Gunmetal Black 3
Chapter 9 - Eyes Without A Face
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Vain watched as Cerberus' jaws snapped just inches from her torso, looked up past the body of the mechanized beat at Jaevin and smiled. The jaws snapped at her again and caught her, biting down hard. Vain felt her interior skeleton strain under the bite of the robot demon and grinned even wider.

"This is the end for you, machine," Jaevin said. "When I merge you with Cerberus, I'll be able to study your strange technologies at leisure. A hobby of mine, you understand."

"What about my ... sister?" Vain asked.

"I might leave her intact," Jaevin said. "I've been alone here for centuries ... the concept of having a disciple is ... intriguing."

"You fancy ... yourself ... a god ... or something?"

"I haven’t the power of a god," Jaevin sneered. "I never claimed to. I am a prophet, machine. I point life in a direction it must go in order to survive."

"Is that right?" Vain asked, feeling her legs go limp as her hydraulic lines were punctured by the beast's jaws. She closed her eyes, and sent one last command to her sister.

Jaevin looked down on Vain through his spectacles with a mixture of disdain and sympathy. Lying there, fluid leaking from ruptured components, eyes closed, she almost looked like she was asleep.

Foolish thought, he chided himself. Machines don't sleep. Still ... she is almost real. Real enough to die even.

His eyes narrowed on her. It was strange, watching her pass like this. He'd never seen anyone die by his command before. The people who perished thanks to his Apocalypse Weapons were abstract, faceless, numbers on a data scroll too impersonal and too faceless to ever truly be real. Before that, the few adventurers who'd come to face him at the Haxan's request were so inept the Machine Golems or Cerberus eliminated them without his intervention being necessary.

But this, he thought. This is ... different...

Jaevin blinked and waved at Cerberus. The beast stopped itself from chewing on the Marionette.

"The spells of binding," Jaevin said, staring at his hands. The cybernetic implants on his forearms were beginning to glow as they drew power again. "They’re gone ... my power has returned."

Jaevin, unsure this was a dream, clenched his hand into a fist. He'd been so long without access to the energies of the universe, he'd almost forgotten how to wield them.

What do I do with this now? He wondered. It was a question so simple that he felt like an idiot for thinking it.

It was a question he'd never answer.

There was a sound like thunder as the air above Jaevin's head seared, leaving behind a trace of ozone. For a frozen second no one moved, not Jaevin, not Cerberus, not Vain.

Then Jaevin fell backwards, his spectacles tumbling from their place on the bridge of his nose as he fell backwards off Cerberus. Cerberus whirled around to investigate, dropping Vain as he did so.

Vain, being closest to the ground, hit first. Then Jaevin's glasses, finally the fallen sorcerer himself. Cerberus turned around, his spidery legs scraping the ground as he looked upon his fallen master.

Vain's eyes opened, streaked by amber fluid. She smiled again, seeing Jaevin flat on his back.

Looks like it worked. Vain thought, willing her self-repair systems to patch the damage Cerberus' bite had done to her. Unheeding her will, she enjoyed her triumph from one knee.

Cerberus poked at his master with one of his legs, like a child poking their parents to wake them. Nothing. He tried again. Jaevin didn’t move. He scooped his fallen creator in his arms, his baleful red eyes, looking into Jaevin's open, startled eyes. He turned his master gently and saw the neat hole, the width of a pencil, in the top of Jaevin's head.

Jaevin was dead. The hole was so perfect it was absurd. No blood came forth, no tissue was oozing from the wounds. No, whatever had caused it had cauterized its own wound.

Cerberus cradled his master and reared back. And like any faithful dog whose master was lost to him, he howled. As he did so, seams Vain hadn’t detected in the bizarre machine began to show, then split. Cerberus literally fell apart, unable or unwilling to face life without his master.

Vain rose to her feet. She frowned at her white gloves, now thoroughly soaked in her hydraulic fluid. Her self-repair systems had patched her systems enough to operate at 65% of her peak efficiency.

