Gunmetal Black 5
Chapter 2 - Tigers In The Dark
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

The elevator reached the bottom of the building, and Mendel pushed the button twice more. There was a subtle jerk under the elevator car as relays underneath it activated and it was set onto a new track.

"A hidden sub-basement?" Reficul asked.

"Fifteen of them," Mendel said, leaning against the wall. "Mom apparently used them for her own pet projects. She worked alone, so no one really knew what was down there and only my father and her had clearance to be down that far."

"You never suspected anything?"

"Well, I was off at school by then," Mendel said, his brown eyes darkening. "And even when I wasn't, I didn’t want to hang around here. After Jayla died, it seemed like my whole family went crazy. I came back and didn't recognize anyone anymore."

Reficul rocked back and forth, balancing himself on his cane. Behind him, Sabre bristled at Mendel's comment, but otherwise held still. Part of him wanted to comfort the man he'd loved as a son, but he held himself in check. Oneirans were brilliant scientists and logicians, and there was a certain pride in that. Brilliant scientists and logicians weren't given to moments of sentimentality, no matter how much they might want to.

Sentimental ties aside, Reficul mused, Mendel asked for me as an expert on exobiology, biomechanics, and genetic engineering. And in those disciplines I am more confident of my abilities than as a surrogate father.

"Still," Mendel continued, leaning back against the wall of the elevator car. "When father had his heart attack and I got the access cards to the basement, it jogged something Mom had said to me on the phone, once. Ah, here we are."

The readout above the doors read "14" and slid open with a quiet hush. Mendel, Reficul and Sabre stepped into a darkened corridor, cold, dry and silent as a tomb. On the far end of the corridor was a large door ringed by various locking and scanning mechanisms. Mendel walked briskly to the door, swiping a special keycard through one of the locks. There was a sound like gunfire as the heavy pressure-locks disengaged and the door opened.

"Anyway," Mendel said, walking through the door as it opened. "After Jayla died, when I’d talk to Mom she sounded . . .well, tense. I think now, especially with what happened on the Frontier and how she died . . .it sent her over the edge."

"I'd heard she'd died in an accident with a space door?" Reficul asked, stepping past Mendel and examining the room. For a human lab, it was quite advanced--state of the art systems, microscopes, organic compositors, helix assemblers, everything someone would need to build the perfect clone.

It's almost the equal of my lab, Reficul thought.

"I . . .don’t know, honestly," Mendel said, leaning over one of the workstations and tapping a series of keys on it. There was an audible hum as the computers and systems cycled up to operational power levels "No one was there with her. She died alone. But something she told me before she went out the Frontier stuck with me.

"She never referred to Jayla in past tense."

Reficul looked up from the readouts scrolling on one of the screens and blinked. "I'm afraid I do not understand Mendel. The idiosyncrasies of your syntax elude me."

Mendel looked down and scratched the side of her head. "She never acted like she thought Jayla was dead. When we'd talk--which was pretty rare, but when we did, she always acted like Jayla was still alive."

Reficul's brow furrowed. "They were not close?"

"Not when she'd died," Mendel said, tapping out another sequence on the keyboard. "Jayla and my mother stopped seeing eye to eye . . .oh God, years ago, I think. And yet, when she found out about Jayla, I think she took it hardest of all."

"One can never know the true cost of the loss of a child to the mother, Mendel," Reficul said. "That much I do understand about humans. My people share that value."

"But what your people try everything to get that child back?" Mendel asked, finally summoning up the courage to stop beating about the bush.

"What?" Reficul blinked. Even Sabre looked surprised, as much as Mendel could discern under the mask.

"I think my mom tried to clone Jayla," Mendel said. He gestured around the room. "This whole basement was given over to a project called "J-3," Now that's not unusual--I've been through enough of the files upstairs to know that's standard code, except I can't find a "J-2" anywhere except in her notes down here. I'm sending an overview of her work to your station, Doctor."

Reficul pored over the data with visible surprise. Kyren had been up to cloning, all right, but using methods he'd never even considered trying. Moreover, she'd been blending different types of DNA into Jayla's baseline template. Improving her.

And she'd been using technology far in advance of anything humans had developed to do it.

"Incredible," Reficul said. "Mendel, your mother was a genius."

"Huh," Mendel said. "I'm hoping she wasn't a mad one. I couldn't make heads or tails of the hard stuff, but her logbook gave me an idea of what she'd been doing down here. Now here's where the story gets complicated. Apparently, this was shipped back from the Frontier the day she died, and all the work was automated, then eventually put on ice."

