Gunmetal Black 6
Chapter 5: Stopping And Starting
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

The room at the top of Elysium's central spire was small and spare. It lacked almost all the creature comforts of the lounge, certainly--for one thing; there was no bar, much to Kienan's disappointment.

For another, there weren't any chairs.

What it lacked in amenities, however, it made up for in the view. Above, there was a sky full of stars, nebulae and the space between. Rare was the time that experienced space travelers actually looked out the window and confronted the vastness of the space they traveled in and their insignificance relative to it.

Below the room, spreading out like a gigantic metal web in all directions, were the Elysium shipyards. If the view above was an argument for man's insignificance, the view below was an adequate counter-argument. Hundreds of ships were being built below and they watched from high above. Two men--the one who built it, and one who didn't seem to be particularly impressed by it.

"What do you think?" Soldato asked.

"It's definitely a shipyard," Kienan said. "I've seen them before."

"That's more than a shipyard down there," Soldato said, the pride evident in his voice.

"That's the future."

Kienan snorted. "You sound like a promotional film. If you're trying to sell me on the romance and mystery of living and working in space, you’re several years too late."

Soldato laughed. His metal boots clanked against the deck as he walked up alongside Kienan. He stood beside him, staring out at the shipyard below him.

"Were you born out in space?"

Kienan blinked. The question hit a nerve.

"What does that have to do with--"

"I'm just curious."

"Yeah, I was" he replied.

"The lack of accent gives it away," Soldato said. "I was born in space as well--the Jupiter colonies, to be exact. My Jovian Syndrome is a legacy of that--I'm from that generation of colonists who weren't genetically tailored to suit their intended home."

Kienan nodded. It wasn't unheard of. Early on, when Earth had first begun to colonize other worlds, there wasn't much thought given to whether or not the colonists could survive on these new world--if the bare minimum requirements could be met with a minimum of terraforming, that was that.

By the time he'd had been born, the problem had been addressed more fully. Kienan's family had been genetically engineered to better survive the harsh conditions on the mining colony he'd called home. As the land was terraformed to suit the colonists, so the colonists were terraformed to suit the land.

"Have you ever been to Earth?"

Kienan stiffened, despite himself.

Earth was a touchy subject. It had been ever since he and Silhouette had met again several years ago. She'd once asked the same question of him. Later, in return for saving her life, she'd given him information that had helped him restore Jayla-2.

But in the process, he'd found an oracle, who'd told him "the day you go to Earth was the day you will die."

Kienan wasn't superstitious by nature, and every time he reacted this way, he chided himself for it. But the prophecy--the warning--bothered him all the same, no matter how much he tried to ignore it.

It's just an old prophecy, he reminded himself for the hundredth time. It doesn't mean anything. You don’t have to flinch every time someone says the name of the damn planet . . .

"No," Kienan finally replied. "I've never been to Earth."

"I have," Soldato replied. "Dreadful place. Stagnant, exclusive, complacent. Nothing ever happens there--Earth's so busy looking over here, eager for more territory and more resources, they've made the planet an Eden and I don’t think they can even tell.

"Meanwhile, people like us populate their colonies. Humans, true, but a society and culture, all our own. Little more than political ties hold us to Earth, now. For so long as that lasts."

"What are you talking about?" Kienan asked.

"Centuries ago, on Earth, the humans divided themselves into countries. It wasn't uncommon that you'd have two peoples speaking the same language, and yet . . .they were separate entities. I believe that history inevitably repeats itself. And someday, the last few ties from Earth will fall away. Colonists have already formed their own societies, and now, thanks to the Century Plan, there are even genetic differences. We are Earth's children, and one day  . . .we'll leave the cradle."

Kienan looked over his shoulder, his cold green eyes narrowed on Soldato. In his mind, he was connecting what Soldato had shown him with what he was saying and Kienan felt that if he lived on Earth, he'd have reason to worry.

If I lived on Earth, he thought.

"So are you in love with Silhouette," he began. "Or the sound of your own voice?"

Soldato smiled. "I'm a man who likes to talk, obviously."

"Obviously."

"Does it bother you, Silhouette and I being together?"

Kienan shook his head. "Compared to her last boyfriend, I'm handling it fairly well, I think. We tried to kill each other from the second we clapped eyes on each other."

"She says you and he didn't get along."

"That's the understatement of the year."

"Yes," Soldato said. "He did rather react violently to Silhouette deciding to favor me with her affections."

Kienan smirked. So it wasn't just me, then.

"Silhouette has lousy taste in men," Kienan said. "Myself included."

Soldato smiled. "Ah. So long as I know it's not a personal judgment, then."

They stood in silence for a time. Still dueling, this time carefully circling each other with words this time.

