Prologue – Synteini: Lagerkvist Station
Zemina allowed Laure and I only a fortnight of newly-wedded bliss before sending the call
summoning me to her headquarters at Synteini. Her Orbis starport was one of the best appointed
within the Empire, guarded at all times not just by the station’s own weapons grid, but also a swarm
of Imperial fighters and no less than two Majestic-class Interdictors, which rotated in and out of the
system on week-long patrols of the nearby Empire-controlled and exploited systems. As a wedding
present, Laure had given the Imperial Clipper I had hijacked from Agent Zeta a thorough retrofit of its
support systems, installing voice comms and the newest model of the ASTRA Artificial Intelligence
core, as well as replacing the subsystems her Vulture escort pilots had destroyed with military
specification modules she had acquired through her family’s contacts at the Imperial Navy shipyards
at Vequess. The Clipper, now officially recognised by the name I had scraped into the paintwork on
the hull to identify myself as non-hostile to Laure and her defence force, sat being refuelled in a
private hangar towards the back of the two kilometre-long barrel of the station’s dock.

I scrutinised the reflection in my stateroom’s mirror meticulously, straightening the central hem of
my dress uniform vertically down the middle of my chest. It was the first time I had worn the full
regalia of an Imperial Viscount and I wanted it to look perfect before I had my meeting with the
Senator. Any flaws in my appearance would be seized upon by Zemina as evidence of my
unworthiness in her eyes. The heavy gold stitching on my shoulder epaulettes and the sleeves
covering my forearms glistered my new rank proudly and a golden sigil bearing the Imperial crest
shone out from the blackness of my dress tunic over my right breast. The eagle-shaped symbol was
balanced by a silver and purple ribbon anchoring the citation medal to my uniform, which was
flawlessly parallel with the vertical ribs of my embroidered tunic, with the emerald and gold Star of
Achenar medal itself resting over my heart, to symbolise my devotion to the Empire. I had been
awarded the medal at my promotion ceremony, to recognise the success of my mission to eliminate
Stenberg and Zeta. The v-shaped cuts at the front of the trouser legs revealed the supple, brightly
polished black leather of my dress boots, the pointed toecaps encased with engraved silver. Content
that my appearance would pass even the most fastidious of inspections, I left the docking bay to
attend my appointment with Senator Torval. Her office was located in the habitation ring, a toroidal
structure six kilometres in diameter, a size that gave the parks, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls
and private residences a comfortable artificial gravity of 0.8g. Zemina’s estate dwarfed Laure’s
residence on Adams Orbital, both in size and opulence. I had to take a ground car from the lift at the
base of the armature connecting the habitation ring to the rest of the station, as the entrance to the
Senator’s compound was over two kilometres from the lifts. I did not have to give the car instructions
on where to take me. The station’s AI already knew of my appointment with the Senator and
instructed the car to take me directly to Zemina’s mansion, ensuring that I arrived tactfully ahead of
my scheduled time. I was greeted at the entrance to the neo-Palladian style house by my Imperial
Navy Controller, Marquis Durante.

“Viscount Roche, welcome to Ogygia, the Senator is expecting you.”

“Thank you, your grace.” I gave Durante a curt, respectful bow of gratitude before following him into
the rotunda of the immense building. The entrance hall was lined with classical, Ionic columns ten
metres tall that framed alcoves containing statues of pure white, Parian marble imported from Sol.
The centrepiece dominating the rotunda was a five metre high sculpture of Calypso’s enchantment
of Odysseus.

“A magnificent piece, isn’t it?” Durante looked up, his eyes lingering on the lascivious curves of
Calypso’s semi-clad figure, evidently imagining himself as a rather less reluctant Odysseus.

“Indeed.” I was struck by the resemblance Calypso’s likeness had to Laure, and a quick inspection of
the dedication plaque revealed that the original model for the statue was Laure’s grandmother,
Zemina’s paternal Aunt. The identity of the male model was not recorded, but I assumed it to be that
of the sculptor. “The Odyssey was my favourite of the Greek myths.”

“Really? You and the Senator do have something in common, after all.” Durante sneered.

“What’s this all about, your grace?” I did my best to remain civil, despite the look on Durante’s face
that indicated he held the same kind of regard for me as he did for pond life.

“I had best let the Senator explain for herself. But it is suffice for me to say that I am releasing you
from my command into her direct service.” Durante pointed me towards the East Wing of the
mansion before continuing. “I am here merely to formalise the handover.”

I followed Durante in silence. It was not so much a dismissal from the Navy, at least not a formal one.
It felt more like a disposal. In public I had been feted and honoured for my success, eliminating an
enemy of the state and preventing a damaging defection, but behind the scenes certain factions – no
doubt led by Zemina – still considered me suspect. It would have been very easy for the Imperial
Navy to limit my further progression up the ranks simply by never granting me new assignments and
letting my career stall into obscurity. Zemina, however, clearly had something else in mind.

Durante at least had the courtesy to announce me to the Senator as we entered her office. “Senator,
may I present Viscount Roche, as you directed.”

“That’ll be all, Marquis Durante.” Senator Zemina Torval didn’t even look up from her terminal. I
stood at attention as Durante bowed and closed the polished oak doors behind him. Zemina ignored
me, tapping at length on her computer screen, as if testing my patience. I sensed her watching me
from the corners of her cold, grey eyes, the spiked collar of her jacket quivering like the legs of a wolf
spider, ready to pounce at the first sign of uncertainty or weakness. Her close-cropped silver hair
gave her lined face a stark, calculating appearance, her thin lips not carrying even the merest hint of
good humour. She was a woman of considerable power, wealth and influence, above the petty
business of appearing to be friendly to win favour. It was almost twenty minutes before she gave the
slightest indication that she wanted to speak with me. “You’ve learned, Roche. Learned how to wait
until your betters speak to you first.”

I literally bit my tongue, letting the slight pass uncommented. Laure would have been proud of my
restraint, as I continued to stand rigidly to attention, wondering how much longer the Senator would
keep me waiting.

“You’ve learned how to keep your mouth shut, too.” Zemina added, with a tone of grudging
admiration. She indicated for me to sit down in the chair opposite her desk with a dismissive flick of
one of her fingers. “Laure’s influence, no doubt. Well, Viscount Roche… I’m impressed you survived
the Zeta assignment. You have done the Empire a great service.”

“Thank you, Senator.”

“Still, it’s regrettable that Laure chose to celebrate your success in the manner she did.”
“With the greatest of respect, Senator, our private life is none of your business.”

“Oh, there you’re wrong. You couldn’t be more wrong.” The frostiness of Zemina’s voice could have
cracked glass. “Laure and I may have had our disagreements in the past about who would be a
suitable match for her, but when she learns the truth about you, she’ll see that she has made the
mistake of her life in marrying you.”

“And what truth might that be?” I kept my voice low, despite Zemina’s obvious hostility. Imperial
Senators were above the law. She could easily have me killed on her estate and no-one would ever
know. There would certainly be no investigation or trial. I could not afford to lose my temper,
regardless of the provocation.

“The only truth there is, Roche. Your entire family are traitors, loyal to the Federation. Your father,
your mother, and you.” Zemina sat back in her chair, her fingers steepled together in thought. “I
knew it from the day I first met your parents on Summerland. I warned my brother not to allow
himself to get too close to your father. But I should have worried more about the mother.”
“I’m not a traitor, Senator. I was born in the Empire. I’ve served faithfully and true. I’ve done
everything the Imperial Navy has ever asked me.”

“Your parents lived for decades in the Empire as ‘loyal’ subjects. At least, until I was able to discover
their true loyalties and motives. They got what they deserved. And so will you. It’s only a matter of
time until I can prove it.” Zemina transfixed me with her cold stare. Her fervour and belief in what
she had said seemed unshakeable.

“You’re wrong, Senator. I’ve no love for the Federation. I’ve proved as much on dozens of occasions,
as you will know from my service record.”

“Proof? The proof of your treachery is in your genes, Roche. It might take many years for the truth to
surface, but you’ll be betrayed by your nature sooner or later. And when that day comes, Laure will
be the first to call for your execution.”

“Nothing I can do is ever going to be enough for you, is it Senator?” I shook my head, bewildered by
her callousness. “So what now? You keep sending me on suicide missions until one day I don’t

“You’re smarter than you look, for the son of a Federation whore.” Zemina’s smile was brittle and
taunting. I swallowed my anger and didn’t rise to the bait. It was not too late for her to call in her
guards to have me killed. “You now fly for me, as part of my special executive force. You’ll be
targeting individuals whose deaths will not only benefit the Empire as a whole, but my own interests
as well. If you succeed, I will pay you very well, Roche. If you survive long enough to convince me
that you’re not an agent of the Federation, you’ll be released from my service and exiled from
Imperial space with a fortune large enough to live like a king in the independent worlds.”

“I don’t want to live in independent space. I want to live here in the Empire, with Laure.”

“Mention her name again, Roche, and I’ll have your skin tanned to upholster my chair.” Zemina
hissed, her eyes flaring with rage. “You’ll never see her again, Roche. Accept it. Don’t think about
trying to pay her a visit on Adams Orbital, either. I have one of my Interdictors in place to make sure
that you’d never reach the station alive.”

“We love each other. We make each other happy. Why would you ruin that? Why do you hate me so

“You’re not right for her, Roche. You never were. In time, my niece will see that, too. My imbecile
brother always had poor judgment. He never should have agreed to your father’s proposal for the
two of you to be married that put the idea in her head. And he never should have accepted the
friendship of your family in the first place.” Zemina mused, her anger still simmering, before
dismissing me with a wave of her hand. “Get out, traitor’s son… the details of your first target will be
with your ship’s AI by the time you return to the docking bay.”

“Yes, Senator.” I stood with a formal bow, retreating quickly before her anger could boil over again. I
wondered if it was worth risking a hyperwave call to Laure. Zemina might be able to prevent us from
seeing each other, but once I was out of the system, she couldn’t prevent us from talking. There had
been something about Zemina’s tone that told me that her resistance to the idea of Laure and I being
together didn’t solely come from my family’s disgrace. I wasn’t sure what it could possibly be, but I
sensed that there was more to it than Zemina wanting to protect the reputation of her niece and her
family name.

I returned to the placid sanctuary of Fell From The Top(…)’s flight deck, slumping into the command
chair, thoroughly dispirited. The redemption Laure had been so sure I would earn from the
completion of the Zeta assignment had been denied me by the wilful vindictiveness of her aunt, who
wanted me dead or exiled. The situation appeared hopeless. Zemina had enough political and
military influence to ensure that I would never survive an attempt to meet with Laure, and her
standing would guarantee that she would get away with it, too. I needed to talk to my wife, but I
wasn’t going to do it where Zemina could eavesdrop on our conversation. I needed to get out of the

“ASTRA, run up the Senator’s data package. Give me the who, where and when.”

“Assassination contract. 750,000 credits. Target: Duke Herschel Theriault. Slave trader allied with
Senator Patreus. Suspected of the illegal export of Imperial Slaves to independent anarchies and
dictatorships. Currently located in the Afli system, docked at Pu City. Theriault is scheduled to leave
Afli on a purchasing trip in two days.”

“Plot a course. We leave as soon as I’ve finished changing into my flight suit.”

