Saturday, April 23, 2016

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Requiem - Chapter Six

Summerland: Eurynome

It felt odd coming back to my childhood home without Laure. The last time I had been here was on our honeymoon and I had always associated the estate with her, even though it had been owned by my parents, Cassandra and Padraig, rather than Laure's father, Silvano. Laure and her father had spent the long summer months at our estate as guests of my parents in the years leading up to my mother and father's execution: the staunchest allies my parents had come to rely upon in the months leading up to their indictment. 

As soon as Fell From The Top(...) dropped out of witchspace I activated the navigation computer to set a course for Summerland 6, a terraformed Earth-like world officially known as Henry O'Hare's Haven, but more colloquially known as Summerland, the star it orbited. Despite several centuries of work, the terraforming on Summerland was incomplete, resulting in a hot, dry climate with an overbearing air presssure, which gave the world and system its name. It was only the high air pressure (some six times above Terran norms) that enabled the planet to retain the oceans it needed for a sustainable hydrosphere, though the terraforming effort hoped to lower the overall average temperature of the planet so that the oceans wouldn't simply evaporate as the air pressure was gradually reduced. The hot, dry and high pressure climate had given the world a reputation as a spa world and health retreat. It was hoped that in the coming two or three centuries that the terraforming factories still dotted across the surface of the planet would thin out the atmosphere and increase the relative density of oxygen to bring the planet more in line with the standard atmosphere you might find on a space station. 

Even though the terraforming was still a work in progress, the planet's minimal axial tilt and long, 48 hour days gave Summerland a stable climate all year round, making it one of the most popular worlds in the Empire for rich and powerful families to build their private estates. Sited on the coast at the southern edge of the temperate zone of Summerland's northern hemisphere, the five thousand square kilometre Eurynome estate was ideally placed for people who enjoyed moderate, rather than balmy temperatures. Sea and air temperatures averaged 295K all year round, never getting too hot for comfort thanks to the gentle breezes rippling off the coast. Pristine white sand beaches glimmered welcomingly as I let my Imperial Clipper plummet like a comet down through the thick atmosphere at nearly 3000 metres per second. The sonic boom following us gradually ebbed away as I reduced speed, levelling off my approach at an altitude of 5000 metres. Using the navigation console at my left hand, I activated the lodge's landing beacon to provide me with a vector towards the estate's landing pad. Coming in from the ocean allowed our view of the estate to gradually unfold as we glided over the calm, sapphire blue waters towards the beach and the rolling green landscape beyond. The mansion itself stood proudly in the centre of an intimate glade, the woods behind the house separating the house and gardens from the vineyard and downs beyond the trees. The glade opened out before the mansion over immaculately manicured gardens, a glass house covering almost a hectare providing the plants for the parterre and other flower beds. Beyond the garden and lawn was a cascade from the water-meadow leading down to the hunting lodge and the estate's private landing pad, situated a kilometre and a half from the main house, right next to the beach. I brought the ship in low and slow, circling the glade once to give Karina a good view of the mansion before bringing the ship down manually on the landing pad, the nose of the Imperial Clipper pointing into the prevailing on-shore wind. 

"All this is yours, master?"

"Yep. This is home. I grew up here. Until my parents were executed, at any rate. Laure gave me the estate as a wedding present." I replied as I shut down the engines and put the ship into standby mode. "ASTRA, you deserve a nice rest. Enjoy the view."

"I will, my lord. Running maintenance diagnostics."

Karina and I changed out of our flight suits before disembarking, Karina opting for her usual jumpsuit and boots, allied with a fake leather jacket to keep out the wind, while I wore a thick black cotton tunic, matching naval fatigue trousers, heavy boots and a polyester canvas tactical vest. Before leaving my stateroom, I retrieved my flechette pistol belt and filled the pouches of the vest with extra ammo clips, first aid kits and ration packs. After Thunda Sue's warning in the nightclub on Sorbago, I wasn't in the mood for taking risks. 

"Are you expecting trouble, master?" Karina frowned when she saw I was armed.

"No, but there are wild boars in the woods behind the house. Occasionally they go for the vegetable garden. You don't want to get surprised by one, believe me." I replied, using an unlikely truth to disguise my real concerns as I secured the hatch behind us. "We could go hunting for one later. They're good eating."

"I don't think so, master. I'd rather take a walk on the beach." Karina stared at the waves swelling against the white sands longingly.

"Good idea." I linked arms with Karina and walked with her down the sloping dune that separated the landing pad from the beach. "Do you like the ocean?"

"I like the smell. And the wind. It reminds me of my parents."

"Your settlement on Elysian Fields was on the coast?"

"Mummy used to take me swimming every weekend." Karina nodded, lost in bittersweet memories, her grip tightening on my arm.

"You'll like it here, then." I said as we stepped onto the fine-grained sand. "The water's always warm."

"Are you going to leave me here, master?" Karina hadn't forgotten Laure's threat.

I stopped walking and turned her to face me, holding her shoulders firmly. "I'm not going to abandon you, Karina. Not ever."

"Even if your wife wants to kill me?"

"Laure was upset. Angry. She didn't mean it."

"One day she'll make you choose. And you'll leave me behind." Karina said, her shoulders slumping in defeat. "I don't want you to leave me, master."

I knew she was right. I would choose Laure over Karina if I had to. I was only delaying the inevitable by refusing to answer Laure's ultimatum. Unable to think of anything comforting to say, a white lie that would ease her pain, I bent down to kiss Karina's lips. She kissed back fiercely, long and hard, her fingers gripping the hair on the back of my head. I wiped away the tears in her eyes when we came up for air. Karina smiled bravely, but I could see that she had accepted that this was the beginning of the end of our affair. I held her close for a few moments before sitting on the sand to take off my boots and socks. "The sand feels better if you go barefoot."

