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."
"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."