Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Two

ICZ IC-U B3-1: Deep Space

Fell From The Top (...) smashed out of the witchspace conduit back into normality with the characteristic thudding of its frame shift drive as the superconducting field generators span down into standby mode, dumping their excess heat to avoid a quench that would damage the emitters. The flight deck was bathed in the light of the red dwarf four light seconds off my port nacelle. The intensity of the starlight would have been blinding without the polarising canopy, but was comparatively feeble compared to the luminosity of the blue giant I had grown used to in my adoptive home system of Beta-1 Tucanae. I detected Duke Theriault's Panther Clipper visually even before my radar scanner picked up a signal from the heavy cargo ship. Its functional, boxy silhouette was easy to spot against the photosphere of the star, an unnaturally regular shape cast against the organic broiling gases being whipped up from the surface of the star by immense magnetic forces. A quick check of the comms board showed that the Panther had already activated its distress beacon. The Duke would have associates in nearby systems that would be waiting for his arrival. It would not be long before his absence would be noted and people would start looking for him. The clock was ticking.

"ASTRA, full power to engines." I brought my Imperial Clipper about onto an intercept course and deployed my weapon hardpoints as I engaged the afterburners. I resisted the temptation to open a channel to the sabotaged ship and taunt the despicable slave trader, opting instead for a rapid, silent approach. It was unlikely that Theriault would be anticipating anyone to arrive to help so soon, just a few minutes after the failure of his navigation computer. If I was lucky, by the time he detected my ship, it would already be too late for him to fend off my first attack. To save power and reduce heat generation so close to the star, the Duke had switched off his ship's shield generator, a mistake that under the circumstances was as understandable as it was foolish. I smiled, mentally preparing myself to make sure that his mistake would be a fatal one.

I adjusted my intercept vector to bring me in behind the stricken cargo vessel, hoping that I could breach the Panther's fuel lines on my first pass and cause a feedback spike that would disable its power plant. I boosted again, covering the space between us at over 400 metres per second. I was within ten kilometres of the Duke's ship when the radio call came.

"Unidentified ship! I don't know where you've come from, but I'm glad you're here!" Duke Theriault's thin, reedy voice was edged with panic. This was no battle-hardened combat veteran. Theriault's rank was hereditary and his status came purely from the success of his commercial ventures. His wealth and position had isolated him from the true, unforgiving nature of life outside of the secure, safe star systems he frequented. "My nav 'puter has completely fritzed out. I came out of frame shift and the console died. I can't get it to respond. You've got to help me."

I maintained radio silence, cursing under my breath as the manoeuvring thrusters of the Panther Clipper flared, rotating the nose of the ship towards mine, taking the fuel lines out of my line of sight. At this angle, I wouldn't be able to disable the ship on the first pass. "ASTRA, flight assist off." 

I waited until I was within 1500 metres of the Panther Clipper before opening fire with all weapons. The heavy uranium-tipped cannon rounds crashed into the unshielded hull, disabling two of the cargo ship's vernier thrusters. The twin beam lasers on my starboard wing raked down the humped spine of the vessel as I pulled my control stick back sharply to keep my weapons tracking my quarry as I let Fell From The Top (...)'s momentum carry my ship past the Panther Clipper to drift in behind the cargo vessel's huge engines. 

"No! Stop! What are you doing? Stop!" Duke Theriault cried out, in utter confusion, only belatedly engaging the throttle to start an evasive manoeuvre. 

"ASTRA, full power to weapons. Target the fuel lines." For a moment I worried that it was too easy, as I emptied the capacitors of my beam lasers, leaving red hot scars of destruction that seared across the aft of the larger Clipper, cutting off the frame shift drive from the ship's power distribution grid. The Panther's thrusters flickered and died, leaving the vessel adrift as I poured ten cannon rounds into the thick armour covering the power plant.

"Please, stop! What do you want? I'll do anything!" Theriault pleaded, realising it was now too late to even activate his defensive turrets and fight back. "I can pay you. I'll double however much they're giving you! I don't have much cargo on board right now, but it's yours."

There was the sound of a desperate hammering of fingers on keys as Theriault prepared to abandon his cargo. A glance at the combat scanner told me that the Panther's hull integrity was down to just 23%. One more volley would completely destroy the ship. As my beam lasers recharged, I decided now was the time to break radio silence. "It's not about what I want, Duke."

