Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Requiem - Chapter Three


Sorbago: Nav Point


After leaving Toolfa, Karina and I made our way as directly as we could to the border between Federation and Empire space, sticking to uninhabited or independent systems where possible. Empire space was below the middle of the galactic disk, 'South' of Federation space according to the three dimensional coordinate system used by pilots to orient themselves in the mindbogglingly vast volume of space in the bubble of civilised space around Sol. We avoided stations, refuelling from the coronas of stars, hoping to escape the attention of bounty hunters, even when flying through independent systems. Zemina had not been exaggerating when she said I was the most wanted man in Federation space. The Federation authorities had deduced that I was responsible for the attack on the Groombridge 34 shipyard, or perhaps Zemina had deliberately leaked the information. I had already been given a Federation-wide bounty for the assassination of Admiral Stenberg, but given the magnitude of the damage I had done at Groombridge, my bounty in the Federation now stood at a cool 50 million credits – enough to have every bounty hunter, pirate and freelancer who fancied themselves in combat keep an eye out for me. The wisdom of giving my ship a unique colour scheme that would allow easy positive identification of my ship before a Kill Warrant Scanner had time to query the galaxy-wide Pilots' Federation database now appeared rather more questionable. ASTRA assured me that there was a reverse psychology in deliberately standing out when the bounty on the ship was so high – that it sent an unspoken message akin to 'Think you can take this on? Think again!', in the same way that pirates frequently chose garish paint jobs and attention-grabbing sigils, like death's head skulls or crossbones, to adorn the hulls of their ships.

We were forced to make a detour out towards the galactic rim, the shortest route to the border of Federation space, before sweeping “South”, down out of the plane of the galaxy through independent space to approach the Empire from below. Our final destination was Sorbago, “North” of the Imperial capital of Achenar, the site of a failed slave rebellion put down by Zemina's private Navy, almost three years ago. Tensions in the system still ran high, given that it was on the Federation border, the local Imperial authority was being constantly undermined by hostile powers, mainly under the direction of Felicia Winters, a prominent and ambitious Federation politician.

I felt an unexpected and uncharacteristic tension across my chest as we exited witchspace, arriving at the Sorbago nav point. I rarely felt anxious when flying, but for a reason I couldn't identify, I was more nervous arriving here than I had been when I had begun the final approach to the shipyard at Groombridge 34B. The nav point bustled with ships, mainly light freighters and the occasional Space Cow, the broad bat-like wings of the Type 9s occulting the sunlight to cast huge black shadows in the wake of their silhouettes. I rolled and pitched Fell From The Top(...) away from the solar corona, pointing my ship towards Hencke Orbital, 250 light seconds away, the only space station in the system large enough to dock an Imperial Clipper. Karina drew my attention to the contacts list as we were about to make the frame shift into supercruise – we were being tailed by a Federal agent in a Cobra Mark IV. 

The Federation ship appeared behind us in supercruise, having activated its own frame shift drive. The interdiction began almost immediately, as soon as the agent was able to get within range behind us, riding our frame shift wake. A text message scrolled onto the comms panel.

Well, well... if it isn't the Ghoul of Groombridge. Your bounty is going to pay for my Fer de Lance.

I looked over at Karina, snickering in amusement. “How sweet, the Feds have given me a nickname.”

I zeroed the throttle, not contesting the interdiction to prevent my ship being damaged by a failed attempt to evade the merging our two supercruise bubbles. The sense of apprehension that had descended on me when we entered the system eased slightly. A Cobra Mark IV was only a fair combat vessel: the excellent weapon hardpoint placement being compromised by a slow top speed and below average agility. Despite the Federation pilot's bluster, I was glad that my first combat after my injury at Groombridge was against a mediocre ship like this, rather than a potentially lethal Vulture, Python or Anaconda.

“ASTRA, power to weapons and shields, please.” I ordered the AI, deploying my weapons as I turned about in a sharp boost turn, afterburners flaring. I felt a twinge of discomfort from the right hand side of my chest from the g-force, but was able to block it out by concentrating on the target. 

The Cobra was less than a kilometre away, the three Class One hardpoints on the dorsal hull bristling with beam laser turrets, which lit up the space between us with bright crimson beams. I returned fire with my own gimballed beam lasers, stripping away a third of the Cobra's shield strength on the first pass. I checked my shield status and was relieved to see that the damage was superficial. ASTRA wouldn't need to worry about her gold coat getting scratched for some time yet. I dumped a charge of chaff anyway to confuse the tracking of the turrets, turning off the flight assistance to pitch in behind the less manoeuvrable Cobra, rocking the smaller vessel with another sustained volley from my beam lasers. The shields on the Cobra buckled and collapsed, allowing me to unleash the power of my twin gimballed cannons. Four quick rounds pulverised the Cobra's shield generator and I toyed with the Federal agent, using the superior speed of my vessel to stay below the centreline of his vessel, out of sight of his beam turrets as I nibbled away at the integrity of his power distributor, steadily regaining confidence in the way that I handled my ship.

The agent, increasingly desperate and recognising that he was overmatched, directed all his remaining power to the thrusters in a last ditch effort to flip his ship about, to bring his nose-mounted Class Two hardpoints to bear. I saw the rapid, repeated flashes from the muzzles of the two gimballed multi-cannons, each one spewing ten rounds a second at my ship, the sabots bouncing off my shields, coruscating in full view of the canopy. 