"So, whatever was produced down here--"

"--Was work she'd been planning and was carried out up to six months after she died," Mendel finished. "Whatever "J-2" was, she'd probably finished it out there, but from what her logs mention, J-3 was supposed to be a "perfected version" utilizing some new clone technology she'd acquired."

"It's a literal truth," Reficul said. "It looks like from the data that Dr. Kyren had been fusing alien DNA onto Jayla's basic genetic structure, essentially creating a hybrid of human and alien physiology without the trail and error of crossbreeding. The results, from what I can tell, were to create a clone displaying dominant traits of neither."

Mendel leaned on one of the worktables. His expression was dark and ambivalent. "You don't know the half of it, Doctor. Follow me."

They walked over to a heavy vault door set into the wall, radiating such intense cold they could see their breath, Mendel pressed a lever and the doors extended outwards and slid to the sides, and a long coffin-like rectangular unit slid out from the gap in the wall. Inside the unit was the shape of a woman. Her arms were folded over her as if she were sleeping.

"From what I can tell, this is the end result of "J-3" Doctor," Mendel said. He looked at the figure in the unit. "I don’t remember my sister being six feet tall, or blue-skinned, or having horns for ears, but on some level, Doctor, I'm convinced that this is a fully-formed clone of my sister Jayla."

* * *

Tap tap tap . . .

She frowned and furrowed her brow as she watched the Angelfish come to a stop and come to rest in the docking bay of the Silhouette, one landing almost catlike with no incidents, the other's landing somewhat more cautious, punctuated with lots of hovering and herky-jerky landing sequences.

She was, like her sister Vain, a Marionette--a type of artificial human designed to simulate and exceed the human design down to the last detail. At least in every respect but the emotional one. So it was completely and utterly impossible for her to be standing their tapping her feet impatiently as someone very shakily put down the fighter that she cherished in her way a human girl might have prized her first car.

It's totally impossible, she thought. Yet here I am.

Her irisless eyes focused on the tall grey-skinned woman who opened the door of the cockpit, stepping onto the metal deck with more sureness than she'd landed the Angelfish with. Her green eyes met the woman watching her and she bit her lip like a schoolboy anticipating admonishment from a schoolmaster.

"Jayla-2," the woman named Mirage finally said. "Have you broken my ship?"

Jayla-2 looked down at the deck, her green eyes dark. She had a way of looking guilty when accused even when she hadn’t done anything wrong.

"No," Jayla-2 said. "I . . .don’t think I did."

"Your ship's fine, Mirage," Vain said, stepping out from behind the Angelfish, slipping her flight helmet off. She glanced at Jayla-2. "I think she's improving. She very nearly had me today."

"Good for her," Mirage said. She ran a hand through her shoulder, length brown hair, smirking at her "sister." "So how come she never gets to fly your Angelfish, if you’re so confident in her skills?"

Vain unzipped her purple and black spacesuit some and disconnected her life-support systems. "Because it's mine," she said, a thin smile crossing her lips.

"Funny," Mirage said. "I thought I was supposed to be the lighthearted one?"

"Little by little, everything changes," Vain said idly. "What's our status?"

"Nothing on long-range scanners," Mirage said. "Conscience says as long as we stay on the dark side of the planet, we'll be masked from any sensors, and we should be safe enough unless we do something to attract attention."

"And Kienan?" Jayla-2 asked.

Mirage shook her head. "Nothing yet," she said. "But he wouldn't break communications silence even if everything had gone completely to hell. The only way we'll know he's all right is if he comes back . . .with or without his part of the resupply."

Jayla-2 nodded. No one said what was really on their minds--he'd been gone too long, and they were all worried about him.

They stood and looked at each other in silence for a few moments, then Vain decided to break the silence and get everyone's mind back on their jobs. With the Silhouette now a renegade ship, on the run and subject to attack with very few friendly ports left open to them, everyone had to work harder, and that left no time for a luxury like anxiety.

"I'm headed to the bridge to talk to Conscience," Vain said. She nodded to Jayla-2. "I'm sure you and Mirage have some repair work you can see to. We'll need to be ready to move once Kienan returns with the supplies, so I want to be ready to move at a moment's notice."

"Will do," Mirage said, walking over to Jayla-2. "C'mon. We've still got to process that ice we broke off the comet last week."

"All right," Jayla-2 said, walking over to a row of lockers and pulling a thermal suit out of one of them. She looked up at the ladder up to the bridge where Vain had departed just a few seconds ago.

"Do you think she misses him?" Jayla-2 asked, zipping her thermal suit over her clothes. "I wonder sometimes if she's as worried as I am."

"Well, she and I don’t get worried, Jayla-2," Mirage said, reaching into one of the lockers for a suit of her own. "You know that. We're not supposed to have emotions."

