Saturday, November 07, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Seven



Tomani: Nav Point

I had taken my time making the trip out to the fringes of civilised space, wanting to make sure that Karina had completely recovered from the after-effects of her unexpected dose of recreational narcotics. Fortunately, fentanyl's active half-life was only a few hours and when she awoke the following day, Karina's greatest discomfort was the disappointment of not having been able to finish her meal. I consoled her with one of the half-dozen tartes the restaurant's maitre d' had delivered to me personally first thing in the morning. It wasn't quite the same, cooked in the Clipper's galley compared to the huge, wood-fired stone ovens at Munster Mash, but Karina didn't seem to notice the difference too much.

We had just arrived that the nav point in Tomani and I was in the middle of plotting a course to Tomani 2 and the nearest starport to Novy Kostroma, the city where we were due to meet Karina's grandparents later that day. ASTRA interrupted me with her usual cheery enthusiasm. "My lord, incoming hyperwave from Beta-1 Tucanae."

"That's odd. I wasn't expecting to hear from Laure today. Put her through." I instructed the AI, pointing at the canopy. "On screen."

Laure's holographic image sprung into life on the HUD. The look on her face wiped the smile from my lips. She held a data tablet in her hands and her pale blue eyes sparkled with a ferocity that immediately told me I was in big trouble. 

"What have I done now?" I cringed internally, waiting for the tirade to come.

"Your co-pilot, if the gossip columns on GalNet are to be believed." Laure snarled, holding the tablet up to the camera to illustrate her point. The headlines were lurid, to say the least, which Laure quoted, incandescent. "'Is this mystery good-time girl newly-wed Viscount's mistress?' - you've got to admit, it's a good question! Or how about 'Imperial Governor's husband sighted wooing unknown blonde beauty in Brindi'? Though I think this one's my favourite: 'Governor Torval's marriage already on rocks as Roche revels'."

"Don't these idiots have anything better to write about?" I lamented.

"They're fucking gossip columnists! What do you expect? Journalistic integrity?" Laure threw the data tablet onto her desk, the plastic casing sounding a loud crack as the edge bounced off the dense oak. "Aemon, have you seen the pictures? She looks stoned out of her mind! What the hell were you doing?"

"Having dinner!"

"What were you eating? Onion Head risotto?"

"Look, it's not my fault. Some succubus in a plate-mail bikini accosted her with spiked lipstick on the concourse outside the restaurant."

"You do realise that this is exactly the kind of ammunition you don't need to be handing on a platter to Zemina, don't you?" Laure fumed. "You're a public figure now, even more so now we're married. You've got to be more careful. Those goddamned hacks are everywhere sniffing for a scandal."

"I'm sorry, but you know that there's no truth to it, right?"

"There better not be, or your access to my credit account isn't the only thing I'm going to cut off!"

"Laure, relax. We're meeting her grandparents today. If everything goes well, I'll leave Karina with them and then we can work on Zemina calling off this ridiculous blockade. I miss you too, you know."

"Good. The sooner you get rid of her, the better. I don't like people asking questions about the state of our marriage, or you having another woman aboard your ship."

"I've told you, it's not like that."

"Yes, you've said. She's not your type. But she is a lot more accessible than I am." Laure frowned, clearly frustrated by the whole situation. "Aemon, I don't have time to argue. I've got a meeting with a trade delegation from Jotunheim in five minutes. Just... be more careful, alright?"

Laure cut the transmission before I had a chance to reply, leaving me feeling guilty and on edge. Perception often had more sway than truth in the galactic media and my carelessness had potentially undone all the good work I had done to establish a more positive relationship with Zemina. It would take the successful completion of several even more dangerous missions to repair the damage done to my reputation by the salacious gossip columns. I gently punched the side of my head repeatedly with a gloved fist, cursing my own stupidity, until I was interrupted by a soft voice from the back of the flight deck.

"Are you alright, master?"

I tried to smile as I turned to look at her. "Oh, Karina. I didn't see you there."

"Your wife doesn't like me, does she?" Karina asked, having overheard the tail-end of our conversation.

"She doesn't even know you, Karina. Don't worry about her." I indicated for her to sit in the co-pilot's chair, noting proudly that she had changed into her flight suit without having needed to be asked first. “We'll be setting down on Tomani 2 soon. Are you excited about meeting your grandparents?”

"I-I don't know, master." Karina settled into her chair, reaching under the bulkhead of her dash panel to check that her RemLok helmet was securely stowed in its retaining clip, within easy reach if needed. An identical clip was underneath the radar scanner on my side of the cockpit, holding the helmet for my own flight suit. "I tried, like you asked, but I don't remember them at all. Do you still think they'll let me live with them?"

"They're your family, Karina. There's nothing more important than family. They have a moral duty to take care of you. They might have lost a daughter, but they're gaining a granddaughter. If it were me in their position, there wouldn't be any question about it."

