Gunmetal Black 2 Chapter 1 - Running Down The Way Up
"Warduke Riven asked me to report here," Straeger said to the
flight commander. They stood in a cavernous structure, surrounded by launching
elevators packed with fighters and small attack ships. Around them, flight
technicians, pilots, and ground crews attended to their duties. Straeger
watched them intermittently.
the flight commander said. "Youre to be assigned a fighter for your
journey to the Southern sector and beyond. Follow me, please." He started
down the corridor to the main hangar bay.
"I assumed I was to be
conveyed via starship," Straeger said.
"That is for the short
term," the flight commander said. "All Agents are assigned a personal
transport for long-term missions." He reached into one of the pockets on
his coveralls and proffered a data tablet to Straeger. "The orders right
here, if you're interested."
Straeger said. That was standard procedure. Agents could be out in the field
for years, so self-sufficiency was a necessity. "Where is my ship?"
The flight commander pushed
a button on one of the walls. "Up there. Level 42. We'll take the
rapid-lift and be there in a matter of seconds." Sure enough, a platform
sped down from the scaffolding above and came to rest in front of them.
"Hold onto the rail,
sir," the flight commander said, gripping it tightly. "These
platforms are designed to get pilots to their fighters as rapidly as possible.
I'm afraid they're not built for much more than rapid ascent."
The flight commander pushed
a button on the platform and the elevator, and with a lurch, the elevator began
to rise and pick up speed. Below him, Straeger could see row after row of
fighters. Most were the newer Marauder
class ships, introduced after the war with the Chroan, but some were of older
vintage. Very far in the distance, Straeger picked out the shapes of older
Vindartin and Rajago-class fighters. Fighters that hadn't been used since the
Earth War. Fighters that were nearly as old as the Empire itself. After all,
200 years wasn't an unusual term of service for a Rigellian ship. They were
built to last.
"Quite impressive how
fast the Marauders have been introduced," Straeger said.
"It was time for an
overhaul," the fight commander agreed. "We just got out last wings
for base defense about six months ago and completed our upgrade. Of course, we
had to wait for the fleet to be fully upgraded first."
"If you dont mind my
asking," Straeger asked as the elevator stopped and locked in place
against a gentry way. "Why do you keep the older classes of fighters
The flight commander
squinted down to where Straeger had been looking. "Those?" He asked,
laughing. "Some are Riven's personal collection. The rest are a surplus
wing in holding until they can be conveyed somewhere else. We use them for
target practice, spare parts, that sort of thing. A transport ship carries the
rest off. Come with me --youre ship's
in this row."
imperceptibly and followed the flight commander down another narrow gentry way.
On either side Marauders were moored, cockpits open, ready for deployment
flight commander said. He was pointing to a fighter that looked very much like
the Marauders Straeger had seen before, with a few differences. First of all,
it was black. Not in the painted-black sense, but in the sense that it seemed
to be painted with the void of space. Straeger had never seen anything like it.
When he squinted close, the darkness seemed to be moving over the skin of the
that's impossible, he reminded himself. Organic ships are just a legend.
"What . . .is it?"
Straeger asked, walking around the ship.
"This is the R-34 Phantom long-range Stealth
Fighter," the flight commander said. "The prototype for the class,
anyway. And she's yours. Try her out. This seems as good a time as any to get
her systems calibrated."
The flight commander pushed
a few buttons on his pad and the cockpit opened up. Straeger held onto the
access yoke and was lowered in.
the flight commander said, tapping his earpiece. "Can you hear me?"
"Slide your Lens into
the handhold on your right side," the flight commander said. "That'll
activate the systems and calibrate to you. What's your psi rating by the
"All right," the
flight commander said as the cockpit closed down around Straeger. "Close
your eyes and enter psi-state. Your heads-up display, all vital systems, energy
output, targeting display --you should
all be able to see them."
"I do," Straeger
"All right," the
flight commander said. "It's calibrated. Want to take her out? We've got a
wing of drones ready and traffic's cleared"
Kienan removed the last of his spacesuit and carefully folded it away
in the locker next to his ship. Vain and Mirage had been as good as their word.
Better even because they had made the trip to the rendezvous point in four and
a half hours instead of five.
He looked over his shoulder
at the maintenance arms working over the Reiven,
loading in new weapons magazines, refuelling, all with the efficiency he had
come to expect from his ship.
He adjusted his blood red
vest, straightening the wrinkles in it that came naturally from having it
squeezed inside his spacesuit and fumbled for a cigarette. He lit one and took
a long, satisfied drag off of it as he made his way up the stairs to the bridge
of his ship, the Silhouette.
He had named it after a
woman he had been very fond of, and was, in truth still very fond of. They had
drifted back to each other time and again, but never able to stay together.
Kienan had his world, and she had hers, and he had long since resigned himself
to the idea that the twain would meet intermittently at best.