"That's not the same as not having them at all, though," Jayla-2 said.

"The answer's not really that simple, I'm afraid," Mirage said. Jayla-2 asked a lot of questions, and while she never meant to be nosy or come off as naïve, even after a year on the Silhouette she seemed to be fairly clueless about the subtleties of how things worked.

"Oh," Jayla-2 said, walking with Mirage down to a recessed ladder on the far side of the docking bay. "She's . . .complicated, then?"

"Who taught you that word?" Mirage said, moving down the ladder, carefully. Below her were 20 tons of ice blasted off a comet and harvested for the Silhouette's water supply. Even taking into account Jayla-2's gifts and her own strength and durability, so much as brushing an uncovered hand against the icebergs in the hold would freeze and shatter the limb in an instant.

"That woman who came to see us a few months ago," Jayla-2 said, gathering her hair up and tucking it into her thermal suit before climbing down into the hold. "She said she was complicated."

"As I understand it, you didn’t like her much," Mirage said, activating the purification system. There was an audible hum as the thermocouples below them began to power up.

"If that's what it means to be complicated, I think I'd rather just be me," Jayla-2 said, activating another module in the hold. A tight beam of energy fanned out and scanned the frozen ice for any bacteria or impurities that would have to be filtered out as the water was filling the pressure tanks for use in the ship.

Whatever that is, Mirage thought. While Jayla-2 had been a hand on the Silhouette for only a year, she'd been stored on the ship in suspended animation on Kienan's order while he found a way to bring her back to herself.

What'd he'd ended up with in Jayla-2 wasn't at all what he'd expected. Or what Mirage and Vain had expected of her. She was her own thing. Physically she bore no trace of the woman she'd been cloned from, and from how Kienan reacted to her, there was little familiar in her emotional makeup either.

She calls herself an "anticlone," Mirage mused, running the thermocouples up to speed. The hold began to fog up and there were loud cracks as the massive chunks of ice began breaking up and melting.

Just like us, she was meant to be something she's not really.

Is that why she's so hard to get along with sometimes? Because I look at her and see someone created and directed for a purpose they ended up not fulfilling and becoming their own person along the way.

"You’re a mirror," Mirage said under her breath.

"What was that?" Jayla-2 said, carefully watching the numbers on the sterilization console.

Mirage smiled and shook her head. "Nothing," she said. "Give me those numbers on the impurities found, please."

* * *

Michael leaned back in his chair, his eyes bleary and bloodshot. There was a still a long ways to go before he even got close to Metatron, and he needed to get some rest before he reported in to Sloane. The fight with Jericho was catching up to him and physically he felt like he could sleep for an entire week.

But he couldn’t. He'd read too much, seen too much.

He watched the process running on the screen before him with a tense impatience. Finally the data on the screen changed and resolved into a picture. The screen showed a very dark room and someone sitting in the center of it, The figure pulled down her white hood, revealing the face of a very young woman, her blonde hair framing her face with almost divine perfection.

"Esperanza," Michael said. "I'm sorry. I forgot about the time difference there. Did I wake you?"

Esperanza nodded sleepily. She blinked her eyes at him for a few moments. "Are you all right?" Esperanza asked. "You look absolutely exhausted."

Michael pondered how much to tell her over an open channel, one that was almost certainly being monitored. If he tipped his hand that he'd read what was on the crystal, he'd either be greeted by a squad of Judges once he docked at Metatron, or be chased, just as he had done to Jericho.

Best to hold back a bit, he thought. For her sake more than mine.

"I am, and I'm not all right," he said. "But I can’t talk about it right now. I'll tell you more when I get back to Metatron, all right? For now . . .I, uh, just wanted to see if you were all right. Plus I needed to hear your voice."

Esperanza's brows furrowed. Michael grimaced. Obviously he'd lost a good deal of practice when it came to lying. He'd meant every word of half of it--he'd been so shattered by what he'd read that he really did need to hear her voice, especially considering the implications to her.

But the rest was evasion, half-truths, pretense, he thought. Not something I like doing with her.

"Okay," she said. "I'll be waiting for you when you get back."

"I should be there soon," Michael said. "Once I report in, I'll come and find you. Sorry I woke you up, Esperanza."

"It's all right," she said. "Just know the only person who gets to wake me up is you."

Michael blushed and smiled gently. She knows I'm holding something back, but at least she doesn’t seem to be too mad or suspicious, he thought. Should have known better trying to lie to a mind reader.

"Good night, Esperanza," Michael said.

"Good night," she replied. "I'll be waiting for you."

The connection was closed and the screen returned to its idle state. Michael leaned back, smiling despite himself. If the miracle of surviving a gunshot that should have killed him outright had started him down the right path, Esperanza kept him on it.

