Gunmetal Black 2
Chapter 5 - Regret
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Straeger stared back at the Oneirans who milled around the science lab. They seemed nervous being in his presence, and really, who could blame them? They had been taught from the very beginning of their lives to fear and obey any Rigellian they came across without question. Straeger, for his part, loved it. He stood at attention, keeping his lens weapon in sight at all times. The arguments with Indiga still rang in his ears, and any opportunity to reassert his dominance over one of her kind was welcome and a nice diversion from all he had on his mind.

As if summoned by his thoughts, Indiga entered from the other side of the lab, carrying a heavy case festooned with several complicated locks. Straeger gestured for her to put it on the table and open it, but she waited for a moment.

Indiga looked at him for a few moments, her eyes meeting his and then flitting to the other personnel in the lab. Of course, Straeger thought. I almost let my curiosity distract me from procedure.

"Clear and lock the room," he ordered. Almost immediately, everyone save Indiga and himself left the room and the doors to the lab slid shut and clanked secure. Straeger looked at Indiga, who took a seat at one of the lab tables.

"I had assumed you would be going as well once you opened the case," Straeger said, taking a seat on the opposite side. "My research is not for your eyes."

"What's inside this case was entrusted to me by the scientists on Durga," Indiga said. "I'm not letting it out of my sight for you or anyone. It's far to valuable."

Straeger didn’t feel like arguing at this moment. "Very well," he said. "Make yourself useful and open the case."

Straeger watched as she opened the heavy case, withdrawing a small disk-shaped tray from it. His red eyes widened at the sight of it. It was treasure all right. The most precious treasure in the galaxy, and a small taste of the one which awaited them.

"This is a sample taken from the ship at Durga?" Straeger said, taking it into his hands. Inside the disk was a black mass that seemed to be a hole in space, it was so dark, much like the skin of the Phantom.

Indiga nodded. "The only sample left, really. The rest that was salvaged was used to for the Phantom project. Of what few samples remained, this one survived our tests."

"I see," Straeger said, his mind more on the now-active mass in the disk. It moved around the dish like an amoeba. In fact it seemed to be swimming towards him. "How old is it?"

"None of our dating methods worked when it came determining its age, however based on the depth at which the ship was buried, it would have to have been put there at the time the moon was beginning to form."

"Amazing," Straeger said. "An ancient race with this technology probably could have dominated the galaxy. For all we know, we walk above their graves even now."

"If they were so powerful, Straeger," Indiga said. "Why aren’t there any still alive? Why are we just now learning about them? Would you like my theory on the subject?"

Straeger looked up. "Not really."

"These aliens could have become just like every dominating race, just like the Ghram, just like you Rigellians," Indiga continued, not heeding his order. "You rise up so that you won’t be slaves and make slaves of others and the cycle continues on and on through the millennia. You were slaves to the Ghram, and you have made us slaves as well. But we will break the cycle you seem trapped in."

"Really," Straeger said coldly, still holding the tray. "How?"

"We Oneirans will wait for you to destroy yourselves," Indiga said. "You are slaves to your fear and your history. We didn’t resist your subjugation because we saw your future centuries ago, and we are patient. My people will walk on the grave of your empire long after the stars of Rigel have darkened for all time."

"Are you finished?" Straeger said, weary of her and eager to see the sample.

"Interesting," Indiga said. "I was about to ask you the same thing."='font-size:

"Leave the room," Straeger said. "Now. Riven's protection will only take you so far where we are going. And there are a lot more of my people on this ship than yours. And all of us my dear Indiga, are armed."

Indiga stood and walked away. "Riven will hear about this," she said.

"Will he?" Straeger said. "I won't hold my breath waiting for the blade to fall. Riven is Rigellian, as am I. Who will he believe finally? You or the Agent who delivered one of the most valuable finds in history to him? Now, leave Oneiran."

Straeger watched her leave and the door shut and lock again. Then, making sure the room was secure, he opened the tray. He had been reviewing the data on the Durga ship and the data on the Phantom and had decided to fill out the remaining time before they rendezvoused with Algrim working on a hunch.

