Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Nine

Tomani: Gold Dock

It was already sunset by the time we had returned the SRV at the Novy Kostroma spaceport and boarded the shuttle that would take us back to Gold Dock. Not wanting to fly tired, Karina and I had dinner in the galley of my Imperial Clipper, finishing the remaining supply of tarte flambées I had acquired at Harawi Vision. Karina and I shared the ruby contents of two bottles of Lodi Zinfandel, trying to cheer ourselves up after what had proved to be a thoroughly depressing day. I out-drank Karina by three glasses to one, as she was unused to drinking any alcohol at all, let alone such a strong and full-bodied red wine as this one. We had hardly said a word to each other since leaving the Volkov estate. Karina's body language alone was eloquent enough and I couldn't think of anything that I could say that would console her in the slightest. So we simply ate and drank quietly, until the only thing left to do was get some sleep before the start of a new day, walking to our staterooms slightly dazed by the effects of the day's events and the wine.

I wasn't surprised when Karina sought refuge and comfort in my quarters later that night. In the weeks since her rescue, she had made remarkable progress in terms of her resilience and independence, and she was now used to sleeping alone in her room, but the point-blank refusal of her maternal grandparents to accept her into their family had hit her hard. I had been lying awake, staring at the ceiling wondering what we would do next, when the door opened. Without a word, Karina joined me in my bunk, wrapping herself in my arms and holding them tight to mould me around her, as if I were a defensive shield that could protect her from the uncaring whims of the universe. Karina had kept her dignity and refused to cry, but I shared her confusion and frustration. I found it baffling that Karina's family would not be willing to accept her, despite the conclusive proof we could offer beyond mere family resemblance that she was a blood relation. 

We laid together in silence for over an hour before Karina was finally able to find the words to express her torment. "Why doesn't anyone care about me, master?"

The brutality of the question shocked me. "Karina... That's not true. I care about you. I wanted to help you find your family and people who love you. I never expected they'd react like this. But I'm not going to abandon you."

"Not even when you can live again with your wife?" Karina's question was barbed, cutting through any pretence of sentiment. Laure would never be able to tolerate her in the long-term, not even as a co-pilot and employee. Laure saw her only as a threat to our marriage and Karina knew it.

"I rescued you from Theriault. I feel responsible for you. After everything you've been through, you deserve a chance to be happy. And I'm going to help you, no matter what Laure thinks."

"But if you had to choose, you'd choose her." It wasn't a question. Karina's voice was sad, defeated.

"Karina, I love her. I've always loved her." Even when I hated her, I thought.

"What does it feel like?"

"I'm not sure I understand. What does what feel like?"

"To be loved. I can't remember ever being loved." The sorrow in her voice was gut-wrenching.

I turned Karina over to face me and I caressed her cheeks in my hands, wiping away the tears of despair that glistened at the corners of her green eyes. "It's the most joyous thing. To feel like you're two halves of the same person, sharing the same body and soul. Knowing that making the one you love happy is more important than making yourself happy."

"I've never felt that." Karina closed her eyes. "I don't think I'll ever love. I don't know how."

"Karina, don't say that." I drew her closer, feeling her body heat, my fingertips gently stroking the pale network of paper-thin, almost invisible scars on her back through the satin of her nightshirt.

"Can you show me, master? Show me how to love." Karina whispered, pleading, but not hopeful. Her eyes were still tightly shut, bracing herself for yet another rejection.

I heard Laure's disembodied voice at the back of my mind, disgusted, from two hundred light years away. You never could resist a damsel in distress...

I wasn't sure whether it was because I had drunk too much wine, because I was feeling lonely myself, or because I pitied Karina's plight, or because I thought we could comfort each other, but I banished the image Laure's disapproval from my mind's eye and took Karina's face tenderly in both hands, giving her a long, feather-light kiss on the lips. Karina responded hesitantly, her breath escaping in short gasps as I slipped her nightshirt off over her outstretched arms. She lay back on the bunk, letting me explore every square centimetre of her skin with gentle fingertips and hungry lips. Karina cried out involuntarily as I tasted her ecstasy, her long fingers gripping the back of my skull, her soft urgent moans of pleasure arousing my need to bring her a joy she had never experienced before. She arched her back, raising her body to meet mine when I lay over her. We made love, tenderly, languidly, her hands grasping my shoulders as we kissed again. Her slender figure trembled as she reached orgasm, her breath escaping in a single long, guttural groan as she wrapped her legs around mine, trapping me inside her as I joined her in a guiltless rapture.

Part of me knew that I had just committed an infidelity against my wife, but another part of me had enjoyed it, if only for the opportunity to share a moment of uncontrolled pleasure with Karina. I would have to face the consequences for my disloyalty to Laure later, but at that moment, it was worth it to give a glimpse of the purity of love to an alluring, gentle, but vulnerable and damaged young woman. I reasoned that it was a necessary part of her healing process. Surely Laure would understand. I swallowed hard when Karina opened her eyes and looked up at me. She could sometimes be difficult to read, but there was only one word to describe the emotion in the way she gazed at me now.

