Save The Darkness
By
Lewis Smith
www.gunmetalblack.com

Kienan Ademetria lay sleeping in the cramped cabin. The woman beside him sat up and stared at him, her elbows resting on her knees. Her eyes tracked the large "X" shaped scar on his back, and followed the contours of his muscular frame as far as she could in the spare light.


Her name was Silhouette, and she loved him more than she could say. But more and more she felt she wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, but by his side.


It wasn't an easy decision to make, leaving him. In his arms she felt safe and loved, and she knew he would die to protect her. She owed him so much, but all of a sudden it was all out of balance; the two halves of Kienan were irreconcilable to her.


There was the Kienan who held her tightly, who whispered her name against her neck when they made love, the one who seemed so shy when he would draw her close to kiss her. The one who was like an innocent child.


And then there was the one she had seen today.


She closed her eyes, the thin stream of smoke from her cigarette almost painting the image in her mind’s eye across the quiet darkness.

It was two days ago now. She and their partner, Toriares, had been in a huge crowd on a nearby space colony, listening to a speech by a man named Jonas Merrin, an advocate for colonial independence. Earth was too far away to fully address the concerns of colonial peoples, he had said. They only wanted to hold onto the ragtag Frontier colonies for their strategic value and for the resources on nearby planets.


Silhouette had watched the man on stage with a mixture of admiration and dread. Partly because she knew he was right. But mostly because she knew what was going to happen next. She felt the hard cold metal of her pistol in her cloak. After all, that was the reason she was here – to cover the real assassin and spread enough chaos to allow him to make his escape.


Merrin's voice rose as he fanned the enthusiasm of the crowd. They cheered loudly as he made a plea for an emancipation petition. The cheers turned into three loud sounds, like the crack of thunder.

 

Merrin fell backwards, the white of his dress shirt soaked with red. He fell backwards, his shoes finding no traction on the floor, crashing to the floor of the stage. Silhouette drew her gun as one of the lighting technicians abruptly whipped his spotlight around to where the shots had run rang out.


She glanced up and saw Kienan caught in the pale white light. His long braid swung like a whip as he turned and angrily shot out the spotlight, not even bothering to shield his eyes. The crowd began to scream and run from the meeting hall.

 

On the other side of the throng, she could see Toriares, gun in the air, firing off warning shots, trying to get the people out. Silhouette turned--she wanted to run -- her instincts told her to run, but she couldn't. She felt like she was ripped out of time and put in that spot.

 

He looked at the stage. Merrin’s wife, whose face was red from screaming and streaked with tears, was cradling his body. Her voice was raw, and it almost felt like she was screaming higher than the human ear could hear, but Silhouette could hear her just fine.


"WHY?"


She blinked, looked around the cabin, and sighed. Surrounded by smoke, by the life she was in, and of course, with Kienan. Yes, she thought. This is where I came in, isn't it?


She thought about Merrin's wife. For the past year and a half she had been Kienan's partner on dozens of missions -- missions of murder, sabotage, and outright terrorism. But they had all been bad people--corrupt colonial governors, agents of rival crime syndicates--the sort of people who deserved to die.


And then she had seen Merrin killed just for speaking a belief counter to the wishes of the syndicate they worked for -- and every boundary and justification she had made had been annihilated like a house in the path of a tornado.

She looked at him and watched him sleep. Sometimes she had reached out in the night to touch him and felt the tension in his muscles. He slept like a hunting animal -- always ready to leap out and strike if disturbed. Even in her arms, it seemed like he could never let go, like he could never find the peace she was offering him.


She stubbed out her cigarette and slid quietly out of bed, dressing in some of Kienan's cast-offs. As she left, she caught a glance of herself in the mirror. She looked at herself and glowered, running a finger through her hair, dyed from its darker brown to look more like Kienan's. Her blue-green eyes shining back at her from the mirror held a question she had asked herself ever since the day Kienan had slain Merrin.


Is this the person you want to become?


She quietly opened the door and exited their quarters. They had just bought this ship three months ago. The Silhouette, as Kienan had named it (after her, she remembered him telling her) was an older freighter, but one that she, Kienan, and their partner had been steadily working on bringing up to date. They still had a lot of work ahead of them, she mused as she walked along the corridor to the bridge. The ship's gravity fluctuated at the ship's maximum speed, you had to walk very carefully, or end up floating to the ceiling and cracking your head open.


Behind the controls sat a man clad in blue and white, his dark-brown skin making him seem more like a shadow in the spare light of the bridge. Another thing we have to work on, Silhouette thought. This ship's so dark all the time.


She touched the man lightly on the shoulder. "You still up, Toriares?"


"Yeah," Toriares said. "The auto-navigation system's on the blink, so I'll have guide her back to Kuran manually. You guys should be asleep."


”Well why aren't you?" Silhouette said, plunking herself down in a chair beside him.


"Well, I grew up in open space," Toriares said. "I'm used to the way time works out here. Day, night -- it's all irrelevant. When's sunrise, after all? It's always dark in space."


"I guess," Silhouette thought. "Yeah, always dark. I couldn't sleep anyway. Too much on my mind."

 

"The job?" Toriares asked.


Silhouette nodded, turning her chair to look for the pack of cigarettes she always kept on the bridge. "It . . .was different."


Toriares looked at her. Silhouette frowned and gave up her search. "Okay," she said. "Toriares, every person I killed before I . . .I guess I felt like they deserved it, you know? The dealers, that gang we caught trying to colony-jack at Nereus last year? The slavery ring? They deserved to die. I really believe that now."


"And you think Merrin didn't?" Toriares asked. His voice was neutral; there was no anger or judgment in it. She felt relieved when she heard that tone. His willingness to listen was one of the things she loved most about him.


"No. Yes. I don't know," Silhouette sighed. "It was just easier to believe we were the good guys. No one ever ran and gathered up the other people into their arms and asked me why I had done it. It's easier to think they deserve it, I guess. The scum of the galaxy have no friends or family, do they?"


"Sil," Toriares said. "Deserving has nothing to do with it. We do what we do because we're told to. Because somewhere along the way we turned off that mechanism in our brain that said 'This person deserves to die, this one over here doesn't.' And if you're wrestling with this now . . ."


"I know," Silhouette said, looking out the window. "She looked right at me, Toriares. She asked me why I'd done it. I didn't even draw my gun, but it felt like I had killed him myself."


Toriares held the controls steady in his hands and leaned forward. "You couldn't have done anything to stop Kienan," he said. "Kienan does what he's told. That's why I picked him as the shooter. I knew he wouldn't hesitate."


"I'm sorry," Silhouette said. "I couldn't do it. Especially not knowing what I know now. "


Toriares smiled gently.”If it makes you feel any better, neither could I."


Silhouette raised an eyebrow. "You couldn't? You've been doing this for years for the syndicate."

"That's just it, Sil," Toriares said. "I've been doing this too long. I'm starting to lose a step here and there. Kienan's star is on the rise--you guys don't need me anymore. I'm thinking of asking Mao for retirement."


"Kienan doesn't need me either," Silhouette said. She suddenly found her throat tight and willed herself not to cry even though the tears in her eyes felt so hot and so heavy.


Toriares chuckled dryly. "Are you kidding? He needs you more than he could ever say. Maybe even more than he knows. He needs you to keep him grounded, to keep him sane."


"I'm not doing a good job of it," Silhouette said. "I saw the look in his eyes when he shot Merrin and when they threw the light on him. Like a wild animal. Just empty white-hot hatred. And sometimes when I look at him I see the same thing. I don't see anything I can reach."


Toriares sighed. "I don't know what to tell you Sil. You and Kienan are my friends. I can't tell you what you should do in this situation. I wouldn't. Kienan's had enough pain in his life, and I won't add to it."


"He told you something?" Silhouette said. "He hadn't told me anything about himself."


"Bits and pieces," Toriares said. "The rest I kinda found out on my own."


Silhouette stared at Toriares intently. "What happened to him?"


"I don't think I should tell you," Toriares said. "I don't even like to think about it, myself. Just . . .let me put it to you this way: If I had lived through what he had, I'd be mad at the galaxy too. He's got a damn good reason for all that rage in his heart."


Silhouette mulled that over for a long time, staring out the view ports and looking at the stars passing by them. Finally, she said what was on her mind.


"Toriares," she said. "I'm thinking of leaving him. I don't know how many more times I can look at someone asking me why again. I don't like the person I'm becoming."