The Phantom's telepathic interface was unheard of on a Rigellian ship, and in truth it shouldn’t have worked, and Straeger has a feeling he knew why it worked so well. He reached out with his mind to the black mass gently probing at it with his mind.

He felt a chill run through his body. It didn’t have a consciousness so much as it had a raw feeling about it, black and cold like the void of space. His brow furrowed as he struggled to maintain the mental link without being overwhelmed. This was slightly beyond his training as a psi, but he was determined to test his theory. He took a deep breath and formed a shape in his mind, much as he would to use the lens weapon.
A star, he thought. Four points. He cleared his mind and opened his eyes.

The mass in the tray was a perfect four-pointed star.

Valcuria's hand, he thought, stunned. He looked at his lens weapon, then back at the mass in the dish. He summoned a star with his lens and laid the solid energy construct on the table, comparing the two.

Unbelievable.

The lens weapon is a crude version of this bio-mass. These aliens must have used telepathy to control their ships, their weapons, and almost all their technology we've found. I should . . .

"Agent Straeger," Voelker's voice called over his lens. "Algrim has requested you and I come aboard the Ragnarok for a parley."

"We're already there?" Straeger asked, a little surprised. I must have lost track of time, he chided himself. "I'll meet you on the bridge, Voelker. Straeger out."

Straeger closed the tray and placed it back in the case, the faintest edges of a plan forming in his mind. However, for now it would have to wait.


Silhouette looked at Kienan, who looked at her. "Silhouette," he said. "You've given me at least ten reasons since you came on board why you’re here. For someone who chides me for my ability to tell the truth, you're not distinguishing yourself any."='font-size:

"Kienan," she said. "I don’t know what happened. I was dreaming, and I . . .woke up."

Kienan blinked. "You don't sleepwalk, Sil."

"Normally, no. I also don’t usually have flashbacks of things that haven’t happened yet," Silhouette said. "I must be going crazy . . .I was walking down the hall, but it wasn't THIS hall, and I was back with Toriares, and then I was . . .with her." Silhouette pointed at the woman frozen behind Kienan.

Kienan looked shocked. "Sil, she hasn't been outside of this cryo-unit more than an hour since she was created. She can't even think above the level of a savage animal, much less know who you are."

"Not yet," Sil said. "See what I mean?"

Kienan holstered his pistol. "Beginning to."

"Who is she?" Sil asked, walking towards him.

"Nobody." Kienan looked over his shoulder as he lit a cigarette and bent down to pick up his books.

"Since when do you pick up stays, Kienan?"

"Okay, she's none of your business," Kienan said, a little more firm. '"I was trying to soften the blow, but you made me say it. Happy?"

"Kienan, is that . . .Jayla?"

Kienan stacked the book in his arms and slammed them down on a nearby desk next to the cryo-unit. He took a long look at the woman in the cryo-tube and then at Silhouette.

"Yes," Kienan said. "And no. That is Jayla, or what was made in her."='font-size:

"A clone?"

"More than that," Kienan said, taking another drag off of the cigarette. He stood in front of the cryo-tube, almost protectively, and bathed in the pale blue light, Silhouette could almost see the weight of the sadness he carried. "She's a gestalt of alien DNA, Jayla's DNA, God knows what else. And the first time I found her, she tried to kill me."

"Well then, why in God's name are you carrying her on your ship/" Silhouette asked.

"What else was I supposed to do, Sil?" Kienan said, tossing his cigarette away and grinding it into the deck. "I already killed her once. And if there's a chance she could live again, I owe it to her to try, to give her another chance in life."

"And once you balance the scales, then what?"

Kienan looked back at Jayla. "I guess that's up to her."

"You'd really let her go?" Silhouette asked gently.

"I don’t know. There may not be a point to my speculating about it. I haven’t been getting very far in helping her."

"Well," Silhouette said. "I could help you."

"How?" Kienan asked. "Unless you have a career on the side as a genetic researcher I don't know anything about, you're as little help as I am."

