Iron Blue Intention
By
Lewis Smith


www.gunmetalblack.com

The woman stood in the center of the garden, her toes curling with nervousness as she noticed from the well-worn patch at her feet that many women had stood here, much as she was now. She was naked except for a blue silk robe that she let fall off her shoulders. She held it over her breasts, covering them, shivering a little despite the gentle warmth of the garden.

Her glasses were slipping down her nose, but she was afraid to adjust them, lest the robe fall from her body and embarrass her further.

A foot away from her stood a man lightly brushing a laser chisel over a slab of marble. His blue eyes, deep and calm flitted from her to the slab and back with lightning quickness. Despite the fine dust the laser chisel was blowing into the air, none of it fell on his black and red uniform.

"Captain," the woman began, swallowing hard and marshalling her courage.

"Meridius," he replied, his voice like quiet music. "I don’t think we need to recognize rank here, do we, Reccoa? After all, it's not as if you’re in uniform."

She blushed and drew the robe tighter over her chest. "I'm sorry," she said, blushing and feeling quite girlish and silly.

"It's quite all right," Meridius Soldato replied, smiling gently and looking at her as another brush of the laser chisel outlined the rest of her figure. "You're new here, my dear. And for such insignificant points of procedure as that, I am lenient. How long have you been here, may I ask?"

"Two months, sir," Reccoa Londes replied, fidgeting as she watched Soldato and the figure. His white-gloved hands were breezing over the figure, gradually adding detail. He was hardly even looking at the statue he was creating, instead keeping his eyes fixed on hers. "I was, uhm, very happy to get the post."

"Is that right?" Soldato mused. The UEF usually just sends its troublemakers to me, the ones who don’t fit into their chain of command smoothly."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I happen to like troublemakers. I am one myself, you know."

"Hardly, si--er, Meridius," Reccoa replied. "You're a legend in the UEF."

Soldato cocked an eyebrow as he detailed in the face of the statue. "Legends are what they call visionaries who threaten the status quo and are usefully dead, my dear. The dead don't complain about being used by the living. No, I have no illusions about my use to the UEF and to Earth. I am just a soldier. And that is how I like to be dealt with."

"It doesn't mean anything to you?" Reccoa asked. "The work you did during the wars, being honored by the Rigellians, the money you made?"

"It means quite a lot, my dear," Soldato said. "It's simply not everything. An obsession with material gain sustains those who have lost their ideals. And that is where the UEF and myself part company."

"I see," Reccoa said, not really understanding. She decided to change the subject, feeling somewhat out of her depth. "Meridius?"

"Yes?"

"Do you do this sort of thing often? Ask your junior officers to strip naked so you can make statues out of them?"

Soldato laughed, flicking his jet-black hair from his eyes as he detailed in the robe she wore on his statue. "No, not always," he said. "I sometimes have models shuttled in."

"Oh," Reccoa replied, blushing even more and shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

Soldato smiled. "I was kidding, Reccoa. I've only ever asked a few women to do this."

"Do they complain? I mean it's kinda like . . ."

"No," Soldato replied. "It's hardly an order, if they refuse, I don’t press the matter or punish them. Most of the officers I've asked already know of my condition and know that what I ask is exactly what we will do. I don’t believe in using my position to bully anyone into something they wouldn't want to do."

"Your condition?" Reccoa asked. Her eyes focused on the armor he wore under his tunic. It was sculpted to simulate the shape of a human body and not call attention to itself in the way a spacesuit would, but anything more than a cursory glance pierced the veil of the illusion. "Oh. Forgive me, sir, I forgot."

"It's Meridius, Reccoa, and it's quite all right," Soldato replied calmly, as he used a wider beam on the laser chisel to smooth some of the rougher spots. "I've spent my life conquering it, and I have no need to deny it."

"I think . . .Meridius . . .that's why people think you’re a legend," Reccoa replied. "You've overcome so much."

"Not without cost," Soldato interjected, a bit melancholy, as he finished the details of the statue and polished. "You see, Reccoa, one can win and still lose. And legends get lonely. It's what comes from standing apart from the common man." He stared at the statue for a moment then smiled. "Like this one. I think I'll call it "Pallas Athene." What do you think?"

Reccoa adjusted her robe and tied the sash around her waist, walking over to look at the statue. "Amazing," she said. "I think you cheated, though. There's no way I look that good."

"So you say," Soldato said. He gently touched her arm, mindful not to break it. "You convey both power and wisdom. Perfect for Athene."

"Oh," Reccoa gasped as he touched her. She could feel the hard metal through the white gloves he wore, and she shivered instinctively. "Meridius, you're . . .a flatterer."

He smiled enigmatically. "Am I?"

"Yes," she said, putting her hand over his and hoping he could feel her shivering. "It's beautiful work."

"As you are, Reccoa," he said. He closed his eyes and smiled a little sadly. "Now, I believe you had best get ready for your duty shift. It's nearly 1200 and if I recall correctly, you’re on watch."

"You're right," she said, wondering if he knew how repulsed she felt by his touch. She looked away. "Thank you for . . .uhm . . .I don’t know how to say this. Thank you for choosing me."

"I'm the one who should be thanking you, Reccoa," he said, discreetly removing his hand from her. "You make an excellent subject. Now go. And thank you once again."

Reccoa padded off, hurrying but trying not to seem too blatant about it. Soldato hoisted the two hundred-pound statue aloft and carried it down a nearby footpath to a clearing surrounded by flowers. Along the path were other statues, all of them women, all of which bore an inscription of a woman from myth or history -- Eris, Demeter, Echo, Leda, Nike, Artemis, and Aphrodite. Soldato placed the statue he was carrying beside Leda, making a perfect row of four on either side, an honor guard for the statue in the center.

Of the nine statues she was unique, in that she was the most precious and she wasn't based on a distant myth that had been old even when Soldato was young. It was of a younger woman, smiling, her arms outstretched, reaching for a sun that didn't exist.

Gala, the most honored of his chorus of statues.

Soldato often spent most of his time here, alone, in his garden of statues. He felt an affinity for them more than he did for anyone he called friend. He stood in the center of them, staring at his gloved hands and feeling their eyes on him in silent judgement of him.

Statues can be touched, he thought. But may not touch anyone themselves. And we grow lonelier as we are forgotten and no one comes to see us. Yes, we are very much alike.

At the moment, the galaxy's deadliest man was in the mail.

Kienan Ademetria took another deep breath from the oxygen pack strapped around his chest and forced his mind to stay calm. He only had a few more caps of oxygen and at least another two days to get to his destination.

The box was smaller than a coffin, dark, airless, the walls reinforced and impregnated with particles to prevent anyone from scanning inside. Kienan was lying in a semi-fetal position, and had somehow shifted to the point where he was laying on his braid. This caused him to hold his neck at a very uncomfortable angle and that was sore as well. It was like living inside a block on concrete and possibly the least comfortable Kienan had been in his life with one notable exception.

At least it's warm, Kienan thought. Once before he'd spent days in an escape pod not much bigger than the box and thought for sure the raw cold of space would kill him. Indeed when he was found he was suffering from exposure and by all rights should have died before he was rescued.

But Kienan's business was cheating death as much as it was dealing it out. He was an assassin, a saboteur, a precise instrument of death with the skill to destroy entire colonies or eliminate one person in a crowd of thousands without getting his mark's blood on anyone.

He was in the box on a dare. Or to be more precise, a test, though whether of himself or his assistants he wasn't so sure anymore. For the past few months they had done all he asked -- refitted his starship, managed to keep up with him as he trained them as he had himself been trained.

Of course, his associates had certain advantages he didn't. They were Marionettes, artificial life forms six times as strong, as fast, and as intelligent as an average human. And more importantly, they could turn themselves off when they had to be quiet for long periods.