"I never knew..." Karina said with a gasp, her lips flushed and crimson. "I never knew it could be so beautiful."

"That's how it should be." I replied, suddenly feeling uncomfortable in her arms.

"Thank you, master. I could feel it. I felt as if I were a part of you."

"And how do you feel now?"

"Happy." Karina smiled, hugging me tightly. "I've never felt happier."

"That's good." I smiled back as I came to the realisation that it was inexplicably important for me to make her happy. I wanted nothing more than to make her feel content and safe. Was what I felt nothing more than infatuation, the excitement of the touch of flesh of a new lover, or was it something more?

"Is it always like that, when you love your wife?" Karina asked, breaking the spell.

I hesitated, unsure whether to tell her the truth.

"Please, master. Tell me."

"Not always, no. Laure can be very..." I searched for the right euphemism. "Passionate."

"Show me, master."

"I don't think so, Karina. You might not like it." I warned.

"Please, master. Show me." she said, her hands gripping my shoulders and neck insistently.

We made love again, this time abandoning all restraint and tenderness and taking the most direct route to the giving and receiving of pleasure with our bodies, surrendering to the sensation of it. Surprised by how much I wanted her, I was not gentle. My climax triggered hers, simultaneously yelling in release as I held her beneath me. I lay at her side as we both gulped for air, Karina shrinking back to my chest, pulling my arms around her to cup my hands protectively around her breasts.

"It was good, but I preferred it the first time." Karina sighed, her voice barely louder than a whisper. "I liked it when you used your mouth on me."

"I liked it better first time, too." I rested my cheek on the back of her neck, smelling her hair and kissing her gently under the ear. "You'll find someone who loves you Karina, I'm sure. Your past doesn't have to be your future."

"What is my future, master?"

"Whatever you want it to be. What do you want, Karina?"

"I don't want to be scared anymore." She squeezed my hands with her fingers, tightening my hold on her. "I want to stay with you. I'm not scared when I'm with you, master."

"Staying with me might be difficult, and dangerous." I warned, caressing her reassuringly, my lust still enflamed by the feel of her against me. "You've seen the kind of work I do. I can't keep you on board just as a passenger forever. You could get killed. It would be safer for you if we found somewhere for you to live on a planet or station. I have an estate on Summerland. You could stay there as long as you wanted - until you can figure out what you want to do with your life."

"You just want to get rid of me." Karina replied, matter-of-factly, lying passively in my arms. "Now that you've used me, you just want to pass me on somewhere else."

"No! Karina, that's not right. I'm not like one of your old masters, I'm your friend. And friends try to do what's best for each other." I told her, appalled that she had reached such a terrible, fatalistic conclusion. "I know that's what it might seem like to you, but it's not true. You could have a long, happy life on Summerland. But if you stay here on the ship, we might both be killed tomorrow."

"But at least I'd be with you." Karina turned her head to face mine. "I love you, master."

"Karina..." I hesitated. I wanted to contradict her, but who was I to tell her what she felt? "You know that I'm married."

"And that your wife hates me."

"She doesn't hate you, Karina. She doesn't even know you. Though she wouldn't be pleased if she ever found out about this."

"I won't tell, master." Karina promised, taking one of my hands and trapping it between her soft thighs. I knew that she was trying to manipulate me, but it was impossible to resist the temptation as she offered herself to me again, lying on her belly. "Love me, master..."

Annoyed with myself for not being able to control my arousal and succumbing so easily to temptation she offered, I gripped her buttocks hard as I mounted her from behind. Karina stifled her moans by pressing her mouth against the mattress, biting down on the covers, and I kissed the scars on her back as we made love again. I waited until I heard and felt Karina's orgasm before lifting her up to me by the hard cones of her breasts, kneading them firmly until I came, our cries of pleasure echoing around the stateroom. I let go of Karina, completely drained, and lay down again, on my back. Neither of us spoke, leaving the questions about her future unresolved. Karina put an arm across my chest and huddled up next to me as I closed my eyes, needing sleep. The thoughts in my head churned with a maelstrom of confused feelings and emotions. My senses were overloaded with the tingling afterglow of our lovemaking and the silky heat of her body against mine. I was still aroused by the touch of her skin, her scent and the residual taste of her on my lips. My hand strayed down her back, caressing the network of long, thin scars, as if my touch could magically make them disappear along with the trauma that had caused them. I couldn't decide whether my attraction to Karina went beyond simple physical chemistry. Had something deeper than that provoked me into making love to a women who wasn't my wife? Why had I done it? I loved Laure - that much I did know - but was my desire to make Karina happy driven by something beyond sympathy? Too exhausted to think any longer, I slept, with Karina pressed against my side. Any answers would have to wait until later.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Eight