"Maybe," Silhouette said. "But if science isn't the answer, there are other options. I know places that could help her. If she has a soul, they can find it."

Kienan looked at her. "And how did you come to find out all of this?"

Sil twisted a lock of her dark hair around her finger. "After I left you I went looking for answers. Answers about myself. But those answers took me further and further than I ever thought I would go. The places I've been helped me find who I really am. They can help her, too."

Kienan lit another cigarette. "Then my next question is why. What do you want in return?"

"Don’t insult me, Kienan," Silhouette said. "I'm not a mercenary anymore. You know that."

"Before I agree I want to make damn sure I know your price, Sil."

"I'm not asking anything of you--"

"I'M NOT DOING IT FOR ME!"

They stared at each other for a moment, both shocked by the outburst, but for different reasons. For a flickering second each saw something more in the other than they had before.

"You really aren’t, are you?" Silhouette said, looking at him, and then past him to Jayla. Her mind drifted back to the dream, and back to the child in the room.

"Do you know who I really am?"

"I only ask one thing, Kienan," she said, walking towards the cryo-tube. "If she wants to go, when she has her mind and heart restored, I want you to promise me, if she says "let me go," I want you to let her walk away."

Kienan looked at her. "I was going to do that anyway."

"You sure?" Silhouette said. "It's easy to be that magnanimous when she's that far away. But the day will come when she's restored, and she reminds you exactly of why you wanted her, why you needed her, and she won't be so easy to let go of then. But you have to. Don’t make her . . .do what I did."

Kienan took a thoughtful drag off of his cigarette. He sighed, sending a stream of smoke into the darkness. "All right. But if this fails, I'll come after you, Silhouette. And I'll forget everything but your failure."

"All right," Silhouette nodded, looking at Jayla, sleeping icily above them.

"Why do you care so much, Silhouette?" Kienan asked.

"Because," Silhouette said, reaching out towards Jayla. "She is beginning where I began. We're . . .almost sisters."


The Malios pulled alongside the gigantic warship, dwarfed by its massiveness. The Ragnarok was much older and bore the signs of previous battles, but its grandeur was still evident. It was a proud ship, built in a prouder age.

Straeger and Voelker skimmed the surface of the Ragnarok in a small shuttle, heading for the Ragnarok's main launch bay.

"It's an antique," Straeger said.

"It's a legend," Voelker said, a flicker of awe evident in his voice, a flicker that made Straeger bristle slightly. "He sounds like he did in the old histories, still as commanding as ever. No wonder so many followed him here. He commands respect as easily as he breathes."
 
"There's nothing wrong with respect," Straeger said. "Just don’t forget why we're here, Janos. What we have come to do has little room for respect of celebrity."

"I haven’t forgotten," Voelker said, piloting the ship into the shuttle bay and beginning the landing cycle. "It doesn't mean I have to relish it."

"Of course not," Straeger said. "But we have to remain focused."

"Yes," Voelker said, distracted. Straeger and Voelker unstrapped themselves as the landing cycle completed and the shuttle exit ramp deployed. They walked out to see a full welcoming detail. Troops, crewmen, pilots, almost the full complement of the Ragnarok, apparently. All of them stood to attention as they stepped away from the shuttle. And in the center of the detail stood a taller, older man, dressed in a uniform much like Straeger's and Voelker's, only trimmed with gold and covered in a blood-red cloak and brandishing a long curved sword.

"Warlord Algrim," Voelker said, saluting, then bowing. Straeger saluted, but did not bow. Up close Algrim still looked vigorous despite his years, but his thinning hair and the deep lines around his red eyes betrayed the weariness of one who had seen much too much war in his life and was beginning to weary of it. Straeger noticed that Algrim was leaning on his sword, also, using it almost like a cane. He fought the urge to smirk at his weakness.

