Gunmetal Black 2
Chapter 1 - Running Down The Way Up
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.

"Warduke Riven asked me to report here," Straeger said to the flight commander. They stood in a cavernous structure, surrounded by launching elevators packed with fighters and small attack ships. Around them, flight technicians, pilots, and ground crews attended to their duties. Straeger watched them intermittently.

"That's correct," the flight commander said. "You’re to be assigned a fighter for your journey to the Southern sector and beyond. Follow me, please." He started down the corridor to the main hangar bay.

"I assumed I was to be conveyed via starship," Straeger said.

"That is for the short term," the flight commander said. "All Agents are assigned a personal transport for long-term missions." He reached into one of the pockets on his coveralls and proffered a data tablet to Straeger. "The orders right here, if you're interested."

"That's fine," Straeger said. That was standard procedure. Agents could be out in the field for years, so self-sufficiency was a necessity. "Where is my ship?"

The flight commander pushed a button on one of the walls. "Up there. Level 42. We'll take the rapid-lift and be there in a matter of seconds." Sure enough, a platform sped down from the scaffolding above and came to rest in front of them.

"Hold onto the rail, sir," the flight commander said, gripping it tightly. "These platforms are designed to get pilots to their fighters as rapidly as possible. I'm afraid they're not built for much more than rapid ascent."

The flight commander pushed a button on the platform and the elevator, and with a lurch, the elevator began to rise and pick up speed. Below him, Straeger could see row after row of fighters. Most were the newer Marauder class ships, introduced after the war with the Chroan, but some were of older vintage. Very far in the distance, Straeger picked out the shapes of older Vindartin and Rajago-class fighters. Fighters that hadn't been used since the Earth War. Fighters that were nearly as old as the Empire itself. After all, 200 years wasn't an unusual term of service for a Rigellian ship. They were built to last.

"Quite impressive how fast the Marauders have been introduced," Straeger said.

"It was time for an overhaul," the fight commander agreed. "We just got out last wings for base defense about six months ago and completed our upgrade. Of course, we had to wait for the fleet to be fully upgraded first."

"If you don’t mind my asking," Straeger asked as the elevator stopped and locked in place against a gentry way. "Why do you keep the older classes of fighters around?"

The flight commander squinted down to where Straeger had been looking. "Those?" He asked, laughing. "Some are Riven's personal collection. The rest are a surplus wing in holding until they can be conveyed somewhere else. We use them for target practice, spare parts, that sort of thing. A transport ship carries the rest off. Come with me --you’re ship's in this row."

Straeger shrugged imperceptibly and followed the flight commander down another narrow gentry way. On either side Marauders were moored, cockpits open, ready for deployment within seconds.

"There," the flight commander said. He was pointing to a fighter that looked very much like the Marauders Straeger had seen before, with a few differences. First of all, it was black. Not in the painted-black sense, but in the sense that it seemed to be painted with the void of space. Straeger had never seen anything like it. When he squinted close, the darkness seemed to be moving over the skin of the fighter.

But that's impossible, he reminded himself. Organic ships are just a legend.

"What . . .is it?" Straeger asked, walking around the ship.

"This is the R-34 Phantom long-range Stealth Fighter," the flight commander said. "The prototype for the class, anyway. And she's yours. Try her out. This seems as good a time as any to get her systems calibrated."

The flight commander pushed a few buttons on his pad and the cockpit opened up. Straeger held onto the access yoke and was lowered in.

"Check, check," the flight commander said, tapping his earpiece. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes," Straeger said.

"Slide your Lens into the handhold on your right side," the flight commander said. "That'll activate the systems and calibrate to you. What's your psi rating by the way?"

"I'm rated Argus-Class," Straeger said, indifferently.

"All right," the flight commander said as the cockpit closed down around Straeger. "Close your eyes and enter psi-state. Your heads-up display, all vital systems, energy output, targeting display --you should all be able to see them."

"I do," Straeger said.

"All right," the flight commander said. "It's calibrated. Want to take her out? We've got a wing of drones ready and traffic's cleared"

Kienan removed the last of his spacesuit and carefully folded it away in the locker next to his ship. Vain and Mirage had been as good as their word. Better even because they had made the trip to the rendezvous point in four and a half hours instead of five.

He looked over his shoulder at the maintenance arms working over the Reiven, loading in new weapons magazines, refuelling, all with the efficiency he had come to expect from his ship.

He adjusted his blood red vest, straightening the wrinkles in it that came naturally from having it squeezed inside his spacesuit and fumbled for a cigarette. He lit one and took a long, satisfied drag off of it as he made his way up the stairs to the bridge of his ship, the Silhouette.

He had named it after a woman he had been very fond of, and was, in truth still very fond of. They had drifted back to each other time and again, but never able to stay together. Kienan had his world, and she had hers, and he had long since resigned himself to the idea that the twain would meet intermittently at best.