"Who are you? Who sent you?" Theriault's demands were edged with undisguised terror. The ID scrambler on my ship originally installed by Agent Zeta meant that he had no clue as to who I was, nor what my possible motive could be for what he no doubt considered to be an unprovoked assault. I eased my ship back from the Panther, acutely aware that when the cargo hauler's power plant ruptured, the energy contained within would reduce the ship to cloud of supersonic shrapnel. Even fully shielded, I didn't want to get caught too close to the blast. "Tell me!"

"Senator Torval sends her regards. Have fun in hell, slave-scummer." I spat into radio mic with utter contempt. I depressed the primary and secondary triggers on my flight controller just as Theriault began to dump his cargo. Three cargo canisters were ejected from the Panther before the concerted fire of my beam lasers and cannons reduced the Panther to glowing scrap. Theriault's scream over the radio was mercifully short. Two of the cargo canisters were destroyed in the blast and the third was sent spinning away towards the red dwarf by a fragment of the Panther Clipper's mangled hull. One end of the cargo canister was punctured by the sharp metal shard and I could see gas leaking from the cylinder, freezing almost instantaneously into ruby-coloured crystals. I sat up straighter in my chair, a horrid feeling sinking in my gut. "ASTRA, target that container."

The targeting scan confirmed my fear. The cargo pod contained slaves. Slaves that were now rapidly losing oxygen to the vacuum of space. Even worse, the manifest on the cargo showed that the pod did not contain Imperial Slaves, which were protected by law in the Empire, but illegal slaves, procured from Independent or Federation space. It was a capital crime in most Imperial systems to be caught in possession of non-sanctioned slaves. The sensible thing to do would be to leave the cargo pod alone and report the mission success back to Senator Torval. But as I watched the cargo cylinder leak atmosphere into space and fall helplessly towards the star, my conscience wouldn't let me sit still, watch and do nothing. 

"ASTRA, are there any life signs coming from that canister?"

"Yes, my lord. Just one."

"How long until the pod loses atmospheric pressure?"

"The pod appears to be divided into two sections, my lord. Only one has been breached."

"So whoever's alive in there is in the intact half?"

"Correct, my lord. The life support system appears stable and has enough power to remain functional for another six hours. Unfortunately, the trajectory of the cargo pod will take it into the star's corona in the next ten minutes." ASTRA replied. I closed my eyes and swallowed hard, knowing that I was about to do something really stupid. But I couldn't not act, not when it meant that whoever was unlucky enough to be inside that pod would be cooked alive by the star's radiation.

"ASTRA, activate the cargo scoop." It had been a few years since I'd had to retrieve a cargo pod from deep space, but my Clipper was fast enough and nimble enough to match relative velocities with the tumbling metal cylinder within a minute. I nudged the ship closer and closer to the canister slowly until I heard the clanking echoes through the hull from the scoop system process the pod and align it into one of the ship's cargo racks. Anxious not to be seen in the vicinity of Theriault's wrecked ship, I engaged Fell From The Top(...)'s frame shift drive to supercruise away from the star deep into the solar system, at least 200 light seconds away from the nearest planetary bodies, before dropping back into real-space. Leaving ASTRA with instructions to alert me immediately if any radar contacts appeared, I left the ship stationary and running silent to avoid detection. With the shields and engines on standby mode, I would have a few hours before the heat build-up within the ship would need to be vented. I hoped this would give me enough time to see to the occupant of the slave canister and dump the incriminating cargo pod. I stopped by my quarters to retrieve my dart gun, replacing the clip of high-powered anti-personnel flechettes with non-lethal tranquiliser darts. Without knowing what kind of condition my new passenger was in, or what kind of reception they might give me, it was prudent to be armed and ready to defend myself. 

I entered the cargo bay with trepidation, but kept my dart gun holstered, activating the compartment's lights. From the vantage point of the cockpit, the slave pod had looked in bad shape, following the collision with the debris from the Panther. Up close, it was much worse, It was a miracle that both sections of the pod had not been breached, with one end practically shredded by the razor-sharp hull fragments that had hit the canister. The remains of the slave that had been in the damaged section of the pod were unidentifiable. Dismembered limbs were scattered around the perforated chamber, leaking droplets of dark crimson blood, which clumped together through surface tension on the end of the ragged stumps. I had to turn away when I saw that the dead slave's torso had practically been sheared in half by the large shard of hull plating that had pierced the integrity of the pod.

