. Humiliated them, despite being the superior fighters. And they would have made me, a being in every way superior to them, a slave in the worst way possible.

Well, thanks to their own short-sightedness, they've given me all I need to pay them back for their arrogance. I will extinguish them from the stars themselves.

She pressed on, holding fast to her course.

Kienan rocketed away from the Misericord, his knife back with him, where it belonged. He smiled tightly at the irony of the reclamation of it. It had been worth the side trip alone just to see Pirate Red tremble with frustrated anger as she handed over the blade to him when Kienan knew what she really wanted to do was bury it in his chest.

They were always like that, those two, Kienan thought. Ever since the first time I met them.

Kienan had first met the twin pirates sometime after his escape from Caldera. They had been small-time crooks on a way station to Kuran, and Kienan had almost been one of their marks.

Only Kienan wasn't as easy a mark for two sloppy pickpockets like them. He made them pay very dearly for trying to steal his money, and as a result, there had been substantial bad blood between them.

And that had been before either of them became established.

They had clashed several times since then, and Kienan had always managed to outmaneuver them, despite Red's bluster and Kilana's cunning. The trouble was was that Kienan was more skilled, and more cunning than both of them were.

Kienan had been more of a success than they were, of course. While he was the galaxy's premier assassin, it had taken them at least 5 years to not only assume command of a pirate guild, but to unite the rest of them under her.

And despite that, the pirates remained a marginal presence on the Fronteir. Running scared from the governments of the galaxy and the syndicates, while Kienan made his own way.

Humble, yet ironic.

He set course for the Silhouette.

Best to return there, plot Valcuria's course, and pick up Vain and Mirage and go from there, he thought, punching up the engines' power.

Vain and Mirage had docked inside the Cerberus without incident. They disembarked carefully, quietly, weapons drawn. They were used to having to shoot their way into and out of danger zones like this, but when you were allowed to land and disembark without incident, it meant something was wrong.

"It's like a tomb in here," Mirage said, drawing her submachine guns.

"Keep your eyes open," Vain said, leveling her heavy blaster towards the darkness before them. "Switch me on."

"Sure," Mirage said, reaching for the handle on Vain's backpack. She turned the handle down, and the backpack glowed to life as its energy collector surged to life.

"Take the point," Vain said. Mirage nodded and walked forward. They made their way up to the stairs, deciding not to trust any of the automatic lifts. No telling who was in control of what device on this ship.

They found as they made their way through the ship that it was deserted, and not only deserted, but near destroyed. Pirate rakes were by and large smaller and older freighters that were retrofit with heavy weapons and shields. Any room that was left was for a small hangar bay, a smaller cargo bay, and spare living quarters.

Not a luxury vessel by any means, Vain thought. She kept the muzzle of her blaster pointed dead ahead. If Mirage found anything, they would follow the usual tactic. Mirage would go invisible and get out of the way, and Vain would unload on whatever was in their way with shots hotter than the heart of the sun.

Vain and Mirage carefully made their way to the upper decks, past abandoned weapon stations. They didn’t have to worry about the gaping holes that had been punched in it by Azura's self-destruction or the attacks by the pirate ships, because they didn’t have to breathe. Magnetizing the soles of their shoes and walking slow and steadily negated any problems they would have with the vacuum.

Soon they crossed into the bridge module. One there, they saw the face of their opposition. War Toy stood before them, electro-whip at the ready. Vain grit her teeth and brought her weapon to bear on War Toy as Mirage shifted into invisibility. Vain brought the weapon up and fired--one, twice, three times.

No effect. The energy bolts merely burned the outer covering of War Toy;s shield. Her electro-whip snapped in the air, and the super-heated flail slashed through Vain's weapon before she could defend herself.

Great, she thought. Looks like I'll be doing this the hard way.

Vain reached into her belt and pulled out twin knives They crackled with a corona of energy as the blades were charged with ionized energy. She adopted an attack stance and charged into battle.