Chapter One – Afli: Pu City

I had reached the Coriolis starport in the Afli system almost thirty hours before Duke Theriault was
due to leave on his next shopping expedition to LTT 9810 to collect his latest cargo of Imperial Slaves.
The intelligence Zemina’s people had put together on the Duke was damning. Twice a month he
visited Kerimov Dock to buy as many Imperial Slaves as he could fit into his Panther Clipper, but
rather than sell on the contracts to legitimate buyers in the Empire, he instead sold them onto the
black market, for vast profits, into permanent servitude on dozens of independent worlds on the
Empire’s borders. By the order of the Emperor and the Senate, Imperial Slaves were supposed to be
guaranteed legal protection to avoid such wanton exploitation, and it was considered a capital crime
to breach the rights of an institution that helped provide the Empire with a loyal and devoted
workforce. As a former Imperial Slave myself, I had no reservations about Zemina’s choice of target.
The fair treatment of Imperial Slaves was possibly the only subject where we found ourselves in total
The Senator’s intelligence agents had also given me full technical schematics of Theriault’s ship,
identifying its defences, armaments and the specification of its support and utility modules. The
Panther Clipper was one of the most expensive and formidable ships available for use by private
citizens and was a rare sight on commercial trade routes, even more so than a privately-owned
Anaconda. Like the Anaconda, the Panther was equally capable as a transport ship or combat vessel,
bristling with turrets and clad in laser-ablative armour. I had never fought one before, so I was
grateful that the Senator’s spies had already identified the ship’s key vulnerability. The fuel lines
connecting the FSD to the power plant were only lightly-armoured and were easily identifiable,
running between the nacelles of the vessel’s immense rear thrusters. A critical hit on the fuel lines
would not only disable the ship’s FSD, preventing it from running to another system, but would also
cause a feedback spike that would cripple the power plant, potentially leaving the ship helpless,
unable to keep its critical systems online. Satisfied that my preparations for the assassination were
well in hand, I put in a call to Laure.

“Aemon, where are you? I was starting to get worried.”

“I’m in Afli, doing Zemina’s dirty work. But I’m safe for now.”

“For now?”

“Zemina wants me dead, Laure. Maybe she took exception at not being invited to the wedding.” I
suggested, morbidly amused.

“She doesn’t want to kill you, Aemon. She’s just angry that I disobeyed her.”
“Then explain the Interdictor sitting twenty klicks away from your station.”
“Thirty, actually.” Laure retorted. “Apparently she wants me to stay put. I don’t like being trapped on
my own station.”

“It’s there for me, Laure. So that the only way I could get near the docking port is in the form of a

“She wouldn’t dare.”

“She would. You know she would.”

“We just have to be patient. Zemina will cool off if we give her time. She’s known about our
relationship for years, and while she certainly didn’t approve of it, she’s never tried to stop it. She’s
just doing this to make sure we’re serious about being with each other.”
“You weren’t there in the meeting, Laure. This isn’t going to blow over. She’s going to have me killed.
One way or another.”

“You’re wrong. You’re too valuable to the Navy now to be expendable.”
“I’m not working for the Navy anymore. I’ve been inducted into Zemina’s little black ops force.”
“Oh, gods. Do you want me to talk to her?”
“That might only make things worse.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Keep your head down for a while. And do some research for me.”
“What kind of research?”
“I’m missing something, Laure. Something about this whole setup. Zemina said a few things that
didn’t make much sense. Things about my family and yours.”
“Go on… such as?”
“Zemina wasn’t terribly complimentary about your father.”
“They’ve never gotten on. Not since he decided to pursue a career in industry, rather than a seat in
the Senate.”
“Is he still running that biotech corp on Fotla? HelixGen?”
“That’s the one, yes. Specialists in regenerative medicines.”
“Is it doing well?”

“Where do you think the money for your ship upgrades comes from?” Laure snorted. “I’ve got a 40%
stake in the corporation. An anonymous partner, of course. Daddy would never live it down if he
knew I was pulling the executive board’s strings from behind the scenes. Better to let him think he’s
in charge.”

“Clever girl.” I told her, proudly. “Do you still have my mother’s body on ice?”
“Yes, it’s still in the morgue here at Adams. Why?”
“Can you use your contacts at HelixGen to see where it was cloned? And when, if possible.”
“Hmm. I had been wondering about that myself.”
“Someone must have ordered it done. And how did the clone end up becoming an Imperial Navy
operative? There must be a record somewhere.”
“I’ll see what I can dig up.”
“Thanks. When I’m done dealing with this slave trader, I’ll be in touch.”
“Be safe, Aemon. I miss you.”

“Me too, I’ll be careful.” I cut the channel to Laure reluctantly, using the ship’s computer to check
that my target’s ship was still docked. The Duke’s Panther Clipper was still sitting idle in its hangar,
the port schedule indicating that its flight plan had not been changed.
With little else to do until my target launched their ship, I decided to do some information gathering
of my own. My conversation with Admiral Stenberg had been bothering me since I had completed
the assassination mission. Stenberg’s claim that he was my father’s brother had been dismissed by
Laure as an outlandish lie to distract my attention as he waited for reinforcements to spring an
ambush, but it had seeded a nagging doubt in my mind that I’d not been able to shake off. It would
be impossible to verify Stenberg’s claim directly, given that the Empire had purged all records of my
father’s existence from their databases, following his execution, but there was one way I could check
whether Stenberg had been telling the truth or not.

The Imperial Intelligence Service routinely hacked Federation databases as part of the ongoing lowlevel
cyberwar between the two galactic superpowers, probing for any information it could retrieve
from every tier of the vast data network. Stealing high value information regarding fleet deployments
and economic data was where the IIS devoted most of its efforts, but it also pursued softer targets
with less rigorous intrusion detection systems. I was interested in data from one of these nondefence
critical databases, specifically the Registry of Births & Deaths. I didn’t expect to be able to
find any records of my father’s birth. All data held on him would have been erased from externally
accessible databases as soon as he was infiltrated into the Empire as a sleeper agent. Any surviving
information detailing his DNA profile and lineage would likely be held in the Federal Navy’s most
secure data facilities buried deep beneath the north pole on Earth’s Moon. Fortunately, I had
another line of enquiry.

Admiral Stenberg’s death had been publically acknowledged by the Federation, meaning that an
official Death Certificate had been issued. This in turn meant that his remains had been identified by
the acting coroner in a legally sanctioned autopsy. Given the state of Stenberg’s ship in the aftermath
of the assassination, such an identification could only have been achieved using DNA samples taken
directly from the wreckage of the Dropship. It had been nearly three weeks since Stenberg’s death
and I was not disappointed when I directed ASTRA to query the IIS database for a copy of Stenberg’s
autopsy report. My new role as one of Senator Torval’s Black Ops pilots gave me access to
information I never would have been privy to as a freelancer for the Imperial Navy and I fully
intended to make the most of it.

“Download complete.” ASTRA reported cheerfully.

“Fantastic. Run a comparison on Stenberg’s DNA fingerprint in the autopsy file against the blood-test
from my last fitness report. Stenberg claimed he was my uncle. If he wasn’t having me on, there
should be a partial match with my paternal DNA.”

“Working. Please stand by.” ASTRA temporised, her AI subroutines hard at work to answer my query,
performing a pattern-match between my DNA fingerprint and the record from Stenberg’s autopsy to
try and find sufficient commonality to determine whether we were truly blood-related. I drummed
my fingertips on the flight controllers in anticipation, knowing that it would only be a few seconds
before I had an answer. “Analysis complete. Genetic markers from a comparison of the Ychromosome
show a probability of less than 2% of a common ancestor within the last twenty

“So the people who tell me that the Empire is lying to me aren’t being honest either.” I growled,
frustrated. “Goddamn it. Ever since I took the Zeta assignment it’s been lies, wrapped in falsehoods,
surrounded by obfuscation. Can’t someone be straight with me, just for once?”
It was tempting to find the nearest bar and salve my irritation with the judicious application of a
soothing bottle of Lavian Brandy, but I knew that I needed to be sharp, rested and ready to launch at
short notice if Theriault changed his flight plan and left on his shopping expedition earlier than
planned. Instead I instructed ASTRA to alert me as soon as there was any sign of activity from
Theriault’s ship before heading aft to my stateroom to bank away some precious rest before the
stress of the hunt to come.

My dreams were by turns pleasant and disturbing, recalling both the idyllic week Laure and I had
spent at Eurynome, my family’s estate set deep inside the farmland pastures on Summerland for our
honeymoon and also the darker side of my childhood summers, faintly overheard arguments
between my mother and father in the dead of night. Laure had taken possession of the estate
following the execution of my parents and had presented me with the DNA-encoded key to the
mansion on the night of our wedding. The house had not been lived in since the final vacation our
families had shared together, but had not been left abandoned to fall into ruin. Laure had ensured
that the upkeep of the property and the five thousand square kilometres of land surrounding it had
been maintained, and had arranged for the house to be redecorated with the very latest furnishings,
as befitting the status of a residence for a couple at the very apex of Imperial high society. It was
fortunate that Laure’s foresight had inspired her to replace the antique four-poster bed in the master
bedroom with a pristine King-sized, non-Newtonian gel-filled futon. A less robust or adaptive
mattress would not have survived the three days straight we had spent in bed after arriving at the
estate. Not that we had always restricted ourselves to the bedroom to make love in the days
afterwards. I luxuriated in the memory of us coupling playfully in the shallows of the water-meadow
at the bottom of the pristinely manicured lawn, the water warm on our skin, even hours after sunset,
echoing the forbidden midnight swims we had shared in our childhood. The pleasant recall of those
blissful, energetic seven days were counterbalanced by the unsettling, early memories of the furious
emotional outbursts from my father, only half-heard through the thick, papier peint-covered walls.
The arguments had started two years before the arrest of my parents, and while I had found them
upsetting at the time, neither my mother or father would explain the cause of their dispute when I
asked. “It’s not about you.” was all they would say, as if I would find that explanation reassuring. I
didn’t know what had provoked the rise of these long-suppressed memories back up into my
subconscious, but I found them distressing enough to prevent me from reaching a truly restful sleep.
When ASTRA alerted me that Theriault’s Panther Clipper had just switched its power plant from
maintenance mode to full generation, I was less reluctant than usual to abandon my bunk, wriggling
my body stiffly into the rubberised, nanotube reinforced fabric of my flight suit and double-checking
the seals before taking my place on the bridge.

“Are we ready to launch, ASTRA?”

“All systems ready, my lord. Power consumption profiles are optimised for minimum thermal

“Good. We’ll give him a minute’s head start and take him after his first jump.”

The Panther’s huge tonnage would not allow Theriaut to make the trip from Afli to LTT 9810 in a
single jump, meaning that an intermediary stop would be necessary at the unremarkably named ICZ
IC-U B3-1 system. The M-class red dwarf was almost as dull as its name, an utterly commonplace star
accompanied by a smattering of cold, airless and otherwise worthless rocky planets. There were no
settlements in the system, making it a perfect place to spring an ambush. I wouldn’t even dent my
legal status carrying out the assassination, as there were no in-system authorities to record the
crime. Any ships in the system were fair game, but the route was so infrequently travelled that the
star system was broadly considered to be safe, according to GalCop. One of Zemina’s undercover
agents, posing as one of Theriault’s ship mechanics, had also hacked the Panther Clipper’s navigation
computer, uploading a virus that would wipe all the data from the module once the ship arrived at
ICZ IC-U B3-1. The code bomb would render the ship’s navigation systems completely unusable,
trapping it in the system. Unless Theriault fancied trying a blind jump through witchspace, in which
case his ship would likely never be seen again, he would be forced to stay put, activate his distress
beacon and hope that whoever answered was friendly.