Remarkably, the other section was entirely unscathed. I glanced through the tiny window on the door and the occupant appeared intact, but unconscious. Next to the control for the door, set behind a glass cover was a ceramic card, about as wide and as long as my thumb. I recognised it instantly. It was the control chip for the control collar worn by the slave inside the compartment. I smashed the glass with the butt of my dart gun, retrieved the chip and opened the door. Sprawled face down, floating just over the floor was a pale-skinned, blonde woman of average height and a slim build. It was difficult to tell in the poor light inside the compartment, but she appeared to be in her early or mid-twenties and she was quite insensate. I could see a sharp contusion on her left temple, where she had struck her head on the wall as the cargo canister had spun wildly after the collision with the hull fragment. She was clothed only in a thin, simple white cotton dress that was badly stained and ripped across her shoulders and lower back. Bile rose in my throat when I realised that she had been very recently whipped. Some of the blood-stains still appeared damp. Fastened tightly around her long, slender neck was her control collar. I saw from the design that it contained an explosive charge. Furious, I deactivated the collar with the command chip and threw both of them to the floor of the pod. They ricocheted from the dull metal and bobbed unsteadily in the air at random, bouncing in different directions.

The young woman did not stir or react when I picked her up and carried her out of the pod, setting her down on the sleeping cot in the ship's guest quarters. I only had basic first aid supplies on the ship, but they would be more than adequate to treat the wounds on her back and reduce the swelling on her temple. Not wanting to take the risk of having her wake up while I was giving her first aid, I decided that it would be best to sedate her. I gave her a dose of midazolam sufficient to keep her under for six hours. This would be plenty of time to get back to Afli and wake her in a safe, controlled environment, rather than out in the middle of nowhere, where the ship might be discovered by pirates or worse. I used a pair of medical shears to cut off the woman's ruined dress, becoming angry again when I saw the network of wafer-thin scars and fresh cuts where she had been flogged with a microfibre whip to punish her for disobedience. I treated the cuts with a regenerative stem cell serum and carefully covered the wounds with self-cleaning, antiseptic bandages. I placed another medpatch over the contusion on her temple to reduce the swelling and heal the bruising. By the time we arrived back at Pu City, the only physical pain she would be suffering would be a headache akin to a moderate hangover. As for what kind of mental state she would be in, I would have to wait and see.

With her slave's dress in bloody rags, I was glad that I hadn't gotten around to clearing out Agent Zeta's wardrobe. The woman was roughly the same height and build as my mother's clone had been, so I retrieved a satin nightshirt for her to wear until we made it back to port. It was only as I dressed her that I noticed the slave's whip injuries were only across her back. Anger rose in me again when I realised why. She was young, pretty and physically attractive. It didn't take much imagination to understand why the flogging she had received only deformed the part of her body that would be unseen when she was lying on her back. I secured her into the cot with the bedcovers and four strands of acceleration strapping, so that she would not be injured on the return journey to Afli. I turned off the ceiling light and returned to the flight deck, securing from silent running and reactivating all the ship's systems. It took less than a minute for me to dump the slave pod and vaporise it with my beam lasers, leaving no evidence behind that it had ever been there. Once the frame shift drive finished charging, I had ASTRA plot a jump back to the Afli system and with a flicker of pseudo-motion and a flash of light, we were gone.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter One

Afli: Pu City

I had reached the Coriolis starport in the Afli system almost thirty hours before Duke Theriault was due to leave on his next shopping expedition to LTT 9810 to collect his latest cargo of Imperial Slaves. The intelligence Zemina's people had put together on the Duke was damning. Twice a month he visited Kerimov Dock to buy as many Imperial Slave as he could fit into his Panther Clipper, but rather than sell on the contracts to legitimate buyers in the Empire, he instead sold them onto the black market, for vast profits, into permanent servitude on dozens of independent worlds on the Empire's borders. By the order of the Emperor and the Senate, Imperial Slaves were supposed to be guaranteed legal protection to avoid such wanton exploitation, and it was considered a capital crime to breach the rights of an institution that helped provide the Empire with a loyal and devoted workforce. As a former Imperial Slave myself, I had no reservations about Zemina's choice of target. The fair treatment of Imperial Slaves was possibly the only subject where we found ourselves in total agreement. 

The Senator's intelligence agents had also given me full technical schematics of Theriault's ship, identifying its defences, armaments and the specification of its support and utility modules. The Panther Clipper was one of the most expensive and formidable ships available for use by private citizens and was a rare sight on commercial trade routes, even more so than a privately-owned Anaconda. Like the Anaconda, the Panther was equally capable as a transport ship or combat vessel, bristling with turrets and clad in laser-ablative armour. I had never fought one before, so I was grateful that the Senator's spies had already identified the ship's key vulnerability. The fuel lines connecting the FSD to the power plant were only lightly-armoured and were easily identifiable, running between the nacelles of the vessel's immense rear thrusters. A critical hit on the fuel lines would not only disable the ship's FSD, preventing it from running to another system, but would also cause a feedback spike that would cripple the power plant, potentially leaving the ship helpless, unable to keep its critical systems online. Satisfied that my preparations for the assassination were well in hand, I put in a call to Laure.