Toriares looked down at the controls for a long time. "I don't know what to tell you do about that," he said. "You're too young and too low in the chain of command to ask for a release from the syndicate. Unless you could get Kienan to leave with you, you'd be a rogue, and they can't have you running free. You'd be marked."


"Toriares," Silhouette said, her hands starting to shake and a tear rolling down her cheek. "Do you think . . .Kienan would . . ."


"No," Toriares said. "No I don't. If you went rogue, he'd probably be the one sent after you. It serves two purposes--it gets rid of a rogue agent and proves his loyalty to the syndicate."


"Would he do it?"


Toriares didn't say a word. He looked away from her at a display on a readout panel on the other side of the chair. Silhouette looked at the deck. She knew the answer, even if she desperately wished she didn't.



The next day they arrived at the huge Kuran space colony. The freighter docked at the colony's orbital ring, and after securing the ship and registering for dock time they made their way into the inner colony.


Kuran was one of the newest colonies on the Frontier, a neutral zone of space wedged between familiar races and unknown space about which the only things known were legends spoken in hushed whispers.


Kuran was designed to be the de facto capital of this region, a huge, almost earthlike colony, eight miles long, spinning in the darkness of space. It was a center of trade, of tourism, and of exploration.


It was also the seat of power for the Blue Dragon Tong, a Chinese crime syndicate that could trace its ancestry back to the early 18th century. Their presence had been established on the Frontier nearly two years ago, and now nothing happened on the Frontier that did not have either their blessing or a cut of the profits sent to them.


At his estate in the colony, Mao Xai Jan, head of this branch of the syndicate, contemplated the stone garden before him. It had been one of the first things he had ordered put in. Gazing at the stones making ripples in the sand, static yet flowing, was oddly soothing. And occasionally, prophetic.


Mao's mind felt heavy as he rested on his ebony cane. For the past few months, Blue Dragon ships had been ambushed passing through a section of Frontier space. Millions of credits had been lost with the ships, and now something had to be done.


The Blue Dragons controlled the Frontier, but beyond the Frontier was a range of space called Tartarus. It was a graveyard, a place where colonists dumped their abandoned ships, and the other detritus that came with manifest destiny.


In that area lurked the pirates -- groups of criminals too low for even the syndicate to deal with officially. They hid in the wreckage of Tartarus and would raid any ships that drifted too close.


Before this week, our informants within the pirate clans gave us reliable information on their movements, Mao thought. But apparently our information is in error.


I'd be willing to negotiate with the pirates if there was a central authority we could bargain with, but each ship is a group unto its own. We'd be dragged into their personal feuds if we made an alliance. No unity.


He sighed, and traced the ripples in the sand idly with the tip of his cane, mulling the idea over. He closed his eyes, only to open them again when he heard a disturbance in the house.


Mao rose to his feet as fast as the weight of eighty years would allow, and steadily made his way out of the garden to the receiving chamber. He anticipated seeing Toriares and Kienan, fresh from their mission to neutralize Merrin, arrive for debriefing.


What he saw instead was two women throwing angry glances at his red-armored guards. One of them, the taller of the pair, was in one of the guard's faces. Her hair was colored a wholly inappropriate color of blue and her eyes betrayed the kind of dumb arrogance that Mao had seen in thousands of bullies in his time.


The other woman, dressed in the same black white and blue uniform as the other, seemed more concerned with restraining her comrade instead of challenging the guards.


"What is going on here?" Mao demanded, smacking the tip of his cane on the floor. Everyone turned to face him. "What are you doing in my home?"


"Mao Xai Jan," the blue-haired woman said, bowing to him. "We've come a long way to speak with you. It's about the attacks on your ships. My name is Pirate Red; this is my sister, Kilana. I think we can help each other."



Kienan and Toriares had barely had time to rest before they were called to Mao's house four hours after he met with Pirate Red. Kienan had changed into his white silk suit, very similar to Toriares', but for their choice of tie color. Silhouette accompanied them, but frowned as she crossed into the receiving room. Kienan turned to say something to her, but she put up her hand.


"I know," she said. "I remember. I'll wait here." She sighed and sat on a nearby bench, adjusting her dark blue skirt. She spent a lot of time waiting when they met with their superiors. The Blue Dragons had maintained many traditions, but one of the most maddening for her was their refusal to admit women into the higher levels of power--not as courtesans, as assassins, as anything.


Just another wall, she thought gruffly. This wasn't helping her feel any closer to Kienan, especially as he'd barely said three words to her since they docked. And those walls he threw up around himself seemed to be bouncing the echoes of Toriares' words back at her.


The thing that bothered her most was the way he had told her. Like it was a matter of fact. She couldn't believe that of Kienan, even after seeing what he had done. Kienan had rescued her from the streets, cared for her even when she didn't know her own name.


He accepted her, and she liked to think that he loved her, with no questions asked. But she never felt like she could break through to the heart of him. She only felt she was close when he wanted her in. Otherwise, she was on the outside looking in.


She sighed and looked at her watch and weighed the repercussions of what would happen if she just up and left.



Kienan frowned at the women in front of him. Mao stood between them and could feel the tension coming off the young assassin even now. Toriares remained calm, balancing and rocking his heels on his white cane.


"So, now that you know of our shipping difficulties," Mao began. "Pirate Red will explain her side of things. After that I will hear your thoughts on the matter."


Red brushed her blue hair from her eyes and began to speak. "First of all, I speak for a group of clans. It's small, really, just five ships and not really strong ones at that, but our support's growing. The trouble is, there's another pirate chieftain who keeps us in line."


"Then why aren't we speaking to him?" Toriares asked. "I'm sorry, but if this all you've got I'm already suspicious."


"Our . . .competitor . . . isn't interested in uniting the clans," Red replied. "But he has the best ship and the best soldiers, and can do what he wants. Most go along with him out of fear."


"And does your competitor have a name?" Kienan asked.


"His name is Dragos," Kilana replied. "He came out of nowhere five years ago, just after the big war. He's such a powerful figure his crew worships him like a god."


"You're telling me you can't get a man in close to him to eliminate him?" Toriares said. "The man may be good, but he's not a god."


"He's got us outclassed technically," Red said. The admission was delivered with the weariness of someone who'd yanked their own tooth out before saying it. "His ship, the Dark Gallant, has technology we've never seen before. Doesn't have a single human on his crew. All this race of vicious aliens called . . .what are they called, Kilana?"


"Modayans," Kilana said. "We've got a couple of Rigellian captains in our coalition. Apparently the Modayans are some sort of genetically engineered super-soldiers left behind by a race they called the Ghram . . .that ring a bell to any of you?"


Mao shook his head.

”Anyway," Kilana continued. "So long as Dragos has the ship and the loyalty of the Modayans, we can't mount any kind of successful resistance against him."


"So?" Kienan said curtly. He lit a cigarette and blew a thin stream of smoke at the women.

"Forgive me for saying so, but your internal politics aren't our problem."


"Kienan," Toriares said. "You're out of line. But you didn't say anything I hadn't thought of. You're asking us to take out your competition."


"That's right," Red said. "You're the brains here, I see."


Kienan rolled his eyes and took another drag off his cigarette. Toriares shot him a look telling him to cool off.


"So what do we get out of it?" Toriares said.


"A peace treaty and safe passage so long as we rule," Kilana said. "Provided you leave us alone, we leave you alone."


"The offer is tempting," Mao said. "But assuming we were capable of eliminating this Dragos for you, my men have to be close to him. If he only allows aliens on his ship, how would you arrange such a . . .removal?"


"We'll take your men with us on our ship," Red said. "Every six months or so, the Dark Gallant goes into unknown space to the planet the Ghram apparently created the Modayans on. His base is there, and he allows some ships to accompany him. We could get your men down there and they could get their shot."


"Wait a damn minute," Toriares said. "Instead of dealing with a ship full of -- how many of these Modayans?"


"There are about a hundred on the Dark Gallant," Kilana said. "I've seen the growth pools for them on the planet. There are a thousand pools, but only about one hundred and twelve work. Takes a year to create a full-grown generation."


"Hm." Mao said. "And has Dragos managed to make any other Ghram technology function?"


"Just one thing," Red said. "There's a gun battery on the main temple--a huge planetary gun. A year ago there was a small uprising and Dragos wiped them out without ever moving his ship into attack. Just one shot took out three heavy cruisers."


"If one shot can kill three heavy cruisers," Toriares began. "How the hell are you going to get three men past it?"


