Gunmetal Black 3
Chapter 3 - Shadow On The Road Behind
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.

Vain and Mirage stood before the frozen form of the woman in the cold room, both of them staring at the temperature status indicator on the side of the unit.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Mirage asked.

Vain raised an eyebrow, punching a series of keys on the control unit. "Not really, but I want to be sure that Conscience's control of Jayla-2 is complete. If we do meet these Haxan, we'll have to move her, and I’d rather have her walk out on Conscience's power."

"I see," Mirage said. She was nervous. It had been a year since Kienan had injected nanoprobes from one of their sisters into Jayla-2. Once altered sufficiently they had allowed Conscience to move the clone's muscles and keep her docile.

Save for a few small tests over the months, they had kept the clone in her cold sleep. Kienan wanted her to recover herself as he remembered her, and sought other solutions to the problem.

In the meantime, Mirage mused, we'd kept a wild beast in the hold of our ship for a year and a half. I should have tried harder to convince Kienan that a pet would fulfill the same need in his life.

"Conscience," Vain said. "Status on shutting down unused sections and ETA for arrival at out target point?"

"Condition ... green," Conscience said. As more of her mind was freed from the maintenance of the ship, Conscience found it easier to speak, but haltingly. Despite Kienan's best efforts there were some things he had been unable to repair. "ETA is ... six hours at full Space Drive."

"Are you ready?" Vain asked. Mirage put her hands behind her back and crossed her fingers.


"All right," Vain said, tapping a series of keys. "I'm starting the cycle now."

The coffin-like chamber hissed as the freezing solution dissipated. Vain and Mirage readied themselves, in case the clone reacted in the usual feral manner it had when awoke.

The clone lifted its arms slowly, as if in a dream, resting them on the sides of the chamber. Vain was tense, never taking her eyes off Jayla-2.

"Conscience," Vain asked. "You ARE in control of her, aren’t you?"

"Yes," Conscience said.

"She's not having as much trouble controlling her as she did last time," Mirage said. "Usually Jayla-2's movement's are so jerky because she's fighting against Conscience's control."

"Are you feeling any resistance, Conscience?" Vain asked, still in her ready stance.

"No resistance," Conscience said. "No ... brain activity."

"WHAT?" Vain shouted incredulously, going to the status console. "That's not right -- even when we woke her up the first time there was some higher brain functions."

"Higher brain functions are ... absent," Conscience said flatly. "Autonomic functions intact,"

"Well," Mirage said. "At least it's not total brain death."

"Close enough," Vain said irritably. "Conscience, walk her around the room."

Jayla-2 walked with halting ease around the room. The clone's muscles, slightly atrophied from months of cold sleep caused her to limp a little.

"Still no resistance?"

"No," Conscience replied. "Higher brain functions still read as ... zero."

"Dammit," Vain said. She closed her eyes and sighed slowly. "Keep her walking, Conscience. She needs to shake off the muscle atrophy."

Conscience did as she was told. Jayla-2 walked out of the door, slowly trudging down the corridors. Vain sat down at a desk near the cold unit. Mirage started to pace back and forth in front of it.

"If he knew, Kienan would kill us, wouldn't he?" Mirage asked.

"Difficult to say," Vain said. "We had no way of knowing what being in cold sleep that long would do to her mind."

"So now we've got a body without a mind being controlled by a mind without a body," Mirage said.

"So it would appear."

Mirage looked at the chamber. She thought about the coin on the chain that Kienan had given her. How was that bauble supposed to be the key to restoring her, especially now that we've brought her out only to discover that she's a total blank?

She didn’t have an answer. And that worried her.

Deep within the command center for the colony, Reficul watched the Sekhmet testing their new weapons systems. They were all activated now, at last. The last few to be activated had gone smoother. Apparently by denying Khitan the prize of the final suit it had given him incentive to cooperate with Reficul. At least for the moment.

His thoughts drifted back to his initial contact with the Sekhmet. Through a partner they had contacted him, knowing of his experience with artificial humanoid machines. They contracted him for six units, each one designed for a specific tactical advantage.

Toran's suit was designed for high-temperature environments like volcanic worlds. The alloys that comprised his armor were designed to withstand consistently high heat while a cooling system protected the pilot. His body was also lean enough to allow for maximum speed and mobility in cramped quarters like caves.

Uragenax was the template for the frontline soldier of the Sekhmet. Slow, lumbering and heavily armored, Uragenax was designed to take as much punishment from the enemy as possible and was equipped with the strength to return it in kind.