"Aemon, where are you? I was starting to get worried."

"I'm in Afli, doing Zemina's dirty work. But I'm safe for now."

"For now?"

"Zemina wants me dead, Laure. Maybe she took exception at not being invited to the wedding." I suggested, morbidly amused.

"She doesn't want to kill you, Aemon. She's just angry that I disobeyed her."

"Then explain the Interdictor sitting twenty klicks away from your station."

"Thirty, actually." Laure retorted. "Apparently she wants me to stay put. I don't like being trapped on my own station."

"It's there for me, Laure. So that the only way I could get near the docking port is in the form of a gas."

"She wouldn't dare."

"She would. You know she would."

"We just have to be patient. Zemina will cool off if we give her time. She's known about our relationship for years, and while she certainly didn't approve of it, she's never tried to stop it. She's just doing this to make sure we're serious about being with each other."

"You weren't there in the meeting, Laure. This isn't going to blow over. She's going to have me killed. One way or another."

"You're wrong. You're too valuable to the Navy now to be expendable."

"I'm not working for the Navy anymore. I've been inducted into Zemina's little black ops force."

"Oh, gods. Do you want me to talk to her?"

"That might only make things worse."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Keep your head down for a while. And do some research for me."

"What kind of research?"

"I'm missing something, Laure. Something about this whole setup. Zemina said a few things that didn't make much sense. Things about my family and yours." 

"Go on... such as?"

"Zemina wasn't terribly complimentary about your father."

"They've never gotten on. Not since he decided to pursue a career in industry, rather than a seat in the Senate."

"Is he still running that biotech corp on Fotla? BlueGen?"

"That's the one, yes. Specialists in regenerative medicines."

"Is it doing well?"

"Where do you think the money for your ship upgrades comes from?" Laure snorted. "I've got a 40% stake in the corporation. An anonymous partner, of course. Daddy would never live it down if he knew I was pulling the executive board's strings from behind the scenes. Better to let him think he's in charge."

"Clever girl." I told her, proudly. "Do you still have my mother's body on ice?"

"Yes, it's still in the morgue here at Adams. Why?"

"Can you use your contacts at BlueGen to see where it was cloned? And when, if possible."

"Hmm. I had been wondering about that myself."

"Someone must have ordered it done. And how did the clone end up becoming an Imperial Navy operative? There must be a record somewhere."

"I'll see what I can dig up."

"Thanks. When I'm done dealing with this slave trader, I'll be in touch."

"Be safe, Aemon. I miss you."

"Me too, I'll be careful." I cut the channel to Laure reluctantly, using the ship's computer to check that my target's ship was still docked. The Duke's Panther Clipper was still sitting idle in its hangar, the port schedule  indicating that its flight plan had not been changed.

With little else to do until my target launched their ship, I decided to do some information gathering of my own. My conversation with Admiral Stenberg had been bothering me since I had completed the  assassination mission. Stenberg's claim that he was my father's brother had been dismissed by Laure as an outlandish lie to distract my attention as he waited for reinforcements to spring an ambush, but it had seeded a nagging doubt in my mind that I'd not been able to shake off.  It would be impossible to verify Stenberg's claim directly, given that the Empire had purged all records of my father's existence from their databases, following his execution, but there was one way I could check whether Stenberg had been telling the truth or not.

The Imperial Intelligence Service routinely hacked Federation databases as part of the ongoing low-level cyberwar between the two galactic superpowers, probing for any information it could retrieve from every tier of the vast data network. Stealing high value information regarding fleet deployments and economic data was where the IIS devoted most of its efforts, but it also pursued softer targets with less rigorous intrusion detection systems. I was interested in data from one of these non-defence critical databases, specifically the Registry of Births & Deaths. I didn't expect to be able to find any records of my father's birth. All data held on him would have been erased from externally accessible databases as soon as he was infiltrated into the Empire as a sleeper agent. Any surviving information detailing his DNA profile and lineage would likely be held in the Federal Navy's most secure data facilities buried deep beneath the north pole on Earth's Moon. Fortunately, I had another line of enquiry. 

