Beta-1 Tucanae: Adams Orbital
Serf Myles, Governor Torval's adjutant, escorted me along familiar corridors I could have navigated myself, leading me through my childhood home to the dining hall, where my former Mistress was waiting to brief me on my new mission.
My dealings with Laure Torval were long-standing and complex. Our families had been closely allied for decades and despite the fact that Laure was nine years older than me, our respective parents had planned to formalise the de facto union between our families through marriage. I had been delighted with the idea when it was first mentioned to me during a shared family holiday at the Roche estate on Summerland, when I was only eight years old. Laure doted upon me like an elder sister, and had done for as long as I could remember; we spent almost every waking minute together, whether Laure was acting as a tutor, a confidante or a playmate. It seemed destined that we would unite our two families in a blood-bond. Everything changed when the Imperial Navy discovered that my mother had been using my father's political connections to spy upon the Empire and pass on confidential information to the Federation for over two decades.
I was only ten years old when the Empire executed both my mother and father. Laure had been at my side, trying to comfort me with a smooth, gentle hand stroking the nape of my neck, as I watched the sentence be carried out. It was not until over a decade later that I learned that she had saved me from an identical fate, having begged the Sector Prefect judging the case for clemency, arguing that I was too young to be held responsible for the crimes of my mother and the incompetence of my father for allowing such treachery to be conducted under his nose. The Prefect had reluctantly agreed, commuting my own death sentence to a 15 year term of Imperial Slavery. Laure had insisted that I be placed in her household, which seemed to her like a good idea at the time.
Thanks to the influence of her aunt, Senator Zemina Torval, Laure had just been installed as the system governor to Beta-1 Tucanae, a solar system at the fringes of Senator Torval's sphere of influence. Laure was the youngest governor in the Empire, only nineteen years old, but she quickly showed that her aunt's faith in her was not misplaced. For my own part, a ten year old orphan, blinded by grief, I quickly set about making her life as hellish as I could. Instead of recalling that Laure was my oldest and truest friend, in my eyes she became both a surrogate mother and authority figure - the only person I could rebel against for what I considered to be the unjust fate that had befallen my parents. And rebel I did, to such an extent that Laure forced me to wear a control collar worn by slaves to enforce discipline, an indignity she had initially wanted to spare me from when I became her legal responsibility. The collars were tamperproof and worn at the base of the neck, with a small hemispheric pod resting in the hollow between the clavicle bones. Their designs varied according to the vindictiveness of the slave masters. The most common contained a small explosive charge, specially shaped to sever the carotid arteries and spinal column of the wearer. Fortunately, this type of slave collar was rarely used in Imperial space, as most Imperial Slaves entered voluntarily into a servitude contract to pay off a debt of honour. In the rarer cases such as mine, where the contract had been imposed by the courts, the collars contained vials of chemicals to administer poisons of varying potency to a dissenting slave. The toxin contained in mine was not lethal, but simply unpleasant, the nitroglycerine-derived drug provoking uncontrollable bouts of dizziness and nausea. The arguments of my adolescence with Laure were usually concluded by violent fits of vomiting after I had finally exhausted her reserves of patience, followed by periods of silent, miserable contrition as I cleaned up the mess of my own making, alone, save for the seismic headaches that accompanied a dose of the poison.
As I approached the end of my term of servitude, our relationship evolved yet again, from antagonism to intimacy. It had taken almost a decade for me to stop resenting her power over me and her privileged position of authority in the Empire, the Empire that I hated for depriving me of my parents, but Laure's seemingly inexhaustible reserves of forgiveness and affection eventually helped me come to terms with my loss. On my twentieth birthday she invited me to dine alone with her in her chambers and we talked candidly about my past, the disgrace of my family and what kind of future I wanted. Laure persuaded me that the best hope I had for restoring honour to my family's name was to demonstrate my loyalty to the Empire through service in the Imperial Navy. I had shown promise as a potential pilot in the aptitude tests, and Laure arranged for me to be tutored by one of the senior Navy instructors based at Adams Orbital. The intensive training in combat tactics, ranging all the way from hand-to-hand brawls to full-scale fleet battles, not to mention the intensive flight training, gave me something positive to focus on and also kept me out from under Laure's feet while she attended her duties as system governor. With the petty disputes and the simmering resentment I had directed towards Laure in my youth long forgotten, my energies now directed entirely towards my studies, I realised that I had come to look forward to spending time with her again. With our respective obligations keeping us busy for anything up to 14 hours a day, the short interludes of time we were able to spend together became ever more precious.
