Monday, November 30, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Ten

Tomani: Gold Dock

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.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Nine

Tomani: Gold Dock

It was already sunset by the time we had returned the SRV at the Novy Kostroma spaceport and boarded the shuttle that would take us back to Gold Dock. Not wanting to fly tired, Karina and I had dinner in the galley of my Imperial Clipper, finishing the remaining supply of tarte flambées I had acquired at Harawi Vision. Karina and I shared the ruby contents of two bottles of Lodi Zinfandel, trying to cheer ourselves up after what had proved to be a thoroughly depressing day. I out-drank Karina by three glasses to one, as she was unused to drinking any alcohol at all, let alone such a strong and full-bodied red wine as this one. We had hardly said a word to each other since leaving the Volkov estate. Karina's body language alone was eloquent enough and I couldn't think of anything that I could say that would console her in the slightest. So we simply ate and drank quietly, until the only thing left to do was get some sleep before the start of a new day, walking to our staterooms slightly dazed by the effects of the day's events and the wine.

I wasn't surprised when Karina sought refuge and comfort in my quarters later that night. In the weeks since her rescue, she had made remarkable progress in terms of her resilience and independence, and she was now used to sleeping alone in her room, but the point-blank refusal of her maternal grandparents to accept her into their family had hit her hard. I had been lying awake, staring at the ceiling wondering what we would do next, when the door opened. Without a word, Karina joined me in my bunk, wrapping herself in my arms and holding them tight to mould me around her, as if I were a defensive shield that could protect her from the uncaring whims of the universe. Karina had kept her dignity and refused to cry, but I shared her confusion and frustration. I found it baffling that Karina's family would not be willing to accept her, despite the conclusive proof we could offer beyond mere family resemblance that she was a blood relation. 

We laid together in silence for over an hour before Karina was finally able to find the words to express her torment. "Why doesn't anyone care about me, master?"

The brutality of the question shocked me. "Karina... That's not true. I care about you. I wanted to help you find your family and people who love you. I never expected they'd react like this. But I'm not going to abandon you."

"Not even when you can live again with your wife?" Karina's question was barbed, cutting through any pretence of sentiment. Laure would never be able to tolerate her in the long-term, not even as a co-pilot and employee. Laure saw her only as a threat to our marriage and Karina knew it.

"I rescued you from Theriault. I feel responsible for you. After everything you've been through, you deserve a chance to be happy. And I'm going to help you, no matter what Laure thinks."

"But if you had to choose, you'd choose her." It wasn't a question. Karina's voice was sad, defeated.

"Karina, I love her. I've always loved her." Even when I hated her, I thought.

"What does it feel like?"

"I'm not sure I understand. What does what feel like?"

"To be loved. I can't remember ever being loved." The sorrow in her voice was gut-wrenching.

I turned Karina over to face me and I caressed her cheeks in my hands, wiping away the tears of despair that glistened at the corners of her green eyes. "It's the most joyous thing. To feel like you're two halves of the same person, sharing the same body and soul. Knowing that making the one you love happy is more important than making yourself happy."

"I've never felt that." Karina closed her eyes. "I don't think I'll ever love. I don't know how."

"Karina, don't say that." I drew her closer, feeling her body heat, my fingertips gently stroking the pale network of paper-thin, almost invisible scars on her back through the satin of her nightshirt.

"Can you show me, master? Show me how to love." Karina whispered, pleading, but not hopeful. Her eyes were still tightly shut, bracing herself for yet another rejection.

I heard Laure's disembodied voice at the back of my mind, disgusted, from two hundred light years away. You never could resist a damsel in distress...

