Gunmetal Black 6
Chapter 2: The Beautiful Game
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Like birds of prey, the Marauder fighters sat on the runway, their sleek, flat diamond-like shapes seeming to move even while standing still. Despite their relative newness and a lot of complaining from the old guard (Rigellians, who preferred their technologies be built to last through decades of service, distrusted brand-new technology, preferring to wait until it was "proven.") most pilots had finally (if grudgingly) embraced the new fighter. There were of course still holdouts that continued to use older starfighters, but after thirty years, the changeover was more or less complete.

But there had been those who had adopted the Marauder earlier then most. Most of those had been dilettantes--Warmasters or Wardukes who simply appreciated a shiny new toy and could hold up the manufacturers for a free ship in return for their patronage. Their words seldom turned the tide of opinion among the rank and file.

No, when one of the elite of the Rigellian Startfighter Squadrons, the Auslese Krieger, requested one as their personal ship . . .that was news. When one of these elite pilots responsible for training the newer generation endorsed the fighter, it was the leverage that finally began the changeover.

Warbaronness Jenet had given such an endorsement. The Vulcanus Company had honored her with a personalized version of the Marauder. Unlike the metallic green of the standard Marauder, hers was a deep red, denoting her status as commander of her squadron as much as her position in the formation of Marauders on the tarmac.

Commander, she thought. Just Commander, now.

She stepped out of the locker area, her white boots scraping gently against the tarmac as she stepped out into the brilliant daylight. It was a cool day, few clouds and excellent visibility and the midday sun was high in the sky. There was a slight breeze that teased her cobalt-blue hair as she walked slowly to her fighter. Behind her she could hear the boots of her squadron filing out to join her on the field, keeping the one pace behind as was customary during formal exercises like this.

Exercises, she thought, the bitterness with which the word echoed in her mind surprising her. It always took her aback a little to realize that she'd never gotten used to the sound of the word and how hollow and empty it seemed compared to what she'd known before, the life she found herself uncomfortably living in the shadow of.

She forced it from her mind as she slid her helmet over her head, locking down the atmospheric seals at the moorings of her flightsuit. She pulled her white gloves taught and climbed up the metal ladder, up into the cockpit of her Marauder. With the motions so reflexive they almost seemed like instinct, she activated the canopy seal and began her pre-flight checks, the fighter humming to life all around her, its gradual awakening seeming to Jenet like the embrace of an old friend.

Her only friend, really.

She began to taxi her fighter up the tarmac, away from the others in her squadron as she began powering up her engines. Fifteen years ago, she'd trained hundreds of pilots every half-year. Jenet had been headmistress of fighter combat at the Fenring Praxia, the leading school for fighter combat since the war with Earth.

The job had been everything she'd ever wanted. Though she'd never fancied herself an educator until then, she found that not only did she have an aptitude for teaching equal to her flying skills, she actually enjoyed it. There was more to fighter combat than simply studying maneuvers and strategy. There was nuance, psychology, and room for creativity.

Jenet had taught it as a method of self-expression. "A beautiful, but deadly game."

She hit the throttle, taking to the sky, grimacing a little at how foolish she sounded in memory and the G-forces pushed her back into her seat. She quickly looked over her readouts, pausing over her scanner, the four triangles behind her indicating the pursuit of her squad.

The grimace gave way to a smile. It may have seemed foolish to say, but she couldn't deny how she felt. Whatever happened down below, here in the skies, or in the stars, those things couldn't touch her.

No, here was only the game.

"Squad, this is Gespenst," Jenet said into her radio. "The exercise is a simple one . . .eliminate me before I eliminate you. Cycle your weapons down to training settings."

"Confirmed, Gespenst," the various members of her squad called back. They were all that the base would willingly spare for these exercises--four pilots, selected by lot. As a rule, Rigellian pilots were obedient and capable enough. Their only fault was that they lacked a certain aggressive quality, a combination of reckless and daring that Jenet had embraced ever since she'd first flown.

They don't understand the game, Jenet thought, gradually throttling her speed back, giving the squad a chance to catch up. She eyed the scanners, waiting to see which of her squadron closed in and took the obvious bait.

Two of the fighters broke away, recognizing the trap or fearing collision. But the other two closed in, holding in tight formation. In a matter of seconds, they would be on her, ready to pin her between their fields of fire so tightly she would have no room to maneuver.

Just before they closed on her, she fired her retro-rockets, throwing her ship into a wild flat spin. Around her, the ship seemed to be shaking to pieces, her instrumentation was hopelessly confused.

Just as well, she thought. I don't need them.

She seized the throttle and fired the engines to maximum, gripping the controls in an iron grip and righting her fighter in time to rocket past the two ships on her tail, passing them as though they were standing still in the skies.

She threw her Marauder into a hard turn, watching as the two pursuing fighters now banked away. She'd flown by them so fast they'd lost sight of her, and now intended to split up and search for her, never imagining Jenet could make a turn at high speed and become their pursuer that quickly.

Too bad. It was a failure of imagination that would cost them.

With a flick of thumb, she armed her fire, the targeting reticule instantly appearing on the heads-up display in her helmet. One of the fighters had seen her and was looping behind, trying to position themselves for a shot at her.

