Gunmetal Black 6
Chapter 6: Sleight Of Hand
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Silhouette took a deep breath; her face set in a frown as she slipped on her flightsuit. It had been an hour or so since the fight with Jayla-2, and she had spent the time in between in her quarters to prepare to leave Elysium and feeling quite annoyed with herself.

I can't believe I did that, she thought, zipping up her suit.

She paused for a second.

No, actually I can believe I did that, she thought, pressing a button within the suit. In an instant, the loose, baggy clothing shrank and clung to her body.

It's him. No matter how much I try, I can't get away from Kienan. No matter how much I want to be different, try to be different . . .I'm too much like him.

And it makes me crazy.

She shut off the lights in her quarters and stepped outside, the door sliding shut behind her. She walked down the lonely white corridors towards the hangar bay in silence, wrapped up in her thoughts.

Kienan, she thought. I meant what I said to Jayla-2. I do still love you. But I think I hate . . .no, hate's too strong a word.

I resent you. Because you're all I've ever known.

Or all I can remember.

That wasn't strictly true, she knew. She'd uncovered a lot of her past--enough to fill in some blanks. She knew what she was, and had a rough idea of where she came from, but so much of her emotional connection to her own life began many years ago, in an alleyway.

I was about to be attacked, and suddenly, Kienan was there, she remembered. The white knight. He saved me, took me in. Like a wounded animal. And we lived as loves for awhile.

It was wonderful.

She sighed. Then I ruined it when I asked him what he did for a living.

She reached the main elevator and stepped inside, keying in her destination. This late, there wasn't much traffic through the facility and she had the lift all to herself. As the door slid closed, the isolation, coupled with her memories, made her shiver a little.

My bloody memories, she thought.

He did more than train me to be an assassin--he shaped me in his image, and because I loved him so much, I let him.

No, that's not fair.

I liked the way he lived, I liked how wild he could be, and . . .part of me wanted to be as wild as he was, to be with him in that place, molded in his image. I might . . .I worry sometimes that I'm actually even wilder than he is.

I never felt so alive, except when I was with him, when we were killing. I had a purpose and I belonged with him--I wanted it to go on forever, by his side.

Until I didn't.

She leaned against the wall of the elevator car, looking down at her feet.

What happened? When did that stop being enough for me? When did he stop being enough?

When I grew a conscience, she mused. When I learned his way was the wrong way to live. Once I knew that, I knew there was no way Kienan and I could ever be together. Because he doesn't see that it's wrong and I don't see anything else.

So I had to leave, and make sure he had no reason to come after me.

The moment was frozen in time in her memory--leaping in front of Kienan's target, taking the bullet meant for him, "dying" right in front of Kienan. No room for tricks, no room for doubt, no reason for him to seek revenge against anyone.

She got a new life; Kienan got to keep his and wouldn't come after her. They could go their separate ways without too much pain.

At the time, it seemed like the best solution. She would be "out," free to start a new life, free of those bloody memories. Free of him.

I didn't even think of him, she thought, her eyes watering slightly. It was what I wanted for me. I couldn't be a killer anymore, and I couldn't be with him anymore. I had to get away from that life and him.

Silhouette bit her bottom lip, lost in memory.

Did I even think about what it might do to him?

In her mind, she weighed that against what she'd done in bringing him here. Soldato would protect him, look after him, and keep him safe. It seemed like the right thing to do.

I feel like this would balance the scales. I abandoned him once, and brought him to a place where he might have some sanctuary. So why does it feel so wrong? Am I trying to make up for what I did for him when I left, or am I just shifting the responsibility somewhere else while I run away again?

Damn Jayla-2, she thought. She said I was selfish and . . .I wonder if she wasn't right.

No wonder I hit her so hard when I had the chance.

She frowned.

What a very "Kienan" thing to say, she chided herself.

The doors to the elevator slid open and Silhouette walked out onto the hangar deck. Silhouette walked in silence to her ship, diffidently moving past the flight crews and maintenance techs as she willed her tears away, trying to convince herself that she wasn't walking out on him yet again.

* * *

"Have you been getting any more of these visions?" Indiga said, her eyes scanning over the banks of monitors in the lab. Straeger's bio-rhythms played out over several screens worth of information, busily processing every detail of their findings.

"Some," Straeger said, sighing. With so many monitoring devices on him, he looked as though he were lashed to the examining table before her. "Flashes of places, planets, nothing concrete. The same as always. Just images, no context."