Karina didn't reply, instead gazing silently through the canopy, past the flashing nav point beacon to the Tomani primary. Tomani was an unremarkable M-class red dwarf, almost identical to the star where I had rescued her slave pod from the broiling radiation of the solar corona. Brief blue-white coruscating flashes scintillated on the HUD indicating the jump signatures of incoming ships from witchspace. The radar sprang to life, virtualising the relative distances and vectors to the new contacts. As I returned my attention to the navigation computer to complete plotting the course to Tomani 2, Karina sat forward in her seat and reached for her RemLok. "Master, I recognise that ship."

The tremulous tone of her voice arrested my attention immediately. I looked up from the comms board and swore, likewise grabbing for my suit helmet. Glistening in the feeble red light of the star was the unmistakeable silhouette of an Imperial Cutter, approaching fast and leaving four glowing vapour trails from its immense main thrusters in its wake. The Cutter was the largest Imperial ship capable of landing at a standard docking bay, a bigger, bulkier and more heavily armed sibling to my own Imperial Clipper. It echoed my own ship's sleek organic lines, but was more brutalist than sensual, with more than double the armament and mass than my Clipper. From the look of the vessel, it had undergone extensive modifications to augment the already formidable combat power built in as standard to a stock version of the ship. My blood chilled at the sight of shark's maw painted over the nose of the ship. Trading vessels rarely felt the need to decorate themselves with teeth. Karina's reaction and my own instincts told me that this was a pirate, or worse, a slaver's vessel. I ordered ASTRA to redirect my ship's power distribution to shields and weapons as I checked the seal on my helmet, a finger on my joystick primed and ready to deploy my weapon hardpoints as the Cutter approached to within three kilometres of my ship. A quick glance across at my co-pilot revealed that her flight suit was airtight and vacuum-proof. "Where have you seen it before?"

"It's the ship that I was kept on before I was sold to Master Theriault." I didn't need to see Karina's face to know that she was petrified, I could hear it in her voice.

"You have something that belongs to me." The incoming transmission from the Cutter sounded in the ears of my helmet, a deep, rich bass voice that resonated with pride and arrogance. " I was very upset when I thought she'd been lost with the rest of Theriault's shipment. My clients have missed her. But it was so nice of you to parade her on GalNet to let me know that she still lives. Give her to me, or I'll make you live to regret it. Briefly."

"Be careful who you threaten, slaver. I won't lose any sleep if I have to kill you." I snarled back, tapping a stud on my joystick with my thumb to deploy my weapon hardpoints. It was a provocative act, one that showed that I wasn't going to be bullied by a ship with a larger hull mass. I had fought in civil war scenarios against Imperial Cutters during my training with the Imperial Navy. I knew their strengths and weaknesses intimately. Despite the extensive modification this one had received, I felt confident that I could take it down. As I targeted the Cutter's power plant, I noted that the larger ship had not yet deployed its own weapons, again demonstrating the slaver's supreme sense of confidence in his own ability and the power of his ship. 

"You don't scare me, Roche. You might have destroyed Theriault, but he couldn't fight his way out of a toddler's birthday party." The bass-voiced slaver scoffed, as he brought in his ship to a standstill, barely two hundred metres away from the nose of my Clipper, close enough for me to see that the bridge of the Cutter was fully manned. "Hand her over, while I'm still in a good mood. I'm not going to ask again."

"Over my dead body."

"That can be arranged, Viscount."

"Try me, slave-scummer. Karina's under my protection. She'll never wear a slave collar again. Not while I breathe." I retorted, taking my hand off the throttle to squeeze the shoulder of Karina's flight suit reassuringly. She reached up, acknowledging my solidarity by clutching back at my fingers, her expression unreadable behind the RemLok mask.

"Unwise. So very unwise." the slaver muttered, triggering the deployment of his weapon hardpoints. Unwilling to be the first to flinch, I held fire, not wanting to incur an assault bounty. Even at point-blank range, my shields were capable of holding out against an initial strike from the Cutter. I knew that it was better to wait for him to initiate the combat, if only to prove that he would not be able to intimidate me into firing first. "I suppose I'll just have to take her body from the wreckage instead. Some of my clients aren't fussy."

