Thursday, October 08, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Five

Clayahu: Clayahu 2 Rendezvous Point

We had arrived an hour early at the muster point to meet the strike force that was going to assault the local Mafia's Boston Ring outpost. The coordinates given to us by the strike force leader, Prince Tybalt du Plessis, commanding officer of INV Duval's Glory, were approximately twenty thousand kilometres from Clayahu 2, in a geostationary orbit from the barren, metal-rich planetoid. I had flown for du Plessis before on several occasions during assignments for the Imperial Navy and he had earned a well-founded reputation for being efficient without being officious, and personable without being overly familiar. His intelligence, strategic nous and no-frills command style had earned du Plessis the prestigious command of one of the most powerful ships in Senator Torval's personal fleet, a formidable Majestic-class Interdictor cruiser. The giant, graceful vessels were armed with devastating arrays of turreted rail guns and interceptor cannons, able to repel all but the most determined of mass attacks by fighter-class vessels. Escorted by four squadrons of fast, nimble Imperial Fighters, a single Interdictor was more than capable of subduing and asserting control over a poorly funded and maintained industrial outpost. 

Boston Ring itself was briefly only visible as a bright, fast-moving mote of light disappearing out of view beyond the shadowy limb of the planet. In a little over forty minutes, it would reappear on the other side of the planet and by the time the outpost was ready to disappear back into the umbra cast by the planet, the station would be in Imperial hands. There was a flash of light to starboard as the four converted Asp Explorers dropped out of supercruise in a flawless echelon left formation. They flew Zemina Torval's faction colours proudly on their dorsal hull plates, a pair of rampant eagles emblazoned on each side of their cockpits. Each Asp had been modified to replace the cargo compartments with an armoury and space for fifty heavily armed and armoured marines to fly in relative comfort. Each ship was armed with two beam laser turrets and four gimballed multi-cannons, making them a formidable combat force. Flying under the cover of the fighter screen, escorted by my Clipper, and with the Interdictor on overwatch, it was unlikely that the Mafia forces protecting the station would pose a serious threat to the troop carriers. My job was to ensure that the four Asps were able to make a forced entry via the station's landing pad. My Clipper was too large to dock with the station, so instead I was to mark the location of the station's defensive guns with my targeting computer and keep the locals busy. The target data would then be fed by ASTRA directly to the fire control systems of the rail gun turrets on Duval's Glory, which would strip the station of its defensive guns before the Asps came into range.

An encrypted transmission flashed up on the comms console and I accepted the call. It was Prince du Plessis, with my final orders. "Viscount Roche, this Duval's Glory."

"I am at your service, your Excellency." I acknowledged, replying over the quantum key-encrypted channel. The Interdictor would be not joining us at the rendezvous point, signalling instead from the safety of witchspace. It would tax the jump drives of the cruiser too much to make back-to-back frame shifts, and it didn't make good tactical sense to bring the cruiser into realspace, where it could be easily detected by the defence forces on the platform, before the trap was sprung.

"Thank you, Aemon. It's good to have you along. You're going to be flying vanguard. We'll give you a ten minute head start to locate and geo-tag the outpost's defensive platforms. Then you're to fly interference and engage any Mafia ships in the battlespace until Duval's Glory has eliminated the platform's guns. My fighter squadrons will give you tactical support. As soon as the outpost's defences are neutralised, you're to provide an escort for the troop carriers."

"Acknowledged, my Prince. And once the marines are aboard?"

"Feel free to assist in the elimination of any remaining Mafia ships. But once the Asps have docked with the station, I will consider your obligation to the mission to have been fulfilled."

"As you wish, your Excellency. Do you have any other instructions?"

"Just make sure you're within five kilometres of the outpost when I bring Duval's Glory out of witchspace." du Plessis advised. "I wouldn't want your ship to be damaged by the energy rift when we make the transit back to realspace." 

"By your command, my Prince. Commencing target approach now. Frame shift in thirty seconds." I realigned Fell From The Top (...) onto an intercept vector with Boston Ring and tapped the command console to instruct ASTRA to charge up the ship's main drive. 

"Starting the mission clock now." du Plessius replied, his voice even and calm. If he was excited or nervous about the battle to come, it was impossible to tell from his speech. "Mark. You've got ten minutes, Viscount Roche. Use them well."

"I will, my Prince. Good hunting."