But they were moving too slow and being too cautious, too certain she wouldn't be in optimum firing position so soon.

They were wrong. Jenet lined up her shot and fired. The cannons on the marauder pulsed three times, "tagging" the fighter with an energy pattern that substituted for a critical hit.

"Marauder Three, return to base," Jenet said, obvious disappointment in her voice. "You've been eliminated."

"Understood, Gespenst," Marauder Three answered.

As she watched the Marauder slow and turn back towards the base, she studied her scanner for her remaining three opponents. They were keeping a fair distance, it seemed, eager to avoid a similar fate as Marauder Three.

Come on, she thought, searching the skies. You can hardly hide forever. You must engage sometime--

Wait.

Two Marauders streaked by her. One cut their acceleration, taking up a position alongside her fighter, flying almost wingtip to wingtip. Jenet attempted to lose the fighter by rolling away, then cutting her acceleration, but the pilot seemed impossible to shake.

Even more peculiar, they didn't seem to be intent on engaging her, only in keeping her in sight. For a few seconds Jenet pondered this peculiar behavior, when the answer came to her.

An emergency tone rang out from her instrumentation, indicating an enemy was trying to lock target on her. She immediately cut her thrusters, rolling her fighter to disrupt the lock and, with split second timing, target the ship that had been flying parallel to hers.

Jenet dispatched the ship with a few quick shots as she continued to barrel roll, focusing as she did on the other Marauder who'd targeted her only seconds before. Whoever they were they must have been hanging just beyond her scanner range.

She switched to her long-range scanners, searching for the other two fighters as she leveled out and accelerated. The other two pilots weren't going to engage her . . .clearly, she'd have to go to them.

She found one of them dead ahead. As she maneuvered for position, the other Marauder dove in, out of the sun, firing its weapons at Jenet as their two ships converged. Jenet threw her fighter into a sharp banking turn that threatened to cause her to black out from the G-forces, but succeeded in avoiding the salvo from the attacking Marauder. Jenet kept on the fighter she'd been originally pursuing, switching back to her short-range scanner as the fighter pursuing her closed in.

Jenet smiled. Whoever was pursuing her was clever. They were counting on the fact that she'd be so wrapped up in eliminating their wingman that they'd be able to set up a shot at their leisure. The salvo had been an attempt to force her into a pursuit and push her closer to the ground, to limit her options.

Too bad I'm not so easily pinned down, Jenet thought, following the Marauder's sharp dive with a gentle spiral downwards. The Marauder on her tail matched her, but Jenet kept the Marauder she'd been following between her ship and her pursuer, daring her attacker to shoot through their wingman to tag her.

Below Jenet the ground spiraled closer and closer as she closed in on the other Marauder. After what seemed like ages, she maneuvered into position and dealt with the diving Marauder with a quick salvo of cannon fire.

Unfortunately this left her open for a split second to an attack from the final Marauder. Breathing shallowly against the incredible G-forces, Jenet immediately turned her fighter into a steep, almost sheer, climb, taking the pursuing fighter by surprise with the sudden change of tactic. It hastily dodged Jenet, then banked and rolled, staying with her.

Behind her helmet Jenet smiled. Whoever this was against her, they knew how to play the game. For a moment, she entertained the idea of faltering, just for a second, long enough for them to take her out. The pilot had impressed her and she could almost entertain the notion that he or she was worthy enough to defeat her.

Almost.

Jenet's instinct to play the game was too strong. She turned her fighter to face her opponent, each on a collision course with the other. Neither made any effort towards evasive action, both simply roared towards the other.

Less than a minute before their ships would have crashed, Jenet threw her fighter into a tight roll and began pulling the trigger as the other pilot attempted to roll counter to hers.

Despite their attempt at evasion, the pilot was too close in to avoid Jenet's guns and in a moment, it was over. A second later, the pilot straightened out of the dive and took up a parallel course with Jenet's fighter.

"Marauder Four, you are defeated," Jenet said, her tone much warmer as compared to the curt tone she'd taken with the rest of the squadron. "You did well in lasting so long. Return to base . . .Gespenst has the lead."

"Understood, Gespenst," a female voice answered back. "Marauder Four out."

Jenet relaxed a little, the tension from the exercise bleeding away with the adrenaline. It had turned out to be a fairly exciting practice session after all. She couldn't help but be curious about Marauder Four's piloting skills and tactics. For a randomly selected pilot, she was quite skilled, almost the equal of a student she herself had trained.

But surely, that was impossible, Jenet mused. For one thing, most of her tactics were things I never taught my students. For another, after all this time, my students should be commanding their own squadrons now. If they aren't piloting capital ships, that is. None of them would still be Fourth in a small base squadron.

No, this was no mere student of the Praxia, she reasoned. And I'd be most curious to find out just how they learned some of these tactics. I'll have to speak with her after we've landed.

* * *

Mirage made her way through the empty corridors of Elysium. She'd been lucky so far--despite the frenetic activity in the other areas of the complex, the further she went towards the Quartermaster's office, the fewer people she encountered. Those few that did cross her path didn't bother to spare her a second glance, which was fine with her.

The suit helped with that. She'd decided it would be best to keep her helmet on and completely obscure her features in case the "damaged security tag" story didn't work a second time.