I wasn't sure whether it was because I had drunk too much wine, because I was feeling lonely myself, or because I pitied Karina's plight, or because I thought we could comfort each other, but I banished the image Laure's disapproval from my mind's eye and took Karina's face tenderly in both hands, giving her a long, feather-light kiss on the lips. Karina responded hesitantly, her breath escaping in short gasps as I slipped her nightshirt off over her outstretched arms. She lay back on the bunk, letting me explore every square centimetre of her skin with gentle fingertips and hungry lips. Karina cried out involuntarily as I tasted her ecstasy, her long fingers gripping the back of my skull, her soft urgent moans of pleasure arousing my need to bring her a joy she had never experienced before. She arched her back, raising her body to meet mine when I lay over her. We made love, tenderly, languidly, her hands grasping my shoulders as we kissed again. Her slender figure trembled as she reached orgasm, her breath escaping in a single long, guttural groan as she wrapped her legs around mine, trapping me inside her as I joined her in a guiltless rapture.

Part of me knew that I had just committed an infidelity against my wife, but another part of me had enjoyed it, if only for the opportunity to share a moment of uncontrolled pleasure with Karina. I would have to face the consequences for my disloyalty to Laure later, but at that moment, it was worth it to give a glimpse of the purity of love to an alluring, gentle, but vulnerable and damaged young woman. I reasoned that it was a necessary part of her healing process. Surely Laure would understand. I swallowed hard when Karina opened her eyes and looked up at me. She could sometimes be difficult to read, but there was only one word to describe the emotion in the way she gazed at me now.

"I never knew..." Karina said with a gasp, her lips flushed and crimson. "I never knew it could be so beautiful."

"That's how it should be." I replied, suddenly feeling uncomfortable in her arms.

"Thank you, master. I could feel it. I felt as if I were a part of you."

"And how do you feel now?"

"Happy." Karina smiled, hugging me tightly. "I've never felt happier."

"That's good." I smiled back as I came to the realisation that it was inexplicably important for me to make her happy. I wanted nothing more than to make her feel content and safe. Was what I felt nothing more than infatuation, the excitement of the touch of flesh of a new lover, or was it something more?

"Is it always like that, when you love your wife?" Karina asked, breaking the spell.

I hesitated, unsure whether to tell her the truth.

"Please, master. Tell me."

"Not always, no. Laure can be very..." I searched for the right euphemism. "Passionate."

"Show me, master."

"I don't think so, Karina. You might not like it." I warned.

"Please, master. Show me." she said, her hands gripping my shoulders and neck insistently.

We made love again, this time abandoning all restraint and tenderness and taking the most direct route to the giving and receiving of pleasure with our bodies, surrendering to the sensation of it. Surprised by how much I wanted her, I was not gentle. My climax triggered hers, simultaneously yelling in release as I held her beneath me. I lay at her side as we both gulped for air, Karina shrinking back to my chest, pulling my arms around her to cup my hands protectively around her breasts.

"It was good, but I preferred it the first time." Karina sighed, her voice barely louder than a whisper. "I liked it when you used your mouth on me."

"I liked it better first time, too." I rested my cheek on the back of her neck, smelling her hair and kissing her gently under the ear. "You'll find someone who loves you Karina, I'm sure. Your past doesn't have to be your future."

"What is my future, master?"

"Whatever you want it to be. What do you want, Karina?"

"I don't want to be scared anymore." She squeezed my hands with her fingers, tightening my hold on her. "I want to stay with you. I'm not scared when I'm with you, master."

"Staying with me might be difficult, and dangerous." I warned, caressing her reassuringly, my lust still enflamed by the feel of her against me. "You've seen the kind of work I do. I can't keep you on board just as a passenger forever. You could get killed. It would be safer for you if we found somewhere for you to live on a planet or station. I have an estate on Summerland. You could stay there as long as you wanted - until you can figure out what you want to do with your life."

"You just want to get rid of me." Karina replied, matter-of-factly, lying passively in my arms. "Now that you've used me, you just want to pass me on somewhere else."

"No! Karina, that's not right. I'm not like one of your old masters, I'm your friend. And friends try to do what's best for each other." I told her, appalled that she had reached such a terrible, fatalistic conclusion. "I know that's what it might seem like to you, but it's not true. You could have a long, happy life on Summerland. But if you stay here on the ship, we might both be killed tomorrow."

"But at least I'd be with you." Karina turned her head to face mine. "I love you, master."

