Gunmetal Black 3
Chapter 5 - Where Do We Go Now?
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.

The Chimera flew into orbit of Axanar, its crescent shape seeming to slice through the perpetual night of space. Kienan watched as they flew underneath a small orbital docking station and into the atmosphere below.

"Not docking up here?" Kienan asked, fumbling for a cigarette. The whiskey had done its work well, but Kienan was used to the hangover by now. What would have been sledgehammer blows of pain inside the head of an average man was only a steady migraine to Kienan.

Toriares shook his head. "That dock hasn’t been used for years, Kienan," he said, smiling, "The Chimera's brand-new. I don’t think it’s a good idea to park it on a deserted orbital dock."

Kienan checked a scan of the planet below. "But you do think it'll be OK in the desert below?"

"Sure." Toriares said, starting his landing cycle. "Most Khephren colonies are desert worlds. She'll be fine, Kienan. You have got to learn to trust me."

"I'd be doing a better job of it if I knew what was down there, Toriares," Kienan said.

Toriares smiled. "Nothing more or less dangerous than a free human colony, Kienan. And one other thing."

"What's that?"

"In good time, Kienan," Toriares said. The Chimera banked slowly through the early morning skies of Axanar, the sun painting the sky a milky pink color. They flew over the main city and the command center, both of which looked deserted from this high up. Toriares flew low over the sea of sand below, the trail from his flight reshaping the surface of the dunes below. They came to a small mesa just outside of town. The Chimera's landing jets fired and blew the layers of dust off the rocks as the ship set down.

The engines roared and then whined, seeming to sigh as they shut down. "Okay," Toriares said, unbuckling himself from the pilot's chair. "We're here."

Kienan rose slowly to his feet and stretched his legs, he idly stared out the window of the ship. Another desert, he thought. Just like home. I feel on edge just being out here.

He checked his pistols. Fully loaded, with four more clips should he need them, plus a few other boxes of ammo still on the Vroom.

And as always, the knife.

Toriares eyed him curiously as he took a long brown cloak from a closet in the rear of the cockpit. "Expecting trouble?"

"Always," Kienan said, holstering his guns. "Besides, I was always taught to be prepared for the worst."

"Really?" Toriares said, wrapping the cloak around his shoulders. "Who taught you to be so paranoid?"

Kienan smiled around his cigarette. "You did," he replied. "And you do the same damn thing, Toriares. What I can’t figure out is how you manage to be so insanely calm about it."

"It's all down to patience," Toriares said. "And true patience is a master's final lesson. C'mon, Kienan. Let's go."

"I've never seen anything like it," Mirage said, looking over the readouts. "In terms of design it shouldn’t even be flying. No kind of propulsion I can recognize, no weapons ports, any access ports of any kind. Vain, they shouldn't even be able to get in and out of it."

The Myrmidion held position before the Silhouette, silent as space, small but somehow threatening in its strangeness before the ship.

"Conscience, are you sensing anything from it?"

"No," Conscience replied impassively.

There was a shimmer between the three of them. The ghostly image of a woman, her white skin covered in many tattoos, appeared before them, idly walking around the cockpit, looking over the ship as if she intended to buy it.

Mirage reached for her submachine guns, but Vain raised a hand. "Let them have a look," she said. "I recognize the clothing from the records at the Armillary. That's a Haxan, all right."

The shape turned to Vain, looking at her, almost through her, the severe expression like that of a teacher who'd caught a student talking out of turn. As she looked at her and then at Mirage, her expression softened. She raised an eyebrow, then put up a hand. A circle in her palm glowed and she vanished.

"They must have wanted to see who we are," Mirage said. "If they left centuries ago humans, much less mechanical versions of them must be inconceivable."

"Receiving ... signal," Conscience said. "Boarding us."

"WHAT?" Vain said, leaping up from her seat. "Location?"

"Landing bay." Conscience said.

"How?" Mirage said, drawing her guns. "No sign that they launched a shuttle?"

"No idea," Vain said. She reached behind her. Her two knives were sheathed in holsters against the small of her back. She didn’t want to go in heavily armed, but this was a nasty surprise.

If they're capable of what I expect, Vain thought, a gun won’t do much good anyway.

Vain and Mirage stepped off the bridge, quickly making their way down the stairs. The main landing bay was two decks down and moving as quickly as they were they didn’t have a lot of time to come up with a plan before they got there.

"Mirage," Vain said, looking over her shoulder. "Shroud. Even if they detect you, maybe they'll see we mean business and be more inclined to talk."

Mirage shimmered and seemed to ripple out of existence.

"Whatever happens Vain, I promise not to shoot first," Mirage said.