On the mend, but in no shape for more fighting, Vain thought, clutching the Soulcaster as she went over to see to Mirage. Vain's sister lay there unmoving, as she had for the past few minutes thanks to Jaevin's spell. Vain turned her over onto her back and searched her for signs of damage.

Finally, setting down the Soulcaster, she touched a greasy gloved finger to the side of Mirage's nose six times.

Mirage blinked. Vain was crouched over her, and she looked like hell. She and Vain had endured tough missions before, but Mirage had never seen her sister this banged up.

"How long ... ?" Mirage asked, her memory systems immediately compensating for the time she'd spent shut down.

"A few minutes," Vain said, picking up the Soulcaster again and rising to her feet somewhat unsteadily. "Long enough."

Mirage looked over at Jaevin's lying in the ruins of what had, up until a few seconds, been Cerberus. "What happened?"

Vain smiled, balancing on the Soulcaster. "You might say it's a case of Deus Ex Marionette."

"You mean Deus Ex Machina, sister," Mirage said, inspecting the corpse of Jaevin.

"No," Vain smiled. "Marionette. It was Conscience who struck the final blow."

"How? I thought the binding spells were proof against any orbital attack."

"They were until I told Conscience to order the Haxan to drop them," Vain said. "Then it was a simple matter of Conscience pinpointing Jaevin's power buildup and targeting him."

"So my plan to handle all this from orbit -- "

" -- Was good, but you were thinking too big." Vain said. She straightened. 80% at last, she thought. "Once I had the Soulcaster from Jaevin, it was easy enough to deal with him quickly."

"Easy?" Mirage asked. She stared at Vain's damage. "Was that before or after you lost your arm?"

Vain smiled. She didn’t have an answer. Instead she turned at looked at Ravenna, Illiel and Kayt over her shoulder.


Reficul cradled the data pack in his hands a few timed before handing to Kyra.

"That's all I've learned from the Sekhmet on artificial body construction," Reficul said. He produced a large plastic case from underneath one of the worktables and begin collecting his scattered data clipboards and other tools into it. "Somewhat behind us in some respects but I think with a blend of their techniques and my own ... I think Project: Avatar may be within our grasp."

"I can hardly wait," Kyra said, staring at the data pack in her tiny hand. To the untrained eye, she looked like a child attempting to work out the intricacies of a puzzle toy. "It's a risk to all our plans for me to be away from Eden, Doctor."

"I was under the impression that was why Omega was here," Reficul said. "To protect you."

Omega glanced away from the screen for a moment to regard Reficul. Then his eyes returned to the screen, still freeze-framed on Sinclaire.

"Omega has his role to play," Kyra said, walking over to another bank of computers. "Just as you do, Doctor."

She brought up a readout of Khitan's new machine. Her brown eyes cut back to Reficul, busy filling his travel cases.

"You’re sure he was the last of the Sekhmet from that lander, Doctor?"

"Yes," Reficul said, closing the latches on it and setting it on a loading cart. "As per our agreement -- one pilot, the rest in nutrient blocks. I managed to get away and clandestinely check the ship for extra personnel. I found none."

"Good," Kyra said. "These ... people ... who've been giving us so much trouble, they've killed every Sekhmet but Khitan, correct?"

Reficul nodded, loading a portable computer onto the cart.

"Did they manage to stop them from wiping out the colony?"

Reficul stopped and looked at Kyra. "Strangely enough, no," he said. "Whoever they are, they care very little for the people of the colony so far as I can see."

"Visitors," Kyra said. She frowned. She kept it to herself, but she was worried. The colony massacre, the involvement of the Sekhmet, all of it was proceeding the way she knew it would ...

... but the details were wrong. Most especially, the two strangers and Sinclaire weren't supposed to be here.

At least that's how I remembered it, she thought. No, this was supposed to be a forgotten colony with a hotel full of reformed criminals and six Sekhmet we'd arm with Reficul's technology in exchange for a look at their own. To test their new abilities, they wiped out every human in the town.

Then Omega slaughtered the Sekhmet and we sent a distress call.

She looked at Omega, his masked visage impassive, his eyes fixed on Sinclaire.