Devorax was the infiltration and stealth unit. His body was thin and lightly armored. Unlike the others his weapons were few and built in -- two shaped energy projectors on his gauntlets. The rest of his body was equipped with sensor jammers and sound suppressors. While Devorax was unable to completely shift into invisibility, in complete darkness he couldn’t be detected until it was too late.

Zularax was one of the units Reficul was especially proud of. Designed to sabotage heavy machinery and bases, Zularax was equipped with seven robotic grubs (fashioned appropriately enough, Reficul thought, in the image of the Sekhmet themselves) which could detach themselves from his body and eat any metallic or organic compounds they came across. Disgusting, but a powerful psychological weapon.

The last of the team, Volaran was designed for high-speed atmospheric combat. Equipped with the most weaponry of any of the Sekhmet was equipped with a special drive system that allowed him to fly as fast as a starfighter and with enough computer-assisted directional guidance systems to allow him total control.

The beeping of his personal communications unit interrupted his review of his work. He pulled it from his belt and flipped it open. He grimaced as he recognized the code.


"Reficul here," He said.

"Doctor," a female voice called over the comm unit. His partner never transmitted her image over an unsecured channel. It was one of many precautions his very paranoid partner took to ensure her identity was kept secret. "How goes things with the Sekhmet?"

"So far everything has gone as expected," Reficul said. "I must confess that I'm amazed at how precisely things have followed your timetable."

There was a curt laugh on the other end of the receiver. "Well, I'm not all powerful," she said. "But I am all seeing. Are they ready?"

"I haven’t fitted out their weapon systems yet," Reficul said. "It appears we were given the very least of Sekhmet society to work with. The patients will be ... difficult to say the least."

"As expected," she replied. "If everything is still going according to plan, I see no reason to delay. Fit out their weapon systems and begin the field test."

"You are sending someone for me?"

"Absolutely, Doctor," she replied. "I'll call again in two days time, and if everything is set I'll have a ship en route to get you out of there before the Sekhmet have begun slaughtering everyone on the colony in earnest. See you then."

The channel was terminated suddenly. Reficul closed the communications channel and stared at it. Even though he agreed with her ideals and had been her partner for years, he didn't believe he'd ever get used to hearing death and destruction commanded in the calm voice of a child.

Toriares smiled and flipped the switch on the Chimera's tracking system. Ten light years, he thought. I'll be there in no time. He sat back in his chair, watching the shifting colors of Space Drive shimmer above the canopy.

He found himself drifting back to his days with Kienan. To the beginning of their third year as partners. They had, for the past two years previous, played a game in the cityscape of Kuran colony. Like children in a vacant lot they chased and hid and sought one another, the challenge being to find the other before the tolling of the New Year.

They were at a dead heat. The first year, Toriares had flushed Kienan out easily by turning the power off on a holographic sign he was hiding behind. The year afterwards, Kienan had found him after an oncoming train car disrupted his grasp on a monorail.

But that year was different, Toriares thought. That year he didn’t want to play. I remember him reluctant to go even. The first year I remember him being so eager to show me up. The second year he didn't even gloat about winning. And the third ...

Toriares had found Kienan sitting on the ledge of a building overlooking Hantu Street, the main street of Kuran's low quarter. At the end of the road was the headquarters for their masters, the Blue Dragon Tong.

Toriares had felt surge of worry go through him as he quietly made his way to sit beside him. Something was wrong, he knew, because Kienan looked for the entire world like a man thinking of jumping to his death.

Kienan quietly smoked a cigarette. Below him, people were celebrating. The quiet report of fireworks sounded hollow and the lion dancers below seemed far away from him. Toriares clacked his cane against the lip of the building where Kienan sat. Kienan looked up at him slowly, his emerald green eyes deep and thoughtful. Behind him, a flickering neon sign cast long shadows over his face.

Toriares leaned on his cane and looked over at the crowds below. "Cheerful people," Toriares said. "They have nothing, they live in the most godforsaken part of this colony, but tonight it doesn't matter. Everyone's happy."

"Everyone?" Kienan repeated, taking a slow drag off his cigarette.

"Everyone except you, I guess, Toriares said, smiling and sitting down next to him. "Determined to keep the tie this year?"

"I ... " Kienan started to say and then exhaled, blowing a thin stream of smoke into the neon-soaked air. "I don’t know. It feels different this year."

"Different how?"

Kienan sighed. "I don't know."

Toriares looked out at the crowd. "Silhouette."

Kienan blinked. "Yeah," he said. "Part of it's her. Part of it's you."

"What about me?" Toriares asked.

"You're getting married in three months," Kienan said. "I guess it's changed things."

"Changed things for us?" Toriares said, searching Kienan's face for some sign of what was bothering him. He knew better than to ask directly -- it wasn't Kienan's way to volunteer anything.

