Gunmetal Black 6
Prologue - The Previous War
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

At first, Captain Lianna Craemer couldn’t believe her luck. After two years, the trail of Kienan Ademetria and his ship, the Silhouette, had all but run cold, as far as the United Earth Defense Forces were concerned. In that time, in the absence of any engagement between his ship and any of Earth's had been so rare as to be mythical.

Until today that is, when the ship had been identified by her own ship, the Ticonderoga. The silver torpedo-shaped craft loomed in the viewscreen, twice as large as her own; its cluster of engines roaring white-hot as it attempted to escape her. The Ticonderoga fired volley after volley at the Silhouette's engines, trying to disable her.

"Weapons control, report," Craemer demanded, rising from her chair. One of the officers seated at one the stations running parallel to her seat in the center of the bridge turned halfway to face her, keeping one eye on the targeting information from the Ticonderoga's main guns and the reports from the smaller weapons batteries throughout the ship.

"We're having some effect with our main guns, ma'am," the weapons officer said. "But because of their cooling times, we can’t fire them continuously and punch hard enough to stall her out. Her armor's too thick, even our heaviest cannon fire won't burn through it fast enough."

Craemer bit her lip. The Ticonderoga was a smaller ship, meant to support heavier battleships and cruisers in space engagements. They'd only been out here conducting standard combat drills when they'd detected the Silhouette's energy signature and moved to investigate.

While the Silhouette appeared to all surface scrutiny as little more than a battered fifteen-year-old space freighter, clearly its captain had modified it extensively. For one thing, its shields and armor was standing up to the Ticonderoga's best efforts. For another, her weapons put her at least on equal footing with some of Earth's most powerful ships.

"Captain, she's returning fire!"

"Evasive," Craemer shouted. "Shields to maximum! Don’t lose her!"

There was a subtle lurch under her feet as she felt the Ticonderoga tilt slightly to avoid a volley of fire from the Silhouette's rear batteries. They didn't have to evade very far from their pursuit course--when Silhouette fired, she seemed to fire in a wide enough arc to miss them completely but force her ship to make a course correction, buying the renegade ship a little more distance and a little more time.

I don’t understand it, she thought, tapping a finger on the arm of her chair. They said this Ademetria threatened an entire space colony with destruction. Why would he be so careful with my ship, working harder to delay me than to destroy me?

She tapped the call button on her console. "Engine Room, I need as much power as you can give me to engines and weapons--we've got to close the gap with Silhouette."

"Captain we're red line on the reactors right now," the tinny voice from the engine room responded. "We're putting all our power into firing the main guns and keeping up with them, and if we keep it up, something's going to give out."

"We've got to stay with them, Engine Room," Craemer said. "Keep us at maximum power as long as you can. That's an order."

Craemer sighed. If the Ticonderoga had a squad of fighters to launch, they could harass the Silhouette and give her weapons time to cool down and Craemer time to close the gap.

And then what? There's no guarantee, even at point blank range, our guns could penetrate their shields and armor, she thought. That's assuming overdriving our reactors leaves us in any shape to slug it out with her.

Damn it, I don’t want to lose that ship!

But I don’t think I can catch it on my own, either.

Damn.

Craemer was a young captain, part of a generation of Earth officers who'd grown up in the shadow of the two wars Earth had fought in twenty years ago that had made the small blue planet a galactic power to be reckoned with, part of a generation that was tasked with spreading that power throughout the galaxy.

And it was a noble enough task. However, the potential for glory in waving the flag over some galactic backwater paled in comparison to proving oneself in battle. The Silhouette presented such a challenge. The renegade ship commanded by Kienan Ademetria, the so-called deadliest man in the universe . . .that would make her name, and the Ticonderoga's, for decades to come.

She sighed. "Navigation," she said. "Project course of Silhouette to four sectors. Let's see where she's going."

The bridge darkened and a holographic map of local space appeared in the air before her. Two markers appeared in the center of the map, with luminous trails indicating course and heading.

"Mister Branch," she said, calling to her executive officer. "What do you make of our situation?"

Lieutenant Commander Joshua Branch stepped forward, standing beside Craemer's seat as he looked at the display before them. His black and red uniform seemed to keep him shrouded in darkness as compared to Craemer's standard white uniform, which stood out in the dimmed lights of the bridge.

"I would surmise Silhouette's going to attempt to hide in that nebula," Branch said. His voice was quiet and steady as he pointed out the swirling magenta cloud dead ahead. "It's a large and very active system and fairly rough on navigation, but they could survive it, given their defensive systems."

"And the Ticonderoga?"

"Not what she was built for Captain," Branch said. "The risk of damage to the ship is too great. And we're too small to effectively search a nebula that size. They can wait us out and escape when our back's turned."

"Tactical officer, weapons status," Craemer said, pressing a series of buttons on her chair. The bridge brightened and the holographic map faded.

"Red-line on our main guns, missile pods empty, main batteries are nearly depleted," the harried-looking tactical officer said from his station, one hand cupped over his earpiece. "I think I can give one more shot at maximum power on the main guns, but it'll burn them out completely, sir."

Meaning if they come back on us, we'll be pretty much defenseless, she thought. While the capture of the Silhouette and her fugitive captain single-handedly would be quite a feather in her cap, it wouldn't do her any good to press on alone if it was an impossible task for the Ticonderoga.