"Good hunting, Commander. For the glory of the Empire!" du Plessis urged, before closing the channel.

The space surrounding the fox-like snout of my ship appeared to wrinkle and crease as the energy field emitted from the frame shift drive began to increase in strength, uncoiling the higher dimensions of witchspace to allow my ship into the conduit that would propel me across the final twenty thousand kilometres of space separating me from Boston Ring in less than a minute. ASTRA marked the countdown with a sense of calm anticipation that only an AI could feel, knowing that we were about to pitched into the chaos of battle. "Five, four, three, two, one... engage."

Karina drew in a sharp breath as we jumped, surprised by the violence of the ship's abrupt acceleration. The HUD filters on the canopy flickered into life, tracking the movement of ships in supercruise flying to and from the planet, showing the outer limits of the gravity well around Clayahu 2 that would disrupt the speed of my approach and also the position of Boston Ring in its orbit. I skirted the edge of the planet's gravity well as closely as I dared, knowing that time was of the essence, constantly adjusting the throttle and joystick to maintain an optimal approach. I was pleased to see out of the corner of my eye that Karina had her hands on her disabled flight controllers, feeling how the motion of the ship was influenced by the subtlety of my HOTAS inputs. While it was unlikely that I would be able to turn her into a combat-ready pilot, but there was no reason to think why she couldn't pick up enough skill to be able to safely land or undock from a space station. Enough skill, perhaps, to begin a new career as a freighter pilot and give her true independence, should Laure not be able to track down Karina's family. 

I waited until Fell From The Top(...) was within three hundred kilometres of Boston Ring before bringing the ship out of supercruise back into realspace. In the five seconds it took for the frame shift to complete, my ship closed to within ten kilometres of the outpost, easily within sensor range to start marking the location of the station's defensive platforms for the gunnery teams on Duval's Glory to neutralise, so that the troop carriers would be able to make their approach to the Mafia-controlled outpost without coming under heavy weapons fire.

It didn't take long for the presence of my ship to attract the attention of the outpost's governor. My Clipper was too large to dock at the station, so while my ship wasn't powerful enough to directly do major damage to the outpost itself, the mere presence of it nearby was enough to raise concerns amongst the station's command staff. 

"Unidentified ship, this is Boston Ring Control. Please state the purpose of your visit." 

"Greetings, Control." I responded, trying to sound as unthreatening as possible. I glanced left at Karina in her flight seat and the look of wonder on her face as she gazed upon the brightly-lit outpost and the nearby planet was enough to inspire me to improvise a story that would keep the defence forces off balance until the main assault began. I double-checked the countdown on the HUD. Duval's Glory would arrive in precisely eight minutes and twenty-seven seconds. "My wife and I are on a tour of the local systems for our honeymoon. I was told Clayahu 2 was worth a visit and now I can see why. I don't think I've ever seen sulphur geysers as large as these!"

"You've got a strange taste in planets, unidentified ship." the controller replied, baffled. "Stay clear of the station and its approach vectors, or we might have to give you a bloody nose."

"Naturally, Control. I don't want any trouble." I lied, reassuringly. I skirted the fringes of the outpost's defensive sphere, just beyond the effective range of the half dozen autonomous gun platforms. Each one bristled with Class Six beam laser turrets and turreted multi-cannons, each one powerful enough to devastate the shields of my ship or one of the troop transporter Asps in under five seconds. I watched the barrels of the beam lasers track my movements, even though my ship was tantalisingly out of range. It took less than five minutes to mark the coordinates of the six platforms into the navigation computer, ASTRA automatically relaying them on a hyperwave channel to the fire control systems on Duval's Glory, still waiting in witchspace.

"Unidentified ship, I don't know what the hell you think you're doing out there, but I don't like it. Just why aren't you transmitting your ID, anyway?" The controller's question was heavily laden with suspicion. "You've got thirty seconds to get the hell out of here before I start launching fighters."

I checked my ship's location to make sure I was in the narrow safe zone between the outpost's defensive screen and the space where Duval's Glory was about to make its entrance. The intelligence report had revealed that there would be anything up to five fighter-class vessels in the outpost's restricted docking hangar. They would most likely either be Sidewinders or retro-fitted F-63 Condors stolen from Federation shipyards. Small, nimble ships but hardly a threat to my Clipper or the assault force now less than a minute away. I replied not with words, but by deploying hardpoints, arming my weapons. The hostile act did not go unnoticed by the outpost's flight controller.

