Lament In Starlight
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.

Once upon a time, a knight that knew nothing but rage rescued a lovely princess who had no memory. They lived and loved together, but ultimately couldn’t stay together without hurting each other.

And so they parted, and they wandered alone forever after.

"Music," the woman known as Silhouette said, brushing a strand of her dark brown hair behind her ear. Her blue-green eyes searched the stars ahead of her, finding only emptiness pinpricked with light. In an hour, maybe less, they would be there.

She couldn’t wait. The nearly week long haul had been a hard one and she hadn't slept much since they left the Frontier. Five days in space with nothing but her companion, who had steadfastly refused to say more than a few words to her for weeks now and her own thoughts, her own regrets and her own sorrow.

And this song she couldn’t stop listening to, no matter how much it hurt:

It should be easy to love you,
Standing there with your heart in her eyes.
I know your arms would hold me forever
But your kiss can’t melt the ice
And your face can’t be the face
I see every night in my dreams

"Pause," she sighed. She frowned, realizing that she had been mouthing words along with the singer, She blinked back tears. Too many memories again. Too many wounds in her heart opening again.

My . . .companion, she thought. Is that how I'm thinking of Sinclaire now? Is that how I want to think of him? I want him so much, I want to be with him, but for months now, he's been pulling away from me. We speak less and less. When we're alone, he pulls away.

I feel like he doesn't want me anymore. And I'm beginning to not mind it.

It stunned her and relieved her all at once to think it. She loved Sinclaire, but something prevented her from opening herself totally to him. At some base level, it felt wrong.

No matter how hard she had tried to make herself feel as deeply for him as she knew he did for her, and her failure to do so broke her heart.

She had come to him wounded, betrayed by a man she had loved more than anything. Sinclaire offered to heal her heart and love her unconditionally. And for awhile it had been everything she'd needed.

But it wasn't all I wanted, she thought. And damn me for it, but I kept comparing poor Sinclaire to that man. A man I don’t love and a man who I'm always running from.

Even years alter, he casts such a long shadow. And it's fallen over Sinclaire and I.

"Resume," she sighed again, like a woman surrendering. The song resumed.

It should be easy for me to want you,
You would give your life to make me happy.
And I know how much you want me.
But your touch can't reach my soul
And your voice isn’t the one
That I ache to speak my name.

"This song again?"

Silhouette turned with a start. "Oh, Sinclaire," she said, she blushed and swiped her hair back from her face. "Sorry. I was off in my own little world. Half-volume."

"Oh," he said. "I see." Sinclaire took a seat opposite her and listened as the song faded to a gentle murmur. "I felt a little lonely. Figured I'd come up and see what you were up to."

Silhouette leaned back in her chair and shrugged, stretching her legs out in front of her. Clad in her dark blue and black flight suit she looked for all the world like a living languid shadow. Even now, despite himself, Sinclaire felt a charge run through him when he watched her.

Just as he had when he had first lain eyes on her. In a way it made him feel better that she still could have the effect on him, but it also hurt, because it made all the acrimony and mistrust roil inside him again.

And the taste was just as bitter as always.

"Not much to tell," she said. "We're on the right heading, and hopefully in another few hours we'll get a signal and prepare for the rendezvous."

"Oh, OK," Sinclaire said. "You should get some rest until then. You've been up the better part of five days now. You must be exhausted."

Silhouette stretched, closing her eyes and smiling as she did. She gently looked out of the corner of her eyes at Sinclaire, looking for the reaction she wanted. Finding nothing she almost immediately relaxed and sighed, looking at the deck sadly.

"I was hoping you'd come with me," Silhouette said. "It's been so long since we had some time alone, you know?"

"Shouldn’t someone be up, waiting for the signal?" Sinclaire asked.

"It's not necessary," Silhouette said. She was trying hard not to twist her lips into a frown at Sinclaire's standoffishness, and was managing to hold it to a simple grimace. "But if you want to . . ."

"I'd feel better if someone were here," Sinclaire said. "I can take over if you want to rest."

Silhouette sighed in frustration and defeat. "No, I'll be fine," she said. "Just . . .stay with me for a little while."

"You want me to?"

"Of course I do, Sinclaire," Silhouette said. "What makes you think I wouldn’t?"

"Nothing," he said, far too hastily.

Silhouette twisted a lock of her hair around her fingers. "You know," she said. "You didn't really have to come along if you were going to stomp around and sulk because you’re bored."

"I'm not bored," he said.

"You’re acting like you are."

"I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about," Silhouette said, at the moment finding few reasons to love Sinclaire and suddenly quite a few in favor of strangling him. "Why did you volunteer to come along?"

"I thought we went everywhere together."

"Well, yeah, we usually do, but lately--"


"Nothing," Silhouette said. Her head was beginning to hurt. I could be talking to the deck for all the good it's doing, she thought bitterly. "Normal volume."

But you could never be the one
And you could never make me feel
The hunger I have for him.

Sinclaire stood up and walked towards the exit from the bridge.

"Sinclaire--I. . .Pause," Silhouette said, cutting the song off.

"What?" Sinclaire said, looking over his shoulder.

"Where are you going?" Silhouette said. "What happened to keeping me company?"

"Changed my mind," Sinclaire said. "I think I'll wait below decks for the rendezvous."

"But why?"

Sinclaire left the room in silence, the question hanging suspended in the air.

Silhouette looked up at the ceiling, arms crossed around her chest. A hundred different things roared through her heart at that moment, all the emotions she'd been feeling the whole trip squeezed her heart in one awful half-second.

Then a dark tide of sorrow and guilt enveloped her.

She closed her eyes, two tears fell down her cheek.

"Resume," she whispered.

It should be easy for me to tell you.
And I would rather break your heart a little now
Than wait and cause you pain.
But something in me wants to heal
The void he left inside me.
But I wish it could be easy.

Several light-years away, shrouded behind the brightness of a nearby nebula was a huge sprawl of long spider-like structures. Each limb of which seemed to spread for miles, the end of each limb terminating in a small cage-like structure. Inside each of these cages, crews of workers in pressure suits were busily working, four shifts of thousands of workers.

Each of them building the same ships hundreds of times over.

The structures were all liked together, each of them into one central hub, like a spider's web. At the heart of this web, Captain Meridius Soldato stared out at the berths he could see from the command center, musing that despite the Elysium Shipyard's massive size (After several year's expansion its radius was somewhere in the four thousand kilometer category--it took two days to go from the center to the far edge.) in relation to the vast empty void of space it was a mote of dust.

He smiled. Thoughts like those put things in immediate perspective. Something he was grateful for. Sometimes he wanted to stare the universe in its empty eyes and see who blinked first.

He was surrounded by hundreds of officers, some studying progress reports, some studying stellar phenomena, some requisitioning more raw materials for their shipbuilding, some negotiating new worker contracts.

Whatever their task, they shared the similarity of dress. Each wore some variant of Soldato's uniform--black and blue, trimmed with red and gold, or for the lower ranks, silver. Their uniforms were military and regal all at once and the higher ranked officers carries swords along with their regular sidearm.

And each carried the insignia of a winged planet, crossed with a bolt of lightning shaped into a hammer and a sword. The motif was echoed on the huge black banner that hung from the rafters of the command center.

The insignia of the Olympus Vanguard.

"Captain?" The woman behind him said, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. The way her auburn hair framed her spectacled eyes made her gaze all the more intense. Soldato looked over his shoulder and smiled.

"Yes, Commander Veitsche?" Soldato asked, his soft blue eyes regarding her with favor.

"A small transport has come into the far range of our scanners," Commander Elizabeth Veitsche said, proffering a data clipboard to him. Soldato took it in his white-gloved hands and smiled.

"Ah yes," he said. "Our new client. Send a message to them that we look forward to meeting them, then dispatch a fighter escort to lead them in."

"Of course, sir," Veitsche said stiffly.

Soldato cocked an eyebrow, his jet-black hair shading his eyes and making them seem somewhat mischievous.

"You disagree, Commander?"

"Sir? It's not for me to--"

"Come come," Soldato said. "Self-expression isn't one of your problems Commander. It's why I recruited you into the Olympus Vanguard. You have my tacit permission to speak freely."

