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."