Gunmetal Black 2
Chapter 6 - Space Age Love Song
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Kienan stripped off his shirt and stood alone in the darkened G-Room. One step across the pale blue light into the center of the room and he would be fighting two and one half times the force of Earth's gravity.

It was, for Kienan, the only way to train. He stepped confidently over the light and immediately felt the downward pull on his body. There was always the danger, of course, as he pushed the gravity level progressively higher, that his heart would fail or his bones would be crushed, but Kienan had never been afraid of death.

He adopted a ready stance and began throwing punches at the air, his golden skin already shining with the sweat of exertion. All right, he thought, throwing a three-punch combination. Four Rigellian battle cruisers. The Imperialer's sure to be his command ship, so that's where he'd be, unless he has a planetary base somewhere in the local system.

Two fast kicks followed by a leaping kick. It's no good trying to take them on toe to toe. The Silhouette's a tough ship, but even I can’t fight numbers that profound.

A leaping spinning kick that made his muscles ache as he pushed against the gravity. Only solution is to split them up. Have them chase us and pick them off one by one or at least confuse them long enough to get aboard the Imperialer and find Algrim.

Three fast kicks, balanced on the same leg, then a twisting axe kick. Kienan landed hard and paused for a moment, taking deep breaths as sweat poured off of his body.

"Off," a soft voice said in the darkened room.

Kienan's green eyes narrowed and he took a deeper breath. "Silhouette," he said.

Silhouette stepped out from the shadows and tossed him a soft white towel. "I want you to know," she said. "I'm leaving now. You've got the information you need, and I have a mission to complete."

"I hope it's close by," Kienan said, patting the sweat off his face. "We're--"

"In Rigellian space," Silhouette finished. "I know. You did you best to hide where we were going, but I remember constellations, Kienan. And you have too many windows on this ship to keep a secret."

"Clever," Kienan said. "Since you know where we are, tell me we aren’t after the same thing. It's been . . .awkward enough, having you here."

"I don’t know who you’re after," Silhouette said. "I know what I'm after. We're close to a system where something very dangerous has been found. I'm going to blow it up before anyone gets their hands on it."

"I see," Kienan said, walking towards her. "Well, since you're tiptoeing around it, I'll say it: Don’t get in my way."

"What makes you think I'll get in your way?"

"Would you have mentioned it otherwise?"

"Kienan," she said. "I have to do this. A lot more is depending on my completing the mission than I could explain to you right now. Maybe ever, I don’t know. If I started you'd think I was crazy. Crazier, anyway. But I have to do it. Don't force me to choose between the mission and you."

"Funny," Kienan said. "I was about to say the same thing. Silhouette, you can appeal to the better angels of my nature all you want. But if you’re between me and my target . . .well . . .I've just gotta kill you."

"I understand that you have to try," Silhouette said.

Silhouette moved close to him and drew him into her arms. At first, Kienan reacted very stiffly, but slowly, he entwined his arms around her and held her close.

"Is this what it's always going to be like for us?" Silhouette asked. "Are we always going to be on opposite sides?"

"I don't know," Kienan said quietly, leaning his head on her shoulder. "You know, I had a dream once. I had finished my last job for the Blue Dragons. The last time I would ever have to kill. I came home, my guns and my knife over my shoulder, ready to hang them up for good. And I remember that the sun was setting as I made my way home. You were waiting for me in the doorway, smiling. I can remember watching the sunset cast embers in your hair and thinking, "This is where I belong. This is where I can be." And I felt the sun and the world around me and I felt like I belonged again."

"And then what happened?" Silhouette asked, blinking back tears.

"I woke up here, alone," Kienan said flatly, the passion gone from his voice. "And I knew that it was a dream, and that was all it was ever going to be."

Silhouette ran her hands down his back. "It . . .it doesn’t have to be."

Kienan kissed her behind her ear as her fingers traced the large "X" scar on his back. "Yes it does, Sil. And we both know why."

Silhouette pulled back from him and looked deep into his eyes, her own glistening with tears. She very gently pulled him towards her and kissed him, softly, but passionately. Kienan returned the kiss with sadness in his heart, because it was the confirmation of his dream.

It was a kiss goodbye.

She pulled away, and Kienan silently cured himself for dwelling on how the nearness of her filled his senses like a shadow cast over him.

