Gunmetal Black 6
Chapter 1: Fortunes & Fates
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Kienan had learned, a long time ago, the surest way to gather information from an eventual position of strength, was to appear to be weaker than one actually was. To wait and bide one's time before making his move, so that his enemies would be caught with their guards down, and he would have the advantage of surprise.

He'd only been conscious for an hour or so. He took a few deep breaths, gathering what information he could from his sense of touch. The room around him was quiet, silent and still. There seemed to be little of the usual sounds of a brig or a prison cell--no echoes bleeding in from other parts of the structure, no sounds from other prisoners in neighboring cell blocks.

Nothing.

Unusual for a prison cell, he thought. Even solitary cells aren't this quiet. It wasn't the only thing either.

Against his bare shoulders, he felt fabric. Sheets. Silk? Satin? It was hard to be sure--Expensive bedclothes had never been an indulgence of Kienan's. He moved slightly against them, and could feel the familiar grip around his body of his black body armor--the lightweight but strong fabric a striking contrast to the smoothness of the sheets.

Whoever captured me didn't bother to undress me, he thought. Which means I should still have some weapons on my person even if my guns were confiscated.

That's a comfort.

He took a deep breath, expecting to take in air from a dank cold holding cell, or one of the incredibly sterile prison cells on a UEF ship. The air was sweet, comforting--still processed, but fragrant.

So wherever I am . . .it's a space station, not a planetary colony or a planet, he thought. Of course, I'm still alive, so it's definitely not Earth.

He took a deep breath, the joke a little more disturbing than he'd imagined. Three years ago, an oracle had predicted the day he went to Earth was the day he would die. At first, it hadn't seemed like a likely prospect, but the more time had ground on and the more likely it seemed he might be driven there, or captured and brought back. It had begun to seem a lot closer and a lot more real now.

He listened for the sound of anything that would let him know he was being watched--the sound of a door opening or closing--the movements of a sentry outside, even the whine of a surveillance camera's motor.

Nothing.

Kienan let his eyes crack open slowly but imperceptibly. The golden light that suffused the room gave it a warm and homey feeling--certainly much unlike a prison cell, to be sure. Slowly, he opened his eyes a little more, giving the illusion that they were sleepily half-open.

Kienan was so surprised by what he saw, his eyes flipped open almost immediately. Wherever he was, it definitely wasn't a prison cell. It was a bedroom--elegantly appointed with furnishings that Kienan recognized as being far too expensive for any one to be willing or indulgent enough to bring out into space.

He sat up, looking around him. The bed was large and elegant, its dark wood carved with swooping and graceful arcs. Behind him was a stack of very plush and soft pillows and on his lap covering his legs were the smooth sheets he'd felt and a heavy blanket of some kind.

He took a deep breath, running a hand over his face. The roughness under his fingertips indicated the beginning of stubble. He'd been out for a while. A day, day and a half, but no more than that.

He flipped the covers off him, staring at his legs. Ah ha, he thought. They made some effort to disarm me. My gunbelt's gone . . .as are my boots. Guess they didn't want me to . . .

His eyes looked around the room, focusing on a chair slid under a table a few feet away from the bed. Hanging from the back of the chair was his missing gunbelt, and leaning against its back legs, his boots.

Oh.

Kienan sighed and got to his feet, swinging his legs over the side and feeling his feet sink to the plush carpet. Whoever had taken him appreciated the finer things in life, all right--hand-woven bedclothes, real wood beds, and deep plush carpets.

It made Kienan profoundly uncomfortable, not only because being in fancy places like this always made him uncomfortable, but also because he couldn't figure why anyone who would have a room in his house, would also outfit a private army like this and take him and his ship.

They're not Earth Special Forces, he thought, padding over to the chair, pulling it out, and sitting down in it. Like everything else, it was soft and elegantly appointed and its comfort only increased Kienan's feeling of dislocation. Crews like that would work out of a standard base. Besides, their tactics were too different back on the ship. Also, so Special Forces group would ever put my guns in easy reach.

He pulled on his boots, still thinking it over as he fastened them to his blue and red pants. Syndicates? No . . .design of the furniture's too Occidental for them--I've been in palatial homes of theirs before--it's never this extravagant.

So who does that leave? Rigellians?

He sighed and rose from the chair, reaching for his gunbelt. He ran his red-gloved hands over the pouches on the belt, judging by weight and feel to see if everything that had been in there remained.

The Rigellians have no reason to take me alive--they'd just have destroyed my ship, he thought, checking his guns. Actually any of the alien governments would probably do that. No reason for them to hand a living prisoner over to the UEF. The pistols were still loaded, and the safety immediately clicked off when he clutched his hand around it. He safteied the weapon again and holstered it, doing the same with the other.

So, who?

Kienan fastened his gunbelt around his waist and drew his knife from its scabbard on the back of the belt. The broad jagged blade showed no signs of wear or tampering. Satisfied that everything was in his place, he sheathed it and walked around the room.

The answer to the question of who it could be wasn't coming and that bothered Kienan quite a lot. He had plenty of enemies, true, and he prided himself on both knowing the major ones and their capabilities or not leaving his enemies in a position to interfere with him.

Whoever had done this, had orchestrated a strike on his ship, paralyzed it, boarded the ship and captured him, easily subduing his defenses. Then left him here in a plush room, with his weapons in full sight and reach of him.