"She still cares for you, you know," Soldato said. "Not as  . . .a lover, obviously, but in her way, she does care. I sometimes think she can't help herself. Whatever she did, however you may have thought it was meant, she only ever wanted to protect you."

"That's sweet, but I don’t need the help," Kienan replied. "Sil doesn't do it out of any affection. She feels guilty."

"Guilty?"

"Silhouette's heart was never in what we--I--do," Kienan said. "As time went on, she was more interested in helping people and I'm not. You can only go on so long, not seeing eye to eye like that."

"She left you?"

"Not exactly," Kienan said. "I shot her."

*          *          *

The Orlac's conference room was, as befitting everything on the officer's decks, more opulent than functional. The walls were gilt and covered with ancient tapestries, detailing the history of the Empire and the Orlac's part in it. One couldn't walk into the room without feeling immersed in history.

Except for Straeger. He stood at the lectern at the front of the room, pacing back and forth like a caged animal. Horan watched him with curiosity, noting how the very act of being here didn’t sit well with him--as though there was something he'd rather be doing than a mission briefing.

He was flanked by his two associates, who, as usual for non-Rigellians, were busily pretending to be invisible. The larger of the two, a powerful-looking man she'd learned was called Skanda, was from a race she couldn’t identify.

From what Jenet told me, he's from whatever planet on the outer regions of the Empire that Straeger rules over, she thought, staring at the flat data clipboard in her hands. I think it's called Abrgund, or something.

Sitting at a desk, arranging other data clipboards, was Indiga, Straeger's Oneiran assistant. Horan had met her earlier, and found her to be quite an intriguing character, especially in relation to Straeger.

Despite the fact that the Oneirans had been officially granted equality by law with Rigellians, they generally showed deference to their former masters. Indiga's behavior and somewhat unprecedented access to areas of the ship flew in the face of that.

Especially since she's working for Straeger, Horan thought, paging through the data on her clipboard. He doesn't seem the type to suffer someone like that.

Unless, of course, she has some sort of hold on him.

The door to the conference room slid open, and Jenet came in, now changed out of her flight suit into her full uniform. Her black and deep red suit glittered with medals and insignia as she took her seat next to Horan. She looked at her data clipboard and frowned, setting it aside and looking straight ahead.

"The briefing was scheduled for 0900 hours, Baroness," Straeger said, obviously annoyed.

"Did you start without me?" Jenet asked.

"Obviously we didn't."

"Well then," she replied. "I didn't miss anything, did I?"

Straeger stiffened, now passing "annoyed" and heading for "angry."

"Might I remind you, Baroness," he began. "This mission is a joint operation between Black Lens and the regular military. These little games--"

"What games?" Jenet asked.

"You know what you did. I'm familiar with enough with the psychology of the average officer to recognize the subtle tricks your kind use to establish dominance."

"I couldn't have just been late, could I?" Jenet said.

"Baroness, I am not a fool. So don’t treat me as one."

"Of course not, Count. Forgive my . . .whatever it is you accused me of doing without actually accusing me."

Straeger stiffened, as if trying to tighten the reins on his anger, lest it lash out and destroy Jenet.

"Enough," he hissed, gesturing to Indiga. The paneling on the wall behind him slid away, revealing a viewscreen.

"To put it simply, our mission is to develop and perfect a new generation of Rigellian technology," Straeger said. "While culturally we do value austerity and our efforts to keep our spacefleet competitive with our rivals in the galaxy, it has been determined that we require an edge."

"Determined by whom?" Jenet asked.

"The High Command," Straeger replied. "With the continuing hostilities between Earth and the Sekhmet, and the rise of new powers in this sector of space, the Empire is caught in the middle of serious political and military forces. To ensure our continued sovereignty and prestige, it is required that our tactical options evolve."

 Horan nodded. She'd heard this kind of thing before--the High Command was forever talking about how the traditional approach of the Rigellian military--constant upkeep and upgrades on a spacefleet that was centuries old--was no longer tenable, especially as Rigellia was no longer the leading power in the galaxy.

And it had always been so much empty rhetoric. Not only because it was never followed through, there seemed to be no will for it. The Rigellian people seemed to lack the will to innovate, somehow.

Somehow we grew satisfied following a slowly crumbling Empire, Horan thought.

"I am now loading to your clipboards our answer to the High Command's challenge," Straeger said. "The Demon-class prototype strike fighter. Based on Black Lens' experimentation with the Phantom fighter prototype, it is our belief that by mating organic technology with a standard Rigellian chassis, we can create a fighter that exceeds both our Marauder-class fighter and our Earth and Sekhmet rivals. Moreover, as this will be partially organic, the link between pilot and craft will permit pinpoint control that would be impossible in a purely mechanical fighter."