"Karina..." I hesitated. I wanted to contradict her, but who was I to tell her what she felt? "You know that I'm married."

"And that your wife hates me."

"She doesn't hate you, Karina. She doesn't even know you. Though she wouldn't be pleased if she ever found out about this."

"I won't tell, master." Karina promised, taking one of my hands and trapping it between her soft thighs. I knew that she was trying to manipulate me, but it was impossible to resist the temptation as she offered herself to me again, lying on her belly. "Love me, master..."

Annoyed with myself for not being able to control my arousal and succumbing so easily to temptation she offered, I gripped her buttocks hard as I mounted her from behind. Karina stifled her moans by pressing her mouth against the mattress, biting down on the covers, and I kissed the scars on her back as we made love again. I waited until I heard and felt Karina's orgasm before lifting her up to me by the hard cones of her breasts, kneading them firmly until I came, our cries of pleasure echoing around the stateroom. I let go of Karina, completely drained, and lay down again, on my back. Neither of us spoke, leaving the questions about her future unresolved. Karina put an arm across my chest and huddled up next to me as I closed my eyes, needing sleep. The thoughts in my head churned with a maelstrom of confused feelings and emotions. My senses were overloaded with the tingling afterglow of our lovemaking and the silky heat of her body against mine. I was still aroused by the touch of her skin, her scent and the residual taste of her on my lips. My hand strayed down her back, caressing the network of long, thin scars, as if my touch could magically make them disappear along with the trauma that had caused them. I couldn't decide whether my attraction to Karina went beyond simple physical chemistry. Had something deeper than that provoked me into making love to a women who wasn't my wife? Why had I done it? I loved Laure - that much I did know - but was my desire to make Karina happy driven by something beyond sympathy? Too exhausted to think any longer, I slept, with Karina pressed against my side. Any answers would have to wait until later.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Eight

Tomani: Tomani 2

The supercruise journey to Tomani 2 was as short as it was uneventful and I berthed Fell From The Top(...) at Gold Dock, the Ocellus starport servicing the terraformed agricultural planet below. The planet's proximity to the tiny red dwarf star gave it a warm, arid atmosphere and the huge axial tilt of 123o but short orbital period of just 4 standard days meant that the planet's climate remained remarkably stable. The dense atmosphere pressure of 2300 millibars offset the relative lack of oxygen in the atmosphere, which was over 90% nitrogen. The mineral and metal-rich soils made for fertile land that was exploited by the tens of thousands of commercial and private farming operations, which competed with the refinery corporations for space on Maia, the planet's largest continent. The relative lack of water in the atmosphere meant that there was still an ongoing terraforming operation, which was already running into its second century. Every few months, an ice-rich cometary nucleus would be towed from the system's Oort Cloud and aerobraked through the thick atmosphere, adding millions of tonnes of much-needed water vapour. The aerobraking events were spectacular sights, often broadcast live on GalNet, as specially-designed tugboats skipped off the fringes of the planet's atmosphere, leaving fiery vapour trails hundreds of kilometres long in their wake as the frigid body they towed outgassed from the friction, melting away under the shockwave of air battering away at the surface layers of ice. Terraforming experts predicted that it would be at least another hundred years before the levels of water vapour in the atmosphere would become high enough to sustain a precipitation cycle that would make the climate more tolerable for general habitation, but the planet's ecology was already able to support a thriving viticulture and perfect conditions for the rapid growth of grain, exotic fruit and vegetables requiring a hot and dry environment. 