"O-of course, Captain," Veitsche said, taking care to remain at attention. "I . . .that is . . ."

"At ease, Commander, before you injure something."

Veitsche spread her legs and folded her arms behind her back. "Honestly sir, I . . .I'm uncomfortable dealing with people like this."

"The White Dragons have an impeccable reputation," Soldato said. "Unlike the rest of the syndicates on the Frontier, they indulge in no criminal activity that my agents have been able to determine. Their symbol declares their purity of intent. Either they're on the level or protesting far too much."

"Yes sir, I understand," Veitsche said. "But most of their members are former criminals. And if they were so morally upstanding, why don't they work through proper channels?"

Soldato smiled. "The nature of the syndicates they fled says they must serve them unto death or be killed themselves," he said. "Besides, Commander, would you begrudge them a second chance at redemption?"

Veitsche blanched a little at the unspoken component. "No sir," she said.

"Good," Soldato said, turning to her. Under his jacket Veitsche could hear the soft whine of machinery. "They're idealists, Commander. As we are. Having a certain fondness of idealism, I have given my word and pledged my aid to them. Do you trust my judgement?"

"Of course, sir," Veitsche said.

"Then trust me now, Commander," Soldato said. "Come with me. We must prepare a fitting reception for our guests."

Veitsche followed Soldato along the concourse circling the officers working below them, his armored boots making a soft thunking noise against the deck as he walked past. Occasionally an officer would look up and Soldato favored every one that did with a wave of his hand a smile and nod. Veitsche, following on his heels like a shadow, caused their brief smiles to fade and the discipline to return to their work.

The heavy metal doors to the lift opened and Soldato stepped inside, followed by Veitsche. The scabbard of her sword smacked against the edge of the lift doors, drawing Soldato's eye. She nervously moved it aside, smiling apologetically. The lift doors closed.

"Flight deck," Soldato said.

"Sir, if I may, I would like to request that you have a bodyguard with you at all times while our guests are here," Veitsche said.

"I have an entire army quartered here, Commander," Soldato said. "How much more protection do I need?"

"I would . . .feel more comfortable if I were allowed to be that bodyguard," Veitsche said.

Soldato smiled. "My dear Commander," he said. "I may be slightly younger than you are but I assure you--I can take care of myself. Besides, who would oversee operations at Elysium while you stand guard?"

"I assumed Lt. Mosul would stand in."

"Lt. Mosul is a junior officer," Soldato said. "And I require his attention to be solely focused on commanding my fighter wings."

"Of course," Veitsche said, sighing. "Forgive me sir."

Soldato nodded. The lift hummed softly for a few minutes. Soldato eyes his second in command curiously, watching her reaction. She was upset. Veitsche had never liked to lose, a character flaw that had cost her rank in another army once before.

Fortunately for her, Soldato thought. I am more than eager to give people a second chance.

"Commander," he said. "You may accompany me to the reception and to dinner with our guests as a bodyguard. Observe them and determine further security measures. If I see no further need for additional security, you will return to you duties. Understood?"

Veitsche snapped to attention. "Yes, sir."

Soldato smiled. Veitsche was a capable commander and a eager pupil, He was about to speak before the chime of the lift's communication unit interrupted him.

"Command and control for Captain Soldato," the voice came over.

"This is Soldato," he responded.

"Captain, Lieutenant Mosul reports initial contact with unidentified spacecraft and they are broadcasting the proper clearance code."

"Excellent," Soldato said. "Inform Lt. Mosul that he is to guide them to the main flight deck. I will greet them myself. Soldato out."

Even as Soldato's message was conveyed a squad of five Centaur fighters, looking like black chargers circled the dilapidated transport. Aboard the transport, Silhouette's fingers flew over her controls, transmitting clearance and confirmation of clearance codes and reorienting her course to follow the fighters surrounding her in perfect formation.

Once that was done, she slumped in her chair, toyed with the idea of telling Sinclaire that they had rendezvoused at last and decided against it. She didn’t want to think about Sinclaire right now. Not when the next few hours would require her full concentration on the task at hand.

She rubbed her gloved hands together and looked at them, pondering as she did every scrap of information she had on the man she was to meet.

Meridius Soldato is certainly something of a wonder, she thought. His life's almost as colorful as mine is.

Born on an ill-fated colony circling Jupiter, he apparently suffered from sort of syndrome that required his body to be kept at a certain gravity, lest the tissues of his body deteriorate.

Anyone else they would have spent their life a cripple, she thought Not Soldato. He went through the Rhean University, holds multiple degrees in astrophysics, robots, and technology, and even earned an honorary rank from both Earth and the Rigellian Empire.

And to top it all off he owns his own research and development company, the Olympus Corporation. Dabbles in sculpture, though I can’t imagine where he finds the time. Such an overachiever.

Brilliant, skilled, cultured, a ladies man. But strictly look and don't touch. His condition prohibits intimate contact.

She sighed and leaned back in her chair. One thing in my favor, she thought. At least I don’t have to bed him. Got enough intimacy issues on my plate at the moment.

In front of the ship, the fighters held in tight formation and gradually the superstructure of Elysium came into view. Thin limbs grew to gigantic berths holding massive starships under construction and as they passed through this web they shrank away against. Finally they came to the central complex, a massive tower spinning slowly in space, as it loomed closer, seeming to block the stars themselves she rose from her chair and went below decks to find Sinclaire.

The automated guidance system would take care of docking, she thought. And I need to make sure he doesn't do anything to make this more difficult than it is already.

As if I have a right to.

The rusted transport came to rest on the polished landing deck, seeming especially ugly by contrast. On either side of the landing gentry were troops--officers and armored troopers standing ramrod straight in perfect attention. The troopers, quartered more towards the gently looked even more massive and threatening, their gleaming silver armor and massive lance-shaped weapons shouldered in a ready position.

Soldato and Veitsche walked side by side between the rows, as they did, the soldiers snapped to attention, the sounds of boot heels clicking echoed in the cavernous landing bay. Soldato saluted both rows, turning his head from side to side so he could pay as many of them respect as possible. Veitsche kept her gaze straight ahead, tensely bending the small crop she carried with every step.

Finally he came to the rows of armored troops, who lowered their lances and stood to attention. Soldato saluted them as well and watched the doors to the transport open.

The woman stepped out first. She was dressed in a blue and black flight suit so tight it looked painted on. Soldato was almost embarrassed for her, though she seemed to have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed for. Her blue-green eyes met his and he smiled, struck by how sad she seemed. She nodded to him, lifting a metal attaché case into view.

Behind her was another man, tall, stoic and muscular. He was dressed in a suit similar to the woman's, but with a long grey scarf obscuring all but his eyes. His jet-black hair had a single gray streak in it and his blue-green eyes met Soldato's not at all. His were too busy searching the landing bay. Between his active eyes and the sharp features of his face, Soldato found him not unlike a hunting falcon.

Beside him Veitsche stiffened and her hand went to her side. "Captain," she said softly. "They’re armed."

Soldato looked. The woman carried a knife and a small pistol in holsters on her flight suit. The man carried no gun at all, only two long swords with jade jewels set into the hilt.

"Calm, Commander," Soldato said quietly, the smile never leaving his face. "There are two of them and forty-eight of us and they didn’t come all this way to commit suicide. Decorum, my dear."

The man and woman made their way down the stairs as Soldato and Veitsche stood ready to receive them. Soldato smiled, his eyes discreetly regarding his guest.

So elegant and so beautiful, Soldato said. And so sad all at once.

Silhouette never took her eyes off of Soldato as she made her way down the stairs. She was quite taken by him, enough that it was apparently showing, because she could feel Sinclaire bristling behind her.

I didn’t expect him to be so young, she thought. And he doesn’t look at all handicapped. In fact he seems pretty vigorous.

"Captain Soldato," Silhouette said, bowing a little.

"Madame Sandoval," Soldato said. He smiled, went down to one knee and took her hand, kissing the back of it. Silhouette gasped at the hard metal she could feel under his glove, but even more at how delicate his touch was. "Welcome to Elysium. Please consider yourselves my honored guests. Rest assured I will do everything to make your stay here a pleasant one."

