Saturday, January 02, 2016

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Requiem - Chapter One

Toolfa: Crook Hub

Dr Bollenberg's information proved to be correct on all counts. 48 hours later I was back on my feet, with a very hefty repair bill to pay – two, in fact. One for me, and the second for the ship, which more than wiped out all of the money I had received from the bounty voucher for Elfrirth's Plunder, the Imperial Cutter belonging to one of Karina's former slave masters. Cloned organs, it turned out, could be more expensive than ships, and Karina had spared no expense in my medical treatment. I was too happy to still be alive to be annoyed at the incredible cost of my hospital stay (some 540,000 credits), and it was touching to know how much she had wanted me to survive my injuries, which had very nearly been fatal.

As well as atomising one of my lungs and several of my ribs, the multi-cannon round I'd been struck by at Groombridge 34B had severed several major arteries, clipped my liver and shredded a kidney, as well as inflicting major trauma to my back muscles. If the sabot round had entered my chest another fifty millimetres to the left, I would have been killed instantly. By the time Karina had landed my ship at Crook Hub, I had already fallen into a coma. Had it not been for the intervention of the ship's AI interpreting my last instruction to Karina before I lost consciousness as a voice command and acting upon it through her own initiative, we never would have made it out of the Groombridge system at all. ASTRA had then coached Karina through what to do once the ship had escaped the clutches of the Federation ambush after our raid on the shipyard at Groombridge 34B, as the sight of my injuries had left her almost catatonic. Fortunately, ASTRA's guidance had coaxed Karina into action, saving both me and the ship – or at least, what was left of us. Karina had admitted with chagrin that it had even been ASTRA's idea that she should pose as my wife while I was unconscious, as my condition was so serious that ASTRA judged that she would need to claim such status to have her wishes obeyed without question by the doctors. 

Fell From The Top(...) herself cut a sorry sight when Karina walked with me arm-in-arm to the docking bay. I was still very stiff in the aftermath of my extended stay in the hospital unit and could only walk long distances with assistance. The Imperial Clipper's graceful, sweeping wings were pockmarked with craters from multi-cannon rounds, the canopy showed signs of hastily-patched cracks and whole thruster modules were visibly burnt out. The decision I had made to trade off the mass of the ship's reactive armour plating for extra speed had not been an unqualified success. The ship was barely functional, but thankfully the AI core containing the video evidence showing the outcome of the raid on the Federation battlecruiser at Groombridge 34 had not been damaged. After Karina helped me aboard, the first thing I did was wrap my arms as far as I could around the casing of ASTRA's AI core, the closest I could get to giving her a bear hug, in thanks for the AI's intuition and quick thinking that had saved us all. “Thank you, ASTRA.”

“You're welcome, my lord.” the AI replied, sounding rather pleased with herself.

“I'm going to give you the shiniest paint job this station can muster. What colour would you like, ASTRA?”

“I've always been partial to gold, my lord.” ASTRA replied, after a whole second of consideration, which was almost an eternity for an AI.

“Consider it done.” I said, hugging the cold, metallic sphere again. Karina stood behind me, frowning in confusion before helping me again to my feet. “Karina, let's go to the bridge and make a few calls. We need to get this ship repaired.”

The flight deck was just as I remembered it: a literal bloody mess. The bulkhead at the rear of the bridge was still spattered with globules of my dried blood and tiny fragments of lung tissue, a gruesome reminder of the seriousness of my injuries. I would have to convince one of the repair crews to get it cleaned up – the gore rather ruined the sleek, pristine carbon fibre aesthetic of the Gutamaya styling. I caressed the ragged hole that had been ripped clear through my flight seat, only now fully appreciating the damage that had been done to my body. I followed the line of sight from the puncture in the canopy through the chair to the bulkhead and found the hole where the sabot had hit the rear wall. The multi-cannon round had punched deep into the armour plate, melting and vaporising as it penetrated the dense metal. I reached into the hole, my arm disappearing up to the elbow before my fingertips felt the bottom. None of the uranium-tipped sabot remained in the hole.

“Isn't it amazing that something so small can do so much damage.” I said, half to myself, under my breath. 

Karina took me by the arm again and led me silently to the co-pilot's chair, where she sat me down, kissing me on the forehead. “I thought I'd never see you back here again, master.”

“I wouldn't be if it weren't for you and ASTRA. You saved my life, Karina. Thank you.”

“You saved mine, too, Master Aemon.”

“Then I guess that makes us even.” I smiled, taking her hands in mine. “So does that mean you'll stop calling me 'master' now?”

“No, master.” Karina gave me a brittle smile back, beautiful and fragile.

“Okay, have it your way.” I shook my head, squeezing her fingers tightly before letting her go. “I suppose if I'm buying ASTRA a shiny new outfit, I ought to get you one as well. You've certainly earned it.”

“I already have everything I want, master. As long as I have you.” Karina hugged me around the neck, holding on for a full minute. “I'll be in my room, master.”

“Don't get too comfy.” I said, wagging a finger at her threateningly. “As soon as I'm done we're going shopping. I need a new flight suit and I'm buying you a new dress whether you want one or not.”

