Gunmetal Black 2
Chapter 2 - No Reply
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Kienan dreamt of a time before now. It was four years ago, and he was sitting alone in a transfer station on the orbital drydock. He sat in a corner table, near the back of the waiting station next to the vid-phones, watching the people come and go, make calls, get drinks, make their way to their ships as the orbital traffic station announced their clearance.

Kienan sat and waited. Between his fingers was a cigarette, his fourth since he had sat down (Hours? Minutes?). Its brothers sat crushed and twisted and ground out in a glass ashtray whose bottom was murky and black.

Kienan took a drag off of his cigarette and stared ahead vacantly. His eyes passively tracked a younger man, shoving past crowds of people on the way to the phones. He had seen the look on his own face before. Preoccupation, probably about a woman.

Yes, he knew that quite well.

Kienan knew exactly how he felt, all right. He was just better at hiding it. He watched the man as he tapped the call numbers on the vid-phone with the practiced ease of someone who had committed it to instinctive memory. The shaking of his hands, Kienan reckoned, was a new complication.

"Hello," the younger man said into the vid-phone. "Yes, I know. Well, is she in? Look, I need to talk to her, just for a minute. I haven’t heard from her in awhile and I just want to know she's all right."

Kienan stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray and lit another, grimacing imperceptibly as he did. This conversation had a disturbingly familiar resonance.

"Look, we had a fight last night, and I just wanted to . . .I know what she said! But she couldn't have meant it! Just please, please put her on."

Tears welled up in the young man's eyes, and he hunched over the phone to hide them. Kienan thought of what he was waiting for. Or rather, who he was waiting for. Not one day ago, he had killed a man on this colony. Silhouette had been there to assist him and take the shot in the unlikely event Kienan missed.

"Please?"

Silhouette had taken the shot all right. Kienan closed his eyes and saw the spectacle unspool in his mind for the hundredth time this afternoon. He felt the kick of the sniper rifle in his hands and saw Silhouette move slowly towards the podium, held in slow time by his memory.

"Thank you, thank you . . .I just want to make sure she's OK. Just five minutes, I promise."

She shoved the target out of the way as the shell blew through her chest, punched through her shoulder blade. Drops of blood floated in midair like they were in zero gravity.

"Misha? Hi, it's Marcus. Look, about last night . . .I'm sorry. I was just scared; I didn’t know what the hell I was saying. I was just . . .scared. I didn’t want to lose you, and I overreacted."

The shell smashed into the stage behind her and exploded in a ball of fire. People ran slowly everywhere, the whole thing seeming comical, almost like a dance.

"Misha, please, I love you. We'll work it out . . .I Lo--"

Kienan saw himself running from the building he was perched in. He knew what happened next. He was to get out, and leave no evidence that he had ever been there.

"Hello? Misha?"

And that meant leaving Silhouette behind.

"MISHA! Are you there? Please talk to me?"

Kienan was taking an awful risk, but he had to know. He had agreed to a later orbital exit and planned to wait for her. She knew to meet him there, and if he waited long enough . . .

"Yes hello. No, she hung up, I just . . .NO! Please, let me talk to her! I've got straighten this out . . .no, please don't--"

The young man hunched over the phone like his own heart had been shot out of his chest. Kienan took a drag off of his cigarette and knew exactly how he felt.

"Freighter Caldera, you are now clear to begin departure . . .message repeats: Freighter Caldera, you are clear to exit."

He closed his eyes and stubbed his cigarette out and went to board his ship. As he made his way to the door that led to the docking ring, he looked over his shoulder one last time.

The young man was smashing his hand against the phone in frustration, but that wasn't what Kienan was focusing on this time.

It was the brown-haired woman standing over the table he had only minutes ago been sitting at.

Kienan blinked and opened his eyes, his lungs taking a deep breath of the cold air. The Silhouette, he thought, a little cross. It was just a dream.
Kienan sat up and reached for his cigarettes. Should have known better, he chided himself. She never did show up. And when she did, it was too late and we were too far apart to make up the difference. Things changed.
"Kienan," Mirage's voice came over his communication unit. "We're ready."