Abruptly and without any warning at all, I stopped breathing, an overbearing panic gripping me around the heart like a constricting snake, squeezing the life out of me, as a suppressed memory sparked in my brain. I relived my injury at Groombridge in slow motion, feeling again the horrid oozing of blood leaking inside my body. My hands froze on the flight controls as the multi-cannons continued to fire, the shields on my ship beginning to weaken as Fell From The Top(...) drifted aimlessly without my input. I couldn't move a muscle, transfixed as I saw a vision of the blood welling out from the hole in my chest.

“Master, what's wrong?” Karina asked, quietly at first, then louder. “Master, what's wrong? Why aren't you fighting?”

I barely heard her, consumed by the intensity of the flashback, feeling like I was dying all over again, unable to speak. Realising that the ship was in danger, Karina took flight control away from me, deploying a second charge of chaff and boosting the ship in behind the Cobra, out of the firing line of its turrets and forward-facing multi-cannons. I barely felt the g-force as Karina looped the Clipper, re-engaging the Federal agent with all weapons. I hardly noticed when the Cobra Mark IV popped with a bright, brief orange fireball, marking the occasion of Karina's first live ship-to-ship kill. She didn't celebrate like most pilots would have, having come through her first kill-or-be-killed combat unscathed, she was too concerned by my near catatonic state. I choked on half a breath, feeling like my chest was being compressed in a vice, unendurable pressure clamping down over my sternum as my heart pounded arrhythmically in mortal terror.

“ASTRA, what's happening to him?” Karina's question sounded distant, barely registering in my consciousness.

“His alpha and gamma brain wave activity would indicate an acute panic attack, Mistress Karina.” The AI replied, as I fought in vain to restart my normal breathing pattern. “I recommend getting to the station as quickly as possible.”

Still paralysed by the all too real sensations of uncontrolled bleeding within my chest and my rib cage being crushed, I could only watch mutely as Karina steered the ship back into supercruise, the Clipper's wingtips wobbling uncertainly as she guided the ship through higher dimensional space around to Hencke Orbital. It only took a couple of minutes to travel the couple of hundred light seconds to the station, but under the stress of my flashback, it seemed more like hours. My heart continued to beat irregularly until the ship touched down in the Coriolis station, settling down heavily onto its landing gear with a crash that the shock absorbers were barely able to damp, such had been Karina's urgency to bring us in for a rapid, manual landing.

The concussion of the heavy touchdown shocked me back into breathing again, wheezing with long, halting breaths, as Karina took my hands and walked me off the bridge to my stateroom. The panic began to lift as I started to recognise my surroundings, my eyes darting furtively into every corner, still wary and confused. Karina closed the door behind us and led me over to the bed, stripping me of my flight suit and bundling me into my bunk, where I curled up into a defensive foetal position, weeping. A moment later I felt Karina slide beneath the bed covers behind me, curling herself around my back, an arm under my waist and the other over my chest, pulling me back against her firmly. I trembled with anxiety and shame, appalled at my weakness and that I had put the ship at risk once again. Karina tucked her legs beneath mine, letting me feel her body heat, reassuring me that we were indeed still alive.

“It's over now, master.” Karina purred in my ear. “It's alright, I'm here.”

I clutched her hands, pressing them over my injury, using their warmth to counter the coldness the memory of the internal bleeding had provoked. I kept my eyes closed, breathing raggedly, feeling the tears wet my cheeks. Karina rocked me in her arms gently, kissing my shoulder and neck as she whispered wordless comforts into my ear until finally blackness fell.

Karina was already awake when the darkness lifted from my eyes, hours later. I turned over to face her, so that we were lying side by side, pressed together chest to chest, on the bunk. Karina studied my face carefully, giving me a thin smile of encouragement. Her arms snaked under my armpits, grabbing my shoulders, pulling me hard against her. The sensations of panic and fear of dying had abated, but I was still ashamed that I had ceased functioning in the middle of a combat that easily could have resulted in our deaths. Karina had been the salvation of the ship again, showing a natural piloting instinct that illustrated her growing confidence in flying Fell From The Top(...). I held her tight around her waist and back, the terrifying memory of my near death experience at Groombridge threatening to overwhelm me again. Only the soft heat of her skin against mine kept me grounded in the present. 

Karina was the first to break the silence. “Master, what happened?”

“I remembered.” I replied quietly, keeping my eyes linked with Karina's, using the beautiful jade green colour of her irises as a focal point to keep me the memories at bay. “I felt the multi-cannon round ripping through me, Karina. It was real. I saw it all. The blood, the wound... It was like I was dying again.”

“But you didn't die, master.”

“It felt like it.” I said, drawing a sharp breath. “It was horrible, like being locked into a body that can't move or speak, and feeling your life drain away.”

Karina caressed the exit wound on my back, her fingertips smooth and warm. “I feel like that sometimes, master. It's why I try to forget the past. Then it can't hurt you.”

I closed my eyes, shivering at the feather-like touch of her stroking my back. “Live in the now.”

“Yes, master.” 

“You saved us again.”

“I had to.” Karina shrugged.

“Do you feel different? Now that you've killed someone? I did, after the first time.”

Karina shrugged again, before gripping me tighter, her hands hot and comforting on my back and shoulders. “There wasn't any choice, master. I don't want to die. Not now that I have you.”

Unable to banish the image of my breakdown in the middle of the battle from my mind, I broke down into tears again. I cried into Karina's hair as she held me, her chin tucked into the hollow of my collarbone, shushing me gently.

“Karina, how do you forget?” I asked her, pleading for her help. “I don't want to feel like that ever again.”