Wilberforce’s Folly has just launched, my lord.” ASTRA intoned, eager to please as ever.
I sneered in disgust at Theriault’s choice of name for his ship. Normally I approached assassination
assignments dispassionately and tried to simply consider them faceless targets. Not this time. This
time I was looking forward to eradicating the unscrupulous slave trader from the galaxy. I doubted
many people would mourn his passing, except perhaps his equally loathsome trade partners. I
counted to sixty before asking the dockmaster for permission to leave. My clearance was granted
immediately and as I ascended from the landing pad to the transit channel in the middle of the
cylindrical docking bay, I saw the Panther Clipper squeeze its bulk into the docking slot with scant
metres to spare, tiny blue flames surging from the attitude thrusters to match the station’s rotation
as the heavy transport ship drifted forward slowly towards open space.

My own exit from the station was equally sedate, not wishing to alert Theriault that he was being
followed. I let a pair of battered looking Sidewinders cut ahead of me in the exit lane, the tenuous
gases from their rear thrusters streaming over the sleek nose and canopy of my ship, adding an extra
blue glow to the decorative trim lights inlaid around the spotless flight deck. I eased the throttle
forward as I approached the slot, retracting my landing struts, not wanting the Panther to get too
large a head start. The cargo cruiser was boosting away from the station, but I was able to track it
both visually and with the radar scanner.

“Power surge detected.” ASTRA reported, Theriault bringing his ship’s FSD up to full jump readiness. I
engaged my own afterburners, the brutal acceleration making me sink into the gel-padding of my
seat with a short grunt. I was careful not to match the Panther’s vector away from the station too
quickly, lazily easing up the nose, as if I was lining up for a jump to a different system. There was a
bright flash and a flicker of pseudo-motion as Wilberforce’s Folly made its final hyperspace jump.
I rolled my thumb over the firegroup selector on the right of my control stick to activate my ship’s
frame shift wake scanner. I slowed down as I approached the Panther Clipper’s frame shift wake,
which was barely visible as the merest crinkling in the fabric of space when viewed against the
background stars. The scan would only delay my pursuit by less than a minute and it was better to
confirm Theriault’s destination, rather than assume he hadn’t changed his flightplan and end up
missing the target. I was pleased to see that my target was flying to ICZ IC-U B3-1 as originally
planned. If the Duke had suspected this would be anything other than a routine trip, he would have
altered his course. The wake scanner updated my navigation computer with precise destination
coordinates that would put me within 100km of Theriault’s vessel upon our exit from witchspace.

“ASTRA, prepare for frame shift.”

“Acknowledged, my lord. Jumping in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… Mark.”

Chapter Two – ICZ IC-U B3-1: Deep Space

Fell From The Top(…) smashed out of the witchspace conduit back into normality with the characteristic thudding of its frame shift drive as the superconducting field generators span down into standby mode, dumping their excess heat to avoid a quench that would damage the emitters. The flight deck was bathed in the light of the red dwarf four light seconds off my port nacelle. The intensity of the starlight would have been blinding without the polarising canopy, but was comparatively feeble compared to the luminosity of the blue giant I had grown used to in my adoptive home system of Beta-1 Tucanae. I detected Duke Theriault’s Panther Clipper visually even before my radar scanner picked up a signal from the heavy cargo ship. Its functional, boxy silhouette was easy to spot against the photosphere of the star, an unnaturally regular shape cast against the organic broiling gases being whipped up from the surface of the star by immense magnetic forces. A quick check of the comms board showed that the Panther had already activated its distress beacon. The Duke would have associates in nearby systems that would be waiting for his arrival. It would not be long before his absence would be noted and people would start looking for him. The clock was ticking.

“ASTRA, full power to engines.” I brought my Imperial Clipper about onto an intercept course and deployed my weapon hardpoints as I engaged the afterburners. I resisted the temptation to open a channel to the sabotaged ship and taunt the despicable slave trader, opting instead for a rapid, silent approach. It was unlikely that Theriault would be anticipating anyone to arrive to help so soon, just a few minutes after the failure of his navigation computer. If I was lucky, by the time he detected my ship, it would already be too late for him to fend off my first attack. To save power and reduce heat generation so close to the star, the Duke had switched off his ship’s shield generator, a mistake that under the circumstances was as understandable as it was foolish. I smiled, mentally preparing myself to make sure that his mistake would be a fatal one.

I adjusted my intercept vector to bring me in behind the stricken cargo vessel, hoping that I could breach the Panther’s fuel lines on my first pass and cause a feedback spike that would disable its power plant. I boosted again, covering the space between us at over 400 metres per second. I was within ten kilometres of the Duke’s ship when the radio call came.

“Unidentified ship! I don’t know where you’ve come from, but I’m glad you’re here!” Duke Theriault’s thin, reedy voice was edged with panic. This was no battle-hardened combat veteran. Theriault’s rank was hereditary and his status came purely from the success of his commercial ventures. His wealth and position had isolated him from the true, unforgiving nature of life outside of the secure, safe star systems he frequented. “My nav ‘puter has completely fritzed out. I came out of frame shift and the console died. I can’t get it to respond. You’ve got to help me.”

I maintained radio silence, cursing under my breath as the manoeuvring thrusters of the Panther Clipper flared, rotating the nose of the ship towards mine, taking the fuel lines out of my line of sight. At this angle, I wouldn’t be able to disable the ship on the first pass. “ASTRA, flight assist off.”

I waited until I was within 1500 metres of the Panther Clipper before opening fire with all weapons. The heavy uranium-tipped cannon rounds crashed into the unshielded hull, disabling two of the cargo ship’s vernier thrusters. The twin beam lasers on my starboard wing raked down the humped spine of the vessel as I pulled my control stick back sharply to keep my weapons tracking my quarry
as I let Fell From The Top (…)’s momentum carry my ship past the Panther Clipper to drift in behind the cargo vessel’s huge engines.
“No! Stop! What are you doing? Stop!” Duke Theriault cried out, in utter confusion, only belatedly engaging the throttle to start an evasive manoeuvre.

“ASTRA, full power to weapons. Target the fuel lines.” For a moment I worried that it was too easy, as I emptied the capacitors of my beam lasers, leaving red hot scars of destruction that seared across the aft of the larger Clipper, cutting off the frame shift drive from the ship’s power distribution grid. The Panther’s thrusters flickered and died, leaving the vessel adrift as I poured ten cannon rounds into the thick armour covering the power plant.

“Please, stop! What do you want? I’ll do anything!” Theriault pleaded, realising it was now too late to even activate his defensive turrets and fight back. “I can pay you. I’ll double however much they’re giving you! I don’t have much cargo on board right now, but it’s yours.”
There was the sound of a desperate hammering of fingers on keys as Theriault prepared to abandon his cargo. A glance at the combat scanner told me that the Panther’s hull integrity was down to just 23%. One more volley would completely destroy the ship. As my beam lasers recharged, I decided now was the time to break radio silence. “It’s not about what I want, Duke.”

“Who are you? Who sent you?” Theriault’s demands were edged with undisguised terror. The ID scrambler on my ship originally installed by Agent Zeta meant that he had no clue as to who I was, nor what my possible motive could be for what he no doubt considered to be an unprovoked assault. I eased my ship back from the Panther, acutely aware that when the cargo hauler’s power plant ruptured, the energy contained within would reduce the ship to cloud of supersonic shrapnel. Even fully shielded, I didn’t want to get caught too close to the blast. “Tell me!”

“Senator Torval sends her regards. Have fun in hell, slave-scummer.” I spat into radio mic with utter contempt. I depressed the primary and secondary triggers on my flight controller just as Theriault began to dump his cargo. Three cargo canisters were ejected from the Panther before the concerted fire of my beam lasers and cannons reduced the Panther to glowing scrap. Theriault’s scream over the radio was mercifully short. Two of the cargo canisters were destroyed in the blast and the third was sent spinning away towards the red dwarf by a fragment of the Panther Clipper’s mangled hull. One end of the cargo canister was punctured by the sharp metal shard and I could see gas leaking from the cylinder, freezing almost instantaneously into ruby-coloured crystals. I sat up straighter in my chair, a horrid feeling sinking in my gut. “ASTRA, target that container.”

The targeting scan confirmed my fear. The cargo pod contained slaves. Slaves that were now rapidly losing oxygen to the vacuum of space. Even worse, the manifest on the cargo showed that the pod did not contain Imperial Slaves, which were protected by law in the Empire, but illegal slaves, procured from Independent or Federation space. It was a capital crime in most Imperial systems to be caught in possession of non-sanctioned slaves. The sensible thing to do would be to leave the cargo pod alone and report the mission success back to Senator Torval. But as I watched the cargo cylinder leak atmosphere into space and fall helplessly towards the star, my conscience wouldn’t let me sit still, watch and do nothing.

“ASTRA, are there any life signs coming from that canister?”

“Yes, my lord. Just one.”

“How long until the pod loses atmospheric pressure?”

“The pod appears to be divided into two sections, my lord. Only one has been breached.”

“So whoever’s alive in there is in the intact half?”

“Correct, my lord. The life support system appears stable and has enough power to remain functional for another six hours. Unfortunately, the trajectory of the cargo pod will take it into the star’s corona in the next ten minutes.” ASTRA replied. I closed my eyes and swallowed hard, knowing that I was about to do something really stupid. But I couldn’t not act, not when it meant that whoever was unlucky enough to be inside that pod would be cooked alive by the star’s radiation.

“ASTRA, activate the cargo scoop.” It had been a few years since I’d had to retrieve a cargo pod from deep space, but my Clipper was fast enough and nimble enough to match relative velocities with the tumbling metal cylinder within a minute. I nudged the ship closer and closer to the canister slowly until I heard the clanking echoes through the hull from the scoop system process the pod and align it into one of the ship’s cargo racks. Anxious not to be seen in the vicinity of Theriault’s wrecked ship, I engaged Fell From The Top(…)’s frame shift drive to supercruise away from the star deep into the solar system, at least 200 light seconds away from the nearest planetary bodies, before dropping back into real-space. Leaving ASTRA with instructions to alert me immediately if any radar contacts appeared, I left the ship stationary and running silent to avoid detection. With the shields and engines on standby mode, I would have a few hours before the heat build-up within the ship would need to be vented. I hoped this would give me enough time to see to the occupant of the slave canister and dump the incriminating cargo pod. I stopped by my quarters to retrieve my dart gun, replacing the clip of high-powered anti-personnel flechettes with non-lethal tranquiliser darts. Without knowing what kind of condition my new passenger was in, or what kind of reception they might give me, it was prudent to be armed and ready to defend myself.

I entered the cargo bay with trepidation, but kept my dart gun holstered, activating the compartment’s lights. From the vantage point of the cockpit, the slave pod had looked in bad shape, following the collision with the debris from the Panther. Up close, it was much worse, It was a miracle that both sections of the pod had not been breached, with one end practically shredded by the razor-sharp hull fragments that had hit the canister. The remains of the slave that had been in the damaged section of the pod were unidentifiable. Dismembered limbs were scattered around the perforated chamber, leaking droplets of dark crimson blood, which clumped together through surface tension on the end of the ragged stumps. I had to turn away when I saw that the dead slave’s torso had practically been sheared in half by the large shard of hull plating that had pierced the integrity of the pod.

Remarkably, the other section was entirely unscathed. I glanced through the tiny window on the door and the occupant appeared intact, but unconscious. Next to the control for the door, set behind a glass cover was a ceramic card, about as wide and as long as my thumb. I recognised it instantly. It was the control chip for the control collar worn by the slave inside the compartment. I smashed the glass with the butt of my dart gun, retrieved the chip and opened the door. Sprawled face down, floating just over the floor was a pale-skinned, blonde woman of average height and a slim build. It was difficult to tell in the poor light inside the compartment, but she appeared to be in her early or mid-twenties and she was quite insensate. I could see a sharp contusion on her left temple, where she had struck her head on the wall as the cargo canister had spun wildly after the collision with the hull fragment. She was clothed only in a thin, simple white cotton dress that was badly stained and ripped across her shoulders and lower back. Bile rose in my throat when I realised that she had been very recently whipped. Some of the blood-stains still appeared damp. Fastened tightly around her long, slender neck was her control collar. I saw from the design that it contained an explosive charge. Furious, I deactivated the collar with the command chip and threw both the collar and the chip to the floor of the pod. They ricocheted from the dull metal and bobbed unsteadily in the air at random, bouncing in different directions.