"On my way,' Kienan said, brushing his hair out of his face and heading for the bridge. He turned the images of his dream over in his head as he walked the softly-lit hallways. The images were as hard to hold onto as the smoke trailing from his cigarette now.

He willed himself to stop thinking about her as the door to the bridge slid open. Vain and Mirage turned to look at him and Kienan nodded to them as he took his seat on the bridge.

"So," Kienan said. "What have we got?"

"A very interesting assignment," Mirage said. "More so than we initially thought. Turns out this . . .Warlord Algrim is quite a celebrated figure in Rigellian history. And that was before he "died," allegedly."

"It appears our client wants you to kill a legend," Vain said.

Kienan nodded and took a drag off of his cigarette as the data they had accumulated scrolled onto the Silhouette's viewscreens.


"Don’t you ever take a break, Agent Straeger?" Riven asked him. "I've been checking with our flight controllers. If you haven’t been here, studying all the data on Algrim that was available, you've been taking the Phantom out for systems tests. You're obsessed."

Straeger looked up from the readouts on his desk. "My apologies sir," he said, removing his reading glasses and folding them carefully before placing them on the desk. "I've been familiarizing myself with all available data on the Phantom in addition to studying Algrim. The information on Algrim alone would take me four days to sift through."

"And the Malios will be here in a day and a half," Riven said. "Tell me . . .what do you think of the Phantom?"

"She's an amazing fighter," Straeger said. "Far in advance of anything I've piloted in my time at Praxia."

Riven smiled and nodded. "Well, I suggest you be gentle with her. She's the only one we have, and we won't be able to make any more unless we get very lucky."

"I don’t understand," Straeger said.
"No need for you to understand at the moment," Riven said, dismissing the unspoken questions Straeger proffered with a wave of his hand. "Now, Algrim . . .tell me what you've learned. I know him quite well . . .and your analysis should be intriguing."

"My analysis isn’t finished yet," Straeger said. "But from what I do know, the man's reputation is well-deserved. Hundreds of citations, from the final days of our revolution against the Ghram, the First Subjugation, to the Earth War. But so far nothing that connects in any logical way to the destruction of two research ships several sectors away from the main battle."

Riven nodded, taking a seat and carefully draping his cloak around his left arm. "Very good," he said. "But you’re looking for connections based on what you have seen. Look for what is not there."

Straeger's brow furrowed. "Well, there are some . . .peculiarities."

Riven smiled and folded his fingers in his lap. "Very good. Such as?"

"Well, he was never named to the Imperial Court, for one," Straeger said. "Nearly every Warlord before and after him spent some time as the Captain of the Imperial Guard. It's a high honor for the aristocracy. But several times Algrim seems to have refused the commission. He preferred to stay in the war zone. The final time he was offered the commission, he refused and completed the subjugation of the Oneirans."

"And why would he do that?" Riven asked. "You know as well as I the games the aristocracy plays. Power, title, position -- it's all tied into battle prowess. Praxia cadets become Warmasters, get their fief and their ship and spend the rest of their lives building their fortunes from there. Wars are a way to find favor in court."

"But from all accounts, Algrim has no interest in politics," Straeger said, gesturing to the records on his desk. "In fact, several times he seems to do everything he can to avoid any contact with the Imperial Court. Which is astounding, because he had the loyalty and the authority to establish himself as second only to the Empress in authority. But he repeatedly turned away from it to continue in space. Obviously not for the usual reasons, but that brings us back to why."

"Algrim was born to one of the last generations to be enslaved by the Ghram," Riven said. "When the revolution began, Algrim was one of the first to take up arms, one of the first who learned how to turn their machines against them. And before he could take the war all the way back to the Ghram's home space, they retreated. Algrim never got his chance to make them pay in the way he felt they were owed."

"As I understand it," Straeger said. "We didn’t even get the chance to take the battle into their space before their Armageddon Weapon destroyed their home system and sent them into retreat."