Craemer turned to Branch. "Signal the rest of the fleet," she began. "Tell them what's occurred, tell them we need immediate assistance if we're going to capture Silhouette."

Branch returned to his station and began tapping a series of keys. "ETA of the fleet . . .five minutes," he said.

"We'll have lost her by then," Craemer said angrily. "Tell them to pour it on, damn it!"

"Yes Captain," Branch said, pressing another series of buttons. He looked furtively over at Craemer for a moment, who was engrossed in studying the tactical systems, then pressed a series of keys on his console.

"Standby . . .I'm getting another group of signals," he said.

"Don’t keep it to yourself, Mister Branch."

"Three ships . . .I'm making positive identification now . . .they're Vanguard. the Achilles, the Pallas Athena, and the Odysseus. They've monitored our battle and ask if we need assistance. Projected ETA . . .one minute."

Craemer groaned. Anything else want to make this difficult?

The Olympus Vanguard was a private army in the service of one Meridius Soldato, who had somehow finagled Earth's government into giving them official recognition as a semi-autonomous group within the UEF.

They'd also allowed some of their officers to serve on UEF ships, despite their insistence on wearing their own uniforms, their stated loyalty to Soldato before that of Earth, and their noted tendency to throw their weight around amongst the crews.

The only one she'd met that hadn’t acted that way in her experience was Branch, which was why she'd eventually tapped him to serve as her XO. Branch, despite being a bit of a cold fish, had saved their lives on numerous occasions and could be trusted to offer an honest and trustworthy analysis.

So if he says the Vanguard are the only ones close enough to give us a hand, I can trust it.

But it doesn’t mean I like it. Handing off the chase to another Earth ship is one thing, handing it to Soldato's private army is quite another.

"Hail the lead ship," Craemer said through gritted teeth. "Explain to them what's happening and our need for urgent assistance."

Branch transmitted the information and data on their pursuit as Craemer turned to her tactical stations. "Target their weakest point on their shields, and move us close enough for our batteries to open a larger hole."

"Captain, at that range, we won’t have many options for evading their return fire," her tactical officer said.

Craemer nodded. "We've got one shot with the main guns and one minute before our reinforcements get here," she said. "We're going to make that shot count. Close to 500 meters with Silhouette, target her Space Drive and fire on my signal."

"Aye, Captain."

The Ticonderoga groaned as it surged closer, the bulky torpedo shape of the Silhouette filling the viewscreen before them so quickly it seemed to blot out the stars altogether. The Ticonderoga's batteries erupted with a volley of blaster fire that seemed to the bridge crew to be almost point-blank and the Silhouette responded in kind.

"I have a target solution," the tactical officer said as they move closer.

"Standby," Craemer said. "Main guns to maximum charge."

"Captain, if we fire them now they'll be good as--"

"Duly noted," Craemer said. "FIRE!"

* * *

Count Heinrich Straeger stared out the windows of the orbital platform, looking down on the jade planet below. His pale skin seemed to hang in front of the planet's image.

How many times had he dreamt of seeing this place, the twin planets that were the cradle of the Rigellian race, and the seat of their Empire?

It was from this planet that our ancestors were taken to become slaves, and here where we returned after throwing off our shackles, he thought. Here that we established an empire that should have lasted forever.

Here where the royal family and its pawns in the High Command wait for the inevitable implosion and dissolution of that Empire.

And oh how carefully they keep their illusions, he pondered. Restricting the planet to only the royal family and the High Command. From here, can they see the shrinking borders of our space, the incompetence of their governance, and of course, the constant pressure the other races in the Empire were bringing to bear on those who should be their masters?

Of course not. Why should they?

"Count Straeger?"

He turned slowly as he heard his name. His red eyes fixed on a younger man, from the looks of his uniform a Warmaster in the Rigellian Guard. His blue and black uniform, festooned with medals, stood in stark contrast to Straeger's almost totally black suit.

"Yes, what is it?"

"They're ready for you down on the planet, Count," the Warmaster said, snapping to attention. "If you would accompany me?"

"Yes, of course," Straeger said, following the Warmaster out of the observation lounge. They walked in silence down a series of corridors to the shuttle bay. They quickly boarded the small two-man shuttle and once they received their clearance, began their flight to the planet below.

Straeger stared out at the planet below, his thoughts with the young Warmaster who was even now shuttling him down to the planet like a mere taxi driver.

In past days, a rank of Warmaster ensured you were given a ship and land to call your own, Straeger thought. And that was only the beginning--Warmasters could eventually rise to the level of Wardukes and someday join the High Command. My generation was the last to have that guarantee--now the politicians have suspended both. Not enough ships, nor enough land to go around now.

No future for the warrior class that had built the Empire with its service and sacrifice.

What has happened to us? Straeger wondered.

The shuttle spiraled down towards a great golden castle-like structure, a relic of prouder days that seemed to rise from the forest surrounding it like a mountain of gold, or a hand pointing towards the stars; power below that led the way to power beyond.

The shuttle came to rest on a landing pad about midway up the castle structure, extending its landing claws as it came to rest, releasing its pressure valves as it finished its landing cycle. The door of the shuttle opened and Straeger stepped out onto the landing pad. Flanking the entrance to the castle were two red-armored guards, their black rifles crossed over the door.

