Gunmetal Black 6
Chapter 4: Friendly Pressure
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

The guards snapped to attention at the sight of him.

Vain, Mirage and Jayla-2 were so startled by the sound, or lack of it, that they cased their whispered conversation, and for a few seconds, the alcove was quiet enough to where the only sound that could be heard was Soldato's footfalls and the quiet whisper of the servomotors in his armor.

Avery turned to Soldato, and with a quiet exchange of looks and gestures, Avery bowed and walked out of sight, back down the corridor.

The Marionettes and Jayla-2 watched the whole silent ceremony with curiosity and quiet calculation, deducing from the silent authority he seemed to effortlessly wield among the soldiers, that he was the one in charge.

"Ladies," Soldato said, the barest hint of a smile on the captain's lips. "You must forgive the Spartan accommodations, but they were only temporary precaution. I wanted to discuss a few things with Kienan before I came to collect you."

Vain's eyes narrowed. "Who--?"

"Meridius Soldato," Mirage answered. "He's the one in charge."

"Of what?" Jayla-2 asked.

"All of this."

Meridius turned to Mirage, politely surprised. "You've heard of me?"

"I read the information on your local system."

"Ah," Soldato replied. "Very industrious of you. How much did you see?"

"All of it."

Soldato nodded. "I can see why Kienan finds you two indispensable."

"Why did you capture us?" Vain said, lacking the patience to tolerate Soldato's charm.

"And what are you doing here, now?" Jayla-2 added.

"You're hardly prisoners, Vain," Soldato said. "You are my guests."

"So your man Avery told us. Tell me--do you put all your guests under armed guard?" Jayla-2 asked.

"A temporary precaution," Soldato said. "I thought it best after the rather . . .insistent way I brought you that it would be best if everyone cooled down before I spoke with you."

"And to cool us down you stuck us in a hallway, flanked by guards with guns," Mirage sneered. "Now that you've explained it, it's perfectly straightforward. I feel bad for ever being angry about it in the first place."

Soldato took the hint and with a curt hand signal, dismissed the guards, who immediately marched away. If he felt any nervousness about being alone with the Maironettes and Jayla-2, it never showed.

"I see earning your trust will be a task. But I'm up to it. If you ladies would follow me, please?" Soldato said, stepping aside and extending an arm outward from the alcove.

Mirage looked at Vain, who then turned to Soldato. "Your guards have just taken up positions on either side of the corridor," she said. "Do you really think we won’t run at the first opportunity?"

"You could, I suppose," Soldato said, eyeing her carefully. "But this entire installation belongs to me, and is staffed by my Vanguard. If you ran, you would be apprehended again, or . . .worse. But the result would be the same--you wouldn’t leave until I gave the word. One way or the other. So you can run, on the assumption you can formulate a successful enough escape plan, or you can come with me, and see Kienan again."

"Kienan's alive?" Jayla-2 asked.

"Absolutely," Soldato said. "He's my guest, as you are. The reason I came down in the first place was to escort you to him."

"Then we'll go with you," Jayla-2 said.

"Jayla-2, he--"

"No, Vain," Jayla-2 said. "I . . .trust him. He's not lying--at least about this."

"He's got every reason to lie," Mirage said. "He could be leading us anywhere."

"If he wanted us dead, why keep us alive?" Jayla-2 said. "He could have killed us back on the Silhouette. Whatever's going on, are we really going to work it out stuck in a hallway?"

Vain considered it for a fraction of a second. Jayla-2 phrased it clumsily enough, but she was right--if Soldato was keeping the alive for a reason, the logical course of action was to find out just what he had planned.

And they weren't going to learn any more here.

Jayla-2 stepped past Soldato. A few seconds later, Vain and Mirage followed her. Soldato bowed his head respectfully and followed Mirage as they left the corridor, heading for the elevator to the central core of Elysium.