That meant whoever had taken them prisoner was either extremely foolish and had no idea who he was, or were confident enough in their own capabilities that anything Kienan could do, even armed and given free rein, was hardly worth worrying about.

And that was even more disturbing.

He walked over to the door, running his hands over the door, trying to get a sense of its shape, its locking mechanism, and whether or not there were any alarms connected to it. There seemed to be no apparent alarms, and the lock on the door seemed standard enough . . .and also disengaged.

All right, he thought. Enough of this. I've got to learn where I am, where the ship is, and where Jayla-2 and the Marionettes are, if they're alive.

And I can't do that on this side of the door.

He turned the handle, keeping one hand on his knife as he turned the knob. If his captor had placed a sentry outside the door, he would kill him as he moved to investigate.

He pulled the door open slowly, the sliver of light from the crack in the door opening into a wedge as he opened it.

Nothing.

Kienan crouch-walked out of the room, keeping the door open just wide enough to move out in concealment.

No one here, he thought. No sentries, not a surveillance camera in sight. Who are these people . . .and why do they want me?

He rose to his full height--stealth didn't seem to be a major consideration right now. His room opened into a long corridor, doors to what Kienan imagined were other rooms very much like his own dotted the hallway. At the farthest he could see, the halls seemed to curve back to the right, giving the impression of a circular floor.

Space station, he thought. The circular design's a dead giveaway. He looked down at the carpet, which was much like the plush carpet in his room and slowly lifted one of his feet off it. He made a note of how the outline of his shoe seemed to leave an impression, the carefully examined the area around his door for any like his.

Nothing. No sign anyone had stepped her except for him.

This is really starting to get on my nerves, he thought.

He moved left and started making his way down the curved hallway, looking for the central area the corridor was bound to connect to. He saw no sign of surveillance devices, or guards or any indication that the station was inhabited by anyone but himself.

Finally the hallway curved back to an open area--less a central connection and more like an atrium. Above him, the ceiling stretched so high he could barely make it out. Lush green plants framed the exits and a few other objects d'art. Kienan paced around the atrium like a caged animal, full of questions that had no answers. Worse still, every step he took seemed to beg more of them.

He walked over to one the statues, inspecting it with a keen eye, searching for any details that might be gleaned from it. They certainly weren't Rigellian--Rigellians preferred their statuary to be armed and fashioned into an idealized figure of martial strength.

No these were garden-variety sculptures of humans, all of whom happened to be female and all of whom happened to be in a state of undress. Kienan admired the choice of subject matter and the obvious skill of the sculptor as he wondered just what kind of person would put this in a public place.

Then again, when did I become an art critic? Kienan mused.

He walked over to another one of the statues, this one in the center of the atrium, just in front of one of the three entrances on the other side of the atrium. Kienan was about to talk past it when something caught his eye.

It was another nude figure, of course, but something about this woman's body language and expression rang different than before. His eyes looked over the contours of her body and to her face, studying the statue's ambivalent expression and finding it all too familiar.

He knew the subject. Intimately, as a matter of fact.

They'd been lovers, a long time ago. Close, too. He'd named his ship after her.

Silhouette.

Kienan grit his teeth and exhaled, the breath a hiss of released tension.

Whoever it was, they knew him, and knew enough about him and his history to mess with his head. And it was working. Old wounds, even some he was quite certain he'd made his peace with long ago, bubbled to the surface.

Kienan stared at the statue, anger starting to boil within him as he focused his anger, his confusion and frustration upon it, his right hand reaching for one of his pistols.

So focused on the statue and his own fury, he missed the black shape that moved behind the statue, large but impossibly fast, moving into position.

Kienan snapped back into the present as he heard the cracking of stone. He backpedaled, drawing his weapon as the statue exploded in front of him. The statue crumbled into chunks as a shape stood crouched in the rubble, then rose to its feet.

Kienan brought his pistol up to shoot at the black shape, but it was snapped from his hand with a quick flash of something thin, metal, and strong. Kienan rocked back on his heels, planting his feet and preparing for battle as his opponent stepped forward.

The man wore a black and red uniform, trimmed in gold. Underneath, he wore some sort of body armor--larger and more developed than Kienan's, but despite its apparent bulkiness, seemed to move fluidly and quickly. In one white-gloved hand, he held a long, thin sword, the shining point of which was pointed right at Kienan. His blue eyes, framed by his jet-black hair, were calm yet focused. Waiting for him.

Kienan reached for his other pistol, when the man threw something at Kienan, not to strike him, but for him to catch. Kienan's hands closed around the sword that his opponent had been holding only moments before. Moreover, the man was drawing another sword from his belt.

"Kienan Ademetria," he said in a calm, firm, yet cultured voice. "I've been waiting for this for quite some time. My name is Meridius Soldato. We have a few accounts to settle."

Kienan let the words pass without acknowledgement, trying to get a handle on the sword. He'd fought with swords before, but never anything this light or shaped quite this way. This "Soldato," whoever he was, held his as if it were an extension of his body.

Soldato raised his sword up in what seemed like a salute, then swiped it at Kienan, who instinctively raised his in time to block the attack. The clash of blades echoed in the atrium, the keening cry of metal on metal rising up through the great chamber, followed by many ringing sounds just like it as the duel began in earnest.