It still came as a shock, however, when one night Laure entered my bedchamber unannounced long after midnight and seduced me, adding me to a long list of conquests she had accrued since becoming governor, thanks to both her physical and political desirability.
"I've had many lovers, but you're the only one whose company I actually enjoy." Laure had told me at the time.
The marriage proposed and nominally arranged by our parents for when I came of age was out of the question, given the very public downfall of my parents in the eyes of the Emperor and high society in the Empire, but that did not deter Laure from discreetly keeping my bed warm in the privacy of her estate.
Eventually, a decade and a half after my parents' execution, Laure presented me with three gifts. The first was the control chip to my slave collar. I used the chip to disable and remove the collar, but finally freed of the symbolic and literal constriction it had held over me, I couldn't bring myself to destroy it or throw it away. It was an intrinsic part of what had shaped me as a man since the death of my mother and father; I could no more dispose of it as I could one of my arms or legs. Instead I kept it and repurposed it for my own ends. I replaced the poison cartridges with capsules containing a battle stimulant called Glide. The drug heightened reflexes and increased synapse fire rate by 80%, giving its user unnaturally rapid thought processes for a few minutes. The toxicity of the drug was significant enough to deter habitual usage, but Glide was considered to be harmless enough in small, irregular doses. The stimulant was popular with combat pilots for its effectiveness in giving them the ability to make decisions faster than their enemies at the critical part of a battle, but was so prohibitively expensive that few could afford it. I modified the collar so that it would be worn around the wrist, rather than the neck, integrating the drug delivery pod into a fashionable silver metal wristband, disguising the flat disc attached to the chain-linked strap with a holographic timepiece.
Laure's second gift was a prototype of the latest Imperial Courier design that had been recently developed at the nearby Imperial Fleet shipyards at Vequess. Designed to fulfil a long-range fighter role, the experimental Courier was sleek, fast and well-armed, with three weapon hardpoints capable of hosting Class 2 weapons, a significant improvement over the Eagle Mark II it was supposed to replace. The Courier also featured incredibly powerful shields for its size, giving the ship a resilience you would expect only from a much larger combat vessel, such as a Python. I had fallen in love instantly with the ship's sweeping and elegant lines, which echoed the majesty of larger Imperial ships, but I had been rather less enamoured with the ship's name: ICX-#1. Laure's response to my disappointment was somewhat less than sympathetic.
"It's a prototype, what were you expecting?"
"I don't know." I conceded with a shrug. "Something with a little more... you know..."
"Gravitas?" Laure snorted in derision, raising her eyebrows. "It's a fighter, not a dreadnought. Listen to you, 25 going on 155... You couldn't find your gravitas with both hands." Laure's pale blue eyes glittered mischievously, her pun sparking a wicked thought. "Actually, that would be an appropriate name: Couldn't Find His Gravitas With Both Hands."
"No, no! You can't!" I protested, too late, as Laure updated the ship's registry using her wrist terminal.
"Can. Have. All done." Laure's hyena-like snickering laugh haunted me for the rest of the day. The ship's name would haunt me for a lot longer.
Her final gift was also double-edged - an opportunity to fulfil a combat contract for the Imperial Navy. Success would give me vital funds to start operating as a freelance ship commander and would also set me potentially on a path to redemption and recognition in the ranks of the Imperial Navy. Failure was unthinkable. If I was unable to complete the mission, the only possible outcomes were death or permanent exile from the Empire. With just 1000 credits in the bank and a kiss on the cheek, Laure had sent me on my way. She had been pleased when I returned with the mission complete, but as I travelled throughout the Empire to establish my reputation with the Imperial Navy, my visits to Adams Orbital became less and less frequent and our relationship gradually grew cooler and more professional as our duties kept us apart.