Things are the same, but not quite the same, Kyra thought worriedly. I don’t like unknown variables. Still, they have all but dealt with the Sekhmet problem for us. I should thank them.

And I intend to. Whomever wins, I'll ensure Omega eliminates them swiftly.

All except for Sinclaire. I hadn't intended to approach him so soon, but who am I to argue with the hand of fate?

Especially when I've already seen the pages on which it's already written.

Behind her, the loading cart whined to life, carrying Reficul's equipment to their ship. Kyra turned to see Reficul staring at her screen.

"Curious to see how your last model performs, Doctor?" Kyra asked, cocking an eyebrow.

Reficul nodded. "I've seen some quite impressive efforts on the part of both man and machine tonight, Miss Sandoval," Reficul said. "I'm curious to see who wins the final contest."

"Ahh, so to you, this is a duel of opposites," Kyra said, giggling and betraying her age momentarily. "And where do we stand in this battle, Doctor?"

Reficul smiled. "As you always say, to both absolutes, we are the challenge ahead. We are the future."

Omega continued to stare at the screen. Sinclaire was coming closer. He could feel him, like a signal in his mind, growing louder with the nearness of his brother. He couldn't remember being this close to his brother or sister, close enough to feel them on this level.

What would happen when he saw his brother? Omega had no answers. No one did. So Kyra told him, over and over again.

"No one knows the future, Omega," she said. "No one but me."


"He was the best of us, once," Illiel said as Ravenna and Kayt prepared Javein's body.

Vain regarded the Haxan curiously. "If he was so great, why did you imprison him here?"

"His crime does not erase his life, machine," Illiel said. "He was brilliant, even in his madness. That he wasted his gifts in this way saddens me and diminishes our order. We were champions of knowledge once, separate from the others. Now we are ... "

"Part of them," Mirage said, sidling up next to her sister. "You Haxan used to set yourself apart from the races who sought your council. You wanted to be outsiders, but you’re not as different from the people you fled."

"Perhaps not," Illiel said.

"What will you do now?" Mirage asked.

"We ... do not know," Illiel said. "We are free but ... we have no purpose. We are released from our mandate regarding Jaevin but a purpose further than honoring our bargain is beyond us."

"In other words, you don’t know," Vain said.

"Correct."

Ravenna began to chant, and the three of them fell silent as they watched Kayt and Ravenna wave their hands over Javein's body, the cybernetic panels on their bodies beginning to glow.

Jaevin's began to glow as well. Brighter and brighter they became. Finally, the glow seemed to envelop his body.

Finally, Kayt broke the silence, her face illuminated by Jaevin his body enveloped in the heart of a nova-like glow.

She said:

"In darkness we are born,

From stars we are descended,

In life we follow them,

In death we reunite in stars and darkness.

Javein, become a star again,

Return to the darkness

That we may follow you,

And one day, reunite."

Javein's body flared once more and was gone. Kayt and Ravenna's implants stopped glowing and the ritual was over. Vain noticed, despite the utter illogic of it, that the very planet had seemed to sigh as Jaevin passed.

That was ridiculous, Vain thought. No planet could grow to miss a lonely prisoner on it. That's as ridiculous as

... a machine beginning to feel human?

Vain pondered it for a time. There was no clear answer. Her future was as murky as Illiel had found her own. The irony didn’t escape her, but it wasn't quaint enough to laugh at.

In fact, it felt a little ominous.

Ravenna approached her and Vain was jarred from her reverie.

"For facing Jaevin and recovering the Soulcaster we are in your debt, Vain," Ravenna said. "As is our custom, we will grant each of you a boon."

Vain handed Ravenna the Soulcaster. "Well," she said. "I'm reasonably certain you remember the first one. Restore Jayla Kyren to her body."

Ravenna took the Soulcaster and bowed.

"It will be done."


Sinclaire stood in the back of the Vroom, holding onto one of the support handles. He could have sat, but he didn’t feel like it. Being here, this close to Kienan and Toriares worried him. It didn’t feel right, the three of them working together.