Admiral Stenberg's death had been publically acknowledged by the Federation, meaning that an official Death Certificate had been issued. This in turn meant that his remains had been identified by the acting coroner in a legally sanctioned autopsy. Given the state of Stenberg's ship in the aftermath of the assassination, such an identification could only have been achieved using DNA samples taken directly from the wreckage of the Dropship. It had been nearly three weeks since Stenberg's death and I was not disappointed when I directed ASTRA to query the IIS database for a copy of Stenberg's autopsy report. My new role as one of Senator Torval's Black Ops pilots gave me access to information I never would have been privy to as a freelancer for the Imperial Navy and I fully intended to make the most of it. 

"Download complete." ASTRA reported cheerfully.

"Fantastic. Run a comparison on Stenberg's DNA fingerprint in the autopsy file against the blood-test from my last fitness report. Stenberg claimed he was my uncle. If he wasn't having me on, there should be a partial match with my paternal DNA."

"Working. Please stand by." ASTRA temporised, her AI subroutines hard at work to answer my query, performing a pattern-match between my DNA fingerprint and the record from Stenberg's autopsy to try and find sufficient commonality to determine whether we were truly blood-related. I drummed my fingertips on the flight controllers in anticipation, knowing that it would only be a few seconds before I had an answer. "Analysis complete. Genetic markers from a comparison of the Y-chromosome show a probability of less than 2% of a common ancestor within the last twenty generations."

"So the people who tell me that the Empire is lying to me aren't being honest either." I growled, frustrated. "Goddamn it. Ever since I took the Zeta assignment it's been lies, wrapped in falsehoods, surrounded by obfuscation. Can't someone be straight with me, just for once?"

It was tempting to find the nearest bar and salve my irritation with the judicious application of a soothing bottle of Lavian Brandy, but I knew that I needed to be sharp, rested and ready to launch at short notice if Theriault changed his flight plan and left on his shopping expedition earlier than planned. Instead I instructed ASTRA to alert me as soon as there was any sign of activity from Theriault's ship before heading aft to my stateroom to bank away some precious rest before the stress of the hunt to come. 

My dreams were by turns pleasant and disturbing, recalling both the idyllic week Laure and I had spent at my family's estate on Summerland for our honeymoon and also the darker side of my childhood summers, faintly overheard arguments between my mother and father in the dead of night. Laure had taken possession of the estate following the execution of my parents and had presented me with the DNA-encoded key to the mansion on the night of our wedding. The house had not been lived in since the final vacation our families had shared together, but had not been left abandoned to fall into ruin. Laure had ensured that the upkeep of the property had been maintained and had arranged for the house to be redecorated with the very latest furnishings, as befitting the status of a residence for a couple at the very apex of Imperial high society. It was fortunate that Laure's foresight had inspired her to replace the antique four-poster bed in the master bedroom with a pristine King-sized, non-Newtonian gel-filled futon. A less robust or adaptive mattress would not have survived the three days we had spent in bed after arriving at the estate. The pleasant recall of those energetic seventy hours were counterbalanced by the unsettling, early memories of the furious emotional outbursts from my father, only half-heard through the thick, papier peint-covered walls. The arguments had started two years before the arrest of my parents, and while I had found them upsetting at the time, neither my mother or father would explain the cause of their dispute when I asked. "It's not about you." was all they would say, as if I would find that explanation reassuring. I didn't know what had provoked the rise of these long-suppressed memories back up into my subconscious, but I found them distressing enough to prevent me from reaching a truly restful sleep. When ASTRA alerted me that Theriault's Panther Clipper had just switched its power plant from maintenance mode to full generation, I was less reluctant than usual to abandon my bunk, wriggling my body stiffly into the rubberised, nanotube reinforced fabric of my flight suit and double-checking the seals before taking my place on the bridge.

"Are we ready to launch, ASTRA?"

"All systems ready, my lord. Power consumption profiles are optimised for minimum thermal signature."

"Good. We'll give him a minute's head start and take him after his first jump."

The Panther's huge tonnage would not allow Theriaut to make the trip from Afli to LTT 9810 in a single jump, meaning that an intermediary stop would be necessary at the unremarkably named ICZ IC-U B3-1 system. The M-class red dwarf was almost as dull as its name, an utterly commonplace star accompanied by a smattering of cold, airless and otherwise worthless rocky planets. There were no settlements in the system, making it a perfect place to spring an ambush. I wouldn't even dent my legal status carrying out the assassination, as there were no in-system authorities to record the crime. Any ships in the system were fair game, but the route was so infrequently travelled that the star system was broadly considered to be safe, according to GalCop. One of Zemina's undercover agents, posing as one of Theriault's ship mechanics, had also hacked the Panther Clipper's navigation computer, uploading a virus that would wipe all the data from the module once the ship arrived at ICZ IC-U B3-1. The code bomb would render the ship's navigation systems completely unusable, trapping it in the system. Unless Theriault fancied trying a blind jump through witchspace, in which case his ship would likely never be seen again, he would be forced to stay put, activate his distress beacon and hope that whoever answered was friendly.

