Friday, April 22, 2016

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Requiem - Chapter Five



HIP 112113: Nomen Vision

The arrival of my Imperial Clipper in the fiercely independent system of HIP 112113 had raised a few eyebrows, not least with the traffic controllers at Nomen Vision, the system's major starport, who initially denied my docking request. However, with the application of a suitably large 'administration fee' I had been granted a temporary landing permit by the local refinery corporation, Dominion of HIP 112113, which governed the station. The system would not have been high on my list of places to go, but following my ignominious retreat from Sorbago and a cryptic text-only message from Laure over our private, quantum key-coded channel, I hadn't been given any choice in the matter. 

Finally vaulted the information blockade. I found out what you wanted to know. Can't tell you over hyperwave. Will have a courier meet you in person at HIP 112113, Nomen Vision. Be there tomorrow. Love, L.

It was long past local midnight by the time the courier arrived. Karina was asleep in her stateroom as I drank black tea on the flight deck, trying to stay awake, watching the incoming and outgoing ships through the panoramic canopy, keeping a sleepy eye on the contacts board for unusual ships. The traffic was unremarkable for the most part, mainly middling independent traders in second-rate, second-hand vessels. A long succession of Cobra Mark IIIs, Haulers, Type-6 Transporters and an occasional Python soared down the access corridor of the dock, bisecting the docking slot with varying levels of precision as they entered or left the station. The only vessel obviously out of place was my own. I dozed in my flight chair, trusting ASTRA to wake me if anything interesting showed up.

I had been asleep for a couple of hours when ASTRA woke me. "My lord, a woman in a flight suit has exited the pad's control room and is approaching the ship."

"Are they armed?" I asked, jerking upright in my seat as I tried to get the blood flowing again in my brain, shaking off the grogginess of an interrupted sleep.

"No, my lord."

"That's something, at least. Give me a visual." I ordered, rubbing my eyes. ASTRA projected a colour, real-time video feed from the security camera above the door of the control room onto the canopy. The mystery pilot was walking towards the rear of the ship, striding across the titanium-clad landing pad with a swagger of long, loose limbs. The woman was still wearing her RemLok helmet, concealing her features from view, but something about the sway of her hips and the proportions of her figure struck me as being very familiar. The walk had a self-assured rhythm that I hadn't seen in months, but recognised instantly. I rubbed my eyes again, disbelieving as I whispered to myself. "Laure?"

She stopped at the entrance hatch on the loading ramp and rapped on it three times with a single knuckle of her right hand, turning knowingly back towards the camera she knew I was watching her through, as she put her left hand on her hip, tilting her head over to one side, as if to say Are you going to keep me waiting out here all night? I got up from my chair and ran the entire length of the ship, the rapid clunk of my footsteps echoing down the central access corridor. I slapped the control to open the hatch as I slid into the bulkhead, taking a second to catch my breath. The pilot still hadn't removed their helmet, but the hint of swelling at the waist confirmed that my instincts had been correct. "Laure, it's you!"

"Who else would it be, dummy?" came her withering reply, muffled by the helmet. Laure hurried inside, shutting the hatch behind her. She barely had time to uncouple the RemLok from her flight suit before I enveloped her in a bear hug, lifting her off the deck in delight. She dropped the helmet and put her hands on my shoulders to steady herself, laughing. "I guess that means you're pleased to see me."

"That would be an understatement. How did you get here? Does Zemina know you're here?"

"I flew in a ship, and no, obviously." Laure strained against my arms. "And you're going to crush the baby if you keep doing that."

"Sorry." I set Laure back down on her feet, kissing her to reinforce the apology. "I didn't even dream that the courier would be you. How did you get by the Interdictor?"

"Not in my Clipper, obviously. I fitted out an Imperial Eagle for stealth running. Low mass, high thrust, minimal thermal signature. Called in a favour with the Chief Flight Controller. It'll cost me a case of Eranin Pearl Whisky, but she let me launch without logging a flight plan or crew manifest. She won't thank me for dumping a heat sink before I left the dock, but there's no way the Interdictor ever knew I was there." Laure explained as I led her to the galley. "For all Zemina knows, I'm still at Adams, sulking in solitary confinement, not answering any calls. As long as I sneak back within the next 48 hours, no-one will be any the wiser."