"Goodbye Kienan," she said.

"Goodbye Silhouette," he said.


The shuttle departed from the Ragnarok and made its way to the drab blue-brown planet below. Algrim piloted the ship while Voelker and Skanda sat at the passenger stations. Straeger stood alone, hanging on to one of the passenger handholds.

"Welcome to Abgrund, gentlemen," Algrim said. "Unofficially, the Outer Capital of the Rigellian Empire."
The shuttle pierced the atmosphere and soon their flight evened out. Abgrund was beautiful, but very drab. Vast deserts, steppes, and small oceans made the whole planet seem like a recovering wasteland.

"Not much to look at," Straeger mused.
 
"I wanted to take you this way to show you the rest of the planet," Algrim said. "This planet is barely capable of supporting a colony as is. Water is in short supply, the soil is barely arable, the terrain often inhospitable. How people manage to live here is a mystery even to us. Now . . .in a few minutes, we'll come upon our base of operations. Skanda's people call it the Ghost Forest."

Straeger's red eyes opened in wonder as the base came into view. The actual fortifications were nothing new to him -- prefabricated parts from the Ragnarok kludged together to make a primitive fort with an airfield for offloading ships.

No, what astounded Straeger was the lushness of the forest that surrounded the fort. He ran his mind through his lessons in planetary science from praxia and found nothing.

"How is that possible?" Straeger asked. "The planet shouldn’t be capable of supporting anything like it. That forest shouldn’t exist."

"You’re correct, Agent Straeger, it shouldn't," Algrim said, bringing them over the forest again. "But there it is. I often walk in the forest in the morning. It's quite soothing, actually, and breathtakingly beautiful."

"Indeed," Straeger replied. "But how then is it possible?"

Algrim opened a communications channel to the base below. "This is shuttle one, requesting priority landing clearance. Clearance code zed-plural-Z-Alpha."

"Clearance code approved, shuttle one. Proceed with landing. Welcome home, Warlord Algrim," a voice responded over the communications unit in the shuttle.

Algrim turned to Straeger. "You'll find out soon enough. You're about to see the discovery, Agent Straeger. I think you'll find it lives up to, if not exceeds, the reports we gave your superiors."

"I should hope so," Straeger said neutrally. "It is, after all, why I'm here."


The Umbra departed from the Silhouette and immediately took a parabolic course in the opposite direction, then doubled back and made their way towards where the four ships had gathered. From a viewport in the observatory, Kienan watched her go, still thinking about what she said in the G Room. Part of him was cursing himself for letting her go, even more so for threatening to kill her. After all, she knew how dangerous he was. It wasn't like he had anything to prove.

Did he?

The door to the observatory slid open and Mirage walked in. Kienan could tell by her excited manner that she had good news. "Kienan," she said. "We've figured out how to draw them off and destroy them, but I have a better idea."

Kienan raised an eyebrow, still looking out at the stars. "I'm listening," he said.

"We should hit one of the smaller destroyers with a Parasite missile and break off. We'll aim for their main plasma gun and then hide until the Parasite's seized control of their gun's firing system. Once done, we turn the gun on one of their ships and it's one down, three to go."

"A small destroyer has a flight of five fighters," Kienan said. "Can you handle them and the support squadrons they'll call for at the same time?"

"We're working on that," Mirage said. "But we may be able to draw them into a place where their communications would be unreliable. If they can’t get a message out to the other ships, they can't send any more fighter squads to attack us. We're not trying to destroy the ship, just keep the fighters and the destroyer occupied long enough for Vain or myself to fire the missile at the right point. Then we run like hell, they assume we've broken off, and we come back and spring the trap on the ships they send after the destroyer."

"It's a good plan," Kienan said, turning to face her. He fished in his pocket for a cigarette and lit it, taking a short puff. "Where's our killing ground?"

"We're an hour, an hour and a half away," Mirage said, calling up a holographic map on the observatory table's projector. "There's a gas giant a quarter of a light year from where the ships are. Right about here. The radiation belts should fry their communications systems as soon as they get close."

Kienan took another puff. "Do they know that?"

"Not sure," Mirage said. "But the plan is for Vain and I to force them to chase us as close to the gas giant as we can get. Then they'll be fighting the gravity of the planet and us."