She took my face into her small hands, her long, thin fingers cupping my cheeks. She looked deep into my eyes, letting me see the torment from her past buried within. “You don't look back. You never look back.”

I closed my eyes and Karina laid her head back down on my neck and shoulder. Lying side by side as equals, we held each other until sleep came to claim us once again. 

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Requiem - Chapter Two



Toolfa: Crook Hub

With the ship undergoing repairs, Karina and I had decamped to the luxury suite that had been offered to us by the local authority in gratitude for spending so much money in their ship outfitters. With Zemina's reward successfully transferred to my credit account, I had no qualms about taking Karina on a shopping expedition for some new clothes that would allow her to pass for a rich native throughout independent space. While her normal ship clothes, a hard-wearing grey jumpsuit with matching lightweight leather boots, were perfectly presentable under most circumstances, I wanted to treat Karina to something special, as gratitude for saving my life in the disastrous aftermath of the Groombridge mission. Before we entered the Coriolis station's commercial sector, I handed Karina a ceramic stick as long as my middle finger, but only a centimetre wide and three millimetres thick.

“What's this, master?” Karina asked, turning the stick over in her hands and inspecting it curiously.

“Something you won't want to lose. It's the master key to your credit account.” I said, cupping a hand on her shoulder and walking us from the elevator to the nearest couturier. “I set one up in your name this morning. After what happened at Groombridge, I figured you'd need one if-”

“Don't say it, master.” Karina interrupted me, putting a finger across my lips. “Don't say it.”

“Well, anyway. You're a free woman now, so you need a bank account. And since I never would have been able to claim the reward from our last mission if you hadn't flown us here, I think you're entitled to have a share of it.” I tapped the OLED screen inlaid on the side of the chip to show Karina her credit balance.

Acct# 478937611298 - Karina Svetlana Dementyeva: 5,000,000Cr 

Karina drew a sharp breath in shock. Spent wisely, it was enough money to live three lifetimes in complete luxury on almost any civilised system, barring perhaps the overcrowded and overpriced capitals of the Federation, Empire and Alliance. Or it was enough money to buy a top of the line starter ship with a large enough surplus that could buy a full partner's share in a trading co-op. How Karina would spend the money was up to her – as far as I was concerned, she could blow it all on shoes if she wanted – but first I was going to buy her a new outfit.

 “Master... I-” Tears appeared in the corners of Karina's eyes. Unable to find the words to express her gratitude, she settled for embracing me instead.

“You earned every credit, Karina. It's yours.” I said, my own arms enveloping her slim form.  

Karina spent the rest of the day buoyed by a cloud of euphoria, and by the time we returned to our suite looking out over the surface of the station, Karina had spent her first thousand credits on a made-to-measure tailored jumpsuit to wear on the ship, an elegant full-length gown for formal occasions, a jacket, tunic and skirt for casual excursions onto stations or temperate planets, plus no less than six pairs of shoes, ranging from the tiresomely practical to the wildly flamboyant. I had bought her a second gown she had vacillated over buying herself, claiming it was too provocative and expensive, along with a new nightshirt of the sheerest silk. The material was a synthetic reproduction of the most expensive silk from Sol, that of the golden orb spider, a material so finely spun that you couldn't feel its touch on the skin. 

“If I couldn't see it, I wouldn't think I had anything on at all.” Karina said in wonder, as she modelled it for me, the almost transparent silk clinging to her body as she pirouetted across the floor of the bed chamber, her bare feet leaving short-lived dents in the deep pile of the carpet, laughing as she looked up out of the windows in the ceiling, watching the stars as they wheeled by. The colour of the silk matched her hair, which was the main reason why I had chosen it. I had given ASTRA an expensive outfit in gold, so it seemed only fair that I should do the same for Karina. “It's like wearing air, master!”

“I'm glad you like it.” I said as Karina climbed next to me on the bed.

“I love it, master! I'm never taking it off!” Karina collapsed on top of me, slightly dizzy, inviting me to hold her. My hands defied the evidence from my eyes – it really was impossible to feel the presence of the silk beneath my fingertips. I winced as she draped herself suggestively over my chest. My new ribs were still very sore and caused referred pain across the whole of my torso if pressure was put on them. I'd have to avoid high-g combat manoeuvres for a few weeks. “Are you alright, master?”

“Sorry.” I said, nudging her gently over onto my left side and tenderly checking that none of my ribs had become displaced. “Everything's still feeling rather fragile, I'm afraid.”

“Poor master.” Karina kissed the bright pink patch of new skin in the centre of my ribcage delicately. 

“Hey, that tickles!” I protested, prompting Karina to explore the sunken pit in my chest with her tongue, setting the nerve endings aflame. I gasped and lifted her up away from me by her shoulders, turning over to lie on my belly. “If you want to make yourself useful, my back feels like it's made of knotted rope.”

Karina straddled my legs and went to work with her hands, massaging away the tension and stiffness in my back muscles. The muscles on my left hand side were continually tensing up, trying to compensate for the weakness in the newly grown muscles surrounding my injury, the cloned cells still knitting with the original tissues. There was a brief pause and I heard a soft rustle of cloth. I closed my eyes, moaning in satisfaction as I felt the firm, warm pads of Karina's thumbs press down to break up the taut clusters in the band of muscle to the left of my spine. “How does that feel, master?”

“Divine.” I replied, sighing with total relaxation, sagging against the mattress. 

“You have your own scars now, master.” Karina kissed the larger exit wound on my back, a jagged patch of flesh larger than my hand. I felt her tongue, hot and wet against the smooth, sensitive skin, her long hair tantalising the nerve receptors all across my back. Aroused, I turned over again, Karina's hand reaching down to caress me below the waist.

