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?"
"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."