Gunmetal Black 6
Chapter 7: Folded Flags
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.

”I know him,” Kienan said, his expression indifferent. “He’s the ‘Rigellian Count’ you and Silhouette kept dancing around naming.”

Soldato raised an eyebrow. “You noticed that, did you?”

Kienan nodded. “Don’t mistake silence for not paying attention.”


The moment crackled with tension for a brief second.

Testing me, Kienan thought. Teasing information out of me, not volunteering much, but tantalizing me with what he knows.

Trying to maneuver me where he wants.

His expression went sour. He’d seen plenty of this in his few dealings with Soldato, each at an ever decreasing remove. The closer Kienan got, the less he liked it.

”Does Silhouette know you monitor her communications channels?”

Soldato smiled. “What makes you think I do?”

”It’s what I would do, if I were you.”

”I’m not you. You said as much before.”

”I’m her ex. She expects me to be nosy. You’re supposed to be the noble one. The latest noble one, I should say.”

Soldato eased back in his seat. He shook his head, his smile broadening.

”Interesting read, Kienan,” Soldato began, the smile becoming a grin. “The common thread that runs through the three of us: we all of us do what we must. When people like us commit to something, we’ll pay any price, do anything, and commit ourselves wholeheartedly, and to hell with the cost. It’s just the way we’re made.”

”That common thread gives you a great string to jerk us around.”

”Is that what you think I’m doing?”

”I don’t think you ever stop. I figure this ‘job’ you’re offering is just one more turn of the screw.”

”No, it’s an actual job,” Soldato said. “One for which you’re uniquely suited, as your encounter with Straeger gives you precisely the right kind of experience for it.”

Uh-huh, Kienan thought, annoyed.

”Count Straeger has been put in charge of a very special construction project. It seems the Empire is creating a new class of fighter.”

”Rigellians don’t do ‘new’ when polishing up the old will do.”

”So people think,” Soldato said. “But I have contacts within the Empire. The tell me that he has something, some new technology that he’s planning to mate with the next generation fighter design. Something new and revolutionary.

”Or, more accurately, something very old. Silhouette tells me you saw that technology at Abgrund. I think you’d know it again if you saw it.”

Kienan’s frown deepened at the memory.

“So . . . you’re hiring me to kill him, and destroy it? Sabotage this experiement?”

Soldato shook his head.

Kienan was surprised. “What, then?”

”I just want you to identify it. Confirm that he has it, and the technology is practical.”

Kienan scowled at him.

Soldato seemed to read his confusion “A military advance means Earth contracts my company to design a new fighter to match theirs. It casts Earth’s eyes toward Rigellia, and a raise in tension means more ships deployed on their border. I build a good deal of earth’s fleet. And war is good for my business.”

”More than that,” Soldato continued. “Straeger’s using older technology to achieve what I do when I create newer technology. I suppose in a sense, we were destined to oppose one another. A reckoning’s inevitable; I might as well manage it, force it to occur by my terms.”

”Better,” Kienan said. ”There might have been a bit of truth in that speech. But there’s more you’re not telling me.”

Soldato smiled. “Very perceptive. You’re smarter than people give you credit for.”

”And with that bit of patronizing, I’m all out of patience,” Kienan said, raising his voice to let Soldato know he was serious.

”One more time--what is this about? All of it. ”

Soldato nodded. “Yes, I guess it’s time for the whole story. But . . .rather than tell you, I think I’ll show you.”

His white-gloved hand stabbed a button on the desk. Behind him, a panel slid down, revealing a recessed case behind the captain, who swiveled to look at it.

”It,” what a rectangle of cloth--old, tattered, and frayed around the edges. Dark splotches that Kienan recognized were old blood stains were on one end, obscuring some darker letters on one end of the fabric. At the other end, the cloth trailed off into ragged threads, some torn, some singed.

”This is why, Kienan,” Soldao said, gesturing to it. “Not literally, of course--but what it represents.