"Thanks," Vain said. This will be hard enough, she thought. They’re nervous, we're nervous and any misstep will certainly result in mutually assured destruction.

Vain stepped through the main door into the landing bay. Two of them, dressed the same as the third, whom Vain recognized from the image on the bridge were idly walking around the launch bay, waving their hands over equipment, ships, anything. Vain caught sight of strange circles on their palms.

Embedded circuitry, she thought. Not only sorcerers but cyborgs as well?

The leader caught sight of Vain and pointed over her shoulder.

"Please tell your companion to make herself visible and to sheathe her weaponry," she said. "We intend no harm."

"You've got a funny way of showing it," Mirage said, shimmering back into view. "Coming onto our ship without invitation." She paused for a moment, looking at the leader.

"How'd you see me anyway?"

"I and my sisters have implants in my eyes that allow us to see several spectra at once," she said. "It was a simple matter of making our sight discrete enough to see the displacement of the photons around you. Nearly as simple as traveling along the line of energy that your ship happened to be intersecting and appearing here."

"Sure. Simple," Mirage said, shaking her head. "Who are you?"

"I am Lady Ravenna," she said, bowing to them. "These are my sisters, Lady Kayt and Lady Illiel. You searched for us and you have found us. We are the Haxan. Or more precisely what's left of them."

"You were left behind?" Vain asked.

"We are custodians," Kayt said. "Guardians, if you will."

"Jailers," Illiel said. Mirage cocked an eyebrow. The way they spoke, it was almost like talking to Conscience, only split into three.

"Jailers," Mirage repeated. "We saw in the Armillary that the Haxan left known space to follow the lines of energy out to the stars. Nothing in there about being jailers."

"It is not something we discuss openly," Ravenna said, looking at Illiel.

"If I might ask," Vain said, deciding discretion was the better part of valor. "What made you decide to speak to us?"

"We have never seen a ship like this," Ravenna said. "Nor a race like yours. True mechanical life was, so far as we knew, beyond even our powers to create."

"The ship is primitive, not far removed from technology we employed centuries ago," Kayt said. "But you are unlike anything we have encountered, and even as custodians we are eager to expand the boundaries of our knowledge."

"I hate to disappoint you," Vain said. "But we aren't any kind of "race" at all. We're part of a set of four, one destroyed, one damaged beyond recovery. That leaves Mirage and myself. My name is Vain and we welcome you."

"Vain ... and Mirage," Illiel asked. "Your nomenclature is ... peculiar."

"Coming from someone named "Illiel," I’d say -- "

"Not now, Mirage," Vain said. "We've come asking for your help."

"Our help?"

"We understand that you've been able to reunite souls with bodies before," Vain said. "We have the body and the soul, but we need your assistance to reunite both."

Ravenna eyed Vain curiously. "It is an art we've had experience with," she said. "May we see the subject in question?"

"Of course," Vain said. "Right this way."

The five of them stood in perfect formation as Khitan walked around them. Behind him Reficul watched, bored with the regimental nature of it all. Finally, Khitan spoke.

"You are ready," he said. "All data indicates you have adjusted to your new bodies and weaponry. Therefore, I have decided that your first mission begins now."

Toran's eyes glowered at Khitan as he walked past.

"You will go to the city below and begin exterminating as many humans as you can. Destroy the city -- burn it, level it, and do not stop until no human draws air on this planet."

Zularax's mandibles opened and closed, a thin line of acidic saliva running from them. He seemed to be drooling at the prospect.

"We will claim this colony for the Sekhmet," Khitan continued. "You will be the vanguard that lays the groundwork for the hives that will eventually replace the crude settlements of the humans."

Beneath his impassive blank helmet Volaran absorbed all of this impassively. All he was eager to do was to test his wings.

"Now that you are ready I can explain to you why this lone beachhead is so important to the future of the Sekhmet. The royal hives have calculated that the greatest danger to our future is that which the humans represent. Our contacts with them have been tense. They are not like us. They are fractious where we are united. They debate. We do."

Keeping to the shadows, Devorax silently absorbed all this, seeming to fade in and out of the spare darkness of the command center.

"Their chaotic nature represents a threat to our order," Khitan said. "And it cannot be countenanced. And so we will eliminate that chaos."

Khitan stopped and regarded Uragenax's massive form. He looked into his eyes, as black as his own and gave them their final instructions.

"Go," he said. "And kill until the sands soak up every drop of blood."

Ravenna's black hair fell over her eyes as she looked over the strange creature in the cryo-unit. "What race is this one?" she asked Vain.

"She ... doesn’t have a race," Vain said. She and Mirage were leaning against the far wall, watching the Haxan glide about the room, examining their technology and Jayla-2 with equal curiosity. "She is, as far as we've been able to determine, a substantially altered clone. Her base genetic material is human, however."