The last time he had seen
her had been two years ago, when she had saved his life. He frowned around his
cigarette at the bitter memory of it. Not that he objected to his survival, but
it had come with a cost that, if asked, he doubted he would have paid. Even if
he had to give up his life.
He made his way up the
flights of stairs and through the central corridor to the ship. The Silhouette, though it appeared to a huge
and ungainly freighter was in fact a very compact and very advanced ship
disguised as a huge and ungainly freighter. As such, space was at a premium,
but Kienan liked it that way. It was just the right size for himself and his
It also helped that his crew
had little in the way of human needs. They were Marionettes; prototype
artificial lifeforms blessed with strength and intelligence far beyond even
Kienan's. It had taken some time to get used to having them around after so
long a time alone, but Kienan had grown used to it, and besides, the
Marionettes had proven themselves on more occasions than he could possibly
The pressure doors to the
bridge slid open and Kienan saw Vain and Mirage sitting at the consoles, having
traded their suits for their more standard gear. In the center of the room,
quiet and unmoving stood the remains of their "sister," Conscience.
Conscience had been critically damaged in a mission a year ago and Kienan had
plugged her into the ship to save her. However, it had come at a cost. While
the Silhouette was now controlled by
a computer far in advance of what most ships had, Conscience herself spent most
of her time lost in the machine.
Kienan said, taking another drag on his cigarette. Vain and Mirage turned to
him and smiled. "How did the meeting on Europa go?"
expected," Vain said, brushing her blond bangs from her eyes. "Our
client is asking the difficult of us."
Kienan took his seat at the
center of the bridge, in front of Conscience, and stared at Vain. "How
"Well, we have to find
a man who's supposed to be dead on the very edge of Rigellian space and kill
him," Vain said. "I know it's not impossible, but it certainly wont
be easy. After all, we're talking uncharted space here."
"A man who's supposed
to be dead?" Kienan said, smirking around his cigarette. "That has a
familiar ring to it. I can get us across the border. I know a couple of
Warmasters who owe me a favor, so that's no trouble. As for the rest, the dead
can keep no secrets from me. You know
Vain nodded and smiled.
"So, where to?"
Kienan thought for a moment.
"I've been travelling for about four hours," he said. "I could
use some time to get my head right. Did she give us some information, something
we can establish a trace on?"
Mirage nodded. 'I'm
collating it and cross-referencing it with what's in our computers and what I
can pull of the Ethetricweb," she said, her brown locks falling into her
face as she crouched over the screens. "It'll take some time to pull it
Kienan took one more drag
off of his cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray he had affixed to the
side of his chair. "All right," he said. "I'm going below. I
need a shower and a little sleep. Let me know when youre ready and we'll go
over it and we'll get underway. This is a quiet sector of space, and with our
screens up, we shouldnt attract any attention."
Vain and Mirage nodded as
Kienan stood up and left the bridge. They looked at each other, then back at
the closed door, both of them thinking the same thing.
"He's bothered by
something," Mirage said, turning back to her display. "He's got that
"You think so?"
Vain asked, running tests on the Silhouette'sweapon systems. "He seemed
fine to me."
"Oh come on,
sister," Mirage chided. "He's nervous. Edgy. Distracted. Something's
on his mind, something that cutting him deep. I havent seen him like this
since that time two years ago when we thought he was dead."
"So it's something that
happened on the Bael job?" Vain mused.
Mirage shook her head.
"I doubt it," she said. "That job was no trouble to him if he
didn't even bother to bring us or the ship. This is more than a job."
Conscience said neutrally. The fact that she spoke at all caused the two
Marionettes to jump.
Vain and Mirage turned to
Conscience, whose face looked as impassive and neutral as always. "What do
Conscience said flatly.
Silhouette leaned forward, hitting switches on the cockpit of her
fighter, the Umbra. Systems and
display hummed to life and she checked and double-checked them over and over
again. She didnt know how long she'd be gone from her ship, the White Angel, so she wanted to make sure
she didnt forget anything.
Below her, clad in his usual
black coveralls was her technician, Caeden. Caeden pushed his wire-rimmed
spectacles up the bridge of his nose at her, his face expressing a familiar
kind of exasperation.
"OK," he said.
"It's not that I'm questioning you or anything Sil, but this is crazy. You
ask me to re-arm and re-fuel the Umbra,
say you're going to be one for a long time maybe, but don't say where. You're
not really providing an encouraging argument for your sanity here."
Silhouette said indifferently. She reached down and strapped her pistol holster
more securely to her thigh.
Caeden looked at her.
"Tell ya what, I'll just talk to myself for a few hours while you ignore
Silhouette said, adjusting her blue and black flight suit.
Caeden smiled again.