* * *

The two Marauders--one green, one blood red--rocketed away from the planet below, their engines bursting in one brilliant pulse as they shrugged off the last of the planet's hold on them. The twin fighters then banked hard, turning toward the formation of ships in the distance.

To a distant observer, the pilots were either madmen, or so skilled they could afford to show off. Between supply ships and mobile construction docks they darted and rolled, gradually working their way to the head of the convoy.

They flew past the constructor ships--their huge, spindly shapes making them look almost skeletal in contrast to the sleek shape of the Marauders. Past them were a quartet of tanker ships, their rounded, brick-like shape distinctive in their own way as the constructor ships.

In the midst of the constructor ships and the tankers were a pair of small destroyers. While the journey to Eisfrei took place entirely in Rigellian space, and no trouble was anticipated, Rigellian military doctrine always advised armed support, even for civilian convoys.

Part of it was simple caution--unpredictable as space was, a little extra protection was always wise. Never mind the message it sent to both outsiders and their own people: even on a harmless civilian mission (which this wasn't) the Rigellian Empire showed its strength.

The lead ship came in sight, flying just before two container ships hemmed in by three corvettes. The claw-like Orlac-class command ship was a light frigate, not usually the first ship one imagined leading a convoy. Nevertheless, it was the ship to which they were assigned, and they were due to report in.

Rather than board earlier in the day, Baroness Jenet had resolved to make an entrance worthy of her reputation.

Jenet hit a switch on her console. "Gespenst, to Kralle," Jenet said, her voice crisp and modulated through her red helmet. "Permission to come aboard?"

"Granted Gespenst," the reply came back over her transceiver. "Kralle welcomes you."

Jenet banked her Marauder down and aimed the ship down at the large, rudder-like fin underneath the Kralle, banking and turning as she aligned herself with the main docking bay. Horan, the pilot of the other Marauder, shadowed her expertly, throwing her fighter into a perfect roll as they lined up with the docking bay. The two fighters lined up in a perfect line of approach, as they soared into the docking bay, their braking thrusters and flaps deploying as they decelerated and came to rest on the landing pplatform.

There was a shudder as their landing claws locked into the slots in the plates of the docking bay. The platform moved a few meters along a track as the heavy space door closed behind them, repressurizing the atmosphere as the two fighters were carried into the hangar area.

Jenet shut down her Marauder's systems as the platform locked into position in the main hangar. The soft glow from her instrument panel faded and she busied herself unsealing her helmet and activating her cockpit's manual release. The clear canopy eased up as she unstrapped herself from her seat, her eyes adjusting to the brightly-lit hangar area.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Horan ready to leave her cockpit as well. Like a good second, she knew to instinctively follow Jenet's lead, only a half-second behind her.

One of the deck crew pushed a ladder against Jenet's Marauder, and she clambered out of the cockpit. As she descended, she noticed someone standing behind her. Unlike the deck crew, he stood very still on the edge of their landing pad.

He watched her, standing at ease as she walked towards him, followed by Horan. If he noticed the busy activity of the hangar bay, he seemed to give no sign, having the bearing of a rock in stormy seas. He was a little older than Jenet, but unlike the other officers she'd served with of similar age, he was less the hardened soldier of the generation that had fought Earth in the War, and more the generation after--just as competent, of course, but untested in serious battle.

And not likely to be tested as master of a convoy to a prison planet deep in our own space, Jenet thought.

"Baroness Jenet," he said, "I am Warbaron Hasmir, master of the Kralle. Welcome aboard."

"Thank you Baron, it's an honor to be aboard," Jenet replied, snapping to attention and saluting Hasmir. Hasmir returned the salute and Jenet gestured to Horan. "This is my second, Horan."

"Pleased to meet you," Hasmir said, nodding to Horan. "At ease, Baroness. Your reputation precedes you. The news that the famous Gespenst was going to serve with us has been the talk of the ship for days, now."

"That's . . .wonderful," Jenet replied, a little embarrassed. "I didn’t think anyone remembered me."