Tomani: Tomani 2

The supercruise journey to Tomani 2 was as short as it was uneventful and I berthed Fell From The Top(...) at Gold Dock, the Ocellus starport servicing the terraformed agricultural planet below. The planet's proximity to the tiny red dwarf star gave it a warm, arid atmosphere and the huge axial tilt of 123o but short orbital period of just 4 standard days meant that the planet's climate remained remarkably stable. The dense atmosphere pressure of 2300 millibars offset the relative lack of oxygen in the atmosphere, which was over 90% nitrogen. The mineral and metal-rich soils made for fertile land that was exploited by the tens of thousands of commercial and private farming operations, which competed with the refinery corporations for space on Maia, the planet's largest continent. The relative lack of water in the atmosphere meant that there was still an ongoing terraforming operation, which was already running into its second century. Every few months, an ice-rich cometary nucleus would be towed from the system's Oort Cloud and aerobraked through the thick atmosphere, adding millions of tonnes of much-needed water vapour. The aerobraking events were spectacular sights, often broadcast live on GalNet, as specially-designed tugboats skipped off the fringes of the planet's atmosphere, leaving fiery vapour trails hundreds of kilometres long in their wake as the frigid body they towed outgassed from the friction, melting away under the shockwave of air battering away at the surface layers of ice. Terraforming experts predicted that it would be at least another hundred years before the levels of water vapour in the atmosphere would become high enough to sustain a precipitation cycle that would make the climate more tolerable for general habitation, but the planet's ecology was already able to support a thriving viticulture and perfect conditions for the rapid growth of grain, exotic fruit and vegetables requiring a hot and dry environment. 

With planetary landing restricted by the local government to officially licensed traffic only, we had to leave Fell From The Top(...) safely stowed in a hangar at Gold Dock and ride a shuttle down to Novy Kostroma, a city of over five million inhabitants. Once planetside, I rented a Cardinal SRV, a lightly-armed two-seater survey vehicle that would be able to take us the three hundred kilometres from the city centre to the plantation owned by Karina's grandparents. The eight tonne vehicle offered both speed and security, but not much in terms of creature comforts, sacrificing living space for reactor power and armament, a Class One beam laser turret adorning the top of the driver's cabin. Karina sat in the navigator's chair, using the console in front of her to highlight a route through the city to our destination, deep inside the local tea and coffee plantations that sprawled for thousands of square kilometres beyond the suburbs of the city. The lightweight cabin had the characteristic feel of a Lakon-made vehicle, open and airy, with good all-round visibility. The six pairs of wheels, each pair two metres tall and attached to an independent suspension arm, churned over the dirt tracks outside the spaceport with ease, throwing rooster tails of ochre dust nearly a hundred metres into the air. The huge shock absorbers connecting the suspension arms to the main body of the vehicle giving a comfortable, smooth ride over the rough, primal terrain. Driving the Cardinal was not unlike flying a small ship, with HOTAS controls for the steering, throttle and external thruster modules that allowed the rover to jump over obstacles too large or rugged to be negotiated by the wheels. It was a lot of fun to drive, and I pushed the engine to its top speed of nearly 200 metres per second, using the thrusters to soften the impacts when the SRV occasionally took to the air over the inclines and dips in the makeshift road. About 45 minutes after leaving the city, I spotted the Volkov's farmstead on the horizon, perched on a ridge surrounded by seemingly never-ending rows of camellia sinensis bushes that stretched across the undulating terrain for as the eye could see. The tea plants had been imported from Sol to aid oxygen production in the terraforming effort, but had proven so well-adapted to the local climate that a huge export market had sprung up on the planet. The Volkov family had been amongst the first families that had emigrated from the Core Worlds to the nascent colony, and they owned one of the largest and most favourably located plantations on Tomani 2. 

“There it is.”

The farmstead itself was a sprawling array of prefabricated habitat modules, lacking finesse but prioritising function. At the heart of the farm was the largest building, the Volkov family estate, with smaller buildings surrounding it in concentric rings, with the living quarters for the workers clustered protectively around the main estate building, themselves ringed by the units where hundreds of tonnes of tea were processed, graded by quality and packaged for distribution every day. At the edge of the farm was a private landing pad large enough to accommodate a Panther Clipper. The pad was currently occupied by a Lakon Type-9 Heavy trader, in the process of being loaded with over 500 tonnes of processed tea leaves to be sold on the stock markets at Gold Dock in orbit above the planet. As we entered the outer fringes of the estate, I slowed the Cardinal SRV down to a more dignified speed, not willing to risk creating a poor first impression before we met Karina's grandparents. While I had called ahead from the spaceport to arrange a meeting and ensure that we were expected, I had decided that given the sensitive nature of Karina's relationship to the Volkovs it would be better if I kept the finer details as to the ultimate purpose of the meeting to myself before we met in person. Sensitive to the proudly independent sensibilities of the system's government, Karina and I had dressed down for the occasion, abandoning the opulent styling of Imperial-made clothing for the dour, utilitarian tailoring favoured by the upper-working classes on Tomani 2. Karina and I both wore spectacularly inoffensive jumpsuits, thickly-padded at the knees, shoulders and elbow, a flexible touchscreen wrapped around the left wrist to control the smart fabric's thermal regulation filaments, which could adjust the permeability of the suit to cool or warm up the wearer as they saw fit. I wore my dart gun on my hip, the utility belt and ammunition pouches strapped tightly around my waist. Out here near the fringes of civilised space, it was not uncommon for people to travel with personal armaments, both for self-defence and deterrence value. It was unlikely that I would offend anyone by travelling armed. 