"Wilberforce's Folly has just launched, my lord." ASTRA intoned, eager to please as ever. 

I sneered in disgust at Theriault's choice of name for his ship. Normally I approached assassination assignments dispassionately and tried to simply consider them faceless targets. Not this time. This time I was looking forward to eradicating the unscrupulous slave trader from the galaxy. I doubted many people would mourn his passing, except perhaps his equally loathsome trade partners. I counted to sixty before asking the dockmaster for permission to leave. My clearance was granted immediately and as I ascended from the landing pad to the transit channel in the middle of the cylindrical docking bay, I saw the Panther Clipper squeeze its bulk into the docking slot with scant metres to spare, tiny blue flames surging from the attitude thrusters to match the station's rotation as the heavy transport ship drifted forward slowly towards open space. 

My own exit from the station was equally sedate, not wishing to alert Theriault that he was being followed. I let a pair of battered looking Sidewinders cut ahead of me in the exit lane, the tenuous gases from their rear thrusters streaming over the sleek nose and canopy of my ship, adding an extra blue glow to the decorative trim lights inlaid around the spotless flight deck. I eased the throttle forward as I approached the slot, retracting my landing struts, not wanting the Panther to get too large a head start. The cargo cruiser was boosting away from the station, but I was able to track it both visually and with the radar scanner. 

"Power surge detected." ASTRA reported, Theriault bringing his ship's FSD up to full jump readiness. I engaged my own afterburners, the brutal acceleration making me sink into the gel-padding of my seat with a short grunt. I was careful not to match the Panther's vector away from the station too quickly, lazily easing up the nose, as if I was lining up for a jump to a different system. There was a bright flash and a flicker of pseudo-motion as Wilberforce's Folly made its final hyperspace jump. 

I rolled my thumb over the firegroup selector on the right of my control stick to activate my ship's frame shift wake scanner. I slowed down as I approached the Panther Clipper's frame shift wake, which was barely visible as the merest crinkling in the fabric of space when viewed against the background stars. The scan would only delay my pursuit by less than a minute and it was better to confirm Theriault's destination, rather than assume he hadn't changed his flightplan and end up missing the target. I was pleased to see that my target was flying to ICZ IC-U B3-1 as originally planned. If the Duke had suspected this would be anything other than a routine trip, he would have altered his course. The wake scanner updated my navigation computer with precise destination coordinates that would put me within 100km of Theriault's vessel upon our exit from witchspace. 

"ASTRA, prepare for frame shift."

"Acknowledged, my lord. Jumping in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... Mark."

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Prologue

Synteini: Lagerkvist Station

Zemina allowed Laure and I only a fortnight of newlywed bliss before sending the call summoning me to her headquarters at Synteini. Her Orbis starport was one of the best appointed within the Empire, guarded at all times not just by the station's own weapons grid, but also a swarm of Imperial fighters and no less than two Majestic-class Interdictors, which rotated in and out of the system on week-long patrols of the nearby Empire-controlled and exploited systems.  As a wedding present, Laure had given the Imperial Clipper I had hijacked from Agent Zeta a thorough retrofit of its support systems, installing voice comms and the newest model of the ASTRA artificial intelligence core, as well as replacing the subsystems her Vulture escort pilots had destroyed with military specification modules she had acquired through her family contacts at the Imperial Navy shipyards at Vequess. The Clipper, now officially recognised by the name I had scraped into the paintwork on the hull to identify myself as non-hostile to Laure and her defence force, sat being refuelled in a private hangar towards the back of the two kilometre-long barrel of the station's dock. 