"Unless she has people watching out for you on the station." I said as I poured us glasses of lightly carbonated spring water sourced from the Pilot's Federation enclave on Shinrarta Dezhra. The advertising on the gaudy label said that it supposedly had medicinal qualities, but the claims lacked a proven scientific basis. What was undeniable though, was that (as far as water went) it had a remarkable clarity and taste.

"Forget Zemina. I'm her niece, and after Groombridge, even she'll admit you're her best field agent. What's she going to do?" Laure scoffed, unclipping a clutch-pin from behind each ear to let her vibrant, copper-coloured hair fall around her shoulders and neck, the wire-like strands almost reaching her narrow waist. "Anyway, I needed to see you and she's not going to get in the way of the things that I want anymore. I've missed you."

"Me too." I squeezed her hand as I sat opposite her at the table. "But you took one hell of a risk. It's a long way to come just to give me a message. You could have sent someone else."

"No, I couldn't. Not with this information. The only person I trust with it is you." Laure looked distressed. The outcome of Laure's investigation into the cover-up surrounding the creation of my mother's clone had revealed something that disturbed her. Something so troubling she had made the decision to come and tell me personally, despite the very real dangers posed by her aunt's blockade at Adams Orbital and the possibility of being intercepted by pirates on the journey.

"That serious, huh?" I took a sip of water by necessity. My mouth suddenly felt very dry as Laure squirmed slightly in her seat. She was about to speak when I heard a noise from behind me.

"M-m-master?" Karina stammered, barely audible as she poked her head around the edge of the pressure hatch. "Who is that?"

I turned my head to Karina, smiling reassuringly, beckoning her inside with a wave of my hand. "This is Laure. Laure Torval, my wife."

"And you must be my husband's p-"

"Co-pilot." I interrupted Laure, sensing the barely suppressed hostility in her voice. "Laure, this is Karina."

"But of course." Laure feigned civility, but she eyed both of us suspiciously, watching every gesture and look between us. "The holos don't do you justice. You're much prettier in person. Though I imagined you to be taller."

Karina trembled underneath Laure's pitiless inspection, feeling exposed and cold, dressed only in her thin golden silk nightshirt. Karina's green eyes flickered anxiously back and forth between Laure and myself, searching for instruction on what she should do next. It was the first time anyone else had ever been on board the ship with us. I could see that this had unsettled Karina and that she felt rather out of her depth. "Your wife?"

"Yes, his wife... And I need to speak with my husband." Laure spoke at her slowly, impersonally and with a hard edge, as if Karina was mentally impaired, making me bristle protectively. My reaction did not go unnoticed by either woman. Laure's temper simmered, as she added a sharp "In private."

"Laure..." I began, speaking softly, wanting to calm the situation, not realising it was already well beyond my control.

"You've screwed her." Laure stared into my eyes, beyond furious. It wasn't a question. She knew. Somehow, she had sensed it from our body language. Whether it was the intuition of a woman, a wife or a politician, I wasn't sure, but my silence confirmed it for her. "You have, haven't you? Damn you, Aemon!" 

Karina was rooted to the spot, terrified by the waves of pure, unadulterated anger emanating from Laure. My wife scowled at Karina with utter disdain and before I could say another word, Laure slapped me hard across the face with all her strength, her right hand connecting solidly with my left cheekbone. I reeled under the impact as the slap echoed around the galley, stunned, muttering to myself to distract my attention from the intense stinging sensation shooting down one side of my face. "Argh, that's going to leave a bruise..."

I reeled again as Laure's other hand smacked my right cheek equally as hard, hearing and feeling a crack as the heavy gold bands of Laure's wedding and engagement rings impacted just below my eye socket. "And that's for being flippant! You... fucking... imbecile!"

"Stop! Stop it!" Karina shrieked, her hands covering her eyes to shield the violence from her sight, as tears ran down her face. "Stop hurting him!"

Laure knocked over her chair as she leapt to her feet, incandescent at Karina's outburst. I tried to come back to my senses, my eyesight blurred as I watched Laure grab Karina's wrists, shouting at her from only a few centimetres away. Karina recoiled in terror, but Laure's grip was too strong. "And you! If you so much as touch my husband again, I'll wring your scrawny fucking neck!"

