Gunmetal Black 3
Chapter 2 - Man Of Constant Sorrow
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.

The spinning metal blade sank into the deadwood tree inches from Ariana Sanchez's eyes. Her pupils dilated on the gleaming blade as if there were a real possibility it were going to free itself and come after her again. She stared at it for a minute that felt more like five and slowly looked to the man who had thrown in.

"I came out here to be alone," the man said. He stood silhouetted against the sun, his face in shadow, only his blue-green eyes and the sheen of sweat off his skin standing out against the blazing midday heat. In his hand, Ariana could see another two of the throwing blades, pressed between his fingers. In his other hand he held a long sword, oddly shaped around the handguard and set with a light green jewel.

"I s-saw you come through town," Ariana stammered. "I've never seen a swordsmaster before. I ... kinda wondered what you were doing here."

"I told you," the man said, putting the throwing blades back into his belt. He ran his hands through his grey-streaked black hair. "I came out here to be alone."

"You could be alone anywhere," Ariana said. "Why come to Axanar?"

His eyes narrowed on her. "I came for the waters."

"There's no water here that the colonizers didn't bring when they settled," Ariana said.

"I know," the man sighed, sheathing his sword. "It appears I was misinformed."

"You're making fun of me," Ariana frowned.

"I'm avoiding the question," the man replied. "There's a difference."


The man looked at her and sighed again. Ariana was young, seventeen if she was a day. Her eyes were a deep brown and seemed to be steeped in a kind of darkness that shadows innocence. Her manner told him she had lived on this colony all her life -- she had grown up around the same people, and she liked it that way.

Except for a curiosity about outsiders, he thought. He frowned. He had seen that look before. Unfortunately the woman who used to look at him that way hadn't been able to hold onto her innocence as readily.

"Maybe I'm on the run from the syndicates," the man said after awhile. "Maybe I left behind a woman. Or maybe I'm some escaped killer from a prison transport. In any case, no kind of person you should be associating with."

"I doubt it," Ariana said. "I've seen killers. You don’t have the eyes of a killer."

"Killing's a lot different from what you see on vids," the man said. "You wouldn’t understand."

"Don't patronize me," Ariana said, her voice rising a little. "You think we don’t have killers here? There's a whole building full in the colony."

"I know," he said. "I saw. I'm sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just... came out here to be alone. I'd just as soon leave it at that, if it's all right with you."

"Suit yourself," Ariana said. "You just looked like someone who could use a friend." She reached into the pocket of her baggy pants and tossed him something.

The man opened his hand and caught it, his eyebrow raising in surprise. It was an apple, a freshly-grown one too. A rarity on a barren colony like this.

Ariana looked at him for a second then shook her head and turned back toward the village.

"Wait," the man said, drawing his sword. He tossed the apple up in the air and slashed at the apple twice, catching it in the palm of his hand. Ariana turned around in time to see the apple split into four slices, cut so precisely even the seeds inside were split in half.

"Thank you for this," he said to her, the edge out of his voice. "Would you like to share?"

He held out the apple slices to her. Ariana nervously took one, her eyes never leaving the gleaming sword in his other hand. She bit into one and looked up at him.

"My name’s Ariana," she said. "My father runs the hydroponics farm at the south end of the colony."

"I saw it," he said. "Lovely place." He looked at her and smiled, sheathing the sword again. He took a bit of the apple and looked at her. "And you can call me Sinclaire."

In the darkened lower hold of the Silhouette, Kienan sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the cryogenic unit. The shape inside -- vaguely female but at the same time something entirely other -- looked down on him, haloed in pale blue light and looking for all the world like an angel passing judgment.

But Kienan wasn't looking at her. His eyes were fixed on his palm. In his other hand he held a gold and silver coin on a chain and was lowering the chain onto his palm, watching the metal links pool in his hands.

He looked at the coin. On the face of it was a single Chinese character, "Angel." He had given this to a lover a couple years ago. Jayla Kyren.

Beautiful Jayla.

Doomed Jayla.

Dead Jayla.

He held the coin in his hands and looked up at the cryogenic unit.

But you’re not quite that dead, are you; he silently asked the thing inside the chamber. You're in there, part of its DNA, sleeping like a genetic ghost.

He rubbed the coin between his fingers. And I'm planning to wake you up. I'm almost asking myself what right I have to try. There's not a day that goes by I don’t think of what we were like together.

He closed his eyes. A memory flashed behind them -- Jayla and he, their legs tangled together in silken sheets, in the afterglow of an afternoon spent making love. Then another flash, Jayla leaning against the same bed, her eyes rolled back in her head as the arm-injector around her wrist pumped a dose of AHM into her. Then another, him walking out on her as she threw the injector at him, her bleeding red eyes streaked with tears, accusation on her lips.

