Gunmetal Black 3
Chapter 1- From A Reflective Point Of View
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.

Kienan lay stretched out on a bench in the large conference room, smoking a cigarette and enjoying the silence. It was like the rest of his ship, shrouded in darkness, the only light in the room came from small fluorescent bars in the walls and the glow of holographic display windows slowly rotating above the table in the center.

The Silhouette was, to all appearances, an old dilapidated freighter, making its way through the stars like a slow silver bullet. Inside, however, it was state of the art -- Kienan had spared no expense to make his home as comfortable as possible and as deadly as he was himself.

Kienan's home was in the stars and he was at home in the darkness between them. From this ship, he pursued his profession. Kienan Ademetria was the galaxy's most dangerous assassin. And if he was sent after someone, no force in the universe could keep him from accomplishing his mission. He cared nothing for borders, or obstacles, or people sent to thwart him -- he was relentless, as inexorable as death itself.

The legend that had accrued around him didn't matter much to Kienan. He was merely doing what came naturally. It wasn't a passion, or a craft, it was something he did without thinking. It was a reflex response.

He looked over at the display on the table. In a three-dimensional grid illuminated in ghostly blue, there rotated a model of the local star systems, a stretch of space called the Frontier. It was a relatively new place for humans like Kienan to dwell in, sparsely littered with colonies and alien worlds, but steeped in ancient secrets left before the human race has been born.

One of those secrets Kienan was mulling over right now. He took a long drag off his cigarette and blew a stream of smoke towards the holographic model, framing the galaxies and space colonies in a nebula of pale blue-gray smoke.

Eight months ago, Kienan had taken his ship to a darker corner of the frontier, to a dull brown planet scarred with storms and impacts and footprints of races long gone. Inside this planet was a place ancient and forgotten.

The Armillary. That was what Silhouette called it, Kienan thought. But it was more than an old navigation tool. It was a model of a chunk of the Frontier even the explorer ships hadn't found. An ancient map of the galaxy.

"Conscience," Kienan said, staring up at the clear dome and watching the stars lurching forward quietly. "Overlay the data we got from the Armillary onto the starmap and plot a course."

"Working," the disembodied female voice responded. Conscience was the third of the same series as Vain and Mirage. Not androids or machines in the truest sense, but something unique, and something special. They were Marionettes, and they were Kienan's family, not that either would admit it.

Kienan had no place in his life for family, friends or lovers, so he said. But that hadn’t stopped him from doing all he could to save the women he loved, or stopped him from saving Conscience when she was nearly destroyed.

It's a lot to do for someone you don't care about, he thought.

Kienan blew another stream of smoke at the star model again and sighed. He hated dichotomy.

Axanar was a small sprawling colony on a barren world on the other side of the Frontier. Used as a jump station for explorers and colony builders, in the decades since and as the colonizers had moved further and further into the Frontier, Axanar was all but forgotten.

For the pilot of the long golden ship that slid into the atmosphere like a metallic shark it was just as well. The dull skin of the ship was battered by the hot winds of the planet as it made its way towards a structure at the far end of the city. At the height of Axanar's importance to colonial ambitions it had been a center of ship repair and resupply, a place to turnaround ships and get them ready for the last stretch of the journey deeper into the Frontier.

But now its edifices were rusted and worn from the dust storms. It loomed over the city below like a tombstone, but it was not at all tomblike.

The ship hovered over a disc-shaped landing pad behind the main building and began its landing cycle. The ship came to rest, small jets on the underside of the ship intermittently spitting out exhaust gasses.

The blue-skinned man in the red jacket had watched the ship come in from an alcove that led to the landing pad. His indifferent red eyes observed as a ramp in the rear of the ship opened. A small hexagonal box was wheeled out, followed by a being clad in white and silver armor.

While he looked like a man, the stiffness of its movements told a different story. The white-armored being's face was a silver mask with two black eyes fixed in an angry glare, framed with two black horns.

The man who had been watching them stepped out of the shadowy alcove and walked towards the white armored creature, sliding his fingers inside his black shirt and adjusting a device around his neck.