Karina slumped to the floor, sobbing, when Laure let go of her arms. Laure turned back to look at me and screamed in anger and frustration, a primal yell of pure rage, her pale blue eyes piercing through me, before she stormed out of the galley. As my vision span, pain sparking between my temples like electric shocks, I still somehow retained the capacity to note with relief that Laure had turned right towards the ship's staterooms and the flight deck, rather than left towards the cargo bay and exit when she had fled through the hatchway. I levered myself onto my feet, supporting my weight on the table as I tried to find an equilibrium that would allow me to walk. 

"Karina, get up. Go back to your room."

The former slave held her face in both hands, crying into her palms. She showed no signs of having heard me. I knelt next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. 

"It's alright, Karina. She's not going to hurt you." I reassured her, caressing a cheek with my thumb to wipe away some of her tears. "It's going to be alright. Go back to bed. It'll be fine in the morning."

Karina choked back a sob, looked up at me and asked "How do you know?"

"She's my wife." I shrugged, helping Karina to her feet and walking her to her stateroom. I checked the flight deck, just to make sure that Laure wasn't about to fly the ship into the local star, before steeling myself to face her again in my stateroom.

I slipped in the door quietly, unnoticed as Laure stalked the length of the room back and forth, staring up to the ceiling, as if divining guidance from a higher power, her fingers curling into clenched fists and flexing straight again as she paced in agitation. I sealed the hatch behind me with my thumbprint, knowing that it would be wiser to carry out the inevitable argument in private, without external interruption. Laure's head snapped around to me at the buzzing sound of the magnetic lock, her eyes still ablaze with wrath.

"I can't believe you fucked her... I warned you, Aemon. I warned you!" Laure's voice came as a shout.

"Laure, it wasn't like tha-" I started, only for her to cut me off with a venomous look and an aggressive, chopping gesture of her hand.

"Shut up! I don't want to know what it was like! I want to know why you did it. Why do you never listen to me, Aemon?" Laure lamented, her body language seething with tension and rage. "Men! Always thinking with their balls and not with their brains! So how was it, Aemon? Did she wake you in your sleep? Did she beg you? Did she lie in your bed waiting for you? Or did you just fuck her on the table over dinner?"

"Lau-" I didn't even get to finish saying her name before she shouted over the top of me.

"Shut up!" she shrieked, exasperated, holding her hands like claws up in front of her face, her body coiled like a viper's, ready to strike. "I don't want to know!"

"Then why did you ask?!" I snapped back, my own temper starting to rise.

"Oh, gods! Aemon, how can you be so dense? Shut up and let me vent." Laure screeched, starting to pace again, unable to take her eyes off me as the questions poured out of her like armour-piercing sabot rounds from a multi-cannon, ripping through their target without mercy - a sensation I was only too familiar with. "Does she suck you better than I do? I bet she doesn't even have a gag reflex anymore... Do you think she's prettier when your cum is over her face? Was her cunt nice and tight for you? I bet you went down on her first, too. I doubt anyone else ever went to the trouble before ploughing her... How many times did you make her come? And did she scream when you came in her ass?"

"Laure! Stop!" I cried, unable to listen to any more, stepping forward to grab her by the shoulders. Laure slapped away my hands, standing before me defiantly, looking up into my eyes.

"Do you love her?" Laure's question came loaded with fear as well as fury. Even though I had sensed it was coming, I still wasn't sure how I would answer it.

"No!” the denial was reflexive, automatic – Laure saw through it in an instant.

“Aemon, don't you dare lie to me. Don't you dare.”

“It's... complicated. Yes?" I exhaled, looking at the floor to avoid her gaze, wanting to avoid hurting her feelings even more, but knowing that she'd be able to tell if I wasn't anything other than completely truthful. "I care about her. Is that love? I don't know. Maybe. We're connected somehow. But it's different, it's not the same way I feel about you."

"Do you love me?" Laure grabbed the front of my tunic in one hand, her other hand grasping my chin to pull my eyes back up to face her.

"Of course I do. You know I do."

"Then why did you fuck her!?!" Laure yelled, pounding my chest as tears welled in her eyes.

I put my arms around her and this time Laure didn't shake herself free. "Laure, for as long as she can remember, all she's ever known has been abuse, hate, pain, contempt and rejection. She's never been loved. Even her grandparents told her they'd rather she was dead than accept her as part of their family. How could I turn her away?"