"That battery is the only one of its kind," Kilana said. "Whoever the Ghram were they had a level of power way in advance of anything I'd ever seen. Dragos has a few generators he salvaged from a derelict colony, but not enough to allow the gun to fire consecutively."


"How encouraging," Toriares said. "How exactly do you plan to get us down to the planet if you're leading the coalition to kill this Dragos guy?"


Red's expression of smugness suddenly fell apart and she looked away. "I'd just as soon not say," she said. "Let's just say that my sister and I have the advantage of having Dragos' favor and that he doesn't know about our coalition, yet. We have the means to get you there, if you have the means to take him out."


"Assuming we were to kill him," Kienan said. "What guarantee do we have that those Modayan acolytes of his won't immediately wipe us out?"


"You don't," Red said. "But we figured the syndicates had enough expendable labor to get the job done, eventually."


"Maybe I should expend you, right here?" Kienan retorted, tossing his cigarette aside.


"Kienan," Toriares said, waving a black gloved hand at him.


"Would you ladies excuse us?" Mao asked, gesturing to Red and Kilana. "There is refreshment in the receiving hall, I believe. I will send for you when our decision has been made."


Red and Kilana nodded and bowed, walking slowly backwards as the two guards opened the wooden doors of the meeting hall. They closed shut with a heavy clunk as Mao, Toriares, and Kienan turned to one another.


"Well?" Mao asked.


"It stinks," Toriares said. "Too smoky, and we take all the risk for a treaty. I doubt it'll be worth the crystal it's imprinted on. Besides, I don't much like the idea of playing kingmaker for some pirates, much less giving them access to a planet with instant soldiers and a planet gun."


Mao nodded. "I have the same concerns, Toriares. Kienan, what are your thoughts?"

Kienan looked up, his eyes wide with surprise, the fresh cigarette he had been readying to light dangling from his lips. Mao smiled and reached into his pocket, producing a match and lighting Kienan's cigarette for him.


"Have you nothing to say?"


"No, no," Kienan said. "I just didn't expect to be asked."


"If I'm sending you," Mao said. "I want your opinion. Can and should this be done?"


Kienan took a long drag off his cigarette, thinking it over. "It's doable," he said. "But it won't be easy at all. And I agree with Toriares about leaving that tech in their hands. So I say we destroy the growth pools, the planet gun, and anything else useful while we're down there. That way, whether the treaty's worthwhile or not, they won't be in any position to contest."


"Grand plan, Kienan," Toriares said. "But you're assuming we'll have the time to plant sabotage devices while we're trying to kill Dragos and a horde of these aliens."


"We can do it," Kienan said. "We always do it."


"There's such a thing as pushing your luck, Kienan," Toriares said, rolling his cane between the palms of his hand. "Listen, Kienan . . .Mao and I have another matter to discuss before we decide to work with these two. Wait for us, OK?"


Kienan looked puzzled for a second, then nodded to Toriares and bowed to Mao and quickly exited the room. There was something about the tone of Toriares voice just then that worried him, but he put it out of his mind.



Red frowned around the small porcelain cup as she took it away from her lips. They were sitting on a bench in the receiving room, alone except for a younger girl in a blue suit sitting much further away. "I hate tea," she said. "Just too bitter."

"You put too much sugar in," Kilana said. "Anything's better than that awful liquor from those stills in Tartarus."


"That stuff I like," Red sad. She held the cup in her hands and looked at it. Painted on the side was a crane taking flight in tall grass. "You think they'll go for it?"


Kilana sighed. "This is the fifth time you asked me that question, and each time, what did I say?"


"You don't know."


"Exactly," Kilana said. "I haven't heard since I said that, and since you're closer to the door, you'd have heard it first anyway."


"Guess so," Red said. She sighed. "I hope this works, Kilana. I'm not going back to him."

"You have to go back," Kilana said.


"I'd kill myself first."


"Well," Kilana said, draining her cup. "Assuming we're thinking of the same thing, what happens to me?"


"You could go," Red said. "Go anywhere really. You're the smart one, you know."


"Look, I don't think it'll ever come to that, so stop talking about it, OK?" Kilana said, becoming a little nervous. "Besides, we're the only family we've got."


"Some family," Red said. She turned to the girl in the blue suit. "Hey! You!" She waved the cup of tea at her. "Get these up. Stop loafing."


Silhouette stood up and smoothed her skirt out. She was looking past them her eyes trained at a sound coming down the hall. She looked at them with flashing angry eyes. "No," she said. "Get your own damn cup of tea up. I'm not your maid. Wrong girl, wrong century."


Kienan walked hastily past a fuming Red and Kilana and walked up to Silhouette, snaking his arm around her waist and walking her to the garden, pausing only to glare over his shoulder at the two pirates.


For a long time Kilana looked down the hall, then adjusted her goggles, which were tangled up in her hair. "There goes a lucky, lucky woman," she said.


"How do you figure?" Red said. "I can't stand that guy."


"You have no eyes," Kilana said. "That guy's a god. Give anything to see him in my shower."


"Sister, you're way too hormonal," Red said, gathering up their teacups. "I don't see what's so special. That guy creeps me out. I can't stand his starey eyes or that silly girly braid he's got either. And I hate that attitude of his--like he knows he's the toughest guy in the room the second he walks in."


"You sound in love with him," Kilana said.


"Sister," Red smiled. "Some days I wonder if I'm gonna kill you or myself."



Kienan sat on a bench near the stone garden, lost in his thoughts. Silhouette was slumped against him, tired of the austere silence that seemed to permeate the place, but happy to be with him again. Kienan's arm was on her stomach, holding her close. She wanted to fall asleep in his arms, but despite the security she used to feel in his arms, there was something else inside it now, something which felt suspiciously like fear.


She reached up and brushed strands of hair from his face, looking into his deep emerald eyes and smiling, trying to get him to smile. But Kienan didn't feel much like smiling today, even with her, and she could hear Toriares' words ringing off the walls he put up again.


As in answer to the echo in her mind, she heard the tapping of his cane on the stone walkway. Kienan turned and she lifted her head up, smoothing her hair out as she turned to look at him.


"Start packing," Toriares said, his voice tight and determined. "We leave in two days. Mao went for your plan, Kienan. Even with the risk, he thinks you're right -- the sisters will only go for a treaty if they have no temptation to violate it."


"I can't believe he agreed." Kienan said.


"Me either," Toriares said. "I'll tell you myself though -- he did it over my objections. So this is your show, Kienan. For better or worse."


Kienan stared at Toriares like he'd slapped him. Toriares stared calmly back at him. "Yes, it sounds like what it is," he said. "Our lives are in your hands."



Two days later, a dilapidated twenty-year-old cruiser left Kuran and headed off the shipping lines for Tartarus. Aboard ship, Pirate Red and Kilana introduced Kienan, Silhouette, and Toriares to the crew before they retired to the ship's ready room to plan the particulars of the mission.


Red tried to punch up a display on the ready room's holographic generator, but only succeeded after giving the console a good strong kick. A picture of a strange alien clad in red and white armor appeared. It had skin that was almost a purple and translucent green find protruding from the sides of its face. Two huge black eyes and a huge angry grin full of needle-like teeth dominated its face.


"That's a Modayan, I take it?" Toriares said. "They're about as ugly as I imagined they'd be."


Red nodded. "They rarely use guns, but then they don't have to. Their claws can shear through five-inch thick bulkheads. Worse yet, if you even touch one, some chemical in their skin numbs out the affected area for an hour and then you get a burning pain for the next four."


"Nasty," Kienan said. "But what's to stop you from using guns on them?"


"Because we can't get close to Dragos without a thorough weapons search," Kilana said. "But we plan to circumvent that by putting you guys off in orbit while we get searched. You go down to the planet armed to the teeth and make your way to the temple. By the time you get there, we'll have our end of the surprise in place. While we divert the main force, you bust in and take out Dragos."


"A HALO jump," Toriares said. "I wondered why you requisitioned that stuff from us."


"You scared?" Red said.


"Well, when someone asks me to jump out of a starship in orbit, attempt not to burn in the planet's atmosphere and parachute in, I'm a little concerned," Toriares replied. "Now, while we're putting on an air show, what are you going to do?"


"We're going to land the cruiser on the east face of the Ghram base and an hour after we land and when everyone's off, blow the ship up," Kilana said. The diversion won't last long, but most of the Modayans on the ground will head out to investigate. There'll be a small detachment of about ten guarding Dragos' private quarters. Get past them, and there's only the man himself to contend with."