Kienan took another drag off the cigarette, exhaling through his nose and breathing a stream of smoke out as replied. "Not just for us. For ... what I want. For Sil and I."

Toriares smiled and looked at Kienan. "You know" he began, rubbing his cane between his hands. "If you want to marry her I'll stand up at the wedding."

Kienan looked so shucked he nearly let the cigarette fall from his lips. "Me? Get married?"

"Oddly enough, that's exactly what I said when Neferta'ri proposed to me," Toriares said. "Even the expression on your face is the same. Yes, Kienan. I know how you feel about her. Why don't you ask her?"

Kienan took the cigarette from his lips and looked at it, and seeing it was nearly spent tossed it out into the crowd below. "She doesn't want that?"

"Have you talked to her about it?"

"We don’t talk much," Kienan said.

"Well, I know you don't," Toriares said. "But you don't have to talk to her. Have you listened to her?"

"I don’t know," Kienan said. He sighed. "I don’t think she wants me to. I'm not the guy to marry."

Toriares took a deep breath and looked at Kienan.

"It scares you that bad, does it?"

Kienan blinked as if lightly slapped. "What?"

"How you feel about Sil," Toriares said. "That's why you left her back there at your apartment to come out here and sulk. You desperately want to be with her but can't for the life of you figure out why she would."

Kienan stared straight ahead, then started fumbling for a cigarette.

"Fear," Toriares said, staring down at the lion dancers below. "You're afraid of yourself. Afraid you can't possibly give an inch, do anything to break up your comfortable little rut, and why? It's not like you'll cease to exist because one day you woke up and decided to be a different kind of Kienan Ademetria."

"Maybe," Kienan said, lighting a cigarette.

"You can change anytime you want."

"It's not that simple," Kienan said flatly.

"It IS that simple," Toriares replied. "You just have to have the courage to grasp it. Otherwise you'll be stuck in a loop, dying a little inside and becoming more isolated and alone. Is that what you want?"

"I don't know what I want."

Toriares blinked, surprised. It was perhaps the first utterly honest thing Kienan had ever said about himself.

"I can teach you how to fight," Toriares said. "But I can’t tell you what you want. I can't tell you what you should do with Sil and I can't point you to what will fill that emptiness inside you. I can only tell you something someone told me a long time ago. People pay for what they do and they pay an even dearer price with what they allow themselves to become. And the way they pay that price is in the life they lead."

Kienan pondered it for a monument, staring at the cigarette in his hands. "What does that mean?"

Toriares looked at him, his eyes quietly sad all of a sudden. He opened his mouth to say something, but was jarred out of it by a sound from below. Streams of light streaked high into the skies, illuminating the colony's city sprawls as the reflectors from the colony's solar panels struck the particles and simulated a brilliant blue explosion of light in a way that would fool someone who had never seen fireworks before.

To someone who had the whole exercise seemed false, artificial, and more than a little futile.

"It's a new year," Kienan said.

"Yes it is," Toriares said, sighing and suddenly feeling just as afraid as Kienan of what the new year would bring.

"I've never seen a place like this," Sinclaire said, idly rubbing the red apple in his white-gloved hands. After a week in the desert outside Axanar they were less white than usual, but it seemed to be right.

He sat on a small bench, surrounded by lush apple trees that grew with such strength and flower he almost felt he was back on Earth again, not an abandoned colony hundreds of light years away. The air felt clean and for the first time in years Sinclaire felt life all around him like the embrace of an old friend.

But I can't return the embrace, Sinclaire thought. Because my hands are dirty.

Paolo Sanchez sat next to him on an old empty cargo box, watching Sinclaire watching his hands. Behind them Ariana sat on one of the limbs of the apple tree, dangling her legs like a child on a swing. "I built this garden myself," he said. "After the supply transports stopped coming, we had to fend for ourselves."

Sinclaire bit into the apple. "Lucky they had a hydroponic scientists here."

"I'm not a hydroponic scientist," Hector said. "I came into space as a dockworker. They hired me for the Axanar trip after the Century Plan ended."

"So, how did you do all this?" Sinclaire said, chewing the apple thoughtfully. "I'm not calling you stupid, I just -- "

"It had to be done," Hector said. "We'd been forgotten out here. No one was going to help us." He stood up and looked at Ariana. "I remember the most frightening thing were those first months when we realized no one was going to tell us what to do anymore. Those were bad times. We were angry. We felt forgotten."

Sinclaire took another bite of the apple. "So what did you do?"

"We did what had to be done," Hector said. "We made our own way, and against all odds, against the hateful slow spinning of a galaxy that couldn’t care less about a hundred fifty people on a barren planet, we prospered."