"Because you're married to me!" Laure wept. "Is that it? A sympathy shag for the poor slave girl? That's all it was?"

"Yes... No... Not entirely..." I contradicted myself immediately, reflecting on my own feelings at the time. "She needed me, and I was lonely."

"And your traitorous cock couldn't wait." Laure grimaced, pulling hard on my tunic. I heard a short tear beneath my ears as the seam across the top of my shoulders started to give way.

"Zemina said she'd kill me if I tried to see you. I never thought-"

"You'd be found out." Laure interrupted, acidly.

"That we'd see each other again." I drew Laure closer to me, feeling her breath on my neck, watching every infinitesimal movement of her eyes as she studied me intently, trying to deduce whether I was being honest with her.

"But I wasn't worth waiting for."

"It's not like that, and you know it." I admonished her with a whisper. "I wanted to help her, that's all. I'm sorry. I didn't plan for this to happen."

“Was it just the once?”

“No.” I swallowed, bracing myself for another explosion, but it didn't come. “Laure, she saved my life at Groombridge. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be here now.”

“So you gave her a gratitude shag as well? I suppose you think I ought to thank her for screwing you, too?”

“Laure, please. It's...” 

"Complicated. So you said... I should fucking divorce you." Laure fumed, still trembling with anger, the front of my tunic distorted by her grip. "But I wouldn't want to give Zemina the satisfaction of proving her right about you."

Despite the tension still between us, I smiled wryly, risking another slap for being glib. "I've always admired the way you can think about the big picture. Priorities, right?"

Laure couldn't stop herself and laughed, but she still reached up and held me by the chin sternly. "Don't think this means you're forgiven."

"I won't."  I flinched when Laure's fingertips traced up my cheek to touch the mark her rings had left on the skin over my right cheekbone. "Ouch!"

"I think it's fractured. I'm sorry."

"I deserved it." I closed my eyes to numb the pain, putting my hand over hers as she cupped the side of my face tenderly in her gloved palm.

"Yes. You did. It's not been easy for me either. But I didn't jump into bed with the nearest willing dick. Aemon, I'm carrying your child. Doesn't that mean anything?"

"How can you even ask that? You know how I feel about you."

Laure took a step back, opening her flight suit, slipping the compressive fabric off one shoulder and arm, then the other, pulling the rubberised material down past the top of her broad hips. Like most experienced pilots, Laure didn't bother wearing anything underneath the suit; the silky inner lining was inlaid with nano-scale thermostatic filaments to ensure perfect comfort in all conditions from a hard vacuum to a tropical jungle. "You still love me? You still want me?"

"More than ever, Laure."I replied, aroused by the sight of her as she stood before me, semi-naked. Freed from the restrictive fabric, her round, heavy breasts glistened in the light, standing firm over the gentle swell of her smooth belly, the first signs of her pregnancy beginning to show. "Gods, you're so fucking sexy."

Laure pulled the flight suit down to her toned calves, kicking it away into a corner before tearing open my tunic, the thick cotton ripping as she tugged apart with both hands, bending to kiss my chest. Laure shoved me back towards the bed, climbing over me as I fell onto my back. "Don't move."

Laure unfastened my belt and the waist of my trousers, tugging them down my thighs to my knees.

"I didn't come all this way to argue. I came to remind your treacherous cock what it's been missing." Laure told me huskily, my waist and legs disappearing behind the copper curtain of her hair, her hands holding down my arms at the wrist to stop me from touching her. Laure had me groaning as she teased me with her lips and tongue, waiting until she felt my body start to tense in the build up to a climax before she bit me, hard.

"Fuck!" I swore in agony, sure that she had drawn blood. Her weight still trapped my legs and her grip on my wrists was firm enough to stop me from pushing her away. I tried to sit up as she followed up the initial bite with a rapid series of lighter, sharp nibbles until I came, crying out in exquisite pain. "Oh, fuck..."

Laure's pale eyes sparkled with desire and mischief as she straddled me, licking her lips and holding my tortured and bruised penis tenderly, stroking slowly with one hand to keep me hard. "I bet your pet doesn't do it like that."

