The morning after our night of intimacy was not as awkward as I feared it might be. I woke over an hour before she did, keeping her close to me with an arm around her shoulders, until Karina slipped out of the bed, seemingly oblivious to the power of her nudity. My gaze was drawn to her sleek figure as she walked to the gallery to make us a morning pot of tea, as if the events of the last twelve hours had been nothing out of the ordinary routine that we had established over the last few months. I couldn't take my eyes off her when she re-entered my stateroom quarter of an hour later, carrying a tray laden with a teapot, mugs and two cooked breakfasts. She set the tray down on the desk next to my terminal and re-joined me on the bed, hungry for an entirely different kind of nourishment. As we kissed, I knew that Karina was seducing me as an avoidance tactic, not wanting to confront the possibility that the life she had gotten used to on my ship might change. Despite myself, I reciprocated her passion, part of me wondering why I wanted her touch so badly. Words were unnecessary as we moved together in perfect unison, the synchronicity of our breathing and the insistent exploration of our hands, grasping possessively at each other, providing all the encouragement we needed to reach an inevitable climax. Karina clang to me with her arms and thighs as I flowed inside her, our eyes locked together, our souls as bare as our bodies. It was impossible not to compare her to Laure, the thought provoking another twinge of guilt at my inability to stay faithful to her. In almost every respect, they were total polar opposites: Laure was confident, dominant, her beauty voluptuously and effortlessly feminine. Karina was passive, fearful, possessed of a fragile, angular and slender beauty compared to Laure's full, sensual curves. But no matter how much I loved Laure, I couldn't deny that I felt a powerful attraction to Karina, one that had only gotten stronger the more time I had spent with her. Perhaps it was that profound difference between the two women in both their physicality and personality that drew me towards Karina in the ongoing and forced separation from my wife. Lovemaking with Laure was often an exercise in control: exciting, energetic and competitive, Laure wanting to be the one in charge, her own pleasure taking highest priority. It was completely different with Karina. She seemed to instinctively know just how to move, or what sound to make at the perfect time, to enhance the intensity of every single touch and caress as we made love. Her own ecstasy always appeared to take her by surprise, accompanied by tremulous groans that both flattered my ego and strengthened my need to please her. I wasn't sure exactly what I felt for Karina, a bewildering mix of lust, sympathy and protectiveness, but I felt that it was a complementary desire, rather than a replacement one for my absent wife. At least, that was what I told myself as we untangled our arms and legs reluctantly. I kissed her lips and forehead before climbing out of the bed, noting that the breakfast that Karina had prepared was now stone cold. I left the food untouched, my appetite lost in the aftermath of the seismic shift in the nature of my relationship with Karina, my thoughts still reeling as I contemplated the possible future consequences.
I dressed into my flight suit, relieved when ASTRA summoned me to the flight deck to receive a call from Zemina. The Imperial Senator had finally conjured up a suitably lucrative and potentially lethal mission for me to undertake on her behalf, and given the spectacular and painful failure of my quest to reunite Karina with her family, a stupidly dangerous assignment that might turn into a suicide mission seemed an appropriate thing to do next. Especially if a successful resolution of the operation brought me closer to being reunited with Laure. It would also feel good to be on the move again following the double frustration of having been kept on standby for weeks and the disastrous outcome of the meeting at the Volkov farmstead.
Zemina ordered me to report to Bohr Orbital, a Coriolis station under her patronage in the Eravapa system, deep in the heart of the Senator's territory. The only thing I knew about Eravapa was that it was home to a research facility specialising in ship-to-ship weaponry. Senator Torval had not been forthcoming about the details of the assignment, saying only that I would be properly briefed when I arrived at the starport. As soon as Karina had put on her flight suit and joined me on the bridge, I sent a request to the control tower to ask for permission to undock. The tone of the flight controller suggested that they were only too happy to get rid of us, bumping my ship right to the top of the schedule. I lit the afterburners in the middle of the docking slot, the rungs of the toast rack flashing past in an instant, the reassuring pressure of the acceleration from the thrusters pushing me back into my flight seat as the ship drove out of the mass lock of the station towards the uninhibited freefall of open space. I barrel-rolled the Clipper twice in glee, happy to be out among the stars once again. I showed Karina how to program the navigation computer and got her to plot a course to Eravapa, using the control console to the left of her seat. It was a multi-jump route of just over 150 light years that would take a couple of hours, depending upon what we encountered when we topped off the fuel tanks with hydrogen in the solar coronas of stars along the way. Refuelling ships were a favourite target of privateers looking for targets of opportunity, since being on the fringes of the gravity well of a star limited the ability of ships to avoid interdictions.