These Vanguard types are clever, she thought. Every piece of equipment is tracked electronically, which I suppose is meant to prevent people like me from easily infiltrating.

And but for the security tag malfunctioning in my suit, it would've worked.

But that was nothing I planned. I just got lucky and picked the right suit.

Mirage didn't much like the concept of "luck." Neither did her "sisters," really. Luck was for humans--fallible, unpredictable, and unquantifiable. That was fine for the human mind, weaned on intuition and fuzzy logic, but Mirage and her sister had always found it a very difficult concept to understand, and even harder to trust.

And yet, here she was. Relying on luck.

How very ironic, she thought.

"Irony" was another concept they had trouble with.

Mirage put those thoughts out of her mind. First, she had to change disguises. It wouldn't be long before the damaged suit would be reported, and the armor would become a liability. Better to ditch it and try another one before that happened.

Then, the real complicated part of the plan began--freeing the others.

That was a part of the plan she hadn't given much thought to yet. For one thing, there was no guarantee Kienan and the others were still on the station, never mind where on the station. The map she'd downloaded from the system indicated Elysium stretched for miles in every direction.

It was a lot of ground for one woman to cover.

Assuming they're still alive, she thought, forcing the unpleasant thought back down even as it bubbled to the surface of her thoughts.

No, she thought, willing the negativity away. They're alive. I know they are. I have to believe they are.

She blinked at that last thought.

Faith? In her?

She frowned. Yet another one of those troublesome, unquantifiable, and all-too-fallible emotions.

And yet, somehow . . . it came so easy, just then.

She rounded a corner and passed by a partition that led into the Quartermaster's office. There was a large room with a booth on the far wall. Along the walls, on either side were rows of terminals like the one Mirage had accessed Elysium's system with.

In the middle of the room stood one man, ringed by six armored and well-armed guards. At sight of her they raised their weapons and pointed them directly at her. While four of the armored guards held the standard weapon she'd seen the others carrying, the two closest to the man in uniform held other weapons, braced against their shoulders.

"That's far enough," The man in uniform said. "We've been waiting for you, Marionette. Unseal the hardsuit, and let's . . .talk this out. We don't want a fight, but we've been authorized to neutralize you if your behavior mandates it. Don't make me give that order."

Mirage froze in her suit, searching through the various systems within her suit for any onboard weaponry that might give her a chance to escape.

Nothing, she thought. Except for the force field.

She weighed her options. The shield would give her time to backtrack out of the office . . .and then what? Clearly, whoever was behind this had been allowing her to roam through the halls deliberately, which implied that they weren't terribly concerned about any damage she could do or they knew they could close the trap on her any time they wanted.

Which, unfortunately, they seem to have been right about, she thought.

"I can assure you," the uniformed man said again. "The weapons my two associates are holding are strong enough to temporarily deactivate you. We know--we tested them out on your "sister" back on your ship. I don't want to give the order to fire, so I'm asking you again--surrender. I give you my word you won't be harmed."

Vain? Deactivated? Mirage didn't know what to think about that. They'd been damaged critically before, but neither Mirage nor her sisters had ever sustained a hit hard enough to knock them out. She hadn't even imagined the technology possible to accomplish it existed.

Guess I was wrong, there.

Her mind raced through the possibilities open to her, and weighed them against the probabilities of success. Unfortunately, there weren't many possibilities and the few she had had even lower probabilities of success.

She was up against an army; an army that clearly knew plenty about her while she knew nothing about them. Also, they had information about Vain and the others, it seemed. From the tone of the man's voice she still functioned, and they seemed to be very concerned about not damage Mirage.

Maybe that means they're in custody somewhere on the station. And I can either fight my way to them . . .or let this guy take me there as his prisoner.

Reluctantly, she shut down the suit's systems and removed her helmet. The man waved away the armored guards who immediately safetied their weapons and stepped back.

The man walked towards her. He was dressed in a uniform similar to the ones she'd seen various crewman on the station wearing--black tunic trimmed in red with blue pants and white gloves and boots--but the various insignia on his uniform indicated a higher ranking officer than any she'd encountered thus far.

"Now that we're face to face, permit me to introduce myself," the man said, curtly bowing his head. "I'm Commander Benjamin Avery, Olympus Vanguard. And you are--?"

"Where are the rest of the crew of my ship?" Mirage demanded.

"In custody," Avery responded. "But unharmed."

His dark brown eyes stared into her own. He was young for an officer and his face had a strange quality to it for a member of the military--none of the hard features of a commander. No, he seemed more analytical than most she'd encountered.

"What about my sister?" Mirage demanded. "You said you'd deactivated her."

"Only temporarily," Avery, gesturing to the weaponry the two soldiers behind him held. "Our weapons only creature a temporary interruption in your systems. Following that, from what we observed, she reactivated with no lasting damage. Or at least none she's communicated to us."

"Right," Mirage said. Avery was clever enough to feed her pertinent information without giving her anything else that would help her better understand the situation they were in.

Something about the whole situation felt off to her. Avery and his crew were far too polite and cautious to be there simply to apprehend her, but neither were they welcoming her with open arms.

I'm being cagey, and they're being cagey. It's a stalemate. If I want any answers at all. I'm just going to have to try the direct approach.