He closed his hands over the coin, his emerald eyes snapping open.

"Kienan," a voice called from behind him. Kienan's emerald eyes followed a trail up the black and red bodysuit of Mirage. "Vain's finished loading the Vroom. You’re ready to go anytime."

"Right," Kienan said, getting up from the floor. Mirage watched him, her eyes going from him to the cryogenic unit. She saw the length of chain dangling from his hands and immediately knew what was going on.

"As soon as we know anything, we'll try to contact you," Mirage said, trying to sound reassuring. "Though, I have to say, these aliens -- "

"The Haxan," Kienan clarified.

" -- The Haxan," Mirage finished. "Well, the logic behind it escapes me. We've been in contact with and studied the leading scientists in the field. Magic ... er ... was never considered. I don't get the concept, Kienan."

"You don’t think it'll work," Kienan said.

"I think the odds are against it," Mirage said. "But you know Vain and I, Kienan, if we can make it happen for you we will."

"I've spent my life fighting the odds, Mirage," Kienan said. "And I know you will. We all do what we're made to do, don't we?"

He handed her the coin. "Take good care of it," he said. "It's all I have of her. Found it in the bottom of a box full of torn photos." Mirage studied his face as he said it. There was more, but se knew it wasn't her place to pry.

He sighed and looked at her. "I don’t suppose there's any way to change the plan now?"

"Kienan, if the information Silhouette gave us and the rest we found at the Armillary is correct, the Haxan are dangerous to humans. They could kill you, or make you kill yourself willingly. You can’t expect us to put you at risk. We're your bodyguards after all."

"Determined to protect me from myself now?"

"If we have to," Mirage replied. "But you've got my word ... if the Haxan try anything with her, we'll make them pay for it."

"I guess this is one of those times when being emotionless helps," Kienan sighed, looking back at the cryogenic unit. He turned to Mirage. "There are times when I envy you."

If you only knew.

Mirage looked at the coin. Kienan fumbled in his pockets for a cigarette and lit it, taking a long drag on it as he walked past her. "I'll be in the docking bay running a pre-flight check on the Vroom."

"Vain already did that five minutes ago," Mirage said. "All systems green."

Kienan smiled around the cigarette. "Then I'm gone. Good luck. And Mirage?"


"Whether or not you succeed with the Haxan, I expect you ladies back."

Mirage smiled. "Where else would we be?"

The massive green body surged to life, almost shattering the support frame it was encased in. Reficul turned angrily to Khitan, shoving him aside and hitting a series of buttons on his console and sighing as the creature before them stopped spasming.

"I told you to keep the nutrient mix balanced once we brought it out of hibernation." Reficul snarled. His red eyes flit to Toran, who stepped forward from the shadows. "If you kill him before the machine can make the necessary neural connections, both the machine and the driver are as good as useless."

The green-armored machine looked much like Toran, only bulkier, with leaves of armor plating covering most of its body. In the center of it's silver mask, along with the standard twin horns on either side of it, a long black horn protruded above his eyes, making his impassive features seem to be locked in a permanent scowl.

"Uragenax," Khitan said to the machine standing before him. "Speak. Do you function?"

Slowly, Uragenax turned to Khitan. "Yes," he said.

Khitan turned to Reficul. "He is functional. No damage."

"Good for him," Reficul said, his voice neutral. "Now tell him to stop struggling. Once I've completed loading the combat and maintenance data, we'll unlock the frame."

Khitan turned to Uragenax and muttered to him in their native language. Reficul would have turned his vox collar to receive it but he wasn't that interested. There were still three units still to bring online. And the matter of whom would pilot the last unit.

Reficul closed down the data link and walked over to Uragenax, uncoupling him from the maintenance frame and allowing him to move. Uragenax stared at him as he did this, offering no resistance.

Strange, he thought, pulling wires and feeding tubes from the back of Uragenax. He shouldn’t be this docile for a soldier drone. If anything, he should be as aggressive as Toran.

He stepped away from Uragenax, looking at Khitan. His azure lips contorted into a frown. Clearly there is more going on here than I am privy to, he mused. But we'll see how long that lasts.

He wheeled another unit out on its frame. This one was a sinister black-armored thing, so polished light seemed to be sucked into it and so slight it seemed to be lighter than any shadow it would ever cast.

"All right," Reficul said. "Get the pilot ready Khitan, and this time, do exactly what I tell you."

The bronze crescent-shaped ship Chimera scythed through the sea of stars in silence. Aboard the ship, Toriares set his final set of coordinates then relaxed. While the safety fields in the cabin of the ship was designed to prevent the danger of nausea and unconsciousness that accompanied traveling in Space Drive, he had always insisted that when the ship shifted into it, he felt butterflies in his stomach.