"We are Rigellians, Baroness," Hasmir replied. "We value things legendary and austere. This ship, for instance--it's older than I am. The longer something lasts, the stronger the impression among our people. I suppose it's immortality, of a sort."

"You sound as if you disagree, Baron."

Hasmir chuckled. "Let us say, the irony of our mission, in light that belief, is not lost on me."

"And what is our mission, exactly? Straeger--"

Hasmir seemed to bristle at the mention of his name. "That . . .is why I decided to greet you personally, with no honor guard. If the two of you would follow me to the bridge, we'll discuss the matter as we go."

"Of course, Baron."

They walked in silence until they reached the junction for the lift system that would carry them anywhere in the ship. They boarded the first available car and were soon on their way up through the bridge.

"Straeger told you there he was going to conduct tests at Eisfrei, I assume," Hasmir said to Jenet.

"Yes," Jenet replied. "Given your reaction when I mentioned his name, and the size of the convoy, I have the feeling this is something more than just test trials."

"And you would be correct," Hasmir said. "In his time on the ship, Straeger's rather expertly let us know everything we need to know to carry out our mission, but everything he knows he's kept to himself. There's more going on here."

"Asking him, I would imagine, is out of the question," Jenet said. "My brief contacts with him has made that all too clear. Still, when has a Lensman ever told us the whole story?"

Hasmir shook his head. "This is more than a Lensman being enigmatic," he said. "You've been out of circulation for some time, Baroness. You apparently don't know that Straeger is more than you average run of the mill Lensman."

"I consulted his file--"

"His file doesn't tell the whole story," Hasmir said. "On paper, he certainly exemplifies everything one of those garbage-picking Lensman stand for. But to truly understand who and what he is you have to go beyond the dossier."

"And what's beyond the dossier?"

"Baroness, there's an old saying among captains of Rigellian ships: "To have a Lensman on board is a bad omen for the mission." Like all the best sayings, it has the ring of truth to it. The stories of Lensman who served on Imperial ships in an advisory capacity, only for the captain to learn at the end of the mission that the Lensman was spying on him the entire time and has perverted or wholly invented evidence to lead to the captain's ruin are longer than the breadth of the Empire. But Straeger . . .Straeger is even worse than that.

"He has a nasty habit of getting soldiers killed on his missions," Hasmir said.

"How many missions?"

"All of them," Hasmir said. "The circumstances differ, but whenever he's assigned to a mission, people die. Straeger led one of them into an armed engagement with the Earthers. Some of his crew, pilots, killed. Because of Straeger's recklessness.

"They call him the Shadow of Death."

The doors to the lift slid open and the three of them walked onto the bridge. Those crew that weren't busy flying the ship rose to attention to acknowledge Hasmir from the recessed pit at the center of the room. Hasmir nodded to them as they walked around the bridge to Hasmir's office.

"That's certainly dramatic, don't you think?" Jenet said. "Shadow of Death? Lensmen don't carry that kind of weight."

"As a rule, no," Hasmir said, crossing to his desk. "But Straeger has the ear of some very powerful people. Tell me, Baroness, when you received your written orders for this mission, who signed off on them?"

"Warduke Fokker," she said. "Subcommander of the starfighter wing under Duke Reiger."

"Hmm," Hasmir said, opening one of the drawers at his desk. He pulled out a sheet of paper and slid it across the desk to her.

"Here is where my orders came from."

Jenet read it, but could hardly believe her eyes. If the signature hadn't been shocking enough, the Imperial Seal--the real one, not the facsimile most every order within the bureaucracy was printed on--was even more stunning.

"Duke Keisel?"

Hasmir nodded. "It didn't even come from Riven, who's actually in charge of Black Lens. No, the chief of staff for the entire Empire signed the order."

Jenet set the piece of paper down on the desk.

"Why tell me this?"

"Because I don't know what's going on, but it's obviously more than a training exercise or a test of new equipment," Hasmir said. "If Straeger's presence doesn't prove that, orders coming this high up the chain certainly does. I'd like to know that I can depend on you to keep me in the picture regarding anything . . .unusual you may discover during the mission."