"Thank . . .you, Captain Soldato," Silhouette said, blushing a little as Soldato rose to his feet again. His voice was like sweet music, gentle and seductive. She would have smiled a bit wider but for the steady glare of his second, whose eyes were like piercing headlights on her. "Er . . .this is my . . .bodyguard, Mr. Sinclaire."

Soldato bowed to Sinclaire. "You’re a swordmaster, are you not? I recognize the design of your blades. Iczelian, I believe."

"That's right," Sinclaire replied gruffly.

"I'll have to ask you to surrender them," Veitsche said. She pointed her crop at Silhouette. "Also your weaponry as well, ma'am. We'll take full responsibility for your safety. Your personal weaponry won’t be needed."

"Commander, that will be enough," Soldato said. He looked at Sinclaire. "A swordmaster's blades are sacred to him. You'd have to kill Mr. Sinclaire to take them from him."

Soldato turned back to Silhouette and smiled gently. "Please forgive my second's . . .exuberance," he said. "Of course you will be permitted to keep your weaponry, though I promise you, no harm will come to you. You have my personal guarantee on that."

"Thank you, Captain--"

"Please, Madame Sandoval," Soldato said, raising a gentle hand. "You may call me Meridius."

"Ah . . .thank you, Ca--er, Meridius," she said. She proffered the case to him, but he waved it off.

"Time enough for our business later," Soldato said. "Doubtless the trip here has been long and exhausting. If you will permit me, I'd very much like to show you to your quarters and afford you some time to rest."

"Ah . . .that would be very nice, Meridius," Silhouette said.

"More than that, it's my pleasure, Madame Sandoval," Soldato said. "I'm looking forward to entertaining you during your brief stay."

He turned to the assembled troops and saluted them. "Company, fall out!" Soldato held the salute until each and every soldier had filed out. Silhouette was impressed despite herself.

The magnitude of Soldato's operation is one thing--I can see why he needed an army to keep it running. But instead of ruling with an iron fist, it seemed that he ruled them by respecting each and every man and woman under his command.

That he could have the favor of so many is even more stunning. I can barely keep my ragtag band of twenty together.

Soldato turned to Sinclaire. "I'd also like very much perhaps to see a demonstration of your techniques. I pride myself on being something of a student of military techniques."

"I don’t demonstrate," Sinclaire said flatly. "If you’re that curious, maybe you should challenge me and then I'd gladly give you all the demonstration you require . . .Captain."

"Impudent--" Veitsche began, cut off by Soldato's gesture.

"Sinclaire," Silhouette said. "We didn’t come here for a fight. These people are not our enemy."

Silhouette's eye narrowed on Soldato. "They're not much in the way of allies, either," he said. "A bunch of children, playing dress up, playing at being soldiers."

"Sinclaire, shut up."

Veitsche pointed her crop at Sinclaire. "You will show respect to the Captain or I will beat it into you."

"COMMANDER!" Soldato said. Everyone but Sinclaire jumped at his sharp command. "Stand down. Mister Sinclaire is entitled to his opinion, and he is our guest." He smiled thinly. "I forgive his ill manners."

"Yes, sir," Veitsche said.

"I'm appalled at how easily you backed down, Soldato," Sinclaire said. "Typical of a fake soldier like you."

"Sinclaire," Silhouette said. "If you don't stop this . . ."

"Are you challenging me, Mister Sinclaire?"

"Let's just say I'd like to be sure I was throwing in with a worthy ally."

Soldato smiled. "Very well, I--"

"NO!" Veitsche cried, drawing her sword and walking toward Sinclaire. "You’re not worthy to face the Captain! Draw your sword!"

Sinclaire drew one of his blades and Veitsche struck it with the tip of hers.

"I challenge you, Mister Sinclaire," Veitsche said, adjusting her glasses, which seemed to be all that restrained her eyes from shooting fire in Sinclaire's direction."

Silhouette gritted her teeth and glared at Soldato. "Captain, you've lost control here."

"So I have, Madame Sandoval."

"I await your answer, Sinclaire," Veitsche said.

Sinclaire looked from Veitsche to Soldato, and to Silhouette who was burning holes in him. He smiled and sheathed his sword.

"I accept," he said.

Veitsche sheathed her sword and took her place at Soldato's side.

"Well, that seems to have resolved itself," Soldato said. "We'll set the time of the duel for 0800 tomorrow. For now, however, your quarters are waiting, as is a dinner in your honor."

Soldato and Veitsche strode towards the lifts, followed by Silhouette. Sinclaire stood for awhile, looking confused.

"Mister Sinclaire?"

Sinclaire looked at Soldato.

"Are you coming?"

"I . . .was expecting the duel to happen now," Sinclaire said.

"Well, that would hardly be fair," Soldato said. "You must understand, my friend, my Olympus Vanguard prides itself on its integrity and sense of fair play. Commander Veitsche won’t fight you now when you’re not prepared, nor would she fight you if she were not ready. To match yourself against a force you know is inferior is to dishonor both the victor and the vanquished."

"Is that so?" Sinclaire said. He grimaced, the words seeming strangely familiar.

"Absolutely," Soldato said. "I believe your own line of swordmasters follows a similar code of conduct?"

"Almost verbatim," Sinclaire said. "You do know about my line."

"Mister Sinclaire, I am, above all, a man of my word."

The rooms were even more beautiful than Soldato had promised. His humble installation contained an entire deck of staterooms like the one Silhouette and Sinclaire were quartered in. Everything that could be gilt was trimmed with gold in a style that Silhouette could tell belonged to an antiquity she knew nothing about.

More than that, the room was huge, at least to Silhouette, well used to cramped colony apartments and even smaller cabins on starships. It was like paradise.

Or it would have been had she not been furiously pacing back and forth in front of Sinclaire. He sat on the edge of the bed, the cavalier look on his face showing he didn’t feel he'd done a single thing wrong.

"You nearly cost us the entire point of this mission with your grandstanding," She said. "I should have taken Ronah's advice and taken her with me, but you insisted and nearly got yourself killed."

"I'm a little insulted you have this little faith in my abilities," Sinclaire said. "Besides, these guys are fakes. You'd see they weren't worth very much if you hadn't been so busy mooning over Soldato."

"Excuse me?" Silhouette asked, her eyes blazing.

"Nothing," Sinclaire said quietly.

"Whatever you think of these people, Sinclaire, we need them," she said. "The White Dragons can’t survive without a mobile base and a way of defending ourselves. Think of all the syndicates we've crossed. All they have to do is find one of our safe houses and they could cripple us."

"Then maybe we should destroy the syndicates," Sinclaire said.

"Fine, if the only life you’re risking is your own," Silhouette said. "But I saved each and every one of our people, including you, and I won’t send them to die without a damned good reason."

Silhouette's chest rose and fell, her eyes still blazing with anger. "Why am I lecturing you? I thought you understood this. You know, if you loved me you’d at least pretend to help me."

"I do love you," Sinclaire said, looking at the floor.

You sure as hell haven’t been acting like it, Silhouette thought. No, girl. This isn’t the time.

"Then help me, Sinclaire," She said, leaning in and kissing him softly. He returned the kiss with as minimal an effort as he was capable of mustering. "Please."

"All right," he said. "Anything to end this argument."

"Fine," Silhouette said. She sat on the bed beside him and put her arms around him. "Look," she said, her voice softening. "Soon as this is over and they get underway with construction we'll have some time to ourselves. We'll take off someplace nice, just the two of us, OK? I know I've been distant, but I want to make it up to you. I love you, Sinclaire."

"I love you too, Silhouette," he replied, not believing a word and so disgusted by it he couldn't even look at her.

Silhouette was about to say something else, when the door chime interrupted her. She walked to the door and keyed in the entry code. An officer stood at attention, two small boxes under his arm.

"Yes?" Silhouette asked.

As if drilled for months on it, the officer quickly flipped the boxes under his arm into a horizontal position and offered them to Silhouette.

"Compliments of the Captain, ma'am," he said. "Your dinner clothes."

"Dinner . . .clothes?" Silhouette repeated. "Oh. Uhm . . .please thank Captain Soldato on my behalf."

"Ma'am," the officer said, standing to attention. "Captain Soldato also reminds you dinner commences in two hours time."

"Thank you," Silhouette said. 'Please in form the Captain we'll be on time."

The officer saluted, and Silhouette nodded as she locked the door.