Red banged the console again and the picture changed. Instead of the Modayan, there was now a machine in the shape of a man, clad head to toe in black white, red and silver armor. Half his face was a demon's mask, the other, blank and featureless. Instead of a left arm, a menacing appendage bristling with weaponry took its place.


"He wears that suit nearly every waking moment," Red said, her voice wavering imperceptibly. The left arms got a heat scythe, a spike launcher, and a small cutting laser. He's got amplified strength, but he doesn't really need it. He's in incredible condition if he can even move around in it."

"How do you know?" Kienan asked, exhaling a trail of smoke from his cigarette.


Red and Kilana looked at each other. "Let's just say we know someone who has," Kilana said, usurping the floor from Red. "Dragos likes his women. That's why women head many of the pirate clans. If you earn his favor, you already have credibility enough to gather a crew around you."


"Is that how you got started?" Silhouette interjected.


Red's eyes narrowed on the young girl with a look of disgust. "What the hell business is it of yours if we did or not?"


"That's enough," Toriares said. "Look, my people need their rest if we're going to be ready to do our part. How long do we have until you rendezvous with the Dark Gallant?"


Kilana checked her timepiece. "About twelve I'd say."


"All right," Toriares sighed, getting up from the briefing table. Kienan and Silhouette followed suit. "We'll be below decks. Give us a signal when it's time to get ready for the HALO jump."


"I'm the captain of this ship," Red said, gripping the sides of the table. "I don't remember dismissing you."


"That's OK," Toriares said, tapping his cane against the door. "We don't work for you."


Kilana sat on the edge of the table, staring at her sister, still glaring holes in the table. "Nice going sister--you almost gave the whole thing away."


"Can't help it," Red said wearily. "Every time I see that monster I just . . .get so angry."


"We can't afford anger, Cristina," Kilana said. "So long as the Blue Dragons think we're doing them a favor, they'll do the hard work for us and we collect all the secrets in that Ghram base as well as getting revenge for what Dragos did to you and Carmen. If you tell them the real reason we're doing it, we won't live long enough to see the Dark Gallant again."


"I'm trying," Red said, her voice cracking. "It's just . . .I miss Carmen, Kilana. I miss her every day."

Kilana put her hand on Red's shoulder. "I know. And I meant what I told you when we started this: we'll make him pay for it."



"What are you looking at?" Kilana asked Kienan. He was standing at one of the view ports on the lower deck and staring out, his face neutral and his eyes searching the dark sky for something.


Kienan looked at her over his shoulder then turned back to the window. "My home," he said. "It's out there somewhere."


"This far out there aren't any colonies," Kilana said. "Only the mining colony on Caldera and that's been destroyed for years. The sun went nova, took out the colony, something like that. My sister and I were tramping around the Frontier about that time. It was a big story."


"Yeah," Kienan said, blowing a thin stream of smoke out of his mouth. "So I heard. No survivors, they said. No one got out alive."


"Not a one," Kilana said. "That's one of the dangers of space. You can't run fast enough to escape the sun if it decides to catch you."


Kienan nodded.


"My sister doesn't much like you," she said, looking him up and down. Kienan was out of his white suit and in his work clothes--blood-red vest over black body armor and blue pants and black boots. Her eyes roamed over his chiseled muscles and stopped at the knife sheathed at the small of his back.


"I don't much like your sister," Kienan replied.


"She's kind of abrasive, but she's had a rough life," Kilana said. "It changes a person."


Kienan dropped his cigarette and ground out his cigarette under his boot. He turned to look at Kilana, silhouetted in the shadow from the view port. "Mind if I ask you a question?"


"I guess it depends on the question," Kilana said. I know a bunch I'd like you to ask me, she thought with a smile she wisely kept from showing on her face.


"Why do you take orders from her?" Kienan asked. "You're smart enough to run this by yourself."


"Maybe I am," Kilana said with a shrug. "Maybe I'm also smart enough to stick behind her. I don't need glory--my ego's just fine the way it is. My sister thrives on it. No self-esteem. You know her name--Pirate Red? It's her ego trying to recover. When she was fourteen she dyed her hair red, I mean bright red. The kids in our neighborhood called her Rojo Piquena."

"Red Riding Hood?" Kienan said, smiling thinly.


"Yeah," Kilana said. "Made her nuts. I used to constantly be pulling her outta fistfights with the other girls in the schoolyard. She ended up dying it to blue after that."


"What'd they call her then?" Kienan asked.


"'Ma'am,'" Kilana said. "By this time she had beaten everyone up and scared the hell out of them."

Kienan looked back out of the view port.


"Mind if I ask you a question?" Kilana asked.


Kienan produced another cigarette and lit it. "As long as I'm not expected to answer."


"That girl you brought on board--Silhouette?"


"What about her?"


"Just curious," Kilana said. "Dunno how you have a woman who loves you that much and you break her heart every single minute without a shred of guilt."


"That's not a question," Kienan said.


"I know," Kilana said. "It had been on my mind. I saw it in the way she looked at you. What do you do, beat her up or something?"


"I've never raised a hand to her," Kienan said. "Never even said an unkind word to her."


"What about a kind one?"



"I need to know," Silhouette said.


"I figured," Toriares said. "I somehow knew you couldn't leave it at that."


"I just want to understand him, Toriares," Silhouette said. "I just want to break through that loneliness in his heart."


"That loneliness may be too deep to touch," Toriares said. "You're asking me to tell you a friend's secrets. Betray a trust."


"To another friend," Silhouette said. "One close to him as well."


"Doesn't take the sting out of it," Toriares said. "We're both men made of secrets. You start poking at that veil, you may not like what you find out."


"I can't think of anything that would be so terrible I couldn't still love him."


Toriares sighed and brushed his snow-white hair from his eyes.


"I hope for his sake you're right," Toriares said. "Man's had enough tragedy in his life." He rubbed his gloved hands together, turning the information over in his mind. "I wasn't there personally, and I only have bits and pieces of it, but apparently Kienan's the survivor of a destroyed colony. Place called Caldera, I think. There was some kind of massacre at the mining colony and he got out just as the system blew. Drifted in a life pod for months until he was picked up and taken to Kuran. You know the rest."


"Good God," Silhouette said. She leaned against the wall as the enormity of it hit her. "Is it true?"


"I got what little I know from reliable sources, so I took it as truth" Toriares said. "Wasn't the kind of thing I'd ever come out and ask him. A man's pain is private."


"That main's pain is killing him inside," Silhouette replied. "I can't imagine what that must have been like."


"No one could," Toriares said.


"And you never asked him about it?"

"I never volunteered it, no," Toriares said, resting on his cane. "What could I say Sil? ‘I'm sorry for what happened to you, Kienan?’ That would be an insult. I couldn't take away his pain; I can't even understand how he can go on with it in his heart. I tried to be as good a friend to him as I could. It was all I could think to do."


Sil had her eyes closed, leaning against the wall, trying to take it all in and failing.

Toriares mulled over what he was about to say next and finally found the courage. "Sil," he said. "Don't push him on this."

"Is this more of you being a friend?"

"I'm being yours," Toriares said. "If Kienan wanted you to know, he'd have told you. If he didn't, do yourself a favor and don't pry. He'll push you all the way away and everything you did to pull him closer will only push him away for good."

"How the hell can you ask me to do that?"

"Because Kienan's my friend and so are you," Toriares said. "And as a friend, I don't want to see you or him hurt."



The massive battleship in front of them dwarfed the small cruiser. The battleship looked like a huge black dragon reaching toward Pirate Red's ship with its swept-forward wings.

"Channel to Dark Gallant open," Kilana said. On the screen before them the image of Dragos, surrounded by his Modayan soldiers appeared. Though it was impossible to read his mood through his mask, Red could tell from his body language how enthusiastic he was to see her again.


"This is the Alamaraine," Red began. "I think you're supposed to be our escort?"


"Of course," Dragos said. "It's a three hour journey. Follow us on a parallel course. Gallant out."


The screen went black, then the usual readouts and navigation data appeared. Kilana turned to Red and nodded. Red sat back down in her command chair, idly tracing her fingers over the crack in the soft upholstery on the armrest. Then she nodded back.


"Plan B?" Kilana asked softly, so no one on the bridge could hear her save her sister.


"Yeah," Pirate Red replied slowly. "Plan B."



"A HALO jump," Toriares said, tossing two heavy packs to Kienan and Silhouette. The three of them were clad in streamlined, jet-black armor, looking like shadows in the darkened hold of the ship. "It means 'High Altitude, Low Opening. It's a holdover from ancient Earth warfare. The idea is to jump above their sensor range and hit your parachute on the way in."