I felt my cheeks flush as her fingertips gripped hard, kneading slowly as she sat up across my thighs, letting me take in every nuance of her naked form. It was only now that I noticed how, in the months since I had freed her, she had become not only more assertive about acting on her wants and her needs, but that another side effect of her freedom was that she had physically changed as well. While she was still slender, her ribs were less pronounced at her sides, the curve from her waist to her hips was smoother, more feminine, and her breasts were noticeably rounder and heavier. The smile of her broad, full lips no longer stretched the skin of her face quite so severely over her high cheekbones. She looked softer, happier - less like a frightened girl and more like a young woman. When I had rescued her, Karina had already been pretty. Now she was a genuine beauty. 

“I thought you weren't going to take that off.” I nodded towards her nightshirt, which she had tossed over the back of the nearest couch.

“I changed my mind, master. It's so delicate and beautiful. I wouldn't want to damage it.” 

The tips of her nipples brushed my chest as she leant down to kiss me. I responded to her touch automatically, genetically pre-programmed to mirror her passion, still enjoying the novelty of just how different she felt against me compared Laure. I caressed her back and neck as she licked the depression in my ribcage again, her lips wandering lower and lower in an expert provocation of desire. My hands explored her sleek curves urgently, grasping hungrily at her shoulders as I felt her take me into her mouth, her long thin fingers gripping my hips to stop me from moving, her tongue curling around the shaft. Karina turned around, shifting her legs, her knees astride my shoulders. I moved my hands down her back to her narrow waist, pulling her down to my lips.

“Yes...” Karina groaned as I tasted her arousal, exploring her sex with my tongue. “Kiss me, master.”

It was now a race to see who could find the best ways to pleasure the other quickest; lips, tongues and fingers moving instinctively, faster and more decisively as our excitement overtook us. Karina's orgasm arrived first, with a long moan of pure exultation as I teased her with rapid flicks of the end of my tongue. She arched her back and pressed her hips downwards as she cried out, my fingers moving up to caress her nipples as I continued to stimulate her with my lips. I held her in that state of utter rapture for minutes until she finally gasped for breath, the arch of her spine collapsing and her head falling forwards, cascading her hair over my waist. Already near orgasm simply from the taste, smell and feel of her, it took only the slightest of contacts with her lips to trigger my climax, my hips jumping involuntarily. I came across her throat into her soft curtain of hair, holding her breasts tightly as the sense of relief and release spasmed through me.

Karina screamed when she felt it, her ecstasy transforming instantly to terror, wrenching herself away from me and scurrying away on her hands and knees to the far corner of the bed, whimpering. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no...”

“Karina, what's wrong?” I sat up, confused and worried. In the times we had made love before, she had never reacted like this.

She turned to me trembling, her green eyes wide with a mix of rage and fear, her voice shaking. “Not like that, master. Never like that!”

“I'm sorry.” I said, apologising without really understanding what I had done wrong.

“It's bad. Very bad.” Karina muttered, her hands and arms fluttering with indecision as she looked down at the viscous white liquid oozing down her neck, hair and chest. She looked like she wanted to wipe it away, but was too terrified to touch it. Her eyes darted nervously around the room, reliving memories from her time in captivity. “Unclean... unclean!”

“Karina, I'm sorry. I couldn't help it.” I started to move towards her, wanting to take her into my arms and tell her everything was alright, but she recoiled away from me violently in fright, fleeing to the bathroom. I debated following her, but decided it probably do more harm than good. I heard her turn on the shower and she didn't emerge again for over two hours, the water running for the whole time to wash not just her body but the memory from her mind, too.

When Karina finally returned, she sat on the couch, putting her nightshirt back on, drawing her knees up to her chest and holding onto her legs, looking across the room at me suspiciously, her damp hair coiled around her neck and over her shoulders like a golden snake.

“Are you okay now?” I asked, lying beneath the bed covers, propped up on my elbows, trying to appear non-threatening. Karina closed her green eyes, but gave me a short nod. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Karina shook her head silently, hiding her face behind her knees, a quiet, fearful moan escaping her taut  lips.

"That's okay." I said reassuringly. "Do you want to come back to bed?"

She gave me another negative moan and I saw the top of her head shake.

“That's okay, too. Try and get some sleep. You'll feel better in the morning.” I told her, worried by her withdrawal, but turning off the lights.

I must have slept better than I had anticipated, because I woke the next day to find Karina in bed with me, her breasts pressed into my back, one arm over my chest and her legs intertwined with mine – her fear of loneliness overriding the terror of the memory she had relived the previous night. She stirred, only half awake, burying her chin into my shoulder, with a soft cry of distress. I overlaid my hand over hers' and was relieved when she didn't shy away from my touch.

“Hold me, master.” she whispered behind my ear. I turned over to face her, seeing that she looked as if she felt foolish and guilty.

“Hey, what's up?” I said soothingly, gently caressing her cheek with the back of my hand.

Karina lowered her head, her voice full of remorse. “I'm sorry, master.”

“Why?”

“I couldn't see that it was you. I only like it when you finish inside me. When I can see you.”

I nodded to show that I understood, pausing to phrase my question sensitively. “The bad men never... finished like that? Inside you?”

“No, it-it wasn't allowed. S-so th-they...” Karina stopped abruptly, not wanting to go through the trauma of remembering it again. I caressed her neck and back gently to stop her from shaking.