I was happy to take more time than usual between jumps, continuing to train Karina in the use of the ship's systems and even allowing her to pilot the vessel into fuel scooping range when the radar showed that there were no contacts in range that might be about to swoop down upon us in ambush. Regardless, I kept my hands close to the flight stick and throttle on my own chair, ready to reassume control of Fell From The Top(...) if it looked like the ship was about to come under threat. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Karina had a good feel for the controls, manipulating the pitch, roll and throttle with a soft, sensitive touch, rather than the jerky twitches of overcompensation that plagued most neophyte star pilots.
"You're a natural, Karina. When we get to Bohr Orbital we should get ASTRA to put together a couple of simulation packages. With a couple of days' practice, you could probably dock the ship as well as I do." I said, making Karina blush with pride.
The journey passed without incident, even though our route took us through the fringes of Federation space. While the bounty I had earned for assassinating Stenberg had now lapsed and become dormant, I was still fair game for the Federal Navy. Fortunately, we managed to evade the roving patrols, jumping out to the next system before any Federation ships got close enough to notice that my ship was equipped with an IFF code scrambler to conceal my identity. I was almost disappointed not to have been shot at along the way, so to add an extra frisson of adventure to close the day, I deactivated the docking computer and let Karina mirror the inputs on my flight controller - the way she had done during the assault on Boston Ring - as I executed a manual docking, the starboard nacelle of my ship scant centimetres from the side of the docking slot as I skimmed at almost a hundred metres per second through the toast rack. Fell From The Top(...) touched down on its five landing modules with the merest bump as the ship alighted onto the pad tail first, the Clipper's regal nose elevated by only a couple of degrees, in a textbook touchdown. I cut the thrusters, letting the shock absorber of the forward landing strut absorb the energy of the impact as the cockpit fell to the horizontal, the dampers settling the rocking motion of the ship in under a second.
"What do you think, Karina? Do you want to try it next time?" I asked, eyebrows raised.
"No, master!" Karina replied, aghast. "It's terrifying!"
"That's why most people usually leave it to the computer. Maybe try it in simulation first. When you can do it twenty times in a row without fouling the ship on the Cow Catcher, I'll let you do it for real."
I left Karina on the flight deck, with ASTRA putting her though some of the Imperial Navy's standard flight training VR simulations, while I retreated to the privacy of my stateroom, this time locking the door as I checked in with Senator Torval. Zemina kept me on hold for two hours, just to remind me of her superiority in our relationship, before finally deigning to speak to me.
"Reporting as ordered, Senator." I bowed to the camera embedded in the top of my terminal screen, hoping that I hadn't let any of my annoyance at being kept waiting slip into either my voice or facial expression.
"Ah, Roche. Finally." Zemina's lined face wrinkled with displeasure, her condescension clear in her tone and body language. "Still not dead, I see."
"Sorry to disappoint, Senator."
"Hah! While it pains me to admit it, you're proving to be quite a valuable asset. One day you might actually convince me that you're worthy of that title the Navy has given you. But not today." Zemina said, trying to stare me down through the screen, her eyes as cold as liquid nitrogen.
"You have a job for me." I replied, staring right back, unflinching.
"I do." Zemina nodded, a hint of approval sparkling in her eyes, impressed that I was standing up to her intimidating demeanour and refusing to kowtow before her like some of her other vassals. "One of my undercover recon units has discovered that the Federal Navy has commissioned a Farragut-class Dreadnought from the Core Dynamics shipyard at Groombridge 34. It's still in the early stages of construction, less than 50% of the superstructure is complete, but they've just finished installing the bridge and power plant modules. I want you to infiltrate the drydock facility and destroy it. Forcing the Federal Navy to recommission the vessel will be a substantial drain on their procurement budget."
"With the greatest of respect, Senator, my ship doesn't have a fraction of the firepower necessary to be able to do that."