"So," Mirage said. "Am I under arrest, or what?"

"Hardly," Avery responded. "You and your crew are honored guests of our Captain."

"Honored guests," Mirage repeated. "Guests whose ship you incapacitated, boarded, kidnapped and brought here? You've a strange idea of the red carpet treatment, Avery."

"Our Captain didn't think you and your crew would respond to the traditional approach. After all, you've been on the run for almost two years now."

Mirage flinched, looking around at the guardsmen surrounding her. "So, what happens now?"

"If you'll get out of our armor, we'll take you up to the others, and, eventually to meet the Captain."

"Wonderful," Mirage said, deactivating the suit and clambering out of it. "I have a lot I want to say to him . . .after I've made sure the rest of my crew is all right."

"We'll escort you to them immediately," Avery said, waving over his shoulder at the guards. Immediately they put away their weapons and formed into a detail behind him. Avery walked alongside Mirage out of the Quartermaster's office and back out into the main corridor.

"You don't seem all that concerned I might try to escape," Mirage said to Avery.

"That's because you're not under arrest," Avery said. He cocked and eyebrow and looked at her for a moment. "Prisoners escape. Guests . . .well, it's a big station. Easy enough to get lost if you don't know your way around.

"That, and one other thing."

"What's that?"

"You're in the heart of the Olympus Vanguard," Avery replied. "Pardon me for being blunt, but you really don't have very far you can go or much damage you can do before you'd be neutralized. And since we know most everything about you and your crew . . .our Captain felt like there was little lasting harm in giving you a little rope."

"What, to hang myself with?" Mirage asked. A feeling not unlike paranoia crept through her at that moment. "Who is this Captain of yours, anyway?"

* * *

Meridius Soldato pushed the tumbler of green liquid across the small bar to Kienan, who stared holes through his host. Behind him, Silhouette watched the two of them nervously. The silence in the room masked the tension that hung over everything.

Knowing both men intimately, and knowing how they responded to things, she had an awful feeling things might degenerate into a fight that would make the swordfight she'd broken up an hour ago look like a polite disagreement.

"Altairian whiskey," Kienan said, staring down at the tumbler with as much hatred as he'd just glared at Soldato with. "Just happened to have some in case I dropped by, did you?"

"A good host knows the needs of his guest."

Kienan looked at the glass, then at Soldato.

"It's not poisoned or drugged Kienan," Soldato said, smiling.

"Forgive me," Kienan said. "I'm always a little suspicious when someone offers me a drink."

"Why?"

"It means I end up owing them, and I don't like owing people."

"A very paranoid point of view to have."

"Paranoid people imagine that people are out to get them," Kienan said. "I know better."

Kienan turned away from the drink and Soldato and turned to face Silhouette.

"Hi, Silhouette," Kienan said. "Don't think I haven't noticed you standing over there trying to be invisible while all this is going on."

"You're angry," Soldato said.

"Actually," Kienan retorted. "Right now, I'm only annoyed. But, don't worry--I'll get to "angry" before long."

"Then before your anger makes discussion impossible, perhaps I should explain why you're here."

"Don't bother," Kienan sneered.

"Then you know already."

"I know how you two screwed me," Kienan said, his cold green eyes narrowing on Silhouette. "Now I want to know why."

"Kienan, hear him out," Silhouette said. "He wants to help you."

"Help like his I don't need. Help like yours I don't want anymore."

Kienan spun on his heel and snatched the tumbler off the bar. A thin smile crossed his lips as he looked Soldato in the eye and poured contents of the tumbler out onto the carpet. Then he slammed the tumbler down on the bar, snatched the bottle of whiskey and refilled the glass.

"If I want a drink, Soldato," he began, raising the glass. "I can get one myself."

Soldato watched the spectacle with bemused detachment, and if Kienan's insolence annoyed him, he gave no sign.

"Empty gesture, Kienan--It's still my whiskey," Soldato said.

"But it was my drink," Kienan said. "That makes all the difference. Now I don't owe anyone for the cost of having it poured for me."

"If you're done making an ass of yourself, Kienan . . .," Silhouette said, crossing her legs and glowing at him with the pinched body language of someone trying to hold in a lifetime of irritation.

"I'm not sure-- after all, it's early yet," Kienan said, looking over his shoulder at her. "But all right. I'll put together what I know and the two of you can fill in the blanks."

He turned back to Soldato. "You mentioned you'd been waiting four years for this moment of yours. You were at Zwei Base then. Testing out experimental fighters."

"Three of which you stole out from under my nose," Soldato said, pouring himself a flute of Rigellian kiral. "I and a squad of Earth fighter pilots gave chase, but somehow you eluded us. Some sort of mass system failure in our craft, I think it was."

"Eluded, hell," Kienan said. "You let me . . .let us go. I didn't put it together until I thought about the fight--something about the way you were playing around but not taking a definite advantage and ending the fight."

"Astute deduction," Soldato said. "Yes, I was testing you."

"I was willing to kill myself just to take you with me," Kienan said. "I hope that lesson wasn't lost on you."

"It wasn't," Soldato said. He looked at the flute of bubbling golden liquid and drank it straight down. "Which is why I never put you in that position today. I assumed that in an unfamiliar situation you'd only fight as hard as you were pushed, so I elected to control the fight."