“I didn't know, Karina. I'm sorry.” I smoothed her hair down her back, stroking her like a cat to align the long blonde strands. “You know I'd never want to hurt you.”

“I know, master.” Karina tried to meet my eyes before looking away again. “Do you forgive me?”

“There's nothing to forgive, Karina. I just wish I'd known earlier.” I replied, kissing her cheek and turning her head back to face mine.

“Do you still love me, master?” Karina asked, her face etched with fear.

This time the answer came without me thinking about it. “Of course I do.”

Overcome with relief, Karina kissed my lips long and hard, drawing up the short hem of her silk nightshirt so that she could mount me. She made love to me slowly, her eyes always on my face. I kept my hands on her hips and waist, amazed again at how considerate a lover she could be, her every motion and breath responding to my own sense of excitement with exquisite sensuality. When I considered the abusive nature of all her previous contacts with men, for her to even want such intimate contact, let alone be so sensitive to my desires, was astounding. I called out her name as she drove me to climax and I came deep inside her, making her groan in delight as her own orgasm gripped her body and senses. Our eyes communicated everything that needed to be said as Karina lay back down on me, taking care not to put her weight on my weakened right hand side. The cadence and sound of our breathing provided non-verbal confirmation of the happiness we had shared with each other - gradually slowing and becoming quieter - soothing and calming us, before we fell asleep in a tranquil, mutual embrace.

We woke again in the early afternoon, looking up and out of the ceiling windows as the eternal night of the cosmos rolled by with the rotation of the station. We watched the stars, arrayed in unfamiliar constellations, disappear and reappear once every minute, grateful for the pseudo-gravity that the periodic rotation provided us. My fingertips randomly traced a line along the interweaved maze of scars between Karina's shoulder blades. She reciprocated the sentiment, her short nails gently circling repetitively around the red and raw outline marking where the stem cell graft had plugged the hole torn through my body by the multi-cannon round, occasionally exploring the depression where the ribs and muscle tissue hadn't yet fully re-grown. As we lay together in a blissful silence, I reflected that we were both orphaned, damaged and scarred: a perfectly matched couple. The thought gave me a fresh pang of guilt – Laure had explicitly warned me not to sleep with Karina, but here I was, not just sharing a bed, but falling irrationally in love with her. Logically, it made no sense at all - I was married to a gorgeous, rich, powerful woman who I adored, and who I was starting a family with - but it was impossible now to deny that my attraction to Karina was far beyond the simply physical or driven by sympathy. Laure would no doubt dismiss the idea that you could be in love with two people at the same time, but every time I thought about my wife, my feelings for her matched or surpassed the intensity of my attachment to Karina. I had no doubt that if Zemina ever reconsidered her determination to keep us apart and I had the opportunity to see Laure again, I would love her more than ever before. It seemed excessively cruel of Zemina to keep us separated when our child was due to be born in a few months, but staying alive long enough for Zemina to relent would probably be the most difficult part. The severity of my injury at Groombridge had reminded me just how unforgiving an environment space is and how fine a line there was between life and death when things start to go awry. I was not looking forward to my next ship-to-ship combat. The near disaster caused by my momentary lapse in concentration had me questioning my judgement and had severely dented the confidence I had in my piloting ability, and in the capabilities of my ship. The only consolation was that my injury had brought Karina and I closer together, but I recognised that our relationship would not be able to stay like this for much longer.

“Karina.” I said, my voice barely louder than a whisper.

“Yes, master?” she replied, looking up at me with a beatific smile.

“You know we won't be able to do this forever, right?”

“Because of your wife. Yes, master.” Karina nodded, her tone accepting and matter-of-fact.

“It doesn't bother you?” 

“No, master.” Karina laid her head back down and continued to stroke my chest affectionately. “I don't worry about the future.”

“Why not? Most people are obsessed by what the future might hold for them.”

“The future isn't important, master. Neither is the past. Because you can only affect what's happening now. To make the 'now' as good as it can be.”

“Is that how you lived before I freed you?”

“Yes, master. Because then no matter how bad a particular 'now' was, it would pass and the next 'now' might be better. But I would never think about the future. I never wanted to know what would happen to me tomorrow. It was too painful to hope that things might change. I just tried to survive from moment to moment.”

“But what will you do in the future if you can't spend 'now' with me?” I asked, stroking her hair.

“I don't know.” Karina admitted with a resigned shrug. “It doesn't matter. I have you now, master. And when I'm with you my 'now' is so beautiful. That's all that's important.”

“Thank you, Karina.” I said, flattered. My smile widened when Karina repositioned her hips over mine and we made love again with the leisurely tenderness of a new couple coming to terms with an unexpected but growing emotional and physical bond - a deepening, reciprocated love for each other that reflected our desire to focus on making the 'now' we shared as perfect as possible. We didn't leave the bed again until a message informed us that the repairs to Fell From The Top(...) were complete.

Before leaving the suite, we availed ourselves of the decadent room service. After over a decade of captivity where she had to survive from one day to the next by stealing scraps of food from her abusers, now that she was free to eat whatever and whenever she liked, Karina found that she was developing a taste for refined cuisine, so I was determined to get her to experience the best food that the hotel suite had to offer. I ordered two bottles of 3281 vintage champagne, pomme frites with mustard-infused mayonnaise and a house special club sandwich each. The term 'sandwich' didn't seem nearly grand enough to do the dish justice: a triple-tier, toasted brioche bun filled with Witchhaul Kobe Beef, cooked so rare I was sure that a talented veterinarian could have brought it back to life, a poached duck egg (still molten in the centre, of course) and a wedge of brie steeped in Armagnac and stuffed with a generous layer of black truffles. It was the most expensive thing on the room service menu, but since the local authority was footing the bill, I didn't think twice about ordering it. The appreciative noises Karina made while eating hers were beyond sensual. Without doubt, it certainly justified the appellation 'special'.