"Count Straeger is here to see the High Command," the Warmaster said. The guards nodded and uncrossed their rifles and opened the door. Through their helmets Straeger could detect their surprise and muted anxiety at his appearance.

While Warmasters and the higher orders of the Rigellian military were not uncommon, Straeger served in a different capacity.

Straeger belonged to the Empire's intelligence bureau, Black Lens. The rank and file feared Lensmen, more often heard about than seen. The Empire's Secret Police force. Sent to test loyalties among the military, or research new technologies, or extract information, Lensmen were feared because they could read minds and moved through the corridors of power like shadows.

Of the Lensmen, Straeger was the most powerful telepath in service, and at sight of him, it seemed, people seemed extra fearful and mindful of their thoughts.

One of the small compensations of my job, Straeger thought, bemused. As he passed more of the red guards he noted they stood a little straighter as he passed, as though his reason for being there was to test them.

Enjoying their obvious fear of himself and what he represented, he saw no reason to change that.

They passed through various chambers of the castle, empty except for the squadrons of guards that seemed as much a part of the castle's structure as the alabaster columns and polished-black floors. From the walls and ceilings hung tapestries and flags of the various parts of the Rigellian Empire, all of them featuring the red falcon that every member of the Imperial Service wore, indicating their loyalty to the royal family.

He came to a small antechamber, flanked by two impressive doors made of heavy black wood. The Warmaster snapped to attention before him, excused himself, and Straeger waited, alone except for two of the red guards, who kept their thoughts and their words silent.

Beyond the doors, he knew, was the High Command--the five Wardukes who commanded the entire Imperial Service, and essentially, the Empire. Unlike the red guards or the innumerable other people he'd dealt with over the years, they wouldn’t be swayed by their fear of Black Lens, or Straeger's own ability to read minds.

No, to win support for the plan he'd cultivated these past years, he could only rely on his ability to be persuasive and the strength of his conclusions.

And of course, his ability to swallow his contempt for them for what they'd allowed the Empire to become and what his plan would, if implemented, reverse.

The doors creaked open and Straeger straightened to attention, gathering his strength and his composure and stepping through the doors to meet the High Command.

* * *

Kienan Ademetria had modified the Silhouette extensively since he'd bought the freighter many years ago. The various modifications--heavy weapons, military grade armor and shields and extensive retuning of the ships engines--were designed with a simple enough philosophy in mind:

Escape when possible, fight if necessary.

He'd felt confident that, given time and distance, he could maneuver to escape the scrappy patrol ship on his tail--its weapons and engines weren't as advanced as his and he had a sizable lead he could increase by putting a few warning shots across the bow of its pursuer.

Until the Ticonderoga had nearly destroyed itself knocking the Silhouette's Space Drive off-line. On its own, that wasn't a problem, of course--the patrol ship was now in no shape to prosecute the fight or pursue his ship.

Smooth sailing, he thought, his cold emerald eyes surveying the tactical display on one of the screens in front of him.

Except for the 3 heavy cruisers now closing in from three sides.

He clenched his red-gloved hand as he pondered his options. Escape was going to be difficult with the odds against him. The cruisers had moved into position in such a way as to where the Silhouette would have to get past two of them before he could press out of local space and either re-engage his Space Drive or hide in the nebula in the next sector.

And that option had been taken from him about five minutes ago.

He hadn’t been able to analyze what the black-hulled cruisers had hit his ship with because almost immediately, everything began powering down on his ship. The Silhouette's main power seemed to sigh into silence as the lights dimmed.

Only maybe an hour of auxiliary power from the ship's batteries, Kienan thought, stepping behind his command chair and removing a panel on the back side. Enough to keep the air circulating for awhile and minimal sensors, but no weapons, no engines, no shields.

That meant going from the preferred option--hit them as hard as I could while making a run for it to the unthinkable option.

Abandoning ship.

He could hardly believe the order had come from his own lips. He'd never counted on being in this position--to his way of thinking, the "dead" part of the "dead or alive" order would have been the preferred option for any Earth ship, and if that were the case, why incapacitate him first?

It wasn't a question that went long unanswered in his mind.

They intended to board the ship by force, he thought. With our main power out, they can send their boarders over and burn their way in without us ever getting a shot off.

He reached into the secret compartment behind the chair and pulled out a small case with several components within. He quickly assembled them from memory, working solely by touch in the oppressive tension of ever-increasing darkness.

In twenty seconds he'd assembled a small rifle the size of a machine gun, and, sparing a quick look to the ammunition readout, hefted it in a low but ready position as he attended to his other duty.

Vain and Jayla-2 should be on their way to the hangar, he thought, approaching a certain column in the center of the bridge. Mirage . . .just has to wait for her chance, which means it's down to me to buy them time.

And take care of you, Conscience.

He looked at the shape in the center of the column, despite the growing darkness; the broken, irregular, and slightly feminine shape of the figure inside was still visible.

You took better care of this ship than I ever did, he thought, quietly addressing the remains of the mechanical woman inside. I'd plugged you into this ship to save you, and even if I have to lose the ship, I won't let you be destroyed.

But I might have to leave you for a while.