"You asked for it, unidentified ship. Come closer, so I can show you what it means to cross the Clayahu Mafia!"

I turned to Karina. "And so it begins. Put on your helmet."

Four Sidewinders daubed in the gaudy colour scheme of the local Mafia surged out from the security force hangar, reforming quickly into a vic formation, their weapons already primed. I split my power distribution evenly between my weapons and shield systems, wanting to do as much damage as possible on the first pass. My manoeuvring options were limited to staying within the two kilometre thick shell trapped between the fringes of the outpost's weapons range and the wider bubble of space beyond, where the Duval's Glory was due to appear. Any ship caught in the spatial disruption of the Interdictor's witchspace cloud as the cruiser made the frame shift would be badly damaged at best. The Sidewinders would try to lure me into the weapons range of the outpost's gun platforms, whereas I wanted to tempt them away from the station, out where the small fighters could be destroyed in the maelstrom of energies surging from the cruiser's frame shift cloud. It took the Sidewinders only fifteen seconds to get within weapons range, and all four fighters let fly with their weapons as soon as they had a target lock. 

"Master, look out!" Karina cried, raising her arms to shield her face as the blindingly bright red laser beams reached across space to splash across the shields protecting my Clipper's cockpit. The dull, hollow thuds of the pulse laser strikes echoed in our ears, beating a frenzied rhythm as the strikes coruscated across my shields. The sound was simulated, of course. The ship's AI interpreted sensor data to give the flight crew precise positional audio not just for incoming weapons fire, but also the throttle settings for other ships and even environmental hazards. The sonic feedback greatly enhanced a pilot's situational awareness. As a cadet, I had once docked my Eagle at Adams Orbital with my eyes closed, relying only on the AI's simulated soundscape for feedback. I held my fire until the Mafia ships were within a kilometre and targeted the lead Sidewinder, reversing the throttle. My beam lasers boiled through the Sidewinder's shields in less than two seconds. Evidently the Mafia had not bothered upgrading the basic ship's subsystems. A quarter of a second later the tiny fighter exploded as two cannon rounds smashed through the Sidewinder's lightweight hull plating from point-blank range. The concussive pop was sharp and brief in my ears. Karina gasped as I reversed the throttle again, engaging the afterburners on my main thrusters to loop in behind the three remaining Mafia ships, the brute force of the acceleration making her sink into the supportive gel-padding of her seat.

"Remember to keep your hands on the controls." I advised her. "It'll help you predict how the ship is going to move. It's the best way to prevent motion sickness."

I snap-rolled the Clipper to align my beam lasers with one of the retreating Sidewinders, draining the capacitors dry. The shields of the Sidewinder collapsed, the metal beneath glowing and boiling away as the twin crimson beams ripped through the armour plating covering the fighter's power plant. The other two Sidewinders had broken formation and were trying to flank me as the ship I was shooting at tried to flee for the safety of the outpost's defensive bubble. The crippled Mafia ship never made it, erupting into a fireball as a pair of cannon rounds stabbed through the core of its power plant. My shields were still holding nicely as I disabled the Clipper's flight assistance to boost quickly away from the inner edge of my safe zone. I redirected power from my weapons systems to reinforce my shields, which rang with the battering of pulse laser fire from the two remaining Mafia ships. I rotated my ship until it pointed directly at one of the fighters, the other Sidewinder trailing behind in the luminescent vapour trails left in the wake of the Clipper's main thrusters. My shields were now down to 30% strength, so I activated a shield cell, bringing them back up to nearly full capacity. As I closed in on the rapidly approaching Sidewinder, I collapsed its shields with a well-timed barrage of cannon fire. Flame licked out of the hole left behind in the cooling vents to the port side of the canopy, the fighter's fragile hull already breached. As the Sidewinder whipped past at a combined closing speed of nearly half a kilometre per second, I held my course, keeping both Mafia vessels behind me. 