"Yes," Kayt said. "I sense it within her. A curious creature. Made of many, but at the same time empty inside."

"Do you have the token?" Illiel asked.

Vain fished in the pouches of her belt for the necklace, walking over and handing it to Ravenna. She looked it over, then looked back at Jayla-2.

"It will be difficult," she said. "My sisters and myself don’t have the power to bind her soul back to this body."

"I thought you said you were trained in the practice," Mirage said. "Now which is it?"

"We are," Ravenna said. "But our experience was limited to binding souls back to their own body. This one is close to the essence I feel in the token, but different enough to make things uncertain."

"So we came all this way for nothing, then," Mirage said.

"No," Illiel said. "What you ask is difficult, and the results are uncertain, but not impossible. But to do what you require will necessitate what could be best termed as extreme measures."

"Illiel is correct," Kayt said. "We must secure an artifact of our order. It is the only thing that could facilitate the binding properly."

"I concur with my sisters," Ravenna said. "We will require the Soulcaster. The binding spell requires the outlay of a great deal of energy, and the Soulcaster is the only device that could control the energy involved."

"I'm guessing you don’t have it?" Mirage asked, already not liking at all where this was going.

Ravenna shook her head. "It belongs to Jaevin, the head of our order."

"And where would we find him?" Vain asked.

"He is easy enough to find," Ravenna said. "He is the man we hold prisoner."

Sinclaire walked through town, smiling along with Ariana as they meandered past street vendors and restaurants with open doors. The place felt alive, and Sinclaire felt alive himself, for the first time in a long time.

Almost human, he thought, the words tinged with a certain irony.

He wondered to himself why he hadn’t even gone down into the city when he'd been dropped off here. But then he remembered. Up until recently he hadn’t wanted to see anyone, much less walk through a whole town of anyones.

Ariana held his hand, swinging it as they walked. They passed by a man with sad eyes strumming a guitar and singing a sad hopeful song. Sinclaire fished in his pockets for the few credits he had and threw them in the upturned hat at the musician's feet.

The musician nodded as they walked past. Sinclaire smiled, the song setting the rhythm for his gait as he walked with his friend. Despite the fact that he'd spent last night sleeping under a tree with cold desert night air whistling around him he felt alive.

And the fear that had enfolded him during the night was gone. The suns felt warm on his skin and despite himself, he was smiling.

Ariana was smiling too, at least until they came by a strange building. It was peculiar in that no one stood in front of it -- no vendors, no musicians, no one. In fact people who walked by Sinclaire crossed to the side of the street to avoid it.

Ariana looked at the building hidden by the high stucco wall and her face fell. Sinclaire raised an eyebrow, curious.

"Hey," he said to her. "What is it?"

"That's the Peace Hotel," she said. "That place I told you about before? The building full of killers?"

Sinclaire nodded. His eyes were fixed on something peculiar. At the central arch where the wall opened (there was no gate) there was a huge grey stone, obviously not of this world. Plunged into the stone was a blade.

An Iczelian blade, Sinclaire thought. One of my order. But why?

"My mother's in there somewhere," Ariana said. "They set it up here a long time ago. Killers, thieves, people in trouble ... they go in there and never come out again."

"It's a prison, then?" Sinclaire said.

"No," Ariana said. "More like a sanctuary. Within the walls of that place, they can’t be touched or killed for what they did long ago. It's a ticket to a new life ... but one that only goes as far as those walls."

Sinclaire closed his eyes. I could have ended up here myself, he thought. Had it not been for Silhouette getting me out. It feels so strange to still be beholden to her after all this time.

Sometimes I feel linked to her, no matter how far away I go from her.

They walked past the place hurriedly and turned a corner. Out of the corner of his eye Sinclaire could have sworn he saw someone familiar moving towards the gates of the Peace Hotel, but it was hard to be sure.

Probably nothing, he thought.

"I told you I was a woman of my word, Doctor," the voice on the other end of the line said. "So are we on schedule?"

"Yes," Reficul said. "The Sekhmet are preparing to wipe out the town."

"To make a statement against the encroachment of chaotic humanity on their ordered society, yes," the voice came back.

"Y-Yes," Reficul said, genuinely surprised. "How did you -- ?"

"All-seeing, my dear Doctor. Remember?"

"Of course," he said. "Forgive me. They intend to launch their attack within the next two hours. You have already sent the ship to pick me up, I presume?"

"He's en route to you now," she replied. "By the time the massacre is well underway, you should be long gone, Doctor. You really must have more faith in me."

"Forgive me, Miss San -- "

"Ah ah, Doctor," she cautioned, her voice carrying the lilt of a teasing child's. "You've been warned. No names."