Like being shut into a mailing box for an entire week, for example.

It was a talent Kienan would have given his eyeteeth for at the moment. Waiting wasn't something he did well, and waiting for long periods of time was impossible.

He hadn’t told his associates that, and wished he had so they could have made allowances for it. This was their final exam, a test that would set the seal on whether or not they were ready to come with him on missions of this scale. They had planned it all, start to finish, down to the second.

He checked the chronometer strapped to his arm, and was relieved to find that there were less than 48 hours left to go. He closed his eyes and relaxed, going over the details of the mission in his head once more. Anything to get his mind off the crick in his neck.

Soldato sat in his room, reclined in a chair, sipping a glass of champagne as he stared at his uniform and armor hanging on the rack across the room from where he sat. The room was the sole place on the base he could be without it. It was opulent as befitting his wealth and his station, but beneath the gilded furniture and the polished metal floors was a most valuable device -- a variable gravity generator that kept the room at a gravity of 4 times that of Earth.

Just like home, Soldato thought. Home was Adrastea, a moon of Jupiter, where one of the early colonies had been established as Earth spread its wings outward to the stars. Soldato often dreamt of home, of looking up at the sky and seeing the storms on the surface of Jupiter and the stars beyond. Equally large and inviting, to a dreamer like Soldato it was a siren call.

It was also a flawed colony. The first settlers had managed to prosper, but it was discovered that their children had contracted what became known as Jovian Syndrome -- their bodies were conditioned to the higher gravity of the moon of Jupiter so that when they traveled off-colony, the tissues in their body began to deteriorate.

Soldato remembered those awful days with crystal clarity. He had been taken to the Titan research institute and his legs had broken within three steps. He spent two years in a wheelchair, fighting the decay of his body with the only thing untouched by the condition -- his mind.

It took years and long nights of biting back the pain of muscles tearing under the strain of drawing breath, but gradually he was able to perfect an early version of his gravity suit, and with it, he could walk again.

It was that victory that revealed the path of his life to him. From then on, Soldato would seek challenges everywhere he could; the more the odds were stacked against him, the better. In addition, as always, he would beat the odds and emerge victorious.

Triumph was his vice, the only vice left to him. And the times were right for a man who sought glory and triumph. He graduated the Rhean University (with honors and doctorates in five different disciplines) just in time for the start of the war with the Rigellians. Famous for his well-publicized battle with Jovian Syndrome and prized for his academic record he was pressed into service with the UEF, Earth's military arm. Unmoved by his protestations that the gravity suit made him an excellent candidate for a commission, they seconded him to a brain trust. He was charged with finding some way to beat the Rigellians, who were centuries ahead of them technologically.

They needn't have bothered, Soldato thought. The war was little more than a glorified stalemate -- a meat grinder that either side poured their efforts into for no gain. The graveyard of wrecked ships still floating around the orbit of Pluto and Neptune show the gains the war made.

But Soldato would find his glory in another way. The war ended when the UEF and the Rigellians found themselves blitzkrieged by the Chroan, a race of machines. It was Soldato who was able to probe the true nature of the Chroan and found the weakness that shut them down for good.

The press lionized him for it -- "The man who fired a single shot, and eliminated the Chroan forever." -- and Soldato was more than happy to savor the fruits of this triumph. It was a dream come true after all. Like Horatius, he had stood one man against untold billion, and held the line.

He stared into the flute of champagne, watching the bubbles rise to the top, his mind lost in memory. He thought back to his time on Rigellia. He was one of the first civilians to travel to the capital of their Empire and had never forgotten in it. In gratitude for his efforts with the Chroan he was given a commission -- the first and only non-Rigellian ever to be so honored by the Empire for his service. Not to be outdone, Earth conferred the rank of Captain on Soldato.

The most wonderful year of my life, Soldato thought. A whole year with the Vulcanus Company, studying ship and weapons design in preparation for my future plans. And long nights watching the soft red sky of Rigellia darken as its suns set.

And Gala. Sweet, beloved Gala. My love and my undoing.


Gala Minos was the daughter of Gerhardt Minos, the head of the Vulcanus Company. She was everything Soldato had been told Rigellians were not -- kind, gentle, loving, and able to see through Soldato with laser-like clarity.

I yearned to be with her, he thought. Every fiber of my body screamed to touch her, but I held myself aloof. I knew that if I touched her I could hurt her, and I couldn’t have lived seeing pain in her eyes.

Gala hadn’t taken "no" for an answer. She had continued to court him, to talk to him, to make him drop his guard and love her. And one beautiful and awful night, he had let himself be swayed.

His first and last.

He remembered being with her the way a man dying of thirst remembers his last glass of water. The experience and the sensation were so powerful they bled over into other senses -- even now, light years away, Soldato could still smell the lilac in her hair, still taste the perspiration at her neck.

But holding onto the joy of the moment was slippery, because the end was always the same. Love was powerful, more powerful than Soldato's sacred glory but against death it was overmatched.

Soldato found Gala dead in his arms. Massive heart attack, the medics had said. Her body wasn't made to take the heavy gravity that Soldato needed to survive. Even for a Rigellian it was too much strain. She had died sleeping in his arms, and part of Soldato had died as well.

He scowled at the memories unfurling before him. The scandal had been a perfect excuse for UEF to break him. The Rigellians expelled him, and the UEF sent him here.

And I kept asking myself, Soldato thought ruefully. Without love, without glory, who am I now?

"Your own research facility, a place where you can work without disturbance," is what they said,
he mused. It sounds so much better than "exile."

He closed his eyes, taking deep breaths.

It was at that moment my heart turned against Earth, he thought. I realized I'd been blind to their crimes -- segregating Earth, strip-mining Jupiter to the degree that the largest planet in our solar system is shrinking every two years, starting wars of aggression to weaken the other galactic powers and expand their territory.

Where is the fairness in that? Where is the nobility of the victor?


He mused some times if the child who had looked up at the sky and seen the swirling maelstroms of Jupiter would recognize the adult he'd become. Isolated. Alone. Hardened in and out. Holding on to a dream because it was the only thing he could hold without it shattering in his hands.

"Captain Soldato?"

Soldato blinked and frowned at the flute of champagne, flat and worthless now. He touched a panel at his side. "What is it, Lieutenant?"

"The Agrippa and the fighter squadron just transmitted the clearance code to us," Reccoa's voice came back. "They're requesting docking clearance."

Soldato set the flute on the table ear his chair, stood up and walked slowly towards his armor. "Clear them to land and have my guard detail ready to receive their leader," he said. "I'll meet them myself."

3 hours, Kienan thought.

He had gone over the details in his mind a thousand times until they were to the point of instinct. They would split up and make their way to the targets. If everything went according to plan, they would be away and ready to rendezvous with their ship in an hour and a half.

But they'd be vulnerable. They were coming in without weapons, all except for Kienan, who had but one -- his Midare-Giri blade. An objective observer would have thought Kienan a madman for smuggling himself into a secret military installation, no doubt staffed with armored guards with heavy weaponry armed only with a knife. The odds were against it.

But Kienan always beat the odds. He was too determined to do otherwise.

That determination was the root of his survival. Kienan was the last survivor of a colony of miners, a colony the monsters dwelling within the mines had made a graveyard. Kienan had survived, not due to any special training but simply because he refused to die.

It was what he did. As natural as breathing or bleeding.

He felt the ship shunt gently.

We've dropped out of Space Drive, he thought. Right on schedule.

Lieutenant Omar Mosul banked his black Hurricane starfighter into a slow turn. Ahead of him floated a featureless gray planetoid, so nondescript that it appeared on no starmaps. To the untrained observer it was a rock in space -- perhaps the remains of a planet, even an inhabited one, but if it was, there was no sign.

This dull gray rock was Zwei Base, the United Earth Force's premiere military research installation. Omar couldn’t stop himself from feeling a quiet sense of awe at seeing it.