"That should take care of them fine," Kienan said. "Best not to destroy them outright in the planet's gravity. If we do that, we've nothing to fall back on. Besides, we need a way to listen in on them while we get closer, and the Parasite should do that nicely. I don’t want to go that deep into a war zone and find out he left two days ago."

"No," Mirage said. "That, plus I'm not sure even our fighters could hold up against a gas giant's gravity for long. Doesn’t do us any good to destroy the ship if we're destroyed ourselves."

Kienan looked at her. "Do you want me to go along with you? I could handle the fighters, give you a clear shot."

"No," Mirage said. "We need you to seed the third moon, here with a device Vain and I built while you were shooing off that horrible woman."

"What is it?"

"A transmitter," Mirage said. "It'll broadcast energy readings and sensor echoes similar to our fighters, but once it's scanned, it arms itself and blasts whatever scanned it as soon as they're in range with a high-yield gravitic fusion beam. That should take care of whomever comes looking for us. Probably most of the moon as well. We went for overkill."

"Two down," Kienan mused. "Still leaves us two ships to worry about, and maybe a ground base as well. Still a little better odds than before."

"Kienan," Mirage said. "I hate to ask this, but the woman, Silhouette," Mirage said. "Will she interfere with our plans?"

"I don’t know," Kienan said. "I think she's headed in the same direction, but I'm not sure."

"If she does get in our way . . .what do we do?"

Kienan took a long thoughtful drag off his cigarette and closed his eyes, exhaling streams of smoke from his nose and mouth. He thought about their warnings to each other and the small voice in his heart that was telling him, begging him, not to make the only decision he knew he could make.

"We can’t help her if she decides to interfere," he said, grinding out the cigarette. "If she gets in your way, kill her."


Straeger stood on a balcony overlooking a great chasm. Thrust down the center of the chasm was a massive black shape, like a tree burnt into dark ashes. Very subtly it shifted in the darkness, almost as if it were breathing. Voelker and Algrim paid it no mind, but Straeger, keenly aware of what to look for, thought of little else.

Yes, he thought. It is like the Phantom, and like the sample, only much larger. The shaft must go down for a mile, and Algrim said they haven't finished digging it out yet. Much larger than the Durga ship was. It must be equivalent to one of our heavy cruisers.

"As far as we can tell," Algrim said, gesturing to the dark shape, lit intermittently by work lights spaced around the shaft. "This is the cause of the Ghost Forest. This buried piece of technology has essentially altered the ecological system of the ground above. My scientists have scouted it and it's a nearly a perfect circle, and this is the center of that circle."

"Amazing, isn’t it, Heinrich?" Voelker whispered. "Organic technology that can change an entire planet. No wonder they sent us here. This is the key to conquering the galaxy."

"That's not the only reason they've sent us," Straeger whispered as Algrim droned on. "How is the troop and cargo transfer progressing? Are our people in place?"

"We're a little . . .behind schedule," Voelker said. "Twenty percent of our planned troops are in place on the Ragnarok and the Fenris."

Straeger sighed wearily. "And what about the base personnel?"

"Only five perfect of our people are in place," Voelker whispered. "Indiga and her team just landed an hour ago."

"This is unacceptable, Janos," Straeger hissed. "Don’t let your admiration for Algrim prevent you from doing your duty to the Empire. I've ascertained that the discovery is legitimate, and I'm certain Indiga and her team will confirm it. That confirmation signals the end for this place, and for Algrim."

"I will not be lectured by you on duty, Heinrich," Voelker said quietly.

"You shouldn’t have to be," Straeger whispered. "I don't mean to be blunt, but this operation is much larger than you or I, or the legend of Warlord Algrim. I will accomplish our objectives by any means, with or without you. You have to decide, Janos Voelker, where your true duty is: to an old broken-down ghost of a former hero or to the Empire that you serve and who has given you everything? Decide soon."

Voelker walked away from him, visibly angry and made his way to where Algrim was standing on the balcony. Straeger sneered and kept his distance, noting silently that Skanda was keeping far away from the ship. In fact, he waited at the entrance to the shaft, easily fifty feet from Algrim.

If I didn't know better, Straeger thought, I'd say he was avoiding the ship.

Before he could consider it any more, his Lens signalled an incoming communication. He tapped the receiver. "Straeger," he said.

"Agent Straeger," Indiga's voice responded. "We're ready for you in the base's science lab."