Considering I tried to kill Toriares six years ago and Kienan tried to kill me three hours ago, it's certainly an unlikely partnership, he thought. Toriares, I could see, he's always been one to do the right thing in his own way.

But Kienan ... what kind of stake could he have in this?

More than that, there was the buzzing he'd felt in the back of his brain for the last few minutes, a pressure just behind his eyes. Pressure that was getting stronger the closer they got to the control center.

What could be waiting there? And why was the feeling so familiar?

He looked out the forward canopy. Suddenly he was reminded of Silhouette for a reason he couldn’t place. Focus, he commanded himself. Focus.

The Ruby Vroom streaked towards the command center, its forward weapons ports blasting a hole in the outer doors. Kienan's eyes danced over the readouts.

"Minimal power readings," he said. "Whoever was here, couldn’t be many of them. Either that or they left awhile ago."

"You don't suppose they left on account of us?" Toriares said.

"Who, us?" Kienan said, looking over his shoulder. "I'm sure a Sekhmet platoon would leave because their efforts to massacre a small colony were thwarted by a beat-up assassin, his retired mentor, and an idiot with a stupid hairdo and a set of steak knives on his back."

Sinclaire glared at him. Kienan smiled thinly.

The Vroom moved into the inner courtyard of the control center. It was an oval distance, desert surrounded by various run down and half-finished constructions with the main building looming in the distance. The structures cast long shadows over the fine sand, like hands of darkness reaching for the small red shuttlecraft.

Kienan glanced at his readouts and rearmed his weapons.

"Brace yourselves," he said. "Someone's coming."

Ten seconds later, the Vroom fired it's weapons at the shape rocketing towards them from the darkness. It moved so fast it was like a dark violet comet. Before Kienan could return fire it had seized the hood of the Vroom and Kienan was nearly eye to eye with Khitan.

Khitan engaged his rocket boosters, pushing them hard enough to upend the Vroom and send it spinning into one of the walls. Kienan fought the protesting controls as Sinclaire fell to the deck of the Vroom.

Kienan hit a series of switches above his head and the Vroom regained its balance. Kienan fired wildly at Khitan, who slipped away from the Vroom's powerful but slow-firing forward guns.

Khitan raised his right arm. Now it was his turn. The fusion cannon in place of its right hand glowed and blasted the Vroom with a blazing stream of energy.

Kienan banked the Vroom in time to avoid catching the beam through the Vroom's canopy. Instead, it sliced into the Vroom's port engine, nearly pulverizing it.

The shuttle hit the ground, hard and Kienan hit the release button on his safety harness. "So much for doing this easy," he said, turning to Toriares as he grabbed a weapon from a rack behind his seat. "Looks like we do this the old fashioned way."

Toriares watched as Khitan flew towards them. Toriares put his hand on the release for one of the shuttle's hatches. "Another of those new types," he said quietly.

Kienan moved quietly to another hatch and nodded. "With a fusion gun," he said. "He moves faster than the rest of them. Sinclaire?"

Sinclaire moved to another hatch as Kienan watched him cautiously. "I'm here," he lied, his thoughts focused on the now impossible to ignore pressure behind his eyes.

"Sinclaire, you keep him occupied while Toriares and I unload on him."

Sinclaire was about to protest, but relented and nodded.

Khitan hovered outside, his low-power rockets churning the sand as he floated a foot above the ground like a ghost. He scanned the interior of the shuttle for signs of life, but either the sensor suite wasn't calibrated properly or the shuttle was proofed against it.

A shadow moved and spiked every sensor in his suit. Khitan swerved to avoid his assailant as Sinclaire landed, his swords cleaving the sand. He slashed at Khitan while he was crouched, but Khitan was already a yard away, readying his arm-cannon for a shot at Sinclaire.

Two modules on either side sprang open and Sinclaire caught a hint of red in the spare light of the courtyard.

A micromissile, he thought.

Khitan's maneuvering jets spat stabilizing charges as he righted himself to take his shot. Sinclaire's muscles tensed, ready to move. This Sekhmet was built for space combat, he thought. Its jets are a little too strong to work in the atmosphere; that's why he's having trouble nailing me.