* * *

The Valerion opera house loomed before him, the golden domed structure like a monolith silhouetted against the darkening sky. Almost as old as the Empire itself, it had been constructed in the heady days after their revolution, when Rigellia was young and so full of promise, determined to be known for their culture as well as their skill in combat. Straeger mounted the steps of the opera house, the long purple fur-trimmed cloak he wore over his uniform trailing behind him, and his red eyes fixed on the door, behind which, he hoped he would get some answers.

Two days, he thought. They've kept me waiting two days.

He waded through the crowd at the entrance as he might have walked through tall grass, sparing none of them a second look. Around him, collected in various groups were the best and brightest of Rigellia's high society--the great families of industry, the son's and daughters of the Constellarum, the Empire's parliament, and, of course, the families of the military nobility. None of whom cared for culture, or the hopes of their ancestors to build an enlightened Empire. They just wanted to be seen where it was important to be seen.

Straeger kept his eyes fixed on the arched entrance, focusing on climbing the stairway. It seemed to help his concentration as much as the dose of sleepers he'd taken before he left his room. It kept the din around him down to a quiet murmur, instead of the suffocating roar it might otherwise have been.

Years ago, Straeger's telepathic abilities had been increased geometrically, thanks to his own private experiments with Nacht. Anyone could be scanned with as much as a glance, and no amount of anti-psi training could stop him. Mechanical and chemical means could still inhibit his talent, of course, but for all intents and purposes, not only was he Black Lens' most powerful telepath, he was so powerful he was off their scale.

Initially, it seemed like a boon--Straeger's ability to wrest secrets his enemies and the enemies of the Empire became an easy matter, and his ability to further his own agenda seemed to be easier than ever.

Until the talent surpassed my ability to control it on my own, he thought as he presenting his identity documents to the doormen at the main door of the opera house. They shrank from him slightly--even with his talent suppressed, the uniform had quite an intimidation factor.

No amount of discipline I'd learned in Praxia could restrain my telepathy, he remembered. I was picking up stray thoughts constantly--from my soldiers, my servants, and the Nacht itself. It shrieked in my mind constantly, and though I've never understood what kind of language it speaks in, I know it's alive.

Alive, and enraged.

Since then, he shrank from appearing in public without the sleepers. He'd begun a regimen back on Abgrund, using stricter mental training coupled with small amounts of the sleeper drug to hold his talent in some sort of check (and to fool the periodic tests of psi strength Lensman were subject to) which had met with limited success.

But not enough to go into a crowd of this size with out completely subduing his mind.

He walked with purpose through the main hall, mounting one of the two staircases to the upper floors that contained the special boxes for dignitaries. At the landing another guard, his red uniform rumpled and ill fitting, stopped him.

"Indentification, my Lord?"

Straeger kept his eyes on the guard, narrowing them as he presented his identification to him. "I'm here to see Warduke Riven," he said, his voice cool with just a hint of irritation.

"Ah, yes," the guard said, consulting a small data pad he cradled in his left hand as he examined Straeger's identification. "Box 22 . . .it's the last one on the left, My Lord."

Straeger nodded, taking back his identification and making his way past more of his countrymen, his white boots sinking into the deep blood-red carpet. After a few minutes of walking along the corridor, he found the door he was looking for, and swiping his card into the access port, was granted access.

He felt a slight relief as the telepathic jammers hidden within the walls activated and the slight murmur vanished altogether. That, coupled with the history present before him, caused him to stop and appreciate it for a moment.

In the old days of the Empire, in addition to its value as a seat of culture, the Valerion had also been the place most Imperial business was done. The real business, not whatever the Constellarum was chattering over. That was theatre for the people.

Here, in these soundproofed private boxes, the fortunes of the Empire had been directed. It had even been rumored that the decision to go to war with Earth had been made in a room much like this.

Warduke Riven, being something of a traditionalist, had set up the meeting here. He sat in the front row of chair, looking down on the opera being performed, his black uniform as impeccably appointed as ever, his blood-red cloak draped over his lap.

"You wanted to see me, Duke Riven?" Straeger said, coming to attention.

Riven turned and looked over his shoulder. "Yes, I did, Count Straeger," he replied, gesturing to a seat next to him. "Come and sit--I was just enjoying the performance."

"Of course," Straeger said idly as he walked along the rows of seats, glancing at the opera being performed on the stage below as he made his way to a seat once removed from Riven.

"It's 'The Song of Valcor,'" Riven said, waving a black-gloved hand at the performance. "It's about the foundation of our Empire. A bit precious in terms of style, but quite stirring. A wise man once said "life without music is a mistake." Don't you agree, Count Straeger?"

"I must confess my Lord, I've never given it that much thought."

"No, I don't suppose you have," Riven said, a slight trickle of disappointment in his voice. "More's the pity."

"Art and culture were never my strong suit, my Lord," Straeger said. "I have ever focused on my . . .on our . . .work for the Empire."

Riven smiled thinly. "This is as much a part of our Empire as anything else," he said. "It was the intent of our forefathers that our culture be as much a weapon as our space fleets, or our troops. Neighboring races would see the accomplishments of our race, and our strength of arms, and would join our Empire immediately. Imagine that, Count Straeger. Taken without a shot fired."

Straeger found following Riven's train of thought difficult at times, especially without bringing his telepathy to bear on the situation. Instead, it seemed a more sure way of maintaining his favor if he simply followed the inference of his words.