With planetary landing restricted by the local government to officially licensed traffic only, we had to leave Fell From The Top(...) safely stowed in a hangar at Gold Dock and ride a shuttle down to Novy Kostroma, a city of over five million inhabitants. Once planetside, I rented a Cardinal SRV, a lightly-armed two-seater survey vehicle that would be able to take us the three hundred kilometres from the city centre to the plantation owned by Karina's grandparents. The eight tonne vehicle offered both speed and security, but not much in terms of creature comforts, sacrificing living space for reactor power and armament, a Class One beam laser turret adorning the top of the driver's cabin. Karina sat in the navigator's chair, using the console in front of her to highlight a route through the city to our destination, deep inside the local tea and coffee plantations that sprawled for thousands of square kilometres beyond the suburbs of the city. The lightweight cabin had the characteristic feel of a Lakon-made vehicle, open and airy, with good all-round visibility. The six pairs of wheels, each pair two metres tall and attached to an independent suspension arm, churned over the dirt tracks outside the spaceport with ease, throwing rooster tails of ochre dust nearly a hundred metres into the air. The huge shock absorbers connecting the suspension arms to the main body of the vehicle giving a comfortable, smooth ride over the rough, primal terrain. Driving the Cardinal was not unlike flying a small ship, with HOTAS controls for the steering, throttle and external thruster modules that allowed the rover to jump over obstacles too large or rugged to be negotiated by the wheels. It was a lot of fun to drive, and I pushed the engine to its top speed of nearly 200 metres per second, using the thrusters to soften the impacts when the SRV occasionally took to the air over the inclines and dips in the makeshift road. About 45 minutes after leaving the city, I spotted the Volkov's farmstead on the horizon, perched on a ridge surrounded by seemingly never-ending rows of camellia sinensis bushes that stretched across the undulating terrain for as the eye could see. The tea plants had been imported from Sol to aid oxygen production in the terraforming effort, but had proven so well-adapted to the local climate that a huge export market had sprung up on the planet. The Volkov family had been amongst the first families that had emigrated from the Core Worlds to the nascent colony, and they owned one of the largest and most favourably located plantations on Tomani 2. 

“There it is.”

The farmstead itself was a sprawling array of prefabricated habitat modules, lacking finesse but prioritising function. At the heart of the farm was the largest building, the Volkov family estate, with smaller buildings surrounding it in concentric rings, with the living quarters for the workers clustered protectively around the main estate building, themselves ringed by the units where hundreds of tonnes of tea were processed, graded by quality and packaged for distribution every day. At the edge of the farm was a private landing pad large enough to accommodate a Panther Clipper. The pad was currently occupied by a Lakon Type-9 Heavy trader, in the process of being loaded with over 500 tonnes of processed tea leaves to be sold on the stock markets at Gold Dock in orbit above the planet. As we entered the outer fringes of the estate, I slowed the Cardinal SRV down to a more dignified speed, not willing to risk creating a poor first impression before we met Karina's grandparents. While I had called ahead from the spaceport to arrange a meeting and ensure that we were expected, I had decided that given the sensitive nature of Karina's relationship to the Volkovs it would be better if I kept the finer details as to the ultimate purpose of the meeting to myself before we met in person. Sensitive to the proudly independent sensibilities of the system's government, Karina and I had dressed down for the occasion, abandoning the opulent styling of Imperial-made clothing for the dour, utilitarian tailoring favoured by the upper-working classes on Tomani 2. Karina and I both wore spectacularly inoffensive jumpsuits, thickly-padded at the knees, shoulders and elbow, a flexible touchscreen wrapped around the left wrist to control the smart fabric's thermal regulation filaments, which could adjust the permeability of the suit to cool or warm up the wearer as they saw fit. I wore my dart gun on my hip, the utility belt and ammunition pouches strapped tightly around my waist. Out here near the fringes of civilised space, it was not uncommon for people to travel with personal armaments, both for self-defence and deterrence value. It was unlikely that I would offend anyone by travelling armed. 

As we drove slowly down the main road towards the centre of the farmstead, we were able to take a closer look down the endless rows of tea shrubs. Each plant was serviced by an irrigation tap that provided not only a supply of liquid water for the root system, but also a fine mist that condensed around the leaves of the bush at sunrise and sunset, replicating the monsoon climate of Sol's Indian sub-continent. The system spanned the entire plantation and must have cost hundreds of millions of credits to install, illustrating the vibrant market in the local star systems for the farm's produce, which commanded premium prices all the way down to the Empire. I bought the SRV to a stop at the gate to the compound, the two armed guards eyeing the vehicle warily, checking the rental record by wirelessly accessing the port database to confirm my identity before grudgingly raising the barrier to admit us.