Most officers never catch a glimpse of this place, he thought.

He tapped a series of keys, signaling his fighter squadron to follow him in as they orbited the planet.

"Command and Control, this is Lieutenant Mosul," he said. "Request final clearance for docking."

Twin beams of light erupted from the far side of the planetoid. "Acknowledged, Lieutenant," the pleasant female voice replied over the communications link. "Please follow the guide beams and prepare for docking."

"Confirmed, C-and-c," Mosul said. "Mosul out."

The Hurricane banked slowly, its retrorockets slowing it and letting the gravity pulls his fighter into the long chute that led deeper into the planetoid. Behind him the other four members of his squadron followed him in precisely. Mosul allowed a small smile.

Nice to see the constant drills have paid off, he thought.

Mosul was proud of his squad. They were the cream of the crop, the first class to have graduated from fighter academy at Solis Planum on Mars. They were the most highly trained members of the Earth military, able to take apart their fighter and reassemble it as well as outfly and outfight anyone.

That was, in fact, the reason they'd been chosen.

Mosul felt the remote guidance on the Hurricane release and used the maneuvering thrusters to bring his fighter to a smooth landing on the flight deck, miles below the surface of the planetoid.

He flipped a series of switches above his head and the Hurricane shuddered as coolant sprayed over his engines. He unstrapped himself from his seat and opened the cockpit.

He was surprised to note the troops standing at attention to greet him. It wasn't their manner -- they stood at attention, apparently as precisely drilled as his own squadron.

No, it was their uniforms. Instead of the blue tunic and black pants that were regulation for a UEF officer, they wore blue trousers and a black tunic with blue armor covering their chest. Their shoulders and collars were red, but trimmed with silver. Each wore, in addition to the standard beam pistol sidearm, a saber. All except for one man, who stood at ease in front of the other officers.

As Mosul's feet touched the smooth metal of the flight deck the man snapped to attention. Mosul regarded him through his dark glasses, quite puzzled. His uniform was a good deal more elaborate, and trimmed in gold, but still black and red.

Mosul looked at his collar and upon seeing the double silver bars snapped to a salute. "Captain," he said. "Lieutenant Mosul, Sixth Fighter Squadron attached to the UEF Agrippa, seven days out of Alpha Centauri, sir."

"Lieutenant Mosul," Soldato said, returning his salute. "Your reputation precedes you. First in your class at the War Academy, I believe. I am Captain Meridius Soldato, Commander of Zwei Base. I welcome you. At ease, Lieutenant."

Mosul folded his hands behind his back, but stayed alert.

"I've dispatched our cargo shuttles to the Agrippa," Soldato said. "I should thank you, Lieutenant, for bringing our mail with you. We don’t get many visitors here at Zwei Base, as it should be, I expect."

"No sir," Mosul said.

Soldato cocked an eyebrow. "Is something wrong, Lieutenant? You seem somewhat apprehensive."

Mosul stiffened. "Permission to speak candidly, sir."

"Granted."

"Who are they?" Mosul asked, pointing to the detail of officers still at attention.

"They are my Olympus Vanguard," Soldato said. "The UEF has reduced my manpower budget, so I have been forced to develop my own private security force."

"I see," Mosul said.

"Do you?" Soldato replied. Finesse, he thought, is needed here. Like any good soldier, he's a suspicious man. "You are aware of the nature of this facility, aren’t you?"

"Yes sir," Mosul said. "The UEF shares it with your Olympus Company, sir."

"Correct," Soldato said. "Under that shared command, the UEF Officers run our command and control and other key facilities, mostly on the upper levels of the base. Research and development, construction, and security are handled by the Olympus Vanguard."

"You make them seem like your own private army, sir," Mosul said, carefully testing Soldato's obviously informal nature. Despite himself, he felt a little out of his depth. All his previous commands had been under strict UEF jurisdiction. As far as he knew, a joint operation like this was unheard of.

"One must be prepared for anything, Lieutenant," Soldato said, walking past him. Mosul noted the soft whine of his armor's motors as he passed him. Mosul's squadron snapped to a salute and Soldato returned it, then turned to Mosul again.

"Your men will be quartered in G section," Soldato said, pointing to one of the members of his team and then to the squad members. "Ensign Campbell will see they get settled in. I thought perhaps you’d like a brief tour of our facility."

"Sir?"

Soldato smiled, sensing his question. "Never fear Lieutenant," he said. "Nothing you aren’t cleared for. Besides, it will give me time to brief you on the Centaur class's capabilities."

"That's kind of you, but not necessary. I read the specs you provided to UEF HQ before I left Mars," Mosul said, staring at the young female ensign who sidled up behind Soldato.

"Those specs were based on our theoretical models," Soldato replied. "We've managed to better the specs I provided to HQ by at least 20%"

Mosul sighed. He was suspicious of Soldato, but he was incredibly forthcoming for someone he was certain should have something to hide. He sighed, and nodded to the ensign, then to his squad.

"Follow the ensign, she'll take you to your assigned quarters," Mosul said. "Dismissed."

They filed out and Mosul watched them go, running a hand through his blond hair as he watched them and eyed Soldato simultaneously. Soldato dismissed his detail and saluted them as they filed out.

"All right, Lieutenant, now that the ceremony is complete, perhaps we should lay down some ground rules," Soldato said. "You may always speak freely to me, and there is no need to stand on ceremony. UEF Command trusts you with my new fighter and I, in turn trust you. I've studied your record well. You're a capable flyer. I look forward to testing you during the trials."

"You, sir?"

"Of course, Lieutenant," Soldato said. "I'm a pilot myself, and I'm always eager to compete against a skilled opponent."

Mosul said nothing.

"Surprised?"

"Yes sir. A little."

"I like that," Soldato replied. "Zwei Base, as well as myself is full of surprises as well as secrets. I'm certain we can provide you with plenty of both to make your journey well worth it."

Secrets.

Kienan thought about secrets as he felt the box he was in wobble gently.

It was secrets that had brought us here, he thought. An intercepted report of new starfighters being tested by the UEF at a secret installation. The Marionettes brought the information to me, and I challenged them to devise a plan to get us in to steal it.

I never expected them to succeed. Not only did they discover the coordinates of a top-secret installation, but also determined where in the complex the starfighters were located
.

All Kienan had to do was call in a favor to get the UEF ship to make an unscheduled cargo pickup. The Marionettes did the rest. He'd felt almost superfluous.

Even for androids, they're dedicated.

He took special care not to move as he was carried into a nearby cargo shuttle. From the way he felt himself in constant danger of being dropped on his head, one of the men carrying the box must have a slight limp.

It would have been so easy to pop out of the box now and kill them both and try to take one of their places as they transferred the cargo from the Agrippa to the shuttles and finally to the base itself.

Kienan chided himself for his momentary impatience and resolved to bide his time. After all, there was less than an hour to go.

Mosul and Soldato walked along a flight deck on the opposite side of the complex. Arrayed in a perfect row were ten fighters. Mosul was stunned by what he saw. They were far different from the starfighters he was accustomed to piloting.

Most of ours are based on ancient jet fighter principles, he mused. These are true space fighters -- optimized for a battlefield as different from air as night is from day.

"What are these?" Mosul asked, gesturing to the first two fighters in the row.

Soldato smiled. "My first prototypes. UEF has been after for a long time to design a true spacefighter. One to put us on equal footing with the other powers. Of course, when designing a fighter for space combat, the classic measures of a fighter craft as we under stand them, are moot.

"Space is too vast for speed to make much of a difference," Soldato continued, putting his hand on one of the twin fighters before him. It was an odd shape -- its bronze body molded like a fish, with three wings, each bristling with heavy weaponry. "Maneuverability is the key. The fastest fighter in the world is powerless against an opponent able to move with such precision he can literally move in the blink of an eye."