He reached into his scarf for a handful of shurikens. Hit in the right place, I could blow his arm clean off.

Then it happened. Khitan was knocked spinning by the phalanx of gunfire as Kienan and Toriares fired at the Sekhmet at that moment. Frustratingly it wasn't causing any damage, just nudging him back.

Kienan grit his teeth, his red-gloved hands slipping to the second trigger on his rifle. He pressed it, firing a grenade at Khitan. Khitan's head disappeared in a plume of fire and one of the machine's stabilizing wings was blown off but apart from some scouring on his armor, Khitan wasn't damaged.

Toriares cartwheeled in front of Khitan to allow Kienan time to reload. Khitan narrowly missed him with a burst from his arm cannon and would have taken him with the second shot, had it not been for Sinclaire's attack.

Khitan caught Sinclaire by the neck and threw him aside like a dealer tosses a card. Kienan rushed in and dragged Toriares off while Sinclaire rained shurikens on Khitan.

"It's pretty heavily armored," Toriares said. "But I think your grenade blew a wing off the thing."

"Listen," Kienan said, ejecting the spent shell from the first grenade. "I think we can take him with the Vroom's gravity gun."

"How do you imagine we're going to get the machine moving again, Kienan?" Toriares asked. "This guy nearly blew one of the engines off, remember?"

"It can fly -- barely -- on one engine," Kienan said, firing another grenade at Khitan's back. "Enough to give us our shot, anyway. Get in, get her running, and be ready to take the shot when I give the signal."

"And what are you gonna be doing while I'm doing all the heavy lifting?" Toriares said, firing another volley at Khitan, trying to open up the damage Kienan's grenade had caused.

Kienan got to his feet, readying another grenade. "I'm going to buy you some time."

"Kienan," Toriares said.

Kienan glared at him. "Make it fast."

"Don’t do anything stupid."

"Have I ever?"

"I think it's better I don’t answer that question," Toriares said, smiling. "I have a shuttle to get running."

Kienan smiled and charged over to where Khitan was tracking Sinclaire with a sustained blast from his arm cannon. The energy release was so powerful it was fusing the sand to glass under Sinclaire's feet.

Kienan fired a grenade at Khitan's faceplate and rolled with Sinclaire out of the way. Khitan made a noise that almost sounded like an expression of rage and raised his arm cannon.

Sinclaire shoved Kienan aside and tried to tackle the still-quick moving machine. Khitan lowered his arm cannon as he righted his flight and raised his left arm.

The clawed hand on his left arm, rocked from its mooring on his elbow, launched by a rocket charge towards Sinclaire. It struck him full-force in the stomach, shredding through body armor, flesh and bone until he could feel the machine touching his spine.

God damn it, Sinclaire thought in odd moment of clarity. This had just healed. His hands tightened on his blades and he swung wildly, slicing the claw's guide wire in two.

Sinclaire sheathed one of his swords and tore Khitan's claw from his stomach. Kienan rolled in front of him, laying down a stream of cover fire.

"That looks bad," Kienan said.

"It ... is," Sinclaire said. “If I'd been a little slower I think he'd have ... killed me with this."

"Well, I hate to ask you for favors," Kienan said, ejecting another grenade shell. "But I need you to throw me into the air above this guy's head."

"You're mad," Sinclaire said.

Kienan fired another burst from his gun. "It's been remarked, but I'm serious. I need to get up and over him."

Sinclaire took a deep breath, his internal organ healing painfully and separating again as he breathed. "Let me ... get this straight ... you want me to throw you ... at the Sekhmet trying to kill us?"

"Yes, dammit."

"Why didn’t you say so?" Sinclaire said, gritting his teeth as he heard Khitan's rockets roar to life as he closed the distance between them. He seized Kienan body and in a variation of how he threw him during the fight pushed his legs against Kienan's stomach, propelling him high in the air.

Kienan soared high above the Sekhmet, catching Khitan's eye as he flew over him upside down. As he passed over the Sekhmet's head he aimed his rifle downwards and fired a grenade into his thruster-pack.