"Laure, she has a name." I reproached her, wincing as the pain subsided.

"I should make her watch. Let her see how a wife fucks her husband." Laure pressed me down onto the mattress, her long nails digging angrily into my shoulders as she rubbed her sex along the length of my erection, leaving it slick at her touch. I gasped as she took me inside her, riding me with a furious passion that was part revenge and part reconciliation. Time seemed to dilate as she rode me: seconds passing by like hours. The intensity of her anger and longing made it some the best sex we'd ever had. Laure had her head thrown back, eyes closed and back arched, groaning out my name as she climaxed. Everything stopped for a few seconds as Laure shuddered, and then she looked down into my eyes, still quietly incensed.

“Don't just lie there, you traitorous bastard, fuck me.” Laure growled, urging me into action. I picked her up, supporting her weight underneath her thighs, tipping Laure backwards to lay her down on her back. Laure lifted her hips and opened herself to me, inviting me to penetrate her. The look in her eyes was incendiary, challenging me to pleasure her. It was impossible to look at her and not be enchanted by her full, sensual figure and the sheer beauty of her classical, refined features. Her pale blue eyes bored into me as I kissed her full, pink lips, her long legs hooking around my waist and back to draw me back inside her. I knew that Laure's vanity wouldn't let her reach a second orgasm until she felt me lose control inside her. Despite all of her many accomplishments in business and politics, Laure still wanted the sensation of being flattered and needed purely for her physicality - enjoying the knowledge that she could arouse me into forgetting everything else in the universe, other than desiring her and giving her pleasure. The sensation of her around me was intoxicating, a fusion of not just our flesh, but our souls as well. We held each other close, luxuriating in the sensation of how we seemed to fit together like two pieces of a puzzle, needing each other to feel a completeness we could never achieve on our own.

Laure cried out as I made love to her, alternating long slow thrusts with shorter, faster ones, as she had taught me to do on our first night together. Moaning loudly, she gripped the back of my head with both hands, directing me downwards, my fingers squeezing her firm breasts as I bit her large nipples lightly in turn, our bodies moving in perfect synchrony, the motions becoming faster, almost frantic, until I came, staying in motion until I felt Laure's legs twitch and heard her yell of satisfaction echo from the walls, her hands grabbing reflexively at the bedsheets as she joined me in ecstasy. "Goddamn! God... Damn! I've missed that, Aemon... I've missed that so much."

I held onto my wife as she rolled me over to get back into the dominant position, lying over me, both of us breathing hard and trembling in the sensuous afterglow of our lovemaking. "I adore you, Laure. You were incredible."

"Remember that next time you're tempted by your pet."

"Stop calling her that! She's not some animal! She's a young woman!"

"A badly broken young woman, Aemon." Laure replied sadly, somehow finding the energy to sit up across my waist, her knees tucked underneath my arms. "I saw the way she looks at you, Aemon. She doesn't love you. She can't love you, not the same way I do. And I don't just mean the sex. If you want devotion, buy a puppy. Your pity only makes her dependent on you. She might as well never have taken off the collar."

"That's not true. She's made a lot of progress." 

"Is that why she still calls you 'master'?" Laure's astute observation cut to the bone, as usual. "You can't fix her, Aemon... Look, I get it, I really do. You rescued her. You care about her. You want to give her freedom. But how can you do that if you keep her cooped up on the ship? You're not qualified to heal her, Aemon. She needs a therapist, not a master who cares if she orgasms when he rapes her. You've got to let her go. Not just for her sake, but for yours and mine, too."

"Laure, I need to try to help her. I'm responsible for her."

"Yes, yes... She'd be dead if you hadn't scooped up her pod. But how long does that responsibility last for, Aemon?" Laure waved a hand dismissively, rolling her eyes, before snatching up one of my hands and bringing it to rest on her pregnant belly. "You're responsible for this, too. I can't wait forever. And you can't have us both. I need you to make a decision. Me or her."

"You know I don't take well to ultimatums." I replied, warningly.

"But you wouldn't choose her just to spite me." 

“I'm not going to choose at all. I love both of you.”

Laure looked down, her sternness melting away as she pressed my hand to her belly, trying to get me to sense the life we'd created together growing inside her. "This is love, Aemon. Real love, real responsibility. Not some game you play to try and make yourself feel better about the injustice in the galaxy. I want to share it with you. But I can't share you with her."