“Yes, master.” Karina gave me a lingering kiss full on the mouth before leaving the flight deck. With only one fully grown lung, it didn't take much to leave me short of breath, but the intensity of her kiss left me gasping. 

The first thing I did was check the footage from the shipyard raid at Groombridge 34B. It had been six weeks since the attack and I had still not reported in to Senator Torval. By now her other agents would have reported to her the success or failure of the mission, but she would want definitive proof from my ship's AI records before paying out the 10 million credit reward. I was relieved to see from the gun camera footage that the Farragut-class battlecruiser I had been tasked to destroy had indeed been utterly annihilated by two of the experimental antimatter torpedoes the Senator had provided me with, along with three quarters of the capital ship drydocks at the ship building facility. Completing Zemina's task successfully was more important than the money, as it was the Senator who was preventing me from seeing her niece and my wife, Laure. I would also have to speak with Laure on hyperwave radio, as we had not gone longer than a week without speaking to each other since we'd been married. I didn't want to think about how she might be trying to explain a month and a half of complete silence.  

Before taking care of that, however, the condition of my ship was a more pressing concern. Fell From The Top(...) had sustained critical damage to nearly all of its systems. Had it not been for the precious information held within the AI core and the almost unique ID transponder mask fitted to the ship by its previous owner, it would have been more cost effective to have scrapped the Clipper on its insurance policy and get a brand new replacement. It was only the money I had raised from downgrading the reactive armour to standard bulkheads that would allow me to have the ship brought back up to anything like the specification I had gotten used to prior to the Groombridge 34 assignment. The hull repairs alone were almost into seven figures and some modules, notably the life support, shields and thruster units were uneconomical to repair had to be replaced entirely. This meant that I only had enough money left after the repairs to fit military grade armoured bulkheads, rather than reactive armour, but I consoled myself that while cheaper, they gave better all-round protection, rather than specialist damage ablation against projectile weapons. I dumped the torpedo launchers I had needed at Groombridge 34 and reverted back to my port/starboard wing setup of gimballed cannons and beam lasers. I also reinstated shield boosters on the utility module hardpoints in place of the heat sink launchers and point defence turret, and replaced the field maintenance unit with a hull reinforcement module, bolstering the ship's armour even further. Lastly, I requested ASTRA's new paint job, holding back a choke at the extortionate cost of 100,000 credits. Allegedly, the only way a gold finish could be applied to military armour was by using an industrial electroplating process with real gold. Half the cost was the five tonnes of gold required to achieve the desired colour and the rest was to carry out the process itself, finally coating the gold plating with a thin layer of synthesized diamond (fortunately, carbon is cheap) to prevent micrometeoroid damage ruining the finish. I almost refused, but I had promised ASTRA and she had saved both the ship and the lives of myself and Karina. Regardless, it was a good idea to recolour the ship in any case – graphite grey Imperial Clippers were surely by now the most hunted ships in Federation space. The port authority told me that the repairs would take no more than three days and I was invited to stay, free of charge, in one of the station's six star hotel suites. Presumably this was supposed to compensate for the fact that I had just dropped well over forty million credits in their ship outfitters. I accepted graciously, noting with a sly grin that my reputation with the local authority had jumped straight from 'Neutral' to 'Allied' in the space of five minutes. Such was the power of money in a democratic free market economy.

The comms system was one of the only ship modules to escape major damage from the plasma accelerator hit in the shipyard ambush, the unit having been switched off at the time. I debated which Torval to speak with first, my wife or her Aunt. Both were likely to be difficult conversations, but I chose the Senator first, over the Governor, because I wanted something to look forward to. At least my conversation with Laure was likely to have a happier ending. I powered up the comms module and put in a call to Lagerkvist Gateway at Synteini. I was rather taken aback when Senator Zemina Torval answered without keeping me on hold, in a customary demonstration of her innate superiority.

“Roche. You were supposed to report here to me weeks ago.” The Senator's age-lined face was as strict and unforgiving as ever.

“Forgive me, Senator. I've spent the last month and a half re-growing half of my ribcage and back. And I'm still missing a lung, so I'll have to keep my sentences short.” I tried and failed to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. The attempt at humour did not go down well.

“Do you have the footage?” Torval's reply was cold and unimpressed.

“I'll have my AI transmit it to you now.” I tapped the instructions onto my control board and  ASTRA confirmed by text that the video stream had been received and properly countersigned by the AI at Lagerkvist Gateway. I studied Zemina's stern visage as she watched the holograph of the two torpedoes devastating the heart of one of the Federation's most strategically important shipyards. For the merest fraction of a second, the corners of Zemina's narrow mouth flexed upward with satisfaction.

“Ten million, Roche. As agreed.” Zemina stabbed a long, thin, claw-like finger at her terminal, transferring the money into my credit account, with a sigh of regret. “You're almost making yourself too useful to kill. But it was so close to being a win-win...”  

“Senator, surely I've proved myself to you by now. I want to see Laure.”