Kienan frowned. He'd wanted a much less oblique answer than that.

"So . . .why wait four years to bring me in?" He turned around, leaning back against the bar, his eyes fixing on Silhouette. "And why did you help him?"

"You seem awfully sure I had something to do with it," Silhouette replied. "I didn't know the particulars of Soldato's plans for you until about a month ago."

"Don't play innocent with me, Silhouette," Kienan said. "His troops couldn't have gotten past my the Silhouette's without special entry codes, and apart from my crew, only you and one other have them. He's not here, you are. What am I supposed to think?"

"She may have done you a favor, Kienan," Soldato said, walking out from behind the bar and crossing in front of him. "Thanks to her, we were able to bring you in with a minimum of damage to yourself, your crew, and your ship."

Kienan rolled his eyes. "How very kind," he said. He looked past Soldato to Silhouette. "So, what are you doing in bed with the Earth military? I thought you and your White Dragons only operated against the Syndicates."

"I'm not," Silhouette said, looking stung. She pointed to Soldato. "And neither is he."

"The Vanguard isn't part of the United Earth Military," Soldato chimed in. "I supply armaments to them through my Olympus Corporation, and through the Vanguard, military advisors, but by and large we're a force unto ourselves. As to our relationship, Silhouette and my organizations work together occasionally, but by and large we keep those separate too."

"So you don't take your work to bed," Kienan sneered. "It seems you learned something after all these years after all, Silhouette."

"About not dating anyone I work alongside? Yes, Kienan, I had an excellent teacher there," Silhouette shot back. Any pretense of polite discussion was fading fast, and soon things would devolve into a contest of Kienan's anger at his perceived betrayal versus Silhouette's frustrations.

It wasn't a fight Soldato had any interest in seeing, and, ever determined to control the fight, he decided to defuse the situation.

"You wanted to fill in some blanks, Kienan?" Soldato interjected, raising his voice just enough so that the noise was like a wall between Kienan and Silhouette. "Very well. Yes, four years ago, I allowed you to steal my prototypes from Zwei Base, and even arranged your escape. The skill and daring with which you executed the theft impressed me and I pride myself on having a keen eye for talent."

Kienan's eyes narrowed. He shifted the weight from one foot to the other. He'd always assumed that was the case, but unfortunately, the confirmation of his suspicion raised for questions than it solved.

Soldato crossed over to Silhouette, standing behind her. "Though I had no way of knowing who you are--you'd taken great care to cover your tracks--I began searching through all available sources Some time later, I met Silhouette. She'd wanted to contract me to build her a starship of her own, a base for her White Dragons. In addition to my fee I asked only one thing."

"He had a picture of you from the raid on Zwei Base," Silhouette said. "He wanted me to put a name to the face."

Kienan sighed. "And you gave it to him right away, I'm sure."

"Actually, I didn't," Silhouette said, idly reaching a hand out behind her to touch Soldato. "Not until later, when there was no other choice."

"And the justification for this latest massively stupid decision of yours was . . .what, exactly?"

"That I wasn't the only person searching for you," Soldato responded. "Someone from the Rigellian Empire made inquires about the raid on Zwei Base. She gave your name to me . . .but I didn't give it to them."

Kienan looked unconvinced.

"Kienan, he didn't," Silhouette said. "I was there."

"Your record for truthfulness isn't all that impressive from where I'm standing, Sil," Kienan said. He looked from her to Soldato. "So, did this Rigellian tell you anything about why he was looking for me?"

Soldato shook his head, shrugging slightly. "He was an Agent of Black Lens . . .they deal in questions more than answers. From what I was able to determine, it involved both you and Silhouette."

"Hmm," Kienan said. He'd taken a mission into Rigellian territory that ended up paralleling with one of hers and ended up rescuing her as they made their escape.

Considering all this, I'm on the fence about whether that was a good idea or not, he mused.

"Nevertheless, your secret was kept," Soldato said. "I continued to plan for our eventual meeting in secret, gathering information about you as it came to me. I had planned to lay a trail that would bring you here voluntarily. However, your later exploits forced me to step up my timetable."

"My later exploits?" Kienan repeated.

"Two years ago. When you were kicked out of the Blue Dragon Syndicate, and when you fired on an Earth ship," Silhouette said. "When you went renegade."

"I have people who report to me stationed at various Earth bases and on starships assigned to hunt you down," Soldato said. "They allowed me to trace your movements to some degree and, with a little influence here and there, keep the UEF ships from getting too close and either capturing or destroying you. When that became impossible, I decided it was time to being you in."

"You waited until now to settle the score about my stealing your fighters?"

"There's no score to settle, Kienan," Soldato said. "You said it yourself--I could easily have killed you or captured you, but I didn't. Likewise, I could have turned you over to Rigellians, but I didn't. And I could have easily killed you this morning, but--"

"I wouldn't be so sure of that."

"I would," Soldato said. "My experience and skill gave me the edge."

"Don't say something you might not be able to back up, Soldato."

"In any event," Soldato said, ignoring the challenge. "At every turn I have refused to take any reprisal on you, and in some cases I've actually protected you from harm. Great care was taken when we took the Silhouette to ensure none of your crew was harmed and the damage was minimal. So, whatever the reason why you're here, you can be assured that causing you harm isn't it."