They met in the middle of the walkway, the man regarding the empty ebony eyes of the creature.

"Were you spotted?" The blue-skinned man said.

"No," came the response, electronically distorted. "We were not spotted. Is everything ready?"

The blue-skinned man moved aside to let the white-armored creature wheel the box past him. He looked down at the box, reading the geometric writing on it. He looked back up at the creature. "I've completed five units already, Khitan," the blue-skinned man said. "Unit 6 is, due to the nature of the work, taking longer. How many specimens have you brought?"

"Five," Khitan responded. "We work in -- "

"Units of six, I know," the blue-skinned man said. "I know all about the holiness you Sekhmet place in the number six."

"Then you are also aware of our desire for this operation to be resolved with haste, Dr. Reficul," Khitan said. The synthesized nature of his voice made it difficult to determine how he intended the comment, but Reficul chalked it up to the Sekhmet's natural impatience with what were, to them, slow-minded aliens.

Not the first instance of prejudice I've had to suffer, Reficul thought, bemused and bitter all at once.

Toriares looked down at the shrinking shape of the prison below and sighed. It wasn't often he got to see his sister, and even when he did, it never seemed like long enough.

He sighed as the orbital ferry began to ascend through the atmosphere. He had been responsible for putting her in jail all those years ago, He and Kienan, as a matter of fact.

It was better than the alternative, he thought. The people I worked for wanted her dead. After five years of repeating it to myself, it doesn’t sound any better, though.

Hm, he thought, chiding himself. Good thing you quit the syndicate when you did. When you can’t make decisions without second-guessing what you’re doing. The slowing down your body does is just confirming what you already knew.

He thought about it for a while, tapping his cane on the deck of the ferry. Three years, he thought. Three years since I left the syndicates behind. Three years since I told Kienan he was ready to work without a net.

I think about him now and I can't help but feel a little guilty.

His calm brown eyes looked at the swirling atmospheric patterns outside the window as they finished their ascent. He had never considered himself a family man, but spending two years shaping someone like Kienan -- a prodigy at the art of assassination, if such a thing could be said to exist -- he felt as though he'd come to know him and even like him.

That's why he stayed in touch. Kienan was gifted all right, but he was also the loneliest man Toriares had ever known. And though he would never say so to his friend, he pitied him. Even the bizarre extended family he had for himself on that ship seemed like a pale substitute for the real thing.

The worst thing for him is to be alone up there, Toriares thought. I felt better about leaving when it was him and Silhouette -- they were in love, and there'd be more for him than just the life.

But no, Toriares reminded himself. You saw the seams showing in that relationship and got out anyway. It was more important to you that you get out, because you were afraid you were losing it. Because you were second-guessing yourself, because you weren't sure of what the next move was.

And since everyone always looked to you for the next move, you were afraid you’d be shown up as fallible.

He was jarred out of his self-deprecation by a shudder as the ferry slid into the docking elevator of the planetary space ring. He sighed and shook his head, undoing his seatbelt and rising from his chair, gently flexing his legs.

He stepped off the ferry and into the concourse of the space ring, turning instinctively to where his ship was birthed. He had an eight-hour haul in Space Drive staring him in the face before he rendezvoused with Kienan at Axanar.

And if the trip up had been any indication, his mind wouldn't leave him alone for a second.

Always the trouble with the past, Toriares thought, his cane tapping along the deck of the concourse. It casts a long shadow and it's always right behind you.

Vain walked silently along the corridor to the main room as lightly as she could. She felt infinitely more comfortable in her black and purple bodysuit than in that swimsuit, but a simple change of clothes couldn't keep other, more ephemeral anxieties away. Kienan hadn't asked for her and didn't much like to be interrupted. But she couldn’t help herself. She just had to know he was all right and that he wasn't angry with her.

It was almost a human reaction, she mused.

She had been feeling guilty since the Nara assignment, when she'd nearly shot Kienan while he'd hung on the back of the war machine. It bothered her more because as a machine she shouldn't have made that mistake at all.