Sinclaire stood up and walked to the window, watching the slow turning of the stars outside. He muttered something she didn’t catch at first.

"What did you say?" Silhouette asked, opening the box marked with her name in elegant gold embossed script.

Sinclaire shook his head. "He's got you so bewitched."

"Bewitched?" Silhouette asked. "You make him sound like some kind of wizard."

"He's not that," Sinclaire said. "Just another guy like your last boyfriend. Smooth on the outside, but rotten to the core. You loved Kienan and he nearly destroyed you, I wonder what Soldato will do to you. I'll stay in the front room until dinner. I want to be alone right now."

"But don't you--" Silhouette said, offering his box to him.

"They wouldn’t fit where I want him to wear them, Sil," he said, hardly sparing her a glance. He opened the door to the front room and paused, throwing his last and final punch.

"You sure can pick them."

And then he was gone. Silhouette sat on the bed, stunned at how cruel he'd been to her. She wanted to cry but she was too shocked to, the tears just wouldn’t come.

Am I making the same mistakes I made before? Silhouette wondered as she unsnapped the collar on her flightsuit and slowly unzipped it. Kienan was so special. I loved him so much and yet . . .Sinclaire's right. He nearly killed me.

Why would I do that to myself again?

She dressed a button in the interior of her flightsuit. The fabric of the suit relaxed, and she slipped out of it, her mind still slowly recounting her mistakes.

I tried so hard to forget Kienan, she thought. I loved Sinclaire so much because he was so unlike him. So idealistic, so convinced of my ability to redeem him.

The same thing I saw when I looked at Soldato's soldiers. They believe in him. They believe in his cause, whatever that is. I can see it in everyone's eyes. They believe in him without a second thought.

I envy him.

Meanwhile, here I am trying to hold 20 ragtag fugitives and Sinclaire together with me. And I'm failing. Building this ship is as much for me as it is for them--something to hold us together and keep us focused on our mission.

And I hate it. I feel like I'm buying them off as surely as I am Soldato.

She sighed and took the garment out of the box. It was beautiful--a strapless dress made out of a fabric much like silk. In low light when she held it still it was a basic black, but the slightest movement caused a ripple of deep blue.

She held it against her body, as though it would keep Sinclaire's hateful and all too truthful words away. She closed her eyes tight and took a deep breath.

Bought and sold, she thought. Me, Soldato, everyone.

How do you live with it?

Dinner would have been an even had Sinclaire not spent a good portion of it glowering at Soldato in angry tense silence. Silhouette spent the evening perpetually blushing and moody. In fact, besides Soldato the most relaxed person at the table was Commander Veitsche.

Soldato's taste in cuisine was like everything else--extravagant and refined. It had been years at least since Silhouette had ever tasted real meat--it was nearly unheard of this far out. And that had just been the beginning.

She felt a little out of her league. Silhouette didn’t remember much of her early life, but all that she could remember hadn't included extravagant dinner functions like this.

She felt decadent, and not just because of dinner. Every glare from Sinclaire reminded her of his words to, especially wearing the dress Soldato had selected for her, which was, not to her surprise, a perfect fit.

It had been nearly six hours since Silhouette had arrived here and Soldato still saw no inclination he was ready to talk business and to be honest it was beginning to make her worry a little.

Does he know who I really am? Silhouette wondered. Amelia Sandoval has a clean record but it probably wouldn't take too much digging for him to find out what she had done before establishing the White Dragons.

The acts of sabotage, the killings, all at the side of the deadliest man in the galaxy, Kienan Ademetria. Her ex-lover and very nearly her executioner. She'd become so appalled at the pain and death they left in their wake that not only couldn’t she do it anymore but she couldn’t love him anymore.

So she took a bullet from him and "died," only to be reborn as Silhouette, head of the White Dragons. Determined to find a better way and offer a means of escape from the bloody life of a syndicate soldier for those unlike herself who couldn’t shrug off a fatal round in the spine quite as easily as she could.

If he knew, this deal was over and everything else was just dancing around that point, she thought. And we'd be as good as dead. No way we could fight our way out.

"I'm sorry," she said, blushing and staring at Soldato, who was looking at her like she was dessert. I wish he'd stop, she thought. I feel almost naked the way he looks at me. "Did you say something Captain? I was distracted."

"I said, are you disappointed, Madame Sandoval?" Soldato said, cradling a flute of Rigellian kiral in his hand. "You seemed not to be enjoying yourself through dinner. Not to your liking?"

"No, no Cap--er, Meridius," Silhouette said. She looked at Sinclaire who immediately looked away. "I'm just . . .preoccupied tonight."

"Ah," Soldato said, taking a sip of kiral and smiling. His eyes went from her to Sinclaire. "I must say, for someone to preoccupy you, he must be an exceptional man. I'm quite jealous."

Sinclaire's eyes narrowed on Soldato. He was thinking of Kienan and how much he infuriated him. Soldato reminded him a lot of Kienan, especially in the "infuriating" sense.

Sinclaire looked at Silhouette. And oh yes, he thought. In one other way.

He sighed. Am I always going to lose with her?

"Not as you mean, Meridius, Silhouette said, smiling again. "I . . .well, I hope you don’t think I'm being impertinent, but I didn't really come all this way for a new dress and an exquisite dinner."

Soldato smiled. "Hope springs eternal, Madame Sandoval," he said, rising from his chair. "Very well. You'll have to pardon me, I wish to thank the galley for a job well done, and give them time to clear away the table."

Sinclaire cocked an eyebrow. "You’re thanking your kitchen staff?"

Soldato looked back at him placidly. "Of course. Every night. They do their best for me. A little gratitude is the least I could offer in return, could I not?"

Soldato bowed to Silhouette, Sinclaire and Veitsche in turn and made his way out, pausing at the door. "Oh yes," he said. "One more thing. As Madame Sandoval and myself will be concerned with business, Mister Sinclaire, I was curious if you would permit Commander Veitsche to show you around our installation? Elysium is quite impressive. You could perhaps consider it valuable intelligence for your duel tomorrow morning."

"I . . .uhm, suppose," Sinclaire said. He glanced at Veitsche, who smiled and nodded. "If it's all right with Silhouette."

"I suppose so," Silhouette said. "Meridius and I will be busy with boring financial details. No reason why you shouldn't have a little fun."

"Of course," Soldato said. "Commander, if you would take our honored guest in hand?"

Veitsche rose from the table and walked over to Sinclaire. Once again the poise and the eerie absolute control Soldato had over his subordinates took Silhouette by surprise. Even more, how any component of fear was so totally absent.

Whether by calculation or by accident, Soldato really does have everyone convinced they are dearer to him than anything, she thought. He doesn't have to threaten, only politely request. I can’t get the rest of the White Dragons to do a thing unless I bring up how vulnerable we are.

"Shall we go, Mister Sinclaire?"

Sinclaire threw her a look that cut right through her, and Silhouette nodded. Sinclaire rose from his chair, eyeing Veitsche warily as they left together. Sinclaire never took his eyes off Silhouette as they made their way to the door.

Silhouette watched the etched glass doors slide closed and looked back in Soldato's direction, but he was gone as well, and Silhouette was alone.

And more than ever, she felt it.

Sinclaire and Veitsche walked through the corridors in silence for a few minutes. Sinclaire found himself in the peculiar position of being grateful to Soldato. Dinner had been agony, watching Soldato's lecherous eyes on Silhouette.

He shook his head. This doesn't feel right. I've been on edge ever since we got here. No . . .before that. Ever since that night I saw Silhouette together with Kienan, ever after she promised me she was over him.

I never told her I saw them together and ever since that day it's been eating at me. I'm losing my focus. That's why I accepted Veitsche's challenge. I have to get back my focus. Have to do something to keep from letting Silhouette tear me apart inside.

He sighed.

Is this how Kienan felt when he saw me with her? Did he feel like fighting as hard as he could to keep her?

"Am I boring you?" Veitsche asked, raising an eyebrow above her glasses.

"No," Sinclaire said. "Just . . .have a lot on my mind. Still can't quite understand how you can challenge me to a duel and act like we're the best of a friends five minutes later."

"Soldato teaches us that we must always behave with a sense of decorum," Veitsche says. "In battle we hold the power of life and death over other and must be prepared to die at any time. The only way to die honorably is with no regrets."