"Laure, I don't want to lose you." I sat up on the bed, slipping my hands under her arms to cup her shoulder blades, drawing her forwards to me.

"Maybe you're not such an idiot after all." Laure smiled and kissed me on the mouth, relieved. 

"Oh, I wouldn't go that far. Otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here with a broken cheek." I smiled back briefly, enjoying the warmth of her skin against mine after so many months of separation and isolation. “Don't make me choose. Not now. I can't. Not yet. I'm not ready.”

Laure frowned, appearing to sag slightly, disappointed in me. “You just want to have your cake and eat it.”

“No, it's not that. You've both saved my life. I wouldn't be here now, I wouldn't be who I am now, without either of you.” I tried to explain, holding her close. “Asking me to choose which one of you to love is like asking me to choose which arm I would like to cut off. I can't do that, I'm sorry. It wouldn't be fair on any of us. And with Zemina on the warpath, I might be dead tomorrow anyway. We don't have a future until we can deal with her.”

“Zemina.” Laure said, practically spitting the name from her mouth with contempt. “My precious aunt.” 

“Sorbago was a bust. No-one would give me anything we could use against her.”

“I think I might have found something.”

“From the records at HelixCorp?” I asked, hopefully. “What?”

"Nothing that can't wait until tomorrow." Laure replied, dismissing the question as she resettled her hips over mine, leaning forward, using the weight of her breasts to lower me willingly back down to the mattress. "Unlike this..."
*
The following morning Laure borrowed one of my shirts as we sat down for breakfast in the ship's tiny galley. I prepared poached eggs, grilled sausage, bacon, baked hash browns and black pudding as Laure watched me from the table with hungry eyes, drinking from a tall glass of orange juice. We didn't speak until I sat down opposite her, settling the plates down on the table.

"It smells good." Laure sniffed the bacon, cutting a rasher in half and chewing it thoughtfully. "Tastes good, too."

"So do you." I raised my eyebrows, glancing pointedly below the level of the table.

"Flatterer. You're still not forgiven." Laure snorted, crossing her legs self-consciously, acutely aware she had not showered since our nocturnal exertions deep into the early hours. "But it's a start."

"Thank you. We can flirt more later if you like." I proposed with a smile, before returning to the original reason Laure had asked me to come to the system in the first place. "So what did you find out about my mother's clone? Did you find out who ordered it? And who was blocking your investigation?"

"Yes. The same person, as it happens." Laure confirmed, raising her fork for emphasis. "You won't believe who."

"Zemina." I guessed.

"Close." Laure's eyes gleamed, impressed by my instincts. "Silvano."

"Your father?" I asked, shocked. "But why?"

"It's simple, he couldn't bear the thought of losing her. They were having an affair. I wouldn't be surprised if he has a few others in vitro somewhere, ready to be grown." Laure seemed surprised by my reaction. "You didn't know?"

"So that's what Zemina meant when she said 'I should have worried more about the mother'." I sat back in my chair, the pieces beginning to fall into place. "How long had it been going on for?"

"Ever since your parents first showed up in Empire space. They knew my father was vulnerable, a widower. Mother died when I was a toddler. Zemina always told me that the Federation had her killed and made it look like a shuttle accident. I don't know if it's true. But it opened the door for Cassandra. Padraig made friends with Silvano first, of course. He didn't get introduced to your mother until a couple of months after the accident."

"So my parents knew your father when you were a toddler? How old were you?"

"Two? Three, maybe." Laure propped herself up on one elbow, leaning forward to sip from her glass as she waited for my brain to catch up with the implications of what she'd told me. 

I could tell from the look on her face that she hadn't told me everything. There was still one last, vital piece of the puzzle I was missing. Laure obviously knew what that piece was, but she wanted to see if I was able to figure it out for myself. I trawled through my memories of my conversations with Zemina, Cassandra's clone and Stenberg, linking them to the hazy memories of my summer vacations with Laure and her father at Eurynome; the happy, carefree days with Laure as an ever-present and attentive companion and the fretful nights of raised adult voices, accusations and arguments muffled through thick, decoratively-papered walls. I set down my cutlery, my hands shaking as my brain picked through the clues and inconsistencies in the stories I had been told about my family since the trial and execution. Above all else, one thing Zemina had told me during the briefing at Ogygia kept coming back to the forefront of my mind. You're not right for her, Roche. You never were. "No, no... That can't be right."