"Are you ready?" I asked Karina, as I parked the SRV into a recharging bay a hundred metres from the main farmhouse. Only the building's size gave any indication of the inhabitants' wealth. The habitat's modern, austere aesthetics trumped any sense of style its owners could have easily afforded. Karina hooked her arm around my elbow to bolster her courage as we walked side-by-side to the main entrance to the towering prefab building, waiting in silence to be greeted and invited across the threshold.

We were met by Lavern, the head housekeeper, an open, friendly-faced woman with greying hair, who was remarkably spry for someone approaching their third century. As she escorted us at a gentle pace to the drawing room of the mansion-sized habitat, Lavern was only too willing to point out the plethora of rare artworks adorning the walls as she guided us instinctively from the reception hall along a maze of immaculately decorated corridors, filled with paintings, rare first edition books sealed away in airtight cases, and sensual marble statues carved in the Greek and Roman tradition. She sat us down on an immense, bottle-green leather-bound lounger in the drawing room to wait for Olha and Konstantin, inviting us to refresh ourselves from a steaming porcelain teapot, with matching cups and saucers arrayed before us on a beautifully decorated and carved mahogany table. I was hardly an expert in antique furniture, but I estimated from the flowing curves of the table legs and the density of carefully repaired woodworm holes that the table was at least 1000 years old and probably worth more than my Imperial Clipper. "Please help yourself to tea, my lovelies. It's our special blend."

The special blend did not disappoint. The black tea was lightly smoked, with hints of vanilla, clove, cinnamon and all-spice, packed full of intense flavour but not so heavy that it required toning down with milk. It didn't take long for our hosts to arrive. 

"Mister Roche, it's a pleasure to meet you." Konstantin Volkov greeted me warmly and with a diplomat's tact, his wife Olha following him only half a step behind as they entered the room. His accent was identical to Karina's, I noticed. I stood respectfully and we shook hands, giving my host a small but deferent bow. "I trust you had a safe trip out from Novy Kostroma."

"Not just safe, but spectacular. You live on a beautiful world, Mister Volkov." I replied, addressing him formally. "The scenery on the journey out from the city was incredible."

"It wasn't always quite so picturesque, Mister Roche." Konstantin told me as he waved a hand to invite me to sit back down. He sat down with his wife on the silk-upholstered divan opposite the lounger on the other side of the serving table. Ohla had not yet introduced herself and hadn't taken her eyes off Karina. She had recognised the family resemblance and was watching the younger woman like a hawk, as if ready to swoop down and pounce on any sign of vulnerability. "When Ohla and I first moved here a hundred years ago, everything around here for ten thousand square miles was nothing more than dirt. We've built this estate from scratch."

"You must be very proud. It's an impressive facility."

"Proud? No. Satisfied, yes." Konstantin smiled, the warm, open look on his features a direct contrast to his wife, who continued to stare at Karina in a way that was even making me feel uncomfortable. "Pride is a wasted emotion, like envy. Having pride in our achievements here would make us complacent, and there's no room for complacency in business, Mister Roche. But I do feel satisfied by what we've achieved, even if we're not the largest operation here on Tomani 2. Though I'm not envious of the bigger plantations, either. The scale of what they do brings them their own problems. There's no point in being jealous of your competitors, Mister Roche. It just saps away the energy you should be using to make yourself better."

"Very true, Mister Volkov. I'll have to remember that." I nodded my head respectfully to acknowledge the point. "Excellent advice."

"I could sit here and accept your complements all day, Mister Roche, but I'm a busy man. Why are you here?"

"He's here about her." Ohla Volkova interrupted me before I even started. "Why did you bring her here?"

"I would have hoped that was obvious, Mrs Volkova." I replied, taken aback by the hostility in her voice. "Karina is your granddaughter."