He pressed a series of buttons on the column, and momentarily, the panels and lights around her sprang to life Her one functional eye followed his movements, black and irisless it regarded him blankly as he raised the forward shielding on the column. It quickly locked into place, the high whine of the air-seal completing the locking process.

He took a deep breath, staring at the sealed unit. Whatever happened now, Conscience would be safe. If the worst came and the ship was destroyed, her command pod would be ejected and, with any luck, she could be recovered.

Kienan walked to the exit of the bridge, activating the manual release for the doors. The last thing he heard before the doors slammed shut was the sound of the proximity alarms. Five, then ten pulses.

Boarding craft, he thought. It's starting.

He brought his rifle up as he charged into the darkness, ready to meet them head on.

* * *

When Straeger stepped in to the chamber, his first feeling, rather than being stunned by the ostentatiousness of the High Command's meeting hall was a slight migraine flaring to life just behind his eyes.

Telepathic jammers, he thought, squinting a little. They're taking no chances.

He pushed the small but insistent pain aside, too focused on what he'd come to say. His red eyes quickly took a look around the room. Seated around a large gilded table emblazoned with the red falcon of the Empire were the five most powerful men in the Empire,

To his left was Warduke Hegrun, the Supreme Commander of the ground armies of the empire. His right arm, lost in the war with Earth two decades ago, had been replaced with a mechanical prosthesis and, despite every attempt to refine it cosmetically, appeared stunted and shriveled next to his still-intact left arm. His weathered, lined face regarded Straeger with equal parts caution and contempt--troopers had no love for Lensmen, after all, judging them lacking in valor and courage.

Beside Hegrun was Warduke Droegan, the Overlord of the Rigellian Space Fleets. Straeger stiffened when he identified him--Droegan had, two years previous, stopped him from prosecuting an investigation against someone from Earth. While they'd never met in person, Straeger suspected that Hegrun's general animosity towards the Lensmen paled in comparison to Droegan's dislike for Straeger personally.

At the center of the semi-circular table sat Warduke Kiesel, the Captain of the Imperial Guard and the Empress' Chief of Staff. Straeger had been warned of Kiesel's implacable demeanor--he never showed emotion, interest, anything on the surface, never let you know whether your words moved him one way or another.

And in Straeger's case, it was a double handicap, as his telepathy was being jammed. Of the five, it was Kiesel's vote that most counted--if he declined, he could sway the other members easily with the influence he had at his command.

Beside Kiesel sat Warduke Rieger, the newest addition to the high command. Rieger commanded the Rigellian Starfighter Squadrons, newly spun off from the Fleet. Older than Straeger but younger than anyone else at the table, Rieger was the direct opposite of Kiesel--being a newcomer himself, he was most likely to be receptive to new ideas, and Straeger had, with guarded confidence, considered his vote more or less in his favor already.

As he did the final member of the high command, who sat on the far right. The Commander of the Rigellian Intelligence Directorate, Warduke Riven had been the one who engineered this meeting, who in fact had engineered Straeger's entry into Black Lens and his early missions, and, with an early gift, laid the groundwork for this meeting, and Straeger's vision, ages before the Count had even been born.

Kiesel rose to his feet, followed by the other Dukes. Straeger stiffened to attention. Despite his impatience with protocol and needless ceremony, Riven had cautioned him that the majority of the High Command put a high price on obedience to ceremony and ritual, and such small concessions would go very far indeed towards securing their approval.

"Declare yourself, Citizen of the Empire," Kiesel said, his flat, emotionless tone echoing through the hall.

"I am Count Heinrich Straeger, Count of the planet Abgrund, Lensman in the service of Her Imperial Majesty," Straeger replied, in clipped precise tones he'd not used since a student in Praxia. "I come before the High Command with a proposal."

Kiesel stared at him, unmoving. "Be seated, then, Lensman." There was a dry shuffling as the five Dukes returned to their plush seats. Straeger eased into the stiff wooden chair provided him, silently counting the seconds between the time the Dukes took their seats and he was permitted by protocol to do so.

"Let us hear your proposal, Lensman."

Straeger bowed his head to Kiesel. "My proposal is a simple enough one," he began. "Black Lens has begun developing certain found technologies under our own auspices for the past two centuries. While the technology offered great promise and potential for exploitation by the Empire, until recently, we possessed insufficient quantities to begin large-scale operations.

"As of four years ago, the problem of supply . . .is longer a problem," he said, pausing to reach into one of his pockets. Hegrun's mechanical arm tightened into a fist, his soldier's caution immediately assuming Straeger was reaching for a weapon.

"Lensman . . ." he began.

Straeger stopped for a moment, his eyes narrowing on Hegrun. "Forgive me, my Lord," he said. "I only intended to show my lords tangible proof of Black Lens' find."

"Of course," the Duke growled. The mechanical fingers relaxed and he sat back in his chair as Straeger pulled a small clear canister from his pocket. Inside the canister was a strange black substance, thick and very dark. Even in the spare light of the chamber it seemed to devour all light and sit like a small pinhole in reality.

"This is a small sample, of course," Count Straeger said, setting the canister on the table. "Black Lens is uncertain of its original name, and have code-named the substance "nacht." There is much more than this, my Lords, but even this small amount has tremendous potential to improve our technology."

"Our technology?" Droegan said, squinting at the canister. "This . . .black goo?"