"Well, good," Kienan said, a mocking lilt in his voice as he put his hand over his chest. "Because I was positively terrified that was the case. But if it isn't . . .then why the hell am I here?"

Soldato smiled. "In good time, Kienan," he said, holding the now-empty flute of kiral in his hands as he walked back to the bar. He set it on the bar then walked a few steps to the other side of it and examined a screen embedded under the surface of the bar. His brow furrowed momentarily and then a satisfied smile played across his face.

"For now, there's something I have to attend to," he said, looking up at Kienan. "You must excuse me--I'm needed elsewhere for a few minutes. Help yourself to the drinks."

"You're leaving?" Kienan demanded.

"I've filled in enough blanks for now, I think," Soldato said. He gestured to the bottle of Altairian whiskey on the bar as he backed out the door.

"Besides," he began, activating the door control and stepping through. "You've ably proven capable to pour your own drinks, haven't you?"

The door slid shut, punctuating his last comment. Kienan stared at the door for a while, as though by glaring at it, it would cause time to reverse and Soldato to return so he could pry more answers out of him.

When that failed, he poured himself another glass of whiskey and turned to Silhouette.

"Your boyfriends get stranger and stranger," he said, swallowing the whiskey with a flourish.

"He wasn't what I expected, either, at first," Silhouette said. "He never is, never had been. This plan of his is just one example. He's got your gift for holding back important things. You should get along famously."

"I don't intend on staying that long."

"You may not have a choice in that."

"Why Sil, that sounds like a threat," Kienan said, pouring another for himself.

"Kienan, you heard him," she replied, her tone softening as she tried to find a way past his anger to appeal to his reason. "He's been planning this for years. If you're here, and here armed, I might add, it's only because he's allowed it. He knew you'd have an escape plan in place, he knew you'd try to escape and fight the first person you encountered. Just like he knew you'd calm down once you got some answers, to buy time while your backup plan to escape is working."

"Amazing. Is he a mind-reader?"

"I thought you couldn't be read."

"Oh, I'm just not sure anymore," Kienan said. "The way you make him sound, he's got to be positively superhuman, because I'm so obviously overmatched against him. I should give up right now."

"Stop being sarcastic Kienan--I'm serious about this," Silhouette said. "Meridius doesn't rely on brute force when he can finesse and outmaneuver the opposition into doing themselves in for him. He's done as much to you twice, now."

"Thanks for the warning," Kienan said, his flip tone as much as throwing it over his shoulder into a waste bin. "I'll remember it and be sure to laugh when I've busted out of here."

He stared at her in silence for a long time, which finally made Silhouette so uncomfortable she turned away and stared out at the stars. Neither of them moved or said a thing for minutes, the tense silence in the room so oppressive it seemed to strangle the oxygen in the room.

Kienan fumbled for a cigarette, then searched his pockets for a lighter. He patted up and down for one, the unlit cigarette dangling from his lips as he rummaged through, pausing as he spied something out of the corner of his eye.

It lay on the bar; leaning against a crystal ashtray as Kienan was against the bar, a thin gold rectangle. Kienan reached for it cautiously, looking at it and the ashtray. He cradled it in his hand as he stared at it, frowning around his cigarette.

A lighter. From the looks of it, a very expensive one.

There were no ashes in the ashtray, and the air was clean. There was no sign that Soldato or anyone else here smoked.

So what was it doing here, leaned up against the ashtray like it had been waiting for him?

Silhouette's admonitions about not underestimating Soldato echoed through his mind momentarily.

God, I hate it when she's right, he thought.

"This Soldato," Kienan began, lighting his cigarette and puffing gently on it. Silhouette had grown so used to the silence she jumped at the sound of his voice. "He's younger than I am, isn't he?"

"I think he's actually a little older than you," Silhouette said, looking away from him. Her voice was bored, tired and distant.

"Better looking," Kienan continued.

Silhouette said nothing and his her slight smirk behind her hand.

"And he has his own corporation," he mused. "So he's a hell of a lot richer."

Silhouette nodded slowly.

"I just can't imagine what you see in him, Sil."

Kienan took a long drag of his cigarette and exhaled very slowly, staring out the same window she was. Silhouette caught their twin reflections in the glass and felt a little uncomfortable. In their reflections he loomed over her, a spectre she could never exorcise.

The ghost of the past.

* * *

Jenet disembarked from her fighter and hastily made he way to the assembled members of the squadron filed into the locker room. Ordinarily, she'd have waited for a while after their run today, but she was too eager to know just who Marauder Four was to leave it that long.

Besides which, there was no guarantee that the pilot would be in the next squad. The base commanders had a tendency to rotate the pilots in her squad on a day by day basis; thusly she usually only referred to them by generic assigned numbers, instead of their call signs. After all, there was little point in forming relationships in an ever-rotating squadron.

If she waited, she might never know who they were.

"Marauder Four! STOP!" She shouted in her loudest, most commanding voice. The four pilots stopped almost immediately upon hearing the sound of her voice.

"I want to speak with you," Jenet said, slightly less loud but keeping the undercurrent of command in her voice. "The rest of you are dismissed."