"Capital-class signature detected." ASTRA piped up, exactly as the countdown timer ticked to zero. Three kilometres to starboard the very fabric of space appeared to tear and rip and lightning-like discharges crackled, leaping out of the rift between realspace and the higher dimensions of witchspace. The colossal, elegant form of Duval's Glory materialised through the gap, shimmering like a golden spearhead in the cool orange glow of Clayahu, the deafening sonic cue signalling the ship's arrival groaning like tortured metal being twisted by unimaginable forces. As soon as the storm cloud surrounding the ship had dissipated, the witchspace energies eventually sparking away into the void, the cruiser began disgorging its squadrons of Imperial Fighters, which swarmed across space to support my ship. The sharp prow of the cruiser angled towards the outpost, the three rail gun turrets lining the deck before the Interdictor's bridge swivelling in unison, bright blue beams obliterating the outpost's gun platforms in seconds, thanks to the location scans I had performed only a few minutes earlier. 

"Viscount Roche, the outpost's defences are down. Please escort my troop carriers." du Plessis ordered, just as the four modified Asps dropped out of supercruise in perfect echelon left formation, less than two kilometres from my starboard wingtip. 

"By your command, your grace." I replied, leading the way for the troop ships. The two remaining Sidewinders were fleeing for the outpost, but could neither outrun my ship nor its weapons fire. I dispatched both ships before they were able to dock at the outpost. Fell From The Top(...) streaked over the top of the platform with only a scant hundred metres of clearance, buzzing the control tower deliberately to upset the touchy controller who had challenged me to get closer to his station. As I turned for another pass, I noticed that two ships were launching. The HUD identified them as hostile and Mafia-aligned. "Heads-up. Enemy Python and Viper launching."

I used my ship's superior speed to get back into formation with the troop transports, reforming our squad to provide mutually supportive field of fire, just as the Python and Viper finished undocking from the outpost. Duval's Glory was now only five kilometres from the outpost, the sweeping lines of the cruiser's hull dwarfing the ugly, angular station. Prince du Plessis's voice sounded over the intercom. "More enemy contacts arriving. Looks like a flight of Cobra Mark IIIs, an Anaconda and another Python. Roche, concentrate on the Pythons. We'll mop up the rest. Just make sure those Asps get to the station intact."

"Transports, this is Roche. Target the Viper, then head to the outpost. I'll handle the Python."

I got curt acknowledgements from each of the Asp pilots, who opened fire on the incoming Viper simultaneously with all weapons. I unleashed the power of my own beam lasers, ripping open the shields of the Viper before it got within two kilometres of the Asps. The combined power of the Asps sixteen multi-cannons tore the heavy fighter to ribbons in under a second, the explosive decompression of its hull sounding only the most feeble of pops as the Viper's cockpit ruptured. The shredded wreckage drifted through our formation as the Asps lit their afterburners, boosting towards the outpost. The Python moved to intercept, almost certainly knowing that the Asps carried assault troops that would seize control of the station. I opened fire on the Python, targeting its power plant for a quick kill. I drained the capacitors of my beam lasers and emptied the remaining rounds from the current clip loaded in my cannons, wanting to take down the Python's shields as quickly as possible. 

"Full power to weapons." I ordered ASTRA. I heard Karina hyperventilating as she tried to stay calm. She wasn't used to the high g-forces of ship-to-ship combat, but I saw she was still gripping the flight controllers on her seat, giving her something to concentrate on and stave off any sense of nausea. I had warned her about how unpleasant it would be if she were to be sick in her RemLok helmet. I gave her a message of encouragement as my ship spiralled in behind the Mafia Python. "Keep breathing, Karina. You're doing well."

The Python was bristling with pulse laser turrets that were firing at will both at my ship and the flight of Asps. The troop ships plunged directly at the station, defensive chaff screen glittering in their wake like celebratory fireworks, as the crew of the Python debated just how hard they should pursue the Asps, given that they were under fire from my Imperial Clipper. With the Asps less than two kilometres away from the outpost, the Mafia Python must have realised the chance of holding onto the station was now gone. The Python made a break for clear space, its turrets flashing their fire back at me to ward off pursuit. ASTRA signalled that the Mafia vessel was powering up its frame shift drive. "Power surge detected."