"This was the first prototype?" Mosul asked, walking between the two ships.

"The first two I developed," Soldato said. "They're called Angelfish. Based on intelligence gathered from the Sekhmet. They were very nearly approved, but for the inability of most pilots to handle the tremendous G-forces the fighter exerts during maneuvers."

"Incredible," Mosul said.

"Yes," Soldato said. "The cost was too great though. They pulled the test pilot from the cockpit. He was crushed to pulp, even through his flight suit. It was a humiliation to me."

Mosul looked at him through the Angelfish's bubble-like cockpit. "I'm surprised to hear you say that, sir."

"Why?" Soldato said. "It certainly wasn't pilot error. In any case, it is the responsibility of the designer to make the fighter powerful enough to do the job, but safe enough to bring him back alive. If one errs in either extreme, he has failed."

"That's the exact opposite of what they teach us at the War Academy," Mosul said, examining the cockpit. "You’re expendable, the fighter cost millions."

"Hmph," Soldato said. "Spoken like a group of men who willingly throw anonymous bodies recklessly into a meat grinder. I call that waste, Lieutenant. A good commander respects the men who serve him and doesn't waste their lives carelessly."

Mosul turned to one of the other fighters. It was a squat black thing -- so dark in fact that in the light of the flight deck it seemed to be just barely protruding from the shadows. Its cockpit was of red glass, which made it look even more sinister despite its compact design.

"Stealth?" Mosul said.

"Yes," Soldato replied. "The Nighthawk. You'd be testing that fighter, were it not for the shortsightedness of the UEF Command. They rejected based on its lack of heavy armaments."

Mosul stared at the twin cannons slung under the cockpit. "It is rather Spartan, sir."

"Of course. It's designed for reconnaissance, not full combat. If you’re already in a full-scale battle, I doubt you need a stealth plane to tell you so. In any event, it led me to create my own personal fighter."

Soldato stepped past Mosul to stand beside the next fighter, a larger, iron blue and silver machine. It looked as compact as the Nighthawk, but surrounding the familiar spheroid cockpit were bays of weapons and cannons. Behind the weapons were several powerful engines.

"The Gryphon," Soldato said, running a white glove over the forward weapons pod. "A heavily armed mobile weapons platform. A triumph of engineering, Lieutenant. The Gryphon can handle either capital ships or fighters with ease. It's fast, it's armored, and its quite well armed."

Mosul looked at it. From the front, it seemed to be little more than a cockpit with a wreath of weaponry around it and the suggestion of engines and maneuvering vanes behind it.

How could something this dangerous even fly? Mosul wondered.

"Is this what you'll be piloting in the trials, sir?"

Soldato nodded. "I never even submitted it for consideration to UEF Command," he said. "No pilot save myself could handle it."

Mosul nodded, taking mental notes and trying to discern weaknesses in the Gryphon's design. Soldato gestured to the fighter nearby, one of a row of six just like it.

"This is your fighter," Soldato said, gesturing to it. It shared some characteristics of its sister fighters. It had the compact design of the Angelfish and the Nighthawk and even bore some of the Gryphon's heavy armaments. And like the Nighthawk it was a deep crimson and black. Unlike the others, it was designed like the head of an arrow. "The Centaur."

"Different from the others," Mosul said.

"In some ways," Soldato said. "It's designed for use in planetary atmosphere as well as space. But it shares most of the prototypes' maneuverability and weapons specifications. We even modified the super vernier engines to provide superior maneuverability and performance even in planetary atmospheres."

Mosul opened the cockpit and looked inside.

"Holographic control and targeting," Soldato continued. "Panoramic cockpit with the linear seat system to allow for a full field of vision. You'll also note the lack of control sticks. The devices on the arms of the seat control the fighter."

"What are they?" Mosul asked, checking the readouts.

"They're called arm rakers," Mosul said. They give you pinpoint control of the ships maneuvering thrusters and fingertip control of the weapons and counter-measure systems. You'll find them far advanced from a standard control stick. I'd advise you to allow for the additional sensitivity."

"Armament?"

"Two plasma vulcans and one VSBC."

"VSBC?"

"Variable Speed Beam Cannon," Soldato said. We discovered by tapping into the fighter's reactor we could power a cannon able to fire a variety of shots. With the fire control you can fire short bursts used to punch through a fighters shields or longer shots designed to do sizable damage to a capital ship."

"Amazing," Mosul replied. "Impressive ship. I'm looking forward to piloting her in the trials."

"You expect to win against me?" Soldato said.

"I always expect to win, Captain," Mosul said. "Although I suppose you could have intentionally sabotaged the Centaur to make her unable to match the Gryphon in a one on one matchup."

"Perhaps," Soldato replied, smiling. "If it were a one on one contest. But it will be all six Centaurs against only one of me. If I were attempting sabotage, it would seem foolish to stack the odds that high. Suspicious at least, wouldn’t you say, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir."

"But you have nothing to worry about," Soldato said. "Your fighters will not be sabotaged or modified in any way. I am a firm believer in a fair contest. The deciding factor in our contest will be nothing more or less than our abilities as pilots."

"I see," Mosul said. Despite himself, Soldato impressed him. Part of it was his skill at design -- certainly the controls of the Centaur were advanced, almost dauntingly so. And it wasn't every commanding officer that was willing to test his work and his own limits against six to one odds.

He's either reckless or has reason to be confident, Mosul thought. He had known his share of the former and not enough of the latter. Even though he had been serving for only a few years, Mosul was used to arrogant, thoughtless, commanding officers, most of whom were Earth-born and sneered at for his half-Arab heritage despite his obvious skills as a pilot.

So often had he experienced that arrogance and concealed racism that he had almost become able to detect it on the air. But he felt no such emotion from Soldato.

It made him impossible to hate and even harder to mistrust.

"Well Lieutenant, don’t keep it to yourself, are you pleased with the Centaur?" Soldato asked.

"It's certainly more advanced than a Hurricane, for certain," Mosul replied. "But my squad can handle it."

"I'm certain they can," Soldato said. "If their commander's bearing is any indication, it should be quite an impressive contest. The trails begin at 0700 hours base time, Lieutenant."

Mosul snapped to a salute and Soldato did likewise. "Yes sir."

Soldato nodded. "May the best man win, Lieutenant Mosul."

0:00:00:00

The readout flashed on the timepiece in the still darkness of the box. If the Marionettes calculations could be trusted, this was zero hour and Kienan and his assistants were inside Zwei Base, and the hard part would now begin.

He opened the release latches inside the box, the short hairs on his arm rising a little at the sound of locks breaking, sounds to him that broke the stillness like a gunshot.

He slowly slid the top of the box off, making sure it gently came to rest beside the crate and climbing out of it, keeping one hand on the hilt of his knife at all times. He looked around.

It was a storeroom of some kind. Spare, lit only by a single fluorescent bulb that cast long shadows over the room. It also appeared to be unguarded. He drew his knife very gently and began cutting into the lids of the two crates beside him.

He opened the first crate. Inside, as if a body being laid to rest, was a woman, tall, dressed in green and black, with flame-red hair cascading down her shoulders. Kienan gently passed his free hand over her eyes. The woman blinked and slowly opened her eyes, which were black and irisless. A doll's eyes.

"Conscience," Kienan said quietly, brushing his long chestnut braid off his shoulder.

"Kienan," she replied. "Are we here?"

"Looks like it," Kienan whispered. "Free Vain. I'll check the door."

Kienan stepped to the door as Conscience quietly worked her fingers into the third crate and broke each of the catches. Inside the third crate was another woman, much like Conscience, only with long, flowing, blonde hair. Conscience tapped the side of her nose with her fingertip and Vain sprang to life.