“Oh, Roche! Roche!” Zemina shook her head, sadly. “Why would you say something so stupid? Just when I was about to think you were something close to being a competent and valuable asset? Lose yourself outside of the bubble. I've just given you a fortune. Buy an independent world, be a king! But don't think for a second I'll let you near my niece again.”

“Some things are more important than money, Senator.” 

“Yes. Indeed they are. I think that's the most intelligent thing I've heard come out of your mouth, Roche. But you forget yourself. You're already the most wanted man in Federation space. Ask me that again and I'll have a bounty put on your head that's so large you'll never be able to re-enter Imperial space.” Zemina glowered and cut the channel.

“That went well, I thought.” I said aloud, to myself, my face in my palms. “ASTRA, see if you can get hold of Laure.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Like her aunt, Laure didn't keep me waiting, acknowledging the call instantly. Her pale blue eyes were wide and bloodshot and she had dyed her hair raven black, to match her mood of despair. She looked at me disbelieving, reaching out to try and touch me through the screen of her terminal, hardly daring to trust what she was seeing. “Aemon? Thank the gods! You're alive? What happened to you? I've been worried sick!”

I updated Laure on the events of the past six weeks, including the outcome of the talk I had just finished with Zemina. Laure listened intently, as was her habit; letting me talk without interruption, which was not. I wondered if she just wanted to hear the sound of my voice. When I had finished, Laure looked at me through her terminal screen, crestfallen.

“Aemon, I can't go on living like this forever. I need you here. I miss you.”

“I miss you, too. But there's that small matter of the Interdictor waiting for me outside your station.”

“I should talk to Zemina. Get her to stop this pathetic little vendetta.”

I shook my head emphatically. “Don't do that. I'd never make it past the border.”

“Then what can we do? Aemon, we're having a child in five months.”

“We need some kind of leverage. Maybe we should go public? Generate some sympathy in the media? Zemina isn't the most popular of Senators as it is.”

“No, I don't think so. The old witch might not have Aisling's looks, but she's still got a lot of pull with GalNet. We'd get crucified. No, you're right, we need some dirt on her.”

“Any ideas as to where to start digging?” I asked. 

“I've been digging for years.” Laure said, frowning. “She's spotless, politically speaking.”

“What about the Sorbago incident?” I suggested. A little over two years ago, Zemina had sent part of her personal fleet to put down an Imperial Slave revolt in the Sorbago system, on the Federation/Empire border. The slaves had taken control of the system's senate building and tried to force the local authority out of the system with the help of Federation-aligned privateers. The revolt had failed spectacularly and the surviving slaves had been exiled from Empire space. Zemina Torval was one of the most vocal senators speaking out for the rights of Imperial Slaves, so there was a whiff of hypocrisy surrounding the whole affair. The senator had justified it at the time as a public order issue, given that Sorbago was a system nominally under her control. 

“I never found anything damaging. But maybe you could if you started poking around Sorbago itself.”

“Right. It's better than waiting around for Zemina to find a mission that will finally kill me.” I said. “I don't suppose she's got any skeletons in her closet, personally-speaking?”

“Hah. That shrivelled crone hasn't had a decent screw in at least fifty years.” Laure scoffed, before pausing thoughtfully. “It might explain why she's so fucking uptight, actually.”

“Maybe we should set her up on a blind date.” I said, half-serious. “Marquis Durante's always sniffing around Zemina's fringed collar.” 

“Oh, gods no.” Laure recoiled from her terminal, repelled by the idea. “Can you imagine it?”

“I'd rather not.” I replied honestly. 

“I'm still looking into that other matter, incidentally.” Laure said to change the subject, referring to her ongoing investigation into the creation of Agent Zeta, the clone of my biological mother. “Another little push in my next board meeting at HelixCorp should do the job. I threatened to sell my stake in the company if they didn't give me access to the records.”

“That got their attention, I bet.” 

“Just a little bit, yeah.” Hardball was one of Laure's favourite games – at least in the board room. I didn't know anyone with a better judgement of how far to push a gambit in political or business brinksmanship. HelixCorp had tripled its revenue under her stewardship and patronage: the executive board would be very reluctant to lose her expertise. “Give me a week and I should have something for you.”

“Thanks, Laure. Some good news, at least. Who knows, maybe it's related.”

“Maybe.” Laure did not sound entirely convinced, and looked at me with concern. “Are you going to be alright? You don't seem quite yourself.”

I stroked my ribcage self-consciously. “I've just had the wind taken out of my sails a little bit. It was a close call.”

“Get back to Empire space, Aemon. I'll find some way of convincing Zemina to ease off a little. I need to see you.”

“Me too. I'll poke around at Sorbago on the way. I love you, Laure.”

“I love you, too. I'll see you soon, I promise. Be careful and stick to independent systems on the way.”

“Yes, mother.” I replied, teasing.

“One day, Aemon, you'll see the wisdom in listening to me.” Laure said, sticking out her tongue.

“I've heard that one before.”

“Only about a million times.” Laure sighed. “I've got to get to a meeting. Call me back later.”
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