The last time he had seen her had been two years ago, when she had saved his life. He frowned around his cigarette at the bitter memory of it. Not that he objected to his survival, but it had come with a cost that, if asked, he doubted he would have paid. Even if he had to give up his life.

He made his way up the flights of stairs and through the central corridor to the ship. The Silhouette, though it appeared to a huge and ungainly freighter was in fact a very compact and very advanced ship disguised as a huge and ungainly freighter. As such, space was at a premium, but Kienan liked it that way. It was just the right size for himself and his crew.

It also helped that his crew had little in the way of human needs. They were Marionettes; prototype artificial lifeforms blessed with strength and intelligence far beyond even Kienan's. It had taken some time to get used to having them around after so long a time alone, but Kienan had grown used to it, and besides, the Marionettes had proven themselves on more occasions than he could possibly count.

The pressure doors to the bridge slid open and Kienan saw Vain and Mirage sitting at the consoles, having traded their suits for their more standard gear. In the center of the room, quiet and unmoving stood the remains of their "sister," Conscience. Conscience had been critically damaged in a mission a year ago and Kienan had plugged her into the ship to save her. However, it had come at a cost. While the Silhouette was now controlled by a computer far in advance of what most ships had, Conscience herself spent most of her time lost in the machine.

Compromise and deception, Kienan thought.

"Hello, ladies," Kienan said, taking another drag on his cigarette. Vain and Mirage turned to him and smiled. "How did the meeting on Europa go?"

"About as expected," Vain said, brushing her blond bangs from her eyes. "Our client is asking the difficult of us."

Kienan took his seat at the center of the bridge, in front of Conscience, and stared at Vain. "How difficult?"

"Well, we have to find a man who's supposed to be dead on the very edge of Rigellian space and kill him," Vain said. "I know it's not impossible, but it certainly won’t be easy. After all, we're talking uncharted space here."

"A man who's supposed to be dead?" Kienan said, smirking around his cigarette. "That has a familiar ring to it. I can get us across the border. I know a couple of Warmasters who owe me a favor, so that's no trouble. As for the rest, the dead can keep no secrets from me. You know that."

Vain nodded and smiled. "So, where to?"

Kienan thought for a moment. "I've been travelling for about four hours," he said. "I could use some time to get my head right. Did she give us some information, something we can establish a trace on?"

Mirage nodded. 'I'm collating it and cross-referencing it with what's in our computers and what I can pull of the Ethetricweb," she said, her brown locks falling into her face as she crouched over the screens. "It'll take some time to pull it all together."

Kienan took one more drag off of his cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray he had affixed to the side of his chair. "All right," he said. "I'm going below. I need a shower and a little sleep. Let me know when you’re ready and we'll go over it and we'll get underway. This is a quiet sector of space, and with our screens up, we shouldn’t attract any attention."

Vain and Mirage nodded as Kienan stood up and left the bridge. They looked at each other, then back at the closed door, both of them thinking the same thing.

"He's bothered by something," Mirage said, turning back to her display. "He's got that look again."

"You think so?" Vain asked, running tests on the Silhouette'sweapon systems. "He seemed fine to me."

"Oh come on, sister," Mirage chided. "He's nervous. Edgy. Distracted. Something's on his mind, something that cutting him deep. I haven’t seen him like this since that time two years ago when we thought he was dead."

"So it's something that happened on the Bael job?" Vain mused.

Mirage shook her head. "I doubt it," she said. "That job was no trouble to him if he didn't even bother to bring us or the ship. This is more than a job."

"Memory," Conscience said neutrally. The fact that she spoke at all caused the two Marionettes to jump.

Vain and Mirage turned to Conscience, whose face looked as impassive and neutral as always. "What do you mean?"

"The woman," Conscience said flatly.

Silhouette leaned forward, hitting switches on the cockpit of her fighter, the Umbra. Systems and display hummed to life and she checked and double-checked them over and over again. She didn’t know how long she'd be gone from her ship, the White Angel, so she wanted to make sure she didn’t forget anything.

Below her, clad in his usual black coveralls was her technician, Caeden. Caeden pushed his wire-rimmed spectacles up the bridge of his nose at her, his face expressing a familiar kind of exasperation.

"OK," he said. "It's not that I'm questioning you or anything Sil, but this is crazy. You ask me to re-arm and re-fuel the Umbra, say you're going to be one for a long time maybe, but don't say where. You're not really providing an encouraging argument for your sanity here."

"Uh-huh," Silhouette said indifferently. She reached down and strapped her pistol holster more securely to her thigh.

Caeden looked at her. "Tell ya what, I'll just talk to myself for a few hours while you ignore me. OK?"

"Sure, whatever," Silhouette said, adjusting her blue and black flight suit.