"Perhaps I should make it a point of learning about our operas, then?" Straeger asked, pretending to watch the opera before the two of them.

"It could only help, Count Straeger," Riven replied. "My colleagues found you to be quite impertinent and ignorant of our traditions."

Straeger stiffened. I suppose I have my answer then, he thought bitterly.

"I apologize if I embarrassed you, my Lord," Straeger said, keeping the bitterness he felt out of his voice. "Too much time on spent on Abgrund, with those black-skinned savages I rule over and not enough with my own people. It is somewhat isolating, and it may have dulled my appreciation for such things."

"That was assumed to be the case," Riven replied, still watching the opera, his eyes never once cutting to Straeger. "All too common when dealing with other races. I, however, believe it is something else, though I neglected to inform my colleagues in the High Command."

Straeger watched the opera, willing himself to remain calm.

"You enjoy speaking truth to power, my dear Count," Riven said. "Especially to those who stand in the way of your own ideals and preconceptions about what the Empire should be. You enjoyed putting them in their place"

"My Lord, I . . ."

"Don't apologize, Count Straeger," Riven said. "It's a gift I appreciate. I could not say so at the meeting, you understand, but I was quite amused."

"Thank you, my Lord."

"Straeger, there's something you must understand," Riven said, gesturing to the performance below. "People like Hegrun and Droegan dream of an Empire much like this, but never lose sight of the fact that this . . .is centuries past, and centuries long dead.

"It eats at them every day. I know for a fact both of them wished they had perished in the wars with Earth and Chroan rather than see what the Empire has been brought to. They are shackled to nostalgia for a past that may never have been truly what they wished it to be, confounded by the present, and terrified of the future.

"For them, the future is destined to be the slow disintegration of the Empire, for the primacy of our race to be subsumed with the races we conquered, eventually giving them an equal say in the affairs of the Empire. It's a foe they cannot hope to overcome. The force of history."

They sat in silence for a moment.

"I would think that would given the more incentive to approve my project," Straeger said.

"On the surface, that's true," Riven said. "However . . ."

" . . .they fear me. Me--as devoted a servant to the Empire as any of them."

Riven stared towards the stage below, his bemused appreciation having hardened into a grim mask.

"Surely, my dear Count, you know all full-blooded Rigellians are equal within our Empire," he said without emotion or inflection.

"But clearly some are more equal than others," Straeger shot back. "They fear me . . .why? Because I'm a telepath? Because I'm one of your Lensmen? Because I terminated one of their sainted Warlords?"

"Because you represent another future," Riven countered. "A future where the Empire doesn't implode, where we become strong again, and where the Empire returns to dominance in the galaxy."

"What's wrong with that?"

"Because your future is built with new ideas like Project Black Talon, and they see no place for themselves in that future, either," Riven said. "And the new generation of Rigellians you represent has no time for their tradition, or what they stand for and, they fear, will tear it and them down as soon as you achieve a position power. So they're afraid. Trapped . . ."

"Slaves to history, one might say," Straeger added.

"Hm?"

"Something one of my Oneiran assistants said once," Straeger said. "I've never forgotten it. I wondered if, despite her obvious racial handicap, she might have been on to something."

"She might at that."

They sat in silence. Below, the performance was building to a climax, as Valcor, the hero, slew the last of the marauding Ghram and was about to declare the establishment of the Rigellian Empire and ascend to godhood, establishing the Rigellian pantheon of gods at the same time as the Empire. Out of the corner of his eye, Straeger could see Riven visibly moved as the actor portraying Valcor rose above the stage and out of sight.

With the last triumphant note, the opera house erupted in applause, and both Straeger and Riven rose as well, clapping quietly for a time. Being as the boxes were soundproofed, there was no way the actors could hear them, but the appearance of highly placed members of the Empire applauding was more of a blessing than all the noise they could have made.

"Mind you," Riven said, finally breaking the silence with more than polite applause. "The High Command has approved your plan."

The bitterness and disappointment Straeger had felt vanished in an instant.

"I'm sorry, my Lord . . .I don't think I quite heard that."

"The High Command has approved Project Black Talon," Riven said. "In two days time, you will go to planet Eisfrei and begin construction with the blessing of the High Command."

"Thank you, my Lord," Straeger said, bowing slightly. "I will endeavor to justify the High Command's faith in my plan."

"Of that, I have no doubt," Riven said, turning to face him. "However, the High Command has certain conditions to their support for Black Talon. For one thing, this is no longer a Black Lens operation."

"I don't understand?" Straeger asked. "They're taking the Project away?"

"No," Riven said. "I advised them that you had worked too long on the project to be removed without setting back the plan severely. No, this is now a joint operation between Black Lens and the Rigellian Starfighter Force. You will share command at Eisfrei with another."

Straeger took a deep breath. He'd wanted the project under his total control as much as possible. Nevertheless, depending on who was sent to share command, they could always be forced out later on.

For now, it was more important to get underway. To seize the opportunity as it presented itself. Everything else could be dealt with in the fullness of time.

"Of course, my Lord," Straeger said. "Have they informed you who I will be sharing command with?"

"They have. You meet with her tomorrow."

"Her," Straeger repeated. "Are you authorized to tell me her name?"

"Absolutely," Riven said. "Have you ever heard the name 'Gespenst,' Count Straeger?"