"You sound as if you expect it."

"I know his reputation," Hasmir said. "And I do not intend to be another name on the list of people he's ruined."

* * *

Kienan screwed the cap back on the bottle so tight, he wondered for a moment if the neck of the bottle might not snap off in his hands. The room had been silent for awhile now--Silhouette hadn't said anything and Kienan had occupied himself watching her.

The tension that had been filling the room ever since Soldato had been with them was still there, but mixed with another feeling, one that Kienan wasn't really sure he could put a name to.

It had been so easy, all these years, to hold a grudge again Silhouette. For lying to him, for replacing him with another man, for . . .everything. The initial pain of her betrayals had subsided over time and mellowed into a kind of tense friendship, but Kienan was always aware of the distance between them.

Now, here I am, in her new man's house, or whatever this place is, watching the two of them together, and . . .I'm not as bothered as I thought I'd be, he thought.

At least about that.

I'm still not pleased about the whole "selling me out and letting Soldato capture my ship," thing, however.

His mind immediately seized upon that, as if happy for the distraction from his ambivalence about Silhouette. He hadn’t gotten far on the escape plan unfortunately--Despite his apparent hospitality, Soldato had been smart enough to keep Kienan on the back foot.

In between drinks, Kienan had been working at Soldato's communication panel, trying to bypass the locks on the system so he could get a better idea of where he was and where the Silhouette was being kept.

Either Soldato's a maniac for security or he knew I might try something like this, Kienan thought, staring at the panel. I've tried every trick I know, short of taking it apart to hack the system and all I've gotten is completely locked out.

And I don’t really trust Silhouette to be much help--after all, her assistance was what got me here in the first place.

He grimaced, weighing the pros and cons of trying to force the door. There was every chance it was as secure as the comm panel had been, but there was a less elegant option.

I could take Silhouette hostage, he thought. Just put a gun to her head and force her to open the door. In addition to solving the problem of forcing the lock, it'd certainly put our relationship back on familiar footing--we can't seem to see each other without fighting somehow, right?

Seems natural enough.

He sighed, and turned to Silhouette, about to speak.

Before he could, the door slid open again. Kienan moved quickly, hoping to slip through, or, if he had to take a hostage, grab one that he didn't have mixed feelings about.

What he saw halfway to the door stopped him, however. Vain walked through first, then Mirage and Jayla-2, followed at last by Soldato. Kienan looked pasted the four of them, eyeing the two armored guards posted outside the door.

And there's no telling how many more might be out there, he thought.

Vain moved closer to him, pulling him into a tight embrace.

"Do you have a plan?" Vain whispered in his ear.

"Not yet," Kienan whispered back, returning the embrace. "You?"

"No."

Vain slipped from his arms and stood on Kienan's right side, Mirage on his left. Jayla-2 waited, watching Vain curiously after her uncharacteristic show of emotion to Kienan.

She took a step closer to him.

"Are you OK?" Jayla-2 asked.

Kienan nodded. "Best I can. Been a pretty confusing day."

"Oh," Jayla-2 said. "Us, too."

"I figured."

Before Jayla-2 could ask him anything else, Vain, having caught sight of Silhouette, was already on the attack.

"Well, that explains why we were taken so easily," Vain said. For an emotionless machine, the timbre in her voice sounded fairly angry. "Hello Silhouette. I take it we have you to thank for us being captured?"

Silhouette was about to rise from the couch, when Soldato stepped between the two of them.

"I am the one responsible, Vain," Soldato interjected. "Silhouette assisted me, but if you're looking for someone to blame . . .blame me."

"I do," Vain said. "But you couldn't have taken us without her help. So . . .her first, then you, Soldato."

"Vain," Kienan said. "Stand down. This won't help anything."

Vain took a step back; her eyes fixed on Silhouette. "I believe we warned you about betraying Kienan again. If I were you, I'd watch my back."