"Oh yeah --by the way, we had a
transmission from someone a few hours ago. You've been puttering around with
the Umbra, so you havent really been
in a state to answer it so . . ."
Silhouette continued to work.
"Sil, it's from
Silhouette stopped and
looked at him. "Are you sure?"
"It has all the usual
traces," Caeden said. "I didnt look at it, but it sounded
"If it's from Theta, it
definitely is," Silhouette said. "Pipe it through to the Umbra, Caeden."
Caeden said. "It's in the cache of your communications system."
Silhouette said, offering him a smile. "And I'm sorry I'm ignoring you.
But this is pretty important, and I dont know how long I'll be gone. I'm
counting on you to keep things together while I'm gone."
"Most everyone's out on
missions or recruiting more people," Caeden said. "None of them are
expected back for a few weeks, so things are quiet enough. I can handle
Silhouette looked at him,
staring into his green eyes with her blue-green eyes. "Caeden, if I don't
come back . . ."
Caeden smiled and waved.
"I know. We've had this discussion many times before. I'll keep looking
for him, and keep the group together. Now go, before I get all choked up,
"Youre a tough old bastard, you know that?"
Caeden smiled. "Someone
has to keep you in line. Your father sure must not have. Bad enough keeping the
Angel going, I should get pay for
being your surrogate Daddy as well."
"My . . . father . . .
had his own problems," Silhouette said, her expression suddenly clouding,
her eyes looking a little more sad and blue. There was a hiss of hydraulics as
Silhouette lay down on the padded seat and she was raised into the cockpit.
Caeden walked over to the control center for the hangar, sealing the command
cabin. He reached for the earpiece he kept on the console and turned it on,
"Check, check," he
said. "Hear me clearly?"
"I hear you,"
Silhouette said over the earpiece. "All systems show green, you can send
me out anytime."
Caeden tapped some buttons
on his console. The arm carrying the Umbra
began to move downwards as the space doors opened below her. "Beginning
decompression cycle. I'll be forwarding our coordinates via a secure channel so
if youre within 3 sectors in the ship, you'll be able to find us."
Silhouette said as the Umbra was
lowered into open space. "Keep the home fires burning. I'll be back
The arm holding the Umbra disengaged as the fighter roared
to life. It's engines kicked in and the ship pulled away from the White Angel,
gaining speed. Caeden watched the ship on his screen until the Umbra engaged
its Space Drive and was gone.
He sighed, removing the
earpiece. This place was like a tomb with everyone gone. He made a mental note
to finish that book he had been putting off reading since everything else had
been done already on the ship.
The Phantom destroyed another
of the antique fighters with a pulse of orange laser fire. Inside the ship,
Straeger was quite satisfied. The ship was a marvel all right, as manoeuvrable
as a fighter, but strong enough to take on small destroyers. It even had
shields and a Space Drive. The psi-controls were taking some getting used to,
but he was becoming accustomed to it.
Like all Agents, Straeger
was a psi. He had discovered from an early age gifts of intuition and insight
into people and situations that he would learn in Praxia were the merest uses
of a rather formidable telepathic skill. At Praxia he had learned how to
control and direct it.
That discipline had come in
handy when he was issued his Lens. All Agents had one -- it was a weapon, a defensive implement, a
control device, and a communicator all in one. It also suppressed his
telepathic talent to a degree, allowing him to block casual thoughts and
psychic noise and better focus his mental energies.
That same focus must have
slipped, because a missile from one of the Rajagos whizzed overhead. Straeger
willed the Phantom to engage its
forward thrusters, one-two, causing the ship to turn one hundred and eighty
degrees and obliterate the Rajago with a quick volley of laser fire.
"Ten of ten,"
Straeger said. "All systems appear to be functional. This ship is amazing.
If it were a standard Marauder, I would have been spaced by that last missile
He banked the Phantom over the jagged, blasted surface
of Durga and the Phantom rocketed
towards the small asteroids the planet held in orbit. Durga was a peculiarity
in the empire, a moon that has suffered some sort of explosion fifty years ago
that had blown away a quarter of the celestial body and changed its orbit,
putting it permanently on the night side of its mother planet, Ginias. In
addition, some of the debris form the explosion still hung in orbit, making any
approaches a dangerous proposition at best.
perhaps I should do my part to change that,
"Tower, this is
Straeger," he said. "I'm going to take the
normal'>Phantom into orbit and clear some of these asteroids. I want to run
some tests on the Crystal Pulse Cannon."
"Acknowledged, Phantom," the tower called back.
"We're monitoring you ad have cleared traffic. Good hunting."
Straeger concentrated and
the targeting display for the cannon appeared. He locked onto one of the
asteroids. The cannon mounted atop the Phantom
hummed to life and annihilated the asteroid with a beam of white energy.
Straeger smiled and fired at another, and another. He kept firing until the
energy reservoir was damaged.