* * *

CLANG!

Every strike of their blades together made Captain Meridius Soldato smile a little wider. Kienan was no expert with a saber, but he took direction well enough. Soldato would lunge at him with a simple attack, which Kienan would block instinctively, one or the other pushing the two of them down one of the hallways, or back into the atrium.

CLANG!

From time to time, Kienan would try for a lethal strike, but his lack of skill made him easy prey for an intricate countermove from Soldato. Unlike Kienan, Soldato had trained constantly for the past fifteen years with the blade, and he wielded it as an extension of himself, moving with speed and fluidity despite the bulky armor he wore.

CLANG!

He ducked quickly, the edge of Kienan's blade slicing the air just above his head. Kienan tried to kick Soldato in the head, but Soldato was ready for him. He raised his saber, blocking Kienan's blade as he seized his legs and pulled his feet out from under him. Kienan crashed to the marble floor of the atrium. Soldato stood over him, saber held at the ready, watching his fallen opponent.

Kienan lunged forward, saber held in front of him. Soldato stepped to the side, knocking his blade away and spinning on his heel to face Kienan. They circled each other warily. Despite his lack of skill, Kienan's aggression made him a formidable opponent, and his lack of training made his actions difficult to anticipate.

But then, that had been the point all along.

CLANG!

Fifteen years Soldato had studied the blade. Ten years building his army, the Olympus Vanguard.

CLANG!

And the past four had been spent building to this moment.

Face to face with Kienan Ademetria.

CLANG!

Again.

CLANG!

Kienan tried for a combination attack, copying a move Soldato had used a few minutes before. Soldato smiled again. He was a fast learner, too--a testament to his instincts.

More good news.

Soldato took this moment to press the attack, using a series of rapid strikes of his saber against Kienan's he pushed him back down one of the hallways, keeping the pressure on until they left the corridor and made their way into an open balcony overlooking another floor with another garden of statues.

Soldato let up for a moment, and sure enough, Kienan pressed the advantage. Soldato sidestepped him, switching places and continuing to parry more than attack his opponent.

To Soldato, it wasn't a traditional duel. No, this was a test--a chance to test Kienan Ademetria's mettle in a way he hadn't been able to four years ago. It had long been Soldato's belief that the true nature of a person was revealed when they were in combat.

A man like Kienan, perhaps even moreso.

Kienan backed him down the balcony. Soldato felt his feet on the stairs and tentatively made his way down them, keeping Kienan's saber away as he beckoned his opponent forward.

And Kienan being who he was, took the bait. Soldato had counted on that, ever since he's struck his pistol from his hand and tossed him a saber before he could fully grasp the situation.

Kienan always intended to fight him--Soldato had merely structured the fight the way he wanted. Just as he'd arranged for the Silhouette's capture, just as he'd arranged for Kienan to find himself alone, to find Silhouette's statue, and to destroy it.

All for this moment.

Kienan's blade struck the wall above Soldato's head as he made his way down the staircase. Soldato backed down the steps a bit more, parrying a few more strikes, the smile never leaving his face.

He'd read Kienan perfectly.

* * *

In case the Silhouette was boarded and it crew taken prisoner, Mirage's task was a simple one--bide her time, gather intelligence on the enemy, and free the others when the opportunity presented itself. Though she possessed the same gifts as her sister Marionettes, her unique ability to turn invisible gave her a unique talent for the job.

At least in theory.

During the attack on the Silhouette, she's noticed as the marines disembarked some of them carrying weapons other than the standard shot-lancer (as she'd learned they were called) weapons specifically designed to subdue artificial constructs like herself. And devices designed to detect any that might be invisible to visible light wavelengths.

Mirage, thinking fast on her feet, decided instead to hide in plain sight among them, after providing a convenient explanation for why one of the Marionettes would not be accounted for. The boarding craft she'd infiltrated had a rack of spare suits of combat armor on board, and she'd disguised herself in one of them.

Or rather, she'd disguised herself as an empty suit, by climbing inside and activating her invisibility generator. She'd been lucky enough that no one had used the detector on the spare suits and been able to hide there while they returned to their base. Once there, she carefully blended into the squad of disembarking marines and filed out of the ship and into the base.

Rule one of invisibility--whenever possible, preserve the order of surprise, by staying unseen and staying quiet. Your enemy is more likely to tip their hand if they think no one's watching.

Mirage had managed this quite well, following the departing squad to the barracks. Fortunately, since the squads adhered to strict discipline, no one spoke, and that meant her subterfuge went undetected for a time.

Time Mirage would spend learning about who exactly had captured them.

What little she knew at the moment had been gleaned from wearing their armor and marching with them. The armor was quite impressive--despite its bulky armor plating reinforced with energy shielding, it was very lightweight and in no way hindered her movements.

What she'd learned from the other soldiers, was that they were a professional, disciplined fighting force. Everything from marching to stowing their weapons on the shuttle had been done with machine-like precision, but lacked the classic robotic movements that standard enlistees tended to have. Mirage had learned from Kienan that studying the smaller details could give her an idea what the big picture was, and if this was how they handled basic tasks, they were clearly and elite force.

Then again, they did stroll in and take the Silhouette from us, she thought. Walked right in, in knowing how to disable our ship, neutralize Vain and myself, and they knew about my ability to shroud. Whoever they are, they're not the usual gang of misfit mercenaries who rely only on superior technology and firepower for an advantage.