It passed as the ship pierced the veil. Red lights streaked against black, shifting to blue as the Chimera flew on. Toriares rested his hand on his cane, now collapsed and resting on the arm of his chair.

Kienan had often asked him why he carried a cane when everyone else in the galaxy packed a gun. Toriares had given him a different excuse every single time. Once he had told him it was a holdover from the sjambok his ancestors had carried in the African veldts on Earth, both tool and weapon in one. Another time he had told him it was something he had always carried as he recovered from a childhood illness. And once he had told him he carried it because "it made him look quite cool."

All of these were true enough, of course, but not the whole truth. Growing up alone on the streets of Khalis, a Khephren colony, surrounded by aliens and suffering from bone deficiencies (a common enough ailment in humans born on worlds with gravities different from Earth) he had learned to survive by his wits on the streets, protecting himself with a simple wooden stick.

I hated those streets, Toriares remembered, turning the cane in his hands. I hated always having to fight off Khephren sentinels, other criminals who tried to rob me. Hated the aching in my legs as I fought them and how weak I felt. I could never win against hem, I could only hold them off and run when I could.

Then a man named Kolu had taught him the sjambok while his medicines healed the young beggar. Toriares soon grew from an urchin living on the streets, to a man skilled enough to attract the attention of a representative of the Blue Dragons, an Earth Syndicate that was seeking to extend its power to the outer systems.

Toriares became an assassin, one of the best. Until the day he met Kienan Ademetria.

The universe plays cruel tricks on us, he thought. The day I met my best friend was also the day I put my sister in jail. At least I was able to guarantee her safety. I wonder some times if Kienan would have pleaded the same case for me?

He didn’t have an answer to that question. Kienan was an odd man. Toriares called him friend, and Kienan had, when pressed, said the same about him, but it was less what he said and more what he did that truly told Toriares how he felt.

I was hard on him some days, easy on him some days, and I can’t remember how many times I had to silence him before he could question a directive, he reminisced.

But if he held it against me, he never said so. He's risked his life to save mine at least twice, against odds I’d have run from. Even when I told him to leave me, he wouldn’t.

He thought about it for a minute. Kienan was a criminal, a murderer who ruthlessly hunted and killed his targets. Toriares had seen him shoot through an innocent woman just to kill his mark.

Naturally, the most evil man in the galaxy is my best friend, he thought, his lips slowly spreading into a smile. Toriares hated dichotomy, but he knew a clever joke when he heard one. Even when the joke was on him.

"So that's your story?" Ariana asked, wrapping her serape over her shoulders as the desert winds picked up. The sun was high in the sky and a long night of sandstorms looked to be on the way. "You're a ... professional swordsmaster?"

"That was the plan," Sinclaire said. He sat against a large rock, the guarded manner in which his spoke and set his eyes only on the patch of sand in front of him told Ariana just how much of the real story she was getting. "I wanted to learn the sword to be a hero. Go from planet to planet, right wrongs, that sort of thing."

"What happened?" Ariana asked.

"I learned that living a heroic life is easier said than done," Sinclaire said. "And that "hero" and "villain" are in the eye of the beholder."

"Is that why you came here?"

"I came out here to think," Sinclaire said. "I ... learned something about myself recently. I didn't much like it. I needed time to think about who I am and what I'm going to be."

"A hero or a villain?"

"At this point, I just want to be a human being, Ariana," Sinclaire said.

Ariana blinked. It sounded almost honest.

"I have to go back to the city," she said. "Come with me? You could meet my father ... see the gardens ... "

Sinclaire looked down at the sands. "No," he said. "Thanks, but I should probably stay out here. I don't want to get you in trouble."

Ariana sighed. "Suit yourself. Look ... if you’re out here tomorrow, I could come back. Maybe bring another apple."

"If you want. I ... don’t know where I'll be."

Ariana started to walk away then stopped. "Whatever you think you are," she began, marshalling the words with the courage to say it in equal measure. "Hero, villain, or human being -- that's between you and you. But you can decide not to be alone."

With that, she began walking away, her boots sluicing through the sands as she walked slowly back towards the city below. Sinclaire pondered what she said, then drew his knife from behind him. His brow furrowed as he idly stabled the sand. Then he looked up slowly as she walked away, sighed and got up from the rocks, adjusting his grey scarf to cover his swords and his head.

Why is it everyone seems to know the way except me? Sinclaire wondered, walking fast to catch up with her.

"Report your findings," Khitan said. They stood in an observation room, watching the five Sekhmet below. Five of the units were activated, but errors had become evident in their locomotion engines. To allow the machines to correct the problem, Reficul had suggested they walk around in circles until they were able to compensate for the deficiency.