The young woman did not stir or react when I picked her up and carried her out of the pod, setting her down on the sleeping cot in the ship’s guest quarters. I only had basic first aid supplies on the ship, but they would be more than adequate to treat the wounds on her back and reduce the swelling on her temple. Not wanting to take the risk of having her wake up while I was giving her first aid, I decided that it would be best to sedate her. I gave her a dose of midazolam sufficient to keep her under for six hours. This would be plenty of time to get back to Afli and wake her in a safe, controlled environment, rather than out in the middle of nowhere, where the ship might be discovered by pirates or worse. I used a pair of medical shears to cut off the woman’s ruined dress, becoming angry again when I saw the network of wafer-thin scars and fresh cuts where she had been flogged with a microfibre whip to punish her for disobedience. I treated the cuts with a regenerative stem cell serum and carefully covered the wounds with self-cleaning, antiseptic bandages. I placed another medpatch over the contusion on her temple to reduce the swelling and heal the bruising. By the time we arrived back at Pu City, the only physical pain she would be suffering would be a headache akin to a moderate hangover. As for what kind of mental state she would be in, I would have to wait and see. With her slave’s dress in bloody rags, I was glad that I hadn’t gotten around to clearing out Agent Zeta’s wardrobe. The woman was roughly the same height and build as my mother’s clone had been, so I retrieved a satin nightshirt for her to wear until we made it back to port. It was only as I dressed her that I noticed the slave’s whip injuries were only across her back. Anger rose in me again when I realised why. She was young, pretty and physically attractive. It didn’t take much imagination to understand why the flogging she had received only deformed the part of her body that would be unseen when she was lying on her back. I secured her into the cot with the bedcovers and four strands of acceleration strapping, so that she would not be injured on the return journey to Afli. I turned off the ceiling light and returned to the flight deck, securing from silent running and reactivating all the ship’s systems. It took less than a minute for me to dump the slave pod and vaporise it with my beam lasers, leaving no evidence behind that it had ever been there. Once the frame shift drive finished charging, I had ASTRA plot a jump back to the Afli system and with a flicker of pseudo-motion and a flash of light, we were gone.

Chapter Three – Afli: Pu City

The return trip to Afli had been refreshingly uneventful and Fell From The Top(…) sat happily in its rented hanger being refuelled as I prepared myself for the awakening of my unexpected passenger. The effects of the sedative shot I had given her would be wearing off in the next couple of hours, and I was debating how to handle the moment when she regained consciousness. I had changed out of my combat flight suit into the casual outfit I had worn to the bar in Kappa Fornacis, reasoning that it was neutral enough to not look like an official uniform, nor the stylised apparel festooned with garish gang logos that a typical slaver would wear. I also left my dart gun locked away in my stateroom. I doubted she would find the presence of an armed man in her room comforting when she finally awoke.
Now that we were safely docked in a Coriolis station whose rotation provided a comfortable 0.75g of artificial gravity, I had removed the acceleration strapping holding her down on the bed and I left the door to the guest quarters open, conscious that she would feel safer if it was obvious that she was not trapped in the room. I also sat as far away as I could from the cot and the door, so if she did decide to run, the slave would not have to fight her way past me. Though that was only a small concession, given that I could not allow her to actually leave the ship until I had identified who she was and whether she had family I would be able to reunite her with. The Clipper’s external airlocks would only open for me, so my passenger would need my consent to disembark. As I waited at the desk opposite the bed, I used the terminal to order the restocking of my cannon ammunition and began typing a mission report to send to Senator Torval, confirming Duke Theriault’s demise.

I was about to transmit the text and gun camera footage to Zemina when I heard the first signs of life from the bed.
“Umpf.” The blonde woman moaned softly as she struggled to turn beneath the covers, still groggy from the midazolam. Her eyelids flickered, letting me see the irises for the first time, which were a rich jade green. Semi-conscious, she lay on her side facing me as her eyes fought a battle to open, her pale eyelashes rising for less than half a second before falling back down. She tried again and again, the period of time her eyes stayed open gradually getting longer as the somatic effects of the drug wore off. She looked at me for half a second without really seeing, her thought processes not yet quite up to the same speed as the sensory signals coming from her optic nerves. I didn’t move or speak, waiting for her inevitable reaction. The next time her eyes opened, they didn’t close and she bolted upright in surprise, drawing the sheets defensively around her, screaming in abject terror. Echoing in the confined space of the stateroom, it was the most terrifying, gut-wrenching noise I had ever heard from the mouth of a human being, but I sat impassively, motionless, trying not to react and waited until she ran out of breath. I knew that the first few seconds would be crucial if I was to stand any chance of gaining her trust. She flinched when I raised my open palms to show her I was unarmed. I felt a rush of sympathy for her, and fury towards the scum that had abused her so badly that the mere sight of a raised hand provoked such a fearful response. The young blonde woman panted, rapidly gulping in her breaths, her eyes fixed on my face, shrinking away from me towards the bulkhead at the side of her cot.

“My name is Aemon.” I spoke softly and evenly, keeping my open palms raised in supplication and maintained eye contact with her, hoping to forge a connection between us. “I know you must be scared. I would be too. I’m not going to touch you. I’m not going to hurt you. Can you understand me?”

The petrified woman trembled, her knuckles white and her long, slender fingers grasping the bed sheet like the taloned claws of a raptor clutching its prey. Only her panicked gasps for breath broke the silence as I waited for her response. Eventually she gave me a single, curt nod in reply.

“Good.” I smiled in encouragement, but her breathing was still rapid, her fight or flight instinct still aroused. “Are you hurt? Are you in pain?”

A shake of the head.

“Do you remember how you got here?”

Another negative.

“Your pod was damaged after it was abandoned by the ship you were travelling on. If I hadn’t brought it aboard, you would have died.” I thought it would be best for now if I left out the finer details of why the pod had been dumped overboard in the first place. “I didn’t want that to happen. So here you are. What’s your name?”

Her voice was stuttered hesitantly with fear and was so quiet to be barely audible, but she spoke Basic fluently, with just the merest hint of a Slavic accent characteristic of the independent colonies coreward of the Old Worlds. “A-a-are y-you my n-new m-master?”
It was my turn to shake my head.

“No. I’m your new friend. The only slaves on this ship are free ones.” I smiled again, turning over my wrists to show her my timepiece – the slave collar I now wore as a combat drug dispenser. The woman’s green eyes widened when she recognised the pod-like device strapped to my arm, her hands instinctively reaching for her throat, only now realising that her own collar was gone.
“What have you done to my collar?” Inexplicably, her voice carried an edge of anger as well as shock.
“Whatever’s left of it is floating around a red dwarf a long way from here. You won’t be needing it anymore.” I reassured her, lowering my hands to rest them on my thighs. “What’s your name? What should I call you?”
“Nothing!” The former slave burst into tears and threw herself face down onto the cot, sobbing as she pulled the covers around her head. “I’m nothing now.”

“I’m sorry.” I took off my watch and left it on the desk, belatedly understanding her reaction. It had been thoughtless of me to dispose of her slave collar when I had destroyed the damaged slave pod. It had been her only material possession and no doubt gave her as much a sense of identity as my own collar had during my time as Laure’s slave. The fact that the kind of memories and associations she had with her collar must be unspeakably awful was beside the point. Even though I had meant well, I had unwittingly taken away the one thing that gave her a sense of self, even if that self was intolerably wretched. I knew better than to try to calm or comfort her. I would only do more damage if I remained in the room, so I left her to her internal grief, hoping that she would eventually calm down and be ready to talk more later. While it was doubtful that she’d forgive me in the short term, hunger and thirst would draw her out and force her to speak with me again. A meal of ship’s rations would only be a small part of the reparations I would need to make for my unwitting crime against her, but it would certainly be a good start.

Minutes stretched into hours as I waited on the bridge, but I avoided entering her room to check on her, as I needed to make her want to come out from the relative safety and seclusion of her stateroom. It was almost twenty hours before her need for nourishment overrode her fear and anger.

“Master?” Her voice carried weakly down the main access corridor through the open hatch leading to the flight deck, where I sat in the commander’s chair, watching ASTRA perform a routine maintenance diagnostic. I used the systems panel to activate the internal cameras and watch her first tentative steps as a free woman. I smiled when I noticed that she had accepted the offering of my timepiece as a surrogate replacement for her collar. The strap wasn’t long enough for her to wear it around her neck, so she had it strapped to her right wrist, the pod looking massively oversized on her thin, bare forearm. She stroked the pod occasionally with her other hand, almost as if it were a reassuringly furry pet. “Master? Are you there?”

On the screen I saw her jerk nervously at the sound of my voice as I activated the intercom. “I’m on the bridge. Keep walking until you reach the end of the corridor. You can’t miss it.”

Hungry, thirsty and miserable, her steps were cautious and light, her eyes warily searching for hidden dangers. Her pretty face was distorted with terror, and I could almost read the thoughts churning behind her brow, wondering if I was luring her into a trap. She edged towards the flight deck, her sense of wonder gradually superseding her apprehension. I doubted that she had ever been given free access to a spaceship and certainly not one as refined and well-appointed as Fell From The Top(…). I deactivated the camera feed as she peeked around the open bulkhead hatch linking the flight deck to the rest of the ship. “Master?”

“Please, come in.” I swivelled my seat to face her, giving her a welcoming smile. At ASTRA’s request, I had returned the ship to the surface of the docking bay to allow the AI to calibrate the radar scanner using the flurry of incoming and outgoing traffic from the station. The view from the panoramic canopy left my guest awestruck. This wasn’t the kind of vista that a slave more accustomed to travelling in a cramped cargo canister usually got to see. Captivated, she edged towards the window, amazed at just how busy the dock was, with ships of every size and configuration imaginable cruising in and out of the cavernous facility at the rate of ten ships per minute. “Quite a sight, isn’t it?”

“Yes, master.” She nodded, her mouth falling open as she tried to take it all in.
“I’m not your master.” I reminded her. “You can call me Aemon.”
“Yes, Master Aemon.”

“No, just Aemon.” I tried to keep the sound of irritation out of my voice. It would be a slow process to retrain her from making ingrained, subservient responses when I spoke to her. “You never did tell me your name. What is it?”
“Tatiana.” I nodded to her in acknowledgement and stood slowly, not wanting to spook her. “How are you feeling now?”

“I’m hungry, Master Aemon.”

“I am too. Let me show you where you can eat.” I beckoned for her to follow me back into the access corridor. Tatiana waited until I was three steps ahead of her – well out of arm’s reach – before walking behind me, anxiously stroking the timepiece on her wrist.
The ship’s gallery contained a small table able to seat two diners, a combination IR/microwave oven and a pair of waist high freezer and refrigeration units, set beneath a carbon composite worktop that doubled as a preparation area. In the corner was a stainless steel sink and water boiler unit, with a small dishwasher tucked underneath. Running around the room at chin height were an array of recessed storage cupboards containing cutlery, crockery and assorted dried foods, spices, seasonings, herbs and infusions. The kitchen was well stocked and could feed two crew members for up to three months without needing to be resupplied. I indicated for Tatiana to take a seat at the table and opened the refrigerator, rummaging through the neatly-stacked, vacuum-packed plastic pots to find us something to eat and drink.