She was a machine, after all. A machine made in the image of a woman, but different. Allegedly perfect. And she carried herself as such. While Mirage was more than happy to imitate the more annoying habits of Earth women, Vain took the other extreme.

Most people found her the colder, more direct and controlled of Kienan's assistants. It wasn't that she was built any differently than Mirage -- in fact all three were the same model with cosmetic differences. It was just Vain's choice to hold herself in check.

It works fine for Mirage, she thought. She takes the point with Kienan, and her recklessness suits her well. But she and Kienan need someone to protect them. Someone strong.

She blinked. Almost feeling again.

She pushed it from her mind. Machines don’t doubt, she reminded herself. Stop it. She tentatively glanced around the alcove into the conference room, almost tense at the thought of Kienan catching her looking in on him.

Kienan was asleep. Vain tiptoed inside and walked over to the bench he was laying on. The cigarette he had been smoking was mostly ash now, but Vain took it gingerly out of his hand and stubbed it out, taking care not to disturb him.

She looked over her shoulder at the display on the table and sighed. More data from the Armillary, she thought, slightly annoyed at the memory of it. It's an obsession with him.

Not his only one. One obsession leads to another with him.

She looked down at him. He looked almost peaceful. His eyes were closed serenely, taking deep easy breaths as his long braid cascaded down his shoulder and snaked down his arm like the hand of a lover reaching for his hand.

"Vain?" Mirage's voice called, Vain rolled her eyes, and if she could have reached through the communication system to strangle her she would have.

"Vain here," Vain replied quietly and tightly, looking down to make sure Kienan didn’t wake up. "Do you mind turning it down a little?"

"Oh," Mirage said, bringing her usual boisterous voice down to a bemused whisper. "Sleeping again?"

"Yes," Vain nodded. "What is it?"

"I just heard from Toriares," she said. "He says he'll be rendezvousing with us in about eight hours. Far as I know, Kienan hasn't gotten the Vroom ready for the trip."

"I'll see to it," Vain said, the familiar steel returning to her voice as her irisless black eyes looked down on Kienan. She ran her hands through her blonde hair, pushing it back over her shoulders. "For now, let him rest."

"You're worried about him, aren't you?" Mirage asked.

Vain walked away from Kienan's sleeping form and looked over her shoulder at him. "Aren’t you?"

Mirage didn't say a word, but Vain knew her thoughts as well as she knew her own. It was the feelings she was having trouble with.

She looked away from Kienan and walked out of the conference room, not noticing Kienan half-opening one emerald eye and watching her go.

He looked over at his hand, realizing he'd left his cigarette burning. When he found that there was no cigarette in his fingers he looked back at Vain turning the corner and walking out of the room.

My guardian angels, he thought, smiling a bit.

He looked up at the stars and, after a time, went back to sleep.

The inner structure of the control center was far from dilapidated. It was, however, sparsely lit, because as far as the citizenry of Axanar colony knew, the control center was deserted except for the maintenance crew that came in every six months to make sure the automated climate control circuits were still running.

But deeper within the control center was Reficul's lab, well hidden from tech crews or curious civilians. In the spare darkness of the room were six frames, standing about seven feet tall. Inside five of them were creatures who looked much like Khitan, with certain changes made to each one. The sixth one was unfinished and looked like the kind of skeleton one would see in a doctor's office.

Or the laboratory of a mad scientist.

Reficul opened the hexagonal box as Khitan watched. Though not able to read minds, Reficul could tell the Sekhmet was already impatient and eager to finish his business with him and return to his people.

The Sekhmet were xenophobic aliens, who responded with swift and brutal action when their territory was violated. They were insectile in nature and communicated near instantaneously thanks to the hive-mind structure of their society.

That has certain advantages, I suppose, Reficul mused, pulling a foot-long hexagonal cylinder from the box. The clear glass was frosted with refrigeration liquid, the water within was green with nutrients for the organism within.

"These are your unit?" Reficul asked, examining the readouts on the side of the cylinder. Khitan nodded. "I assume you'll want them transferred as soon as possible, then?"