Roundabout way to solve the problem, Reficul mused. But it would give me time to question my Sekhmet friend.

"Their life support systems function at 98% efficiency," Reficul said. "Well within optimal working order. No difficulties coding the units to the Sekhmet's neural pathways, either, which is surprising given the older examples of your technology I worked from. I think by tomorrow we can begin mounting weapon systems on the units."

"And Unit 6?"

"You only gave me five subjects," Reficul reminded him. "Unless you plan for me to transfer you into Unit 6, I'm afraid you'll have to ferry it back to Dosa Hive unpiloted."

"It was intended that I be transferred into Unit 6," Khitan said.

"I won’t do it," Reficul said. "Not until you answer some questions. Why are you putting aberrant drones into the test units?"

"Aberrant?" Khitan asked. Despite his Sekhmet unctuousness, he almost sounded like someone attempting to sound shocked by the mere suggestion of deceit.

"I've observed them to be alternately willful, aggressive, belligerent, or meekly obedient," Reficul said. "I know the Sekhmet mind quite well, Khitan, and I know you breed your solider drones as reactive and obedient. They only fight when challenged. They are, to use a human expression, spoiling for a fight."

"You were paid to build us specialized transport units," Khitan said. "Not to question."

"You’re my only control on their aggressive tendencies," Reficul said. "Until I'm assured that they're not dangerously unstable, I will not transfer you to Unit 6."

"They will obey," Khitan said with certainty.

"You may be right," Reficul said. "But until I know for sure, I shall hold Unit 6 as ... insurance. And you'll be my insurance against them."

Khitan stared at him for the longest time, the black eyes of his machine studying the Oneiran. After a few tense moments he turned back to the units below.

"The Dosa Hive is an experimental colony," Khitan said slowly. "As you have been working to specialize our transport machines, we have been working to create specialized sections of out population."

"Selective breeding," Reficul said. "Breeding more than the soldier, worker, command drones?"

"Correct," Khitan said. "The six below will return to Dosa hive and be used to breed drones designed to pilot their respective units."

Reficul pondered it for a moment, watching Toran slowly go from a limping gait to a smooth walking motion. "I can see the use of it," he said. "I can also see why you'd like to keep it secret. It sounds like you're preparing to build an army."

Khitan remained impassive. "Correct."

The small red shuttlecraft was raised into the travel pod on the dorsal section of the Silhouette. Inside it, Kienan was busy staring at maps and star charts trying to find his rendezvous point with Toriares. The Ruby Vroom was smaller than the other ships they used on the Silhouette, and had no Space Drive of its own, having to rely on the Silhouette's travel pods or a special one-use module to travel faster than light.

"I'll keep a special comm channel open," Kienan said as he checked the calculations for the travel pod's launch trajectory. "When you know something or are on your way, send a signal. One word reply. Let's not take the chance this will be traced."

"Will you be close to the Vroom?" Mirage's voice called over the communication channel."

"Far as I know," Kienan said. "But I'll key my remote receiver to relay it to me whenever I am planetside. Then I can bring the Vroom and get back."

"Be careful, Kienan," Vain said.

Kienan smiled, reaching for the pack of cigarettes laying on the chair in the navigator's station. "It's my vacation," he said. "What could go wrong?"

"She could show up again," Vain replied.

"Far as I know, she's back on Earth," Kienan said, taking a cigarette out and lighting it. He furrowed his brown at the indirect mention of Silhouette. "Far from where I'll be. Besides, she did give us the information on the Armillary and the Haxan."

"She also nearly got you killed rescuing her from a Rigellian base," Mirage said.

"You do have a point," Kienan said, taking a drag off his cigarette. He sighed and leaned back in his pilot chair, sadness around the edges of his eyes. He sighed and took another drag off his cigarette.

I honestly hate to go, he thought. But is it just because of Jayla or because of Vain and Mirage?

"Ladies," he said. "Good luck. Please ... come back to me safe." Despite himself, he smiled.

"It's a promise, Kienan," Vain said.

The travel pod shuddered into position as the launch elevator moved it above the ship. Kienan closed his eyes, taking another drag off his cigarette and bracing himself for the launch. He tugged on part of his safety harness to make sure it was secure as the travel pod's engines surged to life.

The travel pod fired from the ship like a silver torpedo before it vanished into a shimmer of red and blue.

And Kienan was gone.

From the bridge of the Silhouette, Vain and Mirage watched the place where it had been. If they could be said to feel anything at all, it could be termed a quiet aching absence.

Slowly the massive ship turned in the opposite direction, it's maneuvering engines glowing white-hot as it turned like a sailing ship in rough seas. The engines faded and the Space Drive took over, and in a flash of red and blue energy, they were gone too.