"Algrim felt cheated, but was able to put it aside, because now we Rigellians were masters of our own destiny and set about establishing our own great Empire," Riven continued. "That work kept him busy, as did the Earth War. That work kept the anger and the rage he felt against the Ghram far from his mind. Can you imagine holding onto that feeling of being cheated for a hundred and fifty years, as he did?"

Straeger shook his head. "So he kept fighting out of misplaced aggression against the Ghram? If he felt that strongly, what was to keep him from taking his forces into Ghram space without sanction and finishing the job the Armageddon Weapon started?"

"He felt a duty to his people," Riven said. "That's why he has the love of his soldiers. He was living proof of the righteousness that led us to seize our destiny from the Ghram and make our own. And they knew he would never lead them into defeat, because Algrim would never allow his people to become slaves to anyone."

"Powerful feelings," Straeger said, holding his reading glasses in the palm of his hands. "I understand now why having him killed would have destroyed morale. The man is considered a legend, and with good reason. His history is Rigellia's history."

"That's what made him dangerous," Riven said. "I was privy to his trial in absentia. There were some in the Imperial Court who wanted to execute him even knowing the damage it would do to morale. Legends are dangerous Heinrich, and living legends doubly so. And among those in the Imperial Court, our destiny is a hotly debated question."

"Our destiny?" Straeger said.

Riven nodded. "We're not the pre-eminent power in the galaxy anymore, Heinrich," he said. "We've enemies on one side and tenuous allies on the other, caught between fire and flood. There's a growing fear that unless we re-establish ourselves as a great power we'll become as irrelevant as the Khephren, or in retreat, like the Ghram. Everyone sees our destiny slipping away, but no one can agree on what destiny we should reach for or how to stop it from slipping through our fingers."

Straeger regarded Riven curiously. "Forgive my impertinence, sir," he began, choosing his words carefully. "But why are you telling me this?"

Riven smiled enigmatically. "In good time, Heinrich. And by that time, you'll have the answer yourself. You won’t need me to give it to you."

Silhouette re-checked the fix on her screen. Kienan usually changed his navigation homing signal several times an hour, but Silhouette had made sure to keep her systems calibrated to his signals. Just in case.

She thought about that for a moment. Just in case what? She pondered. Just in case I go back to him? Just in case I fight beside him again, killing people on orders from someone else, taking lives at the directive of others? Could I even do that now, knowing what I know about myself?

Her mind flashed back to that day four years ago, and how angry she had been when Kienan shot her, how the only thing that had kept her going was her rage and her bitter feeling of betrayal as she crawled underneath the burning stage, holding her chest to futilely keep her blood inside her body.

She had hid under the debris until the flames died down and climbed out, only to find, to her shock, that the wound had healed herself. Moreover, her past, which had previously been a blank slate to her, had stared coming through in flashes, like sunlight through window blinds.

And on that day she struck out on her own to find the answers she needed and to fill in the blanks in her memory. And every night she spent on a quest to remember was a night she spent trying to forget Kienan Ademetria.

But the nights were too long, she thought. They always are, here in space. I couldn’t sleep without thinking he was there. I couldn’t stop thinking about how gently he held me in his arms at night. Like he never wanted me to go. Like he was desperately clinging to something he needed.
And then I would lay there, angry with myself, for not being able to forget him. Angry because I still wanted him close. Angry because I wanted to wait for him to able to say he loved me as much as I loved him. And angry because I could never escape him, no matter how far, because he was a shadow over my heart.

She had tried to start again with someone, of course. Lewis Sinclaire had been the exact antithesis of Kienan --patient, disciplined, kind but firm. Exactly what she thought she needed.

She closed her eyes in shame as her mind drifted over the thought of him, and how, even in Sinclaire's arms she couldn’t avoid thinking of Kienan.

She bit her lip and re-aligned the homing signal to the Silhouette. The guilt of what she had done to Sinclaire welled up in her mouth like a bitter wine. It hadn’t been fair to compare him to Kienan. Not that it had stopped her from doing so.

Her thoughts drifted to the last time she had seen him. She had just returned from saving Kienan's life. Somehow, Sinclaire knew where she had been, and he had assumed that she wanted Kienan again. He offered to go, quietly, but she pleaded with him to stay.