As we drove slowly down the main road towards the centre of the farmstead, we were able to take a closer look down the endless rows of tea shrubs. Each plant was serviced by an irrigation tap that provided not only a supply of liquid water for the root system, but also a fine mist that condensed around the leaves of the bush at sunrise and sunset, replicating the monsoon climate of Sol's Indian sub-continent. The system spanned the entire plantation and must have cost hundreds of millions of credits to install, illustrating the vibrant market in the local star systems for the farm's produce, which commanded premium prices all the way down to the Empire. I bought the SRV to a stop at the gate to the compound, the two armed guards eyeing the vehicle warily, checking the rental record by wirelessly accessing the port database to confirm my identity before grudgingly raising the barrier to admit us.

"Are you ready?" I asked Karina, as I parked the SRV into a recharging bay a hundred metres from the main farmhouse. Only the building's size gave any indication of the inhabitants' wealth. The habitat's modern, austere aesthetics trumped any sense of style its owners could have easily afforded. Karina hooked her arm around my elbow to bolster her courage as we walked side-by-side to the main entrance to the towering prefab building, waiting in silence to be greeted and invited across the threshold.

We were met by Lavern, the head housekeeper, an open, friendly-faced woman with greying hair, who was remarkably spry for someone approaching their third century. As she escorted us at a gentle pace to the drawing room of the mansion-sized habitat, Lavern was only too willing to point out the plethora of rare artworks adorning the walls as she guided us instinctively from the reception hall along a maze of immaculately decorated corridors, filled with paintings, rare first edition books sealed away in airtight cases, and sensual marble statues carved in the Greek and Roman tradition. She sat us down on an immense, bottle-green leather-bound lounger in the drawing room to wait for Olha and Konstantin, inviting us to refresh ourselves from a steaming porcelain teapot, with matching cups and saucers arrayed before us on a beautifully decorated and carved mahogany table. I was hardly an expert in antique furniture, but I estimated from the flowing curves of the table legs and the density of carefully repaired woodworm holes that the table was at least 1000 years old and probably worth more than my Imperial Clipper. "Please help yourself to tea, my lovelies. It's our special blend."

The special blend did not disappoint. The black tea was lightly smoked, with hints of vanilla, clove, cinnamon and all-spice, packed full of intense flavour but not so heavy that it required toning down with milk. It didn't take long for our hosts to arrive. 

"Mister Roche, it's a pleasure to meet you." Konstantin Volkov greeted me warmly and with a diplomat's tact, his wife Olha following him only half a step behind as they entered the room. His accent was identical to Karina's, I noticed. I stood respectfully and we shook hands, giving my host a small but deferent bow. "I trust you had a safe trip out from Novy Kostroma."

"Not just safe, but spectacular. You live on a beautiful world, Mister Volkov." I replied, addressing him formally. "The scenery on the journey out from the city was incredible."

"It wasn't always quite so picturesque, Mister Roche." Konstantin told me as he waved a hand to invite me to sit back down. He sat down with his wife on the silk-upholstered divan opposite the lounger on the other side of the serving table. Ohla had not yet introduced herself and hadn't taken her eyes off Karina. She had recognised the family resemblance and was watching the younger woman like a hawk, as if ready to swoop down and pounce on any sign of vulnerability. "When Ohla and I first moved here a hundred years ago, everything around here for ten thousand square miles was nothing more than dirt. We've built this estate from scratch."

"You must be very proud. It's an impressive facility."

"Proud? No. Satisfied, yes." Konstantin smiled, the warm, open look on his features a direct contrast to his wife, who continued to stare at Karina in a way that was even making me feel uncomfortable. "Pride is a wasted emotion, like envy. Having pride in our achievements here would make us complacent, and there's no room for complacency in business, Mister Roche. But I do feel satisfied by what we've achieved, even if we're not the largest operation here on Tomani 2. Though I'm not envious of the bigger plantations, either. The scale of what they do brings them their own problems. There's no point in being jealous of your competitors, Mister Roche. It just saps away the energy you should be using to make yourself better."