"Excellent," Straeger said. "Send a telemetry team to this location for initial readings, I'm on my way. Straeger out."

Straeger cleared his throat as the communications closed. "Your pardon, Warlord Algrim," he began, covering his words with the mask of obsequiousness he had worn on the Ragnarok. "But I must supervise our science team and co-ordinate taking readings for the ship with your own people. I'd delegate the responsibility, but you know Oneirans."

Algrim looked at him for a second. "Yes, I do. Skanda will show you where our science labs are."

"I'm certain I could find my way--"

"Oh no, Agent Straeger," Algrim said. "I insist. Skanda doesn't much care for this area anyway. His people consider it . . .cursed, I believe. Rather quaint notion, wouldn't you agree?"

Straeger nodded. "Thank you, Warlord." He made his way to the service tunnel out of the shaft, Skanda following silently behind. Straeger kept one eye on him, because Skanda followed as quiet as a shadow and the darkness in the service tunnel would be the perfect place for an accident.

They walked for a few minutes in silence, the service tunnel began sloping up and Straeger could see daylight at last in the distance. But there was one matter even more urgent on his mind.

Skanda reached out for him, putting his hand on his left shoulder. Straeger seized the hand and rolled into Skanda, catching him in the throat with an elbow strike, and slamming him against the side of tunnel. Straeger willed his Lens to life, and a transparent blade of pure energy appeared, pointed at Skanda's eye.

Skanda didn’t even blink. He did, however, surprise Straeger with what he did next. He spoke, and spoke in Straeger's own language. His diction was horrible, and his words were carefully chosen in the manner of someone unfamiliar with the language, but Straeger heard it loud and clear as if Skanda had shouted.

"You and I must . . . speak," he said.


Kienan locked his helmet into place and took a deep breath as the suit's oxygen supply kicked in and sealed itself around him. He climbed into the cockpit of the Starblade Reiven, keenly aware of the weight of his cargo, slung underneath his ship's fuselage. The Silhouette was on the edge of the most distant orbit of the gas giant's moons. In the other launch bays, Vain and Mirage were getting ready for their parts in the mission by shielding and strengthening their communications antennae on their fighters. Kienan strapped himself in and began the launch cycle.

The Reiven was lowered out into space and the launch frame released the ship into space. Kienan started the engines and made his way to the third moon. His mind was on the plan, going over and over the details and committing it to memory. Kienan did this partly to memorize the details as best as possible, but partly because he was having a hard time shaking the feeling of dread that seemed to be with him ever since he and Mirage had talked about Silhouette.

Kienan was almost certain she was going to where the ships were gathered, most likely to the planet below. What could be down there that was so valuable, Kienan wondered. What's down there that she'd be willing to risk her life like that to do it alone? Her fighter's tough, but even it can't stand against that any ships, never mind the number of troops she could be facing down there . . .

Forget it Kienan, he reminded himself. She made her choice. So did you. The Reiven slid into orbit of the third moon and Kienan gradually brought his engines down as the Reiven moved into the shadow side of the moon. Kienan hit the releases for the grapples and the device dropped into orbit slightly below his fighter. He transmitted the signal and looked at his readouts. It was on standby. The trap was set and the bait was laid. Now all they needed to do was draw one of the ships in.

"Reiven to Angelfish," he said. "Are you two ready?"

"We're ready," Vain's voice came through. "We've taken up positions in low orbit of the first and fourth moon. When they come, we'll draw them in."

"Good," Kienan said. "Any sign of -- wait." He looked down at his scans. There was a ship coming into range all right, but going in the opposite direction. Kienan did a tighter scan and frowned as the readout came into view.

Silhouette, he thought. His eyes went to another ship, heading towards their position. One of the destroyers. Silhouette was heading right for it, and from her course, the gas giant's radiation had blocked her scan of it or she would have veered off by now.

His hands tightened on the controls of the Reiven. I could . . .

No, he thought.

"Kienan," Vain's voice came back. "There's another ship heading for the destroyer . . ."

"I know," Kienan said. "Hold position."

"Is it--"

"Yes," Kienan said, willing himself to let go of the Reiven's controls.. "We'll see how she handles it. I don’t want to spring the trap just yet. She's going to have to handle this herself."


"I thought you couldn't speak," Straeger said.