”Let’s call it a vision.”

* * *

Straeger sat alone in his dark room, willing his mind to keep still. It wasn’t easy. Indiga’s new information about the nacht in his system and what it was doing to him, disturbed him in a profound way.

Invaded, he thought.

Didn’t she seem positively delighted to tell me that. I wouldn’t be surprised if she now tried to drag things out as long as possible, to better enjoy my suffering.

Her revenge for stealing the nacht in the first place.

His mind drifted back to the moment when he’d first made telepathic contact with the nacht. He’d discovered with only the slightest mental “nudge,” he could make the nacht assume any shape he wished.

And that was just a small sample.

When Straeger imagined what the potential of exerting his influence on a larger body--say, the ship they’d discovered at Abgrund--he saw the potential for power.

So he stole the sample from Indiga, beating her unconscious in the process. Adding the sample to his Lens weapon magnified its power ten times, and made his control over the nacht even easier.

He’d planned it as a one-way line of control. He’d be able to make the nacht behave as he wished, but he would be protected from it. It was simple and foolproof--the Lens was the leash and Straeger held the leash.

I learned soon enough that there is no such thing as “simple” or “foolproof,” he thought, staring at his hand. First that cursed Earth woman tried to sabotage the ship at Abgrund, and then that damnnable Earthman shot me.

Straeger had played the moment over in his mind many times in the years after. Had he moved his hand three inches to the right, the Earthman’s bullet wouldn’t have struck the lens, and pierced his hand.

The damage to his hand had been easily repaired, but the act of wounding him had begun the process. The invasion.

The nacht had been introduced into his bloodstream and were apparently now . . .consuming him.

What was it Indiga said? “terraforming me?” Straeger mused. It all fits with the symptoms I’ve had since that day--the inability to sleep in case the nacht within me goes rogue, the magnified telepathy . . .the nacht is continually testing my physiology, trying to find the right combination.

I wonder. If it does consume me . . .what happens to me? What will I become?

Straeger had no intention of finding out.

Every time I have been confronted with an obstacle that I could not immediately surmount, I have ultimately triumphed. I will not let this defeat me, or change me.

I will not submit--I will be its master.

He steadied his thoughts and gathered his courage. Though he would never have admitted it to anyone, he was as afraid as he was determined. But medicine had failed him, and self-discipline would only hold this threat at bay.

That only left confrontation.

Let this be the reckoning, then.

He opened his mind, turning his awareness inward. The inner light of his telepathy awakening shone behind his eyes, like a bright violent light, clear and warm. Then he turned that energy inward, letting it suffuse the neural pathways of his mind, feeling it glide over the sparking synapses, like tiny stars in his mind.

He let the energy soak his thoughts, like diving into a warm, clear pool. Every nerve was alive within him; his awareness filled his sphere of consciousness. His telepathy was wide-open, at maximum sensitivity. Straeger was, in this sphere, at the height of his power.

A less experienced telepath could easily invert their own mind--trap themselves in a prison of their own scattered thoughts, but Straeger would not fall into that trap. No--he was the hunter this time, and he would prevail.

And, at the edge of his thoughts, he felt the nacht, hiding in the shadows of his thoughts, passive, but with an animal intelligence that skittered for the shadows whenever his light found it.

Straeger willed himself to maintain the sphere of calm, of focus. If the nacht slipped away, he quietly expanded his range, giving it less and less of a place to hide. At last, he had it cornered. He felt the pressure in his mind as a physical stimulus, squeezing his temples and pressing against the back of his eyes.

But he had it now.

He pressed his advantage, feeling the shadow in his mind stop resisting.

It was a perfect black sphere in his mind. Contained at last.

He closed his violet light around the sphere, like a single drop of black water. Straeger detected a ripple over the surface of it, and he furrowed his brow for a moment.

It’s not trying to get away anymore, he thought.