Toriares adjusted the shoulder straps on his pack. "From orbit, it's a little trickier. Keep your shield down and in front of you once the planetary gravity begins to pull on you. The shield's going to heat up pretty fast as you enter the atmosphere. Don't panic or you'll hyperventilate and use up all your oxygen. Now listen, once your temperature gauge--" he tapped a watch-like device on his wrist, "Once that drops below 90, press the trigger on the handhold and release the shield." Now he tapped the gauge below the temperature gauge on his wrist. "When your altimeter reaches the red zone, hit your parachute. Not before, not after. You'll be going fast, so keep your body loose and ready for the drag of the chute."


Kienan shouldered his pack and tightened the straps. His face was impassive as he checked the weight of it on his back. He and Toriares had done jumps on a smaller scale, but never anything like this. He slowly wound his braid around his neck and put on his helmet.


"How long until it's time to jump?" Kienan asked.


"They rendezvoused about an hour ago, so any time once they give us the signal," Toriares said. "Matter of fact, I'm wondering why they haven't signaled us for the jump yet . . .no way of knowing from here, how close we are to the jump point."


"There's a very good reason why," Red's voice called in the darkened hangar. "Because you're never going to make that jump."



Red stepped forward, flanked by a dozen troopers, each of them pointing their blaster rifles at Kienan, Toriares, and Silhouette. Kienan looked Toriares in the eye and then down to his leg, tapping one of the armored panels. Toriares waved his hand low, staring at him.

 

Kienan nodded.

"A setup," Toriares said. "We figured you'd do something like this. Play both sides against the middle. Not an original plan by any means."


"Maybe," Red said. "But Dragos isn't afraid of the Blue Dragons, and neither am I. You think it's just accident that we started slipping you shortcuts through Tartarus and two weeks later you get ambushed by the Dark Gallant? We've decided to spread ourselves out, take the Frontier from you. After all, we were here first."


Toriares stepped toward the bulkhead of the darkened cargo hold, turning his cane in his hand. "So how do we fit in with that?" He asked. "You didn't need us to declare war on the Blue Dragons."


"Actually," Red began. "We do. We've got superior technology and manpower, but you have something we don't."


"We have several things you don't," Silhouette said.


"In this case, I'll limit it to talent," Red said. "We don't have the well-trained assassins like the Blue Dragons have."


"Flattery will get you nowhere," Toriares said, scraping the tip of his cane along the bulkhead. It made a horrible hissing sound as it slid against a switch cable. "So you take out the best of the Blue Dragons' assassins and level the playing field is that it?"


"That's right," Pirate Red said. "I intend to be at Dragos' right hand, running the Frontier. And you're going to be the presents I give him that convinces him of that."


"Is that so?" Toriares said, flicking his cane against a switchbox. He gulped air into his lungs as the hold shuddered. On three sides of the hold, the space door began to open slowly, blowing the air from the pressurized cargo hold out into space.


Red leapt at Toriares and the troopers began to move on him. In the commotion, no one noticed Kienan seal his breathing apparatus and run for the door, jumping onto the deck and sliding on his stomach out of the hold as Red leapt past Toriares, closing the doors again. Toriares smiled and whipped the tip of his cane against Red’s gloved hand as she tried to throw a punch at him, then began deftly blocking her wild punches.

 

Toriares found it contemptuously difficult. Red had vigor, but no finesse and less precision. The stinging pain of Toriares strikes only seemed to make her angrier and more reckless.


Meanwhile, Silhouette was handling the troopers the best way she knew how -- by wading in among them and using leverage and flexibility to throw their armored bodies to the deck. She knew if she kept moving and kept in the thick of them they wouldn't be able to get off a shot from their rifles in the cramped and dark hold.


Red, tired of being frustrated by Toriares, threw a hook over her head. Silhouette could feel the punch ruffling her hair. She dropped to the floor in a full split and struck Red three times in the stomach with her palms, knocking the wind out of Red. Red gasped and cocked her right hand, ready to bring it down on Silhouette's head.


Silhouette threw her body weight to the left, spinning her body up out of the splits and knocking Red off her feet. Silhouette got to her, ready for Red to come back up. Red was on her hand and knees gasping for air, and so, to her surprise, was Silhouette.


I shouldn't be this winded yet, she chastised herself.


Toriares found himself fighting the same kind of fatigue, but unlike Silhouette, he knew why. After he and Silhouette had traded opponents he had managed to keep the troopers off balance. But he was slowing down. His chest felt heavy and he knew why.


Red closed the doors, he thought, blocking one of the troopers from smashing him over the head with the butt of his gun, but she must have missed re-pressurizing the compartment. Air's too thin to keep this up for long . . .least Kienan got away.


He used the magnet beam in the end of his cane to throw a box of tools at one of the troopers and leaned against the wall, gasping for air. No good, he thought. He could feel a blackout coming on. If he were younger he could have fought it a bit longer, but he was too old now. He was losing steps and there were plenty of people fast enough to make up the difference.


Just like he had told Mao before they left.


He slid down the bulkhead, his cane slipping from his fingers. The last thing he saw before darkness filled his vision was Red getting to her feet and the troopers moving to grab him. Sil came into his vision as he slid to a seated position. She had already fallen face-first to the deck, just as unconscious as he would be soon.


Kienan, he thought, I hope I taught you well enough to get us out of this mess.



Kienan was drifting slowly into low orbit of the planet beneath them. Through the darkened shield of his helmet he could see the faint silhouette of Red's ship and the massive Dark Gallant.


He hated to leave Toriares and Sil alone with Red, but Toriares had told him to take the jump and Toriares' instincts, so far as Kienan was concerned, were never wrong.


They had done this before with a group of Verg smugglers. Kienan allowed himself to be captured to lull the enemy into a false sense of security while the other man caused havoc and allowed the man captured to escape and surround them with essentially two men.


But that had been Toriares doing the rescuing, Kienan thought, activating his heat shield as his temperature gauge went into the appropriate zone. Kienan felt his body armor warming up as he broke through the upper atmosphere. Any other time he might have enjoyed this, but his thoughts were already on his task, and what he would do when he got down to the planet.


He despised Pirate Red. She was the worst kind of criminal, totally untrustworthy and loyal to no one. No focus, no plan, and no honor. He had come to expect that from the people he was sent to eliminate.
But she has two things I don’t, Kienan thought as he pressed the release for the heat shield. She has Toriares and Silhouette. The two people I value more than anyone else.


I intend to get them back.


He considered the dangers that were waiting for him at the compound--the Modayans, the planet gun, Dragos, and suddenly they seemed almost inconsequential. Kienan had faced down a horde of killer aliens on Caldera alone and weaponless.


He could feel the same feeling he had felt then. Anger, but even deeper than that--a seething single-mindedness, a red storm in his heart. Just as nothing would stand against his will to survive, so would nothing stand against him getting Sil and Toriares back.


And once that's done, Kienan thought, I'll kill Pirate Red.



The Alamaraine landed on the surface of the planet in much the same fashion Toriares and Silhouette had come to expect from the battered ship -- haltingly and accomplished with more faith than precision.

 

They were pushed from the cruiser onto the grounds of Dragos' base.


It was huge. Toriares had heard vague rumors of the Ghram--they were an ancient race and were supposedly giants. As he looked beyond the amassing group of Modayans and the lush jungle that seemed to encircle the planet to the massive golden ziggurat that rose from the trees -- only a little overgrown but mostly untouched by time -- it seemed the legends were true.


The Modayans looked no better face to face than they had in the pictures. Their faces seemed contorted in a permanent snarl of rage and a steady stream of drool ran from their toothsome grins. They moved like guard dogs -- muscle, rage, and nervous tension. Gradually, however, he began to notice them going on their knees and a single figure -- shorter, but with a walk and carriage of himself that indicated a man accustomed to power.


The steam of the jungle made it hard to discern his features as it caught the light of the twin suns and made rainbows in the air, but gradually the man tore through the prismatic curtain of vapor and stood in front of Toriares.


Toriares stared him down, his gaze narrowing on the eye carved into the red half of his helmet. The half-devil, half-blank visage was intimidating close-up, but the full effect was even more daunting, even to someone as well trained as Toriares.


"Dragos," Toriares said.

 

Dragos looked almost entirely mechanical and was as wide as a tank. Bright as the suns were, the metal of his armor never caught a glimmer of reflected light and he seemed to be permanently in shadow, as if even the sun rejected him.