The squad walked in silence along a wide catwalk overlooking several repair bays. Below her, she could see fighter craft, landing shuttles of the type she'd just disembarked from, and more armor, both the black, blue and red the marine squads wore and another version, this one predominantly silver.

And everywhere around her, even on her own armor, she saw a specific symbol. Larger versions hung from the walls on flags or tapestries, but it was always omnipresent. A black banner with a blue planet against golden wings, crossed diagonally with a sword and a lightning bolt.

It looks a little like the Earth military's flag, she pondered. A special division of the Earth Force? Unlikely--usually, a special forces branch would have at least one attached officer from the main branch.

Mirage and the squad of marines marched down another section of corridors, towards another section of the complex. A plaque on the nearby wall read "troop barracks." On either side of the entrance were two troopers wearing sets of the silver-suited armor she'd seen as they passed over the repair bay.

Uh-oh, she thought.

The chances the marines slept in their armor were absolutely zero, so the chance that she'd be able to maintain her cover in the barracks was equally infinitesimal.

Time for a plan B, she thought, hoping that one would occur to her before she had to file past the guards at the barracks entrance. Despite the fact that her mind operated six times faster than a normal humans and they lacked emotions in the standard sense, Mirage marveled at the fact that not only was it taking for ever to come up with a "plan B," but she was actually feeling something close to anxiety.

Any other time, that by itself would be quite amazing and I'd tell Vain about it the whole rest of the day, she thought.

The line before her was waved into the entrance by the guards, and Mirage's row was next. Three of the four marines were waved through, but she was stopped by one of the silver guards. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the other guard raise his weapon to a ready position as she was taken out of line.

"We're not getting a reading on your ID tag," the silver guard said, his voice the same neutral tone. He put a hand on her shoulder and pulled her out of line, as the other guard took his former position, his weapon still trained on Mirage.

"I took some damage in the fight," Mirage said. "I think some of my systems are offline."

The guard paused for a moment, and the other guard moved closer. Mirage, her "plan B" now looking very close to unraveling, began to formulate a "plan C." Which unfortunately would definitely mean blowing her cover and possibly trying to fight and entire fortress of well-armed hostile forces with no way of rescuing the others or finding out who these people were because the very act of blowing her cover would at least triple security in the complex.

The guards before her were chattering to themselves. Every now and again one of them looked right at her, then quickly returned to their conversation. Mirage took the time to size up her options as far as fighting them off long enough to get out of sight and shroud again, if it came to that.

"All right," the guard said, snapping her back to attention. "Neither of us can get a reading on your ID tag, so you must have taken some damage after all. Go down to the Quartermaster's office for maintenance as soon as possible, they'll repair your tag and get your systems checked."

"Yes, sir," Mirage said, stiffening to attention. The guards waved her away and she walked off, turning left down another hallway. She had no idea at all where the Quartermaster's office was, but that was all right. She'd escaped problem one--having her cover blown now there was only problem two--keeping her cover a little while longer. With any luck, having her cover blown and having the entire force after her wouldn't sneak in until problem four or five.

She searched the walls for a floor plan or a data terminal--anything that might tell her where she was. She wouldn't need very long, just long enough to get a superficial idea of where she was and who these people were.

After all, she had to end up at the Quartermaster's office without a lot of backtracking. The guards would have called ahead to let them know to expect her, and were she to disappear now, it would attract far too much suspicion.

Rule two of invisibility--when visible, don't give anyone a reason to notice you or look in your direction or appraise you as anything out of the ordinary.

Finding a wider hallway, she finally came across a data terminal--a small screen recessed at an angle into the wall. Mirage's hand went to the screen for a moment, looking up and down the hallway as she did so.

She paused for a moment as she looked at the screen. It was standard, that strange symbol ringed a series of options, but below the screen was a small circular access port.

Ah, she thought, searching her gauntlets for a plug that would fit in that port. Wouldn't do for a marine to use the touch screen when he'd be instructed to use his on-board systems, would it?

Finding a plug, she docked it into the system and was granted immediate access.

"Welcome to Elysium Information Directory," Mirage read, eyes flitting through the menu options. She ordered the display to increase speed, restricting herself to the general information directories so as not to arouse any suspicion. After all, given how thorough they'd scouted Kienan and the Silhouette's crew, they almost certainly would monitor their system access.

In a matter of seconds she had what she needed. This "Elysium" was a shipyard of some kind, and apparently also a base for a private army called the Olympus Vanguard, headed by a man named Meridius Soldato.

None of that was unusual on the face of it--many companies had private security forces. This far out into space it was impossible for Earth to guarantee protection, so companies often consolidated power in their own hands, and were independent entities in all but name.

But this Vanguard seemed different from a standard security force, in some subtle way Mirage couldn't quite put her finger on. She downloaded the information into the on-board computer in her suit and studied it as she made her way to the Quartermaster's office.

* * *

Despite being new to the use of the saber, Kienan Ademetria was a quick study, in more of a sense than the purely physical. After getting a working understanding of saber tactics, something else about the battle he found himself in began to occur to him.

In any fight, it was expected that both sides played to win, and assumed the same of their opponent. The more he understood about the weapon he held in his hand, the more he could recognize how Soldato passed up many opportunities to exploit Kienan's lack of skill and end the battle quickly.