"It's quite unassuming," Rieger said, a thin smile of contempt beginning to play across his face. "For something that's supposed to dramatically improve our technology."

"Looks can be deceiving, my Lord," Straeger said, a slight acid tone creeping into his speech. "That small canister is more than two hundred years old. Part of a find that, once Black Lens unearthed it on a moon of the planet Ginias . . .Durga. It was part of what Black Lens determined was a small craft--perhaps a starfighter, or a shuttle. This craft, buried for untold millennia, went berserk upon being unearthed and nearly annihilated the moon before being subdued and dissected."

This seemed to impress them somewhat, and their expression of contempt towards the substance in the canister softened from bemused contempt to curiosity.

"Dissected," Kiesel said coldly. "You speak as if it were a living thing, Count Straeger."

"Of a sort, Duke Kiesel," Straeger said. "It is the first evidence of purely organic technology the Empire, and I suspect, any other great power in the galaxy has found. Recently, Black Lens came into possession of a larger craft on the planet Abgrund--conservative estimates place it at nearly the size of one of our heavy cruisers. Of course, for safety reasons it was dissected as it was unearthed. Our research has shown that it has compatibility with our own technology, and those findings are what bring me before you today."

"You say you can interface this . . .what did you call it?"

"Nacht, Duke Hegrun."

"This . . ."Nacht" . . .with our technology? To what purpose?"

"To harness the power of this technology with our own," Straeger said. "To create a fleet of such ships that the Empire may use to strike silently at its enemies."

"How?"

Straeger opened his mouth to answer Duke Droegan, but the Warduke was determined to press his point. "Your proposal . . .this "Project: Black Talon" calls for only one capital ship . . .perhaps the size of a light cruiser, and a squadron of no more than six fighters."

"Yes, my lord."

"My dear Count, are you familiar with the size of our Imperial Navy and our starfighter squadrons? What you propose is less than a full squadron, and barely a drop in the ocean. Whatever it's power, it would be totally useless in warfare."

"With respect, Warduke Droegan, it is not intended for use in standard warfare," Straeger began, allowing himself a thin smile of his own as he prepared to turn the Duke's own assertions to his advantage.

"Project: Black Talon is the perfect peacetime weapon."

* * *

The two women slid quickly down the access ladder to the forward launch bay, the last words Kienan had shouted at them still ringing in the urgent red-lit silence:

"They're going to board us! The two of you leave the ship. NOW!"

One of them had found herself hesitating, unwilling to leave Kienan to face a boarding party alone, but the other had taken her along, somewhat forcibly, insisting Kienan knew what he was doing and that by escaping and keeping safe, they were helping him more than by standing and fighting a hopeless fight against boarding parties that could easily overwhelm even the best crew of four.

Jayla-2 stared at the darkened smudge of a bruise on her arm, a tangible legacy of her partner's insistence that they had to leave right now. The woman who'd given her the bruise was even now tossing Jayla-2 her flight suit and her helmet. They had been in such a rush to get here and get underway they hadn’t even come armed.

That might have been a mistake, Jayla-2 thought, casting her eyes across the launch bay.

"Vain," she said, turning to her partner as she slipped on her flight suit. "I think . . .we might have company."

The statuesque blonde woman who'd been standing beside her and zipping her own flight suit up cast her eyes across the flight deck. Except for one detail, everything seemed to be in order. Kienan's shuttle, his personal fighter and their own two fighters, their elegant gold shapes seeming to soar while standing still, stood in the forward launch catapults.

That was fine. They were supposed to be there. The two black scarab-like shuttles that even now were pouring our black-armored warriors from their holds were new.

And very unwelcome.

"Jayla-2," Vain said, standing tall. "Get to your fighter and get out of here."

"But Kienan said--"

"Kienan didn't count on this," the woman said, throwing her helmet onto the deck and running towards the armored warriors. "GO!"

Jayla-2 frowned and made her way to her fighter as quickly as possible. Before she could get very far she was cut off by two of the armored warriors, both of whom were pointing very large and lethal looking lance-like weapons right at him.

"Stop right where you are, little lady," one of them said, his voice sounding empty and distant through the speaker of his helmet.

Jayla-2 shifted her weight from one foot to the other, watching as the points of their lances tracked her every move.

"Just stay where you are and you won’t get hurt," the other soldier said. Despite herself Jayla-2 was surprised by his words.

What sort of soldier would say that?

Unfortunately, she was in no mood to test his sincerity and grabbed one of the lances in her hands, pulling the soldier off his feet and dragging him into a kick into his midsection. Being that he was armored head to toe, she doubted it would hurt him, but was more interested in throwing him off balance long enough to get to her ship.

The other soldier brought his weapon up as Jayla-2 spun the lance she'd seized from the other soldier around to fire on him. She hated guns, and truth be told, wasn't much of a marksman (according to Vain, she lacked a fundamental killer instinct beyond her own survival or protecting herself or others, and Jayla-2 was more than happy with that) but at this range, if the weapon had half the power it seemed to have, she wouldn't have to be.

She pulled the trigger, then held it as the weapon began to kick with rapid fire into her shoulder.

Four apertures on the lance erupted with pulses of energy that traveled the length of the lance and smashed into the body of the soldier she'd fired at.