I opened a two litre bottle of lightly carbonated mineral water and poured her a glass, setting it on the table in front of her before selecting two microwaveable portions of synthetic beef and dauphinoise potatoes. I left the bottle next to her as she guzzled down glass after glass to quench her thirst, emptying nearly three quarters of the bottle while I selected a bottle of beer as I waited for our meals to be cooked.
“I’m not sure what kind of food you’re used to, but you should like this. Nutritious, but not too rich. You can help yourself anytime you like. There’s plenty of food on board.” I told Tatiana, as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, nodding to show she understood. “You don’t talk much, do you?”

Tatiana seemed to shrink away from me, as if I’d given her a slap across the face, and shook her head. The microwave signalled that the steaks were ready with a single, loud high-pitched beep.

“That’s okay. Conversation gets in the way of eating anyway.” I transferred the contents of the two plastic pots to cerulean-rimmed bone china plates and passed one to Tatiana, along with a silver- plated knife and fork. We ate in silence until Tatiana finished her plate, picking it up in both hands and licking away the last droplets of cream sauce clinging to the ceramic. I would have to speak with her at some point about her table manners, but knew now wasn’t the time. I pointed at her empty plate with my fork, chuckling and sliding the half-portion of potatoes and the quarter of the steak still on my plate across the table to her. I hadn’t actually been that hungry and had only made myself a meal to give me the opportunity to strike up a conversation with her. “That good, huh? You can finish mine. Though you might want to pace yourself. No sense in making yourself sick.”

Tatiana looked at me in disbelief, waiting almost a minute to check that I wasn’t tricking her, before summarily demolishing what was left on my plate. I watched her carefully as she ate. She probably hadn’t been fed in a few days and the way she gulped at her water suggested that she was badly dehydrated as well. I fetched a second bottle of water and opened it for her, sipping from my beer as she drained yet another glass dry. Tatiana ate and drank like she feared it would be her last chance for sustenance. I suspected she thought I was playing an elaborate and cruel trick, allowing her to taste a hint of freedom before locking her away again in a slave pod. When both of her plates were empty, she looked into my eyes expectantly, confused and not knowing what was she was supposed to do next. It was obvious from her body language that the sensation of not being told exactly what, how and when to do something was utterly alien to her. She seemed bewildered by the possibility that she could actually decide what to do next. Nonplussed, she fell back on the deeply ingrained responses drilled into her as a totally subservient, unthinking slave. “What do you want me to do now, Master Aemon?”

“What do you want to do, Tatiana?” I turned the question back at her, to see how she would react.

“Whatever would make you happy, master.” Her response was automatic, saying only what she thought I wanted to hear.

“Interesting. Do you want to know what would make me happy, Tatiana?”

“Yes, Master Aemon.” Her voice trembled slightly in trepidation, imagining the worst.

“To get you back to your family and homeworld. Where are you from, originally? Which world and system?”

“I… I don’t know.” Tatiana looked down at her empty plate, avoiding my eyes.

“You don’t remember?”

“N-no.” The hesitation implied that she did, but that it was a painful memory she wanted to avoid.

“What about your parents? Do you remember anything about them? Anything that could help me find them?” I didn’t want to push her too hard, as she might withdraw if she got overwhelmed by traumatic memories of when she was first taken by the slavers. “There must be people out there who care about you and miss you. I want to find them for you.”
“Why?” Tatiana’s head was still down, the question asked with a hint of belligerence.
“Why?” I echoed, confused by her quiet hostility. “Tatiana, look at me. My parents died when I was nine years old. I was a slave for fifteen years. A different kind of slave, to be sure, but my family and home was taken from me, too. There’s only one person left who cares for me, and if I try and see her, there’s a good chance that I’ll be killed on the orders of the woman I’m being forced to work for. I might have money and this ship, but I’m not free to do what I want. I’m still a slave to circumstance and more powerful people. I just have the illusion of freedom. But if I could find your family and the people who care about you, you could be truly free. It would mean a lot to me if I could do that for you. All I need to know is who to look for.”

“There’s no-one. They’re dead. They’re all dead.” Tatiana’s reply was a whisper and tears began to form in the corners of her eyes.
“I’m sorry. What happened?”

“They came from the sky. Bad men with knives and guns.” Tatiana talked slowly, her voice emotionally detached from the memories as she recalled them, even as the tears began to run down her cheeks. “I tried to hide with Mummy, as Daddy had told me to. We heard the screams as the bad men broke into the habitat. We didn’t make a sound, but they found us. Daddy was on the floor, blood all over his belly, and they made Mummy kneel in front of him. One of the bad men grabbed her hair and tried to get her to use her mouth on him, as Daddy watched, but she bit him instead. The bad man got angry and shot her through the head. They left Daddy and everyone else who tried to fight them behind to die. Then they took me onto their ship, with the other children.”

“Bastards.” I snarled through gritted teeth. It was a story I’d heard before. Similar tales of slavers abducting whole villages in remote, independent colonies were fairly common. There had been reports on GalNet of two such incidents in the last year. The only thing the slavers left behind in the wake of the attacks were piles of corpses – the people who had fought and died trying to protect
their families and homes – yet people still chose to live in these low security settlements. “When was this? How old were you?”

“I can’t remember.” Tatiana looked away, wiping her face with a dry napkin to soak up her tears.
“Your parents would have had to have moved there from another world. I could have your DNA cross-checked against missing person reports associated with mass abductions – your grandparents or other relatives might be looking for you.” I suggested. Tatiana shrugged her shoulders, as if she didn’t think that there was much hope. “We should at least try.”

“Yes, Master Aemon.” Tatiana replied, nodding reflexively. I suspected she was agreeing just to shut me up.
“ASTRA can show you how to take a cheek swab for the DNA sample on the terminal in your room. And you might as well try and get some more rest. Once we start moving again, it could be a long trip.”
“Sorry to interrupt, my lord.” ASTRA interjected over the intercom, her breezy cadence not in the least contrite. “You have an incoming call from Governor Torval.”

“I’ll take it in my quarters, ASTRA.” I was careful not to stand too quickly, so that Tatiana would have time to realise that the message from the ship AI wasn’t some convoluted subterfuge to disguise an assault. She flinched anyway, but managed to suppress her instinct to recoil defensively away from unexpected movement. “Feel free to make yourself more to eat if you’re still hungry. Just remember to put everything away in the dishwasher when you’re done.”

“Why does the ship call you ‘my lord’?”

“Ah. ASTRA, you’re setting a bad example for Tatiana.” I admonished the AI, as I made my way to the door. “It’s because of my rank in the Imperial Navy. But you don’t need to worry about titles. Just call me Aemon.”
I left Tatiana in the galley and retreated to the seclusion of my stateroom, locking the hatch behind me before taking a seat at the terminal. I received Laure’s videocall, glad to see and hear from my wife, even if we were separated by over a hundred light years.
“Hello, Aemon.” Laure’s image flickered into life on the screen. This time her hair was a striking platinum blonde and she was wearing a sheer white lace dress that left very little to the imagination. “I hear your first assignment for Zemina went well.”
“Better than expected. A Panther Clipper’s a tough ship, but it didn’t have much of a pilot. By the time Theriault realised I wasn’t there to help him, it was too late.”

“I’m not surprised. He bought his way through the Academy. Barely passed basic flight training. Used his family’s wealth and status to jump straight from a Sidewinder into a Panther. His father gave him the rank. Never had to earn anything in his life. The thought that someone would attack him probably never occurred to him.”

“Well, if he’d kept better company and not gotten involved with slavers, he’d still be breathing. I don’t think too many people are going to miss him.”
“Has Zemina sent you another assignment yet?”
“No, she’s keeping me on standby for now. I’m staying put in Afli until I get word. Not that I need to worry about the docking fees. She wasn’t kidding when she said that working for her would pay well. I got 750k for dealing with Theriault.”
“Another few missions like that and I’d consider running the blockade at Adams and joining you on some independent agricultural world on the rim.” Laure’s smile faded. “It’s not fair, Zemina keeping us apart like this.”
“I don’t like it either, but until I can prove to her I’m loyal to the Empire, we’re just going to have to put up with it.” I frowned myself, anticipating how Laure would respond to my next question. “In the meantime, I need a favour.”
“Why do I sense that I’m not going to like this?” Laure narrowed her eyes in suspicion, trying to read my face.
“Theriault was carrying cargo when I intercepted him. Just before I destroyed his ship, he dumped some of it.”
“Oh, no. Please tell me you didn’t pick it up.”

“Laure, I didn’t have a choice. There were life signs from the pod. I couldn’t just leave. They would have been fried by the radiation from
the star in minutes.”

“Aemon, you idiot!” Laure threw her hands into the air, despairing. “Why didn’t you dock in Empire space and turn them over to the authorities?”
“I would have, but it wasn’t a pod of Imperial Slaves.”
“Aemon.” I hadn’t heard such a fierce disapproval in Laure’s voice since I’d been a teenager. “Are you telling me that you’ve got a pod of unsanctioned slaves on your ship?”
“Of course not!” I snapped back defensively. “The pod was badly damaged in the explosion of Theriault’s ship. There was only one survivor. Once I stabilised her, I dumped the pod and vaporised it.”
“Her?!” Laure cried. The pitch of her voice could have shattered glass.
“Relax, Laure. She’s not my type.”
“Oh, right.” Laure scoffed. “Because we both know how well you can resist a damsel in distress. Remember that incident with ‘Michiko’?”
“You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?”
“Not in this lifetime, buster.”
“So she set up that incident in the bar. How was I to know that she was role-playing?”
“Perhaps the way she was wrapping her thighs around the hips of a total stranger, within quarter of an hour, in a cheap rented suite… maybe that might have tipped you off?” Laure pouted, her tone jealous, yet ironic.
“I just assumed she was very grateful.” I rolled my eyes. The episode had occurred nearly twelve years ago in a notorious fleet bar on Cemiess, but Laure still took a perverse pleasure in reminding me about it, every chance she got.
“Well, your new passenger had better keep her ‘gratitude’ to herself.” Laure warned. “Because if you fuck her, Zemina wanting to kill you will be the least of your problems!”

“Laure… don’t be like that. Tatiana’s harmless. I haven’t been able to get her to talk much, but she told me about the slaver attack that killed her parents. I should have a DNA sample for you in the next few hours. Can you try and trace her family for me? And she’ll need a cover identity set up for her in the meantime.”
“Can’t you just give her a few thousand credits and turn her loose?” Laure sounded reluctant to go to the trouble, even though I knew she had the authority to do it in minutes.
“No. She wouldn’t last five minutes on her own. She must have been taken when she was very young. She’d be back in a slave collar or dead by the end of the day.”
“You and your damned conscience.” Laure shook her head, a wry smile on her face. Even though she resented the inconvenience of my request, Laure still respected and shared my moral principles. It was one of the reasons we made such a good couple. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thanks, Laure. I owe you one.” I suppressed a sharp pang of longing as I watched her glance down at her keyboard and start typing in my data request, the redirection of her gaze drawing my own attention below the neckline of her dress. It had been too long since we had last been together and the uncertainty hanging over our future, thanks to Zemina’s enmity towards our marriage, was starting to take its toll. I would have given anything just to have been able to smell her perfume at that moment.
“What’ll you do with her in the meantime?” Laure asked, still looking down at her terminal as she typed.
“I don’t need a slave, but I could use a co-pilot. Flying the Clipper solo is much more demanding than the Courier. Having someone to run the power systems and nav console for me in the middle of a firefight would be useful.”
“Provided that you can trust her not to turn off the shields once the missiles start flying. If she was enslaved early, she probably has PTSD. She might not react well under stress.”
“Point. Maybe I should get her to observe first to see how she copes.”
“I wouldn’t even let her on the bridge. She’s a liability. Imagine if she freaks out when you’re in combat.”
“I think I can deal with that. I gave her my watch, because she missed her collar. I’ll just swap out the Glide capsules for a tranquiliser.”
“It’s your call, Aemon. But I’d keep her tucked away nice and safe in a cabin until we find some family member to take care of her. Once I’ve got the DNA sample, I’ll get my people to track down the colony she was abducted from. Then it should be pretty easy to ID her parents.” Laure finished tapping on her keyboard and looked back up at the camera on the top of her terminal’s screen. “The false ID’s ready. Transmitting now.”

