Friday, September 25, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Redemption - Chapter Six

Chapter Six - Hai Ho: Deep Space

I watched as space-time itself seemed to wrinkle over the bow of the Anaconda and a second later there was a flash of light as the pirate queen's ship vanished into hyperspace. A quick check of my radar scanner told me that the incoming ship was only ten kilometres away and closing fast. I brought (...)Gravitas(...) about in a 5g Immelmann half-loop, bringing the Courier up to its maximum speed.

"ASTRA, do you have an ID yet?"

"Negative, my lord. Both the ID and ship registration codes are encrypted."

"That'll be Zeta, alright." It was difficult to make out the silhouette of the ship against the background of stars, but the wide, elegant wings and bright yellow vapour trails from the outboard nacelles told me it was an Imperial Clipper. I double-checked that the seal on my flight suit helmet was airtight and that the RemLok emergency life support pack between my shoulder blades was fully charged and primed to deploy. Almost as an afterthought, I took my hand off the flight stick to retrieve the emergency survival pouch from beneath the right-hand dash panel and attach it to the utility clips on my thigh. As well as containing an extra cylinder of oxygen for the RemLok, the packet contained all of the utility equipment I usually took with me off-ship during a layover at a starport, including my dart gun. I didn't know what possible use it would be against a heavily armoured starship, but I felt inexplicably reassured knowing that I had it to hand.

There was no pithy preamble from Zeta. No ominous warnings or vengeful promises of a quick and painful death. The Clipper pilot simply opened fire as soon as we closed within weapons range. I noted that Zeta had opted for a port/starboard weapon setup, with beam lasers on their port wing, complemented by cannons on the starboard wing. It was a configuration favoured by experienced combateers that liked to exploit the Clipper's high pitch and roll rates. As Commander Clark had observed back at Kappa Fornacis, Zeta was a pro, not some wealthy amateur toying with the idea of a glorious bounty hunting career. I returned fire with my beam lasers, saving my precious cannon ammo for later, when it could do maximum damage against the Clipper's hull and power plant. Our ships whipped past each other at a combined closing velocity of nearly 800m/s, thrusters blazing as we tried to keep each other within the tracking ranges of our gimballed weapons. The Clipper's fox-like snout pitched violently, pushed upwards by long tongues of bright blue flames from the ventral thruster modules, aiming towards the tenuous blue-white vapour trail left in my wake. 

There was no real time to think about what I was doing. The Clipper's graphite grey colour scheme made it ghost into the background, only becoming clearly visible when it occulted the bright arm of the galactic plane. It required nearly all of my attention to keep the ship in sight, using the flashes from the thruster units around its hull to try and predict the Clipper's next move. Pure instinct guided my hands on the Courier's throttle and flight stick, making continuous adjustments to all six degrees of freedom - pitch, yaw, roll, positive and negative velocity vectors, plus lateral and vertical strafing - working hard to maintain a firing solution on the Clipper's power plant. 

Zeta was an exceptional pilot, completely at one with their ship, using the Clipper's boost speed and engine recharge rate to bring me back into the tracking range of its dorsal Class 3 hardpoints whenever I was starting to turn inside the larger vessel. With my Courier's hull having been moderately damaged during the fight with Thunda Sue and her unfortunate lackeys, I was already at a significant disadvantage, made worse by the deficit in my ship's firepower compared to Zeta's larger Clipper. My only chance was to use my ship's greater agility and faster acceleration rate to avoid getting dragged into a battle of attrition, and hope that my remaining supply of chaff would last long enough to take down the Clipper's shields and inflict critical damage to its power plant. 

