Gunmetal Black 2
Chapter 7 - Ghost Of A Chance
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.

"You wanted to see me, Warlord?" Straeger asked. He stood at attention, looking at Algrim reclined behind a massive desk. Behind them, he could see the Ghost Forest and the yawning chasm below where they were excavating. Odd, Straeger thought. I've not been down there for hours and all I can think about is getting back.

"Yes," Algrim said. "It's about the discovery we've made."

"Pardon my impertinence sir," Straeger said. "But I'd think you’d know more about that than I would."

"I know everything about it," Algrim said, slowly rising from his seat. "What concerns me is what you and your masters in Black Lens intend for it."

"Well, we intend to better serve the Empire with what we learn from it," Straeger said. "Theoretically, the applications are unlimited."

"That's nothing but an empty phrase," Algrim said. "I know what you've done with discoveries like this is the past. You'll strip-mine every military application out of it and ignore the potential it offers us for making the worlds of the Empire paradise."

"Strength is to everyone's benefit, Warlord," Straeger said. "You of all people, I would assume, would understand this."

"I understand the need for battle, and the need for conquest," Algrim said. "But conquest is not achieved solely by wanton destruction. True conquest only comes from your enemies accepting your superiority."

"Indeed," Straeger said indifferently. "In any case, you needn't question me about Black Lens' intents regarding your discovery Algrim, because I honestly have no idea. I'm an Agent. The lowest rung on the ladder. They tell me only what they wish to, and then only what is necessary to complete my mission."

"And what is your mission?"

Straeger stared at him. "You know my mission, sir."mso-bidi-font-size:

"That is not an answer Agent," Algrim said. "As your superior officer, I am ordering you to disclose the details of your mission."

"My mission is to ascertain the value of your discovery and report back to Durga for review of our test data," Straeger said. "Just as I told you aboard the Ragnarok."

"And Warmaster Voelker?"

"Ask him," Straeger said. "We're on the same mission, but his orders come from the Military Directorate, mine from Black Lens. I wouldn’t be privy to the details of his mission except those directive that coordinate with mine."

Algrim searched Straeger's face for any sign of deception for what felt like an hour at least. Straeger kept in his stance, calm and relaxed.

"So if he were under orders to kill me," Algrim mused. "You would have no knowledge?"

"What makes you think he's here to eliminate you?" Straeger asked, genuinely surprised at where Algrim's logic seemed to be going.

"Little things," Algrim said. "The man follows me around everywhere when he's on the base, insists on coordinating patrols from the Ragnarok and his own ship, and he seems to hang on my every word. I spent little time at court Straeger, but no one wastes that adoration on an old, disgraced soldier without reason." No onesane, in any event, Straeger pondered. Still, if he's willing to confide in me, it seems too good a blind to pass up. "Would you like me to ascertain the particulars of his mission?"

"I want you to scan him," Algrim said.

"I can’t do that my lord," Straeger said. "Telepaths are bound by law against scans to judge loyalty. Or latitude for it even in legal matters is very small."

"Who is to know?" Algrim demanded. "What I know is this: I will not allow anyone to stand in the way of this discovery's true potential. I will bring paradise to our Empire, Straeger. I will return home with it in my hands --the warrior who paves worlds over with mercy. Do you understand?"

Straeger fought the urge to sneer at his blustering. "Of course sir. While legally I'm bound from full scans unless criminal intent is proven, I can judge his veracity by questioning him."
"Good enough," Algrim said. "For now. I--" He was interrupted by a klaxon that reverberated steadily through his office and halls beyond. Algrim tapped a keypad. "Tower, this is Algrim. What is our situation?"

"The Garm reported contact with a ship on the edge of our system, sir," the voice came back. "They have engaged, and Warmaster Voelker is readying his ship to assist the Garm."

"What type of ship?" Algrim asked.

"A small heavy-fighter class," the tower responded. "Unknown configuration."

Silhouette threw the Umbra hard to port, narrowly avoiding the two missiles the destroyer was firing as she flew in retreat out of the system. While most of her weapons were sufficient against fighters, she knew the Umbra couldn’t take on a destroyer head to head and expect to win. Or survive.