I launched a charge of chaff the instant I saw the laser turrets on the dorsal hull of the Cutter begin spitting pulses of hard light, sending the automated tracking algorithms haywire. A few shots still grazed my shields, the attack being instantly reported back to the police authorities in the system. With my own legal position now safe, I returned fire with all weapons, the cannon rounds making a significant dent in the Cutter's shield envelope and crimson beams slashed from my right wing across the space between us, raking down the coruscating blue energy field. The afterburners on both vessels flared, the Cutter launching its own screen of chaff as I wheeled the Clipper onto the tail of the larger vessel, disengaging the flight assistance support from ASTRA to complete the manoeuvre faster. With greater acceleration, Fell From The Top(...) easily caught up with the heavier Cutter as it surged in a straight line for clear space, trying to work enough distance between us so that the slaver could bring his turrets back into play. I eased my ship into the shimmering vapour trail left behind by the Cutter's immense thruster modules, closing to within a hundred metres of the ship. Panicked, the slaver launched another chaff screen, hoping to confuse the tracking on my weapons, twisting and rolling his ship wildly to try and throw off my pursuit. He needn't have bothered. At this close range, the gimballing on my weapons wasn't sufficient enough to allow me to target subsystems anyway, so I locked the gimbals into a forward-firing posture, snap-rolling my ship through 180 degrees whenever I wanted to alternate between my beam lasers and cannons. The Cutter's shields were strong, easily four times the strength of those on my Clipper, but it was only a matter of time until I carved my way through them. The slaver was a decent pilot, but he had underestimated the capabilities of the Imperial Clipper relative to his own vessel. My ship was smaller, more nimble and more responsive under acceleration and deceleration. No matter how he manoeuvred his ship, I clang to his tail, never more than 150 metres behind the exhaust port of the Cutter's main thrusters. Occasionally a shot or two from one of the rearward turrets would flash through and echo off my shields like a bell, but I had two fully-loaded banks of shield cells in reserve and I was rarely exposed for long enough for the cumulative damage to overcome the recharge rate of my shields anyway. We battled in grim silence, cannon rounds hammering away at the larger vessel's shields as I let my beam lasers cool and recharge, the target avatar on my HUD showing that the Cutter was down to its last ring of shields, and even that was about to collapse. A final barrage of laser fire caused the Cutter's shield envelope to rupture and shred, bursting like an overstretched balloon as the shield emitters overloaded from the strain.

Finally realising that he was overmatched, the slaver abandoned his efforts at evasive manoeuvring and  tried to simply outrun me, charging his frame shift drive to flee into witchspace. "Oh no, you don't get away that easily, slaver."

Three more contacts appeared on my radar scanner, just five kilometres away, heading in on an intercept course. The contacts board identified them as two Vipers and an Anaconda, a typical system security patrol. The automated reporting of the Cutter's assault on my ship had brought a swift response from the local police. "Crime reported from this locality. Prepare to submit for inspection."

With my Clipper so close to the fleeing Cutter, the disruptive effect of the Clipper's mass made it several orders of magnitude harder for the Cutter's AI to calculate a safe transit into witchspace. I used this delay to target the slaver vessel's frame shift drive, demolishing the module into spare parts with a sustained salvo of cannon rounds and beam laser fire. 

Then the Vipers arrived. "Capital crimes detected. Elfrirth's Plunder, you are sentenced to death."

With the Cutter now trapped in realspace until its crew could affect repairs to its frame shift drive, the slaver redirected all the ship's power to weapons, the turrets striking out at the Vipers as they barrelled towards the slaver, afterburners and multi-cannons ablaze. The police Anaconda wasn't far behind, making its presence felt with a burning sphere of plasma, which smashed into the dorsal armour of the Cutter, the ionized gas sparking and charring away at the metal, just after the Vipers whipped by at over 400 metres per second, sparks of chaff erupting from twin launchers on the rear of the heavy fighters. I eased Fell From The Top(...) backwards, staying in the lee of the Cutter's thruster modules and out of line of sight from the vessel's turrets, keen to avoid any collateral damage as the police finished the job that I had started. I kept up my own assault on the doomed ship, reducing what little mobility the Cutter had left by targeting its thruster modules. The Vipers turned for another pass, the thudding reports of multi-cannon sabots shredding through the outer layers of the Cutter's hull ringing in my ears as the Vipers passed over my ship in formation, one over each of my wings, still spewing mylar ribbons to confuse the tracking of the Cutter's few remaining functional turrets. The police Anaconda sealed the fate of Elfrirth's Plunder, four sustained beams of annihilation reaching out from the Anaconda's nose to embrace the stricken Imperial Cutter, boiling away the plating from the unprotected hull, before a final projectile from its plasma accelerator smashed into the side of the slaver's ship, exploding it with a resonant, hollow pop. The accompanying fireball was bright but brief, snuffed out by the vacuum, leaving only the shredded and twisted fragments of the Cutter's hull behind. 

I stowed my weapon hardpoints as the police vessels crowded around my ship. "Thanks for your assistance." I told them over an open channel.

The bow of the Anaconda dipped, as if in consideration, before the formation of police vessels turned about in unison. "You're clean, pilot. Be about your business."

"Bounty voucher awarded." ASTRA reported, flashing up the information on the HUD. 

1,355,727 CR BOUNTY CLAIM AWARDED: DESTRUCTION OF CRIMINAL ELFRIRTH'S PLUNDER

"I don't think too many people are going to miss him." I told Karina, spooling up Fell From The Top(...)'s frame shift drive to take us into supercruise so that we could traverse the 90 light seconds between the nav point and Tomani 2.

"He was a very bad man." Karina shuddered, her voice ice cold. 

"No kidding." I replied, not really wanting to think about the kind of things he must have done to earn such a judgment from Karina. "Well, that's one less slaver in the galaxy. And good riddance."

Karina didn't reply.
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