"But more frequent than before?"

"In spite of your anti-virals, yes."

Indiga noted this on a data clipboard.

"Well?"

Indiga waited for a moment, continuing to make notes. Straeger sighed and looked annoyed as she made a show of ignoring him completely.

"The anti-virals do seem to be less effective this cycle."

Straeger grimaced, looking down at the monitors festooned to him. "And I needed to suffer this indignity for you to tell me something I already know?"

Indiga shook her head. "The effect is self-evident, Count," she said, as though she were lecturing a particularly slow student. "The cause is what I'm interested in."

He cocked an eyebrow. "And that is?"

"I don't know that for sure," Indiga said. "But I am prepared to offer a theory, based on the available facts."

Straeger leaned forward, eager to hear what she had to say. Indiga met his gaze for a moment, then returned to entering data on her clipboard.

He sighed. "You missed your calling, Indiga--you should have become an actor."

"Oneirans have no concept of theatre, Count."

"Another racial handicap of yours."

"As with your lack of patience?"

Straeger was not amused. "Let's hear your theory," he said, removing the probes and monitors from his body. "I don’t have the rest of my life to watch you wait for your 'big moment.'"

"Very well," Indiga said, setting the clipboard next to the monitor terminals. "I believe you are being invaded, Count Straeger."

He blinked. "What are you--?"

"I just called up the findings of the first ship on Durga and compared them with my notes on the Abrgund find," Indiga said, looking away from him. "I was looking for commonalties, details that the individual projects might have missed, but would become apparent when compared side-by-side."

"And what did you find?"

"The ship we discovered at Durga--the one we used to create the Phantom--was smaller--roughly the size of one of our fighters," Indiga said. "When it was uncovered, it immediately attacked our outpost there, and upon bringing it down, we studied every element of it, both physically and in terms of design philosophy. Occasionally a species' aesthetic sense will tell you as much as their biometric data.

"The ship had no cockpit, no life support system of any kind," she continued. "At the time, we didn’t think anything of it--plenty of the other races use unmanned drones as fighters. But the ship on Abgrund was much larger--at least the size of a small cruiser, and surely that would require a command and control center or storage area of some type."

"It didn't," Straeger said. "I supervised the breakdown of the craft personally. Nothing, just . . .nacht. But what does that mean?"

"We've been looking for some evidence of the beings that built these ships," Indiga said. "What if the aliens are the ships?"

"If the aliens are their own vessels, why the different types?"

"Unknown," Indiga said. "They could be different stages in a life cycle, or offspring, generated asexually. Or . . .they could exist in an entirely different paradigm."

"Like a bacteria colony."

"Yes, but an integrated colony that can also individuate parts of itself as needed," Indiga said. "That would explain the different fighter types and how the nacht is able to remain viable in its current state."

"Intriguing theory," Straeger said, sliding off the examining table. "But how does that figure in to my 'being invaded," as you put it?"

"I believe when the nacht interfaced with your biology, you were actually infected by the aliens at a microscopic level. They've spent the last few years examining your biology and attempting to modify it to suit them. That's why its neutralizing the anti-virals. It evolves reactively."

"Disgusting," Straeger said, donning his coat. "And the visions?"

Indiga shut off the monitors. "The geological survey on Abgrund dated the rocks around the ship at 4 billion years old," she said. "This race has survived longer than nearly any life form we know of and is still extant."

"And what does that mean?"

"I believe the nacht in your body is trying to communicate with you, but you don’t speak their language."

"Their language is pictures of places I've never seen before?"

"No," Indiga said. "Those are race memories. We're talking about an ancient organic lifeform that can break off pieces of itself, reabsorb them, and exist as individuals and a singular entity simultaneously. They're bound to perceive things differently. That you can communicate with them at all probably has to do with your telepathy partially bridging the language barrier, but all the same, you have two consciousnesses trying to communicate, each in a language alien to the other."

Straeger took all of that in, eyeing Indiga cautiously.

"That's only a theory, of course."

"And how do you propose to control the nacht on a larger scale, then?"

"By analyzing you," Indiga replied. "If we can arrest the advance of the nacht through your system, then the same control should work on a larger scale."

"And you have something in mind, I trust?"

Indiga nodded.

"And what might that be?"

"In good time, Count," she replied. "I was taught long ago that any life form can be controlled, even dominated, under the right circumstances."

"Oh? By whom?"

"By you, my dear Count."