Caeden smiled again. "Oh yeah --by the way, we had a transmission from someone a few hours ago. You've been puttering around with the Umbra, so you haven’t really been in a state to answer it so . . ."

Silhouette continued to work. Caeden frowned.

"Sil, it's from Theta."

Silhouette stopped and looked at him. "Are you sure?"

"It has all the usual traces," Caeden said. "I didn’t look at it, but it sounded important."

"If it's from Theta, it definitely is," Silhouette said. "Pipe it through to the Umbra, Caeden."

"Already done," Caeden said. "It's in the cache of your communications system."

"Thanks, Caeden," Silhouette said, offering him a smile. "And I'm sorry I'm ignoring you. But this is pretty important, and I don’t know how long I'll be gone. I'm counting on you to keep things together while I'm gone."

"Most everyone's out on missions or recruiting more people," Caeden said. "None of them are expected back for a few weeks, so things are quiet enough. I can handle it."

Silhouette looked at him, staring into his green eyes with her blue-green eyes. "Caeden, if I don't come back . . ."

Caeden smiled and waved. "I know. We've had this discussion many times before. I'll keep looking for him, and keep the group together. Now go, before I get all choked up, huh?"

Silhouette smiled. "You’re a tough old bastard, you know that?"

Caeden smiled. "Someone has to keep you in line. Your father sure must not have. Bad enough keeping the Angel going, I should get pay for being your surrogate Daddy as well."

"My . . . father . . . had his own problems," Silhouette said, her expression suddenly clouding, her eyes looking a little more sad and blue. There was a hiss of hydraulics as Silhouette lay down on the padded seat and she was raised into the cockpit. Caeden walked over to the control center for the hangar, sealing the command cabin. He reached for the earpiece he kept on the console and turned it on, securing it.

"Check, check," he said. "Hear me clearly?"

"I hear you," Silhouette said over the earpiece. "All systems show green, you can send me out anytime."

Caeden tapped some buttons on his console. The arm carrying the Umbra began to move downwards as the space doors opened below her. "Beginning decompression cycle. I'll be forwarding our coordinates via a secure channel so if you’re within 3 sectors in the ship, you'll be able to find us."

"Thanks Caeden," Silhouette said as the Umbra was lowered into open space. "Keep the home fires burning. I'll be back soon."

The arm holding the Umbra disengaged as the fighter roared to life. It's engines kicked in and the ship pulled away from the White Angel, gaining speed. Caeden watched the ship on his screen until the Umbra engaged its Space Drive and was gone.

He sighed, removing the earpiece. This place was like a tomb with everyone gone. He made a mental note to finish that book he had been putting off reading since everything else had been done already on the ship.

The Phantom destroyed another of the antique fighters with a pulse of orange laser fire. Inside the ship, Straeger was quite satisfied. The ship was a marvel all right, as manoeuvrable as a fighter, but strong enough to take on small destroyers. It even had shields and a Space Drive. The psi-controls were taking some getting used to, but he was becoming accustomed to it.

Like all Agents, Straeger was a psi. He had discovered from an early age gifts of intuition and insight into people and situations that he would learn in Praxia were the merest uses of a rather formidable telepathic skill. At Praxia he had learned how to control and direct it.

That discipline had come in handy when he was issued his Lens. All Agents had one -- it was a weapon, a defensive implement, a control device, and a communicator all in one. It also suppressed his telepathic talent to a degree, allowing him to block casual thoughts and psychic noise and better focus his mental energies.

That same focus must have slipped, because a missile from one of the Rajagos whizzed overhead. Straeger willed the Phantom to engage its forward thrusters, one-two, causing the ship to turn one hundred and eighty degrees and obliterate the Rajago with a quick volley of laser fire.

"Ten of ten," Straeger said. "All systems appear to be functional. This ship is amazing. If it were a standard Marauder, I would have been spaced by that last missile shot."

He banked the Phantom over the jagged, blasted surface of Durga and the Phantom rocketed towards the small asteroids the planet held in orbit. Durga was a peculiarity in the empire, a moon that has suffered some sort of explosion fifty years ago that had blown away a quarter of the celestial body and changed its orbit, putting it permanently on the night side of its mother planet, Ginias. In addition, some of the debris form the explosion still hung in orbit, making any approaches a dangerous proposition at best.

Well, perhaps I should do my part to change that, Straeger thought.

"Tower, this is Straeger," he said. "I'm going to take the normal'>Phantom into orbit and clear some of these asteroids. I want to run some tests on the Crystal Pulse Cannon."

"Acknowledged, Phantom," the tower called back. "We're monitoring you ad have cleared traffic. Good hunting."

Straeger concentrated and the targeting display for the cannon appeared. He locked onto one of the asteroids. The cannon mounted atop the Phantom hummed to life and annihilated the asteroid with a beam of white energy. Straeger smiled and fired at another, and another. He kept firing until the energy reservoir was damaged.