"I . . .do not speak," Skanda said. "Not the same thing."

"Obviously," Straeger said. He held the blade at Skanda's face. "So why don’t you tell me what we need to speak about. And do it quickly. I don’t like being touched by inferior species."

"You have come here to kill him, the Warlord," Skanda said.

"What makes you say that?"

"I heard your . . .talking," Skanda said. "And he has said, many times, that if any came for him from his homeland . . .they would be coming for . . .his life."
 
"Assuming you’re right, you mean to stop me, do you?"

"No," Skanda said. "To . . .help . . .you. The Warlord, he enslaves my people. Makes us work in the cursed Ghost Forest. Promises freedom but never gives it."

Straeger cocked an eyebrow. "Good reasons, I suppose," he said. "But assuming I don’t go to him and tell him what you proposed right now, why should I trust you? Why don’t you kill him?"

"It would mean nothing if I killed him," Skanda said. "I would die and someone would replace him. But to have an honest agreement with one unlike him . . .perhaps that will free my people. I . . .have no other options left.

"Free my people from the Ghost Forest . . . and I give you my word, we will go."

"Your word?" Straeger said. "Why should I trust the word of some desert savage like you?"

"Your people do not care about us!" Skanda said. "You have come for the secret of the Ghost Forest, and you may take it. I do not care. I ask for only one thing, that my people be freed and allowed to return to the desert. You have slaves of your own--"

"Rigellians don’t have slaves," Straeger corrected. "We call them servitors."

"Let them work in the darkness," Skanda said. "Whatever you call them. I care only for my people. Leave us be, and take whatever you wish from the Ghost Forest. You are . . .unclean anyway."

Straeger smiled, and the blade from his Lens dissolved. "When the . . .change in command . . . comes," he said, choosing his words carefully. He decided to play conservatively. After all, Skanda could just as easily be trying to set him up. But his thoughts carried no deception that Straeger could see. "When the time comes, I will ask you for a series of favors. After that, your people can die in that cursed desert for all it matters to me."

"I will be close," Skanda said. "If you lie to me as the Warlord has, you will die before the next sunrise."

"Likewise you," Straeger said, releasing him. "Only I won't have to skulk about for my chance. Until I call for you, keep silent. Then, when I am in command, your people will have your freedom."

"Your word," Skanda said.

"You have my word," Straeger said.


The Umbra pulled away from the huge gas giant and adjusted her scanners. The radiation had played such havoc with them that she had left them out of synchronicity until she cleared the massive planet. As the readouts came into focus, a small alarm began to chime.

Missile, incoming, she thought.

The Umbra banked hard as the missile moved past her. Silhouette righted the ship, tapping buttons to bring her ship's defensive screens up. She activated her long-range scanners and frowned.

Idiot! Silhouette thought derisively. Of course it wasn't going to be this easy. Was your mind on what you were doing or on Kienan? What, you didn’t think they'd guard the ship?

It was a Rigellian destroyer, Dorvack class, and it was coming fast into visual range, spewing laser fire and missiles in her direction. Luckily for her, the flat shape of the Umbra made targeting her difficult, but she wasn't about to stay there and get shot at. She brought her weapons online and rocketed towards the destroyer, which was even now sending its five fighters to intercept.

Silhouette launched a volley of laser fire at the lead fighter, punching through its shields and blowing it to bits as the other four fighters broke formation, seeking to close in on her from behind.

Silhouette ignored them and banked towards the surface of the destroyer, hoping that the fighter pilots wouldn’t be willing to fire at their own ship, and the destroyer wouldn't be able to bring its batteries to bear on her. Not until she was able to draw them in.

The four fighters dropped into formation, skimming the surface of the ship's drive section. Her scanners were blaring at her, warning her that the destroyer was powering its main gun, but she held fast a few seconds longer, then activated her rear missile launchers.

She threw the Umbra into a steep climb as twenty small missiles streamed out of the rear launchers. One struck one of the fighters and destroyed it, but most struck the armor of the destroyer and covered her escape.

Once the remaining three ships were clear of the blast area they were annihilated by the burst from the destroyer's main gun. Silhouette turned and barrel rolled high and away from the ship, the destroyer's gun batteries still tracking her.

That takes care of the fighters, Silhouette thought. Now what do I do about that destroyer?