With our hunger sated, we dressed and made sure we had accounted for everything we had brought with us before checking out of the suite. Somewhat buzzed from the effects of the champagne, I arranged for our shopping to be delivered to the ship, rather than risk carrying it ourselves. The concierge was only too eager to please, adding another few hundred credits to the bill I was relieved that I wouldn't have to settle myself. Karina and I took our time returning to the docking bay, walking arm-in-arm, simply enjoying being in each other's company. We were both stopped in our tracks, however, when we walked into the docking bay where Fell From The Top Of The Gravitas Tree But Missed Every Branch On The Way Down was berthed.

“Whoa.” Karina said, her jaw falling open in wonder.

The Imperial Clipper gleamed as if brand new, resplendent in pure, genuine gold from nose to tail. The ship glistered beneath the harsh white lights of the docking bay, a halo clearly visible from the thin, uniform layer of ultra-hard synthetic diamond that protected the gold plating. I tapped my wrist console to open a voice channel to ASTRA.

“You're really living up to the ship's name, all right. Classy, or what?” I said to the AI, aghast.

“I'm gorgeous. Thank you, my lord.” ASTRA replied, proud of her new look. “All systems are fully functional. Ready to launch at your command.”

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Requiem - Chapter One



Toolfa: Crook Hub

Dr Bollenberg's information proved to be correct on all counts. 48 hours later I was back on my feet, with a very hefty repair bill to pay – two, in fact. One for me, and the second for the ship, which more than wiped out all of the money I had received from the bounty voucher for Elfrirth's Plunder, the Imperial Cutter belonging to one of Karina's former slave masters. Cloned organs, it turned out, could be more expensive than ships, and Karina had spared no expense in my medical treatment. I was too happy to still be alive to be annoyed at the incredible cost of my hospital stay (some 540,000 credits), and it was touching to know how much she had wanted me to survive my injuries, which had very nearly been fatal.

As well as atomising one of my lungs and several of my ribs, the multi-cannon round I'd been struck by at Groombridge 34B had severed several major arteries, clipped my liver and shredded a kidney, as well as inflicting major trauma to my back muscles. If the sabot round had entered my chest another fifty millimetres to the left, I would have been killed instantly. By the time Karina had landed my ship at Crook Hub, I had already fallen into a coma. Had it not been for the intervention of the ship's AI interpreting my last instruction to Karina before I lost consciousness as a voice command and acting upon it through her own initiative, we never would have made it out of the Groombridge system at all. ASTRA had then coached Karina through what to do once the ship had escaped the clutches of the Federation ambush after our raid on the shipyard at Groombridge 34B, as the sight of my injuries had left her almost catatonic. Fortunately, ASTRA's guidance had coaxed Karina into action, saving both me and the ship – or at least, what was left of us. Karina had admitted with chagrin that it had even been ASTRA's idea that she should pose as my wife while I was unconscious, as my condition was so serious that ASTRA judged that she would need to claim such status to have her wishes obeyed without question by the doctors. 

Fell From The Top(...) herself cut a sorry sight when Karina walked with me arm-in-arm to the docking bay. I was still very stiff in the aftermath of my extended stay in the hospital unit and could only walk long distances with assistance. The Imperial Clipper's graceful, sweeping wings were pockmarked with craters from multi-cannon rounds, the canopy showed signs of hastily-patched cracks and whole thruster modules were visibly burnt out. The decision I had made to trade off the mass of the ship's reactive armour plating for extra speed had not been an unqualified success. The ship was barely functional, but thankfully the AI core containing the video evidence showing the outcome of the raid on the Federation battlecruiser at Groombridge 34 had not been damaged. After Karina helped me aboard, the first thing I did was wrap my arms as far as I could around the casing of ASTRA's AI core, the closest I could get to giving her a bear hug, in thanks for the AI's intuition and quick thinking that had saved us all. “Thank you, ASTRA.”

“You're welcome, my lord.” the AI replied, sounding rather pleased with herself.

“I'm going to give you the shiniest paint job this station can muster. What colour would you like, ASTRA?”

“I've always been partial to gold, my lord.” ASTRA replied, after a whole second of consideration, which was almost an eternity for an AI.

“Consider it done.” I said, hugging the cold, metallic sphere again. Karina stood behind me, frowning in confusion before helping me again to my feet. “Karina, let's go to the bridge and make a few calls. We need to get this ship repaired.”

The flight deck was just as I remembered it: a literal bloody mess. The bulkhead at the rear of the bridge was still spattered with globules of my dried blood and tiny fragments of lung tissue, a gruesome reminder of the seriousness of my injuries. I would have to convince one of the repair crews to get it cleaned up – the gore rather ruined the sleek, pristine carbon fibre aesthetic of the Gutamaya styling. I caressed the ragged hole that had been ripped clear through my flight seat, only now fully appreciating the damage that had been done to my body. I followed the line of sight from the puncture in the canopy through the chair to the bulkhead and found the hole where the sabot had hit the rear wall. The multi-cannon round had punched deep into the armour plate, melting and vaporising as it penetrated the dense metal. I reached into the hole, my arm disappearing up to the elbow before my fingertips felt the bottom. None of the uranium-tipped sabot remained in the hole.