I had to be specially alert for the tell-tale flashes from the Clipper's starboard hardpoints and watch for the propellant trails left behind by incoming cannon rounds. The Clipper's underwing cannon was identical to the one on (...)Gravitas(...)'s belly hardpoint, but the Class 3 cannon on its starboard wingtip nacelle was an order of magnitude more powerful. While my mirrored composite armour provided good protection from thermal weapons, it would not stand up to a barrage of Class 3 cannon rounds. Now over a minute into the battle, it was clear that we both had a similar level of piloting skill. The engagement was most likely to be won or lost on whoever made a mistake first. We had both disabled the AI assistance from the flight computer, preferring to trust our own intuition and judgment of speed and momentum as we entered a classical dogfighting sequence of rolling vertical and flat scissors, linked together with high-g cobra turns that traded off velocity for turn rate, all the while using our beam lasers to sear away chunks of each other's shields whenever the one ship overshot the other in the ongoing sequence of turns and half-loops. Sooner or later, it was inevitable that a misjudgement would be made that exposed one of our ships to a devastating volley of fire that would irrevocably tip the balance of the fight one way or the other.

"Glide." I whispered. Zeta was beginning to make the Clipper's superior weapon power tell, so I opted for some chemical assistance. The voice command triggered a brief stinging sensation on the inside of my left wrist as the adapted slave collar mechanism delivered a 5 millilitre dose of combat stimulant. The effect was almost instantaneous, my heart rate increasing to pump the drug throughout my body, allowing muscle fibres and brain neurons to fire faster. My sense of time started to dilate, seeing things as if they were occurring in slow motion, but with no impediment to the speed of my decision making. For the next three minutes, my thought processes and reflexes would be heightened, as if the flow of time outside my body had come almost to a complete stop. Incoming cannon rounds were almost trivial to evade as they crawled at a snail's pace across space towards my ship and I eased my ship out of the gimbal-range of the Clipper's beam lasers as I popped my second shield cell, reinforcing the damage-ablating energy shell surrounding (...)Gravitas(...) back to full power. 

I only had two shield cells remaining and I was starting to run low of chaff cartridges. The Clipper's shields were still at 30% strength and I only had four chaff screens left. Unless I could force Zeta into making a mistake, at current rate of damage over time, I would only have one chaff spread remaining after the Clipper's shields failed. It was unlikely that my cannon would be able to breach the armour surrounding the Clipper's power plant before I ran out of chaff. Without the disruptive effect the mylar ribbon screens had on the Clipper's targeting systems, I would be much more vulnerable to the disparity in weapon power between our ships. Then things would start to get really hairy, but there was no other option than to keep fighting. I had no future in the Empire unless I was able to eliminate Zeta. Even if I were to cut my losses and run, I was a now a fugitive across Federation space, leaving me only the unaligned independent worlds or the Old Worlds Alliance in which to take refuge. I dismissed the thought from my mind almost instantaneously, my resolve steeled by two thoughts: the first being that if I ran, I would never see Laure again, a thought even more intolerable than the second; that my family's name and honour would never be redeemed. 

No, I would not, could not, run. I would kill Zeta or die in the attempt. At least then, if Laure had indeed conceived our child on the night before I left Beta-1 Tucanae, as she had implied in the docking bay, at least then she could say truthfully that their father had died a true, loyal subject of the Empire. 

I loosed another salvo from my beam lasers, reducing the Clipper's shield strength to 25%, draining my weapons capacitor. I balanced my power distribution evenly between shields, weapons and thrusters, trying to stay as close as possible to the larger ship, which continued to use its higher boost speed to create enough separation between our vessels to allow Zeta to continue to make headway against my own shields. The immense power of the Clipper's Class 3 beam laser ripped huge gashes in my Courier's shield envelope, which struggled to re-equalise the overall strength of the deflective sphere, even as I continued to chip away at Zeta's own shield strength, using cannon rounds in tandem with my beam lasers to try and force a rupture that would expose the Clipper's hull. 