"Vain. Enough."

Vain returned to Kienan's side, still glaring at Silhouette.

"How much did he tell you?" Kienan asked Mirage.

"Not very much," Mirage replied. "Only that he knew who we were from that time we were at Zwei Base."

"And?"

"And he asked us how we found the Angelfish fighters and what he could do to improve his later designs."

Kienan sighed. More runaround from Soldato. Why doesn't that surprise me?

"Your Marionettes are very perceptive, Kienan," Soldato said. "Their comments on inertial stresses and tactical systems were extremely helpful. I can see why you rely on them so much."

Soldato stepped from between Vain and Silhouette, as Silhouette rose from her seat, snaking her arms around him as the other took his white-gloved hand in hers. She laid her head against his chest as she regarded Kienan and the rest from cross the room, their relative positions to one another emphasizing the metaphorical split between them.

"So," Kienan said. "Now that you've got the full set together, what do you plan to do with us, Soldato?"

"That's a very interesting question, Kienan," Soldato began.

Kienan had been around him long enough to sense an elliptical speech coming on and cut him off at the pass.

"Does it lead to a brief answer, by any chance?" Kienan asked.

"Not especially, Kienan," Soldato said. "I rather like to talk."

"I've noticed," Kienan said. "Trouble is, I don't, and I like being held hostage even less. So either you tell me what it is you want with us, or--"

"I may have a job for you in the next couple of days," Soldato asked. "Is that direct enough for you?"

"Why me?"

"A . . .job?" Silhouette asked, turning to Soldato in obvious surprise. "You didn’t say anything to me about--"

"I'll explain later," Soldato said gently.

"He doesn't need you, Kienan," Mirage interjected. "He's got his own army, and from what I can tell, an entire spacefleet all his own. It's a trick."

"It's no trick," Soldato replied. "There are things that I can't accomplish easily with my resources at hand. You wouldn’t send an army to infiltrate and destroy something any more than you might hammer a nail with a wrench."

"Suppose I don't want to work for you, Soldato?"

"I think, with what I can offer, you would, and very much, too," Soldato replied. "For one thing, you'll be well paid, and at the end of the job, resupplied with whatever you need--no charge. Further, in the future, you and your crew may consider this a safe haven."

"That's one safe port in an infinite universe," Vain replied. "Plus, I doubt very much that an exorbitant payment and a resupply is that much of an expense for you."

"Very true--it isn't," Soldato said. "That's why I have something else to offer. I can bring pressure on the UEF to ease up on the search for you and your ship."

Kienan snorted under his breath. "How?"

"Well, I do build half of their space force," Soldato replied. "As you might imagine, that gives me considerable pull with the right people."

"Pull enough to, what, make them forget the whole thing, just like that?" Kienan said. "For what I've been accused of . . .that's a lot to make the "right people" forget."

"It's possible for me," Soldato said, looking down at Silhouette. "Let me see to the particulars, Kienan, and that problem will be behind you."

"Why intercede on his behalf, though?" Jayla-2 asked. "From what you told us on the way here Kienan stole from you. Why would you help him?"

"Because he admires him, Jayla-2" Silhouette said. "It takes a certain amount of courage or insanity to break into a heavily guarded installation with a man who has his own private army and steal something out from under his very nose, wouldn’t you say?"

"Thanks, Sil," Kienan said. "I appreciate that. I don’t believe that's his rationale for one single second, but I'll take the compliment for what it's worth."

Soldato eyed Kienan with amusement. "What would convince you?"

"The truth," Kienan replied. "You've spun a smooth enough line, but the details don’t exactly fit. Mirage is right--if you've got a whole army on this station, why would you need me? I have to believe someone like you would either have specialists in infiltration or could buy them without looking me up."

"You sell yourself and your skills too short," Soldato said.

"But," he began, reluctantly slipping free of Silhouette's embrace. "If I have to be more persuasive, then perhaps you’d care to follow me, Kienan?"