“Tatiana Dementyeva? Nice. Very subtle.” I sighed, exasperated by the dark sense of humour in Laure’s choice of surname for Tatiana’s cover ID.

“What?” Laure suppressed a smile, her face a picture of bemused innocence. “That wasn’t my first option, believe me…”

“I don’t want to know.”

“You really don’t.” Laure laughed. “I’ll let you know when I have anything on the family. Stay safe out there, Aemon.”

“I will. Love you.”

“I love you, too. I’ll be in touch.”

Chapter Four – Clayahu: Von Biela Dock

After having been kept idle on standby for over a week, the call from Zemina had finally come just before local midnight, ordering me to relocate from Afli to the Clayahu system. One of the Senator’s mining operations on Clayahu 1, a small, heavy metal-rich world had been sabotaged by the local Mafia. The loss of life had been minimal, but the economic damage had been significant, the destruction of the mining stations main computer shutting down the automated ore extraction drones for several days until parts had been flown in to restore the AI core. I had been offered a 1.2 million credit combat contract to take down no less than twenty ships flying Clayahu Mafia colours over the course of the next week.
In addition, the Senator had offered me a 500,000 credit bonus if I was to assist one of Zemina’s Majestic-class Interdictor cruisers, Duval’s Glory, in an assault against the Mafia’s base of operations in the system, Bolton Ring outpost. While the cruiser crippled the outpost’s defences, I was to assist the cruiser’s fighter squadrons in providing an armed escort for the Asps that would transport the troops tasked to take control of the platform by force. If everything went to plan, the Clayahu Mafia would be dealt a fatal blow and a powerful message would spread to the surrounding systems about the consequences of interfering with the smooth running of the Senator’s business interests. The mission wasn’t due to commence for another eighteen hours, so having lost the previous night’s sleep making the transit from Afli to the Empire’s Ocellus starport orbiting Clayahu 1, I retired to my stateroom to get properly rested.
I peeled off my flight suit, reflecting on the trip. Tatiana had joined me on the bridge for the entire way, rapt with fascination, as I had eased Fell From The Top(…) from its hangar into the busy transit lanes out of Pu City, nudging my way past clueless neophyte pilots in Sidewinders and Haulers that were ignoring the right of way protocols as they descended from the docking slot towards their assigned landing pads. Tatiana had never experienced a trip from the bridge of a starship before, and sat forward, straining against the acceleration strapping keeping her in her seat the whole way. I had not been able to persuade her to wear one of my mother’s flight suits for the journey, which could have caused a problem had we been interdicted on the way, but the flight passed without incident. I had also disabled her console so that she couldn’t accidentally turn off anything vital at an inopportune moment. The precaution had proved entirely unnecessary, as she was too fascinated by the sight of the other ships, the stars and the bright, energetic maelstrom of witchspace to have wanted to fiddle with any of the controls anyway. The novelty of the experience of flying outside of the confines of a slave pod was far too compelling. She had been shocked by the fury of Imperial Clipper’s acceleration as I had boosted on full afterburners out of the docking slot at over 440 metres per second, rolling hard to twist out of the way of an incoming Cobra Mark III. The fear had quickly subsided into exhilaration, however – it seemed that Tatiana wasn’t going to be too much of a nervous travelling companion – at least not until she had her first experience of ship-to-ship combat. As I had discussed with Laure, I had replaced the Glide capsules in Tatiana’s watch with Hypno, an ultra-rapid propofol-based anaesthetic. If Tatiana experienced a post-traumatic flashback on the flight deck, I would be able to sedate her safely with a voice command. It wasn’t likely that Tatiana was aware that the timepiece held a drug-injection mechanism, and I hoped not to have to tell her, unless it became absolutely necessary. After yet another long day making the transit to Clayahu and
preparing the ship for the operation tomorrow, I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. I was on the verge of falling asleep when I became dimly aware of another presence within the room.
“Master?” Tatiana’s whisper was barely audible. “Master Aemon?”
I opened one eye, not even raising my head from the pillow. “What is it, Tatiana? Can’t you sleep?”
“No, master.” Tatiana replied, as she stroked the smooth metal pod on her wrist again, her nervousness clear from her body language and the tension on her face.
“Can I help?”
Tatiana nodded.
“I… I’m afraid. I don’t want to be alone. Can you hold me ’til I sleep, master?” Her voice and body trembled, terrified that her request would be rejected.
Remembering Laure’s warning about the consequences of ‘gratitude’, I almost sent her away. Tatiana’s lips quivered as she waited for some kind of signal. I nodded silently and eased back against the bulkhead, creating room for her on the narrow bunk, pulling the covers back slightly to allow her to slip inside.
“Thank you! Thank you, master!” Tatiana sobbed in relief, gladdened to have her plea accepted. She was still shaking in anxiety when she lay down in front of me on the bed, facing away towards the door. She took my hand and wrapped my arm around her protectively, like a shield, placing my palm beneath her breasts and over her heart. Through the thin satin of her nightshirt I could feel her pulse racing with panic, more than double that of a normal resting heart rate, and she shrank back towards me, letting her hips and legs press against mine.
“It’s okay, Tatiana.” I reassured her, using my free hand to stroke her straight, elbow-length blonde hair. “No-one can hurt you here. Sleep.”
Tatiana’s grip around my wrist was still manically tight, pressing my arm hard against her side and chest. The heat from her body was uncomfortably warm against my bare skin, her legs intertwining with mine. Frustrated by my isolation from Laure, I felt a surge of attraction for Tatiana. Her heart continued to pound fearfully and as she pressed her hips back against mine, in a clear, unambiguous invitation. The temptation to respond was overwhelming; to lift the hem of her nightshirt by a few centimetres, or move my hand on her chest by only the length of my fingers… With a flash of insight, I realised that she was testing me. Tatiana had been abused all her life by slavers who saw her only as a sexual plaything or a piece of meat to be bought and sold on a whim. Perhaps she truly had been afraid to sleep alone, but she also needed to know whether I was the kind of man who would take advantage of her. That realisation extinguished the feeling of desire Tatiana was trying to provoke and I kept still, soothing her with wordless noises of calm and reassurance. Gradually, Tatiana’s pulse subsided and she relaxed enough to fall asleep.
I didn’t remember when after that I had fallen to sleep myself, but recalled that my dreams had been intensely sensual. I awoke to find that Tatiana was testing me again. She had dispensed with the bed covers and her nightshirt, letting me see her slim, firm figure in all its glory. Tatiana knelt over me, her mouth and tongue doing exquisitely delicious things below my waist. The temptation was just to let her continue, now that she had escalated the stakes beyond the simple restraint of desire. I sat
up, gasping, reaching down to caress her neck gently, easing her away from me gradually with both hands, until her torso was upright. “Tatiana, what are you doing?”
“Pleasuring you, master.” Tatiana seemed perplexed at the question. “All my other masters wanted me to pleasure them.”
“Tatiana, I know this is difficult for you to accept, but I’m not your master. You don’t have to do that now.”
“Am I not pretty enough for you?” Tatiana asked, on the verge of tears.
I considered my response carefully. I didn’t want it to sound like I was rejecting her, but I also wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t interested in her as a sexual servant. “You’re beautiful enough for anyone, Tatiana. But you should only do that with people you love.”
“And you don’t love me.” Tatiana looked down, unable to meet my eyes.
“Tatiana, I’m married. If we’d met another time, in different circumstances, who knows? Any man would want you, if they saw you like this. But you’re not my wife. I’m sorry.”
“If you want me, why won’t you use me?” Tatiana demanded, snatching up her nightshirt and yanking it back over her head to cover herself. Her tone was ambivalent. She couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t mistreat her the way all the other men had in her adult life, but she was also relieved.
“Because it wouldn’t be right. And I always try to do what’s right. I’m not like those bad men who killed your parents and abducted you.”
“You’re a good man, master?” Tatiana’s question was a hopeful one.
“I suppose that’s a matter of perspective. I kill bad men like Duke Theriault.” I replied, Tatiana’s face twitching when I mentioned her last master’s name. “I saw what he did to your back. He can’t hurt you again. He won’t be hurting anyone again.”
“Good.” Tatiana shuddered, memories of the depraved tortures he had inflicted on her surging back in her memory. “He was a very bad man. He would order another slave whip us, as he and his friends used us. One girl refused to do it, so he blew up her collar. He liked to see us bleed.”
“Not all men are like him, Tatiana. One day you’ll find someone who loves you for who you are.” I told her, with a smile for encouragement. “But first we need to get ready for our mission today.”
“Are you going to kill more bad men?”
“Yes. And you’re going to help me. You’ll need to wear the flight suit today, Tatiana.”
Tatiana sagged visibly, with a low moan of distress. “I don’t like it. It’s too tight. And it smells.”
“Then I’ll buy you a new one, made just for you. But you can’t go into battle wearing that.” I pointed at her nightshirt. “You might look good in royal purple, but that’s not going to protect you from vacuum if we lose our canopy.”
Tatiana continued to sulk and complain as ASTRA carried out a laser scan to measure her for a brand new flight suit, which was made specially to order by YeagerCorp, the station’s resident star pilot outfitters. It took them less than an hour to 3D print the custom suit and have it delivered to the ship. It wasn’t quite like being given a unique evening gown for an Imperial Senator’s Ball, but Tatiana accepted the gift with some grace, admitting that it smelled a lot better than the spare flight suit
Agent Zeta had kept on board. I had to assist her in putting it on, as the compressive, reinforced fabric clang to her like a second skin, as if she had been dipped in molten obsidian. Realising that she might need to wear the RemLok helmet as well, Tatiana tied her hair up in a neat and elaborate French braid, securing the last remaining rogue strands of her iridescent blonde hair with long, thin silver hairpins. I showed her how to adjust the suit’s thermostat setting and the strength of servo- assisted joints, as well as how to activate and deactivate the maglock for the chairs on the flight deck. Once she felt comfortable in the suit and could walk naturally, the servo-motors compensating against the stiffness of the rubberised fabric, we sat in the galley so that I could brief her over a light lunch on the mission ahead and let her know what to expect. Still not used to the idea of regular meals, Tatiana ate as indelicately a starved horse, gobbling down her food and water so quickly that I feared she would need to spend the rest of the day in bed with indigestion.
“What is it that you want me to do?” she asked, chomping noisily on a large chunk of crusty bread she had just dipped into a steaming bowl of heavily-salted Scotch broth.
“Nothing much. Just watch. And learn. Get used to the feeling how a ship moves in combat. You might be flying with me for a while and this is how I earn my living.” I replied, trying to contain my amusement as she devastated the bowl of soup in front of her with all the élan and refinement of a pirate attack on a Lakon Type-9 fully-laden with palladium. “You might find it confusing and frightening to begin with. Lots of unpredictable g-force, bright lights and loud noise. But if you keep your hands on the flight controllers on your flight seat, you should get a feel for how I’m going to manoeuvre the ship. You won’t be able to affect the input on the controllers, but it should give you an idea of how to fly.”
“Will it be dangerous?”
“Not really. There’s always an element of risk, of course, but we’re going to be flying with an Imperial cruiser and four squadrons of Imperial Fighters. My ship’s one of the fastest in the sector, so we can get ourselves out of trouble if things start looking hairy. But you can expect that a few Mafia ships will take the odd pot shot in our direction. But you don’t need to worry, Tatiana. I’ll keep you safe.”
The tension eased in Tatiana’s shoulders visibly. “I trust you, master.”