"If you expect me to kill you tomorrow, you’re going to be disappointed," Sinclaire said.

"I don't," Veitsche said. "Our duels are until first blood is drawn."

"You put a hell of a lot of trust in your opponent to leave it at that," Sinclaire said. You people are trained to kill and yet you treat dueling as a game."

"You don’t understand, Mister Sinclaire," Veitsche said, smiling. "To duel in that manner is to show the most sincere concern for another life."

"That's not what I was taught," Sinclaire said. "I learned never to draw these blades unless I intended to kill."

"We've been taught the same," Veitsche said. "But we've also been taught to avoid needlessly taking life. The power we have comes with much responsibility."

"You know," Sinclaire said. "You sound almost . . .religious . . .about all this. It's hard to get my head around why a private army would have such a string cult of personality around it."

"I do?" Veitsche smiled. "I guess in a way I am. I owe Soldato very much. He redeemed me even when I didn’t think my own life was worth very much."

"Now you do sound like a religious loon," Sinclaire said, his lips in a tight smile.

"And what about you?"


"Sabre," Veitsche said. "The Golden Phoenixes' masked master of swords. One of the deadliest assassins on the Frontier, a swordsman so gifted he moved like the wind and couldn’t be hit. Mysteriously vanished two years ago, ironically about the same time as the White Dragons appeared, along with one Mister Lewis Sinclaire."

Sinclaire stiffened and stopped in his tracks.

"How did you know?"

"I know everything about you and the White Dragons, Madame Sandoval, or may I call you Silhouette now?" Soldato said, pacing around her as they watched the stars from the huge window in his office. "And so I know why you're here. You run an Underground Railroad, getting people involved in crime syndicates out and working to undermine the whole system. It's a noble goal, but fraught with peril, that it is."

On the desk between them was the case Silhouette had carried, opened and revealing it's cargo of solid gold bars. Almost the entire accumulated wealth of the White Dragons, plus her silent partners and every favor Silhouette had accumulated in her two years running the White Dragons.

So why does 100 million in credits look and feel so much like thirty pieces of silver? Silhouette thought.

"And you want my company to finance the construction of a battleship for you," Soldato said. "A mobile base of operations with the stealth technology to keep you well hidden but with the firepower to defend yourselves should you have to stand and fight. Am I correct so far?"

"Yes," Silhouette said. The tone in his voice told her he was about to say no. More than anything she couldn’t have that. It would destroy the White Dragons and ensure that eventually they'd either fail because they were limited by what they could do or they were hunted to extinction.

I can’t have that. I . . .

She didn't dare verbalize the thought that flashed in her head, like a shadow outside the window illuminated in the blink of an eye by lighting.

”Well," Soldato said, walking towards the desk. He put his hands on the case and slowly closed it. "I'm afraid your money is no good."

Silhouette's heart fell in such a way as to where she almost gasped and sobbed at once.

"I . . .see," she said. She straightened her dress and rose to her feet feeling very unsteady. "Forgive me, Captain. I'm sorry to have wasted your time."

Soldato smiled and closed his eyes. "My dear, you misunderstand me. You must learn not assume the worst immediately. It is an ill fit on a woman who dispenses redemption like yourself.

"Your money is no good--I am already rich, but your cause is just," Soldato said. He slowly walked "I sense in some ways we're not dissimilar. And since I could never hope to deny a kindred spirit, I shall do as you ask. Tomorrow morning I will send your construction order to my most secure location in Elysium. My best people will construct it, and in a month's time it should be ready for you."

"You'll forgive the cynicism, but what do you get out of it?" Silhouette said as Soldato walked around the desk and walked over to her.

"An ally," Soldato said. "Someone who understands me. A lovely lady who owes me a favor."

Silhouette blushed. He was looking at her that way again. "A . . .favor?"

"Yes," Soldato said. "We'll get to that in a moment. First, as allies . . ." He extended his hand. Silhouette took it very slowly, feeling the hard mechanisms under the glove as she shook it.

"As . . .allies," Silhouette said. "I don’t know how to thank you, Meridius."

"You do me a great honor just by calling me by my first name," Soldato said, letting her hand slip from his own and reaching up to touch her chin. "You are very beautiful, Lady Silhouette."

Silhouette closed her eyes and blushed. She felt caught in a tide, pulled in about three different directions, to the shadow behind her, the winds beside her and to the knight before her.

"Please," she said. "I'm not any kind of lady."

"An accident of birth, but that's what you are."

Silhouette turned away. Get control, she thought, shaking a little as butterflies weltered up in her heart.

”What's . . .this favor you wanted from me?"

Soldato smiled and took his hand away. His eyes softened a little sad. "As someone who's had much contact with the syndicates," he said. "I was hoping you could help me. A year ago, a small and very capable team of operatives attacked a base I commanded. Stole three prototype starfighters. My people have been working to determine the identity of the leader, but we've come up empty. All we do know is that he works for the Blue Dragon syndicate and he's very very good at what he does. I have the dead officers to attest to his skill"

Silhouette bit her bottom lip. Oh God NO, she thought. Please don't be him.

"We have a picture from one of our security cameras--very grainy but we've cleaned it up as best we could.

Soldato handed it to her and Silhouette's heart sank so quickly it felt like it punched through three decks below her. The photo was grainy junk, but there was no mistaking it. The blazing eyes, the long braid, the look of burning determination.


"Since you knew my resume from the beginning, why did you challenge me?" Sinclaire said. They were walking above a training area. Underneath them a squad of Vanguards were practicing their swordsmanship. Veitsche stared at hi for some time while he watched.

"Because," Veitsche said. "Perhaps I can learn something from you. And perhaps I'd like to prove that you White Dragons aren’t so different from us. Most especially I want to prove myself because we're exactly the same, you and I."

"We are?" Sinclaire said. "You've sort of lost me there."

”You were a killer for a syndicate," Veitsche said. "I served in the Earth Army during the Rigellian War. Participated in a massacre. Bombed a bunch of retreating unarmed troops. I couldn't stand to look at myself in the mirror for months after that happened. I tried so hard to destroy myself, as I'm sure you did once you realized the enormity of what you'd done."

"Hm," Sinclaire said.

"But one person believed in us and showed us we still had value," Veitsche said. "And since as a member of the Vanguard I'm pledged to only seek combat with opponents equal or superior to myself, that's why I challenged you. It's a good omen."

"For what?" Sinclaire asked.

"Our alliance," Veitsche said.

"Alliance?" Sinclaire asked. "You've got this wrong. All we want is to contract you to build a ship."

"Contracts," Veitsche snorted. "The UEF contracts the Captain for so much that he's rich enough to own most of Earth. That's not what he's after."

"What is he after?" Sinclaire asked. "I'm impressed. The Olympus Vanguard is more than the bunch of poseurs I wrote them off as before, but why so many? Why have your own uniforms? A few years and a few more installations like this one, and you’d have an army big enough to take on Earth."

"I don’t know," Veitsche said. "It's not my place. A soldier has faith in her Captain, as I have faith in Soldato. I would follow him no matter what he asked. As you would follow Madame Sandoval."

”Hmph”, Sinclaire said. “I wouldn’t bet money on that.”

"How long have you been lovers, if you don’t mind me asking?"

Sinclaire blinked. "You knew?"

"The way you two behave it's impossible not to see it," Veitsche said. "I watched you carefully. Every single time the Captain looked in her direction you tensed like you wanted to attack him and she knew it."

"I was trying hard to hide it,"

"Not hard enough I'm afraid."

Sinclaire laughed sadly. "I guess not. What about you? Are you and Soldato--?"

"Intimate?" Veitsche asked, smiling slightly. "Oh no, but I can tell you if he ever asked, I'd say yes, even knowing the risk. He's in no danger of stealing your precious lady away, Sinclaire. Unless she's far stronger than she appears to be."

"I don’t understand," Sinclaire said. "You mean he's a eunuch?"

Veitsche smiled. "No," she said. "His condition. He has to wear his gravity suit or stay in a specially conditioned room. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice it."

"I did," he said. "So he can't really be touched or touch anyone except through that suit."