Her blue-green eyes flit over her readouts, searching for something that could help her. She silently cursed herself for not trusting Kienan more, this was certainly more his area of expertise. Kienan made sure that his ships could, through guile or raw power take on a capital ship. Silhouette preferred to slip past them if at all possible.

Obviously, stealth wasn't an option anymore. Her eyes shifted to her sensor readout and narrowed on the data from the planet before her. A class 5 gas giant, she thought. Might be enough to destroy it, but I'll have to get closer too. Might destroy myself trying to get the ship.

Another volley of missiles. Silhouette activated her countermeasures and blew them up, heading as fast as she could for the orbit of the gas giant. She put as much power into the shields as she dared, even though they would be less than useless as she got closer to the gas giant. One hit would send her into the gas giant, and the gravity would crush her.

She shook the risk from her mind, and turned and attacked, sending volley after volley of laser fire at the destroyer. The destroyer returned fire with its gun batteries as the ship sank even lower.

That's it, she thought, eyeing her proximity sensor. Get mad. Get mad enough to follow me. C'mon . . .

The Umbra slipped into the atmosphere of the planet and nearly every sensor blew out at once. Silhouette kept her hands on the controls, feeling how heavy and sluggish her fighter was. The proximity sensor displayed the position of the destroyer as it moved closer and closer. Silhouette concentrated on the feeling of the gravity against her. I can bounce free of the atmosphere and move away if I can just time it right . . .

She narrow missed a heavy laser beam as it scythed by her. Above her, readouts were shorting out as the spaceframe fought the gravity and lost. Almost she thought. Almost . . .NOW!

The Umbra's engines roared to life like a white-hot star as it bounced off the atmosphere and into orbit, then swooped away. The destroyer attempted to change course, but it was no fighter and its engines couldn’t respond fast enough. It sank below the purple and red gases of the planet, and finally, with an almost anticlimactic subdued plume of fire, imploded.

Silhouette bit her lip, trying to ignore the shorted out system that was intermittently spitting out sparks at her eyes. Her proximity sensors showed one ship following the destroyer's trajectory and she immediately plotted a course opposite and made her way quietly to the planet that lay beyond. She didn’t think she had another battle with a warship in her today. No, she thought. I'll need all my strength for the mission, which ought to make destroying that ship feel like child's play.

Kienan watched the Umbra depart and cancelled the weapons lock he had kept on her since she had come into orbit of the gas giant below him. He sighed. More than anything he wanted a cigarette. Well, more than anything he wanted this mission to work the way it was supposed to. But since that seemed to be an impossible dream at best, he would have settled for the cigarette.

"Reiven to Angelfish," he said bitterly. "I think our trap's useless now. We'll move in closer to the third planet. Keep out of scanning range of anything that even looks like a ship. Maybe they'll be so intent on finding out what happened to their sister ship we'll go right past them."

"And Silhouette?" Vain asked.

Kienan closed his eyes. "I'll deal with her if she gets in our way. But not until she forces the issue. You see her, let her go. This is going to be difficult enough without getting into a firefight with her and drawing everyone's attention to us? Clear?"

"It's clear," Mirage said. "We're getting underway now. See you there."

Kienan closed the channel and fired up his main engines, plotting a course that kept him in the shadows of any celestial body that would hide him as he approached the planet. It would take longer, but it would save him trouble later on.

He thought about Silhouette. More specifically, he thought about her manoeuvre at the gas giant. He tried to fight the smile that crept across his lips, but he decided to let it go. He was proud. After all, he had taught her that manoeuvre during one dangerous joyride in an old Kestrel-class fighter. He remembered how scared she had been when they hit the atmosphere and the systems started to blow, and how she reached out for him, scared, needing reassurance . . .

The mission, he reminded himself, taking a deep breath. That's all that matters. Keep your mind on the mission, that's what's screwing you up.<

He cursed himself for still being vulnerable to her. What was it about her that caused his guard to drop? Even when they had been together in the G-Room, he had felt the familiar butterflies in his stomach when she touched him, and knew that he had wanted more than for her to touch him. He wanted her to go away, but part of him wouldn't push her away with all the strength necessary. Pieces of himself kept getting pulled along when she left.