Dragos studied him carefully. "Are you a Khephren?" The voice was electronically treated to be loud, booming and commanding.


Toriares looked up. "I'm human, Khephren are felines, people with eyes would know the difference," he replied. "But as long as we're making it a racial thing, what are you?"


Dragos raised his left arm. The heat blade at the end of the apparatus was shaped like a scythe or a hook -- it was a hard to tell because Toriares couldn't lift his head all the way up. He pointed the edge of the blade at Toriares' throat.


"I am your executioner," Dragos said. "You have the virtue of being the first two casualties in our war with your syndicate."


"That remains to be seen," Toriares said.


"Does it?" Dragos snarled. "Make no mistake, neither you or your female assistant will leave this place alive."


"Heard that before," Toriares said. "I assure you, the only reason I'm captured at the moment is because it's my pleasure. I allowed your apple-polisher back there to take us."


"Allowed," Pirate Red snorted. Kilana stood behind her looking suitably embarrassed, the pair of the surrounded by their crew and their retinue of troopers. "You blacked out. I think there's a useful old earth saying about not writing checks you can't cash."


"Even blacking out Red, I had you beat," Toriares said, smiling. "And I know a useful old word too . . .and you're full of it."


"Son of a --" Red said, raising her elbow to strike him in the back of the head. Before she could, Dragos pointed his heat scythe at her.


"Not yet," he said. "We have plenty of time to deal with them. In the meantime, you and I have things to discuss. In private. But first . . .what's your name, assassin?"


"Toriares," he replied.


Dragos pointed to the ziggurat on the horizon. "On the front face of that temple there are stocks where the prisoners of the ancient Ghram were held. When the day becomes dusk, a certain breed of bird, the Ravok, takes wing and in packs of as many as fifty and peels the flesh off anything they can. The Ghram used to hang their Rigellian slaves out and watch them being devoured by the Ravok. Being something of a traditionalist, I intend to do the same to you and your female companion." He turned from Toriares to Silhouette. "Unless of course, you would prefer to accompany me?"


Toriares felt Red bristling over him.


"I'll take my chances with the birds, thanks," Silhouette said.


"Suit yourself," Dragos said. He gestured to the two Modayans on their knees on either side of him. "Bind them and leave them for the Ravok."


The Modayans snatched Silhouette and Toriares up and dragged them by their hair. Silhouette could feel their long bony claws against her neck and the subtle stinging Kilana had mentioned as their skin rubbed against the nape of her neck.


Silhouette determinedly kept her feet on the path, afraid to be dragged by these beasts anymore than she had to. A slow smile crept across her face as the irony of her situation hit her.


Well, she thought. Suddenly my problems with Kienan don't seem so bad. Not compared to being stranded in unknown space, double-crossed by our supposed allies and crucified on front of some ancient temple so I can be ripped apart by carnivorous birds.


"Toriares," Silhouette said as they were dragged along the path to the ziggurat. "I have to say, I feel pretty bad about complaining, now."


"You do?" Toriares said, being shoved along the path.


"Yeah," Silhouette said. "I just now realized it can always get worse." She felt a clawed hand shove her to the ground. She turned around to look at the Modayan behind her.


"NUH TAHKING!" The drooling alien snarled at her through gritted teeth.



Kienan drew his knife from the false compartment on his armor and cut himself free of the parachute that had him ensnarled in the jungle canopy. The knife gleamed in the hazy heat. As he unzipped the armor from himself, he threw the inner pack off his shoulders and tore it open, too focused to bother with the zipper.


He fastened his gun belt around his waist and tied the holsters to his thighs. Then he checked his machine pistols. Still working, fully loaded, he thought. Even with the spare clips in my belt I wouldn't have enough to take on what's at the temple, but they'd last me until I could get one of their weapons . . .
He looked down at the fierce blade he held in his red-gloved hand. The knife was called the Midare-Giri, a memento from his times in the bloodmatches, where he had demonstrated his skill at killing with his bare hands and feet. With the blade he was even deadlier.


He idly flipped the knife from forward grip to a backhand grip. Then he strapped on his pistols and stalked quietly through the jungle towards the temple. He made his way through the trees without making a sound, keeping to the shadows.

 

After a quarter hour of making his way towards the ziggurat, he noticed the jungle clearing and dense tree lines shot through with footpaths.


More than that, there was a rustling nearby. Kienan looked up, sheathed his knife behind him and flipped upward, grabbing a branch. He perched on the arches of his feet on the branch, watching and listening like a bird of prey.


Below him, a Modayan trooper stepped into the clearing, followed by another one from the opposite side. They murmured something in their native language. Neither of them was carrying any weapons.

Kienan stared down at them. His red-gloved fingers reached to a branch next to him and snapped a twig.


The Modayan underneath him snapped his head upward to look. His deep black eyes took in the sight of Kienan tumbling towards him from above, knife drawn.


It was the last thing he saw. Kienan drove the blade of his knife through the Modayan's forehead, punching through the alien's cartilaginous skull to its brain, killing him instantly.


The other Modayan opened his mouth and screeched at Kienan, charging towards him. Kienan's long braided ponytail swept behind him in a lazy arc as he yanked the blade from the dead Modayan's skull and flipped it into a backhand grip. He pivoted on his heel and whipped the blade down in an arc that ended with his body in a crouch with his back to the other Modayan. The alien stopped short, arms outstretched and tried to take a step, only to have his neck spray a gout of yellow-green blood from where Kienan slashed at him.


Kienan grit his teeth. The sting isn't a myth, he thought, willing the pain away as the stinging cells burned his skin. He noticed something hanging from the belt of one of the dead Modayans.

He pulled it out and listened to it. Chatter, some of it in Earth Basic, some in whatever that snarling gibberish the Modayans had been speaking. He held it in one hand, his blade in the other and made his way to the temple.



Dragos and Red stood face to face in his quarters. They had originally been the bedroom of whomever was the commander of the installation and to a human everything was slightly larger than necessary, but still useable.


"You did well," Dragos said, pacing around her. He was fiddling with the weapon apparatus on his left arm. "Some of my captains have heard of this Toriares. Quite a coup, capturing him." Dragos studied her as he slid the weapons module off his left arm, the pale white skin of his hand suddenly appearing incongruously among the dull metal.


'I didn't bring all of them, I'm afraid," Red said. "One of them escaped. Jumped out of the ship while Toriares made a diversion. He was geared for an orbital jump, so you may want to send your pet monsters after him."


"Why?" Dragos asked, his hands now working over the apparatus at his neck.


"Something about that one," Red said. "'He's the kind you want to make sure is neutralized. Trust me . . .send a team to find him and be damn sure he's dead. "


"You worry too much," Dragos said, the modulation in his voice dropping away. With a dull hiss his helmet's oxygen supply cut out. Dragos removed his helmet and Red couldn't help but smile. As he set the scowling helmet aside she walked over to him and kissed him, gently touching his lined face and running her fingers through his sandy blonde hair.


"I missed seeing you, David," she said, looking into his eyes. "It took a lot for me to come back here to you. I wasn't sure what I'd do when I saw you again"


"You were always welcome," Dragos said to her, his left hand against the small of her back. "Cristina, about Carmen -- you have to understand -- I never wanted to see her hurt. If I could change what happened --"


Red suddenly glared at him. "If you didn't want me to be reminded of what happened to her, you shouldn't have put those two assassins out there," she said, her voice tense. "Carmen was the first thing I thought of."


Dragos looked at the floor, a little guilty. The image of him holding Cristina back as the Ravok ripped Carmen to shreds was as fresh as the day it had happened.


"Cristina --"


"I don't want to talk about it," Red said. "I kept trying to tell myself it wasn't your fault, that you wouldn't have stood back and let that happen to our daughter, but then I think of what you are, and I know better."


Red walked over to his helmet, hefting the brute piece of metal and examining it. "This is you," she said. "Just a machine, an empty suit. The man inside is just a formality. Meat driving a myth."


"You can't believe that," Dragos said, his temper beginning to flare. One of the drawbacks to living among the Modayans is that it meant you were never challenged on a level like this. "I loved Carmen. She was my daughter as much as she was yours --"


"-- but you wanted a son," Red finished. "And I couldn't give you that. I used to think you let her die because of that. I used to think when I saw you again I'd stab you, and put you in this, but break all the fastening bolts." She set the helmet down, a thin smile on her lips. "Then I'd push you down those steps and watch you fall out of it piece by piece and the sky turned that same blood red and the Ravok came and tore you to shreds."