I knew that the Python wouldn't be able to jump while its turrets were deployed, and my shields were still easily capable of warding off the effects of the intermittent fire they were absorbing. There was no way that the wedge-shaped vessel could outrun my Clipper, as I boosted back into optimal weapons range, stripping away the Python's protective energy envelope with a sustained burst of fire from my two beam lasers. Three quick concussive reports from my twin cannons pummelled into the exposed belly of the Python as it rolled and weaved in a predictable evasive manoeuvre. I only had a fraction of a second to note the irony in the ship's name, A Million In Prizes, before the release of energy from the breached power plant ruptured the hull of the vessel as easily as igniting a hydrogen balloon with a spark. I brought Fell From The Top(...) about, just as the four Asps forced a landing on the exposed pads on the outpost's upper superstructure. The pads immediately retracted into the hangars, their controls overridden by the hacking modules broadcasting through the modified Asps' comms arrays. Two pads were too small to accommodate the Asp in the hangars, so the marines inside the transports, resplendent in their mirror-armoured battlesuits, disembarked en mass via the cargo loading hatches and stormed the control towers, shooting out the windows with their laser rifles to gain access to the station.

"Duval's Glory, this is Roche. The strike team is secure. Boarding operations have begun." I reported, boosting my ship towards the melee surrounding the Interdictor. 

"Well done, Commander. Transmitting your payment now." du Plessis replied. The HUD flashed, acknowledging the receipt of the half million credits Senator Torval had promised for my assistance with the operation. "You're free to leave, or you can stick around for the mop-up. My scouts report that the Clayahu Mafia are massing ships near the system nav point for a counter-strike. We could no doubt deal with them, but your assistance would be valuable."

I glanced at Karina to check how she was. From the look of her body language, Karina had either fainted or was getting a taste for the stresses of battle. Her breathing was regular and she no longer tensely gripped at the controls on her flight seat. I had already destroyed a quarter of the ships necessary to fulfil my combat contract with Zemina and it would be safer to try to finish the job with the support of the Interdictor and its fighter squadrons. The cruiser and its fighters had taken down the five Cobra Mark IIIs that had joined the battle a few minutes previously, but the Anaconda and Python were still stubbornly resisting. It would be both pleasurable and profitable to stick around for the time being. "It would be my honour to assist you, my Prince."

"Thank you, Aemon. I'll pass on a good word to the Senator. Glad to have you along." 

As I closed in on the Interdictor I could hear the electronic, throbbing snarl of the vessel's three rail gun turrets slashing away at the Mafia Anaconda's shields. The Anaconda tumbled and span under the onslaught, its own turrets spitting white hot clouds of shrapnel towards the Imperial Fighters swarming around it. One of the wiry craft succumbed into a white hot vapour that was swiftly extinguished by the vacuum of space, accompanied by a short, sharp crack in my earphones. I reset the power distributor to recharge my shields and weapons systems evenly, joining the attack on the Anaconda, my beam lasers slashing glowing trails of destruction over the dorsal hull of the privateer frigate. The thrum of the Interdictor's rail gun turrets was joined by rhythmic, incessant chatter of the interceptor cannons, the high velocity projectiles peeling back the armoured plating over the Anaconda's nose, venting the cargo compartments to the vacuum of space. As the Anaconda's shield envelope shimmered and collapsed, I unleashed the kinetic power of my gimballed cannons, battering the canopy of the Anaconda's cockpit until I heard the telltale crack and saw the gases inside freeze almost instantly as they expanded into the void beyond. With the Anaconda's crew preoccupied by the threat of oxygen deprivation, I angled my Clipper in behind the larger vessel, carving chunks away from the plating protecting the ship's power plant. A wing of Imperial Fighters swept in alongside my ship, each one discharging a torrent of plasma pulse cannon bolts that seared ragged holes in the Anaconda's hull. There was a loud bang as my beam lasers boiled through the  containment field protecting the frigate's power plant, the rear half of the vessel disintegrating into thousands of pieces of shrapnel no larger than my hand. A blizzard of fragments pinged off my shields, inflicting only superficial damage, as I turned my attention to the final Mafia ship trying to defend the outpost.

The Python was already badly overmatched by the dozen Imperial Fighters swirling around it, pouring fire into its armour, the Python's coolant systems overheating as they tried to dump excess heat out into space, the cooling vents already wide open and glowing bright yellow as the five pulse laser turrets arrayed around the hull struck out at any ships within range. I didn't waste time selecting a subsystem to target, instead opening fire with both my beam lasers and my cannons as soon as the stricken Mafia transport came within range. The Python's hull split open with an explosive crack, the hydrogen fuel stores cooking off with the oxygen inside the vessel, blowing open the cockpit to space in a fraction of a second. 