I should hate her, just by association, he thought. Just for cozying up to that bastard Sinclaire like she did. What could she have possibly seen in him that I couldn’t have offered her? And if was so good why did she

(come back to me)

leave him? And why did I let her go again? Was I trying to prove I didn't need her?

"DAMMIT!" Kienan exclaimed, slamming his hand against the canopy. He sighed. His mind was wandering again. He willed himself again to push her out of his thoughts, but he knew his resolve would crumble in time. He looked at his navigation computer. Twenty minutes to target, five minutes elapsed.

Kienan sighed and tried to think of something else.

Straeger watched Algrim barking orders at the center of the tower, surrounded by technicians and master situation displays charting the path of the intruder and the path of the Garm. He remained a calm, bemused center surrounded by a storm of activity. The Garm had ceased relaying messages ten minutes ago, and Straeger watches two technicians argued whether it was the gas giant's radiation belts rendering it's communications useless or if the intruder had destroyed it.

Straeger didn't care one way or the other, he was too busy analyzing what effect this would have on his own plans. He ultimately decided it couldn’t be better for them. Another way to keep Algrim distracted and inadvertently allow Straeger to get closer to him. He didn’t see any need to make Algrim's end especially violent --in truth he almost pitied him and his befuddled idealism.

"My lord," Straeger said. "If I may suggest a course of action?"

"Anything you can offer would be appreciated, Agent Straeger," Algrim said, waving away the two squabbling technicians. Behind Algrim, Skanda looked over his shoulder at Straeger.

"Well," Straeger began. "As effective as the Malios and the Fenris will be patrolling the system, respectfully, they're looking for a needle in a haystack, as the Earthers would say?"mso-bidi-font-size: 10.0pt;


"As I understand it, this is a heavy fighter, piloted by someone with enough skill to destroy a flight of fighters from your ship, and possibly even the Garm," Straeger began. "Fighters became used extensively against capital ships because their manoeuvrability made it hard for a ship's gun batteries to track them. Likewise, the more rapid-manoeuvring fighters can easily thwart a standard Rigellian targeting computer on a starship."

"Obviously," Algrim said. "Then what do you suggest?"

"We should scramble every fighter at our disposal -- here on the airfield, on the Ragnarok, the Fenris, the Malios and have them sweep the system."

"Well, how will fighters succeed where our starships can't?" Algrim said.

"Fighters know what to look for, and their targeting systems are capable of engaging the intruder. At the very least, they'll draw the intruder out and give the warships time to rendezvous with the fighters and finish off the intruder."

Algrim looked at Straeger for what felt like five minutes. Straeger momentarily wondered if Algrim were telepathic. It would certainly explain his instability, he thought. Some of it, anyway. Come on Algrim . . .see the wisdom in it . . .

Algrim finally turned away and gave the order to the tower to begin scrambling the base's fighter wings. Excellent, Straeger thought with a sense of relief. Now for the next two steps.

He looked at Skanda, who was now staring at him full on. Straeger reached out very gently with his mind. Don’t speak, he said silently. I'm in your mind.

Algrim warned me of your kinds' abilities,; Skanda thought. There is . . .more pain . . .than I imagined.

Your minds are difficult to speak to,Straeger said. If you don't keep your thoughts relaxed, I could kill you. It's time. Gather your men. Wait until the fighters launch from the airfield and start your distraction. Do you understand?

Skanda nodded.

Good. Your people will have their freedom soon.

"My lord," Straeger said. "I wish to have my personal fighter prepared for launch as well. The Phantom's sensor suite is more sensitive than the standard packages available in our standard fighters. In addition, I can track the intruder in perfect stealth."

"Excellent," Algrim said, waving him away. "Get your launch cycle underway. But . . .according to the tower, you’re last in line to be one of the last going up."

"That's fine sir," Straeger said. "I have one more stop to make as it is."

"Kienan," Vain said over his communicator. "We've got trouble. Two more ships coming in, and they're launching fighters. Forgive me for saying so, but your ex-girlfriend has compromised us without even realizing it."