"Not yet it doesn't." Zemina's smile was chilling. "That's why I asked you to come to Eravapa. Refit your ship's Class Two weapon hardpoints with torpedo pylons. Tomorrow you'll be contacted by another one of my operatives, Lord Dominguez. He'll supply you with some very special prototype torpedoes that'll get the job done."
"Prototypes? What kind of payload?"
"Dominguez will give you the details in the morning. Report back to me in Synteini once the job is done. I'm transmitting your intelligence package now. Good luck, Roche. You'll need it."
I held my tongue until Zemina cut the channel. "Thanks a lot, Senator..."
While I waited for Zemina's contact to arrive at the starport, I read, re-read and memorised every detail I could from the briefing material the Senator's intelligence teams had forwarded to my ship's AI. ASTRA had previewed the package, categorising the data into three batches of descending value but increasing volume: Mission Critical, Useful and Miscellaneous. I scoured each batch of files for hours on end, hoping to glean the merest flash of inspiration from the assembled information that would provide me with the right tactics to infiltrate one of the best defended shipyards in Federation space and get out again without either being set upon by the facility's perimeter guard ships or be caught in the blast of whatever experimental weapons Zemina intended for me to use to complete the task. Karina had joined me in my stateroom, sitting beside me at the desk and keeping me lubricated with an endless supply of strong, milky tea as I talked her through the finer details of the intelligence package, finding it helpful to articulate my thoughts as I began to put together what I hoped was a workable strategy. Given the frequency of the security patrols at the shipyards, it was clear that trying to shoot my way in or out was unworkable, which only left the option of a stealth approach. The Imperial Clipper's sheer size did not make it an ideal ship to infiltrate a hostile system teeming with trigger-happy corporate enforcers only too happy to shoot first and collect their paycheque later, but I wasn't willing to give up Fell From The Top(...)'s speed and firepower. With my two underwing weapon hardpoints out of action, needed instead to carry the torpedo payload required to destroy the half-finished Dreadnought, I briefly considered swapping out my Class 3 gimballed beam laser and cannon for a pair of Class 3 beam laser turrets. In the end, I decided to stick with what I already had, and not just because of the prohibitive expense of the turrets.
Using data provided to me by Zemina, I had re-enacted simulated assaults on the Dreadnought, with ASTRA playing the role of the local defence forces. With no firm information yet about the precise nature of the payload carried by the experimental torpedoes that would be given to us by the Senator's contact in the morning, it wasn't possible to infer that the simulations were entirely representative, which was just as well, given that my success rate on achieving an approach that allowed me to get into a firing range of the Dreadnought where the torpedoes could not be intercepted was only around 50%. That percentage dropped more towards the 30% level if I factored in trying to get out alive. They weren't hopeless odds, but they certainly weren't what I'd call favourable. I was hoping that Zemina's experimental prototype torpedoes had a longer range and a greater ECM resistance than the standard-issue heat-seekers that had come with the torpedo pylons I'd had fitted to my ship on the Senator's order.
The simulations had certainly demonstrated the futility of trying fight the wings of security patrols. Even using beam laser turrets to provide an all-round defence was counter-productive, with the laser fire attracting the attention of more distant patrols, reinforcing the space around the Dreadnought more rapidly and making it almost impossible to escape into witchspace after the torpedoes had been launched. Even though I was reluctant to make further changes to the outfitting of my ship, I had Fell From The Top(...) stripped of its reactive armour plating and replaced it with standard, lightweight bulkheads, substantially reducing the mass of the spaceframe and increasing the Clipper's boost speed by 10% to over 440m/s. I also replaced the frame shift wake scanner and shield boosters with point defence and heat sink launchers, complementing the defensive capabilities of the ship's chaff launcher. The heat sink launcher would allow me to minimise the vessel's thermal profile on approach, making the ship hard to detect on active sensor scans. I knew from my own experience fighting Agent Zeta that Fell From The Top(...) would be difficult to pick up visually from anything beyond a couple of kilometres, thanks to its graphite grey colour scheme. Speed and stealth would be my defence against the overwhelming numbers of hostile ships securing the system. I knew I would only have one opportunity to get close to the Federation Dreadnought - a literal one shot deal. Screw it up, and I'd either be caught in the blast from the torpedoes or get mopped up by the facility's defence force. The extreme hazard pay Zemina was offering for the mission - some 10 million credits - almost seemed irrelevant compared to the level of risk. Certainly, it was a great deal of money, but more importantly, if I pulled it off and was able to destroy the Dreadnought, the Senator would have to admit that I'd proved my worth and my loyalty, which was more motivation to me than the size of the payoff. If an assignment this important and dangerous didn't convince Zemina that I was deserving partner for Laure, nothing would.