But what--

The sphere erupted, smothering the violet light at the speed of a thought, and it pulled Straeger into itself.

* * *

”Do you recognize it?” Soldato asked, gesturing to the piece of cloth.

”It’s cloth,” Kienan replied with a shrug. “Past that, why should I care?”

Soldato smiled. “Well, you’re not wrong. That, my friend, is the flag of the Jovian Free State. It’s about 60 years old. And it’s the last one.

”Earth had most of the others burnt.”

”So it’s a souvenir of home?”

”I am Jovian, yes,” Soldato nodded. “But I’m also a student of history. You can’t be a visionary without keeping one eye on the past as well as the future after all.”

He paused and looked at Kienan, reading him.

“I take it you don’t know this story?”

”I figured you were going to tell it to me no matter what I said or didn’t say,” Kienan sighed. “So go on. Maybe you’ll even get near a point.”

”Twenty-five years into the Century Plan, Earth established a helium-3 refinery in the Jovian system,” Soldato said, staring at the flag. “They drove the workers hard. Long hours, hard and dangerous work, no money, not much rest, no way to address their grievances.

”Earth was on a timetable after all. And they had an empire to build.”

He rose from his chair, the servos in his suit the only sound as he turned to face the flag, his arms folded against the small of his back.

Kienan watched him for a moment, the weight of the gesture not lost on him. If Soldato was offering his back, leaving himself open, he knew he had nothing to fear from Kienan at this moment.

But was that because he knows I can’t do anything to him and escape this complex alive, or is this some sort of gesture of trust?

This would be so much easier if he could give one damn straight answer.

”It’s not much different now, of course,” Soldato said. “I understand gevenite miners get worked just as brutally, don’t they? No, things have stayed much the same way--humanity scatters out among the stars, but we’re still held in check by the whims of faraway tyrants.

”And we go farther and farther, hoping things will change . . .

that we’ll change,” Soldato continued. “But we never do, do we?

”Nothing changes, on its own. Unless forced.”

He looked over his shoulder at Kienan, as if expecting an answer.

With a weary rolling of his eyes, Kienan gave him one. Soldato took the hint and continued:

”I don’t know how they had the strength, but one day, the workers said ‘enough,’ and threw off their chains in a way that demanded Earth’s attention. They seized control of one facility, then the next, then the next. Within three days, they had control of the entire refinery complex, dubbed it Rebel Cross, and declared themselves an independent state--The Jovian Free State.”

”Their plan was, they would ensure their freedom by holding the refinery facilities hostage. And for a few days, it seemed like it might work. They had Earth over a barrel--no helium-3 meant no fuel, and no fuel meant any plans to expand to the outer planets was dead in the stars.”

”I guess the optimism didn’t last?”

”It took centuries to unite Earth in a common cause, Kienan,” Soldato replied. “The dream of expanding Earth’s reach to end of its own solar system was a matter of global pride, and the only thing holding that alliance together. Without that, they’d turn inward. Perhaps even fall apart into individual nations again.

”Worse, there was no place in Earth’s plan for their outer colonies to have any voice that they didn’t grant them. If human colonies started declaring themselves individual entities. . .then humanity would have brought its world of warring nations out to the stars.”

”So they made an example out of the Jovians?”

Soldato smiled a sad smile.

”Had the Jovians gotten their way, humanity’s evolution might have gone a different way,” Soldato pondered, smiling at the flag. “Perhaps we would have seen that change we know is coming--should be coming.

”Forgive me--I look at humanity much the same way I look at my work--always trying to find the points that can be improved upon. But one man’s will doesn’t change the destiny of a race. This act of rebellion might have done it, years before I was even born.

”But that didn’t happen,” he added, his voice soft and a little sad. “And less than two weeks later, Earth burned Rebel Cross from the stars; from memory, and from history. They rebuilt the refinery, and the Jovian Free State, and the hope in their example . . .was conveniently forgotten as Earth moved through, following its manifest destiny.”