Talking to her, even in a tense moment like that had done him good. He sighed. Unfortunately his worries were creeping back into his mind.

I have to do something, he thought. That much is clear and inescapable. God wouldn’t have put that information in my hands if he thought I could ignore it or not act on it.

But if I do, it means the loss of the only life that ever made me feel like a worthy human being. And probably it'll mean losing Esperanza.

Tell you what, Lord, you sure as hell aren’t making this easy on me.

* * *

The woman sitting on the other side of the table flicked her blue-white hair out of her eyes, rolling them in bored contempt as she stared at her companion sitting on the other side of the table, his grey boots propped up on the table. He tilted a long dagger back and forth, his eyes intently focused on it. His lips silently mouthed words, as if he were reading a book out loud.

"That's really distracting, you know," the woman said. She looked over her shoulder at the table at the other end of the room. "This whole thing seems . . .silly."

"Necessary evil, Cross," the man said, continuing to study the dagger. Within its reflection he could pick out the shapes of the men conversing at the table Cross had looked at. His dark brown eyes narrowed on them, studying their lips.

"Can you really read every word of their conversation in that thing?" Cross asked. "I mean it is the twenty-second century, Doublecross. We could just have easily planted a listening device on them."

Doublecross snorted contemptuously. "That's the problem with the whole human race, Cross," he said derisively. "Technology's been perfected to such a degree people have forgotten to use their own faculties."

"People are stupid," Cross sneered.

"They certainly are," Doublecross mumbled. "Ademetria and Forsa seem to be hitting it off. Their body language has relaxed and they're talking easier now. Kienan must think he's somewhere safe, the fool."

"That's great," sighed Cross. "So when do we get to kill him?"

"Patience, patience," Doublecross said. "God, you are so damn controlling sometimes . . .apparently they just closed whatever deal they were doing, so we should get our chance here soon."

"No here?"

Doublecross shook his head. "If I'm going to kill Ademetria--"

"I might have something to say about that," Cross interjected.

"If we're going to kill Ademetria," Doublecross corrected with a sigh. "When we take him out, I'd like a place with a little bit more visibility and room to maneuver. Because he's not going to die without a fight. Look at how many other gun-hunters he's already killed. You don’t seriously think he's going to say, "Okay, you got me," put his hands up and let his kill him? Geez, get a job, Cross."

Cross sighed. "I just feel like the bounty of the century should involve a little more work and a lot more excitement than drinking watered-down liquor in a dank hellhole like this. I mean Kienan--"

Doublecross raised a gloved hand to shush her. His lips moved silently. "Docking pad . . .eighty-one," he mumbled, as if imprinting the information in his memory forever. He flipped the dagger over in his hands sheathing it with a flourish.

Behind them, the jarring noise of wooden chairs on dry concrete floors indicated Ademetria had closed his deal. Cross looked over her shoulder at him as he passed. Her blue-black lips parted in a smile as their eyes met.

"Almost a shame to kill him," Cross said, crossing her legs and leaning back in her chair. "He is seriously hot."

Doublecross frowned and rolled his eyes. "Women. Suckers for the bad boy mystique."

"Jealous?" Cross said, brushing her hair from her eyes.

"Of him?" Doublecross said, watching Kienan disappear into the knot of people at the exit. "Not exactly. Oh, he's got a certain rough charm, but I prefer a certain elegance and refinement. Besides, his looks concern me less than his reputation. They called Kienan Ademetria the deadliest man in the galaxy, Cross. In a way, being target by him was a mark of distinction."

"Well, it meant you were going to die, obviously," Cross mused, pushing back from the table.

"But to have him sent after you?" Doublecross said, sliding his legs off the edge of the table and rising from the table. "Talk about caring enough to send the very best. Think about what killing the deadliest man in the galaxy means for us."

"More money than God," Cross said. Her hands brushed behind her, to the small of her back, feeling the reassuring weight of her twin pistols holstered under her jacket.

"Well, that. More than that, this hit will make us," Doublecross said. "We'll be the deadliest duo in the galaxy. And that's worth more than ten times his bounty."

Cross harrumphed, digging her hands in the pocket of her pants for some money. She tossed enough to cover the tab, and, at Doublecross' urging, tossed in a little extra for a tip.

"So I get rich, and you get everyone telling you how great you are," Cross mused as Doublecross strode past him. "You know, it doesn’t seem like mercenary work and exhibitionism should blend this well."

"I like to think we make it work," Doublecross said. "C'mon. We have a ship to catch."

"Coming," Cross said. She waited until Doublecross was far enough ahead of her and leaned over the table, snatching the tip back and pocketing, then hurriedly catching up to him.