"Very true, Mister Volkov. I'll have to remember that." I nodded my head respectfully to acknowledge the point. "Excellent advice."

"I could sit here and accept your complements all day, Mister Roche, but I'm a busy man. Why are you here?"

"He's here about her." Ohla Volkova interrupted me before I even started. "Why did you bring her here?"

"I would have hoped that was obvious, Mrs Volkova." I replied, taken aback by the hostility in her voice. "Karina is your granddaughter."

"Karina... that was my mother's name." Ohla said, without the merest trace of sentimentality. 

"Her resemblance to Svetlana at that age is remarkable." Konstantin pitched in, taking the time to study Karina's face closely. 

"And I suppose you want to dump her on us." Ohla sneered. "Take her in like some abandoned kitten."

"I wouldn't have put it quite like that, Mrs Volkova. But Karina is a part of your family, no?"

"Because blood is thicker than water, Mr Roche? If only my daughter had felt the same. Then she wouldn't have eloped with that rogue to the outer rim." Olha shot back, her cheeks flushing in fury. "Do you have any idea how humiliating that was? To be abandoned by your only child for some penniless deadbeat who stole one of our ships along with our daughter? Who promised her a life of adventure, but instead got her gang-raped and murdered by some of the galaxy's vilest scum?"

"I'm sorry, Mrs Volkova. I didn't know the circumstances of how Svetlana and Mikhail moved to Elysian Fields." I murmured, dumbfounded by the vehemence of her reaction.

"And now you present me with the living proof of my daughter's betrayal, expecting me to welcome her with open arms?" Ohla snapped. "How dare you? How dare you?!?"

"Ohla, please." Konstantin settled his wife with a hand on her forearm. Karina's grandfather sat in silence for a long minute, studying the young woman intently. "Where did you find her, Mister Roche?"

"I rescued her from a slave trader named Theriault, who was based in the Afli system."

"Imperial territory. You're an Imperial, then?" Konstantin asked, and I gave him a nod in reply. He turned to address Karina directly. "Poor girl. You escape from the hands of slavers to end up in the clutches of one of the Empire's assassin's for hire."

"Master Aemon has been kind to me." Karina spoke up in my defence. "He's a good man."

"You've got some nerve, Mister Roche. Coming here uninvited, expecting to dump an inconvenient trophy from one of your contracts off on us." Konstantin turned back to me, his face a mask of stone.

"But Mister Volkov, she's your granddaughter. You're the only family she has." I said, unable to understand why both of them had reacted to the news that Karina was their granddaughter so badly.

"Svetlana gave up any right to call herself my daughter when she ran away with that cheap crook in one of my freighters and nearly half a million credits worth of my stock. Karina may be our granddaughter, but there's nothing for her here, Mister Roche. What use would I have for a girl who's spent her entire life as a slaver's whore? Having her here would be a constant reminder of Svetlana's crime against us and an unwelcome distraction for my workers." Konstantin shook his head, sadly. "No, I'm sorry, Mister Roche, but it would've been better if she had died along with her parents on Elysian Fields. At least then we wouldn't have to relive the anguish caused by Svetlana's mistake."

"Mister Volkov-" I started, only to be cut off, which was just as well, because I didn't really have any idea of how to counter Konstantin's argument.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave, Mister Roche. Take Karina with you. If you're not gone from my property in the next hour, I'll have you prosecuted for trespass." Konstantin touched his wife's shoulder and they stood in unison, only the sound of their synchronised footsteps on the marble tiled floor breaking the deadly silence that had descended on the room.

Feeling stunned and empty, I took Karina's hand and let her back to the SRV, Lavern guiding and consoling us on the way. The wizened servant stopped Karina with a tender caress of her cheek and enveloped her with a hug as she was about to climb into the SRV's cabin. "Your mother was a lovely child, my sweet. It's a shame that Master Konstantin and Madam Ohla can't see past their grief. Maybe one day they'll want you back. It was nice to meet you. Farewell, Miss Karina."

Lavern wept in sorrow and gave Karina a goodbye kiss before returning to the mansion. I helped Karina up the steps into the SRV's cabin and strapped myself into the driver's seat. I looked into Karina's green eyes as I brought the vehicle's reactor back online, seeing only a hollow look of resignation on her face. I reached over to stroke the back of her neck in sympathy, Karina closing her eyes and leaning against my palm as I smoothed her hair over her tense shoulders. "Let's get out of here. I never want to see this second-rate excuse for a planet ever again."