* * *

The bronze door slid open. Jenet sat in the dark, her tiny cabin illuminated only by the small desk lamp in her quarters. Before the signal from the doorway she’d been drifting off, letting the lull in duty take her and send her to sleep.

But there were things she needed to do before sleep claimed her.

”You sent for me, Jenet?”

Jenet leaned forward, into the lamplight. She made little effort to hide her fatigue. Part of that was down to her being that tired, but also, she wanted Horan to feel this was an informal meeting.

”Horan?” Jenet asked. “Yes, come in. Lock the door behind you.”

Horan walked into the room and sealed the room behind them. She approached Jenet as if she were trying to get close to a wounded animal.

”Are you all right? You look--”

”I’m fine,” Jenet lied. “Just . . . preoccupied, I suppose.”

”Ah,” Horan replied. “About our mission?”

”The mission is fine,” Jenet said with a sigh. “Fly a fighter? That I can do.

”The politics? That’s much more difficult.”

”I’m not sure I understand.”

”I was well aware that Black Lens and the military don’t care for each other. Put one of each in a room, and they’ll both tell you the other can’t be trusted,” she said with a weary sigh. “Even at the Praxia, we heard things. But I had no idea it was this bad.”

”I wasn’t aware our mission was political.”

”That makes two of us,” Jenet replied. “But . . . Horan, I shouldn’t be telling you this, and I want your word none of this goes anywhere but between the two of us.”

”Of course--you can depend on my discretion.”

”Good,” Jenet said, looking away and smiling a sad smile. “Because you may be the only person on this ship that I trust.”

”Excellent,” Jenet said, relief playing across her weary features. “I don’t put my trust in organizations. My heart is with the Empire, of course, but my belief, and my loyalty, is with the people I serve with. And those I know that I can stand with, in total trust? Those people have my absolute loyalty, regardless of rank.”

Her eyes met Horan’s, as if underlining her point.

”What would you have me do?”

”This ship--this fleet, this project--is a powder keg. And I’m out of practice maneuvering my way through these. There are plenty here loyal to Straeger, and just as many if not more loyal to the Empire. They’ll jockey for position, tempers will fray, and I wouldn’t like to get caught in the middle of that when it finally blows up.

”I suppose, when the inevitable blow up comes, if I had people loyal to me . . .I’d feel more protected.”

Horan eyed her with curiosity, hearing not the words Jenet spoke, but the words between them. Her eyes were hard, analytical, and betrayed no emotion.

Until she spoke at last.

”I will make some discreet inquires,” Horan said. “And determine whom among the fleet we might rely on when the moment comes.”

”That would be most welcome,” Jenet said. “As would your word as an officer of the Empire that if questioned about this conversation, you will speak nothing of it.”

Horan bowed her head, then snapped into a rigid stance.

“You can rely on me, Baroness.”

Jenet smiled. “I’m very glad to hear that, Horan.”

* * *

”Do you understand now?”

Kienan scoffed. “I think so. Your little show and tell really helped me put it together.”


”You’re nuts,” he replied, gesturing to the flag. “If you’re planning what I think you’re planning . . . you’re crazier than they say I am.”

Soldato chuckled, making no effort to hide his amusement. “That’s high praise.”

”Of course you’d take it that way.”

”There’s an old saying about those who see the future are the ones who create it,” Soldato countered.

”I’m almost sure the person who said that has been dead for centuries,” Kienan sneered.

”Nevertheless, I’m determined to try. Most of my life has been spent engineering events to put my plan into action.”

”Does Sil know about this?”

Soldato ignored him. “My plan depends on Earth and Rigellia being in a state of cold war,” he said. “I need them looking outward, and I need them buying weapons. And for that outcome, I need your help.”

”You can’t afford me.”

”You can’t afford not to,” Soldato countered.

”And here comes the threat,” Kienan noted.