Instead of playing to win, he seemed to determined to stalemate Kienan for as long as possible, and given his level of skill, there was ever reason to believe he could do it for as long as he dared to.

Upon figuring that out, Kienan elected to raise the stakes, becoming faster and more aggressive. As a result, the real loser in the duel became the various rooms they fought through. Their blades dug into wood rails, splintering them as they smacked against them, shredding tapestries and carpeting, even slicing into marble and stone.

They'd fought down a staircase and into another chamber very similar to the atrium in which they'd first met and begun to fight, a great round open area where a large grand staircase emptied down into it like a waterfall into a small pool. Kienan pressed Soldato into the open area with a flurry of rapid strikes of his sword, trying to keep him on open level ground, the better to keep his options open in terms of dealing with him. Soldato raised his sword to counter Kienan's strikes, but Kienan struck harder, extending his body into the sword strikes, his long chestnut braid whipping in the air as he knocked Soldato out of his defensive stance.

Kienan pivoted on his heels, launching himself into a jumping spinning kick aimed squarely at the irritating smile his challenger wore on his irritating face. Given the force and precision he could bring to bear, it should have connected with enough force to send Soldato the floor, body armor or no body armor.

However, it stopped short, and just before he would have struck him there was a subtle ripple of blue light and Kienan felt himself shoved backward, crashing back to the floor, his saber clattering next to him as he fell.

Blue light, he thought, rolling away from Soldato as he charged forward, rolling in the direction of his saber and grasping it as the point of his opponent's blade just missed his back. He rolled to a crouch, blocking Soldato's next strike, then another, as he rose to a standing position.

That blue light was the same effect I saw when I fired at those troopers, he thought, planting his feet and going on the offensive, using a long, straight strike to knock Soldato's blade to one side and move in for the kill.

He must use the same body shielding as they do, to supplement the armor. I can find out how to disrupt that . . .I can hurt him.

Soldato backpedaled against the hurricane of blows Kienan began to land against his blade, both of their weapons vibrating with the force of the blows. Finally Kienan was able to brace his blade with both hands and knock Soldato's weapon out of its guard position and, with a whip-like follow-up, slice deep into his chest.

Soldato stared at him for a moment, as Kienan held his saber at the ready. The front flap of his tunic had split, one diagonal gash through the jet-black fabric revealing the armor plating underneath.

Soldato spared it a look and laughed gently, then lunged forward, the tip of his blade aimed for Kienan's heart. Kienan held his blade vertically as he sidestepped the attack, forcing Soldato's blade to follow the weight behind it as he shifted out of the way. As Soldato passed behind him, he drove his elbow into the back of Soldato's head, bouncing off his body shield again, but keeping his feet planted enough to shove Soldato backwards, keeping him off-balance.

They stood facing each other parallel to the grand staircase now, Kienan advancing steadily on Soldato, who had regained his balance and adopted his defensive stance once again. Kienan glanced around him for a moment, looking for anything around them that might give him an advantage and allow him to strike a more decisive blow.

Finding it, he rushed forward, jumping up on to one of the lower stairs and jumping back down onto Soldato, using gravity and his own weight to knock his sword down and slash again at Soldato chest. This time, rather than simply tearing fabric, the point of his blade cut through armor plating, and there was a flash of sparks. Kienan kept himself crouched against Soldato's body, keeping inside his zone of attack as he brought himself back to his feet, bracing his sword and his arm against Soldato's sword-arm in an attempt to keep him trapped and unable to attack.

Gaining leverage and positioning himself, Kienan strained and was able to dump Soldato over his shoulder and send him crashing down to the floor. Kienan wobbled on his feet for a moment. The throw had taken a lot out of him, and not just due to the fight--Soldato was a lot heavier than he looked.

Soldato landed with thud on the marble floor, the blue shimmer of his body shield cushioning the impact just enough. His right hand still held his weapon, but it lay flat against the floor, and there would be no way to flick it into position if Kienan decided to go in for the killing stroke.

Which Kienan was just about to do. He turned his saber, holding it with the blade pointed downward. He raised it high over his head and brought his arm down, putting his whole body weight behind him. Armor or not, shield or not, the force of this attack would kill Soldato, who lay prone and totally defenseless before him.

Or so it seemed.

Soldato snatched the point of Kienan's saber in his hand, stopping it just short of its intended target. Soldato held it fast; his grip like steel as Kienan tried to pull his saber free. Soldato brought his own up, slashing it at Kienan's arm, and cutting him across the shoulder.

Kienan backpedaled, letting go of the saber as he tried to get his feet. Soldato rose to his, throwing Kienan's saber aside and raising his own. His armor sparked intermittently from the damage Kienan had inflicted on it.

The irritating, almost goading smile he wore, however, remained the same.

Kienan drew his other pistol from its holster and leveled it, putting the sights just between Soldato's eyes. Soldato watched him do this without comment, still smiling, as if he were waiting for this moment. Or rather, he had been waiting for this moment for some time.

Kienan prepared to fire, his aim never wavering. His finger tightened on the trigger.

One second later, Soldato threw his own saber aside.

One second after that, the wall behind the two of them shifted, opening out into a larger room behind the two of them.

Kienan's finger tightened on the trigger, but before he could fire, another shot rang out.

"The next one goes through your head, Kienan. Put the gun down."