I checked my reflection in my stateroom's mirror, straightening the central hem of my dress uniform vertically down the middle of my chest. It was the first time I had worn the full regalia of an Imperial Viscount and I wanted it to look perfect before I had my meeting with the Senator. Any flaws in my appearance would be seized upon by Zemina as evidence of my unworthiness in her eyes. The heavy gold stitching on my shoulder epaulettes and the sleeves covering my forearms glistered my new rank proudly and a golden sigil bearing the Imperial crest shone out from the blackness of my dress tunic over my right breast. The eagle-shaped symbol was balanced by a silver and purple ribbon anchoring the citation medal to my uniform, which was flawlessly parallel with the vertical ribs of my embroidered tunic, with the emerald and gold Star of Achenar medal itself resting over my heart, to symbolise my devotion to the Empire. I had been awarded the medal at my promotion ceremony, to recognise the success of my mission to eliminate Stenberg and Zeta. The v-shaped cuts at the front of the trouser legs revealed the supple, brightly polished black leather of my dress boots, the pointed toecaps encased with engraved silver. Content that my appearance would pass even the most scrupulous inspection, I left the docking bay to attend my appointment with Senator Torval. Her office was located in the habitation ring, a toroidal structure six kilometres in diameter, a size that gave the parks, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and private residences a comfortable artificial gravity of 0.8g. Zemina's estate dwarfed Laure's residence on Adams Orbital, both in size and opulence. I had to take a ground car from the lift at the base of the armature connecting the habitation ring to the rest of the station, as the entrance to the Senator's compound was over two kilometres from the lifts. I did not have to give the car instructions on where to take me. The station's AI already knew of my appointment with the Senator and instructed the car to take me directly to Zemina's mansion, ensuring that I arrived tactfully ahead of my scheduled time. I was greeted at the entrance to the Palladian-style house by my Imperial Navy Controller, Marquis Durante. 

"Viscount Roche, welcome to Ogygia, the Senator is expecting you."

"Thank you, your grace." I gave Durante a curt, respectful bow of gratitude before following him into the rotunda of the immense building. The entrance hall was lined with classical, Ionic columns ten metres tall that framed alcoves containing statues of pure white, Parian marble imported from Sol. The centrepiece dominating the rotunda was a five metre high sculpture of Calypso's enchantment of Odysseus.

"A magnificent piece, isn't it?" Durante looked up, his eyes lingering on the lascivious curves of Calyspo's semi-clad figure, evidently imagining himself as a rather less reluctant Odysseus.

"Indeed." I was struck by the resemblance Calypso's likeness had to Laure, and a quick inspection of the dedication plaque revealed that the original model for the statue was Laure's grandmother, Zemina's paternal Aunt. The identity of the male model was not recorded, but I assumed it to be that of the sculptor. "The Odyssey was my favourite of the Greek myths."

"Really? You and the Senator do have something in common, after all." Durante sneered. 

"What's this all about, your grace?" I did my best to remain civil, despite the look on Durante's face that indicated he held the same kind of regard for me as he did for pond life.

"I had best let the Senator explain for herself. But it is suffice for me to say that I am releasing you from my command into her direct service." Durante pointed me towards the East Wing of the mansion before continuing. "I am here merely to formalise the handover."

I followed Durante in silence. It was not so much a dismissal from the Navy, at least not a formal one. It felt more like a disposal. In public I had been feted and honoured for my success, eliminating an enemy of the state and preventing a damaging defection, but behind the scenes certain factions - no doubt led by Zemina - still considered me suspect. It would have been very easy for the Imperial Navy to limit my further progression up the ranks simply by never granting me new assignments and letting my career stall into obscurity. Zemina, however, clearly had something else in mind.

Durante at least had the courtesy to announce me to the Senator as we entered her office. "Senator, may I present Viscount Roche, as you directed."

"That'll be all, Marquis Durante." Senator Zemina Torval didn't even look up from her terminal. I stood at attention as Durante bowed and closed the polished oak doors behind him. Zemina ignored me, tapping at length on her computer screen, as if testing my patience. I sensed her watching me from the corners of her cold, grey eyes, the spiked collar of her jacket quivering like the legs of a wolf spider, ready to pounce at the first sign of uncertainty or weakness. Her close-cropped silver hair gave her lined face a stark, calculating appearance, her thin lips not carrying even the merest hint of good humour. She was a woman of considerable power, wealth and influence, above the petty business of appearing to be friendly to win favour. It was almost twenty minutes before she gave the slightest indication that she wanted to speak with me. "You've learned, Roche. Learned how to wait until your betters speak to you first."

I literally bit my tongue, letting the slight pass uncommented. Laure would have been proud of my restraint, as I continued to stand rigidly to attention, wondering how much longer the Senator would keep me waiting. 

"You've learned how to keep your mouth shut, too." Zemina added, with a tone of grudging admiration. She indicated for me to sit down in the chair opposite her desk with a dismissive flick of one of her fingers. "Laure's influence, no doubt. Well, Viscount Roche... I'm impressed you survived the Zeta assignment. You have done the Empire a great service."

"Thank you, Senator."

"Still, it's regrettable that Laure chose to celebrate your success in the manner she did."

"With the greatest of respect, Senator, our private life is none of your business."