”I don’t have to threaten you,” Soldato said. “You’re no fool, and I won’t treat you as one. How many years have you been on the run, Kienan? You’re hunted by the Syndicates, by the UEF, and by everyone else you’ve crossed over your illustrious career. You’re good, and you’re smart, but how long can you last on your own?”

Kienan blinked.

”You expect me to join you? I’m a killer, not a soldier.”

Soldato laughed. “If I were offering you a place in the Vanguard, it wouldn’t be subordinate to me,” he said. “I have too much respect for you, and I know you don’t take orders. No, I was thinking of offering something else. Let’s call it getting some of the pressure off you, shall we?”

Kienan blinked again, then frowned.

Soldato had caught him wrong-footed again.

”I can’t do anything about the Syndicates, but . . . I think I could get the UEF off your back.”

”I led an assault on a colony,” Kienan said. “I’ve seen my post on the datanet--Wanted: alive if possible, dead preferable. How are you going to get them to back off?”

”Well,” Soldato said with a theatrical sigh. “I suppose we’ll just have to kill you, Kienan.”

* * *

When the darkness swallowed him, Strager’s entire sense of self was atomized in an instant. Everything he was, the perfect crystalline structure of his mind and the brilliant light that radiated from it was gone. He tried to struggle at first, but it was impossible. He couldn’t struggle against the darkness, because there was no him to move, and no darkness to struggle against.


The absence was absolute.


No, that wasn’t right, there was no absence--there was only


Images flickered in the nothing, near and far away at the same time. Stars, planets, galaxies, none of them familiar, looked down on


The darkness moved, as if stirring from a dream and confirm they were awake.

THE SELF turned from the stars and the moons, looking down where it lay. For miles in every direction was a black sea of nacht, writhing in a way that was less “tidal” and more like a living, breathing organism.

THE SELF focused, concentrating its will to a single point. The ocean of nacht formed a column, pointing towards the stars like a finger. The shimmering liquid solidified, forming a shape, a familiar one, like a clawed hand.


Straeger felt his mind tear loose--in a horrible instant, he was himself again, restored to his integrity, as though the experience never happened. He could feel the nacht, pulling at the edge of his mind again as he tried to process the experience, frame it in a way that he could articulate.

Then he pulled himself to his feet, dashing for his desk.

The potency of the vision, what he’d seen, was already fading, even with his iron will holding tight to it.

He had to record what he’d learned, before it was gone.

* * *

Vain and Veitsche walked past the armored soldiers. They were in perfect formation, each a uniform space between the other, row upon row, their black and silver helmets obscuring their features, and their utter immobility making them seem like so much machines, arranged in neat units.

As they walked, Vain glanced from the impassive masks of the soldiers to the woman walking by her side, who made no secret of her smug satisfaction at the precision of the squad before them.

In truth she was almost beaming.

”My personal squad,” Vietsche clarified. “The Black Tigers.”

For her part, Vain was unimpressed. She’d seen armies before, and they were most all the same, whatever uniform they wore, or whatever cause they served.

She found her thoughts going to the reason for all of this. Everything at Elysium seemed to be operating with precise, military, efficiency, less a shipyard and more like an army base. Between the ships, fighters, and soldiers, she reasoned that the Olympus Vanguard was well over an ideal-sized for a private security force . . . but the perfect size for a well-trained, highly equipped small army.

And that, she mused, is no accident, is it?

Vain waited a moment before glancing at one of them, he hard black eyes boring into the mirrored lenses of the soldier she faced.

”I remember them,” she retorted. “You were leading them when they attacked us.”

”They were,” Veitsche said. “And I was.”

”You must forgive me--we were too busy fighting for our lives to be impressed by your skill.”

”I’ll admit we might have got off on the wrong foot,” Veitsche said. “But we were acting on orders. You had to be secured. Alive. Had you not resisted, perhaps--”

”Resisted?” Vain spat back. “You invaded our ship, trying to take us at the point of a gun and wondered why we would fight back?”