“Isn't it amazing that something so small can do so much damage.” I said, half to myself, under my breath. 

Karina took me by the arm again and led me silently to the co-pilot's chair, where she sat me down, kissing me on the forehead. “I thought I'd never see you back here again, master.”

“I wouldn't be if it weren't for you and ASTRA. You saved my life, Karina. Thank you.”

“You saved mine, too, Master Aemon.”

“Then I guess that makes us even.” I smiled, taking her hands in mine. “So does that mean you'll stop calling me 'master' now?”

“No, master.” Karina gave me a brittle smile back, beautiful and fragile.

“Okay, have it your way.” I shook my head, squeezing her fingers tightly before letting her go. “I suppose if I'm buying ASTRA a shiny new outfit, I ought to get you one as well. You've certainly earned it.”

“I already have everything I want, master. As long as I have you.” Karina hugged me around the neck, holding on for a full minute. “I'll be in my room, master.”

“Don't get too comfy.” I said, wagging a finger at her threateningly. “As soon as I'm done we're going shopping. I need a new flight suit and I'm buying you a new dress whether you want one or not.”

“Yes, master.” Karina gave me a lingering kiss full on the mouth before leaving the flight deck. With only one fully grown lung, it didn't take much to leave me short of breath, but the intensity of her kiss left me gasping. 

The first thing I did was check the footage from the shipyard raid at Groombridge 34B. It had been six weeks since the attack and I had still not reported in to Senator Torval. By now her other agents would have reported to her the success or failure of the mission, but she would want definitive proof from my ship's AI records before paying out the 10 million credit reward. I was relieved to see from the gun camera footage that the Farragut-class battlecruiser I had been tasked to destroy had indeed been utterly annihilated by two of the experimental antimatter torpedoes the Senator had provided me with, along with three quarters of the capital ship drydocks at the ship building facility. Completing Zemina's task successfully was more important than the money, as it was the Senator who was preventing me from seeing her niece and my wife, Laure. I would also have to speak with Laure on hyperwave radio, as we had not gone longer than a week without speaking to each other since we'd been married. I didn't want to think about how she might be trying to explain a month and a half of complete silence.  

Before taking care of that, however, the condition of my ship was a more pressing concern. Fell From The Top(...) had sustained critical damage to nearly all of its systems. Had it not been for the precious information held within the AI core and the almost unique ID transponder mask fitted to the ship by its previous owner, it would have been more cost effective to have scrapped the Clipper on its insurance policy and get a brand new replacement. It was only the money I had raised from downgrading the reactive armour to standard bulkheads that would allow me to have the ship brought back up to anything like the specification I had gotten used to prior to the Groombridge 34 assignment. The hull repairs alone were almost into seven figures and some modules, notably the life support, shields and thruster units were uneconomical to repair had to be replaced entirely. This meant that I only had enough money left after the repairs to fit military grade armoured bulkheads, rather than reactive armour, but I consoled myself that while cheaper, they gave better all-round protection, rather than specialist damage ablation against projectile weapons. I dumped the torpedo launchers I had needed at Groombridge 34 and reverted back to my port/starboard wing setup of gimballed cannons and beam lasers. I also reinstated shield boosters on the utility module hardpoints in place of the heat sink launchers and point defence turret, and replaced the field maintenance unit with a hull reinforcement module, bolstering the ship's armour even further. Lastly, I requested ASTRA's new paint job, holding back a choke at the extortionate cost of 100,000 credits. Allegedly, the only way a gold finish could be applied to military armour was by using an industrial electroplating process with real gold. Half the cost was the five tonnes of gold required to achieve the desired colour and the rest was to carry out the process itself, finally coating the gold plating with a thin layer of synthesized diamond (fortunately, carbon is cheap) to prevent micrometeoroid damage ruining the finish. I almost refused, but I had promised ASTRA and she had saved both the ship and the lives of myself and Karina. Regardless, it was a good idea to recolour the ship in any case – graphite grey Imperial Clippers were surely by now the most hunted ships in Federation space. The port authority told me that the repairs would take no more than three days and I was invited to stay, free of charge, in one of the station's six star hotel suites. Presumably this was supposed to compensate for the fact that I had just dropped well over forty million credits in their ship outfitters. I accepted graciously, noting with a sly grin that my reputation with the local authority had jumped straight from 'Neutral' to 'Allied' in the space of five minutes. Such was the power of money in a democratic free market economy.

The comms system was one of the only ship modules to escape major damage from the plasma accelerator hit in the shipyard ambush, the unit having been switched off at the time. I debated which Torval to speak with first, my wife or her Aunt. Both were likely to be difficult conversations, but I chose the Senator first, over the Governor, because I wanted something to look forward to. At least my conversation with Laure was likely to have a happier ending. I powered up the comms module and put in a call to Lagerkvist Gateway at Synteini. I was rather taken aback when Senator Zemina Torval answered without keeping me on hold, in a customary demonstration of her innate superiority.

“Roche. You were supposed to report here to me weeks ago.” The Senator's age-lined face was as strict and unforgiving as ever.

“Forgive me, Senator. I've spent the last month and a half re-growing half of my ribcage and back. And I'm still missing a lung, so I'll have to keep my sentences short.” I tried and failed to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. The attempt at humour did not go down well.

“Do you have the footage?” Torval's reply was cold and unimpressed.

“I'll have my AI transmit it to you now.” I tapped the instructions onto my control board and  ASTRA confirmed by text that the video stream had been received and properly countersigned by the AI at Lagerkvist Gateway. I studied Zemina's stern visage as she watched the holograph of the two torpedoes devastating the heart of one of the Federation's most strategically important shipyards. For the merest fraction of a second, the corners of Zemina's narrow mouth flexed upward with satisfaction.