"That sounds idyllic," Sinclaire said. "Didn’t Earth ever try to reclaim the colony?"

"Never," Hector said. "But after awhile I didn’t mind. I realized that we hadn't come to this place to be forgotten. No, we came to forget."

"Forget what?" Sinclaire asked, taking another bite of the apple. While the apple was red ripe and delicious something about it didn’t taste right anymore. Maybe it was just how food tasted after eating so little in the desert. Or maybe it was that Hector's story stirred things inside him. He looked at the dirty gloves over his hands again.

"Forget ourselves," Hector said. "We thrived only because those who stayed cast off who they were before -- dockworkers, soldiers, whatever and became who they needed to be to live."

"They don't ever miss it?"

Hector shook his head. "Some do," he said slowly. "But most realized that they were living for someone else and not themselves. They found it here. It's amazing some days. You go into the city and people greet you. Enthusiastic and excited, like children discovering the world, seeing it through new eyes. People come here to forget, but they also come here to remember."

"Sounds like a dream," Sinclaire said. He grimaced. He hadn't meant that to sound bitter or sarcastic, but it hung in the air like a challenge.

"We all dream of being a child again," Hector said. "Even the worst man in the universe. Especially the worst man."

Sinclaire closed his eyes and smiled. "I don't remember being a child," he said. "But I ... wouldn't mind learning here."

Hector gestured to the swords Sinclaire carried on his back. "I don’t need a swordsman," he said. Sinclaire's eyes fell and he looked through his dirty gloves at the dirt at his feet.

Hector's old sun-weathered face broke into a smile. "I can, however, use some help with the bushels of apples I'm getting ready to take into the market in the city."

Sinclaire looked up and saw Hector smiling and laughing slowly and gently under his breath. Ariana's laughter rang out above him, and after a time, Sinclaire joined them, chucking as he took off his dirty gloves to reveal clean hands beneath them.

The torpedo-like travel pod burst out of Space Drive like a bullet from a gun, breaking apart as a sleek small red shuttlecraft pulled away from the debris like a shooting red star.

Kienan sat in the Pilot's chair of the Ruby Vroom, eyes closed, thinking as Toriares had of times gone by. Unfortunately Kienan's memory was less rosy, even compared to the curious mixture of hope and terror that seemed to stretch before him three years ago when Toriares tried to tell him something. Kienan couldn’t remember it now, but he knew it was important.

I hope I can ask him again, Kienan thought. It felt strange for him to miss anyone, or to admit to himself that he did. But Toriares' absence had weighed heavily on him, the first brick in walls he hadn’t been able to stop himself building.

But he always returned to that ledge every new year. Even after he had pushed Silhouette out of his life in the cruelest way possible and done everything he could to isolate himself.

Kienan's mind drifted back to the end of last year. After Sil was gone for good and Jayla had disappeared. In a painful kind of irony he had seen her through the window of a building across from the ledge he sat on.

Lotus Land was run by a thoroughly disreputable man named Gao Shu Fan. It was a brothel, the oldest in the city. It was also where Jayla, her brain addled by despair and drugs had ended up.

Her silhouette danced in the window across from him even now. Kienan sat on the ledge behind the now sputtering and flickering neon sign, cursing himself for a million different things all at once. His hands shook, but he refused to reach for a cigarette.

He had tried to take her from that place once before, only to be rebuffed and sent away by her. He had been so willing to take her away from it. He wanted to save her.

His stomach turned as he remembered the fear he had felt that night. Not because anyone in the building was any kind of threat, but because as she spoke to him, her voice quiet and sad, the certainty of things had begun to sink in and a door had slammed shut to him forever.

And despite his strength and skills there was nothing Kienan could do to stop it. His mind flashed back on an image -- himself, younger, drowning in blood, a clawed hand holding him by the back of his skull and forcing him down into a thick sticky pool of blood. He held his breath as he remembered the worst of it -- the horrible feeling that he would die and there was nothing he could do about it.

He remembered feeling futile, lost, and utterly alone. His triumph over dying hadn’t prevented him from losing the battle to save her from herself.

But he had come to the ledge again. Not just to see her, but because he was hoping, far back in his mind that it was deeper than subconscious that Toriares would come. That he would know what to do.

Kienan felt a shock go through his heart as the light to Jayla's window shut off, throwing a black shroud over the night, even as thousands of people celebrated below.

Toriares, he thought. The name rang loud in his mind, like someone calling out.

"Hello old friend," a voice came over the Vroom's communication unit. Kienan looked up through the canopy of the Vroom and saw the bronze crescent of the Chimera above him.

Kienan closed his eyes again, and very slowly began to smile.