"Organic technology," Jenet interjected. "You mean this 'Demon' will be alive?"

Straeger nodded. "Of a sort. Think of it in terms of our Jagdsteeds. Mated, of course, with a starfighter."

"And the pilot mated with the starfighter as well?" Jenet said.

"We already utilize combat computers in the Marauder," Straeger said. "This simply makes the connection between pilot and machine more direct."

"Unless the organic part of the ship goes rogue and eats the pilot," Jenet said. "The Rigellian military has no experience with organic technology. We barely even have a concept of it. This seems an awfully risky venture."

"They have little experience with organic technology because there are so few surviving examples," Straeger said. "However, four years ago, Black Lens was able to discover a dormant organic ship on Abgrund. Our studies of that ship have led to many breakthroughs in our understanding of the principles behind it."

"If you know so much," Jenet ventured. "Why not create a purely organic ship?"

"That will come in time," Straeger said. "For now, merging our technology with theirs will allow us to control the older technology and provide a platform to eventually master the organic technology, and provide controls on the organic technology. We must learn to crawl before we can walk."

"For something like that you'd need biochemists and engineers," Jenet said. "Why us?"

 "For the project to go forward, the Demon must meet certain performance benchmarks," Straeger said. "You are here to ensure that those benchmarks are met. Biochemists and engineers can't fly the Demon and push it to its limits and determine where improvements can be made. If we present a superior fighter to the High Command, our experiments can naturally proceed to the next phase."

"Which is?"

"A topic for another time," Straeger said. "For now, I ask that you review the preliminary data and our goals for the project. We will reconvene tomorrow in the main hangar."

His red eyes narrowed on Jenet. "Please do not be late for that meeting, Baroness. Dismissed."

There was a rustle as everyone rose from their chairs, muttering excitedly about the project and the potential of this new technology.

"Living starfighters?" Horan muttered. "It sounds insane."

"Not that insane," Jenet said, thumping her clipboard. "They've been trying for decades, now. The Phantom prototype he talked about was as far as I knew they'd gone--it's basically mechanical with organic bio-armor, but . . ."

"What?"

Jenet took a deep breath, studying the data on the clipboard. "This is something different. He's talking about creating a cyborg. A cyborg that we would fly in."

"You sound worried, Jenet."

"I am," she said. She sighed, folding her hands over the data clipboard and her body regained its rigid military poise again. "There's something about this project that doesn't sit very well with me."

"But," she said. "These are our orders. And we shall obey them. See me before the meeting tomorrow--I want you and I to compare notes on the project after we've looked all this over in detail."

"Of course, Jenet."

"Now," Jenet said. "I have a meeting with Hasmir, which I'm certain will be far more pleasurable than Count Straeger's company will be. You're dismissed, Horan."

Horan clicked her heels and curtly bowed her head, turning and exiting the conference room. She walked down the Orlac's long corridors in silence, passing heavily-armored troopers, technical crews, and a few Oneiran scientists led by Indiga.

Horan continued walking slowly down the hall, ignoring them all and keeping the clipboard folded behind her back and making her way to the central elevator shaft.

She boarded the elevator, traveling up several decks to a frequently deserted area of the ship--specifically, one of the old navigation towers. In the days before the beacon system made astro-navigation exclusively computer-controlled, the towers had been used for celestial navigation.

They weren't used anymore, but as the Rigellians never destroyed anything with connection to their traditions.

Horan pondered that as she opened one of the tower's access panels. The Rigellian obsession with tradition worked against her people more than it helped--their obsession with austerity had frozen the entire race in a storied past that didn't exist anymore.

Even so, there are plenty of Rigellians who see the future ahead, she thought, running a cable from an output port on the clipboard to the access panel. And even more, there are some like Straeger who see themselves shaping it.

In the blink of an eye, she was done.

She undid the cable and shut the access panel.

She set the clipboard aside, pulling one of the chairs up to the window of the observation tower. She eased back into it and crossed her legs, balancing the clipboard on her lap and staring out at the stars.

There was nothing to do now but wait.

*          *          *

"Is it true?"

"Did I tell Soldato where to find you?" Silhouette asked. "Yes, but I didn't--"

"So you put us in danger, then," Vain interjected. "For what?"

"I--"

"What are you getting out of this?" Mirage demanded.

"Nothing, I--"

"I knew you didn't like Kienan," Jayla-2 said. "But I never imagined you do this to him."

"That's not true!"

"I agree with Jayla-2," Vain said. "You must have done it to get back at him."

"I did not!" Silhouette demanded, standing up from her seat. "You don’t understand--none of you do. I did it to protect him. Just like everything else I've tried to do for him."

"You have a weird way of showing it," Mirage said.