"It's a lonely way to live," Veitsche said. "Sometimes when we're alone I've seen a look come over him and he looks so sad and so tired. He gives so much of himself and yet at the end of the day he's so very alone. I see the same look in Madame Sandoval's eyes. That's why I'm certain they're getting along quite well."

"United by loneliness?" Sinclaire asked.

"Mister Sinclaire," Veitsche said, smiling as if she were relating a blatantly obvious point. "All of humanity is united by loneliness."

"He doesn't look familiar to me," Silhouette lied. She held the picture, her heart jumping in her chest. "I . . .I'd need time to track him down for you."

Soldato eyed her curiously, once again looking right through her. "Of course," he said. "You have all the time you need. But I want one thing understood."

"What's that?"

"I don’t want him harmed."

"Ah," Silhouette said, the photo trembling in her hands. Come on, she thought. He'll be able to tell you're lying. "We'd have to find the syndicate he works for, and since most syndicates retain about 300 assassins, even eliminating all but the highest ranking ones leaves 50-100 in each Syndicate."

"As I said, you have all the time you need." Soldato arched an eyebrow. "Are you well, Madame Silhouette?"

"I'm fine," she lied again. "He just looked familiar for a second."


"Just like someone I used to know. High school sweetheart," she said, trying to cover. "Broke my heart a long time ago. He has those same eyes, kind and cruel at one and the same time."

Soldato regarded her curiously. His eyes softened.

He knows I'm lying, she thought. The smart thing to do now would be to tell him, even a little something. Just a name. Kienan can handle himself, you know that, even against Soldato and his army he'd find a way.

You don’t owe him anything, she reminded herself. He turned his back on you long ago, and put a bullet through yours. Why should you care about selling him out? So much is riding on this. Giving up Kienan is a small price.

I can't. God help me, I can't.       

"It appears we have something else in common," he said, quietly observing her. He offered her his hand. "Come, I’d like to show you something."

Oh God, she thought. He IS coming on to me. Silhouette nervously took his hand, the photograph slipping from her hands and floating to red-carpeted floor like a falling blossom.

Soldato led her to a far corner of the room and activated a light switch. Hidden lights in the ceiling activated and fell upon a statue of a woman with very kind eyes, elegant like that of an angel. Her hands were raised above her, reaching for a distant star, her face hopeful, a dreamer in flight.

The look was, Silhouette noted, very similar to the one in Soldato's eyes.

"Beautiful," Silhouette said. She looked to Soldato, whose eyes were suddenly very sad. The irony of a man who was so strong and so well protected that he spent every waking moment armored being brought to the verge of tears by a statue wasn't lost on her.

"You . . .made this?" Silhouette asked.

Soldato nodded. "Her name is . . .was Gala. My one true love. My first and last."

"I'm sorry," Silhouette said. Unconsciously she put her hand on his shoulder, forgetting the mechanisms underneath his coat, responding to his obvious sorrow. "Did she, I mean, was she--?"

Soldato closed his eyes and smiled sadly. "Gala . . .is dead. She had been for many years," he said. "But not a day goes by where I can’t remember her with crystal clarity. I carved this statue of her from that memory, through tears. It was a few nights after I lost her, and it hurt so much, I had to do something. It hurt to sleep alone."

Silhouette said nothing. She was too busy reminding herself of her own loneliness. The person you truly love takes so much of you with them when they leave, and sometimes you feel that absence even when you don’t sleep alone.

"I'm so sorry," Silhouette said, moving closer to him without being consciously aware of it. "You must have really loved her."

"She really loved me," Soldato said. "She gave me the one thing I thought I would never experience, knowing full well what it would cost her. And she never looked back. I have never forgotten that kindness, and I hope I never will."

Silhouette bit her lip. A beautiful man with a loving heart, isolated from anyone who could love him and yearning to be saved. God, Meridius, you could be Kienan.

Silhouette looked at him. "Why are you telling me this?"

Soldato smiled and turned to her. "Because I . . .I want you to feel comfortable with me."

Silhouette felt herself tense. "I . . .why? Why is it so important to you?"

"Because," he said, moving closer. "Any worthwhile alliance is built on honesty. I want you to feel you can tell me anything. Even shadows cast over your heart."

Silhouette breathed. "Are we . . .still talking about the same thing?"

"What do you think?"

Silhouette frowned. He is like Kienan, she thought. He even answers a question with a question. And it's still goddamned annoying. I . . .No. Control yourself. Solda--Meridius--isn’t Kienan. Don’t make one into another.

Don’t do what you did to Sinclaire. He's hurting enough. He just showed you how much. Don’t add to it for your own selfishness.

Soldato put his hands on her hips, his fingertips gliding down her exposed back with an ease and gentleness that belied the mechanical gauntlets underneath her gloves.

"Are you all right?" Soldato said, his blue eyes holding hers in his gaze.

"I . . ." Biting her lip. Fighting him. Fighting herself.

"You’re trembling."

"Yes . . .I . . .Meridius . . .we . . ." Body relaxing against him, lips opening, finding his, pulling him closer. It was like embracing a steel column, but she swore she could feel him. Wanting, needing, but still fighting. Faintly.

Finally, Soldato pulled her close. She put her hands up between them, afraid.

"Have I hurt you?" Soldato asked

"No," Silhouette said. But I'm so scared I'll hurt you.

"What are you thinking?"

"I'm not," Silhouette breathed, she slid her hands down him, her fingertips looking in vain for something soft. "I can safely say there's not a thought in my head, and that scares me."


"Because that means I'm thinking with my heart," Silhouette said, her eyes shining. "And that always gets me in trouble."

Soldato smiled. "I've been called trouble once or twice," he said. "What is your heart telling you?"

She looked into his eyes. "It's telling me you’re trying to seduce me."

Soldato smiled. "Then, Madame Silhouette, your heart is telling you true."

Silhouette closed her eyes and exhaled "You don’t understand, Meridius," she whispered. "As much as you might want to . . .I--oh damn it, come here."

Silhouette couldn’t stop herself anymore. She threw her arms around his neck and pulled him down into a deep, hot kiss, shutting her eyes so tightly tears leaked out of the corners like the sparkling trail of a fairy.

Soldato was surprised--it wasn't that he hadn’t wanted it, but he had expected to be the one to make the move. He held her close against him, not ashamed of what was between her and him, not aware of a single thing except her.

Three hours later, Silhouette lay in the plush bed of her suite, alone and having tossed and turned in the two hours she'd spent trying to rest. The silk sheet were clutched against her chest, the corner of it wrapped around her legs.

She was shaking.

Meridius knows. He knows I know Kienan, probably even knows we're close. He saw it in my eyes. He was determined to charm it out of me until I . . .

She swallowed. Say it, she chided herself. Until you pretended you wanted him, but you weren't pretending, were you? No, he's got you under his spell, and you want to be under it.

You tried so hard to make Sinclaire just enough like Kienan to allow yourself to love him, and it didn’t work.

I've been fooling myself, she thought, her eyes snapping open like she's been woken from a dream. All this time, I said Kienan's shadow was cast over me. But the only one summoning his ghost is me.

Because I'm scared to take responsibility for my actions. Because I'm scared to face life without him, just like I was scared to face life with him.

I had no memory, no life at all until I met Kienan. Even now, after everything that's happened, I'm afraid to deal with that. Without him, I'm scared I'll cease to exist.

But how do I let him go?

Do I sell him out? I don’t know what Meridius has planned for him. I can't imagine what Kienan was doing there in the first place. I . . .I still want to take care of him. Damn me for a fool, I still want to protect Kienan.

And I want to keep the White Dragons together. To do that, I'd have to either give up Kienan to Meridius, or . . .

The thought fell into place in her mind so naturally she was almost shocked.

Unless I can give him something else he'd want, she thought, sighing. Something only I could give him. God help me, something I want to give him.

She lay there, breathing more relaxed now. It was she'd walked through a door and closed it behind her. She stared at her right hand, resting against her hair. She wasn't trembling anymore. No, she knew what she would do.

And for better or worse it would be her decision.

Sinclaire was sleeping on the sofa in the receiving room. Silhouette stood before him, clad in her flight suit, crouched quietly over him. She brushed a lock of his hair away from her eyes. She couldn’t tell him what she would do, so in her mind, she explained it the best she could.