Three of the four pilots continued back to their locker rooms as Marauder Four removed their helmet. She was a younger woman than Jenet, and her hair was close-cropped and tinged slightly purple. While Jenet didn't know her name, she could tell from her look of smugness that she certainly came from privilege.

"I just wanted to compliment you on your flying today," Jenet said. "Officer . . ."

"Warmaster," she clarified. "Warmaster Horan. From Lankveil."

"Of course," Jenet said. "That was some unorthodox flying. Very impressive. Certainly nothing like what I understand is taught in Praxia these days."

Horan flinched at this. "Oh yes," she said. "I picked up some of those techniques from Earth pilots I was stationed with on a joint command. On the border with the Sekhmet."

"Hmm," Jenet said. "I'd no idea that the Earthers were that skilled."

"They . . .lack our formal education, Baroness, but their skill was undeniable," Horan explained. Jenet noticed a slight apprehension when she asked for details, and wondered what she was trying to hide. It wasn't out of the question that Earthers had some exceptional pilots, and since the war, joint operations weren't exactly unheard of.

"Baroness Jenet!"

Jenet turned over her shoulder at the sound of her name. A man walked towards the pair of them, crossing over from the far side of the tarmac. Maybe it was the expression of cold disdain on his face, or perhaps the black uniform he wore, but something about him seemed . . .unusually dark, as if he trailed shadows in his wake.

"Baroness Jenet! I would speak with you."

Jenet studied him as he grew closer, and unconsciously, her lip curled into a sneer. She didn't recognize the man, but the uniform was unmistakable.

A Lensman, she thought, the bitterness like acid in her mind. What could they want with me? I'd hoped one of the benefits of living in obscurity would be that I'd never have to suffer one of them again.

The Lensman came up alongside them, his light blue hair whipping in the gentle breeze, carrying a small folder under his arm. He looked at Jenet, then, his expression darkening slightly, looked to Horan.

Jenet took the hint. "Warmaster, you're dismissed," she said. "However, I would like to hear more, so expect to hear from me later in the day."

"Of course, Baroness," Horan said, offering her superior officer a crisp salute. She turned to the Lensman for a moment, then turned on her heel and walked back towards the locker room.

"Now," Jenet said, straightening and turning to face the Lensman. "I don't know precisely who you are, but I'll thank you not to interrupt me when I'm debriefing one of my squadron, Agent--"

"Count," he sharply corrected. "Count Heinrich Straeger."

"Very well . . ."Count,"" Jenet replied, emphasizing his title in a way that left no doubt she outranked him. "Nevertheless, even if basic military decorum escapes you, mere politeness should have taught you there are better ways of gaining my attention than shouting at me across a runway."

"It was the most expedient for my purposes," Straeger replied, proffering the folder to her. "My business with you will not wait."

Jenet snatched the folder away from him, breaking the seal on it and reading the contents within.

"You are assigned to my service," Straeger began. "In twenty-four hours time, we will--"

"I can read, Count Straeger," she replied, scanning the text. She spared him a sharp, reproachful look, then returned to reading her orders. "It's obvious to me, however, that you cannot. These orders indicate we are to share command, they say nothing about my being in your service. Much to my relief."

"An oversight on my part, Baroness," Straeger said, taken aback. "You must forgive me. Too much travel has rattled my nerves."

And your sincerity, obviously, Jenet mused. She read the rest quickly and snapped the folder shut and held it closed, feeling her fingertips sweating under her gloves.

A command, she thought, barely able to believe it. A command of my very own. She'd read it through two times already but even then wondered if it was a misprint.

Jenet took a deep breath and looked up at Straeger again.

"Any questions?"

"No, Count," she replied. "I will report in twenty-two hours."

"I will expect you aboard the Kralle then," Straeger replied, bowing curtly to her. Jenet, unable to restrain her contempt, returned the gesture with a sneering bow of her head.

"Baroness."

"Count."

She watched the Count turn and walk back the way he came, and even going in the opposite direction, he seemed to walk under a cloud, or drag one along with him. Even for an agent of Black Lens, privately considered among the military to be less a secret police force and more a squad of muckrakers and garbage-pickers, there was something about him especially loathsome.

She put it out of her mind. Though she dreaded the idea of joint command with someone like Straeger the appeal of real command and an end to the exile she'd spent the last few years in was enough reward to suffer anything.

After all, what indignity could be worse than what she'd already suffered?

* * *

There was nothing to look at, save each other.

Jayla-2 and Vain stood alone in an alcove just off of a longer corridor. Like all space stations, the walls and ceilings were a dull white-grey, and the lack of windows, or furniture, or any other details to leaven the monotony made it seem like the most oppressive prison imaginable.

Or, at least it was how Jayla-2 imagined prison. Never having been in one, it was hard to tell. But it felt like a prison to her--despite the lack of bars or a door, there were two of those black-armored guards positioned at the entrance, both of whom carried the same fearsome looking weapons she'd seen on the Silhouette.

And it was quiet. Not a peaceful quiet, either--a tense, scared, kind of quiet, like something awful was going to happen, or had happened already, and that was a feeling Jayla-2 knew better than anyone.

What was unusual about it was it seemed to be coming from Vain.

Up until this moment, Jayla-2 would have said that was impossible.