My throat was dry by the time Myles opened the door to the dining hall, announcing my arrival as I stepped into the opulent, oak-panelled room. Governor Torval sat alone at the head of the vast mahogany table, picking deftly at the array of platters before her, retrieving bite-sized morsels of party food that were undoubtedly the leftovers from a diplomatic reception held earlier that day. I noticed immediately that she had dyed her wavy, waist-length hair a luxurious, glistening black with dark blue highlights to accentuate the delicate gold stitching of her full-length white silk robe. The robe's bodice panels hugged her flanks to emphasize the curve of her hips and waist and the front of the robe was immodestly split from neck to navel to permit a tantalising glimpse of her deep cleavage. A familiar tingle rippled down my spine.
"That'll be all, Myles. See to it that we're not disturbed. I won't be taking calls or appointments for the rest of the day." Laure dismissed him without even looking up from the table, hunting instead for a wafer-thin slice of very rare beef with a silver, two-pronged fork. The serf retreated in silence, closing and locking the door behind him.
"Governor. You wished to see me?" I greeted her formally, waiting for permission to approach.
Laure finally looked up and smiled, the stern visage she habitually presented to her servant melting away, her eyes becoming warm and welcoming. "Aemon, please. We're alone. There's no need for that. Come and join me, please." Laure pointed to the seat next to her, indicating where I should sit, watching me carefully as I walked the ten metres from the opposite end of the table. "You look well."
"Thank you, Laure. So do you." I took my seat and appraised her more closely. Laure had not changed at all in the eleven months since our last meeting. Despite the pressures of her job, she still seemed as fresh-faced and happy as she had been as a teenager.
"It's good to see you, Aemon. I've missed you." Her tone carried a mild hint of reproach.
"I'm sorry I haven't called. The Navy have been keeping me busy."
"I know. I've seen the reports. You're impressing people in high places. I'm told that you're to be promoted to Baron soon." Laure paused, indicating the array of food on the table. "Have you eaten? Please, help yourself. I can recommend the Carpaccio. Kobe beef, shipped in from Witchhaul this morning."
"Don't mind if I do." I filled a gilt-edge porcelain plate with a towering pile of delicacies, imported from all over the Empire and the Old Worlds. As a slice of the Kobe beef Carpaccio dissolved exquisitely in my mouth, a tall square crystal decanter filled with a clear, caramel and amber coloured liquid caught my eye. "Is that Lavian brandy?"
Laure's long, curled tresses undulated languidly as she shook her head. "Eranin Pearl Whisky."
"Even better. May I?"
Laure selected a heavy, thick-bottomed crystal tumbler and poured me a generous double measure of the strong liquor, hesitating only slightly before doing the same again for herself. We toasted each other with a clink of the rims of our glasses before simultaneously taking a large sip of the vanilla and oak-scented spirit. Laure closed her eyes in satisfaction as the alcohol burned the back of her throat, almost purring in contentment. "Delicious. You can practically taste the makers' contempt for the Federation."
We ate in silence until I could no longer bear the tension building in the room. "What's this about, Laure? Why the summons? Why did I get pulled from the assignment in Fotla? Have I done something wrong?"
"No, no." Laure looked away, distressed, and refilled our glasses with whisky. "On the contrary. Something terrible has happened, and the Empire needs you. But I wanted to be the one to tell you. And to give you the chance to decline."
"The opportunity of a lifetime." Laure stood, upset, walking away from the table.
"Laure, what are you talking about? You're not making sense. I've never seen you like this before."
Laure turned back to face me, holding back tears in the corners of her eyes. "Aemon, save your questions. There will be plenty of time for them in the morning. I need you tonight, not Lord Roche."
She opened the door to her bedchamber, and stood at the threshold, looking at me with a hunger that had nothing to do with the food on the table. Laure unfastened the back of her ornate gown and let it fall to the floor. I stood as she retreated into her room. Resigned to my fate, I followed her inside, picking up the robe from where it lay before securing the door.