"Do you think that would bring Carmen back?"


"If I thought that," Red said. "I would have done it by now."



"Getting dark," Silhouette said.


Toriares nodded, or at least as much as he could around the neck restraint. He had been quiet for the past hour, his eyes calm and his body totally still, Except for his left foot, constantly scraping up and down against the stone face of the temple.


Silhouette watched his foot and the small dusting of rock gathering below it. "You're not trying to wear out your shoe are you?"


Toriares shook his head. "Mud," he said, setting his foot down.


Silhouette raised an eyebrow. "Mud?"


"Mud,' Toriares said again, slamming his foot against the stone wall. There was a sound like a clapping of hand, but as Toriares did it over and over again the clap turned into a crack then the hollow sound of earthenware breaking. He kicked loose a brick behind his foot, then another, until the bricks holding the restraints for his left hand sagged and loosened. Toriares flicked his wrist and snapped his hand free. He tore the other restraints off and did the same for Silhouettes.


"Mud bricks," he said as Silhouette caught her breath and rubbed her neck. "The Ghram laid mud bricks over the metal frame of the ziggurat. It's too high up where we are for them to stay moistened and strong, so a few good scrapes and kicks and they break."


"Great," Silhouette said. "Now, maybe we should get inside before those things get here?"


Toriares nodded and took the lead as they made their way into the hallway that led to the inner chambers. They saw a single Modayan guard at the end of the hall, brandishing a heavy rifle, illuminated by torchlight. Toriares leaned back against the wall and waited for him to turn away so they could cross.


Instead of turning away, he fell over. The alien slid off a long blade, one being held by someone coming from the adjoining hallway. The blade was thrown to the floor as the person stepped into the light.


"I was just coming for you," Kilana said. "I should have known you'd get out before I could get you out."



Kienan flipped up off the ground and kicked one of the Modayans in the face, breaking off several teeth as one of his brothers slashed at his back, shearing his red vest and snagging his ponytail. The other Modayan threw him to the ground as Kienan rolled with the throw and kicked him down to the ground.


As Kienan flipped to his feet one of Red's troopers stepped forward, gun drawn. Kienan drew his Midare-Giri and, after pausing to slash at the two Modayans with elegant backhand slashes, went to one knee, flipped the blade so he was holding it by the tip of the blade and threw it into the trooper. It sliced through his armor and stilled his heart.


Two more troopers flanked by several Modayans ran towards him, alarmed at the commotion. Kienan rolled forward, grasping the hilt of the knife as he grabbed the fallen trooper's rifle. He sprayed the advancing troopers with gunfire, emptying the entire energy clip into them even after they'd fallen.


He was about to toss the weapon aside when one of the Modayan's grabbed him by the ankles, sinking claws into his calf. Kienan felt fiery pain travel up his leg and smashed the butt of the rifle against the alien's head like a club until he let go.

 

Kienan looked around for any other signs of life and tore his tattered vest off his body as he reached into one of the pouches on his belt. He pulled out a long cylinder and quickly snapped off the end, revealing a sterile needle.


Holding both the needle and the knife in his hand he jammed the needle through his body armor into his leg above where the Modayan had grabbed him, then quickly wrapped part of his vest over the wound.


He took a few cautious steps, testing the amount of weight he could put on his leg, then increased his pace. The painkiller would help ward off the effects of whatever poison was in that thing's claws, he thought, seething with anger. Long enough to do what I have to.



Dragos turned over Red's left hand, curious at the scratched yet familiar gold band she wore. He saw the pale white pearl on the top and smiled.


"You still kept it," he said. "Even after what happened."


"Yes," Red said. "I never threw it away, but I couldn't wear it for a long time after I left here."


"Cristina," he said. "I meant what I said about us trying again. Not just because I still love you, but because it legitimizes what you're planning?"


"A royal wedding," Red said, smiling thinly as she rolled the ring over on her finger.


"Something like that," Dragos said. "The marriage and our child will make us seem like nobles. Give us some of the structure of the syndicates."


"Our . . .child?" Red asked, moving towards him, her hands clasped around each other.


"That's right," Dragos said. "Let's try again. Son, daughter, I don't care. I just want this to be right this time."


Red gently put her left hand on his cheek. "There's only one way this can be right," she said. Dragos' eyes went from her to the floor. Red dropped something. In the faint light of the room, he could see it rolling on the floor.


A pearl, he thought. His eyes went back to her and he opened his mouth to tell her about it.


Red whipped her hand over Dragos face, tearing deep into his cheek. Then she slapped the other side of his face and pulled the ring off.


"That's the only way this can be right," Red said as Dragos clutched the side of his face. She threw the ring at him. "Poison spike," she said. "Just pricking you with it's enough to kill you, but listening to you go on about Carmen made me remember how much I hate you."


She grabbed at his right hand, ripping the gauntlet off and putting it on her hand. She knew from working on Dragos' armor that each system had its own power source, limited but useful in the rare event he couldn't get into the whole suit.


She tightened her hand into a fist and punched Dragos in the chest, breaking vital system after vital system. Voltage from the suit sparked off the gauntlet and into Dragos. He might have screamed, Red couldn't hear him over the sound of the gauntlet. She stood over him as he was thrown to the floor.
"That was for Carmen, pendejo," she yelled, the gauntlet still crackling with energy. "I should throw you out for the birds, but I think I'll just stand here and watch you die."


Dragos reached out to her, then lunged for his weapons module. But he wasn't close enough; as he barely brushed it with his fingertips he fell to the floor. Red stared at him for a good long while then stepped over him, reaching for her communications device.


High time there were some changes around here.


"Red to troop commander," she said. No answer. She frowned. That wasn't like him, he usually leaves his link on. "Troop commander, respond please."


"I'm afraid he can't, Pirate Red," a quiet, calm voice called back.

"Kienan," Red said.


"Right," he said. "I left his body on the steps of this temple, along with about five Modayans. I wanted in, but I don't think they understood me, so I killed them and walked in anyway."

"Where are you?"


"I'm inside the temple," Kienan said. "I'm looking for you. I'm also looking for my partners. I hope for your sake they aren't dead."


"Really," Red said. "Why is that?"


"Because I'm going to find you and kill you," Kienan replied coldly. "How slowly you die depends on whether my people are still alive."


"You're one man," Red said. "There are at least a hundred men on the surface and I can call down more in a minute's time."


"Go ahead," Kienan said. "They'll get down here in time to watch you die. I don't really care if they get me, so long as I get you first."


"You really think you can take me?"


"You think I can't? Look out of your window."


Red looked out of the window. Discernable even in the red-orange of the sunset was a pile of corpses, stacked neatly outside her window, trooper and Modayan alike. Right outside the window.

"Kienan," she said.


No answer.

"KIENAN, ANSWER ME!" Red thundered, causing the gauntlet to crackle with energy again. She threw the link against the wall and stepped over Dragos, determined to find Kienan before he could find her.



"I take it you're not here to turn us in?" Toriares said. Kilana stood before them, leaning against the wall.


"Not at all" Kilana said. "Red had her own reasons for double-crossing you. And given the chaos outside and the fact that the Dark Gallant is preparing to land more soldiers, I'd say she's succeeded. By the way, you might want these."


Kilana reached behind her back and handed Toriares his cane and shotgun and Silhouette her pistol.

Toriares hefted his cane and twisted the butt of it. It extended and he tapped it a few times. "Thanks," he said. "I take it this means the job you hired of for is still on?"


Kilana nodded. "I can take of the Dark Gallant, but I'll need help to secure the firing station for the planet gun."


"You've got it," Silhouette said. "I hope you didn't really rig up your ship to blow, otherwise we'll be as good as stranded here."


"No," Kilana said. "I'm afraid that was a lie. We had to keep everyone in the dark until our plan was ready."


"You people are hell to deal with," Toriares said.


"We're pirates, not choirgirls," Kilana said. She turned to Silhouette. "C'mon girl, we've got a big bird to hunt. Where are you going?"


Toriares looked over his shoulder, tapping his cane against the wall as he pulled his shotgun out. "Well, we promised you we'd take care of Dragos," he said, cocking the shotgun with a quick jerk. "And we keep our promises."

Kilana nodded, then she and Silhouette began quickly making their way through the halls.



Pirate Red walked into a larger chamber barely lit by the torches and lighting units on the wall. The sun was setting, and it made the room seem dark and foreboding.