"Now."

Kienan grimaced. He knew that voice. Intimately. It's presence here was just as much an uncomfortable reminder of the past as the statue had been.

"Put it down Kienan. I don't want to kill you, but I won't let you hurt Meridius."

This . . .cut even deeper. Partly because he would recognize that voice anywhere. And also because this entire situation had gone from being utterly confusing to having the awful feeling that he'd lived through this kind of thing at least once before.

Kienan sighed, sliding his finger out of the trigger guard and holstering the weapon.

"It's down," he said, his voice cold and tight with anger. "Now . . .show yourself."

The sound of her footsteps rang out on the marble floor as she stepped into view from the protection of the door. The long black dress she wore was cut high up the thigh, revealing the garter around her leg and the holster she wore against her thigh. Her long, dark hair fell over one shoulder, framing her deep blue eyes and the thin frown of her lips.

She certainly looks more elegant than the last time I saw her, Kienan thought. His eyes went to the gun she held out in front of her, the muzzle still smoking from the warning shot she'd fired seconds ago.

Except for the gun, of course. She may have moved up the social ladder some, but she accessorizes the same way.

Good to know some things never change.

"Hello Silhouette," Kienan said, the disappointment in his voice undisguised and as acidic as he could possibly make it. "I wish I could say it was a surprise to see you here."

Silhouette stepped between Soldato and Kienan, lowering her weapon and helping Soldato up to his feet. Kienan watched them quietly, listening to Silhouette whispering to the fallen soldier about getting his systems repaired. It was obvious from the way the two of them behaved around each other their relationship went deeper than friendship.

Yes, Kienan thought with a sigh. Déjà vu.

I understand why it's such an unwelcome feeling. It's the learning it over and over again I don't like.

"You know," Kienan said, watching as Silhouette stayed close to Soldato. "If you want to introduce me to your latest boyfriend . . .there are ways other than having him challenge me to a swordfight."

"I didn't know," Silhouette said, turning to Soldato. "If I had known . . .I would never have let him provoke you into one. I know what that means for you, Kienan."

"It's all right Silhouette," Soldato said. "Apart from a few scrapes, no harm's been done."

"Easy for you to say," Silhouette said, her expression going sour as she turned to face him. "I saw what you did to my statue."

"You did?"

"You two left quite a trail."

Soldato smiled, laughing under his breath. "Forgive me, my dear. It was necessary for my purposes," he said, turning to Kienan. "You must forgive me, Kienan. I've heard quite a lot about you these past four years . . .I was eager to test you, to see if your skills were equaled to your reputation. You are, after all, the deadliest man in the galaxy."

"Uh-huh," Kienan said, fishing through the pouches on his belt for his cigarettes. Finding nothing, he looked away, rolling his eyes in irritation. "And the assault on my ship, taking me prisoner--"

"You are not a prisoner here, Kienan. This is my home."

"As I said, taking me and my crew prisoner . . .all this, just to go one on one with me?"

Soldato smiled and nodded. "Yes."

Kienan turned to Silhouette. "He's crazy," he said. "Just your type."

Silhouette cocked an eyebrow, looking to Soldato in such a way that let him know she was ready at the moment to confirm Kienan's appraisal of him.

For a long time, the three of them said nothing, only staring at one another silently, the awkwardness of the situation so oppressive it was hard to know what to say.

Finally, Silhouette decided to break the ice.

"So."

Kienan pursed his lips. "So what?"

"Meridius . . .did you really bring him in just to fight him?"

"That was one reason, yes," he said. "But not the only one."

"Just as well," Kienan interjected, looking at Silhouette. "I want some questions answered."

"I imagine you do."
"I wasn't talking to you, Soldato," Kienan shot back. "At the moment I have a lot of things I want to know--some from you, a lot more from her. Once I have those answers, we can pick this up right from where we left off. But for right now I'm going to forgo the pleasure of killing you until I work out just what in the hell is going on."

"I very much doubt that," Soldato said. "Tomorrow you and I will be friends."

Kienan's eyes narrowed and he glared at Silhouette again.

"I'm sorry," he said to her. "I was wrong about him. He's not crazy, he's insane."

"Kienan," she said gently. She knew he was angry with her, and had good reason to be. And when the time came, she'd take responsibility for her part in bringing him here.

But not right now.

"I'm willing to answer any and all questions you have, Kienan," Soldato said.

"Good. Question One--"

"Not here," Soldato said. "I think we should discuss it over drinks."

"Are you challenging me to a drinking contest, now?"

"Hardly," Soldato said. "But given all the talking that will be necessary to explain everything . . .at some point my throat will get dry. And if we have no cause to fight each other at the moment . . .why not take advantage of the lull in hostilities?"

Kienan stood there, fists clenched, his emerald eyes burning two holes right through Silhouette. Silhouette looked back, and the look in her eyes told him she understood quite well why he was angry with her.

But that would have to wait. Right now it was more important to determine what Soldato's game was.

"I don't like being manipulated, so if you have an explanation that will put all this in perspective, I'm all ears" Kienan said flatly, turning to look at Soldato, his eyes narrowing on him. "I don't trust you. I feel like I'm being jerked along the end of a chain, and you're holding the other end."

"Perhaps a drink together will help alleviate that feeling."

Kienan sighed. "With the day I'm having, it couldn't hurt."