Kienan's eyes narrowed on the thin pane of glass in the doorway. Outside, from what he could see, was a long metal corridor, only slightly better lit than the storeroom.

But no guards. For a secret installation, doubtless full of various experimental weapons, every single nook and cranny should have been guarded. Even deserted storerooms that only held mail in preparation for processing.

This is way too easy, Kienan thought. So far every single scrap of intelligence Vain and Conscience found on this place has been correct. It doesn’t feel right. There've been dozens of opportunities to kill us before this point, so why let us get all this way? If it is a trap it's an incredibly baroque one.

Kienan looked over his shoulder at the box he had come out of only minutes ago.

Too late to worry about that now, he thought. We're stuck. Only one way out, and that's forward.

He looked up at the ceiling and pointed to Vain and Conscience. Vain climbed onto Conscience's shoulders and pried off a vent, handing the crushed grate down to Conscience, who set it down very quietly next to the boxes. Vain climbed into the vent shaft and Conscience followed a few minutes later.

Kienan set to work on the door control, unscrewing the covering with the tip of his knife and carefully cutting and shorting out wires. There was a hiss as the door sprang upwards, locked into its service state.

Kienan carefully stepped out into the light, his red and black uniform contrasting with the antiseptic dull gray that surrounded him on every side. He quickly made his way down the corridor, only to be stopped by a voice -- a woman's -- on the intercom.

"Pilots for this morning's exercises are to assemble immediately in the briefing room for preflight," she said. "Following preflight, report to section 3-C for final launch preparations. Message ends."

Kienan stared out at the intersection beyond him, his emerald eyes narrowing on a pair of signs mounted on a nearby wall. The sign on the upper right corner of the wall marked his location, 1-C. One mounted below it pointed towards a battery of lifts and a flight of stairs.

Kienan took a deep breath. Way too easy. No one is this lucky, he thought.

Soldato strode onto the bridge of the command and control tower. Lieutenant Londes flushed a bit when she saw him and saluted him. Soldato returned the salute with a slight smile.

"Report, Lieutenant," he said.

"The Centaurs and Gryphon have all completed pre-launch prep and are being moved into position, sir. Night shift reported no suspicious security activity and the cargo transfer from the Agrippa was completed successfully. The Agrippa departed at 0200."

"Excellent," Soldato replied. "Have the Angelfish and Nighthawk fighters prepped for launch and moved into position."

"Sir?"

Soldato turned to leave and looked over his shoulder at the lieutenant. "Consider it a drill for the ground crew, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir," she replied.

"You've done a fine job, Lieutenant," he said. He walked into the lift and turned to face her again. "I'll be on the flight deck, preparing for launch. Oh, and when it comes time for Lieutenant Mosul's launch, please inform him that the best man WILL win today."

"Yes . . .sir," Londes replied.

The doors slid shut and Soldato stood at ease as the digital readout to his left ticked down his descent. He enjoyed any chance to display his prowess as a fighter pilot. Due to his condition, he had been refused an official certification as a fighter pilot despite having displayed phenomenal skill at it during his time on Rigellia.

His skill was partly due to one of the few benefits his condition had. Being accustomed to heavy gravity made him immune to the crippling effects of G-forces. Soldato could easily perform maneuvers that most pilots dared not attempt due to the physical punishment involved.

The doors opened again on level 3-C. Soldato made his way to a room just off the elevators and walked to one of the many rows of lockers. He seldom ever bothered with a spacesuit -- his body armor made one unnecessary, save for a helmet with a compact oxygen supply for short-term exposure to the vacuum of space.

He took it off the upper shelf of his locker and stared at it. Yes, he thought, today promises to be a most interesting day.

Conscience watched the tall elegant man leave the locker room, thanking whomever created the human race that humans rarely, if ever, looked up at the ceiling, otherwise their cover would have been blown the second they saw her peering out from the ceiling air vent.

Once she was certain he was gone, she slipped out of the air vent, landing catlike on the blue-carpeted floor of the locker room. She went over in her mind every single detail of the infiltration, her processors poring over every detail in perfect clarity and blinding speed.

She focused on the number of what she was here for, cross-referenced that against every single number on the lockers. Once she was satisfied, she signaled to Vain come down as well.

She pointed to the brass plate on one of the lockers. SFX-02.

Vain nodded and went to it, breaking the lock with a contemptuous flick of her wrist. The door wobbled open and Vain quickly pulled out the pilot's suit and helmet, dressing quickly. They had no need for spacesuits except to protect their more delicate internal systems from the freezing cold of space, but they had more practical reasons for wanting the spacesuits.

Conscience tried to break the lock on hers, but it wouldn’t give. Vain zipped up her spacesuit and looked at Conscience.

"Back up," she said. "Let me try."

Vain punched the steel door of the locker hard enough to break through the plate. Once inside she lifted the bolt and the door slid open as Conscience looked at her with quiet exasperation.

"What happened to subtlety, Vain?" She asked, reaching into the locker and quickly putting on the baggy suit over her clothing.

"No time," Vain said, pressing a button on the wrist of her gauntlets. The baggy suit sealed itself over her body as tight as a second skin. She quickly affixed her helmet to her suit, sliding the polarized faceplate down. "Made sure to have your eye-shield down. It may at least buy us time to get to the fighters."

"Right," Conscience said, sealing her suit and clamping her helmet onto its moorings. "Walk normally to the fighters, don’t arouse any suspicion or raise an alarm. That's Kienan's job."

They both regarded the other as Conscience slid the amber shield into place, slowly walking out of the locker room to the flight deck, right past Soldato and a pair of his Vanguard officers.

Then the alarm sounded and all hell broke loose. Obviously, Kienan had done his job.

Two minutes earlier, Kienan had exited the stairwell, only to find his path blocked by two uniformed guards. They blocked his way to the locker room and there was no way around. Kienan didn’t have the flexibility to squeeze through an air vent, so it fell to him to take the hard road to their objective.

But how to do it quietly?

Kienan reached into his one of the leather pouches on his belt, his red-gloved fingers turning over a small silver rectangle in his hands. It was, in reality his cigarette lighter, but he had another use in mind for it.

He pressed himself into a door alcove five feet from one of the guards and placed the lighter on the floor, kicking it along the smooth metal floor. It clacked against the door and one of the guards went to check it out.

Kienan was on him in a second. His red-gloved hand closed around the guard's mouth, snuffling out any hope of a scream. The guard's rifle clattered to the metal floor, bringing the other guard around in time to catch Kienan's knife as he flicked it towards him. It sliced the air and embedded itself in the other guard's chest, killing him instantly.

Kienan snapped the neck of the guard he was smothering and stopped over the fallen guard to get his knife out of his sternum, planting his boot in his chest and pulling it free. He kept his eyes fixed on the corridor before him as he scooped an arm under both guard's chest, dragging them to a supply closet. Using the passkey in one of the guard's pockets he opened the closet, threw the bodies in and locked it, making his way to the locker room below, stopping only to pocket his lighter.

He braced himself against the wall, raising one of the guns he had taken off the guards. He kept his eye on the group of soldiers standing in front of the locker room, especially the one in the center, whose gilt-edged uniform marked him as a command-level officer.

Kienan looked down at the gun he had taken from the guard. A Drazga, he thought. One of those brand-new plasma guns. This one even has a grenade launcher. Much as I hate energy weapons, this is liable to get me past those troops a lot easier than my knife.

He reached for his lighter again, recognizing two of the pilots striding out of the locker room. Despite the bulky nature of spacesuits there was no mistaking the voluptuous shape of his companions. He flicked it open and reached out from his hiding place.

One turned in his direction, the helmeted head nodding once. Signal acknowledged.

Then the world exploded in noise.

"Fire Suppression needed on flight deck," a computerized voice bellowed as a whooping klaxon split the tense silence of the flight deck. Kienan cursed himself for his carelessness and did the only thing he could do.