It was still three hours before the station's artificial dawn when Laure awoke in my arms with a soft, satisfied sigh. Her hands closed around my wrists, drawing my arms more tightly around her. Her skin was as soft and warm as the silk sheets that enveloped us like a cocoon. "I wish we could stay like this for an eternity."
"Laure, what's wrong with you? Since when did you become sentimental? What the hell is going on?"
"Aemon." Laure turned over and looked into my eyes, her gaze unflinching, yet vulnerable as she put her arms around my neck. "I'm sorry... You don't understand. We might never be able to do this again."
"Any time you'd like to start making sense would be fine by me. What did you mean by 'the opportunity of a lifetime', and what does it have to do with me being pulled from the Jet Corp assignment?"
"Three days ago, we received word that a leading Federation Admiral, Lars Stenberg, had been sighted in Kappa Fornacis. An undercover asset we had in the area, Agent Zeta, was ordered to capture or kill Stenberg."
"I presume they failed."
"Worse. Zeta tipped off the target and they both withdrew into Federation space." Laure drew me closer. "The Navy wants them both terminated, with extreme prejudice. And they want you to do it."
"A rogue Imperial Navy asset would be a PR coup for the Federation if word ever got out."
"Exactly. Time is of the essence. If Zeta defects to the Federation, the fallout would be incalculable."
"If time is so critical, why am I here and not already in hyperspace?"
"It'll still be a few hours before all the necessary upgrades to your ship can be installed. And if you do go after them, you need to know what you're getting into. Zeta was the best agent we had. Tens of thousands of kills. And Stenberg is equally as dangerous. He's a veteran of the 3260 war."
"It's a test of your commitment and loyalty. If you could succeed, you would be a hero of the Empire. It would go a long way toward the restoration of your family's honour. Even Zemina would have to admit your usefulness as an asset." The hopeful look on Laure's face did not last long, however. "But it's just as likely that you could be killed. It's a no-lose proposition as far as the Navy is concerned. Either you return a hero, or the last member of a family of traitors is disposed of."
"What if I refuse to take the mission?" It did not surprise me that the Navy could be so mercenary, but hearing the confirmation of it from Laure's mouth was chilling.
"You'll live. But you'll never work for the Navy again. And you'll never be welcome in Empire space."
"So I don't really have a choice."
"You always have a choice, but a chance like this to settle the debt of suspicion that surrounds your family name won't come again." Laure warned, her grip tightening around my shoulders. "There's only really one logical decision, even if it's a dangerous one."
"Eliminate Stenberg and Zeta, and try not to get killed in the process."
"It's the only way we'll ever be able to see each other again." Laure gave me a ravenous, lingering kiss that left me breathless for more. "And if you're successful, we could get married."
"Zemina would never allow it." I sighed. Laure's aunt had been hostile to the idea when it had been originally proposed, when both of us were little more than children. Following my family's disgrace, she was adamant that she would never allow her niece to marry the son of a traitor to the Empire.
"It wouldn't be up to her. Not if you were the saviour of the Navy's honour and reputation. You'd be promoted to Viscount at the very least. We'd be free from that venomous old witch's interference once and for all."
"Laure!" It shocked me that she could speak so badly about her own aunt.
"I'm sick of that frigid crone's meddling in my affairs. Can you believe she tried to have me married off to that incompetent fool who pretends to run Darius?"
"Yes, him." Laure shuddered in disgust. "The very thought makes my skin crawl. The only man I'm going to marry is you. And I've waited long enough."
"I'm sorry I'm going to have to keep you waiting a little while longer."
"It is what you want, isn't it?"
"More than anything." I replied, gasping with surprise as Laure pressed my shoulders flat on the bed and slid atop of me, her face shrouded in the shadows cast by her hair; the soft, dark tresses tickling my chest.
"Good. We've got another couple of hours before your ship will be ready. Let's make the most of them."