"Not until I know where I'm going," Kienan shot back.

"You wanted to know what it's all about," Soldato said. "I intend to show you."

"Right," Kienan said.

"I give you my word nothing will happen to you."

"Keep your word. I'll stay right here."

"You'll have a better chance of moving a planet than convincing him, Meridius," Silhouette offered. "You haven’t given him much of a reason to believe you up to now. Besides, you can't seriously leave me in here with them," she continued, gesturing to Vain and Mirage.

"Afraid something will happen to you?"

"Not exactly," Silhouette replied.

"Ladies, please. My methods may have been a bit extreme," Soldato said. "But I wanted to speak to you Kienan, and this was the easiest way to make that possible. I could force the issue, but I'd rather we settle this like civilized men."

"There's your problem--I'm not exactly civilized."

"Nevertheless," Soldato said. "You can come with me and find out what it's all about, or . . .stay here in ignorance.

"What's it going to be?"

* * *

Straeger's quarters aboard the Kralle were, dark, cramped, and windowless, little more than a large closet. He'd been offered officer's quarter's on the upper decks, but had refused them.

He had no use for opulent furnishings or plush beds anymore, primarily because he never slept. He hadn't for months, ever since that awful night where he'd awoke in a cold sweat with the slimy tendrils of the alien substance trying to crawl into his mouth and his nose, as if trying to cocoon him within itself.

Or consume him--he'd never sure been certain which.

But whatever the reason, he'd forced himself to go without sleep. At first, Indiga continually fed him stimulants to negate the fatigue in his body. Then, gradually, the stimulants weren't necessary. Sleep wasn't necessary.

Straeger never seemed to tire.

Indiga's hypothesis was that the nacht and I have a "mutually advantageous symbiosis," he thought, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his quarters. That perennially the nacht and my own physiology adapt to better perpetuate our survival. The relationship makes us stronger than we ever would be apart.

Provided everything stays in balance.

After he'd lost the need to sleep, Straeger then learned of another drawback to his new condition. The nacht responded--strongly to the sight of stars, or as he suspected, something among the stars. All too often in open space he found that the nacht within him seemed to be pulling him somewhere, as if homing in on some strange, indecipherable signal.

Provided Straeger stayed away from the stars, it was only a minor annoyance, a nagging feeling in the back of his mind. Too long in sight of them, and the nacht's homing instinct began to dominate his conscious mind, exacerbating his own megalomania and paranoia to extremes far too close to madness for his own safety.

And so, Straeger sealed himself away in rooms like this, determined to master his affliction and turn it to his advantage.

The captains of the ships he traveled on were more than happy to let him do so. Even before the nacht, Straeger had been known as overbearing, cruel, and domineering, and even among the universally loathed Lensman, he was particularly hated.

The Shadow of Death, they call me, he mused, deep in his meditations. They say having me aboard is a sure sign of doom for their mission. They blame me for their own failures. At Abgrund, with the Vanguard at Elysium . . .they accuse me of failing them, when it's been the military's unwillingness to do what must be done that has failed me.

Straeger's sudden flare of anger seemed to cause the darkness around him to ripple slightly. His eyes opened a fraction of an inch, willing it to still itself again, to be a still, unbroken void within which he was aware of everything in the room.

Especially the other person who was in there with him.

He was dressed as a wraith, and he moved as silently as one, his long, flowing robes not even audibly rustling against his body as he crept closer to Straeger. In his right hand he held a large, rough-hewn sword whose curved blade had been honed to a fine edge. In one stroke, he could cleave Straeger in two.

The man's hand tightened around the hilt of the blade, raising it ever so slightly into position. He knew from experience that he could betray no sign of movement or even of thought, lest Straeger sense him in the darkness.

He brought the blade overhead, his free hand encircling the hilt of the blade over his other hand.

Another second and Straeger will be dead, he thought. And my people will be free--

"Lights."