* * *

Kienan followed Soldato down several corridors--so many, in fact, he began to lose to track of where he was. Right turn, down a few feet of featureless brushed-metal emptiness, left turn, another hallway, repeat. He had the vaguest notion that he was going deeper into the core of the installation, but with every turn and, devoid of landmarks, it was hard for him to keep the geography straight.

Finally, his impatience won over and he could keep silent no longer.

"Are we actually going somewhere, or is this the part of the tour when you show me how your vast corridor network is the key to the future?" Kienan sneered.

Soldato smiled. "Clever," he responded, taking two steps to the middle of the corridor. "We're here."

"You’re insane," Kienan said, watching Soldato. "That's a blank wall in a corridor full of them."

"Perhaps I am mad," Soldato said, staring straight ahead and pressing his hand against the wall's surface. "But you are certainly impatient."

A section of the wall recessed at his touch and slid away, revealing a hidden passageway. Soldato smiled, more to himself than to his guest and walked through.

"Follow me," he said.

Kienan shook his head and followed him inside. The chamber was initially pitch-dark, but within seconds, various monitors began to glow and hum to life in their presence as the door slid shut behind them.

"You built a hidden passageway in your own installation?" Kienan said, looking around. "So, are you paranoid and crazy?"

"For what I do here, I thought it wise to have both privacy and security," Soldato said, tapping a few buttons on the console on the far wall. "You've seen the Vanguard, seen the shipyards, but you haven’t yet seen the most impressive element of my assets."

"Don't tell me--you're keeping a superweapon that could destroy a whole planet here?"

"Nothing so mundane," Soldato said, his eyes moving from the screen back to Kienan. "Tell me something, Kienan, how do you feel about Silhouette's little group?"

"The White Dragons?" Kienan replied, puzzled at the timing of his question. "When I was with the Syndicate, they were a high-level threat. They didn’t have the muscle to go against us . . .them . . .but they were very good about getting informants and ex-Syndicate members who wanted to disappear clear. The people I worked for understandably don't want threats like that in the wild."

"And now that you don’t work for the Syndicates?"

"Now it's not my problem," Kienan replied. "I tend not to think of them at all. We haven't crossed paths until now in about two years."

"Your former employers have had a run of bad luck recently," Soldato said, inserting a data crystal into a socket on his terminal and transferring the information he'd been reading on the screen to the crystal. "Internal warfare, a vacuum of leadership that happened right around the time you left . . .coupled with the UEF using the Frontier as a staging area against the Sekhmet, they don’t have much room to maneuver, and no one to put them back on track."

"I've heard the rumors," Kienan said. "Not that I'd know anything about their lack of leadership, of course. It doesn't matter--I don’t want to go back and I certainly don't want to take over."

"No, of course not," Soldato said, withdrawing the crystal and tossing it to Kienan. "There's all the information I have on the current state of the Syndicates, specifically your erstwhile employers, the Blue Dragons."

Kienan held the crystal in the palm of his glove, his fingers closing around it as he looked at Soldato.

"Why?"

"I thought it might come in handy for you," Soldato said. "You're very high on the Blue Dragon's most wanted list, and information would hold you in as good a stead as ammunition."

"Another gift from you and Silhouette," Kienan grimaced.

"From me," Soldato corrected. "She doesn't know."

Kienan stared at Soldato as he turned the data crystal between his fingers. A thin smile crossed his lips.

"Do you just think you can use everybody?" Kienan said, gesturing to him with the data crystal. "Is everyone just a chess piece to you, even Silhouette?"

"I'm not using Silhouette for anything," Soldato said. "I love her. But I have goals that go beyond love, and that desire, I'm afraid, must override everything else. She has information I need, and I've found a way to get it surreptitiously."

"Doesn't make a difference to me. When she finds out you're not what she hoped you were, you and I will have one more thing in common."

"You’re certain?"

"You've heard both sides of our story, you tell me."

Soldato met Kienan's gaze for a moment, the smile never leaving his lips. Kienan, for his part, laid the data crystal on a nearby table.

"That was meant for you," Soldato said, turning back to the terminal.

"Hold it for me."

"Until?"

"Until I figure out just what your game is," Kienan said. "Right now, I get the feeling your selfless generosity might have an invisible but very expensive price tag attached."

Soldato smiled, scanning a new document that scrolled quickly across the screen. He blinked and the smile eased off his face, and turned back to Kienan.