"Sinclaire, I couldn’t let him die," She said to him, putting her hands on his arms and trying to draw him into an embrace.

"I would have made sure there wasn't even a question of his dying," Sinclaire had replied, his blue-green eyes thin and steely as he looked down at her. He pushed her away. "I would have killed him myself. And that's the real reason you sent me away, isn’t it? You knew the people who had shot him were gone except for the one he tailed into the warehouse, but you sent me after them so you could be with him in peace."

"That's not it at all," Silhouette said, sitting in her seat and beginning to cry.

"I know what you meant to do," Sinclaire said. "I knew you were still in love with him Sil. I knew he was your first, and you could never completely get him out of your system . . .

"The only thing I ever asked was that you be honest with me about it," he said. The words hurt almost as bad as Kienan's gunshot.

Silhouette leaned forward and started crying. "Sinclaire, I love you," she said, starting to sob. "I swear to you, this is all a misunderstanding. I can’t do this alone. I need you."

Sinclaire looked down at the floor, then back to her. "You’re going to have to do it alone. I'm leaving."

NO!" Silhouette said. The sound of her protest was weaker than it should have been.

"My mind's made up, Sil," he said calmly. "We have to find our own ways now. And I hope that you find it in your heart to let go of this twisted dream you have about being with Kienan again. When you go to him and you find he doesn’t want you any more . . .where will you go? What will you do?"

"I don’t want to go to him," Silhouette said, crying harder. "I want to be with you."

"I can’t be with you, Sil," Sinclaire said, turning away from her and opening the door to their quarters. "I need time."

"Sinclaire . . .please . . .don't walk out that door."

"I have to," he said. He closed his eyes and sighed so heavily his whole body relaxed.
"But I promise to come back."

"When?"

Sinclaire looked back at her. "When we're both ready. Remember what I taught you . . .you don’t find your destiny, it finds you. Even when you run from it."

Sinclaire walked out the door. Silhouette raised her head and looked at him walking away, her eyes bloodshot with tears.

"Sinclaire!"

Sinclaire stopped.

"I love you."

Sinclaire bowed his head and shook it gently, sadly, like a man resigned.

Silhouette wiped the tears from her eyes that always seemed to rise from her eyes when she thought of that night. It had been two years now, but it hurt her like it had been five minutes ago.

And now she was going to see Kienan, as if following the prediction Sinclaire had laid out so long ago. But would Kienan welcome her or reject her.

Who was right? Kienan or Sinclaire?

She didn’t know.

"An Imperialer-class flagship and two Dorvack-class destroyers," Kienan said, studying the data on the screen. He took a slow drag off of his cigarette and "At least a hundred years old, but probably kept well armed and well-manned. Did any of the data you got from the Rigellian Network have any details on fighter complements or location?"

"None," Mirage said. "The guy's officially dead, so if he is getting resupplied, any evidence would be buried deep, as would any cargo transfers."

"I don’t see how we can get to him," Vain said. "Tough as the Silhouette is, we don’t have the power to take on three battleships at once, and our fighters won’t help, because we'll have to deal with their fighters and have nothing left for the battleships."

Kienan studied the data again. "And I have to get close enough to him to take his sword, or there's no deal. Our client didn’t make this easy."

"Maybe we're thinking of this in the wrong way?" Mirage asked.

"I'm listening," Kienan said, smoking his cigarette.

"We can't take on the ships head-on, because we can’t win and we risk killing the target before we're ready," Mirage said. "But ships like this can’t operate this far away from starbases equipped enough to keep them running. Resupplying would be took big a hassle, no matter how much they get from Rigellia."

"You’re saying they have built their own base?" Vain asked.

"It makes sense," Kienan said. "We don’t need to deal with the ship. We just need to find the base, draw off the ships where we can destroy them one-on-one until there's just his ship. Then it's simple infiltration and wetwork."

"The trick is finding the base without being discovered," Mirage said.

"It's easy enough," Vain said. "It'll take some fancy piloting, but as long as we stay hidden behind planets, nebulae, and the usual hazards to sensors, we should be little more than a shadow. But someone will have to pilot the ship manually . . .the Southern sector's got some rough navigation points and I'll need Conscience to keep the weapons on standby."