We were rapidly approaching the endgame of our dogfight, and I was beginning to find Zeta's silence rather unnerving. Elite combateers were well known for letting their ship's weapons speak for them, but given that Zeta knew the circumstances of why I was hunting them, I had expected them to respond with some kind of verbal psychological warfare, as Thunda Sue had done. Our ships pirouetted in interlinked spirals around a common centre of motion, as if in a wildly perturbed binary orbit, struggling to gain the slightest supremacy in kinetic energy and turn rate. I tried to stay as close to the Clipper as I could, relying on my Courier's smaller mass and greater manoeuvrability to keep me outside of the tracking cones of the Clipper's hardpoints. I released another yet load of chaff,  the thin silver ribbons glistering in the starlight as they erupted in a protective bubble around my ship. As the fire from Zeta's weapons drifted uselessly wide of their mark, I pressed my advantage, slashing a gaping wound in the Clipper's shield bubble with a prolonged discharge of energy from my Courier's twin beam lasers and emptying another clip of cannon rounds, the incredibly dense sharp-tipped darts sparking against the Clipper's reactive armour. Shaped, explosive plates lining the hull of the Clipper exploded outwards as my cannon rounds struck its hull, mitigating the damage from the sabot rounds.

"Oh, great." I muttered, dismayed at the ineffectiveness of my cannon rounds. The integrity of the power plant of Zeta's Clipper was still over 90%, despite the barrage I had subjected it to from my Manticore cannon. While Zeta's shields were on the verge of collapse, barely providing any damage mitigation against my weapon fire, I was running short of ammunition, making it marginal that I would be able rely on kinetic weapons alone to breach the integrity of the Clipper's power plant.

Concerned by the steady erosion of my ship's shield strength as (...)Gravitas(...) continued its waltz to the death with Zeta's Clipper, I deployed my penultimate shield cell charge, hoping to extend the battle long enough to at least give Zeta something to worry about as the Imperial Clipper's shields began to fail. The cell hissed as it surged energy into the ship's shield capacitor, but it would be another half-minute before the energy from the cell finished reinforcing the projected shield bubble itself. The effects of the Glide combat stimulant began to wane, my time-sense gradually speeding back up to normal as Zeta and I continued to manoeuvre for a final, fatal blow to the Clipper's power plant. I emptied my Courier's weapons capacitor with another long burst from my dual beam lasers, smiling as the Clipper's shields ripped open and collapsed, like a balloon bursting in slow motion, the energy field snapping backwards towards the overloaded shield projectors. As I rolled my ship over onto its back to allow my cannon to track in on the Clipper's fuselage, Zeta flipped their ship nose-to-tail, simultaneously boosting to kill their velocity vector almost instantly. There was no time to react before I saw the flashes of the cannons on the Clipper's starboard wing. With less than two hundred metres between our ships, the cannon rounds travelled from source to target in under a fifth of a second, too short a time to twist my ship out of their path. The larger, Class Three projectile arrived first, crashing through my shields at their most vulnerable point, by the wingtips, wrecking my port nacelle, destroying its array of thrusters along with one of my beam lasers. My eyes widened in horror when I saw the trajectory of the second cannon round, fired from the Clipper's underwing hardpoint.  I leant right as far as I could in my seat, bringing up my left arm to shield my face as the dart-like sabot smashed through my canopy, glancing off the top of the radar scanner to pulverise the navigation console. The resulting sparks were immediately snuffed out as the front half of the glass bubble enclosing the cockpit ruptured, hurling fragments outwards explosively into space. 

"Shields offline. Taking damage. Canopy compromised." ASTRA's voice sounded distantly through my flight helmet's headphones. I barely registered the words, rather more concerned that I only had thirty minutes' worth of oxygen for my RemLok system. Though as Zeta's beam lasers glinted in the darkness, vaporising my remaining beam laser and disabling the thrusters on my starboard nacelle, it appeared that I'd be lucky to live another thirty seconds. 

When Zeta's words finally came, I was surprised to see that it was via ship-to-ship text, rather than radio. And now you die, assassin.

The Clipper hung ominously over my ship maintaining station, as (...)Gravitas(...) drifted uselessly, the wrecked attitude thrusters on the remains of the Courier's wingtips no longer able to provide fine control over the ship's orientation or course. The main thrusters at the rear of the fuselage were still intact, but I wasn't sure what help they would be. The navigation computer was destroyed, so even if I was able to somehow avoid the Clipper's death blow long enough to charge my frame shift drive, there was no way to select a new system to escape to, let alone calculate a safe witchspace route. Another cannon round from the Clipper hammered into my ship, just aft of the cockpit.