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Seven

Tomani: Nav Point

I had taken my time making the trip out to the fringes of civilised space, wanting to make sure that Karina had completely recovered from the after-effects of her unexpected dose of recreational narcotics. Fortunately, fentanyl's active half-life was only a few hours and when she awoke the following day, Karina's greatest discomfort was the disappointment of not having been able to finish her meal. I consoled her with one of the half-dozen tartes the restaurant's maitre d' had delivered to me personally first thing in the morning. It wasn't quite the same, cooked in the Clipper's galley compared to the huge, wood-fired stone ovens at Munster Mash, but Karina didn't seem to notice the difference too much.

We had just arrived that the nav point in Tomani and I was in the middle of plotting a course to Tomani 2 and the nearest starport to Novy Kostroma, the city where we were due to meet Karina's grandparents later that day. ASTRA interrupted me with her usual cheery enthusiasm. "My lord, incoming hyperwave from Beta-1 Tucanae."

"That's odd. I wasn't expecting to hear from Laure today. Put her through." I instructed the AI, pointing at the canopy. "On screen."

Laure's holographic image sprung into life on the HUD. The look on her face wiped the smile from my lips. She held a data tablet in her hands and her pale blue eyes sparkled with a ferocity that immediately told me I was in big trouble. 

"What have I done now?" I cringed internally, waiting for the tirade to come.

"Your co-pilot, if the gossip columns on GalNet are to be believed." Laure snarled, holding the tablet up to the camera to illustrate her point. The headlines were lurid, to say the least, which Laure quoted, incandescent. "'Is this mystery good-time girl newly-wed Viscount's mistress?' - you've got to admit, it's a good question! Or how about 'Imperial Governor's husband sighted wooing unknown blonde beauty in Brindi'? Though I think this one's my favourite: 'Governor Torval's marriage already on rocks as Roche revels'."

"Don't these idiots have anything better to write about?" I lamented.

"They're fucking gossip columnists! What do you expect? Journalistic integrity?" Laure threw the data tablet onto her desk, the plastic casing sounding a loud crack as the edge bounced off the dense oak. "Aemon, have you seen the pictures? She looks stoned out of her mind! What the hell were you doing?"

"Having dinner!"

"What were you eating? Onion Head risotto?"

"Look, it's not my fault. Some succubus in a plate-mail bikini accosted her with spiked lipstick on the concourse outside the restaurant."

"You do realise that this is exactly the kind of ammunition you don't need to be handing on a platter to Zemina, don't you?" Laure fumed. "You're a public figure now, even more so now we're married. You've got to be more careful. Those goddamned hacks are everywhere sniffing for a scandal."

"I'm sorry, but you know that there's no truth to it, right?"

"There better not be, or your access to my credit account isn't the only thing I'm going to cut off!"

"Laure, relax. We're meeting her grandparents today. If everything goes well, I'll leave Karina with them and then we can work on Zemina calling off this ridiculous blockade. I miss you too, you know."

"Good. The sooner you get rid of her, the better. I don't like people asking questions about the state of our marriage, or you having another woman aboard your ship."

"I've told you, it's not like that."

"Yes, you've said. She's not your type. But she is a lot more accessible than I am." Laure frowned, clearly frustrated by the whole situation. "Aemon, I don't have time to argue. I've got a meeting with a trade delegation from Jotunheim in five minutes. Just... be more careful, alright?"

Laure cut the transmission before I had a chance to reply, leaving me feeling guilty and on edge. Perception often had more sway than truth in the galactic media and my carelessness had potentially undone all the good work I had done to establish a more positive relationship with Zemina. It would take the successful completion of several even more dangerous missions to repair the damage done to my reputation by the salacious gossip columns. I gently punched the side of my head repeatedly with a gloved fist, cursing my own stupidity, until I was interrupted by a soft voice from the back of the flight deck.

"Are you alright, master?"

I tried to smile as I turned to look at her. "Oh, Karina. I didn't see you there."

"Your wife doesn't like me, does she?" Karina asked, having overheard the tail-end of our conversation.

"She doesn't even know you, Karina. Don't worry about her." I indicated for her to sit in the co-pilot's chair, noting proudly that she had changed into her flight suit without having needed to be asked first. “We'll be setting down on Tomani 2 soon. Are you excited about meeting your grandparents?”

"I-I don't know, master." Karina settled into her chair, reaching under the bulkhead of her dash panel to check that her RemLok helmet was securely stowed in its retaining clip, within easy reach if needed. An identical clip was underneath the radar scanner on my side of the cockpit, holding the helmet for my own flight suit. "I tried, like you asked, but I don't remember them at all. Do you still think they'll let me live with them?"

"They're your family, Karina. There's nothing more important than family. They have a moral duty to take care of you. They might have lost a daughter, but they're gaining a granddaughter. If it were me in their position, there wouldn't be any question about it."