"All right," Kienan said, turning to the ship's silent controller. "Conscience, set a course for the Rigellian border. A quiet, leisurely one --let's not attract any attention. I'll get us over the border. Vain, Mirage --you two work on the weapons. I'm hoping everything will go smoothly. Experience, however, tells me it may not. I want to be ready in case we have to fight."

Vain and Mirage nodded and shut off the view screens, turning back to their bridge stations and running diagnostics and weapon tests. Kienan turned to Conscience, perplexed.

"Conscience?" Kienan asked. "Why aren’t we on course?"

"A ship," Conscience said flatly.

"What kind of ship? An Earth patrol?"

"No," Conscience said. "Umbra."

Kienan grimaced. "Silhouette."


Straeger rubbed his eyes and shut off the readouts. Algrim's logs were fascinating reading all right, but he simply couldn’t keep his mind on it. Riven's words had distracted him too much to concentrate beyond a certain point.

Destiny, he thought. I suppose its not to be all that surprising that the commander of Black Lens, the eyes and ears of the Empire would be obsessed with his people's destiny. After all, Black Lens has done almost as much to guide the Empire as the Empress and the Warmasters combined.
He stood up from his desk and made his way to his cot in the corner of the room, preparing to catch a few hours sleep and come back to his research as he awaited the Malios.
He thought about what Riven had said about Algrim, about how he had felt denied his vengeance at the Ghram, denied the chance to pay them back for a millennia of slavery of his people.

Algrim felt cheated, but was restrained from taking the war into Ghram space by the smaller wars, Straeger recalled. The First Subjugation, the establishment of our Empire, the conquest of the Oneirans, the border wars with the Khephren, he was forever being sent on a new mission to win a war.
Even against Earth. But he didn't finish the battle against Earth either.

Straeger's eyes, half-closed and drowsy, suddenly snapped open.

He was denied a victory against Earth,he thought. Just as he was against the Ghram.
Straeger sat bolt upright, trying to catch his breath, Pieces of the puzzle that was Warlord Algrim were fall into place like snow falling on a grassy field. At the very least, Straeger felt as though he understood the man who, in a day's time, he would meet to accomplish a mission he hadn’t yet been given the particulars on.

But at least now he felt ready.


Silhouette smiled thinly as the guidance beacon from the Silhouette activated and the silver cigar-shaped freighter came into view. She made subtle adjustments to her trajectory and slowly guided the Umbra into the Silhouette's docking bay. She eased into the holding area as the docking arms closed around her ship. She loosened her safety harness, bracing herself for the next step.

Her muscles tensed as the Umbra was moved into the main hangar area, the artificial gravity exerting its force over her. While it was the standard 1G gravity, it felt much heavier after a long haul in open space.

The docking arms finally set the ship to the side, and Silhouette shut down the Umbra's systems, activating the cockpit release. She was lowered from the Umbra, swinging her legs off of the padded rest and standing up and stretching, her hand drifting slightly to her hip, and the silver pistol holstered there.

She looked around. It was dark, but that was no shock to her. Kienan had always liked it dark. It was the stillness, the quiet immobility of even the air she was breathing that disturbed her. She walked around, the soles of her boots clicking hollowly on the metal hangar deck. Her eyes soon adjusted to the spare light and she walked with a little more surety.

Her eyes narrowed on a small swatch of light. The exit to the rest of the ship loomed above her. Her eyes narrowed. An access ladder, she thought.

Before she could make her way to it, a muscular arm whipped around her neck and sent her sprawling to the ground roughly, but not enough to truly hurt her, just to surprise her. Two sets of footsteps echoed on either side of her, and she rolled away, reaching for her gun. But her gun was gone.

Her eyes stung all over as the lights suddenly came on. Silhouette waited for her eyes to adjust. When they did, she saw two of Kienan's android assistants near the door, weapons drawn on her. And standing over her was Kienan himself, pistol drawn at her head. In his other hand, he held her weapon.