"Hull integrity at 25%. Power plant breach detected. Containment failure in 20 seconds." ASTRA informed me, her cheery, sing-song pitch at odds with the dire nature of the news being delivered. There was no point in cursing, screaming obscenities at the universe, in the way so many other pilots did just before their end. Instead, I considered what options I still had left in the time that I had. Zeta was holding fire, waiting instead for the power plant's containment field to catastrophically breach, savouring the kill. I wasn't simply going to give up and wait to die. Instead, I had an idea. An idea born of lunatic optimism. An idea that would require exquisite timing and no small measure of luck. An idea that only needed three words to put into action.

"Glide." The first word made my wrist sting again, this time accompanied by a sense of queasiness as the stimulant reacted toxically with the byproducts from the first dose I had taken only moments ago. My time sense slowed to a crawl, seconds feeling like minutes as I spoke the second word to carry out my plan. "Boost."

The main engines of (...)Gravitas(...) fired for a final time, the afterburners surging the crippled Imperial Courier beneath the hull of Zeta's ship. I looked up, waiting until the Clipper's forward landing strut hatch was directly overhead before saying the third and final word. "Eject."

Explosive bolts detonated only six hundredths of a second after I had finished articulating the word, separating the remains of the canopy from the Courier's spaceframe. A further fifteen hundredths of a second later the rocket motors beneath my seat propelled me upwards with an acceleration of 25g, launching me towards the ventral hull of the Imperial Clipper. Half a second later, the maglock keeping me attached to the seat disengaged, allowing me to kick free from the chair, adjusting my momentum to follow the upward, sweeping curve of the Clipper's rear hull, my outstretched fingers scraping over the metal and composite plating until I came to a stop between the truncated cones of the ship's rear exhaust cowlings, holding tightly onto the edges of the ship's cargo hatch, establishing secure hand and footholds as Zeta eased the Clipper about to keep (...)Gravitas(...) in sight. My heightened reflexes allowed me to compensate for the blasts of acceleration from the manoeuvring thrusters as the ship turned, even as I searched the survival pouch attached to my right thigh for the small metal and composite cuboid I had taken from Commander Clark at Kappa Fornacis. 
I attached the limpet to the hatch controller module and it immediately went to work, hacking the mechanism to open the cargo bay. There was a bright flash over my shoulder and I turned my head just in time to see the final death throes of (...)Gravitas(...), the breach from the power core popping the sleek ship's hull like a kernel of corn in a frying pan. The destruction of the ship would be logged by the local authority and was undoubtedly already being flagged up at the headquarters of the Imperial Navy. I didn't have the time to worry about the potential fallout at Achenar over my presumed death, as I was too busy trying to avoid my actual death. If I wasn't able to get inside Zeta's ship before the Clipper engaged its frame shift drive, the consequences would be rather unpleasant: my body would be ripped to pieces at a sub-atomic level by the energies that suffused witchspace. The tiny OLED screen on the cargo hatch limpet flashed, signalling that its work was complete. The door to the cargo bay opened with a shower of ice crystals, as the atmospheric gases inside the bay vented into space, the moisture in the air condensing almost instantly. I eased myself inside the ship feet first and prized the limpet away from the controller mechanism to get the hatch to reseal behind me.