"Good job, Phantom," the tower called.
"You've cleared an orbital window for us."
"Think nothing of
it," Straeger said. "Tower, I'm heading back. Have a flight crew
ready to re-arm and re-charge the ship. Keep it on hot standby for the next 48
hours. Phantom out."
ship is amazing,
Straeger thought. The raw power
it has at its disposal, plus the fact that it cant be locked onto, is
apparently invisible is--
He stopped his train of
thought when the displays flickered in his mind. He chided himself for letting
his excitement undermine his concentration and re-established the links. The
engines of the Phantom yanked him
from Ginius' orbit and banked around the edge of Durga, heading home.
After all, Straeger still
had to settle in and study up on Warlord Algrim. In two days time, he would be
on his way to meet him.
Kienan leaned his head against the cool wall of the shower, letting the
steaming hot water soak into his long, unbraided hair and cover his naked
golden skin. It was an extravagance, having a water shower on a ship this
small, he knew, but moments like this justified the expense.
Besides, he was more than
rich enough to afford the finer things.
Kienan thought about what
Gold had said. "The deadliest man in the universe" may have seemed
like hyperbole, but it wasn't far from the truth. Since the age of 15, Kienan
had bathed in blood more often than he had in water.
It had began on Caldera, his
home. A home that was overrun by an ancient and deadly species that had killed
everyone in his small colony, except for him. Kienan redressed the balance by
annihilating the planet itself by destroying the sun.
From there, he drifted for a
time, finding his way to the bloodmatches on Kuran colony. Four hundred fights
and he had retired undefeated. From there, he was recruited into the local
crime syndicate, the Blue Dragons, and had added to his reputation almost
effortlessly. To Kienan, it seemed like someone else's life sometimes.
Killing was as natural as
breathing. It was what he did. He had learned other skills, but only with the
idea in mind to make him a better killer.
He let the water wash over
him for a little while more, and finally shut it off. He stretched out a little
and stepped out of the shower stall, reaching for his towel. He looked over his
shoulder in his bathroom mirror and caught a glimpse of the huge "X"
scar, the only wound he had received in his bloodmatches, indeed, the only
permanent scar on his body. One of Kienan's talents in killing was us ability
to create a storm of blood and violence, but to walk among that storm
He dressed himself quickly,
pulling on clothes similar to the ones he had removed. Blue pants, black boots,
black armor bodysuit, and his red vest and gloves. He sat down on the edge of
his bed and threw his mass of hair over his shoulders and set himself to
braiding it. In about two minutes it was done. He relaxed, stretched out, and
lay on his bed, looking at the ceiling above him and frowning.
He tapped the communications
panel at the head of his bed. "Mirage," he said. "How long until
you're done with that analysis?"
"Another hour, maybe
two," Mirage said. "Conscience as cracked the Imperial Rigellian
Network and we're pulling data from it too."
"Fine, " Kienan
said. "I'll be up there then. Let me know if I'm needed sooner."
Kienan leaned over and
scooped up his pistol belt, pulling one of his custom built machine pistols
from its holster and sliding it underneath the pillow within reach of his right
hand. In his left he clutched his knife, the Midare-Giri, the Mistress of Pain,
the prize for champion standing in the bloodmatches.
Now feeling more secure,
Kienan closed his eyes and got some sleep.
Silhouette studied the readout of the message on her console as the Umbra made its way through space. It was
important all right. Apparently, an unexplained energy surge had been detected
by one of her agents at the border of Rigellian space two months ago, and had
been repeating at lower frequencies ever since.
Silhouette frowned. She knew
she should investigate --after all,
that's why she had agents spread throughout the various sectors of the galaxy,
to detect phenomena like this.
But she had to see Kienan
first. While Kienan was probably not connected to this at all, she had to see
him all the same.
Silhouette asked herself. To
warn him? Would he listen? Of course not, he never listened to me for one
minute. But even so . . .I want to see him again. But I shouldn't. Didnt I try
everything in my power to get away from him? Didnt I try to move on with
someone else? Didn't I try . . .
Silhouette shut off the
message display and stared ahead into space. Four years ago she had done her
best to get away from Kienan, to the point of leaping in front of him while he
was shooting at someone. She had done her best to make him think she was dead.
hurt him bad,
she thought. Every time I've
seen him since then, I can see the anger in his eyes, the betrayal. He'll never
understand why. And I can never tell him the truth of why. And to think, I
accused him of never telling me everything. I should have killed him, it would
have been easier than living the lie.
She punched some buttons on
a console on her left. She was homing in on a signal that she knew Kienan left
open for her, so that she could find him. No matter how quietly angry he was at
her, he had never shut the door on her completely.
It was one of the reasons
she still loved him. He never could fully give her up. She stared ahead into
the onrushing stars. It would only be a matter of hours now.