He charged forward.

Soldato couldn't believe his eyes. There he was, surrounded by four pilots, all armed with beam pistols, never mind the guards posted in the flight deck, and this man was charging him.

Is he insane, or does he know something I don't? Soldato pondered. Whether it's madness or courage, I'm impressed.

"CAPTAIN!"
One of the pilots said.

One of the two female pilots he'd seen walk by had hefted a liquid fuel container -- filled with highly combustible gevenite, never mind weighing tons with a clean and jerk and hoisted it directly at Soldato.

"Captain, stand clear!" Another of the officer pleaded.

At the last minute, Soldato caught the canister in his hands, planting his feet and steadying the potential bomb.

"Calm yourself, Ensign," Soldato said, setting the canister down with contemptuous ease. "I was in no danger. Our infiltrators are certainly daring, are they not?"

There were two loud noises as the doors to the cockpits of the Angelfish fighters slammed shut. Two of the pilots drew their beam pistols, but Soldato put out his hands.

"No guns," he said. "We're surrounded by canisters of unstable fuel. Do you want to blow up the entire flight deck with a stray shot?"

"Captain, we have a security breach," Lieutenant Londes voice called.

"I'm aware of it, Lieutenant," Soldato replied. "Two, perhaps three individuals. Two are in the Angelfish fighters. Please clear them for launch."

"Captain?"

"They're in a heavily armed and fully-charged fighter craft. We don’t have a clean shot, while they could easily destroy this flight deck and break up the entire station with a few well-placed shots."

"Captain, you're going to let them get away?"

"No, Lieutenant, I am not. Is Lieutenant Mosul's squadron ready to launch in bay 2?"

"Yes, sir."

"Give them priority clearance and tell them to deploy in a wide formation," Soldato said. "Then let the Angelfish launch. We won't let them get away, Lieutenant, but I won’t risk the lives of everyone aboard this base on a reckless overkill gesture."

"Yes, sir," Lieutenant Londes said. "Mosul's team has launched, orders acknowledged. They're taking up a position in the asteroid field."

"Excellent. Lieu -- "

Before Soldato could finish his sentence there was a spray of superheated plasma from behind them. The pilots hit the deck, but Soldato stood his ground, a few shot shredding his uniform, but he stood his ground.

Kienan stood before him, Drazga at the ready. He was clad in a red and black spacesuit, helmet down to disguise his features. Soldato's blue eyes narrowed on him, trying to see through the amber mask of his helmet.

"Well played," Soldato said, smiling. "You snuck in and got ready while we were distracted by your partners."

Kienan circled him, keeping his weapon on Soldato. He said nothing.

Soldato raised his white-gloved hands. "You really don’t need that, my friend. Your companions and yourself will be allowed to leave."

Kienan stopped.

"I really am quite impressed, you know," Soldato said. "You've shown a great deal of courage, skill, and determination to come this far. I applaud you for that. But to steal what is mine and get away with it . . .for that, my friend, you will have to defeat me."

Kienan squeezed the trigger of the Drazga, blasting Soldato’s helmet to pieces as both of them broke into a run for the remaining two fighters. Of the two, Kienan was the fastest, making his way to the Nighthawk just as Soldato was halfway to the Gryphon.

Kienan quickly strapped himself in as the hydraulics of the seat locked and pressurized the cockpit. Vain and Conscience's fighters blasted forth, propelled by the launch catapults up through the long curved launch tube, accelerating to incredible speed as Soldato finished his preflight check on the Gryphon. An untrained observer would have noted he seemed strangely to be in no hurry despite the urgency of the situation. And even more strangely, he was smiling.

Kienan felt the breath squeezed from his body as the launch catapult shot him up through the tube. He willed himself to hold on, willed his arms to move despite the incredible G-forces. Whoever that had been back there had been right -- the real battle was just beginning.

Kienan's mind drifted back to the few UEF officers he'd tangled with. They were capable soldiers, but the few he had known had often been little more than machines -- drilled to such an extreme degree the initiative had been bled from them.

Most situations they had standard operating procedures for. But against the unexpected they were hesitant, tentative. Improvisation was their enemy.

Fortunately for Kienan, it was his ally.

He felt the pressure against his chest relax a little and activated two switches above his head. The lower skids on the Nighthawk's bottom pair of wings extended out to the walls of the launch tube, the landing arms screeching and starting to melt as they sparked against the walls.

He quickly tapped a series of keys on a pad next to his arm. On a nearby display, the instructions for the ship came up in a readout so pedestrian it seemed to parody the urgency of the situation. Kienan had flown space fighters before, but nothing this advanced. The plan had been for him to grab the more heavily armed one, but his hand had been forced by his carelessness with the lighter.

The plan was now well and truly out the window. Everything from here on out was improvisation and luck.

He glossed over the manual, quickly absorbing what he needed to know about the ships engines and defensive systems. The rest he could take in later. Assuming he survived, of course.

Like a blue-steel juggernaut, the Gryphon roared through the launch tube. Soldato activated his shields and began arming his primary weapons arrays. He could outfight the Nighthawk, he was sure of that -- the Gryphon was designed to take on ships at least three times its size single-handedly, but the bravado demonstrated in the raid had impressed him.

Whoever these people are, they’re not anyone to take lightly, he thought.

He checked his readouts. All weapons armed. Around him, the panoramic display dotted the launch tube with various readouts -- ammunition count, collision detection, shield strength, hull integrity, everything he would need to know.

One of the readouts suddenly turned from green to red. Soldato caught it out of the corner of his eye.

Almost before he could react, Soldato saw it. The Nighthawk, braced against the walls of the launch tube, gun turrets ready to fire. They erupted with a red volley of laser fire as Soldato fired the Gryphon's retro-rockets, trying to stop.

The G-forces were nothing to him; the sudden deceleration only caused him to shift a little in his seat as he let the shields absorb the laser volley. As he came to a stop he pulled the triggers on the vulcan cannons mounted on the forward section of the Gryphon, but the Nighthawk was rocketing backwards through the launch tube, still firing.

Kienan felt a trickle of sweat go down his spine as he blasted backwards through the launch tube, doing a slow backward roll to reorient himself. Seconds behind him, the Gryphon rocketed outwards, hovering over him.

Soldato smiled and pulled a lever above his head. The neck of the Gryphon extended forward and down as more gun batteries and missile launchers were deployed. The four hinged bays on either side of the cockpit opened, revealing drone pods with even more remote weaponry.

Kienan gunned his thrusters, intending to make a run for the asteroid field beyond the base. He would be insane to fight him head on; the only option left was to make a run for it.

"Captain," Lieutenant Londes said. "Lieutenant Mosul reports engagement of the other two fighters on the far side of the base. I have base defences available at your command. Mosul recommends drawing the fighters close to the base and letting our gun batteries shoot them down."

"Negative, Lieutenant," Soldato sighed. "Shut down all base defenses except for barrier shields, Lieutenant. There's too high a risk Mosul's squadron could be destroyed. Remember -- these are UEF fighters -- our friend or foe targeting computers haven't been reprogrammed to discern which is which."

"But sir, I can have crews on manual -- "

"Shut them down, Lieutenant. That's an order." Soldato said, banking into the asteroid belt, the stars behind him glowing white with the flaming corona of flame from the Gryphon's engines. "This battle must be between pilots."

The Angelfish's frame rotated around the cockpit a perfect three hundred and sixty degrees as Conscience banked to dodge a blast from the Centaur fighters. She pressed a series of switches and two canisters ejected from the rear of her fighter, exploding and blanketing the area behind her with small metal strips.

She closed the window on her display. After all, she'd read the entire manual for the fighter in a few seconds, all the while keeping the fighter squadron off her.