And had absolutely no effect whatsoever, apart from a shimmer that seemed to ripple an inch or two above his body armor. Jayla-2 fired again and again, then resorted to striking him with the lance as if it were a club. That seemed to push him back a little, so whatever it was that made him immune to being fired at, it didn’t extend to physical blows.

She was able to knock his lance free from his hands and prepared to jam the point of her own into his armor, somewhere non-lethal but grave enough to force him to think twice about trying to stop her.

The soldier swatted it aside and pressed forward, extending one of his hands towards her. Jayla-2 backpedaled, trying to escape his clutches, but had forgotten about the other soldier, the one she'd kicked in the stomach, who even now closed his grip around her, and with a faint click-hiss, sent an electrical charge through her body, stunning her into unconsciousness.

Jayla-2 fell to the deck face-first, her long black hair splaying out around her as the soldiers gathered their weapons and reached down to collect her.

Unlike Jayla-2 Vain had plenty of aggression and killer instinct to spare, and this had made her far more successful than Jayla-2 had been in fighting the waves of black warriors who continued to disembark from their strange ships that had somehow waltzed right in to the Silhouette's launch bay.

One of the reasons why her success rate was so much high perhaps owed to her skill and her accumulated knowledge, but most especially her physical gifts. Vain was, like her sisters Conscience and Mirage, a Marionette--an artificial construct built in the image of a human female, but far stronger and swifter and possessed of limitless stamina and durability.

Needless to say, the prospect of her holding the line against these invaders in their launch bay was more of an even contest than might have previously been thought.

A bay on a ship that was kept under tight security, she thought, sweeping her leg out and knocking one of the soldiers to the deck. She seized his weapon and used it to block two more of the soldiers who'd tried to rush her as she rose to her feet.

Besides Kienan, Mirage, Jayla-2 and myself, only two others know the codes to allow them access to the ship, she pondered, ducking a fusillade of fire from two more of soldiers and flipping over another, shoving him into the path of the two soldier who'd fired on her.

Her thoughts darkened, as she pondered the identities of the two others. Both of them were people Kienan trusted implicitly--former colleagues in fact, she mused, flinging another of the soldiers over her shoulder and to the deck with suck force it seemed that entire ship seemed to shudder. Before she could seize that soldier's dropped weapon, two more soldiers closed on her, firing at close range and catching her in the right shoulder as she rolled to the deck, her hand closing over a fallen weapon. The damage was mostly cosmetic--Vain didn’t feel pain the way a human would--but Vain still took a dim view of being shot at.

While the blasts dispersed, much as Jayla-2's had, the soldiers were knocked off their feet by Vain rushing towards them with the weapon held horizontally.

Throwing the two soldiers and the weapon aside, she vaulted over another of the soldiers and threw a hard punch at the helmet of the another soldier, smashing their faceplate open.

Vain was surprised to see the face of a woman within the remains of the helmet, but before she could finish her off the female soldier dropped back, waving frantically to the soldiers behind her.

Vain turned toward the woman, bending down for one of the weapons dropped by her many opponents. She wondered why she hadn’t heard Jayla-2's ship roar to life and escape the bay--had she been able to escape, the sudden loss of pressure in the bay would have had an immediate effect on both Vain and her opposition.

The woman continued to back away, begging off, almost. Vain raised two of the lance-like weapons up at the woman's; one of which was pointed at her head. Her finger tightened on the trigger slightly, preparing to fire.

Before she could fire, however, she heard a sound--a low, dull gong that seemed to vibrate through the metal of the ship. A split-second later, she felt it--an energy pulse blasted through her circuitry, disrupting her systems, her central processors, everything went scrambled all of a sudden.

Then black.

Vain hit the floor with a heavy thud. The soldiers formed a tight circle around her, weapons at the ready in case she wasn't neutralized. Behind Vain, one of the soldiers, holding a larger weapon with a strange hexagonal shape on the front, kept it trained on Vain's back. Just in case.

The woman soldier looked around, watching as the soldiers hoisted Jayla-2 up onto an improvised stretcher, as they would soon do with Vain. She curtly waved the two stretchers and their respective bearers aboard one of the shuttles they'd come aboard on.

The woman took a deep breath, watching the prone forms disappear within the landing ships.

Two down, she thought.

* * *

Straeger continued his sales pitch for the Black Talon Project, carefully sizing up how much in the individual Wardukes were persuaded. So far, Rieger seemed to be quite interested in the possibilities, Droegan was at least intrigued by the concept and Kiesel continued to listen quietly.

Hegrun, however . . .

"Count Straeger, if I may interrupt you," the Warduke began, leaning back in chair, his mechanical arm scraping against the table's surface. "This . . .Black Talon project, as intriguing as it might be in a theoretical sense, has a number of flaws I wish you to address."

"I will answer any questions you have, my Lord," Straeger said. If he wants to make this a one-on-one contest, he thought, let him take his chance now.

"Excellent," Hegrun began. "First . . .this technology--you claim it can be mated to our own, but if it is alive, and has historically been proven to be hostile to outsiders . . .what is to stop it from going rogue and turning on our soldiers?"

"Our technology will function as a control on the organic elements," Straeger. "In effect, we will create a cyborg--a fusion of man and machine. Like yourself, Duke Hegrun, only on a much larger scale."