Chapter Five – Clayahu: Clayahu 2 Rendezvous Point

We had arrived an hour early at the muster point to meet the strike force that was going to assault the local Mafia’s Boston Ring outpost. The coordinates given to us by the strike force leader, Prince Tybalt du Plessis, commanding officer of INV Duval’s Glory, were approximately twenty thousand kilometres from Clayahu 2, in a geostationary orbit from the barren, metal-rich planetoid. I had flown for du Plessis before on several occasions during assignments for the Imperial Navy and he had earned a well-founded reputation for being efficient without being officious, and personable without being overly familiar. His intelligence, strategic nous and no-frills command style had earned du Plessis the prestigious command of one of the most powerful ships in Senator Torval’s personal fleet, a formidable Majestic-class Interdictor cruiser. The giant, graceful vessels were armed with devastating arrays of turreted rail guns and interceptor cannons, able to repel all but the most determined of mass attacks by fighter-class vessels. Escorted by four squadrons of fast, nimble Imperial Fighters, a single Interdictor was more than capable of subduing and asserting control over a poorly funded and maintained industrial outpost.
Boston Ring itself was briefly only visible as a bright, fast-moving mote of light disappearing out of view beyond the shadowy limb of the planet. In a little over forty minutes, it would reappear on the other side of the planet and by the time the outpost was ready to disappear back into the umbra cast by the planet, the station would be in Imperial hands. There was a flash of light to starboard as the four converted Asp Explorers dropped out of supercruise in a flawless echelon left formation. They flew Zemina Torval’s faction colours proudly on their dorsal hull plates, a pair of rampant eagles emblazoned on each side of their cockpits. Each Asp had been modified to replace the cargo compartments with an armoury and space for fifty heavily armed and armoured marines to fly in relative comfort. Each ship was armed with two beam laser turrets and four gimballed multi- cannons, making them a formidable combat force. Flying under the cover of the fighter screen, escorted by my Clipper, and with the Interdictor on overwatch, it was unlikely that the Mafia forces protecting the station would pose a serious threat to the troop carriers. My job was to ensure that the four Asps were able to make a forced entry via the station’s landing pad. My Clipper was too large to dock with the station, so instead I was to mark the location of the station’s defensive guns with my targeting computer and keep the locals busy. The target data would then be fed by ASTRA directly to the fire control systems of the rail gun turrets on Duval’s Glory, which would strip the station of its defensive guns before the Asps came into range.
An encrypted transmission flashed up on the comms console and I accepted the call. It was Prince du Plessis, with my final orders. “Viscount Roche, this Duval’s Glory.”
“I am at your service, your Excellency.” I acknowledged, replying over the quantum key-encrypted channel. The Interdictor would be not joining us at the rendezvous point, signalling instead from the safety of witchspace. It would tax the jump drives of the cruiser too much to make back-to-back frame shifts, and it didn’t make good tactical sense to bring the cruiser into realspace, where it could be easily detected by the defence forces on the platform, before the trap was sprung.
“Thank you, Aemon. It’s good to have you along. You’re going to be flying vanguard. We’ll give you a ten minute head start to locate and geo-tag the outpost’s defensive platforms. Then you’re to fly interference and engage any Mafia ships in the battlespace until Duval’s Glory has eliminated the platform’s guns. My fighter squadrons will give you tactical support. As soon as the outpost’s defences are neutralised, you’re to provide an escort for the troop carriers.”
“Acknowledged, my Prince. And once the marines are aboard?”
“Feel free to assist in the elimination of any remaining Mafia ships. But once the Asps have docked with the station, I will consider your obligation to the mission to have been fulfilled.”
“As you wish, your Excellency. Do you have any other instructions?”
“Just make sure you’re within five kilometres of the outpost when I bring Duval’s Glory out of witchspace.” du Plessis advised. “I wouldn’t want your ship to be damaged by the energy rift when we make the transit back to realspace.”
“By your command, my Prince. Commencing target approach now. Frame shift in thirty seconds.” I realigned Fell From The Top(…) onto an intercept vector with Boston Ring and tapped the command console to instruct ASTRA to charge up the ship’s main drive.
“Starting the mission clock now.” du Plessius replied, his voice even and calm. If he was excited or nervous about the battle to come, it was impossible to tell from his speech. “Mark. You’ve got ten minutes, Viscount Roche. Use them well.”
“I will, my Prince. Good hunting.”
“Good hunting, Commander. For the glory of the Empire!” du Plessis urged, before closing the channel.
The space surrounding the fox-like snout of my ship appeared to wrinkle and crease as the energy field emitted from the frame shift drive began to increase in strength, uncoiling the higher dimensions of witchspace to allow my ship into the conduit that would propel me across the final twenty thousand kilometres of space separating me from Boston Ring in less than a minute. ASTRA marked the countdown with a sense of calm anticipation that only an AI could feel, knowing that we were about to pitched into the chaos of battle. “Five, four, three, two, one… engage.”
Tatiana drew in a sharp breath as we jumped, surprised by the violence of the ship’s abrupt acceleration. The HUD filters on the canopy flickered into life, tracking the movement of ships in supercruise flying to and from the planet, showing the outer limits of the gravity well around Clayahu 2 that would disrupt the speed of my approach and also the position of Boston Ring in its orbit. I skirted the edge of the planet’s gravity well as closely as I dared, knowing that time was of the essence, constantly adjusting the throttle and joystick to maintain an optimal approach. I was pleased to see out of the corner of my eye that Tatiana had her hands on her disabled flight controllers, feeling how the motion of the ship was influenced by the subtlety of my HOTAS inputs. While it was unlikely that I would be able to turn her into a combat-ready pilot, but there was no reason to think why she couldn’t pick up enough skill to be able to safely land or undock from a space station. Enough skill, perhaps, to begin a new career as a freighter pilot and give her true independence, should Laure not be able to track down Tatiana’s family.
I waited until Fell From The Top(…) was within three hundred kilometres of Boston Ring before bringing the ship out of supercruise back into realspace. In the five seconds it took for the frame shift to complete, my ship closed to within ten kilometres of the outpost, easily within sensor range to start marking the location of the station’s defensive platforms for the gunnery teams on Duval’s Glory to neutralise, so that the troop carriers would be able to make their approach to the Mafia- controlled outpost without coming under heavy weapons fire.
It didn’t take long for the presence of my ship to attract the attention of the outpost’s governor. My Clipper was too large to dock at the station, so while my ship wasn’t powerful enough to directly do major damage to the outpost itself, the mere presence of it nearby was enough to raise concerns amongst the station’s command staff.
“Unidentified ship, this is Boston Ring Control. Please state the purpose of your visit.”
“Greetings, Control.” I responded, trying to sound as unthreatening as possible. I glanced left at Tatiana in her flight seat and the look of wonder on her face as she gazed upon the brightly-lit outpost and the nearby planet was enough to inspire me to improvise a story that would keep the defence forces off balance until the main assault began. I double-checked the countdown on the HUD. Duval’s Glory would arrive in precisely eight minutes and twenty-seven seconds. “My wife and I are on a tour of the local systems for our honeymoon. I was told Clayahu 2 was worth a visit and now I can see why. I don’t think I’ve ever seen sulphur geysers as large as these!”
“You’ve got a strange taste in planets, unidentified ship.” the controller replied, baffled. “Stay clear of the station and its approach vectors, or we might have to give you a bloody nose.”
“Naturally, Control. I don’t want any trouble.” I lied, reassuringly. I skirted the fringes of the outpost’s defensive sphere, just beyond the effective range of the half dozen autonomous gun platforms. Each one bristled with Class Six beam laser turrets and turreted multi-cannons, each one powerful enough to devastate the shields of my ship or one of the troop transporter Asps in under five seconds. I watched the barrels of the beam lasers track my movements, even though my ship was tantalisingly out of range. It took less than five minutes to mark the coordinates of the six platforms into the navigation computer, ASTRA automatically relaying them on a hyperwave channel to the fire control systems on Duval’s Glory, still waiting in witchspace.
“Unidentified ship, I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing out there, but I don’t like it. Just why aren’t you transmitting your ID, anyway?” The controller’s question was heavily laden with suspicion. “You’ve got thirty seconds to get the hell out of here before I start launching fighters.”
I checked my ship’s location to make sure I was in the narrow safe zone between the outpost’s defensive screen and the space where Duval’s Glory was about to make its entrance. The intelligence report had revealed that there would be anything up to five fighter-class vessels in the outpost’s restricted docking hangar. They would most likely either be Sidewinders or retro-fitted F-63 Condors stolen from Federation shipyards. Small, nimble ships but hardly a threat to my Clipper or the assault force now less than a minute away. I replied not with words, but by deploying hardpoints, arming my weapons. The hostile act did not go unnoticed by the outpost’s flight controller.
“You asked for it, unidentified ship. Come closer, so I can show you what it means to cross the Clayahu Mafia!”
I turned to Tatiana. “And so it begins. Put on your helmet.”
Four Sidewinders daubed in the gaudy colour scheme of the local Mafia surged out from the security force hangar, reforming quickly into a vic formation, their weapons already primed. I split my power distribution evenly between my weapons and shield systems, wanting to do as much damage as possible on the first pass. My manoeuvring options were limited to staying within the two kilometre thick shell trapped between the fringes of the outpost’s weapons range and the wider bubble of space beyond, where the Duval’s Glory was due to appear. Any ship caught in the spatial disruption
of the Interdictor’s witchspace cloud as the cruiser made the frame shift would be badly damaged at best. The Sidewinders would try to lure me into the weapons range of the outpost’s gun platforms, whereas I wanted to tempt them away from the station, out where the small fighters could be destroyed in the maelstrom of energies surging from the cruiser’s frame shift cloud. It took the Sidewinders only fifteen seconds to get within weapons range, and all four fighters let fly with their weapons as soon as they had a target lock.
“Master, look out!” Tatiana cried, raising her arms to shield her face as the blindingly bright red laser beams reached across space to splash across the shields protecting my Clipper’s cockpit. The dull, hollow thuds of the pulse laser strikes echoed in our ears, beating a frenzied rhythm as the strikes coruscated across my shields. The sound was simulated, of course. The ship’s AI interpreted sensor data to give the flight crew precise positional audio not just for incoming weapons fire, but also the throttle settings for other ships and even environmental hazards. The sonic feedback greatly enhanced a pilot’s situational awareness. As a cadet, I had once docked my Eagle at Adams Orbital with my eyes closed, relying only on the AI’s simulated soundscape for feedback. I held my fire until the Mafia ships were within a kilometre and targeted the lead Sidewinder, reversing the throttle. My beam lasers boiled through the Sidewinder’s shields in less than two seconds. Evidently the Mafia had not bothered upgrading the basic ship’s subsystems. A quarter of a second later the tiny fighter exploded as two cannon rounds smashed through the Sidewinder’s lightweight hull plating from point-blank range. The concussive pop was sharp and brief in my ears. Tatiana gasped as I reversed the throttle again, engaging the afterburners on my main thrusters to loop in behind the three remaining Mafia ships, the brute force of the acceleration making her sink into the supportive gel- padding of her seat.
“Remember to keep your hands on the controls.” I advised her. “It’ll help you predict how the ship is going to move. It’s the best way to prevent motion sickness.”