Obviously, legends were not made to be seen up close, style='font-size: he thought. He looked past Algrim to the man who seemed to stand close behind him, most especially because in a shuttle bay full of Rigellians, he was the only one who wasn't Rigellian. He was dressed in robes and wrappings, his skin a dark bronze and his eyes quiet and patient, looking like a cobra's and much like that snake, his were hooded as well. His eyes met Straeger's, both of them recognizing the other for what they were.

"Agent Straeger, Warmaster Voelker," Algrim said, beckoning them to be at ease. "I and the crew of the Ragnarok welcome you aboard."

"Thank you, Warlord," Voelker said. "We're honored to meet you."='font-size:

"Is it customary for you to greet honored guests with your sword drawn, Warlord?" Straeger asked.

Algrim looked down. "I do not sheathe my sword until the battle is finished," he said flatly.

Straeger looked around. "Are we in a sate of war I was unaware of?"

"The war is never over, Agent Straeger," Algrim said. "But enough. There's a feast prepared in the officer's quarters. I will be more than happy to answer all of your questions there. If you would accompany us?"

"Of course, Warlord," Voelker said. Straeger grimaced. Janos is falling under Algrim's spell, he thought. So long as he doesn't forget what our duty really is, I'll forgive it.

Algrim signalled the detail's dismissal and the bay was momentarily full of activity as troopers and crewmen rushed to retake their stations before the ship would resume its course. But the dark man behind Algrim didn’t move at all. Only when Algrim turned to leave the bay did he move, as did Voelker and Straeger.


"Problems?" Kienan asked, watching Vain and Mirage piloting the ship. The Silhouette was in medium Space Drive, going slower so as not to attract any attention as they travelled further into Rigellian space.

"Another ship as joined our target's squad. They rendezvoused at the Celadon Nebula an hour ago," Vain said. "It's a Malios-class battlecruiser."

"Damn," Kienan said, exhaling a small stream of smoke. "They’re really not going to make this easy. How much progress has Conscience made on our little booby trap?"

"She'll need another six hours," Mirage said. "By that time we'll be in the system and, unless we stay very far back, within their scanning range."

"Damn," Kienan said. "Well ladies, any ideas?"

"I have one," Vain said. "But it has nothing to do with the Rigellians."

Kienan smiled. "Silhouette?"

"She's an unknown variable, and she can’t be trusted," Vain said. "I hate unknown variables. We should put her off as soon as possible. Her ship's re-fuelled and ready to go, and we're still within well-travelled space. We could disengage the Space Drive, put her off and resume our course, and jam her sensor suite so she can't follow us."

Kienan sighed. "How many hours until we're off the standard shipping lanes?"

"At our present speed, we've got an hour and a half," Mirage said. "If she's going to leave, it better be now."

Kienan watched the smoke from his cigarette trail away. Silhouette had returned to the Umbra to upload her data for him. She had said it would take an hour to finish, and that had been forty minutes ago.
I hope she's done by that time, he thought. I've been distracted by her long enough. Perhaps if I'd kept my mind on the job, four Rigellian warships wouldn’t seem like such a big obstacle. I'm so vulnerable to her. I'm a fool for being vulnerable to her after everything that's happened. But if she can help, I owe it to Jayla, don't I?

"All right," Kienan said. "I'll see to her, and then I'll be below decks in the G-Room."

"If you’d like Kienan, we could see to her getting off the ship," Mirage said.

"I know you would, Mirage," Kienan said, smiling. "But you might forget to put her in her ship first."


The feast was quite grand, certainly grander than Straeger would have thought possible given the length of Algrim's exile. Meats, vegetables, even vintage kiral were spread out over the huge table in the officer's quarters. Voelker was eating hearty, after all, life on a warship meant little better than standard rations, so any opportunity to feast was welcomed.

Straeger picked at his plate slower and more deliberately. He was keenly aware that Algrim and his silent companion had never taken their eyes off of him the entire meal. Algrim's mysterious companion had not even taken a seat at the table, but had stood behind Algrim's chair and stared at him the entire time.

"So tell me, Agent Straeger," Algrim said, lifting his food to his mouth without ever once taking his eyes off of Straeger. "How are things in the Empire?"