”The Captain didn’t think you’d come here if he’d asked.”

”Kienan has taught me a useful phrase about what happens when you assume,” Vain said. She crossed her arms, still glaring at the soldier before her. “But, for the record, we would not have.”

”And he knew that,” Veitsche replied. There was none of the hard flinty command in her tone. “So it fell to us to force the issue.”

”He should have left us alone.”

”Wasn’t an option,” Veitsche replied. “When the Captain wants something, one way or another, he usually gets it.”

”I’m certain having an army helps with the fetching,” Vain hissed. “In any event, he has what he wanted. We’re his prisoners.”

”His guests,” Veitche corrected. “You can leave--”

”When your master decides. Not before. He’s not our host, and we’re not guests. He’s our jailer, and we’re his prisoners. And no empty, polite language will change that.”

Veitsche’s smile became a thin tense line, and a small ”tch” slipped out of the corner of her mouth. Soldato’s orders had been explicit--they were guests, never mind how Vain felt, and they were to be afforded every courtesy possible.

But this one is making it very difficult, she thought with a weary sigh.

”He’s not my master, Vain,” Veitsche answered. The steel was back in her tone. She’d follow Soldato’s command, but she wasn’t going to take this. Not from her. “He’s our Captain. He leads, and we follow. We serve, but we don’t belong to him.”

”You don’t get a say in what orders you follow, where you’re sent, and what you do,” Vain countered. ”You’re a slave to duty.”

But Veitsche was ready.

”And what are you?”

* * *

”Personal log,” Strager began, hands flat against his desk. It had only been a few minutes since he’d been torn loose from contact, and the desk before him was littered with sheets of paper with stray words scribbled on them. “Quadra encrypt: Heinrich Strager, Count of Abgrund, Lensman. Entry begins.”

”Am convinced I have made contact with the alien intelligence behind the nacht,” he said, trying to force the quaver out of his voice. “As previously remarked upon in this log, I have been seeking a control or purge of the nacht from my physiology. Many regimens of drugs and surgical techniques have been attempted; please link these entries to this one.”

There was a chime as the files were linked. He continued:

”In an effort to explore a different solution, I attempted a Degree Absolute contact with the nacht within my system. My reasoning was that as the nacht possess some organic intelligence, it may be possible to communicate or interact on some level, with an eye towards establishing control over the infection.”

He shuffled the paper on his desk. At the top of the page were various shapes he’d scribbled, lined up in a neat row.

”While control was not established, I th-think,” he paused, swallowing hard. Even the memory of his consciousness vanishing into the nacht and the feeling of total absence had shaken him. “I think . . . I have gleaned some insight into the nacht, and the ships we extracted the nacht from.

”It was our assumption that the race that buried the ships at Durga and Abgrund were left intact for later retrieval by the aliens. But the Empire was never able to establish anything about the aliens--they left no bodies, no footprints, no sign at all of who they were. Only the ships.

He paused, getting his breath. He was getting a grip on it now, it was coming into focus.

”I now believe that the ship is the alien,” he said. “That is, the alien is a singular fluidic intelligence. There is no “race” of these aliens as we understand the term--only a single entity. It calls itself . . .’The Self.’ From the data I gleaned during my vision, the Self realized its position in the universe, and was somehow able to extrude a piece of itself outward to examine the universe.

”The vision is a 1:1 match for the fighter craft found at Durga,” he said, pointing at the first shape on the sheet of paper. “I’m uncertain how to properly define the experience, but I hypothesize that I was experiencing what might be best termed a singular race memory. This being this. . .’entirety,’ for want of a better word, was remembering the first time it reached out for the stars.

”And what’s more,” he said, leaning back in his chair and staring into the middle distance. “I think it may have more to teach us.”