We left our boots behind at the base of the dune, letting the warm sand tickle the gaps between our toes and heat the soles of our feet. We walked in silence for over an hour, our eyes hunting for shells or weathered stones on the shore. I led us closer to the shoreline, so that the gentle swell of the incoming waves broke over our feet and ankles. Karina stopped and looked out to the horizon, the ocean almost a perfect mirror image of the blue, cloudless sky. The sun was already halfway on its journey from its zenith to the horizon, but thanks to Summerland's slow rotation, I estimated that we still had a good six hours of daylight left.

"It's beautiful here, master. So peaceful."

"It's good to be home again. I never realise how much I've missed it until I'm back." We lingered a moment as the waves lapped around our feet before I led Karina back to the dune where we had left our footwear. "Let me show you the house and gardens. If you like the beach, you're going to love the house."

We followed the path from the landing pad back to the mansion, walking beside the cascade, the water burbling happily over the rocks as it fell towards the shore. The slope leading up to the gardens from the landing pad wasn't particularly steep, but it was over a thousand metres long, and both Karina and I were getting short of breath by the time we crested the top of the hill. The view, however, was worth it. The white marble fa├žade of the mansion was as impressive as ever. Eurynome had been built in the neo-Palladian style, with a tetrastyle portico framed by two symmetrical wings, each three stories high, studded regularly with vertical, rectangular windows. The first floor windows were taller than those on the ground and second floor, in a classic piano nobile, the master bedrooms easily identifiable at the end of each wing by their balconies overlooking the glade. The hall behind the portico was topped by a rotunda that stood proudly above the flat roof, which was rimmed by dozens of waist-high colonnades topped by a thin marble parapet rail. The mansion stood out dramatically against the background of trees, an arrogant statement of Man's mastery over nature. 

As we walked around the water-meadow to the lawn, I saw the door to the house open and a grey-haired man of average height and slender build step out from between the four columns of the portico. I recognised him instantly as Vilko Kozel, Eurynome's estate manager. He had been employed by my mother only weeks after she had acquired the property and he had been here ever since, having been kept on by Laure to maintain the mansion and grounds. I felt Karina's grip on my right arm tighten. She was still skittish around strangers. "Don't worry, Vilko's as old a friend as I've ever had. Let me introduce you."

We met in the middle of the parterre by the fountain, and Vilko laughed in delight as I gave him a bear hug, which the old man returned enthusiastically. Vilko had always looked upon me as one of his grandsons. "My lord Aemon, it's good to see you again so soon!"

"And you."

"I was worried about you after I heard what happened at Groombridge 34. You're well again, I hope?" Vilko asked, before leading us back towards the house at a slow walking pace.

"No lasting damage, thankfully."

"I'm glad to hear it, my lord. I see you've brought a companion. Mistress Torval said that you might when I spoke to her this morning."

"Vilko, this is Karina. She'll be staying with us for a little while."

"Enchanted to meet you, my lady." Vilko nodded respectfully towards her and he was tactful enough not to ask any awkward questions about the nature of our relationship.

"Did Laure say anything else?"

"Not much, my lord." Vilko said as we approached the portico. "Just that she'd be joining you here in a couple of days."

"Good. I trust you've kept the larder and cellar well-stocked? We've had a long day and could do with something to eat."

"Of course, my lord." Vilko stopped and turned to us, his face almost apologetic. "Just one more thing, my lord."

"What is it, Vilko?" I asked, my danger sense starting to tingle.

"I did have one other message for you. From Senator Torval." Vilko began to raise his right hand. Seemingly from nowhere, a small slug-thrower pistol had appeared in his palm.

"No!" Karina screamed, stepping between us as I instinctively drew my dart gun from the friction holster on my left hip. 

The next few seconds passed in slow motion. I saw the muzzle of Vilko's gun flash once, causing Karina to stagger back against me. I returned fire without thinking, my aim guided by my combat training, delivering two quick rounds to the chest and a third to Vilko's forehead. I caught Karina, feeling blood beneath my hands as Vilko's body slumped, lifeless, to the floor. 

"Karina! No... oh, no." I whispered, setting her down gently on the gravel path, pressing a hand hard against the wound in her chest to try and stop the bleeding. Karina looked up at me distantly and coughed once, crimson spittle coating her lips. "Don't try to talk."

I glanced over at Vilko's body. He definitely wouldn't be getting up again. A closer inspection of his gun revealed that it was the latest model Manticore Munitions hold-out pistol. The lack of rifling in the barrel indicated that it had been designed to fire 'tumbler' slugs, containing a tiny explosive charge to break up the slug inside the body and cause massive internal injuries to multiple organs. At least one of Karina's lungs had been punctured, judging from her laboured breathing and the way she was coughing up blood. I put my head against her ribcage and heard the tell-tale bubbling of lungs filling with liquid. But worse than that was what I couldn't hear. I lifted my hand away from the entry wound on her chest, but no blood seeped out. Her heart had already stopped, ripped apart by fragments from the tumbler round. Karina was dying before my eyes and there was absolutely nothing I could do. My first aid kit wasn't equipped to deal with internal injuries. I felt the tears on my cheeks as I tried to contain my anguish. Karina saw the sorrow in my eyes and reached up to caress my face. 

"I'm sorry. I was too slow." I kissed her, tasting her blood on my lips: a coppery tang of failure. Karina just smiled and stroked my neck comfortingly. "Karina, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry... I love you."

I kissed her again, holding her tight in my arms until I felt her breathing stop and her fingers slip away limply from the back of my neck. Unable to let her go, I cradled Karina's body and cried.
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