The two gun turrets on the wings of the Angelfish swiveled behind her and blew a wing off one the Centaurs pursuing her. Kienan had warned her that engaging any pursuit force would only slow them down and give them time to swarm her, but they were too close. If she just let them chase her without creating some kind of distraction to allow her to make her escape, they'd follow her back to the rendezvous.

And since the Angelfish couldn’t have its weapons armed while it was in Space Drive, she would have no way to defend against a pursuit force.

She deployed her missile launchers and turned the fighter hard, steadying it by firing her retrorockets. Before the advancing Centaurs knew what was happening, they flew into a hail of missiles. One of the rockets slammed into a Centaur's cockpit, blowing the ship to bits and throwing the other fighters off balance in the resultant blast wave.

Conscience looped the Angelfish with impossible speed and grace, disarmed the weapons and activated the fighter's Space Drive. There was a ripple, a sudden acceleration and the Angelfish was gone.

The Gryphon slowed as it made its way to the asteroid field. Soldato smiled to himself, tapping a series of keys on his console.

"Now that we're alone, I can speak freely," Soldato said. Kienan reached up and touched his helmet. At the moment he was directly underneath the Gryphon, holding onto the bottom of one of the asteroid, his fighter at low power.

"Don't be shocked. I know you’re here. I know you can hear me. I built a specially shielded channel into all of my fighters. If I read your actions right, you and I both know there's no way you can fight through me."

Soldato activated two levers above him.

"You’re hoping I'll chase you in here and then you can slip out and away. A wise decision. Excellent instincts."

From the lower of the four bays in the Gryphon, two cylinders were released. The extended, looking like giant metal necklaces, drifting on gravitational eddies to the asteroid below.

"But you can’t hide," Soldato said, pressing and releasing one of the targeting switches on the arm raker on his left. A display came up on the Gryphon's screen: Demolition Chains -- Armed. "After all, I built the Nighthawk, and I built the Gryphon. I know them as I know my own hands."

"And I can take away your hiding places."

Soldato pressed a switch, and the compact series of mines blew the asteroid to bits. Kienan barely had time to reactivate the engines and rocket away before a spray of debris smashed against his engines, knocking him into an uncontrolled spin.

Kienan attempted to right himself, but the engines weren't fully reactivated. He fought the controls as he spiraled into the gravity of another asteroid. It was smaller than the one he'd hid behind, but enough to shatter the Nighthawk's spaceframe and leave him easy pickings for his pursuer.

He stomped hard on the pedals under his feet and the retrorockets flared to life. Above him two rocket-powered pincers fired from the Gryphon, punching through the asteroid as Kienan flipped the Nighthawk backwards and fired at the Gryphon again.

Kienan was puzzled. Why is he doing this, he wondered? Why didn’t he finish me when I was out of control? Why?

He rocketed away, banking in tight with the asteroid, trying to use the stealth fighter's superior maneuverability to get away from the Gryphon. Soldato responded by firing two remote pods from the upper bays. The triangular pods ejected a stream of hundreds of micro-missile, blowing up the asteroid field Kienan had been steering towards.

Think, damn it, Kienan chided himself. What is he doing? What does he think you’re doing?

Another volley of micromissiles, some so close Kienan blew them apart with his laser cannons. As one of the warheads flashed in front of him, overloading the display, it came to him in a flash.

He expects me to run. Do the last thing he'd expect.

Kienan seized the controls and ran the engines to speed, turning towards the Gryphon, his laser cannons deluging the heavy fighter with rapid-fire energy bolts.

Soldato smiled and diverted his weapons power to his shields, his hands tightening on the controls as the Nighthawk bore down on him.

At the last minute, Kienan engaged the maneuvering verniers on the Nighthawk, its shields slowly crumbling against the onslaught of the Gryphon's plasma vulcans. The Nighthawk flew over the Gryphon at a 90-degree angle, so fast Soldato didn’t have time to lay in a pursuit course immediately.

Kienan opened up the throttle and left the Gryphon far behind, as Soldato closed the weapons bays on the Gryphon and rocketed after him. His heart beat somewhere beneath his ears. The thief wouldn’t have attempted a kamikaze attack, he thought. Not when he went through so much trouble to steal my starfighter.

No
, he thought. He knew the last thing I expected him to do was turn and fight. He counted on me to hesitate and give him an opening

He smiled and hit a series of keys on a console beside his arm raker.

A small window popped up inside the display. Three words followed by six blanks filled with asterisks.

"REMOTE SHUTOFF ARMED."

The thief wasn't the only one with an ace in the hole.

Ensign Kamadev, report status of your group's pursuit," Mosul said, tracking the second Angelfish fighter. The plasma vulcans spun like roulette wheels as the agile fighter dodged the volley. Mosul fired a blast from the VSBC at it, but the Angelfish spun around and fired at him.

"One fighter destroyed, one critically damaged," Kamadev responded. "We've lost her. Unable to continue pursuit."

"Damn," Mosul said, firing his vulcans and the VSBC simultaneously. This pilot was cagey and knew the machine cold. The pilot would sucker Mosul's targeting sensors in and then use a quick vernier boost a half-second before he fired to dodge the attack. As ambivalent about Soldato as Mosul was, he couldn’t deny the skill of the man's designs.

"Can you rescue your stricken wingman?" Mosul asked.

"Yes sir, but I'll have to grapple him," Kamadev responded. Mosul listened as he slipped into the wake of the Angelfish, attempting to exhaust its shields with the remaining ammunition in his plasma vulcans.

"Do it, and get back to base," Mosul said, taking the vulcans offline as they exhausted the last of their fuel. "Our good Captain will have to be happy with only two fighters recovered."

"Yes sir," Kamadev responded. "Beginning gra -- "

Kamadev's voice cut off as Mosul felt his Centaur begin to decelerate. He checked his readouts. Every screen was dark. He tried his controls. No response. The entire fighter was shut down.

There was a flash from the Angelfish's thrusters as it blasted away from his slowing pursuit. In a matter of seconds the stolen fighter was lost in a sea of stars, enveloped in the concealing blanket of stars called a galaxy.

Mosul slammed his fist against the canopy. The War Academy had taught him lots of things -- the basic principles of starfighter construction, the physics and basic maneuvers of space combat, but the one thing they couldn’t teach him was how to bear the bitter taste of loss.

Kienan checked his radar screen. The pursuit force that had been engaging Vain and Conscience had vanished from his screen. All six of them. He pondered for a moment if they were capable of stealth as his fighter was, but did a scan for the residual heat of their engine exhaust and found each came to a fixed point instead of immediately vanishing.

They had, to use an ancient term, seemingly ran out of gas.

He flew past two of them, then two more. None offered pursuit.

What's going on?

Kienan didn’t have an answer, but didn’t intend to stick around for it to become clearer. Besides, there was another question on his mind -- namely, where was the Gryphon?

No sooner had the question drifted through his mind than the massive fighter loomed before him. Kienan readied his laser cannons and prepared to fire, but found the triggers stuck. A flashing screen told him the laser's power coils had burnt out.

No weapons left, Kienan thought. That means I can ram him, or . . .

As the Gryphon drew closer, he could see the small gun turrets on the Gryphon track his advancing fighter. Kienan reached behind his seat and found the Drazga, checking the air supply in his suit as he slowed the fighter down and unstrapped himself from the seat.

I can eject and fire a grenade at his cockpit, Kienan thought. It'll trigger his forward shield, but if I arm the fighter's self-destruct, it'll take him with me, and I'll have a chance to fire two more times. One should smash his cockpit and since he isn't wearing a helmet he'll die in the vacuum.

He raised the Drazga. I'll still be close enough to get caught in the explosion. We'll both be killed.

He sighed. Oh well, he thought.

The display before him shifted. He was close enough to the Gryphon to be able to see Soldato through his cockpit, smiling at him. Kienan leveled the rifle, his free hand on the ejector/self-destruct handle.