"I know," Kienan said, arming his weapons. "But if we're lucky, we can slip past the first wave at least without a fight. There's a pulsar at 124 by 200 by 70 . . .let's fly close by it to shake their sensor trails."

"Confirmed," Mirage said. "The first wave is on the other side of the pulsar, and I don’t think they've seen us. They’re heading away, moving towards the gas giant. Maybe our trap will get sprung after all."

"Maybe so," Kienan said. "Now listen. We go in ready for a fight, but our first priority is to get back to the planet. Kill as many fighters as you have to, but remember, we're on a timetable ladies. We're trying to narrow down the places Algrim could be -- he's either on his ship or on a base below. We're not here to battle fighters."

"Roger," Vain said. "I have an idea on how to search the command ship. Kienan, I suggest we break formation. With 4 fighters to chase instead of a group of three they'll have a harder time nailing us down. And it really only matters that one of us gets through."

"I understand," Kienan said. "Ladies, don’t get yourself fragged."

"As if a little thing like death could keep us from your side," Mirage said. "We'll see you on the planet, Kienan."

The two Angelfish fighters broke off from Kienan's flight path, each taking oblique paths to the same goal. Yes, they felt they belonged at his side, and would die to protect him. It didn’t mean he was in any hurry to see them go. They were, in the end, all he had, and he was as devoted to them as they were to him. He just rarely showed it.

How else can you explain all the trouble I took to make sure Conscience survived nearly being destroyed by that alien so long ago? And it's good to know they'll never leave. Not like . . .

Stop. It.

The mission, focus on the mission.

The Reiven cleared the pulsar and made its way to the planet. Kienan could detect a ship guarding the planet, but only one. Good to know something had gone right, he thought. If I can find a low orbit point, I can enter the planet's orbit on the far side and be on the ground before they even know I made it in.

He gunned his engines. Here's hoping he's on the planet and I'm not going down there for nothing.

Silhouette brought the Umbra into the atmosphere under no power, just under the aft of the Ragnarok. Blanketed by the massive ship's exhaust, no one detected the Umbra's dive into the atmosphere. Once in, Silhouette activated her scanners and searched for an energy signature like the one that had brought her so far.

She didn’t have to wait long at all. Twenty kilometers from here, south by southwest, she thought. Now let's find a place to quietly set down . . .

The Umbra came to rest in the center of a small ring of rocks, its landing struts sinking into the fine desert sand. Silhouette set to work, shutting down he systems and lowering herself down from the cockpit.

As the cockpit closed behind her, she opened the rear cargo hold. First she grabbed her silver pistol and her knife, holstering both of them on the places on the thighs of her suit. The she grabbed her laser rifle and a bandolier filled with explosives, which she strapped around herself as she shut the hold and checked the rifle. She climbed up onto the rocky circle and lay on her stomach, peering through the viewfinder at the compound that protruded from the forest.

Rigellian troopers, she thought. Better armed than your average garrison, but only foot patrols. Those I should get past easy, but it'll get worse the closer I get. Which I don’t know where I'm going because I can’t see it. Girl, you set the bar too high for yourself.

She slipped the rifle onto her back and pulled the hood of her suit over her face to keep the sand out. Once that was done, she made her way, walking in a catlike crouch, towards the compound, searching for a gate or some way she could slip inside without attracting any attention.

Vain banked slowly below the Ragnarok, narrowly dodging another fighter squadron before she slipped out of sight. Only ten, she thought. A light workout, but if we're to get to the planet, it's business before pleasure. Now let's see if I can't eliminate one of the possibilities and get a scan of the ship.

Vain skimmed the surface of the Ragnarok, keeping her position so constant as not to trip the massive battleship's proximity alarm.

At least, not until she was ready. The ship drifted slowly over the mile-long underside of the Ragnarok, until Vain's cold eyes narrowed on her target. It was a dangling mast of antennae . . .the central sensor node, where all data -- communications, defense, planetary data was sent in a direct like to the Ragnarok's computer core.