Khitan slipped underneath him, five yards away when the grenade exploded. Kienan landed wrong, tumbling into the sand and feeling his wounds reopen, harsh sand slipping under the bandage.

He stood in a half-crouch, so sick with pain he held his rifle in a trembling hand. Khitan tried to swing around and get in a position to fire, but upon triggering his thrusters, he found himself flying into one of the small buildings in the courtyard.

Sinclaire rushed to Kienan and lifted him to his feet, bracing him with his shoulders." Kienan, that was easily the stupidest thing I thought I’d ever see anyone do."

"Common ... sense," Kienan groaned. "Any machine with ... so many thrusters ... needs ... a balance mechanism. Knock that out ... "

"I know," Sinclaire said. He heard a noise in the distance and saw Khitan blast his way free. He had abandoned his flight-pack in the crash and was instead walking towards them.

Sinclaire looked back from Kienan to the Sekhmet and back again. "Can you run?"

Kienan glared at him. "Two whole steps."

"Not enough," Sinclaire said. "You know, you’re the last person I wanted to die with."

"Feeling's mutual ... but we're not dead yet," Kienan said, hearing the wounded whine of lift engines behind them. The rear end of the Vroom flew past them, and in the spare light of early dawn they could see Toriares at the controls.

One shot, Toriares, Kienan thought. Make it good.

There was a heavy sigh followed by a humming noise as the Ruby Vroom's rear gun armed. Toriares watched the display as it acquired Khitan and locked onto him.

"Well," Toriares muttered, flipping the fire control switch. "As Kienan would say ... go to hell."

The gun fired once, sending a gravity-well shell screaming towards Khitan. Khitan, unable to fly away at high speed, was struck full force. The armored suit blasted outward, spraying shrapnel in every direction as the ground beneath hollowed out into a glass bowl. There was a flat thunderclap, and all that was left of Khitan were a few bits of metal.

The Vroom turned about and Toriares hopped out, leaving the engine idling. He looked at Kienan still braced on Sinclaire's shoulder.

"Is he ... ?"

"He's ... fine," Kienan growled. "Quit mothering me."

"You look like hell, Kienan" Toriares said, smiling.

"I know," Kienan said, reaching for a cigarette as he slid off Sinclaire's shoulder. "That's why this is the last vacation that you pick."

Sinclaire looked at them curiously. "This was your ... vacation?"

Kienan nodded as he reached for his lighter. The effort was etched into his face. "Unfortunately, trouble seems to ... follow us. But then ... you probably noticed that."

"Now what?" Toriares said. He walked over to the remains of Khitan. "He had to be the last of them."

"Can you be sure?" Sinclaire asked. The battle had taken his mind off the pressure in his head, but it was coming back. If anything, the more he healed up, the more pronounced it became.

"The sensors showed minimal energy readings," Toriares said. "We would have picked up readings from a ship or signatures off their battle armor."

"Why would they only send ... six?" Kienan asked, coughing slightly around his cigarette.

"Not sure," Toriares said. "But if there had been backup squads, they would have swarmed us the minute this one trashed the Vroom. That's how they fight. That's how they think."

"I don’t like it," Kienan said. "We should go down and make sure. Destroy the command center. That way if any of them are hiding there, they'll have a hell of a job digging themselves out."

No, Sinclaire thought. The Sekhmet might be gone but this isn’t over yet. Whatever's down there ... is calling to me.

"We've got some explosives on the Vroom that would flatten this place," Toriares said. "We'd have to plant them pretty far down in the foundry levels, though."

"I'll get them," Kienan said, tossing aside his cigarette as he walked past Sinclaire towards the Vroom.

Kienan opened the rear hatch of the Vroom and Toriares stood up, brushing the sand off his clothes. Daylight's coming, he thought. Had it only really been a single night?

He heard a heavy thunk behind him and turned his head, only to find the point of a blade at his throat. Toriares looked over at the Vroom. Kienan lay on the ramp, unconscious. Sinclaire stood in front of Toriares, the point of his sword resting on the retired assassin's throat.

"I'm afraid I can’t let you go down there," was all Sinclaire said.