Soldato looked at him and saw the rifle. His smile became a grin. He raised his white-gloved hand in a salute, engaged his verniers and flew off.

Kienan held the rifle at the front of the cockpit and didn’t take his hands off the handle for a whole minute. It wasn't so much shock or disbelief, it was more an inability to process what had just happened.

He let me go. He had me, and let me go.

Once that thought had flashed through his head he engaged the boosters and flew off, determined to be long gone before he changed his mind and came back. As Kienan cleared the local system, he activated his own Space Drive and as space folded and compressed around him, everything fell into place. Every doubt, every stroke of luck, every question he had asked himself during the raid, it all made sense at last.

Kienan was furious.

Later that day, Soldato relaxed in his garden, unable to believe that he was the same person anymore. Unlike the day before, when he had stood, surrounded by his stone maidens, he didn’t feel alone. He felt alive.

At last he had proven himself an able and noble soldier, with no quarter asked or given. No one told him he was too crippled to fight, no one could gainsay the weapons he used.

It had gone exactly as he arranged it. A chess game, well played.

He had fought on his own terms, and the exhilaration of the battle had given his spirit wings, even now he felt the exhilaration of dueling with the unknown opponent, and the only thing better than reliving it in his mind was the chance to do it again.

He walked to the statue at the end of the line. My dear Gala, he said, touching the marble cheek of the effigy of his lost lover. I've found myself again. And now, I feel I can say goodbye to you, and commit myself to the work ahead. Never stop believing in me and loving me, as I must now believe and love humanity.

He closed his eyes and smiled.

My path is now clear.

"How long have you been there, Lieutenant Mosul?" Soldato asked, not even bothering to turn around.

"Long enough," Mosul responded. The blaster pistol he held in his hands was pointed at the back of Soldato's head. A single shot would blast through Soldato and probably take the head of the stature he was touching as well.

"This is a somewhat conspicuous place for a murder, Lieutenant," Soldato said. "My people know where I am. You'd never made it out alive."

"You set us up," Mosul said, teeth grit with determination.

"Did I?"

"I did some checking once the salvage crew brought us back in," Mosul said. "Our Centaurs were disabled by remote signal. A signal only you'd have. Furthermore, you countermanded my order to use the base defenses to bring down the rogue fighters. You even refused to close off the launch bay."

"Circumstantial evidence, Lieutenant," Soldato replied, lowering his hand from Gala's cheek. "But it seems to me you've already decided to circumvent a court martial. But if I'm guilty as charged, why haven’t you shot me dead yet?"

"Why?"

Soldato raised an eyebrow. "Why what?"

"All of it. The private army. The strange orders. Arranging a glorified dogfight, breaking every rule and abusing the chain of command and your rank to suit your whim."

"Can you name me a UEF officer who wouldn't do the same?" Soldato asked.

"That's not the point!" Mosul said, stepping towards Soldato. "You let them in, let them get to those fighters, hell you even had them prepped for launch! You arranged this whole crisis! And then you let them get away after they killed one of my men! WHY?"

"Can you prove that?"

"I wasn't aware I had to, Captain," Mosul said. "I'm the one with the gun."

Soldato closed his eyes and sighed. Slowly he smiled. "I knew you were the right man. You're livid over the loss of one of your squadron. I'd imagine if he had survived, we wouldn't be having this conversation, now. Or at least you wouldn’t be armed during it."

"You told me yourself -- a good commander respects the men who serve him," Mosul said. "You wasted one of mine on a glorified ego trip. I'm a strong believer in an eye for an eye."

"Hammurabi's code," Soldato said. "Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Unfortunately, any attitude that reactionary would leave the galaxy blind and toothless in short order. Tell me, Lieutenant, if a regular UEF officer had been in command, what do you think he would have done?"

"He would have ordered us to pursue the rogue ships as far as necessary and covered us with fire from the base."

"Of course," Soldato nodded. "He would also have killed your men, because as I told my command and control officer, our friend or foe systems hadn't been reprogrammed. Your ships would have been targets as well. And so you would have had to chase them, exhaust both fuel and firepower, perhaps get lost in the deserted zone between Zwei Base and the nearest galactic shipping lines. And you would die before our teams could recover you."

"That doesn’t justify my man losing his life," Mosul said.

"No it doesn't," Soldato said. "But it does illustrate the difference between myself and the UEF. I won't waste men to press a point. The technology we battle with is impressive, but the human element is the most critical variable in the equation. The UEF sees humans as functionaries -- something to make the guns fire and the ships fly through space. No more, no less."

"And what are you offering?"

"To put the human element back in," Soldato replied. "To make sure no man's life is wasted in the noble endeavor of combat ever again. To unite every man who will serve under the banner of my Olympus Vanguard without regard to race, and to teach them dignity and nobility. And once they are so taught, we will in turn teach the galaxy."

Mosul lowered down the gun.

"Am I acquitted, Lieutenant?"

"I'd call it a temporary stay of execution."

"I see I'll have to prove to you my aims are not personal glory, Lieutenant," Soldato said, chuckling and shaking his head.

"On the contrary, sir," Mosul replied, holstering his gun. "I'm still convinced your aim is your own greater glory. I'm waiting for you to prove me wrong."

"Then it appears I have a lot of work ahead of me, Lieutenant," Soldato said. "But I am equal to the task. I will prove worthy of your faith, you'll see. You, and the galaxy beyond."

Light years away the silver arrow shape of the Silhouette glided out of the nebula it had spent the last four days in. The Hades Nebula was a perfect place to hide a ship carrying three stolen ships -- its clouds of dust, gravity wells, and electromagnetic storms made scans unreliable and navigation foolhardy.

For a human, anyway. For an android woman with superior reflexes it was only somewhat foolhardy. The woman brushed a lock of brown hair from her eyes and checked her readouts as Conscience and Vain strode onto the bridge. Though they were incapable of fatigue, Mirage could tell at a glance the toll the job had taken on them.

"How did it go?" Mirage asked, plotting a course away from the standard galactic shipping lanes.

"I'd say it went well," Vain asked, removing one of her gloves and waggling a finger through a burn hole in it. "I'm not sure Kienan thinks so, however."

"Hasn't said much since we got the fighters secured," Conscience said. "He seems . . .angry."

Mirage looked at the two of them. If they could have been called almost human, it could have been betrayed by the mutual worry they all shared at that time. They were like children wanting to please a parent, living or dying on his favor.

"What did he say . . .about us coming with him?" Mirage asked after a long silence.

"He said . . .we did fine," Vain replied. "And that was all. He's still in the hangar bay, working on his fighter. Something happened out there, I think."

Kienan threw the burnt-out laser coil onto the deck. While the fighter's design was esoteric compared to the older models Kienan had flown, he was grateful the designer had decided to use standard parts that were easy to replace. It made the task of repairing the fighter nothing more than mechanical motions.

That suited Kienan fine because all he wanted to do was think.

He still bristled at what had happened. He was angry -- not at the Marionettes; they'd proven their worth ably. Had it not been for their distraction, the pilots could have cut him down before he even got close to the fighters. He owed them.

No, Kienan was angry with himself.

He'd been played. Set up. Led right in with a scenario too good to be true and waltzed through and was only alive because someone else had chosen to spare him.

For someone like Kienan who survived despite the odds against him and lived life by his own rules, the idea that he danced on anyone's strings was an insult, and it stuck in his gut even now.

Kienan hated to lose, but he hated to win by forfeit even more.

He plugged in the new coil and tested it with a tool at his belt. All green. Good, he thought. The next time I meet that guy -- and if I have my way, we will -- I won't stop until there's a victor.

I fought on his terms this time,
he thought. Next time I'll make sure he fights on mine. And I'll make sure he doesn’t walk away.