"Oh, there you're wrong. You couldn't be more wrong." The frostiness of Zemina's voice could have cracked glass. "Laure and I may have had our disagreements in the past about who would be a suitable match for her, but when she learns the truth about you, she'll see that she has made the mistake of her life in marrying you."

"And what truth might that be?" I kept my voice low, despite Zemina's obvious hostility. Imperial Senators were above the law. She could easily have me killed on her estate and no-one would ever know. There would certainly be no investigation or trial. I could not afford to lose my temper, regardless of the provocation. 

"The only truth there is, Roche. Your entire family are traitors, loyal to the Federation. Your father, your mother, and you." Zemina sat back in her chair, her fingers steepled together in thought. "I knew it from the day I first met your parents on Summerland. I warned my brother not to allow himself to get too close to your father. But I should have worried more about the mother."

"I'm not a traitor, Senator. I was born in the Empire. I've served faithfully and true. I've done everything the Imperial Navy has ever asked me."

"Your parents lived for decades in the Empire as 'loyal' subjects. At least, until I was able to discover their true loyalties and motives. They got what they deserved. And so will you. It's only a matter of time until I can prove it." Zemina transfixed me with her cold stare. Her fervour and belief in what she had said seemed unshakeable.

"You're wrong, Senator. I've no love for the Federation. I've proved as much on dozens of occasions, as you will know from my service record."

"Proof? The proof of your treachery is in your genes, Roche. It might take many years for the truth to surface, but you'll be betrayed by your nature sooner or later. And when that day comes, Laure will be the first to call for your execution." 

"Nothing I can do is ever going to be enough for you, is it Senator?" I shook my head, bewildered by her callousness. "So what now? You keep sending me on suicide missions until one day I don't succeed?" 

"You're smarter than you look, for the son of a Federation whore." Zemina's smile was brittle and taunting. I swallowed my anger and didn't rise to the bait. It was not too late for her to call in her guards to have me killed. "You now fly for me, as part of my special executive force. You'll be targeting individuals whose deaths will not only benefit the Empire as a whole, but my own interests as well. If you succeed, I will pay you very well, Roche. If you survive long enough to convince me that you're not an agent of the Federation, you'll be released from my service and exiled from Imperial space with a fortune large enough to live like a king in the independent worlds."

"I don't want to live in independent space. I want to live here in the Empire, with Laure."

"Mention her name again, Roche, and I'll have your skin tanned to upholster my chair." Zemina hissed, her eyes flaring with rage. "You'll never see her again, Roche. Accept it. Don't think about trying to pay her a visit on Adams Orbital, either. I have one of my Interdictors in place to make sure that you'd never reach the station alive."

"We love each other. We make each other happy. Why would you ruin that? Why do you hate me so much?"

"You're not right for her, Roche. You never were. In time, my niece will see that, too. My imbecile brother always had poor judgment. He never should have agreed to your father's proposal and put the idea in her head. And he never should have accepted the friendship of your family in the first place." Zemina mused, her anger still simmering, before dismissing me with a wave of her hand. "Get out, traitor's son... the details of your first target will be with your ship's AI by the time you return to the docking bay."

"Yes, Senator." I stood with a formal bow, retreating quickly before her anger could boil over again. I wondered if it was worth risking a hyperwave call to Laure. Zemina might be able to prevent us from seeing each other, but once I was out of the system, she couldn't prevent us from talking. There had been something about Zemina's tone that told me that her resistance to the idea of Laure and I being together didn't solely come from my family's disgrace. I wasn't sure what it could possibly be, but I sensed that there was more to it than Zemina wanting to protect the reputation of her niece and her family name.

I returned to the placid sanctuary of Fell From The Top(...)'s flight deck, slumping into the command chair, thoroughly dispirited. The redemption Laure had been so sure I would earn from the completion of the Zeta assignment had been denied me by the wilful vindictiveness of her aunt, who wanted me dead or exiled. The situation appeared hopeless. Zemina had enough political and military influence to ensure that I would never survive an attempt to meet with Laure, and her standing would guarantee that she would get away with it, too. I needed to talk to my wife, but I wasn't going to do it where Zemina could eavesdrop on our conversation. I needed to get out of the system. 

"ASTRA, run up the Senator's data package. Give me the who, where and when."

"Assassination contract. 750,000 credits. Target: Duke Herschel Theriault. Slave trader allied with Senator Patreus. Suspected of illegal export of Imperial Slaves to independent anarchies and dictatorships. Currently located in the Afli system, docked at Pu City. Theriault is scheduled to leave Afli on a purchasing trip in two days."

"Plot a course. We leave as soon as I've finished changing into my flight suit."