Khitan nodded again. Reficul smiled and handed the Sekhmet the cylinder. "Then I'll need you to begin the de-hibernation cycle," Reficul said. "I didn't design your machines with recovery units."

Khitan held the cylinder in his hands. "Why were you unable to do this?" His broken syntax made Reficul frown. Sekhmet was as hard for his vox collar to translate as his own Oneiran language.

"Because the machines you gave me for a baseline didn’t have them," Reifcul said, pulling another one of the cylinders from the box. "If you had trusted me with current examples of your technology, I could have perhaps incorporated it. I didn’t know about it, so I didn't include it."

"We cannot trust outsiders -- "

"Not even the ones you pay very well," Reficul said. He sighed and handed the second cylinder to Khitan. He made his way over to a console near two of the frames and began hitting switches on them. "So tell me, Khitan -- if your own scientists could have designed specialized biomechanoids for your people, why haven’t they?"

Khitan didn’t answer. He was busy deactivating the hibernation module. There was a hiss of hydraulics as one of the frames turned around. The figure suspended in the frame was armored in red, looking much like Khitan, but far more sinister looking. Even dead and empty, it looked like it burned with rage. Reficul hit more switches on his console and the spinal column of the armor opened up and the forward sectioned leaned forward.

"No answer?" Reficul asked, taking the module from Khitan. Already the cylinder was warm and Reficul could see and feel the organism within moving around as he slid it into the carriage in the spinal column. "The problem, my dear Khitan, is in your society."

There was a small whirring noise as the armor moved back into place. It looked like it was straightening up after a heavy load was moved off its shoulders. "The Sekhmet's way is based on consensus and obedience -- whether from Queen or drone. That makes you powerful, because you can move as one, swift to action because thought and action are one and the same."

Reficul connected a small hose to the back the red armor. And hit more switches. "Unfortunately, it also means you are totally uncreative. After all, a worker ant has no need of dreams -- it is born to work, to push dirt along the tunnels of the anthill.

"And that's why you came to me," Reficul said. "Because I can dream when you cannot."

The frame began to shudder and the armor within spasmed and shuddered. Like a drowning man expelling the last of the air from his lungs it thrashed about, suddenly aware of its ability to move. Finally it went limp. Khitan set aside the hibernation unit and moved closer to Reficul, and if Sekhmet were capable of such things, Reficul would have called his attitude as tense.

The orange eyes of the red armor glowed. Reficul smiled and disengaged the frame. The red-armored creature slowly moved away from the frame as Reficul reached behind it and removed its umbilical hoses.

"Toran?" Khitan said to the red-armored creature. The red armored creature turned towards Khitan and for a minute, the harsh, grating sounds of their language filled the chamber.

Finally Khitan turned to Reficul. Reficul nodded and looked down at his console. "My systems show complete restoration. Life support calibrations are at 90% and rising, actuation controls are at 98% and according to my data, the sensor suite is fully activated.

"So Toran tells me," Khitan said. Khitan walked with Toran over to the table with the next hibernation unit. "Prepare Uragenax's unit for activation, Reficul. We will activate him next."

"What of my onboard weaponry systems?" Toran asked. "I am eager to give them a full test."

"It's already planned," Reficul said. "For now you will assist us in activating the other units."

Toran stepped forward, but Khitan waved him off.

"Reficul," Khitan warned. "You are in command of the scientific aspects of this mission, but only I command the unit. That is the order of things. My men will not respond well to an alien ordering them."

Reficul smiled tightly as a massive green-armored unit was wheeled out on its frame. "Of course," he said. "I meant no offense. Please explain to Toran that the sooner we finish activating the rest of the units' suits, the sooner the field tests can begin."

More grating noises passed between them and Toran took the hibernation unit and began de-activating it as Reficul opened the green unit's entry hatch. He pondered Toran's uncharacteristic aggression, much more than the impatience most Sekhmet had for aliens.

Even for a soldier drone that seemed positively aggressive, he thought. But it's just as well. Soon the rest of the units will be activated and they can test to their heart's content on the people in the city below.

After all, whatever else we have differences of opinion we have, surely my Sekhmet friends and I share a common belief in the expendability of humankind.