Every sound made her jump. She'd been willing to believe Kienan was far away or better yet dead until she had seen that pile of bodies outside of her window and the methodical way in which they had been arranged made her nervous.


No, she thought. He's more than the usual assassin.


She turned around in time to get kicked hard in the face. She went sprawling to the floor and looked up, rubbing her chin. Silhouetted in the darkness was Kienan, still poised in his kicking stance.


"Hello, Red," Kienan said, slipping into another ready stance. "I told you I'd see you soon."


"So?" Red said, getting to her feet and raising her fists. She threw a punch at Kienan, who trapped her wrist and flipped her back onto the floor. She tried to kick him and Kienan grabbed her foot with contemptuous ease and shoved it away.


"Was it worth it?" Kienan asked, hitting his stance again. "Double-crossing us, I mean. I hope it was, because you've made an enemy of the Blue Dragons forever. And we're way out of your league, Rojo Piquena."


"I'm shaking," Red snarled, throwing a punch from her gauntlet. Kienan was ready, and caught the gauntlet and moved aside, planting a kick into her stomach. As she fell backwards, he pulled the gauntlet off her hand and threw it away.


Red got up again, and Kienan ducked and threw his leg around, sweeping her feet back out from under her again. Red rolled to her feet again, fists out defiantly.


"If I'm such an enemy of your masters," Red sneered. "Why aren't you killing me?"


Kienan smiled and avoided Red's high back heel kick, trapping her ankle at full extension and flicking his foot against her planted foot and sent her crashing to the floor again.


"I thought about it," he sad. "And make no mistake -- I will. But I'm going to wait. I'm going to let you think about it. I'm going to leave it as a shadow cast over the rest of your days. Until the day I come for you."


Red screamed and threw a punch, and then another at him. Kienan knocked them aside and slipped behind her, trapping her arms and cinching his arms around her neck.


"That day," he whispered in her ear. "Isn't today. My advice to you is to learn how to fight, because when the day you die comes, I want you to do it on your feet."


Red struggled futilely to hit him, but had no way to reach him. More than that his grip on her neck was causing her to black out. "Kill . . .you . . .first," was all she could snarl at him.


"Not today, not ever," Kienan said as she went limp in his arms. He dropped her to the floor like a bag of garbage and stared at her, disgusted. "Every time we fight and you're not strong enough for me to take your life, I'm going to leave you alive, because you're not worth the time to kill, otherwise."


He didn't even spare her a second glance as he walked out of the room.



Dragos lurched unsteadily down the hall. Between the poison and the malfunctioning armor he now wore constantly shocking him, he was having trouble standing.


But whether it was survival instinct or his desire to kill Pirate Red for her betrayal, it didn't matter. He was determined to survive just long enough to kill her.


What he got instead was Toriares.


"I know, I know," Toriares said, leaning on his cane. "As to why I'm not dead, I may as well tell you this now: never send hungry birds to do the work you should have done in the first place."


Dragos never said a word, but aimed his weapon module and shot a spike at Toriares. However, he was so exhausted he fired it futilely into the wall a foot away from Toriares.


To follow, Dragos swiped his heat blade at Toriares, who blocked it with his cane, turned into it as he held his blade trapped and flipped into the air, kicking Dragos with both feet as he flipped backwards and ripped off the weapons module.


Toriares landed catlike in front of Dragos, who was bracing himself against the wall. He suddenly looked less like an iron giant and more like he belonged in this temple as another ruined artifact -- forgotten, failed, and long dead.


Dragos' hands went trembling up to his shattered helmet and tossed it off him, his face blue, gasping for air. His chest unit blew the last of its panels out with a great sparking noise and he reached out for Toriares while leaning forward.


He flicked his wrist and a long steel dart pierced Toriares' shoulder. Toriares screamed as he felt the dart hit him, and without consciously considering it stabbed Dragos through the throat with the tip of his cane.


Toriares felt Dragos' weight on the tip of his cane and shocked him back to the moment. He shoved Dragos off the cane and he fell backwards, dead.


Toriares grit his teeth as he pulled the barbed dart from his shoulder, chiding himself for letting his guard down before that. He tried to flex the shoulder, but found it painful.


No poison, he thought. Thank heaven for small favors. I should have caught that dark on my cane. I'm getting too old for this.



"All right," Kilana said, tapping another list of coordinates into the targeting computer. "I think that does it. Assuming they don't get underway and hit their Space Drive, one shot will do it. Now, very slowly bring up the two levers in front of you."


Silhouette did so, following the movements of Kilana's hands. "Listen," she said. "I meant to ask -- why are you helping us?"


There was a massive hum as the Planet Gun charged up. "What was that?" Kilana asked as the room rumbled. There was a whiff of ozone and a sound like the loudest clap of thunder ever as the gun fired. Kilana scanned her readout. "Direct hit," she said. "It's gone."


Silhouette sighed. "Thanks," she said. "Now, answer my question: Why did you help us when your sister double-crossed us?"


Kilana smiled. "Because I don't have to conquer the galaxy to make myself happy. So long as I'm a little ahead of the game, I don't mind."


"What abut your sister?"

"Well, you see how good she does on her own," Kilana said. "We strike a balance between each other. We're good for each other that way."


"What about the rest of the stuff here?" Silhouette said.

"Well, I've shut down the clone pools for the Modayans from here," Kilana said. "Wouldn't help us anyway. They were loyal to Dragos, and good or bad, that day's over with. Things have changed now."



Toriares finally finished bandaging his wound when Kienan found him. They surveyed the damage on one another and smiled.


"You look like hell on toast, Kienan," Toriares said, leaning on his cane.


"Been a long day," he said. He looked down at Dragos' dead form. "That him?"


"It was," Toriares said. "I tossed the helmet out of the window, but that's Dragos. What's left of him, anyway. Did you see Silhouette?"


"No," Silhouette called, walking into the chamber flanked by Kilana. 'I was upstairs." She ran to Kienan and embraced him, kissing him gently. "I missed you," Silhouette said.


"I missed you too, Kienan said quietly, reaching for his cigarettes. She found them for him and helped him light it. He took a drag off it gently and held her with his free hand. He looked out the window, puzzled. "Is it my imagination or is the sun rising already?"


Kilana looked out the window. "Yeah," she said. "Something about this planet's orbit makes the days last longer than the nights. Now c'mon -- I think I owe you a return trip to Kuran."


Toriares looked back down the hall. "What about Pirate Red?"


Kilana rolled her eyes. "'I'll let her sleep it off."



Outside of the ziggurat, the bodies of Modayan soldiers lay around a single point at the base. Kienan, Silhouette, Toriares, and Kilana walked along past them in shock, and it was only when Toriares nearly stepped on Dragos' cast-off helmet did the reason for this dawn on them.


The Modayans, confronted with the face of their god, shattered and defeated had committed suicide, unable to live with the realization. Toriares had a hard time reconciling the pitiful man he had fought dying in a hallway with any sort of divinity, but he supposed it was up to them.


It was enough that they believed.


Silhouette had not let go of Kienan's hand since they met in the hallway. She stuck close as they made their way past the bodies. She was grateful to see Kienan again but it felt different from all the other times he had been in danger and away from her side.


It didn't feel as important to be there this time. Not only had the walls shut Kienan out, they had closed her off forever. She stayed close, but when her hand slipped from his grasp, she didn't take it again.


Kilana, for her part, made a mental note to ignore any requests made by Red for more Modayan soldiers. After seeing what damage Dragos' faux godhood has caused, she didn't think Pirate Red needed any ego problems on that scale.


Kienan thought of nothing more than how grateful he was to be with Silhouette and his friend again. Only now could he admit the fear to himself.


The fear of losing them, and the fear of being alone.



Kienan Ademetria lay sleeping in the cramped sleeping cabin of the ship. Silhouette stood away from him, alternately looking out the view port of the ship and then back at Kienan.


"This is the dream," he had said.


He's right, Silhouette thought. Closing the distance, breaking through his walls, it was just a dream and now that I've woke up and I can't go back to sleep and dream the same dream.


She sighed and tucked her knees up to her chest. She felt like she should cry, but there were no tears left. She looked back at him, for a moment, her blue-green eyes looking at his face as he lay on the pillow, eyes closed, dreaming of something she didn't know anymore.


"I love you, Kienan," she said. Then she turned and looked back at the ageless stars knowing that the galaxy's eyes were pitiless to her sudden isolation.


As she turned away to look at the stars, Kienan reached out for her in the night. His fingers only found the faint impression of where she'd been.