Ever since she'd come on board the Silhouette, Vain had, by design or by circumstance become Jayla-2's protector and instructor (Vain's version) and her friend (Jayla-2's version) She admired the Marionette's cool logic, her ability to formulate a plan of action in an instant, and her fearlessness. Vain had always seemed to know what to do, and that calm confidence helped when both of those virtues had deserted Jayla-2.

More than that, though, Jayla-2 felt they were alike--unique. Vain was a unique type of artificial being, Jayla-2 was . . .well, the closest anyone had come was "anti-clone." One part alien DNA, one part the DNA of a woman named Jayla Kyren, mix with nanotechnology, season with the memories of the late Ms. Kyren and what could be best explained as "magic," and apparently, Jayla-2 was what you got. A woman with the memories of another, who looked nothing like the woman she was copied from.

I wonder how that must sound to people, she thought. Then again, everyone I know has fairly complicated backstories. Maybe it's inevitable, what Vain calls "the human condition."

She never seems pleased to call it that.

With her past such a jumble, Jayla-2 had considered it best to simply live in the present as much as possible, to work on the observations and experiences she lived through now, rather than the memories she had to go on.

And in the short time she'd lived, Jayla-2 had never seen Vain show anything like fear. Vain felt, of course, no matter how hard she tried to hide it. But Jayla-2 had always found it muted, restrained. But even in those very low-key emotions, never fear.

Never.

Until now.

Vain had spent most of the time since they'd revived keeping her back to Jayla-2 and keeping quiet. The few words they'd shared were clipped, and Vain seemed almost apprehensive somehow.

What could it mean? Jayla-2 pondered. I can't imagine anything scaring Vain, or making her nervous? Is it something that happened to her, or something she knows?

Somehow, the attack on the Silhouette, of being taken to this strange place under guard . . .none of it worried Jayla-2 more than the idea that Vain was scared.

Because if she was scared, it was something serious. And that made Jayla-2 afraid.

"Vain," Jayla-2 said, trying to break the silence and distract herself from the wheels spinning in her mind. "Do you . . .how long do you think we've been here?"

Vain stiffened, turning slowly to look at Jayla-2. Her face betrayed no obvious emotion, but clearly, there was something wrong.

"I . . .I'm not certain," Vain said. "A matter of hours, or perhaps days. Our captors have done an excellent job of keeping us disoriented following their assault on the ship. I have no reference in terms of assessing how much time has passed."

"Don't you have an internal clock?" Jayla-2 asked. "Can't you refer to that?"

"You forget," Vain said. "When were captured, I was knocked offline. My internal chronometer hasn't completed realigning itself."

Jayla-2 frowned. "What do you think they're planning to do with us?"

"Unknown," Vain said.

So much for reassurance, Jayla-2 thought. Time to try something else.

"Do you think if I asked the guards out there they'd tell me?" Jayla-2 asked.

"That would be exceedingly foolish," Vain said, the admonishment in her voice reassuring Jayla-2 a bit--there was the Vain she knew so well. "In any event, I am certain our captors have ordered them not to talk to us for that very reason."

"Huh," Jayla-2 said. "So there's nothing we can do?"

"Nothing," Vain said, the edge back in her words.

Jayla-2 let that hang in the air like an ill omen. Then the oppressive silence returned for a few minutes, followed by a rumbling noise at the far end of the corridor beyond their small alcove. Then footsteps rang out--enough to indicate a large group of people.

"Two days," Vain whispered.

"What?" Jayla-2 asked. The marchers shadows were visible as they made their way down the hall.

"We've been here two days," Vain repeated. "I just received a signal from Mirage."

Jayla-2 smiled. Mirage, she thought. The footsteps halted, and there was some curt discussions between the guards and whoever had entered the corridor.

That means she's free, and if she's close enough for Vain to get a signal, that means we'll be free in no--

Flanked by a group of armored guards and a uniformed officer Jayla-2 didn't recognize turned the corner and stood at the mouth of the alcove.

Standing in the middle of these strangers, and looking none too pleased to be doing so was Mirage.

"There you are," she said, sounding like a mother who'd spent the last few hours searching for lost children.

"I see they captured you too," Vain said.

"Actually," Mirage said. "I'm here to rescue you."

"Rescue us? Your methodology escapes me, sister. You appear to be just as captured as we are."

"These people," Mirage said, gesturing over her shoulder. "Call themselves the Olympus Vanguard. Apparently we're guests of whoever's in charge of this group."

"Then you managed to get some answers from them?" Jayla-2 asked.

"Some," Mirage said. She looked over her shoulder at Avery, who studied the conversation between the three of them with quiet, detachment.

"Some are going to have to wait until we hear it from their leader . . .their "Captain," they call him."

"He's coming to collect you shortly," Avery interjected. "I received a message as we were en route to you that he was on his way."

"Great," Jayla-2 said. "In the meantime, the three of us get to stay captives and stay confused."

She looked at Mirage. "I don't suppose before you came to rescue us, you had a plan?"

"Jayla-2," Mirage said, shaking her hair. "You're going to have to learn sometimes that sometimes getting captured is part of the plan."

"That doesn't make any sense," Jayla-2 said.

"Then I suppose," Mirage began, "We wait until it does."