Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Requiem - Chapter Three

Sorbago: Nav Point

After leaving Toolfa, Karina and I made our way as directly as we could to the border between Federation and Empire space, sticking to uninhabited or independent systems where possible. Empire space was below the middle of the galactic disk, 'South' of Federation space according to the three dimensional coordinate system used by pilots to orient themselves in the mindbogglingly vast volume of space in the bubble of civilised space around Sol. We avoided stations, refuelling from the coronas of stars, hoping to escape the attention of bounty hunters, even when flying through independent systems. Zemina had not been exaggerating when she said I was the most wanted man in Federation space. The Federation authorities had deduced that I was responsible for the attack on the Groombridge 34 shipyard, or perhaps Zemina had deliberately leaked the information. I had already been given a Federation-wide bounty for the assassination of Admiral Stenberg, but given the magnitude of the damage I had done at Groombridge, my bounty in the Federation now stood at a cool 50 million credits – enough to have every bounty hunter, pirate and freelancer who fancied themselves in combat keep an eye out for me. The wisdom of giving my ship a unique colour scheme that would allow easy positive identification of my ship before a Kill Warrant Scanner had time to query the galaxy-wide Pilots' Federation database now appeared rather more questionable. ASTRA assured me that there was a reverse psychology in deliberately standing out when the bounty on the ship was so high – that it sent an unspoken message akin to 'Think you can take this on? Think again!', in the same way that pirates frequently chose garish paint jobs and attention-grabbing sigils, like death's head skulls or crossbones, to adorn the hulls of their ships.

We were forced to make a detour out towards the galactic rim, the shortest route to the border of Federation space, before sweeping “South”, down out of the plane of the galaxy through independent space to approach the Empire from below. Our final destination was Sorbago, “North” of the Imperial capital of Achenar, the site of a failed slave rebellion put down by Zemina's private Navy, almost three years ago. Tensions in the system still ran high, given that it was on the Federation border, the local Imperial authority was being constantly undermined by hostile powers, mainly under the direction of Felicia Winters, a prominent and ambitious Federation politician.

I felt an unexpected and uncharacteristic tension across my chest as we exited witchspace, arriving at the Sorbago nav point. I rarely felt anxious when flying, but for a reason I couldn't identify, I was more nervous arriving here than I had been when I had begun the final approach to the shipyard at Groombridge 34B. The nav point bustled with ships, mainly light freighters and the occasional Space Cow, the broad bat-like wings of the Type 9s occulting the sunlight to cast huge black shadows in the wake of their silhouettes. I rolled and pitched Fell From The Top(...) away from the solar corona, pointing my ship towards Hencke Orbital, 250 light seconds away, the only space station in the system large enough to dock an Imperial Clipper. Karina drew my attention to the contacts list as we were about to make the frame shift into supercruise – we were being tailed by a Federal agent in a Cobra Mark IV. 

The Federation ship appeared behind us in supercruise, having activated its own frame shift drive. The interdiction began almost immediately, as soon as the agent was able to get within range behind us, riding our frame shift wake. A text message scrolled onto the comms panel.

Well, well... if it isn't the Ghoul of Groombridge. Your bounty is going to pay for my Fer de Lance.

I looked over at Karina, snickering in amusement. “How sweet, the Feds have given me a nickname.”

I zeroed the throttle, not contesting the interdiction to prevent my ship being damaged by a failed attempt to evade the merging our two supercruise bubbles. The sense of apprehension that had descended on me when we entered the system eased slightly. A Cobra Mark IV was only a fair combat vessel: the excellent weapon hardpoint placement being compromised by a slow top speed and below average agility. Despite the Federation pilot's bluster, I was glad that my first combat after my injury at Groombridge was against a mediocre ship like this, rather than a potentially lethal Vulture, Python or Anaconda.

“ASTRA, power to weapons and shields, please.” I ordered the AI, deploying my weapons as I turned about in a sharp boost turn, afterburners flaring. I felt a twinge of discomfort from the right hand side of my chest from the g-force, but was able to block it out by concentrating on the target. 

The Cobra was less than a kilometre away, the three Class One hardpoints on the dorsal hull bristling with beam laser turrets, which lit up the space between us with bright crimson beams. I returned fire with my own gimballed beam lasers, stripping away a third of the Cobra's shield strength on the first pass. I checked my shield status and was relieved to see that the damage was superficial. ASTRA wouldn't need to worry about her gold coat getting scratched for some time yet. I dumped a charge of chaff anyway to confuse the tracking of the turrets, turning off the flight assistance to pitch in behind the less manoeuvrable Cobra, rocking the smaller vessel with another sustained volley from my beam lasers. The shields on the Cobra buckled and collapsed, allowing me to unleash the power of my twin gimballed cannons. Four quick rounds pulverised the Cobra's shield generator and I toyed with the Federal agent, using the superior speed of my vessel to stay below the centreline of his vessel, out of sight of his beam turrets as I nibbled away at the integrity of his power distributor, steadily regaining confidence in the way that I handled my ship.

The agent, increasingly desperate and recognising that he was overmatched, directed all his remaining power to the thrusters in a last ditch effort to flip his ship about, to bring his nose-mounted Class Two hardpoints to bear. I saw the rapid, repeated flashes from the muzzles of the two gimballed multi-cannons, each one spewing ten rounds a second at my ship, the sabots bouncing off my shields, coruscating in full view of the canopy. 