* * * Jayla-2 stared out the window of her quarters. She was thinking about the things people say, and how different they looked depending on how you were looking at them, like a multifaceted crystal. Every which way you turned it, it caught the light a different way, and revealed something else.

”You don’t know him.”

Silhouette’s words rang in her ears. And so she turned them over and over in her hands, watching the light play on them.

Turned one way, it sounded like an accusation. And a strange one. Jayla-2 knew Kienan twice over . . .but also, sometimes, didn’t think she knew him at all.

Jayla--the first Jayla--had seen him once, she thought. The true him. It shredded all her illusions about who and what she thought he was, and got a good hard look at what he is.

And it broke her.

I’ve seen it too. That same monstrous light in his eye, the murder in his heart.

I know what’s in him. It radiates off him like cold fire.

She hated that side of him. Feared it. He was cold, vicious, brutal, and in many ways, much less human than she was. And it was tempting sometimes to see him only in those terms.

And then she turned it in her hands, looking through another facet.

But that’s not all that’s in him.

Kienan had begged her to stay a year ago. He didn’t beg for anything.

Most of the time he didn’t even ask.

So Kienan was a monster, and a man at the same time. She found it impossible to deny one over the other, and she would never in a million years find where one ended and the other began.

Being more than a little mixed up herself, it was something she knew well.

Jayla-2 kept staring out at the stars, as if a satisfactory answer would be found out there, and she kept turning the crystal in her mind.

”You don’t know him.”

Ah, she thought. In this light, it sounds like a warning.

Do I need a warning?

The person who created her held Kienan responsible for the original Jayla’s suicide. The understandable mad logic of grief. Jayla-2 was made to kill him as they believed Jayla had been killed by him.

Turning again. See how it looks now.

Beofre she ever met Kienan, Jayla Kyren had something in her that wanted to dance too close to the flame. Kienan burned hotter than anything. And he did what she wanted--burned her up.

Kienan didn’t the cause her self-destruction, but he wasn’t entirely innocent either.

So he’d tried to do what he could to help Jayla, even after she sent him away for the last time.

Not the actions of a complete monster. No more than Jayla-2 was.

But if she weren’t just a weapon of retribution . . . and he wasn’t entirely a monster. . .what were they? To each other? To themselves?

* * *

”Kill me?” Kienan was incredulous. “Better than you have tried.

”I don’t mean in the literal sense,” Soldato clarified. “I think perhaps if we were to manufacture evidence of your death--or likely death--and leave it in the proper place, possibly even stage a suitable last stand. . . it might take some of the pressure off. Who looks for a man who’s been publicly, verifiably, killed?”

Kienan wanted to laugh the whole thing off and leave. But, even though he knew how foolish the concept was, there was a possibility it might work.

And in a private corner of himself, he knew they could use the break.


”In due time,” Soldato said, waving the question off. “If you’re on board, we’ll work on that while you’re taking care of Straeger. That is, if you think you can do it.”

Kienan rolled his eyes. He was tempted to agree just to get Soldato to shut up. He was also tempted to tell him to stuff his job as high as he could cram it--it was insane, even setting aside his airy-fairy reasoning.

Who the hell hires an assassin not to kill someone, he wondered?

But his personal preferences took a back seat.

There were assurances he needed.

”I want one more thing,” Kienan began. “I’ll do your job. But I want your word, whatever happens . . .you’ll look after my crew.”

”I’d intended to do that anyway,” Soldato said, rising from his chair. “But if hearing my guarantee persuades you, then I’m happy to give it.”

”Then I’ll do it,” Kienan said.

Soldato beamed as he extended his white-gloved hand towards him. Years ago, he’d met this man in combat, and he’d made an impression on the Captain in a way few had. In the years since, he’d kept an eye on him, recognizing Kienan Ademetria for what he was.

The perfect bullet.

Kienan shook his proffered hand.

”Then we have a deal,” Soldato said. “Now, I think we should see to your crew, and then get to work.”