Sleep wouldn't come as I waited anxiously for the delivery of the prototype weapons, my eyes restlessly combing the intelligence dossier for any snippets of information that might make the difference between success and failure. It was almost dawn when the fatigue caught up with me, lulling me into a fitful sleep, straining my neck as I drooped sideways over the arm of my chair. I managed to doze for a couple of hours before ASTRA's calm, smooth voice awoke me with a jolt.
"My lord, incoming message from Lord Dominguez."
I pressed my knuckles into my face, massaging my eyes back to life. "Put him through."
"Good morning, Viscount Roche." Dominguez's lean, tanned face smiled at me through the terminal's screen.
"It's definitely a morning. Not so sure about the good part, though." I said wearily, trying to kickstart my brain. "How are you, Jimmy?"
"All good, thanks for asking, Ames." Dominguez and I were old friends, having risen though the ranks of the satellite campuses of the Imperial Academy at Beta-1 Tucanae and Fotla together. "I have a small delivery for you from a mutual benefactor of ours."
"When do I get to know exactly what this delivery is?"
"Soon. I'll be docking in the next ten minutes, assuming I don't get shot down first." Dominguez snickered. His amused response gave me two very important pieces of information: one - that he didn't think much of the local security force, which wasn't surprising, given that he was infamous for his ability to infiltrate into stations unseen, even though his ship - an Imperial Eagle named Budgie - was painted a vibrant red, a colour conspicuously and fundamentally at odds with his chosen profession of smuggling small tonnage, high-value cargoes into well-guarded starports; and two, that the warheads of the torpedoes he was delivering were seriously capable battlefield weapons, which were no doubt illegal not just here, but in any civilised system between Achenar and Alioth. "Hire a couple of loader suits from the dockmaster. We need to get the transfer done before anyone starts poking around. I'll be landing in the bay next door to yours. Number 42."
"Okay, Jimmy. I'll see you there."
I cut the channel to Dominguez and called the dockmaster, who had already arranged for a pair of loader exoskeletons to be delivered to docking bay 42. It turned out that the dockmaster was one of the many agents Zemina had dispersed throughout the systems under her control and that he had been instructed to make sure that the delivery of torpedoes to my ship went unrecorded in the station logs and unnoticed by the local law enforcement authorities. His help came with a warning, however. "Get that shit off my station in less than an hour, otherwise I'll report you myself."
Dominguez was just touching down on the pad when I entered the control tower of his docking bay a few moments later. I palmed a 1000 credit chit to the bored-looking flight controller in charge of the bay, suggesting that she might want to take a break for an early lunch.
"My lord, it's not even 10am yet." she replied, looking up at me from behind her desk, confused.
"Take a hint, Francine." I said, jacking a thumb over my shoulder towards the door, reading her name from the tag on her uniform tunic. "And take your time."
The grey-haired controller mumbled a half-hearted protest about my request being 'most irregular', but eventually stood, taking her leave along with the credits. I hacked the controller's terminal using the station governor's override code that Zemina had provided in her intelligence dossier, shutting down the landing pad's cameras before Dominguez debarked from his ship. There would be no video record as we swapped the torpedoes currently loaded in my Clipper's pylons for the mysterious experimental weapons Dominguez had shipped across the system in his stealthy Eagle. Knowing that we were operating on a strict time limit, Dominguez and I skipped the formal pleasantries, instead strapping ourselves into one of the loader suits. The three metre tall exoskeletons were easily capable of lifting loads of up to ten tonnes each, so transporting the four cargo pods, each one containing a single experimental torpedo, was a simple enough task. After extracting one of the cargo pods, Dominguez and I worked in tandem to stow the canisters securely to the honeycombed storage rack on the back of my suit. The operation only took a few minutes, Dominguez giving me the signal that we were ready to transfer the weapons to my ship.
"Looking good, Ames." Dominguez said, giving me a thumbs-up. "Let's go."