Straeger put down his fork and sat back in his chair. "I don’t think it's changed all that much from the time you were there, Warlord," he said. "The Empire does well."

"It does," Algrim said neutrally. "Then assume we finally conquered Earth?"

Straeger raised an eyebrow. "Quite the contrary, Warlord," he corrected gently. "Earth and Rigellia are very close allies now. We recently signed a mutual defense treaty with the Earthers."

"Indeed?" Algrim said. The bitterness in his voice was as easy to taste as the vintage of the kiral. "Since when has the Empire needed allies?"='font-size:

"The Empire is not alone in the Galaxy any longer, Warlord. Times have changed, and so has the galaxy."

"We needed no allies to drive the Ghram from our world," Algrim said.

"The Ghram were an old and tired race," Straeger said. "They were facing threats from without and revolutions from within. From my studies of history, they would have withdrawn from Rigellia in another eighty years, whether our people rebelled or not."

Algrim's eyes widened. "How dare you? How dare you sup at my table and then curse the very thing that gave the Empire we both serve life?"

"I meant nothing by it, Warlord. Our histories--"

"Your histories don’t tell the story as it was," he said angrily, rising from his seat. "I fought the Ghram with my own hands, and later, with this sword, and from this ship." His hand came to rest on the hilt of his blade, which had been resting against his chair. "The Ghram fought us for every planet, every moon, every light-year of space, and we pried every victory from their dying hands. Your histories may deny us, but I know what we accomplished." He raised his white-gloved hands. "With these hands, Straeger! We needed no one! Most especially not the Earthers! You will not tell me my life was worthless! You will not!"

Straeger stood up, choking back his pride. Not here, he cautioned. Not now. Obviously our honored Warlord is much more fragile than I predicted. I must move carefully. The hush over the room spoke to the tension of the situation. Straeger could kill him now, but he would die immediately afterward. And he had to see the discovery first. He had to be sure it was what he hoped it was.

"Please, Warlord Algrim," he said, bowing. "Forgive my impudence. I did not mean to belittle your honored record. The people of the Empire know the role you played . . .obviously, much better than I. Forgive your humble servant."

Algrim relaxed and sat back down. "You are forgiven, Agent Straeger," he said, resuming his meal. "I caution you, Agent, here Black Lens is not above my authority, regardless of what directive you may have received. The first order you disobey will be the last thing you ever hear. Obedience is life. You should have learned that you first day at praxia. Perhaps the Empire's educators are slipping."

"I understand, Warlord," Straeger said. He swallowed his pride and anger, and resumed his meal, suddenly finding the meal to have a much more bitter taste.

"Warlord," Straeger began, making sure his voice carried the proper obsequious tone this time. "If I may ask . . .the alien behind you. Who is he?"

Algrim looked behind him. "His name is Skanda. He is a native of the planet on which our base of operations is located. He has pledged himself as my bodyguard ever since our squad found his planet. He doesn’t speak, but he is never far from my side."

"I meant to ask you, Warlord," Voelker said, sensing from Straeger that he was attempting to change the subject and defuse the tension. "How has your campaign to extend the Empire gone?"

"Very poorly, I'm afraid," Algrim said. "Skanda's home planet is within the only system we've found in years of searching that could support Imperial colonies. However, what we found when we established our base gave us some hope. That's why this discovery excites us so much. Our scientists believe that some of the components of the discovery could revolutionize our planetary colonization methods. Bring green forest to desert planets, warm glades on glacial moons."

"You could remake a world in your own image," Straeger said. "Intriguing. Just as we asserted our independence from Ghram, so now we assert our independence from the gods. Once again, you show us the way."

Algrim raised an eyebrow at Straeger. "Curious you say that after your previous outburst."

"I had no idea the ambitions you had for our people then, honored Warlord," Straeger said. More than ever he wanted to kill him, and Algrim's smug smile wasn't helping him choke down his pride anymore. "Clearly you seek to serve our people in all ways."

"Agent Straeger," Algrim said. 'To restore my honor and return home, I would give our people the very galaxy if that were required."