"Good job, Phantom," the tower called. "You've cleared an orbital window for us."

"Think nothing of it," Straeger said. "Tower, I'm heading back. Have a flight crew ready to re-arm and re-charge the ship. Keep it on hot standby for the next 48 hours. Phantom out."

This ship is amazing, Straeger thought. The raw power it has at its disposal, plus the fact that it can’t be locked onto, is apparently invisible is--

He stopped his train of thought when the displays flickered in his mind. He chided himself for letting his excitement undermine his concentration and re-established the links. The engines of the Phantom yanked him from Ginius' orbit and banked around the edge of Durga, heading home.

After all, Straeger still had to settle in and study up on Warlord Algrim. In two days time, he would be on his way to meet him.

Kienan leaned his head against the cool wall of the shower, letting the steaming hot water soak into his long, unbraided hair and cover his naked golden skin. It was an extravagance, having a water shower on a ship this small, he knew, but moments like this justified the expense.

Besides, he was more than rich enough to afford the finer things.

Kienan thought about what Gold had said. "The deadliest man in the universe" may have seemed like hyperbole, but it wasn't far from the truth. Since the age of 15, Kienan had bathed in blood more often than he had in water.

It had began on Caldera, his home. A home that was overrun by an ancient and deadly species that had killed everyone in his small colony, except for him. Kienan redressed the balance by annihilating the planet itself by destroying the sun.

From there, he drifted for a time, finding his way to the bloodmatches on Kuran colony. Four hundred fights and he had retired undefeated. From there, he was recruited into the local crime syndicate, the Blue Dragons, and had added to his reputation almost effortlessly. To Kienan, it seemed like someone else's life sometimes.

Killing was as natural as breathing. It was what he did. He had learned other skills, but only with the idea in mind to make him a better killer.

He let the water wash over him for a little while more, and finally shut it off. He stretched out a little and stepped out of the shower stall, reaching for his towel. He looked over his shoulder in his bathroom mirror and caught a glimpse of the huge "X" scar, the only wound he had received in his bloodmatches, indeed, the only permanent scar on his body. One of Kienan's talents in killing was us ability to create a storm of blood and violence, but to walk among that storm unscathed.

He dressed himself quickly, pulling on clothes similar to the ones he had removed. Blue pants, black boots, black armor bodysuit, and his red vest and gloves. He sat down on the edge of his bed and threw his mass of hair over his shoulders and set himself to braiding it. In about two minutes it was done. He relaxed, stretched out, and lay on his bed, looking at the ceiling above him and frowning.

He tapped the communications panel at the head of his bed. "Mirage," he said. "How long until you're done with that analysis?"

"Another hour, maybe two," Mirage said. "Conscience as cracked the Imperial Rigellian Network and we're pulling data from it too."

"Fine, " Kienan said. "I'll be up there then. Let me know if I'm needed sooner."

Kienan leaned over and scooped up his pistol belt, pulling one of his custom built machine pistols from its holster and sliding it underneath the pillow within reach of his right hand. In his left he clutched his knife, the Midare-Giri, the Mistress of Pain, the prize for champion standing in the bloodmatches.

Now feeling more secure, Kienan closed his eyes and got some sleep.

Silhouette studied the readout of the message on her console as the Umbra made its way through space. It was important all right. Apparently, an unexplained energy surge had been detected by one of her agents at the border of Rigellian space two months ago, and had been repeating at lower frequencies ever since.

Silhouette frowned. She knew she should investigate --after all, that's why she had agents spread throughout the various sectors of the galaxy, to detect phenomena like this.

But she had to see Kienan first. While Kienan was probably not connected to this at all, she had to see him all the same.

But why? Silhouette asked herself. To warn him? Would he listen? Of course not, he never listened to me for one minute. But even so . . .I want to see him again. But I shouldn't. Didn’t I try everything in my power to get away from him? Didn’t I try to move on with someone else? Didn't I try . . .

Didn’t I?

Silhouette shut off the message display and stared ahead into space. Four years ago she had done her best to get away from Kienan, to the point of leaping in front of him while he was shooting at someone. She had done her best to make him think she was dead.

That hurt him bad, she thought. Every time I've seen him since then, I can see the anger in his eyes, the betrayal. He'll never understand why. And I can never tell him the truth of why. And to think, I accused him of never telling me everything. I should have killed him, it would have been easier than living the lie.

Compromise, and deception.

She punched some buttons on a console on her left. She was homing in on a signal that she knew Kienan left open for her, so that she could find him. No matter how quietly angry he was at her, he had never shut the door on her completely.

It was one of the reasons she still loved him. He never could fully give her up. She stared ahead into the onrushing stars. It would only be a matter of hours now.