Vain released two small missiles from the underside of her Angelfish fighter without triggering their launchers. They drifted towards the sensor node and Vain banked the Angelfish at a near-90 degree angle towards the planet below.

While the Parasite weapon intended for the trap was as good as useless now with them so close to their objective below, Vain was a big believer in planning ahead. After all, they would still have to deal with this cruiser on their way out.

And things would go so much smoother if it were on their side, Vain reasoned. As the Angelfish was pulled into a hard bank that would have killed a normal pilot, Vain calmly tapped buttons on her console.

Planning ahead.

"You’re going to tell me it's a 100% match," Straeger said, slipping off his glove. He stared at Indiga indifferently as he lay the weapon on the table. "You’re going to say, "That's right Agent Straeger, this is a better preserved version of the organic technology found at Durga."

"I thought you had a low psi rating," Indiga said, crouching over two dishes of samples from the ship.

"I don't need to be a telepath to know that," Straeger said. "Algrim calls this a place of destiny. I'm beginning to think he's correct."

Straeger disassembled his lens weapon, his eyes darting about the room. Of course, he thought. All the troops have been scrambled to perimeter duty in case the intruder gets past the fighters and the starships. And this is a low-priority section . . .

"How much is there?" Straeger asked, opening the liquid battery source for the Lens.

"Well, they haven’t hit bottom yet, but from what we've uncovered, there's enough to complete 100 of the Phantom-type fighters," Indiga said. "And it should be easier this time, because these samples are so fresh. Once they got in the lab and we did a side-by-side comparison with the Durga sample, they almost burst the dish trying to merge with it."

"Really?" Straeger asked, moving towards her. "Can you show me?"

"Yes," Indiga said, sliding the three dishes into a line. She pointed to the one in the middle. "That's the Durga sample. The other two were taken from the ship earlier in the day."

Straeger smiled. "Is that right?"
Then he seized her by the vox collar and slammer her head into the lab table causing the specimens to bounced with the shock. He yanked her up by the hair and stared into her face. She was dazed, but still awake.

Couldn’t have that, he reasoned.

He tore the vox collar off of her neck and drove a chop against her neck. She drew in breath in shock as much as pain, but before she could, Straeger seized her around the neck, gently squeezing as he reached into her mind, overstimulating her sleep centers and blowing synapses. Finally, he let her drop to the floor. They'll find her after the business with the intruder, he thought. But they'll assume it was something else. Skanda will see to that.

He picked up the center dish and walked over to Indiga's vox collar, grinding it under his heel. There was a hiss of electricity and a quiet shattering of circuits. Since every vox collar has to be specifically calibrated, she won’t be able to tell anyone the truth until I'm ready for her to. At least in any way anyone important will understand.

He poured the sample inside the empty fuel cell for his Lens. It roiled and thrashed about as he closed the assembly and put the Lens on.

And then it was Straeger's turn to double over in pain. Darkness blasted through his mind with the force of a house being obliterated by a hurricane. Information ancient and unknowable flooded his mind. Images from his own life coalesced with images in the shadows of forgotten time, and just as suddenly as they began, it was over.

Straeger got his bearings again, finding himself laying on the floor, staring at Indiga, unconscious and bleeding a few feet away. Straeger felt himself bleeding and placed a white-gloved hand to his face. Yes, he thought. Blood from my nose. But why?

He looked down at the lens on his arm and smiled, understanding what had happened. But before he could fully muse on the possibility of having a weapon more powerful than anyone, even Riven and Algrim, could comprehend, a signal came through.

" . . . Agent Straeger, please respond!" It was the tower commander.

"This is Straeger," he said, trying to compose himself. "Go ahead."

"You’re clear for launch," the tower commander said. "Some of our fighters report positive contact with the intruders."

Straeger's brow furrowed. "Tower, please confirm: I thought there was only one intruder."

"So did we. But our fighters are detecting three, coming in fast and moving to engage."

Straeger's red eyes opened wide. One intruder was enough to help his plans along. Three was a complication he didn’t need, especially since in ten minutes, Skanda's people were going to attack this compound. Clearly, Straeger should be elsewhere getting his plans back in order.

"I'm on my way," he said.