"I beg your pardon," he said. "My nerves are on edge. The Sekhmet have been difficult. I look forward to quitting their company."

"Won’t be long now Doctor," she said. "Trust in me as you have these past ten years, have I ever led you astray?"

"No," Reficul said. "Not once."

"Of course not," she replied. "Then trust me now. My man will be coming to collect you soon. For now, find a nice spot and enjoy the mayhem, Doctor. It should be quite spectacular."

Toriares and Kienan walked together through the streets of Axanar. Toriares drew long lazy lines in the fine sand covering the streets as they walked. Kienan made no effort to disguise himself or his danger. Passersby took one look at him and then down to his guns, and hurriedly crossed the street to avoid him.

Kienan didn’t much care what they thought. He was too busy trying and failing to relax. He felt on edge. Felt too many eyes on him and a sense of danger he couldn’t quite place but was utmost in his mind, like a loud noise that seemed to be just below his ears.

They walked along the wall of a large hotel looming in the distance. Finally Toriares spoke.

"I stopped by and visited an old friend of ours before I came to see you," he said. "Marasi's getting paroled in a week."

"Ah," Kienan said. Toriares' sister had left her mark, both because bringing her down had been Kienan and Toriares' first job together and because Marasi had lashed Kienan across the back with her razor-chain and made the scar on his back a perfect "X." He took a breath. "How is she?"

"Seems to be holding up well enough," Toriares said. "Scared, though, just like everyone who serves a long time and gets out. I figure she'll end up having to go here."

Kienan looked inside the gates. The tip of Toriares' cane was pointing at a sword jammed into a stone. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it at first, and then something clicked.

"The Peace Hotel. I didn’t think this place existed, really," Kienan said. "Hard to believe the syndicates could agree to consider one place sanctuary."

"I'll be honest, Kienan," Toriares said. "I hate to think of her having to live the rest of her life there but that's all that's left for her. You don’t go from ruling a syndicate to being an ex-con without a lot of enemies waiting for you to come back out."

"If it makes you feel any better," Kienan said, reaching around for his shoulder. "I don't bear her any grudge. I know she's family and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt her."

"I know you wouldn't, Kienan," Toriares said. "I just want you to think about what you'd do if you were in Marasi's position -- no syndicate to call your own, hunted, always on the run. Where would you go?"

"I'd do what I always have," he said, "I've survived in a place where everyone wanted me dead before."

"Yes, but a whole galaxy?" Toriares asked. "You've got two choices. Either keep running as long as you live or take up a room here."

"I know," Kienan said. "But Toriares, understand this isn't even an option for me. I could run, I could be hunted, I could even get unlucky and get dead, but to walk through that gate would be giving up."

"I guess I knew you couldn't," Toriares said. "I just ... Kienan, you understand that if anything were to happen, I couldn’t help you, right? No matter how much I'd want to."

Kienan looked down. "I know," he said.

He was about to say something more when he saw someone out of the corner of his eye. His emerald eyes focused on something on the person's back and his narrow eyes became an angry gaze.

"Excuse me for a minute," Kienan said, moving past Toriares. "I think I see someone I know."

"What?" Toriares said. He said, blowing his white hair out of his eyes. So much for my appeal to his better nature, he thought. He hurried after Kienan, praying he wasn't intending to do anything foolish.

Kienan walked with purpose towards the man in the cloak, his boots making soft sighing noises in the fine sand. As the man came more clearly into view, Kienan found himself reminiscing where he'd seen him before.

He remembered fighting him on a roller coaster in Nereus, using every dirty trick to try and best the master of swords so skilled he could swat every single gunshot of Kienan's aside.

He remembered trading barbs with him, both of them trying to needle the other into another fight. There was something about the two of them that made it impossible for them to share the same space without a fight starting.

Most of all, he remembered the man's arms around Silhouette.

He tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me," he said.

Sinclaire turned around in time to see Kienan's red-gloved hand sailing towards his nose. Fist met bone with a satisfying crack and Sinclaire tumbled backwards, one hand reaching for his blades. Kienan was way ahead of him and kicked the side of Sinclaire's knee, dropping him into the dirt.

"What are you doing?" Ariana said, rushing towards Kienan. She was stopped short by the barrel of Kienan's pistol pointed between her eyes.

"If you don’t think I'll shoot a child, believe me, you’re wrong," Kienan said, crouching down and putting his foot on Sinclaire's throat. "Been a long time, Sinclaire. Do you remember what I promised I'd do next time we met?"

Sinclaire grimaced, the blood from his nose matting with the gritty sand.

"Good. I was hoping you did," Kienan said, drawing his other pistol and pointing it under Sinclaire's chin. "Because this is where I send you to hell."