Karina didn't reply, instead gazing silently through the canopy, past the flashing nav point beacon to the Tomani primary. Tomani was an unremarkable M-class red dwarf, almost identical to the star where I had rescued her slave pod from the broiling radiation of the solar corona. Brief blue-white coruscating flashes scintillated on the HUD indicating the jump signatures of incoming ships from witchspace. The radar sprang to life, virtualising the relative distances and vectors to the new contacts. As I returned my attention to the navigation computer to complete plotting the course to Tomani 2, Karina sat forward in her seat and reached for her RemLok. "Master, I recognise that ship."

The tremulous tone of her voice arrested my attention immediately. I looked up from the comms board and swore, likewise grabbing for my suit helmet. Glistening in the feeble red light of the star was the unmistakeable silhouette of an Imperial Cutter, approaching fast and leaving four glowing vapour trails from its immense main thrusters in its wake. The Cutter was the largest Imperial ship capable of landing at a standard docking bay, a bigger, bulkier and more heavily armed sibling to my own Imperial Clipper. It echoed my own ship's sleek organic lines, but was more brutalist than sensual, with more than double the armament and mass than my Clipper. From the look of the vessel, it had undergone extensive modifications to augment the already formidable combat power built in as standard to a stock version of the ship. My blood chilled at the sight of shark's maw painted over the nose of the ship. Trading vessels rarely felt the need to decorate themselves with teeth. Karina's reaction and my own instincts told me that this was a pirate, or worse, a slaver's vessel. I ordered ASTRA to redirect my ship's power distribution to shields and weapons as I checked the seal on my helmet, a finger on my joystick primed and ready to deploy my weapon hardpoints as the Cutter approached to within three kilometres of my ship. A quick glance across at my co-pilot revealed that her flight suit was airtight and vacuum-proof. "Where have you seen it before?"

"It's the ship that I was kept on before I was sold to Master Theriault." I didn't need to see Karina's face to know that she was petrified, I could hear it in her voice.

"You have something that belongs to me." The incoming transmission from the Cutter sounded in the ears of my helmet, a deep, rich bass voice that resonated with pride and arrogance. " I was very upset when I thought she'd been lost with the rest of Theriault's shipment. My clients have missed her. But it was so nice of you to parade her on GalNet to let me know that she still lives. Give her to me, or I'll make you live to regret it. Briefly."

"Be careful who you threaten, slaver. I won't lose any sleep if I have to kill you." I snarled back, tapping a stud on my joystick with my thumb to deploy my weapon hardpoints. It was a provocative act, one that showed that I wasn't going to be bullied by a ship with a larger hull mass. I had fought in civil war scenarios against Imperial Cutters during my training with the Imperial Navy. I knew their strengths and weaknesses intimately. Despite the extensive modification this one had received, I felt confident that I could take it down. As I targeted the Cutter's power plant, I noted that the larger ship had not yet deployed its own weapons, again demonstrating the slaver's supreme sense of confidence in his own ability and the power of his ship. 

"You don't scare me, Roche. You might have destroyed Theriault, but he couldn't fight his way out of a toddler's birthday party." The bass-voiced slaver scoffed, as he brought in his ship to a standstill, barely two hundred metres away from the nose of my Clipper, close enough for me to see that the bridge of the Cutter was fully manned. "Hand her over, while I'm still in a good mood. I'm not going to ask again."

"Over my dead body."

"That can be arranged, Viscount."

"Try me, slave-scummer. Karina's under my protection. She'll never wear a slave collar again. Not while I breathe." I retorted, taking my hand off the throttle to squeeze the shoulder of Karina's flight suit reassuringly. She reached up, acknowledging my solidarity by clutching back at my fingers, her expression unreadable behind the RemLok mask.

"Unwise. So very unwise." the slaver muttered, triggering the deployment of his weapon hardpoints. Unwilling to be the first to flinch, I held fire, not wanting to incur an assault bounty. Even at point-blank range, my shields were capable of holding out against an initial strike from the Cutter. I knew that it was better to wait for him to initiate the combat, if only to prove that he would not be able to intimidate me into firing first. "I suppose I'll just have to take her body from the wreckage instead. Some of my clients aren't fussy."