"No games, Kienan," Soldato said, scrolling through the data on screen. "But I may have a job for you. Tell me--what do you know of a Rigellian count named Straeger?"

* * *

"'Machine Parts,'" Hasmir hissed, slamming the data pad with the convoy's manifest down on his desk. "I knew he was lying--Lensmen always do--but something like this . . .it seems like the imaginings of a madman."

"I don’t know how far along they are with this project," Jenet said. "But we both know about the Phantom. If they're far enough along to bring in pilots for performance trials, I'm certain they're serious enough to have prototypes ready, or ready to be built by the time we arrive at Eisfrei."

Hasmir sat in his chair, swiveling away from her to look out at the stars. He muttered something under his breath, so low Jenet missed most of it.

"What did you say?"

"I was cursing Valkris for my rotten luck," Hasmir said. "For having that triple-damned Lensman on my ship. You see--Straeger has quite a reputation among the Empire. Two of them, actually. One, he has a talent for landing on his feet even after embarrassing the Empire in front of the other races and somehow leveraging that to raise his own prestige. He even has contacts in the High Command, which is probably how he got this project approved."

"Two reputations? What's the other?"

"He's the man who murdered Warlord Algrim," Hasmir said.

"I thought Algrim disappeared after the war with Earth?"

Hasmir shook his head. "That was the official story, yes," he began. "Being sidelined, you may have missed the rest of the story, but he and his fleet were sent into exile to the edge of the Empire--their mission was to discover and conquer new systems for the Empire.

"He discovered a planet known as Abgrund--"

"Straeger mentioned it in the briefing," Jenet said. "Whatever this "nacht" is . . .it was apparently discovered on that planet."

"Discovered by Algrim, no doubt," Hasmir said. "Soon after Straeger arrived, there was an attack. The Empire blamed it on Earther terrorists, but you know as well as anyone how much of their stories to believe. At the end of it, Algrim was dead, Abgrund was added to all the star maps as Imperial territory, and Straeger was made Count."

"Do you think he murdered Algrim?"

Hasmir nodded. "Advancement by assassination? It's probably the least of his crimes--knowing how Black Lens works, I imagine he probably got a commendation for it. As I said--he has a way of getting other people to pay the price for his actions."

Hasmir swiveled in his chair, leaving the starfield behind to face her.

"I want you to help me deal with him," he said.

Jenet stiffened. "'Deal with him--?' I'm not sure what you mean."

"You know what I mean," Hasmir said. "For some time now, a group of us with the military have been seeing a pattern. The law says that Black Lens provides the intelligence, and the Imperial Army acts on it. Black Lens cannot lead or initiate military actions without involving us. But that has changed--Lensmen can assume command of ships, or fleets, or bases, if it's an emergency, and the have been a lot of emergencies lately, it seems."

"You think they're taking over, then?"

Hasmir nodded. "Not overtly--that's not their way, of course. But they are gathering power. This project of yours is a perfect example--a fighter type developed and perfected by Black Lens? One that could outstrip our capabilities by an order of magnitude? With weapons like that, they won't even need us--they'll begin building their own army. And when they come for us, when our numbers have been weakened by their backstabbing or outright murder, they'll have the Empire in the palm of their hands."

"I'd like to believe you're wrong," Jenet said.

"But you don't."

She shook her head. "I don't believe all of it, but I've been around Straeger to size him up. He has the look of someone who enjoys power, the more, the better. And that does support your assertion."

"Will you help me?"

"Help you with what? What are we really talking about here?"

"I think you know, Baroness," Hasmir said, rising from his chair. "Black Lens cannot have their way. This project cannot be allowed to succeed, and Straeger cannot return from Esifrei alive."

Jenet took a deep breath. "I am an officer of the Empire," she said, her voice steely and ice-cold. "I can not--will not--"

"You are a patriot, Jenet," Hasmir said. "And that is enough."

"Not in this case, Hasmir. You can't expect me to believe you're serious?" Jenet said. "Assassination of a Lensman? Never mind one with solid contacts to the High Command? The bare-faced audacity of it--by your own words, this Straeger's been quietly disposing of people behind the scenes are you suggesting the only way to defeat him and his kind is becoming like them?"

"It is the only way."

"Perhaps," Jenet said. "Perhaps not."

Hasmir eyed her with curiosity.

"You have another suggestion?"