The lull in hostilities as we waited for the counter-attack to arrive allowed me to take stock of my ammunition level - both cannons still had more than 70 rounds left - and also check how Karina was adapting to the rigours of ship-to-ship combat. I turned to face her, the young former slave's face concealed by the rigid RemLok mask and helmet. "You alright?"

"I... I think so, master." Karina replied, after considering the question for a few seconds. "I'm not sure."

"Exciting and terrifying, huh?" I asked, smirking behind my helmet.

"Yes." Karina clutched her flight controllers a little bit harder.

"Well, at least it looks like you're not prone to space sickness." I told her, encouragingly. "Most first-timers in combat would be gargling their lunch by now."

"I like to feel the ship move."

"That's good. I'll make a combat pilot out of you yet, Karina."

"I'm not sure about that, master. But you make it look easy."

"I've had a lot of practice. Do you think your stomach can stand up to a little bit more? The Mafia's reinforcements will be coming in any second."

Karina nodded an affirmative, just as Prince du Plessis signalled a warning. "Incoming jump signatures. All ships, stay within five kilometres of Duval's Glory. Don't let the criminal scum draw you out into single combat. Stay within range of fire support."

"Here we go again." I checked the radar scanner. The Mafia retaliatory force was impressive: forty ships, including three Anacondas, six Pythons and a dozen Asps. The rest of the criminal fleet was made up from assorted fighters and the odd small utility vessel; Sidewinders, Eagles, Adders and a few Cobra Mark IIIs. 

With the outpost now secure, the four troop transporters joined the fray, bringing the considerable firepower of their beam lasers and multi-cannons to bear. The radio chatter was constant as the fighter pilots took instructions from their squadron leaders and the flight controllers back on the Interdictor, coordinating fire onto the Mafia ships being targeted by the cruiser's interceptor and rail guns. I eavesdropped on the Imperial channel, assisting in picking off the hostile fighter craft one by one, quickly eliminating the weaker vessels before turning my attention to the larger Pythons and Anacondas. The Mafia crews fought valiantly for honourless criminals, but for all their courage and determination to take back the outpost or die in the attempt, they were no match for the power of Duval's Glory and its attendant fighter squadrons. In less than thirty minutes, it was all over and the outpost was indisputably under the control of Senator Zemina Torval.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Four

Clayahu: Von Biela Dock

The call from Zemina had come just before local midnight, ordering me to relocate from Afli to the Clayahu system. One of the Senator's mining operations on Clayahu 1, a small, heavy metal-rich world had been sabotaged by the local Mafia. The loss of life had been minimal, but the economic damage had been significant, the destruction of the mining stations main computer shutting down the automated ore extraction drones for several days until parts had been flown in to restore the AI core. I had been offered a 1.2 million credit combat contract to take down no less than twenty ships flying Clayahu Mafia colours over the course of the next week. 

In addition, the Senator had offered me a 500,000 credit bonus if I was to assist one of Zemina's Majestic-class Interdictor cruisers, Duval's Glory, in an assault against the Mafia's base of operations in the system, Bolton Ring outpost. While the cruiser crippled the outpost's defences, I was to assist the cruiser's fighter squadrons in providing an armed escort for the Asps that would transport the troops tasked to take control of the platform by force. If everything went to plan, the Clayahu Mafia would be dealt a fatal blow and a powerful message would spread to the surrounding systems about the consequences of interfering with the smooth running of the Senator's business interests. The mission wasn't due to commence for another eighteen hours, so having lost the previous night's sleep making the transit from Afli to the Empire's Ocellus starport orbiting Clayahu 1, I retired to my stateroom to get properly rested. 