Suddenly, the room lit up in a dim red light, and the man found himself blasted backwards, slamming into the bulkhead and dropping the large sword. It clattered to the deck as the man tried to get to his feet. He barely got to his hands and knees before something from behind slammed him back to the deck and kept him there, squeezing him against the cold metal of the deck plating.

"Pathetic, Skanda," Straeger said, walking towards him. He stood in front of his would-be killer, a sheet of nacht-enhanced energy from his Lens keeping Skanda pinned to the floor.

"How many times are you going to try this?" Straeger said, willing a bit more pressure on Skanda. "You've been trying for years to kill me, no matter what leash I throw on you. You always fail, and yet you continue to try. Why?"

"I . . .will be free," Skanda gasped, each word and breath causing the Lens-force to squeeze him tighter. "My . . .my people . . .will . . ."

"Your people are slaves," Straeger said. He sent a mental command to the sheet of energy over Skanda. Narrow, sharp spikes began to extend from it, one each on either side of Skanda's face. Not close enough to kill him, of course.

Killing Skanda wasn't the point. He just wanted to see fear in his eyes.

"Your people will never be free, Skanda," he said. "I took your proud people and made them slaves to the Empire. As you are my slave."

"Then kill me!" Skanda shouted as another spike drew a thin red line of blood down his cheek.

"Why would I do that?" Straeger said, bemused.

"Because . . .I will never stop . . .trying to . . .kill . . .you."

Straeger smiled and crouched down, almost eye-to-eye with Skanda.

"I hope you never stop trying," Straeger said. "Because every time you fail, it's like I get to break you all over again."

"You've never . . .broken me."

"Haven't I?" Straeger said, rising to his feet and walking over to Skanda's fallen sword. "Look at yourself. Tricked into serving a man you despise, a proud warrior like you, trading the freedom of his entire race for service to me. It was a fool's bargain, and the whole sorry lot of you sand-dwellers, you fell for it."

Straeger bent down to lift up Skanda's sword. "It wasn't even necessary for me to do that to you," he said, the cruel smile he'd worn to now blossoming into a sadistic grin. "I enslaved your entire race on a whim, Skanda. How do you feel, knowing that?"

"RRRRGH!" Skanda pushed hard against the Lens-force, but it hardly budged.

"Yes, that's it . . .it's that fire, that defiance, that makes you such an enjoyable plaything. And that's all you really are to me, Skanda--oh, I tell the other Rigellians you're my "bodyguard," but that's simply to pass you off to them. You entertain me. That is your sole function."

"Then let me die," Skanda said, quietly. "Please . . ."

Straeger cocked an eyebrow in surprise. "Never," he said, pointing Skanda's sword down at the deck, just in front of the warrior's face. "At least until I see you finally broken before me. When I see the complete failure of your will and your spirit . . .perhaps then. Or perhaps I'll come up with another game."

"But not tonight," Straeger said. He stepped away from Skanda, still carrying the sword. He gestured with his free hand and the Lens-force was gone again. "Leave me. We have a great deal of work before us tomorrow, and as refreshing as this diversion was . . .I require solitude."

Skanda rose to his feet, his breathing still shallow and painful. Straeger kept his back to him, his blade on the Lensman's lap.

"I'll be keeping this for the rest of the night," Straeger said, gesturing to the sword in answer to Skanda's unspoken question. "All the better to keep you out of trouble."

"The time . . .will come," Skanda said. "When I will make you regret not killing me while you were able. Your time will come, Straeger."

"Leave, Skanda," Straeger said. "Lest I be forced to punish you again for assaulting your better again."

Skanda's brow furrowed with anger. For a moment, he wished he possessed a power like Straeger's--a way to attack from anywhere, with any weapon he could imagine.

If I had such a thing now . . .he would be dead.

Skanda walked out of the room, stiffly and unsteadily as Straeger returned to his meditations. As Skanda walked out of the room and the door slid shut behind him, he resolved that Straeger would never break him, and that no matter how long it took, he would one day succeed in killing the hated Count.

Just as he had every other time.