* * *

Mirage stared at the door. It had been an hour, perhaps more since Silhouette had stormed out in the wake of the awkward, sudden, and fairly entertaining fight between herself and Jayla-2. In the time since, Jayla-2 had busied herself straightening up the room, Vain returned to staring at the stars, and Mirage returned to watching the two of them.

None of them wanted to say what they were thinking.

It's been a few hours since Kienan went off with this Soldato person, Mirage thought. He couldn't have left--not without giving us some instructions of some sort. And he wouldn’t have just abandoned the Silhouette and us without a word . . .or some kind of explanation.

And if he'd been killed there would have been some kind of alert, surely. Kienan has assurances that when he dies, he will not go quietly and he won't go alone.

So here is he? Surely we're not expected to just wait here until something happens.

Unfortunately, Mirage had a feeling that was exactly what they were in for, and as Mirage's brain operated six times as fast as a human's her patience was in short supply under the best of circumstances.

So she tried to get her mind off the subject.

"Vain."

Vain raised an eyebrow.

"You've been very quiet since the battle with on the Silhouette."

"I'm fine, sister," Vain said, adding enough to the tone of her voice to let it be known she didn’t want to talk about it.

But Mirage wasn't so easily dissuaded. She turned to Jayla-2 "What happened?"

"They used some sort of weapon on her," Jayla-2 said. "They knocked her offline."

Mirage blinked. "How?"

"Jayla-2 . . ."

"Vain she's your sister--she deserves to know."

Vain turned to Mirage. "I was trying to ensure Jayla-2's escape when one of the soldiers that assaulted us hit me with some sort of device that shut me down, took me completely offline. Even my internal clock was disrupted--there's a gap in my system memory."

"I didn't think anything could take us offline, except the depletion of our power cells," Mirage said.

"Neither did I," Vain said. "Conscience nearly di--went offline, but this . . .it was like someone found my "off" switch."

"Do you remember who it was?"

Vain shook her head. "It hit me from behind. I have no idea. Never mind all the soldiers were wearing armor, and we don’t know how they differentiate between one another . . .it could be anyone."

"And I've seen the numbers," Mirage said. "This 'Olympus Vanguard' is huge. The odds of finding the person who shot you . . ."

". . .are exactly one in one."

All three of them turned their heads in the direction of the voice. Standing in the open door was a woman, clad in a uniform similar to Soldato's. She regarded the three of them with a cautious, flinty, stare.

"My name is Vietsche," she began, stepping through the door, which then slid shut behind her. "I'm a commander in the Vanguard. And yes, Vain. I was the one who shot you."

"You must know how dangerous we are," Mirage said. "I imagine you know what admitting that's likely to do for your long-term prospects."

"I had my orders," Vietsche said. "My squads were to take the ship intact and bring in the crew . . .alive and threat-neutral."

Veitsche turned to Mirage. "You gave us a bit more trouble, of course, but we've analyzed your little shrouding trick and we won't be caught short again."

Jayla-2 stood up. She had a feeling if she didn’t do something soon, there was a very high chance this was going to end badly, as Veitsche seemed arrogantly certain she had them at her mercy and Marionettes were spoiling for a fight.

"I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming that you’re not here for a rematch," Jayla-2 said, walking over to Vietsche.

"I'm prepared for anything," Veitsche replied, turning to Vain and Mirage. "There are guards outside the door, and they are armed with the same disruptors I used on Vain. I'd rather not have to call them in, and neither would you.

"Captain Soldato has assigned me to chaperone you around our facility. I'm here to move you to quarters and prepare you for a banquet, to be held at 20:00."

Jayla-2 blinked. "You're joking."

"I'm quite serious."

"Why would he send you?" Mirage demanded.

"Captain Soldato believed it would convince you of our peaceful intentions," she replied. "And make sure you knew how committed we are to earning your trust. I am under orders from him not to harm you."

"And yet you came with armed guards."

"Sensible precaution for our first meeting," Veitsche said. "You’d do the same if our positions were reversed."

"We might just kill you outright, had the positions been reversed," Vain said. "We didn't ask to be here."

"You didn't," Vietsche said. "But the Captain is determined to make you as comfortable as possible and extend you every courtesy. And as proof of that . . ."

Veitsche keyed open the door and stepped out. There was a thump and the sound of armor clanking followed by the sound of metallic boots clanking on the deck outside .

She stepped back inside. "I've dismissed the guards," she said. "Now it's just you and I. I can see you to your quarters, or we can stay here and rattle sabers at one another. Whichever you’d prefer.

"What's it going to be"