Abruptly and without any warning at all, I stopped breathing, an overbearing panic gripping me around the heart like a constricting snake, squeezing the life out of me, as a suppressed memory sparked in my brain. I relived my injury at Groombridge in slow motion, feeling again the horrid oozing of blood leaking inside my body. My hands froze on the flight controls as the multi-cannons continued to fire, the shields on my ship beginning to weaken as Fell From The Top(...) drifted aimlessly without my input. I couldn't move a muscle, transfixed as I saw a vision of the blood welling out from the hole in my chest.

“Master, what's wrong?” Karina asked, quietly at first, then louder. “Master, what's wrong? Why aren't you fighting?”

I barely heard her, consumed by the intensity of the flashback, feeling like I was dying all over again, unable to speak. Realising that the ship was in danger, Karina took flight control away from me, deploying a second charge of chaff and boosting the ship in behind the Cobra, out of the firing line of its turrets and forward-facing multi-cannons. I barely felt the g-force as Karina looped the Clipper, re-engaging the Federal agent with all weapons. I hardly noticed when the Cobra Mark IV popped with a bright, brief orange fireball, marking the occasion of Karina's first live ship-to-ship kill. She didn't celebrate like most pilots would have, having come through her first kill-or-be-killed combat unscathed, she was too concerned by my near catatonic state. I choked on half a breath, feeling like my chest was being compressed in a vice, unendurable pressure clamping down over my sternum as my heart pounded arrhythmically in mortal terror.

“ASTRA, what's happening to him?” Karina's question sounded distant, barely registering in my consciousness.

“His alpha and gamma brain wave activity would indicate an acute panic attack, Mistress Karina.” The AI replied, as I fought in vain to restart my normal breathing pattern. “I recommend getting to the station as quickly as possible.”

Still paralysed by the all too real sensations of uncontrolled bleeding within my chest and my rib cage being crushed, I could only watch mutely as Karina steered the ship back into supercruise, the Clipper's wingtips wobbling uncertainly as she guided the ship through higher dimensional space around to Hencke Orbital. It only took a couple of minutes to travel the couple of hundred light seconds to the station, but under the stress of my flashback, it seemed more like hours. My heart continued to beat irregularly until the ship touched down in the Coriolis station, settling down heavily onto its landing gear with a crash that the shock absorbers were barely able to damp, such had been Karina's urgency to bring us in for a rapid, manual landing.

The concussion of the heavy touchdown shocked me back into breathing again, wheezing with long, halting breaths, as Karina took my hands and walked me off the bridge to my stateroom. The panic began to lift as I started to recognise my surroundings, my eyes darting furtively into every corner, still wary and confused. Karina closed the door behind us and led me over to the bed, stripping me of my flight suit and bundling me into my bunk, where I curled up into a defensive foetal position, weeping. A moment later I felt Karina slide beneath the bed covers behind me, curling herself around my back, an arm under my waist and the other over my chest, pulling me back against her firmly. I trembled with anxiety and shame, appalled at my weakness and that I had put the ship at risk once again. Karina tucked her legs beneath mine, letting me feel her body heat, reassuring me that we were indeed still alive.

“It's over now, master.” Karina purred in my ear. “It's alright, I'm here.”

I clutched her hands, pressing them over my injury, using their warmth to counter the coldness the memory of the internal bleeding had provoked. I kept my eyes closed, breathing raggedly, feeling the tears wet my cheeks. Karina rocked me in her arms gently, kissing my shoulder and neck as she whispered wordless comforts into my ear until finally blackness fell.

Karina was already awake when the darkness lifted from my eyes, hours later. I turned over to face her, so that we were lying side by side, pressed together chest to chest, on the bunk. Karina studied my face carefully, giving me a thin smile of encouragement. Her arms snaked under my armpits, grabbing my shoulders, pulling me hard against her. The sensations of panic and fear of dying had abated, but I was still ashamed that I had ceased functioning in the middle of a combat that easily could have resulted in our deaths. Karina had been the salvation of the ship again, showing a natural piloting instinct that illustrated her growing confidence in flying Fell From The Top(...). I held her tight around her waist and back, the terrifying memory of my near death experience at Groombridge threatening to overwhelm me again. Only the soft heat of her skin against mine kept me grounded in the present. 

Karina was the first to break the silence. “Master, what happened?”

“I remembered.” I replied quietly, keeping my eyes linked with Karina's, using the beautiful jade green colour of her irises as a focal point to keep me the memories at bay. “I felt the multi-cannon round ripping through me, Karina. It was real. I saw it all. The blood, the wound... It was like I was dying again.”

“But you didn't die, master.”

“It felt like it.” I said, drawing a sharp breath. “It was horrible, like being locked into a body that can't move or speak, and feeling your life drain away.”

Karina caressed the exit wound on my back, her fingertips smooth and warm. “I feel like that sometimes, master. It's why I try to forget the past. Then it can't hurt you.”

I closed my eyes, shivering at the feather-like touch of her stroking my back. “Live in the now.”

“Yes, master.” 

“You saved us again.”

“I had to.” Karina shrugged.

“Do you feel different? Now that you've killed someone? I did, after the first time.”

Karina shrugged again, before gripping me tighter, her hands hot and comforting on my back and shoulders. “There wasn't any choice, master. I don't want to die. Not now that I have you.”

Unable to banish the image of my breakdown in the middle of the battle from my mind, I broke down into tears again. I cried into Karina's hair as she held me, her chin tucked into the hollow of my collarbone, shushing me gently.

“Karina, how do you forget?” I asked her, pleading for her help. “I don't want to feel like that ever again.”

She took my face into her small hands, her long, thin fingers cupping my cheeks. She looked deep into my eyes, letting me see the torment from her past buried within. “You don't look back. You never look back.”

I closed my eyes and Karina laid her head back down on my neck and shoulder. Lying side by side as equals, we held each other until sleep came to claim us once again. 
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