Laure walked with me to the docking bay when the message came through that the work being done on my Imperial Courier had been completed. Laure waited by the ship as I put on my flight suit, the rubberised, carbon nanotube reinforced fabric forming a skin-tight barrier capable of resisting the vacuum of space and its accompanied temperature extremes. It was a standard design, but one that had been refined by the lessons learned in over a thousand years of mankind's exploration of the stars. A small hump between my shoulder blades contained a reservoir of fluid that could be pumped throughout the capillaries permeating the suit in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, acting as either a coolant or heating system, depending upon the ambient temperature of the external environment. Tiny electrical servos studded the fabric to ensure that the flexibility of the pilot's joints were not compromised, which was especially important for fighter pilots, who needed a more sensitive feel over their controls than other pilots. I didn't put on the RemLok helmet straight away, choosing instead to carry it under my arm. I found the helmet too claustrophobic to wear for long periods, so I only ever wore it when ship-to-ship combat seemed imminent. Laure was waiting for me next to the open cargo ramp at the rear of the Courier when I walked the short distance from the Commanders' Lounge to the landing pad. It was immediately obvious that the rapier-like vessel had undergone a significant overhaul. The usual white and grey paint scheme was noticeably more reflective and luminous under the harsh artificial lights of the docking bay. I could see that one of the shield booster modules and my kill warrant scanner had been replaced with a frame shift wake scanner and chaff launcher, and even an untrained eye would have been able to see that the grill-like frame shift drive emitters across the hull had been replaced wholesale with a model that I had never seen before.
"Other than the shiny new paint job, what have you done to my ship, Governor?" I reverted to a formal form of address, now that we were in a public space and were potentially being watched.
"It's not just a paint job, Lord Roche. The armoured bulkheads have been replaced with the very latest in mirrored, laser-ablative composite armour. Both of your targets prefer laser weapons. It should give you a decisive defensive advantage in any engagement." Laure stroked the polished mirror surface of the ship's port weapon nacelle with a gloved hand. "Your internal compartments have been reconfigured for self-sufficient running and interdiction hunting: a fuel scoop, a frame shift interdiction module, shield cell bank and a hull reinforcement package. All A-rated quality, of course."
"Thank you, Governor. That will be a great help." I nodded my thanks, grateful that she had gone to both the trouble and the expense. The Imperial Navy might not care if I survived the mission, but Laure clearly did.
"That's not the best part, Commander." Laure's eyes blazed with pride as she gazed up at me. "I was able to procure a military-grade frame shift drive. You will need to be able to out-jump and out-pace your quarry between star systems, hence the frame shift wake scanner. Your hyperspace range should now be just over 28 light years. I was also able to upgrade your burst lasers to beam lasers."
"How much did all this cost, Governor?" I gulped, taking in the enormity of Laure's investment in my safety. She took my arm and drew me closer to the ship standing in the cargo bay entrance, between the main thrusters, where we could not be seen by any of the cameras surrounding the landing pad.
"More than you can afford." Laure scoffed quietly, under her breath.
"How long will it take for me to pay you back?"
"About a hundred years of happy marriage. Consider it an investment in our future." Laure whispered. "I love you, Aemon."
"I love you, too." I whispered back into her ear. It was only protocol that prevented me from kissing her out of gratitude. "Anything else I need to know?"
"I've uploaded the latest intelligence we have to your ship's AI. It'll brief you on the way." Laure paused and turned back to me as she stepped back down the cargo ramp. "They know you're coming for them. Be careful."
"Aemon, don't get boiled."
"Laure... if I don't make i-"
"You will." Laure interrupted me firmly, a self-conscious hand gently caressing her belly. "You have to. One way or another, our families are getting blood-bonded."
I swallowed hard and nodded, not needing to ask what she meant. I could see the answer in the apprehensive look on her face, and I understood why she had insisted on being the one to brief me about the mission. "I won't be long. I promise."
"Farewell, Commander. Good hunting." Laure gave me a brave, encouraging smile. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. By the time I had collected my thoughts and reopened my eyes to say goodbye, she was gone.