I peeled off my flight suit, reflecting on the trip. Karina had joined me on the bridge for the entire way, rapt with fascination, as I had eased Fell From The Top(...) from its hangar into the busy transit lanes out of Pu City, nudging my way past clueless neophyte pilots in Sidewinders and Haulers that were ignoring the right of way protocols as they descended from the docking slot towards their assigned landing pads. Karina had never experienced a trip from the bridge of a starship before, and sat forward, straining against the acceleration strapping keeping her in her seat the whole way.  I had not been able to persuade her to wear one of my mother's flight suits for the journey, which could have caused a problem had we been interdicted on the way, but the flight passed without incident. I had also disabled her console so that she couldn't accidentally turn off anything vital at an inopportune moment. The precaution had proved entirely unnecessary, as she was too fascinated by the sight of the other ships, the stars and the bright, energetic maelstrom of witchspace to have wanted to fiddle with any of the controls anyway. The novelty of the experience of flying outside of the confines of a slave pod was far too compelling. She had been shocked by the fury of Imperial Clipper's acceleration as I had boosted on full afterburners out of the docking slot at over 440 metres per second, rolling hard to twist out of the way of an incoming Cobra Mark III. The fear had quickly subsided into exhilaration, however - it seemed that Karina wasn't going to be too much of a nervous travelling companion - at least not until she had her first experience of ship-to-ship combat. As I had discussed with Laure, I had replaced the Glide capsules in Karina's watch with Hypno, an ultra-rapid propofol-based anaesthetic. If Karina experienced a post-traumatic flashback on the flight deck, I would be able to sedate her safely with a voice command. It wasn't likely that Karina was aware that the timepiece held a drug-injection mechanism, and I hoped not to have to tell her, unless it became absolutely necessary. After yet another long day making the transit to Clayahu and preparing the ship for the operation tomorrow, I was looking forward to a good night's sleep. I was on the verge of falling asleep when I became dimly aware of another presence within the room.

"Master?" Karina's whisper was barely audible. "Master Aemon?"

I opened one eye, not even raising my head from the pillow. "What is it, Karina? Can't you sleep?"

"No, master." Karina replied, as she stroked the smooth metal pod on her wrist again, her nervousness clear from her body language and the tension on her face.

"Can I help?"

Karina nodded.


"I... I'm afraid. I don't want to be alone. Can you hold me 'til I sleep, master?" Her voice and body trembled, terrified that her request would be rejected.

Remembering Laure's warning about the consequences of 'gratitude', I almost sent her away. Karina's lips quivered as she waited for some kind of signal. I nodded silently and eased back against the bulkhead, creating room for her on the narrow bunk, pulling the covers back slightly to allow her to slip inside. 

"Thank you! Thank you, master!" Karina sobbed in relief, gladdened to have her plea accepted. She was still shaking in anxiety when she lay down in front of me on the bed, facing away towards the door. She took my hand and wrapped my arm around her protectively, like a shield, placing my palm beneath her breasts and over her heart. Through the thin satin of her nightshirt I could feel her pulse racing with panic, more than double that of a normal resting heart rate, and she shrank back towards me, letting her hips and legs press against mine.

"It's okay, Karina." I reassured her, using my free hand to stroke her straight, elbow-length blonde hair. "No-one can hurt you here. Sleep."

Karina's grip around my wrist was still manically tight, pressing my arm hard against her side and chest. The heat from her body was uncomfortably warm against my bare skin, her legs intertwining with mine. Frustrated by my isolation from Laure, I felt a surge of attraction for Karina. Her heart continued to pound fearfully and as she pressed her hips back against mine, in a clear, unambiguous invitation. The temptation to respond was overwhelming; to lift the hem of her nightshirt by a few centimetres, or move my hand on her chest by only the length of my fingers... With a flash of insight, I realised that she was testing me. Karina had been abused all her life by slavers who saw her only as a sexual plaything or a piece of meat to be bought and sold on a whim. Perhaps she truly had been afraid to sleep alone, but she also needed to know whether I was the kind of man who would take advantage of her. That realisation extinguished the feeling of desire Karina was trying to provoke and I kept still, soothing her with wordless noises of calm and reassurance. Gradually, Karina's pulse subsided and she relaxed enough to fall asleep. 

I didn't remember when after that I had fallen to sleep myself, but recalled that my dreams had been intensely sensual. I awoke to find that Karina was testing me again. She had dispensed with the bed covers and her nightshirt, letting me see her slim, firm figure in all its glory. Karina knelt over me, her mouth and tongue doing exquisitely delicious things below my waist. The temptation was just to let her continue, now that she had escalated the stakes beyond the simple restraint of desire. I sat up, gasping, reaching down to caress her neck gently, easing her away from me gradually with both hands, until her torso was upright. "Karina, what are you doing?"

"Pleasuring you, master." Karina seemed perplexed at the question. "All my other masters wanted me to pleasure them."

"Karina, I know this is difficult for you to accept, but I'm not your master. You don't have to do that now."

"Am I not pretty enough for you?" Karina asked, on the verge of tears.