Hegrun flinched at that. His face went sour. "And who did you intend to control this shadow fleet of yours? Black Lens?"

Straeger looked over at Riven, who had kept quiet the entire time, a quiet bemused smile on his face.

"Black Lens is forbidden from fielding its own personal armies, my lord," he replied.

"But surely you see some role for you and your organization in this project," Droegan said, not so much coming to Hegrun's rescue as smelling blood in the water. "Given its . . .peculiar nature, it would almost be required. Would you expect commanders from the regular army and navy to take order from a Lensman?"

"These are issues I had thought best left until the prototypes had finished construction," Straeger responded. "However, my initial vision for the project was that Black Lens and myself would be involved, but strictly in a technical and advisory capacity."

"Leaving the actual control of the project to whom?" Kiesel said.

"Whoever my Lords deem fit to assign it to."

Kiesel stared Straeger down for a moment, and Straeger desperately wished he could read his mind at that moment to determine exactly what he was thinking. Was he actually considering the value of Black Talon? Or was this an opening gambit to shoot down the idea completely?

"If I may, Duke Kiesel," Droegan interjected. "There is one element of this that concerns me, and I would like the Count to speak to my concerns."

"Of course, my Duke," Straeger said, gritting his teeth.

"The Black Talon fleet's role would be in sudden and undetectable strikes, whereupon it would vanish again, correct?"

Straeger nodded. "That is its intended purpose, and the purpose for which we have designed it."

"I see. So the chances of it seeing direct combat with an enemy it hasn’t ambushed are . . ."

"Minimal, provided the command utilizes the ship's stealth capabilities to their maximum effectiveness."

"So," Droegan said. "Instead of a direct engagement of equals, your "cyborg" ship ambushes, annihilates and then skulks back into the night?"

"That is what it's designed for, my Lord."

"And you see nothing at all wrong with that?"

Straeger blinked. "I am not certain I understand the question, my Lord."

"No, of course not," Droegan said. "I wouldn’t expect a Lensman to. For centuries, the Rigellian Empire has prided itself on honorable conduct in battle. It is, as a matter of fact, the very center of our society--our aristocracy-- is structured to reward honorable combat."

"I am well aware of our history, Duke Droegan."

"Then why do you bring this project before us, knowing as you do that it runs counter to everything Rigellia stands for as both an empire and as a race?"

Straeger looked at Riven, his eyes silently pleading his commander for permission to put this arrogant dinosaur in his place.

"I await an answer, Count Straeger."

Riven simply stared back at him, that same thin smile on his face. He neither urged him forward nor cautioned him and, lacking any clear directive from him, Straeger decided to take a risk.

"Permission to speak freely, my Lords," he said flatly, staring at Kiesel. His assent would keep the others in line.

Long enough to speak his peace, in any case.

Kiesel nodded.

"What I say not is my opinion and not that of Warduke Riven nor anyone else in Black Lens," he began. "My opinion is, these notions of honorable combat, while a useful panacea to the populace, have no business hindering the actual pursuit of the goals of the Empire. While it is true that the Empire has managed in the past to achieve its aims while adhering to the old ways, our recent reversals indicate that the time for high ideals above all else now draws to a close, lest we continue down a path that leads to our race championing an empire in name only and becoming, at best, a fourth-class power in the Galaxy.

"The Empire must change, my Lords. I believe Project: Black Talon to be the ideal agent of change."

* * *

Kienan swapped out the empty clip in his rifle, snapping in a fresh one before the spent clip had even hit the deck. He held the trigger, bracing the gun against his elbow as he sprayed a strip of brilliant energy fire down a corridor at the hulking black shapes at the other end of the corridor.

He'd intended to keep the invaders pinned down and away from critical areas, to distract and confuse the boarding parties long enough to allow Vain and Jayla-2 their escape and to make his way to the engine room and destroy the Silhouette with a reactor overload.

Kienan had intended to use the service conduits to make his way to the reactor, avoiding combat with the boarding party altogether, only to discover that they'd put scanners in the service tunnels, one of which had given him away and forced him to fight the invaders after all.

A course of action which had led him here.

Unfortunately, we appear to have pinned each other down at either end of the corridor, he thought. And I'm on my last clip and they keep coming, even after I was certain I’d hit some of them hard enough to knock them down.

He squeezed the trigger again, trying to keep the squad of troops from spilling out of the corridor they were in and pressing forward.

I'd expected a smaller boarding party than this, Kienan thought, fiddling with the small cylindrical attachment slung under the barrel of his rifle. And where are the burn-marks? There's no way a force this size could just waltz in and land where they pleased, even if our power was completely shut down. They'd have to attach to the hull and burn their way through.

The hatches are on an independent system and no one who has the codes would have brought a boarding party along, Kienan thought. And if I hadn’t thought I could trust them, I damn sure wouldn't have given them the codes.

He pressed a button on the other end of the cylinder. The darkened corridor lit with a flash from the barrel of the cylinder, sending a low-yield concussion grenade down the corridor. Two of the troopers were blasted backwards, and two more rushed forward, taking flanking positions on the outside of the entry way and firing back at Kienan, pushing him back inside the corridor.