I haven’t even given you a fair chance, have I? No, there was always something or someone between us. Only now the person between us isn’t Kienan.

Sinclaire, you'll never understand why I feel I have to do this, she thought. You'll never understand why I want to. I could never explain either thing to you.

She closed her eyes, a solitary tear running down her cheek. Just know that I tried as hard as I could to love you and forget about Kienan--I really did. And how ashamed I am that I couldn’t succeed.

I don’t belong in your arms, Sinclaire. I'm not worthy of you. The kindest thing I can ever do is to make sure you never know what I had to do to keep us--all of us--together.

She kissed him very softly and rose to her feet.

One last chance to chicken out.

A deep breath. No. For better or worse, I have to do this. I want to. It's the only way I can see to do it.

She reached behind her, pulling the hood of her flightsuit over her face and activating a device on her glove. She shimmered and vanished in the pale light and quietly made her way out of the door. It wasn't necessary that she use her chameleon device to slip past Sinclaire, but she felt in some small way that it would be easier on him, ultimately, if he couldn't see her walking out the door.

She quietly made he way down the corridor, remembering the brief tour of Elysium Soldato had given them.

"You'll have the best quarters in the entire installation," he had said. "Even my own are not quite as pleasant. I'll very envious of you, sleeping below me tonight."

Silhouette made her way to a lift and pressed the emergency stop button. She deactivated the chameleon device and pulled a thin metallic device from one of the pouches on her uniform, sliding it into the notch above the lift's keypad. A series of random access numbers flashed over the display and she was granted access to Soldato's floor.

Silhouette slumped against the wall and thought about him. Soldato couldn’t be intimate with another woman, or at least another human woman. The physical strain of the act and the exertion against the heavy gravity Soldato needed to live would kill them, probably before they could get to the bed.

Silhouette closed her eyes. Human beings, she thought. I thought I was one until Kienan shot me through the back and I survived.

The lift doors slid open and she stepped out onto the floor, reactivating her chameleon device. She slipped past the guards and made he way to the doors to Soldato's bedroom. She knew it was his because of all the signs and caution tape warning of the heavy gravity zone beyond.

Kienan and I used to train in heavier gravity, she thought. Nothing like what Meridius lives in, but not too far from it. Besides, if I can take a fatal gunshot and live to tell about it, what's a few thousand pounds of pressure?

She paused at the access panel. I'm joking, she thought. I must be insane.

She stepped through and immediately the gravity took hold of her. Her muscles tensed and sweat poured from her brow as she adjusted to the pull of it. Step by painful step she made her way to the bed, where Soldato lay, his face placid and peaceful.

Silhouette focused on him as she took step after step towards him. In a room with normal gravity she would have been there in seconds, but here, it took five minutes. She pushed every burden weighing on her with every step. One step, and the White Dragons were forgotten, the next, Sinclaire, and by the time Silhouette had reached Soldato's bed, even Kienan had been forgotten.

She climbed over him, unzipping and slowly sliding out of her flight suit, which despite being gossamer thin felt like chainmail. She let her hair shake out on Soldato's chest, the soft caress of it causing his eyes to open with shock.


"Shhh," Silhouette said. Her blue-green eyes seemed to glow in the low light of the room. "Meridius . . .I . . .want you. Now."

"No," he said, eyes pleading. "Please. I . . .don’t want you to die."

"I won’t," Silhouette said, reaching for him under the sheets. "Trust me . . ."

Soldato gasped as he felt her hands on him. On him, not the armor. He shivered. He had almost forgotten what it felt like. But in some ways it was what he had never stopped yearning for.

"Ohhhh . . ."

Silhouette looked down at him. "Do you want me?"

"Yes," Soldato said, reaching up to touch her face, even now lightly sheened with sweat. "I want you . . .Silhouette."

She bent down to kiss him and looked in his eyes, muscles tight with exertion. "Then I'll be what you want," she whispered. "And give you what you need."

Silhouette lay in Soldato's arms, sated in a way she couldn’t remember being before. Even though the gravity was so strong against her she could barely draw a breath she didn’t seem to notice.

It felt . . .different with him, she thought as she nuzzled against his shoulder, Soldato's hand lazily running through her hair. He was so much more giving than . . .

She shut her eyes and shut out the guilty thoughts.

"Thank you," Soldato said. "I . . .never expected . . .to ever do that again."

"I wanted to," Silhouette said. She was surprised at how weak she sounded. She willed herself to take another deep breath, her heart still pounding. Fighting gravity while she tried to fly free in his arms. "I wanted to make it hurt less. I didn’t want you to sleep alone."

Soldato sighed. "I don’t even know what to call you," he said.

"Silhouette," she said.

"It's an odd name."

"For a long time, I felt like it was the best name I could have. All I felt like was a shadow of someone else."

Soldato looked down at her. "And now?"

"Now?" Silhouette said, gently kissing his chest and looking up at him. "Now I'm in a place where no shadows fall."

She lay her head on his chest. Soldato felt her body relaxing against his, and felt a sudden tinge of dread.


"Mmm," she said, snuggling closer, not wanting to let him go.

"Silhouette, please . . .you can’t sleep here."

This is how it starts, Soldato thought fearfully. If she falls asleep the gravity will be too much for her, she won’t get enough air. She'll die in my arms, just like Gala.

No. I won’t let it happen again.

He looked down at her, so relaxed and so comfortable in his arms. The smile she wore was genuine, neither guilty nor guarded. She was happy in his arms.

But she couldn’t stay. Not even if I never have this chance again.

My dearest, I hope you'll forgive me. Understand . . .I care enough for you to risk losing you forever.

He slid out of bed, Silhouette was already fast asleep and only shifted a bit as he made his way to the rack containing his gravity armor. He dressed himself with practiced ease, so accustomed to his routine he could do it without a mirror.

The whole time he dressed he never took his eyes off her. Measuring her breaths. The slower they got the more in danger she was. He kept his eyes on her as he pulled his gloves over his armored hands, looking through them at her.

She's so beautiful, he thought. So kind. It would be selfish of me to let her waste it all on me. Though I would very much like her to.

Finally he smoothed his uniform with a graceful motion and wrapped her in a sheet. He nearly walked out without her flightsuit, but saw it resting against a nearby chair and snatched it, carrying her through the door and back into normal gravity.

Sinclaire's eyes blazed with incredulous rage at the sight of Soldato carrying Silhouette.

"Doubtless, you’re very angry by the situation before you," Soldato said. He looked down at the still-sleeping Silhouette. "May I ask that your restrain yourself until I can put her to rest?"

Sinclaire stared him down for a few minutes, then stepped aside so Soldato could carry her into the bedroom. Then he followed them inside.

Soldato was kneeling against the bed, gently brushing Silhouette's sweat-soaked hair aside, checking to make sure she was breathing normally.

"What did you--"

"Not here," Soldato said. He pointed to the receiving room.

Sinclaire shrugged and walked back into the room, followed by Soldato.

"So," Sinclaire said. "Why shouldn’t I kill you?"

"I see no reason why not," he said. "Forgive me, Mister Sinclaire. I didn’t wish for you to find out about it this way. In fact, I would have preferred for you not to know at all."

"Well," Sinclaire replied. "Now that that's no longer a concern, what would you do in my place?"

"I don't know."

"You lured her here for this?"

"I did nothing, Mister Sinclaire," Soldato replied. "She came to me of her own free will, and she nearly paid for her desires with her life. I would never have permitted that."

"I'm sure she did," Sinclaire said. "I'm sure you trying to seduce her every waking moment helped with that."

"Perhaps we seduced each other," Soldato said.

"You arrogant . . .!" Sinclaire said, balling up his fist and throwing a punch at Soldato. Soldato caught his fist in the palm of his hand without even changing expression. He squeezed very gently, and even Sinclaire felt his hand bowing under the pressure Soldato was exerting.

"I thought perhaps I could talk to you about this rationally," Soldato said. "I can see I was mistaken."

"Rational?!" Sinclaire said, trying to free his hand. "You stole the woman I love! You expect me to just stand here and take it? She was mine!"

"Mister Sinclaire, she was never yours."

Soldato let go of his hand and Sinclaire backpedaled. He glared at Soldato, wanting so much top curse him, to attack him, to kill him. But something stopped him, something he had been running from ever since the night he had seen Kienan and Silhouette together.