After I had settled both feet onto the floor, I felt the deck plates vibrating beneath my feet as the Clipper's frame shift drive span up to full power. Zeta evidently didn't want to stick around for long at the scene of my ship's final battle. Safe for the moment in the cargo bay, I ducked between two of the empty cargo racks and took stock of my resources. Despite the loss of my ship, my mission orders were still achievable. I would just have to eliminate Zeta personally, rather than destroy them with their ship. I rummaged through my survival pack for equipment that might help me on the Clipper's flight deck against Zeta. I had my flechette pistol, but while the weapon was relatively low-powered, its darts were more than capable of piercing the Clipper's canopy. In the event of a hull breach, there was not enough time for me to travel to a friendly or neutral system, given that my RemLok's air supply was already partially drained, so I couldn't risk using the gun. The other contents of the survival pack, including a weatherproof, self-inflating tent, self-heating food ration packs, water pouches, and all-in-one multi-tool did not immediately suggest themselves as suitable improvised hand-to-hand weapons. Even the main blade on the multi-tool was too short and unlikely to be sharp enough to slice open a carbon nanotube-reinforced flight suit. There was, however, one item in the pack that might prove useful - an adhesive webbing glove. The glove's oval-shaped palm pad contained a pressure-sensitive dispenser that could be used to create spider web strands to lash down objects, or create shelters from loose materials in the field and secure them against strong winds or violent ground movements. The epoxy-based glue enveloping the webbing strands was designed to dry to a hard, solid resin within a second upon its exposure to air. Each adhesive pad could dispense twenty metres of 5cm-wide webbing, hopefully far more than I would need in the circumstances. I slipped the adhesive glove over my right hand, hoping that it could be used to help subdue Zeta quickly, giving me the option of turning the rogue agent over to the Imperial authorities or executing them as I had been instructed. 

The hull groaned and shook as the Imperial Clipper frame shifted into witchspace, surging to a new star system at an equivalent of tens of thousands of times the speed of light. Feeling the effects of the battle stimulant still coursing in my bloodstream, I felt my way past the cargo racks, practically in pitch darkness, to the door that would give me access to the main crew space of the ship. At least I didn't have to worry about any anti-intruder systems. A hostile ship-to-ship boarding action was not generally considered to be a risk for ships below Corvette-class and the hijacking of vessels outside of starports was exceptionally rare. I hoped that it certainly wouldn't be something Zeta was expecting. Treading as lightly and silently as I could, I made my way down the central access corridor past the small galley and the two crew staterooms to the access door to the bridge.

I waited until I felt the whole body of the ship tremble again before triggering the switch to open the bridge airlock. The resonant thudding of the frame shift drive spinning down covered the pneumatic hiss of the opening hatch. The bridge was bathed in the bright orange light of a G-type star that filled the panoramic viewport looking over the ship's smooth, broad nosecone. I noticed that Zeta, unusually, was sitting in the left-hand seat of cockpit. Lone Imperial Clipper commanders usually took the right-hand chair. Zeta dropped the Clipper out of the normal post-hyperspace supercruise state into normal space to let the frame shift drive recharge without fear of being interdicted, a precaution I assumed meant that we were still in space where the presence of an Imperial-made ship would be considered an act of provocation, at the very least. Zeta saw my reflection moving across the canopy and did a double take before rising from the chair to try to defend themselves.

My combat instincts enflamed by the Glide still in my system, I focussed my entire attention on the movements of Zeta's hands and feet. The traitor operative may have been a hugely talented pilot, but their movements in hand-to-hand combat were slow and predictable, thanks to my drug-enhanced state. I ducked a flailing punch easily, stepping inside Zeta's guard, a sweep of my right leg kicking Zeta behind both knees to lift their feet from the deck, my left hand snagging the outstretched arm by the wrist, pulling it forward and up to apply a rolling torque on my shorter, more slender adversary. While Zeta spun helplessly in the air, I activated the webbing glove to cocoon the agent's arms and legs in a tangle of rock-hard resin-encrusted rope. Once Zeta's limbs were sufficiently immobilised and strapped together, I deactivated the webbing glove and grabbed the rogue Imperial pilot by the shoulder and ankle to slam them face first into the flight deck. Zeta tried to struggle, but their limbs were completely locked in place by the resin-impregnated strapping, and the agent was utterly unable to move, as if trapped in amber.

A quick check of the Clipper's radar scanner and status board told me that we were alone in a stable orbit around the star and that the atmospheric pressure in the cabin was normal. I took off my flight helmet, glad to be freed from the skin-tight and claustrophobic apparel. With Zeta successfully neutralised, I had a difficult decision to make. Should I try to deliver Zeta back to Achenar alive, or simply kill them, as I had been ordered originally? Wordless noises of frustration leaked from Zeta's helmet. With a flick of my foot, I rolled the immobilised pilot onto their back, noticing for the first time from the cut of the flight suit that Zeta was female. I knelt beside her and the muffled sounds of frustration behind her helmet turned to rapid, panicked breathing when Zeta saw my face. She tried in vain to wriggle away from me in apparent terror. 