"What can't?" Laure's eyes were simultaneously cool, yet sympathetic, matching her tone of voice.

"They were having the affair before I was born. Silvano's..." I stopped, unable to finish the thought and track my logic through to its devastating conclusion.

"Your father." Laure completed it for me. "Yes."

"So you're my sis-"

"Half-sister." Laure interrupted, correcting me.

"You knew?" My voice shook along with my hands, unsure whether I should be angry, or feel something else entirely.

"Aemon, I've always known. Why else would I have interceded on your behalf with the Prefect when he ordered you strung up with your parents?" Laure took my hands in hers to steady them. "I saw them going at it together in the glass house on one of the potting benches when I was five years old. This doesn't change anything. I've loved you since the day you were born."

"But... isn't it dangerous for us to have children?" I asked, echoing the unspoken fear sparking Zemina's prejudice against our relationship.

"Aemon, what do you think this is, the 22nd Century?" Laure scoffed. "Do you really think I'd have your children if there was any risk at all? I own a genetics corporation, for goodness sake! I had the foetus screened for abnormalities, recessive genes likely to cause inherited diseases further down the bloodline, everything. Our daughter's going to be healthier than both of us put together. Gods, if you think what we're doing is dodgy, you should see what goes on in the Duval household. The Imperial bloodline's so inbred it's got knots in it."

"You knew all this time and never told me?" I asked, appalled that she had kept the truth from me for so long.

"What difference does it make? Surely you don't think Zemina's right? We're meant to be together. We've always known it, both of us."

"So what do we do now?" 

"I go back to Adams and tell Zemina where to stick her Interdictor. You can wait for me at Eurynome. When I've finished making a few preparations, I'll join you there."

“What are you going to do?”

“If Zemina refuses to call off her vendetta, I'll hand over the station to Aisling Duval.” Laure said, her voice hard as steel. The loss of a key system to Zemina's most bitter rival would be a huge blow to her reputation and esteem within the Empire. It would be almost as damaging as receiving a public slap in the face from the Emperor herself.

"How do you think Zemina's going to react?" I asked, awed by her conviction and inner strength.

"Our dear aunt Zemina can go space herself for all I care. I need to get back to my station. Then I'll worry about her." Laure stood, her breakfast only half-finished. "I should get dressed. If I don't get going in the next hour, people back at Adams might start asking questions my adjutant can't answer."

I waited by the loading hatch with Laure's RemLok helmet as she took a quick shower and wriggled her way back into her flight suit. I heard her soft footsteps at the end of the corridor, watching her clip up her hair behind the ears securely so she could fit her helmet before I opened the hatch. She kissed me long and hard before taking the jet black mask from my hands. "Fly safe, Laure. I'll see you at Eurynome in a few days."

"Take your time. I'm going to need a day's head start to prepare the ground, anyway. I'll call you when you reach Summerland.” Laure grabbed my hand and squeezed it tight, not wanting to leave, especially since we had not resolved the situation regarding Karina to her satisfaction. “You can keep your pet for now, I suppose. But one way or another, you're going to have to make a choice soon. I love you, Aemon."

"I love you, too. See you soon." I hugged her, holding her tight as she slipped on the RemLok. With her identity concealed from prying eyes, I opened the hatch, watching impassively as she walked confidently back across the landing pad to the control room and the spaceport beyond, where her ship awaited her. Aware as ever that we were probably being watched by Zemina's informants, Laure didn't look back. 

Fourteen hours later, I received a short, encrypted text-only message via the comms board. ASTRA confirmed that the encoding on the message meant that it could only have come from Laure's personal terminal at Adams - a machine that could only be operated by her - the countersigns on the quantum key verifying, to my relief, that she was not sending the message under duress.

Safely back at the roost. Mother hen and chick both doing well. Foxes still outside the coup, but hopefully not for long. Love, L.

I tapped the intercom, activating the speakerphone in Karina's stateroom. I hadn't seen or heard from her since Laure had threatened her the night before. "Karina, put on your flight suit. We're going home. Next stop, Summerland."

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