“Ten million, Roche. As agreed.” Zemina stabbed a long, thin, claw-like finger at her terminal, transferring the money into my credit account, with a sigh of regret. “You're almost making yourself too useful to kill. But it was so close to being a win-win...”  

“Senator, surely I've proved myself to you by now. I want to see Laure.”

“Oh, Roche! Roche!” Zemina shook her head, sadly. “Why would you say something so stupid? Just when I was about to think you were something close to being a competent and valuable asset? Lose yourself outside of the bubble. I've just given you a fortune. Buy an independent world, be a king! But don't think for a second I'll let you near my niece again.”

“Some things are more important than money, Senator.” 

“Yes. Indeed they are. I think that's the most intelligent thing I've heard come out of your mouth, Roche. But you forget yourself. You're already the most wanted man in Federation space. Ask me that again and I'll have a bounty put on your head that's so large you'll never be able to re-enter Imperial space.” Zemina glowered and cut the channel.

“That went well, I thought.” I said aloud, to myself, my face in my palms. “ASTRA, see if you can get hold of Laure.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Like her aunt, Laure didn't keep me waiting, acknowledging the call instantly. Her pale blue eyes were wide and bloodshot and she had dyed her hair raven black, to match her mood of despair. She looked at me disbelieving, reaching out to try and touch me through the screen of her terminal, hardly daring to trust what she was seeing. “Aemon? Thank the gods! You're alive? What happened to you? I've been worried sick!”

I updated Laure on the events of the past six weeks, including the outcome of the talk I had just finished with Zemina. Laure listened intently, as was her habit; letting me talk without interruption, which was not. I wondered if she just wanted to hear the sound of my voice. When I had finished, Laure looked at me through her terminal screen, crestfallen.

“Aemon, I can't go on living like this forever. I need you here. I miss you.”

“I miss you, too. But there's that small matter of the Interdictor waiting for me outside your station.”

“I should talk to Zemina. Get her to stop this pathetic little vendetta.”

I shook my head emphatically. “Don't do that. I'd never make it past the border.”

“Then what can we do? Aemon, we're having a child in five months.”

“We need some kind of leverage. Maybe we should go public? Generate some sympathy in the media? Zemina isn't the most popular of Senators as it is.”

“No, I don't think so. The old witch might not have Aisling's looks, but she's still got a lot of pull with GalNet. We'd get crucified. No, you're right, we need some dirt on her.”

“Any ideas as to where to start digging?” I asked. 

“I've been digging for years.” Laure said, frowning. “She's spotless, politically speaking.”

“What about the Sorbago incident?” I suggested. A little over two years ago, Zemina had sent part of her personal fleet to put down an Imperial Slave revolt in the Sorbago system, on the Federation/Empire border. The slaves had taken control of the system's senate building and tried to force the local authority out of the system with the help of Federation-aligned privateers. The revolt had failed spectacularly and the surviving slaves had been exiled from Empire space. Zemina Torval was one of the most vocal senators speaking out for the rights of Imperial Slaves, so there was a whiff of hypocrisy surrounding the whole affair. The senator had justified it at the time as a public order issue, given that Sorbago was a system nominally under her control. 

“I never found anything damaging. But maybe you could if you started poking around Sorbago itself.”

“Right. It's better than waiting around for Zemina to find a mission that will finally kill me.” I said. “I don't suppose she's got any skeletons in her closet, personally-speaking?”

“Hah. That shrivelled crone hasn't had a decent screw in at least fifty years.” Laure scoffed, before pausing thoughtfully. “It might explain why she's so fucking uptight, actually.”

“Maybe we should set her up on a blind date.” I said, half-serious. “Marquis Durante's always sniffing around Zemina's fringed collar.” 

“Oh, gods no.” Laure recoiled from her terminal, repelled by the idea. “Can you imagine it?”

“I'd rather not.” I replied honestly. 

“I'm still looking into that other matter, incidentally.” Laure said to change the subject, referring to her ongoing investigation into the creation of Agent Zeta, the clone of my biological mother. “Another little push in my next board meeting at HelixCorp should do the job. I threatened to sell my stake in the company if they didn't give me access to the records.”

“That got their attention, I bet.” 

“Just a little bit, yeah.” Hardball was one of Laure's favourite games – at least in the board room. I didn't know anyone with a better judgement of how far to push a gambit in political or business brinksmanship. HelixCorp had tripled its revenue under her stewardship and patronage: the executive board would be very reluctant to lose her expertise. “Give me a week and I should have something for you.”

“Thanks, Laure. Some good news, at least. Who knows, maybe it's related.”

“Maybe.” Laure did not sound entirely convinced, and looked at me with concern. “Are you going to be alright? You don't seem quite yourself.”

I stroked my ribcage self-consciously. “I've just had the wind taken out of my sails a little bit. It was a close call.”

“Get back to Empire space, Aemon. I'll find some way of convincing Zemina to ease off a little. I need to see you.”

“Me too. I'll poke around at Sorbago on the way. I love you, Laure.”

“I love you, too. I'll see you soon, I promise. Be careful and stick to independent systems on the way.”

“Yes, mother.” I replied, teasing.

“One day, Aemon, you'll see the wisdom in listening to me.” Laure said, sticking out her tongue.

“I've heard that one before.”

“Only about a million times.” Laure sighed. “I've got to get to a meeting. Call me back later.”