I understood her reaction from the point of view that she had been rendered helpless and was trapped in the same place with someone that had been sent to kill her, but the sense of mortal terror now radiating from Zeta had only started when she had seen me without my flight helmet. My curiosity piqued, I set about unfastening Zeta's helmet, curious to know the face of the person I had been sent to kill.

"No!" Zeta screamed, as I flipped the latches to break the airtight seals on her flight helmet. There was something familiar about her voice that triggered an old memory. I had to place a hand firmly on her chest to hold Zeta still as I wrenched off her helmet. I froze when I saw her fear-lined face, recognising the cut of her chin-length strawberry blonde hair. 

"Mother?" The word sounded ridiculous coming from my mouth. I had watched her being executed almost a quarter of a century ago. Or had I? "How in the hells...?"

"Aemon?" Zeta stopped struggling, her luminous green eyes narrowing in suspicion, but her question carried an air of hope. "Is that really you?"

Bewildered by the turn in events, I sat down on the flight deck next to her, looking down onto the face of Cassandra Roche - my mother, Imperial Agent and twice a traitor to the Empire.  "Don't act so surprised. Your pet pirate queen told me you knew it was me hunting you."

"I suspected the Imperials would send you. I've been keeping tabs on your career, Aemon. You've done well, so far. You have my piloting skill and your father's talent for innovative thinking."

"You also know why I'm here, then."

"The son atones for the sins of the parents. Honour before sentiment. It's the Imperial way." her words dripped with bitter contempt.

"You brought this upon yourself. You never should have turned against the Empire. Why did you do it, mother?"

"Aemon, you must release me." Zeta pleaded, trying in vain to break her plastic bonds. 

"I don't think so, considering you just destroyed my ship and tried to kill me. You've got some explaining to do before I decide anything."

"Aemon, I know this must be difficult for you. It's not how it looks. You have to free me."

"I'm not doing anything until you tell me what the hell is going on. How does someone go from being a traitor to the Empire to one of their most valued agents?"

"I'm not telling you anything until you get me out from this ridiculous webbing." Her voice carried a familiar edge of haughty defiance to it, the same tone with which she'd used during her frequent arguments with my father back at our country estate on Summerland, but still my instincts told me that something was a little bit awry. There was a slight tremor to her voice that couldn't be completely explained by the stress of the situation.

"Ah!" I exclaimed, clapping my hands together loudly, shaking my head before looking down to meet her gaze, sadly. "I get it now. You're not my mother. You're a clone."

"Aemon! How dare you-!" Zeta spluttered, incensed by the accusation.

"The way you roll your r's. Mother never spoke like that. It's a flaw in the DNA coding of your speech centres. You might have her face, but you're not her. The only thing you have in common is that you're both traitors. They must have taken the tissue cultures just before you were executed."

"No... you're wrong! I am your mother. The Empire, and your beloved Laure, have lied to you."

"That's what Stenberg said. About what, exactly?"

"I'm no traitor. I was never loyal to the Empire in the first place. Neither was your father. You've been brainwashed by the Empire for too long to remember. Your father and I were deep-cover agents for the Federal Intelligence Service. You come from a Federation family, Aemon. Cut my bonds and I'll take you home - to your true home."

"What was your mission? For the Federation, I mean."

"That's not important right now."

"I'll be the judge of that. Tell me, otherwise I set a course for Achenar right now."

"You always were an obdurate boy." Zeta grimaced, her tone disapproving. 

"Stenberg told me I inherited that trait from you." I replied, pointedly. I retrieved my flechette pistol from my survival pack and made a show of checking that it was loaded and ready to fire, ejecting and reinserting the clip and chambering a dart using the cocking slider mechanism. "Or I can execute you now, if you prefer."

"You would threaten your own mother?" 

"You're not my mother. My mother is dead. Real mothers don't abandon their children for their own selfish gain. Whether you're a clone or not, you don't have the right to claim the title of 'mother'. For all its faults, the Empire nurtured, raised me and gave me a future, not you."