Soldato looked at him almost pityingly. "I don't wish this on you, Mister Sinclaire," he said. "I never wished you any harm. But sooner or later you would have confronted this yourself. Now all that is left is to answer the question, "what do I do about it?" And that you must do alone."

"You know so goddamned much," Sinclaire said. "Why don’t you tell me?"

Soldato walked past him. "I don't have the answer to that question myself, Mister Sinclaire." He opened the door. "Perhaps when we meet again, we'll both have our answers."

The door slid shut and Sinclaire was alone again. The floor felt like it had dropped out of his world. He felt alone, more than he had in some time. Silhouette was lost to him, just as Soldato had said. In fact, she had probably never been his to begin with.

He took a deep breath. Alone, he thought. Not completely. At least . . .now I know the truth. Now I can say it and not be afraid.

He sighed. Shame the truth can’t keep you warm at night.

He looked at the clock on the wall. In five hours he and Veitsche would have their duel.

I should sleep, he thought. But I'm not ready to sleep alone.

Sinclaire drew his swords and cleared his mind. Perhaps his fighting spirit could sustain him. His heart was too broken to handle the load at the moment.

The dueling ground was not truly ground--it was another training room. It was sparsely attended--only Silhouette, Soldato, Sinclaire, and Veitsche. Soldato stood at ease, watching Sinclaire and Veitsche carefully as they warmed up.

Veitsche nervously eyed Sinclaire, slowly swinging his blades. To read his dossier was one thing but to see him in action made her a bit less certain. She looked at Soldato, who smiled and politely nodded.

"You know," Silhouette said, reaching for Soldato's hand. "This isn’t really necessary."

"Veitsche would never forgive me if I stopped it," Soldato said. He paused for a moment, looking at Sinclaire.

Besides, he thought. After what I have taken from Sinclaire, I owe him a moment of glory, at the very least.

He raised a while-gloved hand and Sinclaire and Veitsche stepped forward. Sinclaire held both of his blades in a ready position. Veitsche adopted a ready stance with her saber extended and her let hand raised behind her.

"Let the combat . . .BEGIN!"

At Soldato's words, Sinclaire sung his blades hard against Veitsche's saber, trying to break it. Veitsche clenched her left hand, activating the beam shield in her gauntlet and smashing the solid energy shield against the top Sinclaire's head. He tried to stab her with both blades but she stepped between them and tried for her own stabbing thrust.

Sinclaire dropped back, putting his feet against her stomach and throwing her with his legs. Veitsche rolled with the impact, never letting go of her saber as she rolled to her feet. She adjusted her glasses with her free hand and charged again.

She slashed high, slicing cleanly through Sinclaire's scarf as his blade nearly grazed her cheek and scratched one of the lenses of her glasses. She slid between his arms, blocking one blade with her beam shield and the other with the guard of her saber.

So long as he has two blades, I'll be on the defensive, Veitsche thought. Time to remedy that situation.

Sinclaire stepped forward, blades flashing like lightning, striking sparks against the deck, Veitsche played possum, waiting, slowing down the image of his whirling blades as she reached behind her.

One of his swords whirled at her head. It gleamed in the slow time of her mind.

Veitsche whipped out her crop and struck Sinclaire in the wrist so hard the crop snapped in two like a reed in hurricane. Sinclaire dropped the sword, his left hand on fire. He parried her counter attack and reached for the sword, but Veitsche kicked it out the way and kneed him hard in the chin and punched him with the guard of her sword.

Sinclaire ginned, bringing his sword to the ready. He was almost surprised at himself. Was he enjoying this? Should he be?

They attacked each other, the clanging of blades like a rising chorus of steel, either gaining and advantage. Sinclaire would try to flip her saber out of her hands, she would spiral away, removing his leverage.

Veitsche tried to trap his arm and repeatedly punch Sinclaire in the chest and force him to drop his sword, but he retaliated by headbutting her in the chest and sending her sprawling backwards. Her glasses slipped off of her face and bounced to the floor, shattering.

Sinclaire raised his sword. That's it, he thought. The duel is mine now. He charged towards her, sword raised for a killing thrust, the memories of the day before running through his mind in the spaces between moments.

"I learned never to draw these blades unless I intended to kill."

Veitsche tried to bring her sword to the ready, but Sinclaire could tell she was still disoriented.

"The only way to die is with no regrets."

He planted his feet, his blade flashing as he brought it up for his killing thrust. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Soldato's look become more severe.

"Most especially I want to prove myself because we're exactly the same, you and I."

And then he saw Silhouette squeeze Soldato's hand, the mortal cetrainty that the end was coming apparent in everyone's faces.

"Mister Sinclaire, she was never yours."

Veitsche brought her blade forward and thrust towards Sinclaire. It would have been easy to knock her sloppy attack aside and go for the kill.

"If you expect me to kill you tomorrow, you’re going to be disappointed."

At the last second Sinclaire threw his sword aside just as Veitsche's saber pierced his stomach. She smiles a bit, a small trickle of blood coming from the corner of his mouth. He sank to his knees the gentle smile still on his face as Veitsche yanked the blade free.

"The duel . . .is mine," Veitsche said, taking a handkerchief out and wiping the blood off her saber. She quickly sheathed it and went to Sinclaire. She crouched down and looked at him.

"Why?" She whispered.

"Wasn't . . .a fair fight," Sinclaire said.

"You didn’t go easy on me?" Veitsche whispered sharply.

"No . . .but I did break . . . your glasses," he said, smiling and laughing softly. "And that wasn't fair."

Veitsche got to her feet and let Sinclaire lean against her shoulder. "Honor's been satisfied, Captain," she said. "With your permission, I'd like to take Mister Sinclaire to the infirmary."

Soldato walked over to the two of them. "By all means," he said, leaning close to Sinclaire. He whispered low so only he could hear him. "You were splendid. One day you and I must challenge each other."

Sinclaire looked at him as Veitsche took him away.

Silhouette walked up behind Soldato. "Why exactly was that necessary?"

Soldato looked over his shoulder and smiled. "For the best of all possible reasons. Veitsche because she proved her honor and her courage. Sinclaire because he found himself again in the battle."

"That's a lot of philosophy to lay on a schoolyard fight."

"If that's all you see it as," Soldato said. He eyed her. "My dear, you must understand this if you’re ever to lead anyone: People fight for different reasons. Some fight for a cause, a homeland, or a loved one. Some fight because it is all they know. Some fight just to see things die. But some people fight to find themselves in the heat of battle. For a restless spirit, it's a crucible."

Silhouette looked at the door sliding shut and the trail of Sinclaire's blood that led to it. "I hate battles," she said. "They always cost far too much. Cause far too much pain."

"That they do, yes," Soldato said. "And you can hate battles for the pain and death they cause, but you must never deceive yourself--they destroy, but they also transform. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst, but always there is change. And if life is change, then life itself is a battle."

Silhouette moved in front of him and rested against him. "And where does that leave us?" She asked. "Are we allies, or . . .?"

Soldato took her in her arms and kissed her deeply and passionately. "We are together," he said. "And that is enough."

She held him tight. "I can’t stay," she said. "I have . . .responsibilities."

"As do I," Soldato said. "But promise me this: However far you go, return to me. As I shall to you."

Silhouette kissed him again. "I promise. But it may take me awhile."

"We have all the time in the world," Soldato said.

He kissed her again, and Silhouette responded with a passion that surprised even her. She didn’t want to go, but at least now, she knew she had a place to return to. Not with someone she felt bound to by a common past, or held by guilt, but as herself.

As Silhouette. For better or worse, herself.

She finally reluctantly left him to go check on Sinclaire. As she walked down the long corridor she noticed a single shining star by itself in the long dark outside.

She put her hand against the glass, trying to touch it through the hard vacuum and the incalculable distance between herself and the star shining alone in the darkness. And she felt the tears come and she let them. Tears of joy, sorrow, regret and relief mixed freely and spilled form her eyes. In the silence of the corridor she heard her song once more.

But something in me wants to heal
The void he left inside me.
But I wish it could be easy.

But it's not, she thought.

She pressed her hands against the glass and quietly cried, bathed in silent starlight.