"Do I?" Silhouette replied. "I helped him stay one step ahead of the authorities when the Blue Dragons ran him out, I tried to warn him about . . ."

She shook her head and turned to Jayla-2. "And I helped him bring you back to life. Would I do that if I meant him harm? If I meant any of you harm? I've spent my life taking care of him. Who loves--loved him--more than me?"

Jayla-2 stared back at her. "I thought you said you didn’t love him anymore?"

"It's  . . ."

"Let me guess: complicated?"

Silhouette nodded.

"You have a funny way of showing your concern," Vain interjected. "Betraying his trust, using your lover's private army to capture us--"

"You're not prisoners," Silhouette countered.

"We're under guard, under observation, and the ship's locked down, so we can't leave," Mirage interjected. "That's the definition of the term "imprisoned," Silhouette."

"If it were up to me, you'd be free to go," Silhouette replied. "But it's not."

"You were the one who brought us here," Jayla-2 said. "You started this."

Silhouette stood nose to nose with Jayla-2.

"I just wanted you to be safe," Silhouette began. "I . . .didn't think about what would happen afterwards."

"You never do, from what I understand," Jayla-2 said. "You left him, and only worried about what it would do to him afterwards. You faked your own death--made him think he'd killed you-- then came back, and didn't care about how he might react. You never think about anyone except yourself!"

"I am not going to be lectured by you!" Silhouette retorted. "You left him too!"

Jayla-2 took a deep breath, riding a cresting wave of anger. "That was Jayla," she hissed. "I'm not her. He asked me to stay with him. He almost begged me to stay. I could have left dozens of times, but I didn't."

Silhouette shook his head.

"You don't know him," she said.

"Maybe I know him better than you did," Jayla-2 said. "Because I knew not to leave him."

Silhouette reared back and punched Jayla-2 in the jaw. Jayla-2's head turned to the side with the force of the blow, but she didn't immediately react. Neither did Silhouette, who stood before her, shaking with rage.

Jayla-2 turned to Vain. "Kienan told you to protect me, didn't he?"

"He did."

"Could you look the other way for a few minutes?"

"I'm afraid I don't understand."

"You will," Jayla-2 said, turning to Silhouette and blasting her with a kick. Silhouette fell backwards onto the sofa, knocked off her feet by the force of the blow.

Silhouette leapt forward and headbutted Jayla-2 in the stomach. Jayla-2 responded by elbowing her in the back and lifting her off her feet. She dumped Silhouette back onto the couch with so much force that the couch tipped over and fell backwards, sending Silhouette rolling to the floor.

Jayla-2 stood over her, fists clenched, ready to strike her again. Silhouette, for her part, got to her feet groggily, holding her hands out.

"Stop," Silhouette said. "Just . . .I'm sorry. I didn't mean to . . ."

"So you keep saying," Jayla-2 said.

"Things just got out of hand," Silhouette said, taking a step backward. "I was angry. You made me angry."

"I figured that out on my own."

Silhouette tried to smooth the wrinkles out of her dress, frowning as she found a slight rip along one of the seams. She tried to stand in such a way as to where she hid it, and cursed herself for worrying over something like that.

Three very strong, very angry women stand between me and that door, she thought. What am I doing worrying about a rip in my dress--what am I thinking?

Then again, maybe I should have asked myself that when I started this.

"I . . ."

Before she could continue, a small piercing signal split the tense silence. Silhouette crouched down, looking for the source of the noise. She found it--it had rolled under the edge of the sofa after Jayla-2 had sent her flying.

She turned the smooth cylinder in her fingers, looking at the flashing red light on it and frowning as she shut it off. There was only one thing it could mean, and in other circumstances she'd have started to worry.

Red lights mean they've found something, she thought. And that usually means trouble.

She frowned as she looked over the three women in the room with her, all of whom seemed to be scowling at her as if they hoped looks really could kill.

What a shame I have to leave all the fun I'm having here to go and see to that.

"I have to go," Silhouette said, tentatively walking past Jayla-2.

Jayla-2 grabbed her arm. "This isn't over between us, Silhouette."

Silhouette jerked her arm free.

"No it isn't," she replied. She took a deep breath. "Look, if you want your freedom, you'll have to persuade Soldato. It's up to him.

"I have things to do."

She took a few more steps towards the door, one eye looking over her shoulder the whole time. The door slid open and Silhouette walked halfway through.

"Seeing as how it appears to be the thing to do today," she began, looking over her shoulder at Vain and Mirage. "I don’t suppose you two want to take that shot at me you'd promised to take, do you?"

"I thought Jayla-2 did fine on her own, really," Mirage replied.

"Besides," Vain chimed in. "It's something we want you to see coming."

"Promises, promises," Silhouette replied, stepping through the doorway.