"Karina... that was my mother's name." Ohla said, without the merest trace of sentimentality. 

"Her resemblance to Svetlana at that age is remarkable." Konstantin pitched in, taking the time to study Karina's face closely. 

"And I suppose you want to dump her on us." Ohla sneered. "Take her in like some abandoned kitten."

"I wouldn't have put it quite like that, Mrs Volkova. But Karina is a part of your family, no?"

"Because blood is thicker than water, Mr Roche? If only my daughter had felt the same. Then she wouldn't have eloped with that rogue to the outer rim." Olha shot back, her cheeks flushing in fury. "Do you have any idea how humiliating that was? To be abandoned by your only child for some penniless deadbeat who stole one of our ships along with our daughter? Who promised her a life of adventure, but instead got her gang-raped and murdered by some of the galaxy's vilest scum?"

"I'm sorry, Mrs Volkova. I didn't know the circumstances of how Svetlana and Mikhail moved to Elysian Fields." I murmured, dumbfounded by the vehemence of her reaction.

"And now you present me with the living proof of my daughter's betrayal, expecting me to welcome her with open arms?" Ohla snapped. "How dare you? How dare you?!?"

"Ohla, please." Konstantin settled his wife with a hand on her forearm. Karina's grandfather sat in silence for a long minute, studying the young woman intently. "Where did you find her, Mister Roche?"

"I rescued her from a slave trader named Theriault, who was based in the Afli system."

"Imperial territory. You're an Imperial, then?" Konstantin asked, and I gave him a nod in reply. He turned to address Karina directly. "Poor girl. You escape from the hands of slavers to end up in the clutches of one of the Empire's assassin's for hire."

"Master Aemon has been kind to me." Karina spoke up in my defence. "He's a good man."

"You've got some nerve, Mister Roche. Coming here uninvited, expecting to dump an inconvenient trophy from one of your contracts off on us." Konstantin turned back to me, his face a mask of stone.

"But Mister Volkov, she's your granddaughter. You're the only family she has." I said, unable to understand why both of them had reacted to the news that Karina was their granddaughter so badly.

"Svetlana gave up any right to call herself my daughter when she ran away with that cheap crook in one of my freighters and nearly half a million credits worth of my stock. Karina may be our granddaughter, but there's nothing for her here, Mister Roche. What use would I have for a girl who's spent her entire life as a slaver's whore? Having her here would be a constant reminder of Svetlana's crime against us and an unwelcome distraction for my workers." Konstantin shook his head, sadly. "No, I'm sorry, Mister Roche, but it would've been better if she had died along with her parents on Elysian Fields. At least then we wouldn't have to relive the anguish caused by Svetlana's mistake."

"Mister Volkov-" I started, only to be cut off, which was just as well, because I didn't really have any idea of how to counter Konstantin's argument.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave, Mister Roche. Take Karina with you. If you're not gone from my property in the next hour, I'll have you prosecuted for trespass." Konstantin touched his wife's shoulder and they stood in unison, only the sound of their synchronised footsteps on the marble tiled floor breaking the deadly silence that had descended on the room.

Feeling stunned and empty, I took Karina's hand and let her back to the SRV, Lavern guiding and consoling us on the way. The wizened servant stopped Karina with a tender caress of her cheek and enveloped her with a hug as she was about to climb into the SRV's cabin. "Your mother was a lovely child, my sweet. It's a shame that Master Konstantin and Madam Ohla can't see past their grief. Maybe one day they'll want you back. It was nice to meet you. Farewell, Miss Karina."

Lavern wept in sorrow and gave Karina a goodbye kiss before returning to the mansion. I helped Karina up the steps into the SRV's cabin and strapped myself into the driver's seat. I looked into Karina's green eyes as I brought the vehicle's reactor back online, seeing only a hollow look of resignation on her face. I reached over to stroke the back of her neck in sympathy, Karina closing her eyes and leaning against my palm as I smoothed her hair over her tense shoulders. "Let's get out of here. I never want to see this second-rate excuse for a planet ever again."