"Roger that." I replied, turning my loader suit towards the hangar exit with Dominguez following close behind. Each hangar in the station's kilometre long docking bay was linked together by a network of tunnels that was used to transport cargoes between ships and the frantic commodities markets. Lamps mounted on the shoulders of the loader suits illuminated our way as we clomped between the neighbouring hangar bays that housed Budgie and Fell From The Top(...).
"So, why didn't I get an invite, Ames?"
"You mean to the wedding? No-one got an invite, Jimmy. It was just me and Laure."
"Shotgun wedding, or did you elope?" Jimmy asked cheekily.
"We eloped, I guess. To Summerland."
"All that way? You rebel." Ames smiled, snickering like a hyena at the lack of ambition in our defiance of Zemina's wishes."Is that really why the Senator wants to send you on a one way trip?"
"Yeah, though I've never been her favourite person. Zemina has always been very protective about her niece, but that's not something I can afford to worry about right now. What can you tell me about these torpedoes?"
"They're heavy duty shit, Ames. Ten megaton TNT-equivalent antimatter warheads. You don't want to be within twenty klicks when these fuckers go off."
"I'll bear that in mind. How stable are they?"
"As long as you keep them juiced up, they won't cause you any problems. If you let the Penning traps decay, however... they'll see the gamma ray burst on Capitol in about seventy years." Dominguez told me gravely, as we paused in the tunnel for the airlock to the docking bay to cycle open, revealing the elegant form of my ship. He looked back and forth between me and sweeping lines of Fell From The Top(...)'s fuselage and wings, before whistling appreciatively. "Well, well... an Imperial Clipper. You really have moved up in the world. Wedding present?"
"Actually, I hijacked it." As we moved to the ship and started to unload the standard torpedoes from their pylons, I briefly recounted the story of how I had come into possession of the ship and I thought for a second that I had actually rendered Jimmy speechless for once in his life.
"You sneaky bastard." Dominguez said, his tone an ambivalent mix of admiration and disbelief, as he extracted the final torpedo from the starboard underwing hardpoint, allowing me to replace it with one of the experimental antimatter weapons. "Nuking a Federation Dreadnought should be easy in comparison to that."
Jimmy stood still as I stacked the four cargo pods into the rack attached to the rear of his loader suit, each canister now containing one of the conventional torpedoes we had removed from the launchers on my ship. ASTRA reported that the prototype weapons were drawing power normally from the distribution grid and were functioning perfectly. I took the AI's word for it, since I'd never know if the magnetic bottles securing the antimatter charges in the torpedoes failed. The ship, not to mention anything around it within a five kilometre radius, would be instantly annihilated. As soon as all four pods were secure, Jimmy headed for the exit, retreating back to his own ship.
"Nice seeing you, Ames. Shame we don't have more time, I'd buy you a Pearl Whisky. I'm based out of Vequess these days. Come and see me sometime. And bring your blonde co-pilot, too. I saw the GalNet footage of you two on Bridi. Her figure's as deadly as those torpedoes. You could introduce us."
"I could." I replied, failing to keep the sense of reluctance out of my voice. Jimmy was a decent enough guy, but at the Imperial Academy he had gained a well-deserved reputation for being not entirely discerning as to who he shared his bed sheets with.
"Keeping her to yourself, huh? Don't blame you." Jimmy chuckled, turning back at the airlock to flash me a good-natured, but nonetheless obscene, gesture with the exoskeleton arms of his loader suit. "Good luck, man."
"Be seeing you, Jimmy." I checked the time as I parked the loader at the side of the hangar bay. I still had nearly half an hour to vacate the system, before the dockmaster would make good on his threat to report the illicit weapons transfer to the local authority. With Karina's growing familiarity with the ship's systems, we rushed through the pre-flight checks and got Fell From The Top(...) ready to launch with over ten minutes to spare. The surly dockmaster approved my launch request immediately and created a two minute window in the traffic control schedule that would allow my ship to undock without the risk of being accidentally rammed by an oblivious pilot fixated on making it through the docking slot in their appointed time, regardless of whether other ships were in their way or not. I appreciated the face that the dockmaster was making a great effort to allow my ship to disappear out of the system unnoticed, even if his motivation had less to do with the ultimate success of my mission and more to do with the fact that he wanted the military-grade battle weapons I was now carrying off his station as quickly as possible. A minute later, afterburners blazing, my Clipper broke the mass lock radius of the space station and disappeared with a flash of light into the chaos of witchspace.