I considered my response carefully. I didn't want it to sound like I was rejecting her, but I also wanted to make it clear that I wasn't interested in her as a sexual servant. "You're beautiful enough for anyone, Karina. But you should only do that with people you love."

"And you don't love me." Karina looked down, unable to meet my eyes.

"Karina, I'm married. If we'd met another time, in different circumstances, who knows? Any man would want you, if they saw you like this. But you're not my wife. I'm sorry."

"If you want me, why won't you use me?" Karina demanded, snatching up her nightshirt and yanking it back over her head to cover herself. Her tone was ambivalent. She couldn't understand why I wouldn't mistreat her the way all the other men had in her adult life, but she was also relieved.

"Because it wouldn't be right. And I always try to do what's right. I'm not like those bad men who killed your parents and abducted you." 

"You're a good man, master?" Karina's question was a hopeful one.

"I suppose that's a matter of perspective. I kill bad men like Duke Theriault." I replied, Karina's face twitching when I mentioned her last master's name. "I saw what he did to your back. He can't hurt you again. He won't be hurting anyone again."

"Good." Karina shuddered, memories of the depraved tortures he had inflicted on her surging back in her memory. "He was a very bad man. He would order another slave whip us, as he and his friends used us. One girl refused to do it, so he blew up her collar. He liked to see us bleed."

"Not all men are like him, Karina. One day you'll find someone who loves you for who you are." I told her, with a smile for encouragement. "But first we need to get ready for our mission today."

"Are you going to kill more bad men?"

"Yes. And you're going to help me. You'll need to wear the flight suit today, Karina."

Karina sagged visibly, with a low moan of distress. "I don't like it. It's too tight. And it smells."

"Then I'll buy you a new one, made just for you. But you can't go into battle wearing that." I pointed at her nightshirt. "You might look good in royal purple, but that's not going to protect you from vacuum if we lose our canopy."

Karina continued to sulk and complain as ASTRA carried out a laser scan to measure her for a brand new flight suit, which was made specially to order by YeagerCorp, the station's resident star pilot outfitters. It took them less than an hour to 3D print the custom suit and have it delivered to the ship. It wasn't quite like being given a unique evening gown for an Imperial Senator's Ball, but Karina accepted the gift with some grace, admitting that it smelled a lot better than the spare jumpsuit Agent Zeta had kept on board. I had to assist her in putting it on, as the compressive, reinforced fabric clang to her like a second skin, as if she had been dipped in molten obsidian. Realising that she might need to wear the RemLok helmet as well, Karina tied her hair up in a neat and elaborate French braid, securing the last remaining rogue strands of her iridescent blonde hair with long, thin silver hairpins. I showed her how to adjust the suit's thermostat setting and the strength of servo-assisted joints, as well as how to activate and deactivate the maglock for the chairs on the flight deck. Once she felt comfortable in the suit and could walk naturally, the servo-motors compensating against the stiffness of the rubberised fabric, we sat in the galley so that I could brief her over a light lunch on the mission ahead and let her know what to expect. Still not used to the idea of regular meals, Karina ate as indelicately a starved horse, gobbling down her food and water so quickly that I feared she would need to spend the rest of the day in bed with indigestion.

"What is it that you want me to do?" she asked, chomping noisily on a large chunk of crusty bread she had just dipped into a steaming bowl of heavily-salted Scotch broth.

"Nothing much. Just watch. And learn. Get used to the feeling how a ship moves in combat. You might be flying with me for a while and this is how I earn my living." I replied, trying to contain my amusement as she devastated the bowl of soup in front of her with all the élan and refinement of a pirate attack on a Lakon T9 fully-laden with palladium. "You might find it confusing and frightening to begin with. Lots of unpredictable g-force, bright lights and loud noise. But if you keep your hands on the flight controllers on your flight seat, you should get a feel for how I'm going to manoeuvre the ship. You won't be able to affect the input on the controllers, but it should give you an idea of how to fly."

"Will it be dangerous?"

"Not really. There's always an element of risk, of course, but we're going to be flying with an Imperial cruiser and four squadrons of Imperial Fighters. My ship's one of the fastest in the sector, so we can get ourselves out of trouble if things start looking hairy. But you can expect that a few Mafia ships will take the odd pot shot in our direction. But you don't need to worry, Karina. I'll keep you safe."

The tension eased in Karina's shoulders visibly. "I trust you, master."