I launched a charge of chaff the instant I saw the laser turrets on the dorsal hull of the Cutter begin spitting pulses of hard light, sending the automated tracking algorithms haywire. A few shots still grazed my shields, the attack being instantly reported back to the police authorities in the system. With my own legal position now safe, I returned fire with all weapons, the cannon rounds making a significant dent in the Cutter's shield envelope and crimson beams slashed from my right wing across the space between us, raking down the coruscating blue energy field. The afterburners on both vessels flared, the Cutter launching its own screen of chaff as I wheeled the Clipper onto the tail of the larger vessel, disengaging the flight assistance support from ASTRA to complete the manoeuvre faster. With greater acceleration, Fell From The Top(...) easily caught up with the heavier Cutter as it surged in a straight line for clear space, trying to work enough distance between us so that the slaver could bring his turrets back into play. I eased my ship into the shimmering vapour trail left behind by the Cutter's immense thruster modules, closing to within a hundred metres of the ship. Panicked, the slaver launched another chaff screen, hoping to confuse the tracking on my weapons, twisting and rolling his ship wildly to try and throw off my pursuit. He needn't have bothered. At this close range, the gimballing on my weapons wasn't sufficient enough to allow me to target subsystems anyway, so I locked the gimbals into a forward-firing posture, snap-rolling my ship through 180 degrees whenever I wanted to alternate between my beam lasers and cannons. The Cutter's shields were strong, easily four times the strength of those on my Clipper, but it was only a matter of time until I carved my way through them. The slaver was a decent pilot, but he had underestimated the capabilities of the Imperial Clipper relative to his own vessel. My ship was smaller, more nimble and more responsive under acceleration and deceleration. No matter how he manoeuvred his ship, I clang to his tail, never more than 150 metres behind the exhaust port of the Cutter's main thrusters. Occasionally a shot or two from one of the rearward turrets would flash through and echo off my shields like a bell, but I had two fully-loaded banks of shield cells in reserve and I was rarely exposed for long enough for the cumulative damage to overcome the recharge rate of my shields anyway. We battled in grim silence, cannon rounds hammering away at the larger vessel's shields as I let my beam lasers cool and recharge, the target avatar on my HUD showing that the Cutter was down to its last ring of shields, and even that was about to collapse. A final barrage of laser fire caused the Cutter's shield envelope to rupture and shred, bursting like an overstretched balloon as the shield emitters overloaded from the strain.

Finally realising that he was overmatched, the slaver abandoned his efforts at evasive manoeuvring and  tried to simply outrun me, charging his frame shift drive to flee into witchspace. "Oh no, you don't get away that easily, slaver."

Three more contacts appeared on my radar scanner, just five kilometres away, heading in on an intercept course. The contacts board identified them as two Vipers and an Anaconda, a typical system security patrol. The automated reporting of the Cutter's assault on my ship had brought a swift response from the local police. "Crime reported from this locality. Prepare to submit for inspection."

With my Clipper so close to the fleeing Cutter, the disruptive effect of the Clipper's mass made it several orders of magnitude harder for the Cutter's AI to calculate a safe transit into witchspace. I used this delay to target the slaver vessel's frame shift drive, demolishing the module into spare parts with a sustained salvo of cannon rounds and beam laser fire. 

Then the Vipers arrived. "Capital crimes detected. Elfrirth's Plunder, you are sentenced to death."

With the Cutter now trapped in realspace until its crew could affect repairs to its frame shift drive, the slaver redirected all the ship's power to weapons, the turrets striking out at the Vipers as they barrelled towards the slaver, afterburners and multi-cannons ablaze. The police Anaconda wasn't far behind, making its presence felt with a burning sphere of plasma, which smashed into the dorsal armour of the Cutter, the ionized gas sparking and charring away at the metal, just after the Vipers whipped by at over 400 metres per second, sparks of chaff erupting from twin launchers on the rear of the heavy fighters. I eased Fell From The Top(...) backwards, staying in the lee of the Cutter's thruster modules and out of line of sight from the vessel's turrets, keen to avoid any collateral damage as the police finished the job that I had started. I kept up my own assault on the doomed ship, reducing what little mobility the Cutter had left by targeting its thruster modules. The Vipers turned for another pass, the thudding reports of multi-cannon sabots shredding through the outer layers of the Cutter's hull ringing in my ears as the Vipers passed over my ship in formation, one over each of my wings, still spewing mylar ribbons to confuse the tracking of the Cutter's few remaining functional turrets. The police Anaconda sealed the fate of Elfrirth's Plunder, four sustained beams of annihilation reaching out from the Anaconda's nose to embrace the stricken Imperial Cutter, boiling away the plating from the unprotected hull, before a final projectile from its plasma accelerator smashed into the side of the slaver's ship, exploding it with a resonant, hollow pop. The accompanying fireball was bright but brief, snuffed out by the vacuum, leaving only the shredded and twisted fragments of the Cutter's hull behind. 

I stowed my weapon hardpoints as the police vessels crowded around my ship. "Thanks for your assistance." I told them over an open channel.

The bow of the Anaconda dipped, as if in consideration, before the formation of police vessels turned about in unison. "You're clean, pilot. Be about your business."

"Bounty voucher awarded." ASTRA reported, flashing up the information on the HUD. 


"I don't think too many people are going to miss him." I told Karina, spooling up Fell From The Top(...)'s frame shift drive to take us into supercruise so that we could traverse the 90 light seconds between the nav point and Tomani 2.

"He was a very bad man." Karina shuddered, her voice ice cold. 

"No kidding." I replied, not really wanting to think about the kind of things he must have done to earn such a judgment from Karina. "Well, that's one less slaver in the galaxy. And good riddance."

Karina didn't reply.