"If you kill me, you'll never find out the truth." Zeta warned, the first signs of genuine fear creeping into her voice.

"I'm not going to kill you. I've killed thousands in my time, but never someone who's not capable of defending themselves or fighting back." I put away my dart gun and stood up, stooping to pull Zeta upright off the deck with both hands. "You can answer for your crimes back at Imperial Centre. I'm taking you to Capitol."

"Aemon, please. Listen to reason. You can't do this. You'll always be viewed with suspicion by the upper echelons of Imperial society. But in the Federation, your talent and ability could take you to the very top." Zeta implored, as I dragged her from the flight deck towards one of two crew staterooms.

"I gave you your chance. Don't expect the interrogators at Achenar to be quite so polite." I replied coldly, lying Zeta on the bunk in the larger of the two staterooms. I used the webbing glove to pin the immobilised agent to the bed, so that they wouldn't be injured, should I have to engage in any high-g manoeuvring while I made my way back to Imperial space.

"Aemon! No! Stop, don't do this!" Zeta shrieked as I returned to the cockpit, sealing the hatch to the stateroom behind me. Her muffled pleas faded into silence as I walked back to the bridge, considering what to do next. 

I sat down in the commander's seat and scanned the ship's flight controls and the status of its secondary systems. I was surprised to see that the ship had no voice comms system at all, explaining why Zeta's only contact with me during our battle had come via a text channel. Ship-to-ship text communication was limited to direct line of sight, meaning that I had no way of communicating directly back to the Empire. Somehow I would have to make it back to Imperial space without my legal status in Federation space invoking a swarm of attention from bounty hunters and local police forces alike. Not only that, as I was now flying the ship of the number one most wanted criminal in the Empire, I could hardly expect a friendly reception once I cleared the Federation border systems. Manipulating the galactic map with an archaic keyboard and touch-screen interface (the ship didn't appear to have an AI installed), I noticed that one of the closest Imperial systems to my current position was Beta-1 Tucanae, five jumps away. The navigation computer indicated that it would be possible to reach the system without needing to refuel. Once there, all I needed to do was to find some way to contact Laure, and she would be able to use her considerable political influence to allow me to deliver Zeta to the headquarters of the Imperial Navy at Achenar. The only catch was I had to find some way of convincing the local security forces not to blast me out of the sky before I was able to explain the situation. Tapping the survival pouch still attached to my thigh, I had an idea. Reattaching my RemLok helmet to my flight suit, I pulled out the multi-tool from the pouch and briefly left the ship for a short EVA, making a small but significant modification to the main engine cowling, just above the sweeping curve where the wing root joined the ship's fuselage. I finished the work and got back inside the ship with just three minutes' worth of oxygen remaining in my RemLok's supply. After securing and re-pressurising the airlock, I detached the helmet once more before heading back up to the bridge, via the stateroom I'd left Zeta in. 

"Are you feeling any more talkative yet?" I asked, as the door to the stateroom hissed open. A quick glance at Zeta revealed that she wouldn't be doing any more talking. Her neck was twisted, as if great pain, her head hanging backwards, limply. I ran across the stateroom to the bunk, taking her head into my hands and checked for signs of life. Zeta wasn't breathing and I could not feel a pulse when I checked the carotid artery on her neck. Her green eyes stared dully up at the ceiling, robbed of their vitality, conveying only the shock and distress of her final few seconds of life. When I opened her mouth I caught a faint whiff of almonds and saw that her two rearmost molars on her lower jaw were smashed, paper-thin shards of broken white ceramic littering the back of her mouth. Rather than be interrogated by Imperial Intelligence, Zeta had chosen the only option for escape she'd had left open to her, biting down on the fake teeth to release a suicide dose of cyanide. Her death meant that my mission was complete, but rather than feeling relieved that I had passed the Empire's test of my ability and loyalty, I couldn't shake a sensation of melancholy. I'd probably never know now whether anything Stenberg or Zeta had told me was true or not. Not that it mattered. There was only one thing left for me to do: return to the only home I had left, and the only person in the galaxy I truly loved.

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