Their return fire seared into the bulkheads just inches from Kienan's head. Kienan flipped out of his cover long enough to fire another round at the troopers, who were even now fanning out into the corridor, seemingly ignoring the fire from his grenades now. He fired another volley of standard fire at the troopers, watching as it seemed to stop short of hitting them and shimmer away.

Kienan's brow furrowed. Clearly, whoever these troopers are, they're sporting some cutting-edge gear, he thought. He checked his rifle's readout--the clip of ammunition was nearly exhausted.

At best, it's a stalemate, he thought. I can’t go forward, but neither can they, and they've got resources I don’t. If I falter, there's little to stop them from running me down and bringing me in.

Looks like I'm not gonna win this one, he thought grimly. But I'll be damned if they'll take me easily.

"Ademetria," a voice called down the corridor. The voice was amplified and treated electronically to be a neutral tone.

"Kienan Ademetria," it repeated. Kienan held his rifle at the ready, looking out from his bulkhead. One of the troopers walked forward. From the design of its helmet and the assured, confident way they were striding through what had only seconds before a no-man's land, Kienan assumed whoever they were, they must be the boarding party's commander.

"We're not here to harm you or your crew, Ademetria," the commander continued. "We were sent to bring you in, and I give you my word that neither I or my marines will cause any lasting harm to either you, your crew, or your ship."

Kienan's finger tensed on the trigger.

"Come out and surrender," the commander said. "We've got two of your crewmen in custody already and I'm landing twenty marines every five minutes. Do the math, Ademetria--it's only a matter of time until we get what we've come for. How easy or hard this is depends entirely on you."

Kienan grit his teeth and spun on his heel, facing the commander and firing a sustained volley at him. He knew it was a stupid thing to do, that it could get him killed, but he couldn't seem to control himself--his rage spurred him to reckless action. Firing more out of anger than any strategic thinking on his part, and that anger had made him the perfect target for the commander's troopers.

The orange-tinged blasts of energy caught Kienan across the chest, the force of impact sending him spinning off his feet and clattering to the deck. He blinked away the pain, trying to catch his breath despite the feeling that his lungs were on fire. The marines closed in, weapons in a low and ready position.

Kienan kept his eye on the marines' weapons, lying still as he tried to work through the pain. The layered mesh of his clothes was proof against most weapons, energy and ballistic, but they'd never probably been intended to take fire from a whole squad of trained marines. He was lucky even to be half-conscious.

One of his hands had been trapped behind him as he tumbled to the deck closed around something affixed to the back of his belt, his half-open eyes assessing the marines' readiness to retaliate. He pushed against the pain that seared through him and made his limbs heavy, forcing his muscles to tense and ready themselves.

Not yet, he thought. Closer . . .

One of the marines poked him with the tip of his weapon. Kienan's grip tightened on the weapon sheathed behind him. His last play and one that would hopefully turn out in his favor.

"Well?" Kienan could hear the commander's voice again.

"He appears to be . . .AAARGH!"

Kienan surged forward, unsheathing the blade he'd been holding tightly to and slashing at the marine who'd poked him. The fierce-looking blade shredded the weapon and the marine screamed more with shock and surprise than actual pain.

Had Kienan caught the marine, and not simply his weapon, he might have been able to fight on. Had the other marines reacted with the same level of shock, he might have been able to get to his feet.

But he hadn't and the marines were ready, firing at nearly point-black range. In a few seconds, the fiery pain that had nearly rendered him unconscious finished the job.

Kienan fell to the floor with a thud, his fingers giving up the knife as he fell. The commander of the marines stepped forward, bending down to pick up the knife and staring down at its previous owner, now slumped unconscious on the deck.

"Pallas Athena, this is Black Tiger One," the commander said. "Report."

"Tiger One, this is Pallas Athena," the voice said, crackling slightly over the speaker in the marine's helmet. "We have grappled to Silhouette and will get underway upon your return. Continuous scans of Silhouette report minimal power, and the Achilles will remain in position should she need another shot."

"And the Ticonderoga?"

"Returned to her fleet with a fighter escort. The Captain asked us to let her know how we did in capturing Silhouette."

Black Tiger One nodded.

"Team Two, report status," Black Tiger One said, passing the weapon to one of the other marines.

"Team Two reports all clear. We are holding the bridge with no opposition."

"Well done. Team Three?"

"Team Three reports all clear," the response came back. "Engine room secure. No opposition."

"Good. Team Four, you reported prisoners?"

"Yes sir," the female voice came back. "Two--the woman and one of the androids. An escape pod was launched during the fighting and its energy signature seems to indicate the other android was aboard. I request sending a detachment of men to retrieve the pod for a full accounting of the crew."

"Well done, Team Four," the commander said. "Get on that search immediately. In the meantime, I think it's time we called this in and got underway."

The commander's eyes flitted over the readouts. No toxins in the air, no booby traps or loss of atmosphere. It was save to breathe. The commander hit a series of releases on their helmet, and with a hiss of escaping air, removed their helmet.

She shook her close-cropped hair free from her eyes and blinked as he eyes adjusted to the red emergency lights. Then, holding her helmet under her arm, she opened a hidden panel on her left gauntlet, activating a secret communications code known only to the highest ranking officers of the Olympus Vanguard.

"Transmission for Vanguard actual," she said curtly. "Message reads: Operation successful. The Silhouette, and Kienan Admetria, are ours."