I snap-rolled the Clipper to align my beam lasers with one of the retreating Sidewinders, draining the capacitors dry. The shields of the Sidewinder collapsed, the metal beneath glowing and boiling away as the twin crimson beams ripped through the armour plating covering the fighter’s power plant. The other two Sidewinders had broken formation and were trying to flank me as the ship I was shooting at tried to flee for the safety of the outpost’s defensive bubble. The crippled Mafia ship never made it, erupting into a fireball as a pair of cannon rounds stabbed through the core of its power plant. My shields were still holding nicely as I disabled the Clipper’s flight assistance to boost quickly away from the inner edge of my safe zone. I redirected power from my weapons systems to reinforce my shields, which rang with the battering of pulse laser fire from the two remaining Mafia ships. I rotated my ship until it pointed directly at one of the fighters, the other Sidewinder trailing behind in the luminescent vapour trails left in the wake of the Clipper’s main thrusters. My shields were now down to 30% strength, so I activated a shield cell, bringing them back up to nearly full capacity. As I closed in on the rapidly approaching Sidewinder, I collapsed its shields with a well-timed barrage of cannon fire. Flame licked out of the hole left behind in the cooling vents to the port side of the canopy, the fighter’s fragile hull already breached. As the Sidewinder whipped past at a combined closing speed of nearly half a kilometre per second, I held my course, keeping both Mafia vessels behind me.
“Capital-class signature detected.” ASTRA piped up, exactly as the countdown timer ticked to zero. Three kilometres to starboard the very fabric of space appeared to tear and rip and lightning-like
discharges crackled, leaping out of the rift between realspace and the higher dimensions of witchspace. The colossal, elegant form of Duval’s Glory materialised through the gap, shimmering like a golden spearhead in the cool orange glow of Clayahu, the deafening sonic cue signalling the ship’s arrival groaning like tortured metal being twisted by unimaginable forces. As soon as the storm cloud surrounding the ship had dissipated, the witchspace energies eventually sparking away into the void, the cruiser began disgorging its squadrons of Imperial Fighters, which swarmed across space to support my ship. The sharp prow of the cruiser angled towards the outpost, the three rail gun turrets lining the deck before the Interdictor’s bridge swivelling in unison, bright blue beams obliterating the outpost’s gun platforms in seconds, thanks to the location scans I had performed only a few minutes earlier.
“Viscount Roche, the outpost’s defences are down. Please escort my troop carriers.” du Plessis ordered, just as the four modified Asps dropped out of supercruise in perfect echelon left formation, less than two kilometres from my starboard wingtip.
“By your command, your grace.” I replied, leading the way for the troop ships. The two remaining Sidewinders were fleeing for the outpost, but could neither outrun my ship nor its weapons fire. I dispatched both ships before they were able to dock at the outpost. Fell From The Top(…) streaked over the top of the platform with only a scant hundred metres of clearance, buzzing the control tower deliberately to upset the touchy controller who had challenged me to get closer to his station. As I turned for another pass, I noticed that two ships were launching. The HUD identified them as hostile and Mafia-aligned. “Heads-up. Enemy Python and Viper launching.”
I used my ship’s superior speed to get back into formation with the troop transports, reforming our squad to provide mutually supportive field of fire, just as the Python and Viper finished undocking from the outpost. Duval’s Glory was now only five kilometres from the outpost, the sweeping lines of the cruiser’s hull dwarfing the ugly, angular station. Prince du Plessis’s voice sounded over the intercom. “More enemy contacts arriving. Looks like a flight of Cobra Mark IIIs, an Anaconda and another Python. Roche, concentrate on the Pythons. We’ll mop up the rest. Just make sure those Asps get to the station intact.”
“Transports, this is Roche. Target the Viper, then head to the outpost. I’ll handle the Python.”
I got curt acknowledgements from each of the Asp pilots, who opened fire on the incoming Viper simultaneously with all weapons. I unleashed the power of my own beam lasers, ripping open the shields of the Viper before it got within two kilometres of the Asps. The combined power of the Asps sixteen multi-cannons tore the heavy fighter to ribbons in under a second, the explosive decompression of its hull sounding only the most feeble of pops as the Viper’s cockpit ruptured. The shredded wreckage drifted through our formation as the Asps lit their afterburners, boosting towards the outpost. The Python moved to intercept, almost certainly knowing that the Asps carried assault troops that would seize control of the station. I opened fire on the Python, targeting its power plant for a quick kill. I drained the capacitors of my beam lasers and emptied the remaining rounds from the current clip loaded in my cannons, wanting to take down the Python’s shields as quickly as possible.
“Full power to weapons.” I ordered ASTRA. I heard Tatiana hyperventilating as she tried to stay calm. She wasn’t used to the high g-forces of ship-to-ship combat, but I saw she was still gripping the flight controllers on her seat, giving her something to concentrate on and stave off any sense of nausea. I
had warned her about how unpleasant it would be if she were to be sick in her RemLok helmet. I gave her a message of encouragement as my ship spiralled in behind the Mafia Python. “Keep breathing, Tatiana. You’re doing well.”
The Python was bristling with pulse laser turrets that were firing at will both at my ship and the flight of Asps. The troop ships plunged directly at the station, defensive chaff screen glittering in their wake like celebratory fireworks, as the crew of the Python debated just how hard they should pursue the Asps, given that they were under fire from my Imperial Clipper. With the Asps less than two kilometres away from the outpost, the Mafia Python must have realised the chance of holding onto the station was now gone. The Python made a break for clear space, its turrets flashing their fire back at me to ward off pursuit. ASTRA signalled that the Mafia vessel was powering up its frame shift drive. “Power surge detected.”
I knew that the Python wouldn’t be able to jump while its turrets were deployed, and my shields were still easily capable of warding off the effects of the intermittent fire they were absorbing. There was no way that the wedge-shaped vessel could outrun my Clipper, as I boosted back into optimal weapons range, stripping away the Python’s protective energy envelope with a sustained burst of fire from my two beam lasers. Three quick concussive reports from my twin cannons pummelled into the exposed belly of the Python as it rolled and weaved in a predictable evasive manoeuvre. I only had a fraction of a second to note the irony in the ship’s name, A Million In Prizes, before the release of energy from the breached power plant ruptured the hull of the vessel as easily as igniting a hydrogen balloon with a spark. I brought Fell From The Top(…) about, just as the four Asps forced a landing on the exposed pads on the outpost’s upper superstructure. The pads immediately retracted into the hangars, their controls overridden by the hacking modules broadcasting through the modified Asps’ comms arrays. Two pads were too small to accommodate the Asp in the hangars, so the marines inside the transports, resplendent in their mirror-armoured battlesuits, disembarked en mass via the cargo loading hatches and stormed the control towers, shooting out the windows with their laser rifles to gain access to the station.
Duval’s Glory, this is Roche. The strike team is secure. Boarding operations have begun.” I reported, boosting my ship towards the melée surrounding the Interdictor.
“Well done, Commander. Transmitting your payment now.” du Plessis replied. The HUD flashed, acknowledging the receipt of the half million credits Senator Torval had promised for my assistance with the operation. “You’re free to leave, or you can stick around for the mop-up. My scouts report that the Clayahu Mafia are massing ships near the system nav point for a counter-strike. We could no doubt deal with them, but your assistance would be valuable.”
I glanced at Tatiana to check how she was. From the look of her body language, Tatiana had either fainted or was getting a taste for the stresses of battle. Her breathing was regular and she no longer tensely gripped at the controls on her flight seat. I had already destroyed a quarter of the ships necessary to fulfil my combat contract with Zemina and it would be safer to try to finish the job with the support of the Interdictor and its fighter squadrons. The cruiser and its fighters had taken down the five Cobra Mark IIIs that had joined the battle a few minutes previously, but the Anaconda and Python were still stubbornly resisting. It would be both pleasurable and profitable to stick around for the time being. “It would be my honour to assist you, my Prince.”
“Thank you, Aemon. I’ll pass on a good word to the Senator. Glad to have you along.”
As I closed in on the Interdictor I could hear the electronic, throbbing snarl of the vessel’s three rail gun turrets slashing away at the Mafia Anaconda’s shields. The Anaconda tumbled and span under the onslaught, its own turrets spitting white hot clouds of shrapnel towards the Imperial Fighters swarming around it. One of the wiry craft succumbed into a white hot vapour that was swiftly extinguished by the vacuum of space, accompanied by a short, sharp crack in my earphones. I reset the power distributor to recharge my shields and weapons systems evenly, joining the attack on the Anaconda, my beam lasers slashing glowing trails of destruction over the dorsal hull of the privateer frigate. The thrum of the Interdictor’s rail gun turrets was joined by rhythmic, incessant chatter of the interceptor cannons, the high velocity projectiles peeling back the armoured plating over the Anaconda’s nose, venting the cargo compartments to the vacuum of space. As the Anaconda’s shield envelope shimmered and collapsed, I unleashed the kinetic power of my gimballed cannons, battering the canopy of the Anaconda’s cockpit until I heard the telltale crack and saw the gases inside freeze almost instantly as they expanded into the void beyond. With the Anaconda’s crew preoccupied by the threat of oxygen deprivation, I angled my Clipper in behind the larger vessel, carving chunks away from the plating protecting the ship’s power plant. A wing of Imperial Fighters swept in alongside my ship, each one discharging a torrent of plasma pulse cannon bolts that seared ragged holes in the Anaconda’s hull. There was a loud bang as my beam lasers boiled through the containment field protecting the frigate’s power plant, the rear half of the vessel disintegrating into thousands of pieces of shrapnel no larger than my hand. A blizzard of fragments pinged off my shields, inflicting only superficial damage, as I turned my attention to the final Mafia ship trying to defend the outpost.
The Python was already badly overmatched by the dozen Imperial Fighters swirling around it, pouring fire into its armour, the Python’s coolant systems overheating as they tried to dump excess heat out into space, the cooling vents already wide open and glowing bright yellow as the five pulse laser turrets arrayed around the hull struck out at any ships within range. I didn’t waste time selecting a subsystem to target, instead opening fire with both my beam lasers and my cannons as soon as the stricken Mafia transport came within range. The Python’s hull split open with an explosive crack, the hydrogen fuel stores cooking off with the oxygen inside the vessel, blowing open the cockpit to space in a fraction of a second.
The lull in hostilities as we waited for the counter-attack to arrive allowed me to take stock of my ammunition level – both cannons still had more than 70 rounds left – and also check how Tatiana was adapting to the rigours of ship-to-ship combat. I turned to face her, the young former slave’s face concealed by the rigid RemLok mask and helmet. “You alright?”
“I… I think so, master.” Tatiana replied, after considering the question for a few seconds. “I’m not sure.”
“Exciting and terrifying, huh?” I asked, smirking behind my helmet.
“Yes.” Tatiana clutched her flight controllers a little bit harder.
“Well, at least it looks like you’re not prone to space sickness.” I told her, encouragingly. “Most first- timers in combat would be gargling their lunch by now.”
“I like to feel the ship move.”
“That’s good. I’ll make a combat pilot out of you yet, Tatiana.”
“I’m not sure about that, master. But you make it look easy.”
“I’ve had a lot of practice. Do you think your stomach can stand up to a little bit more? The Mafia’s reinforcements will be coming in any second.”
Tatiana nodded an affirmative, just as Prince du Plessis signalled a warning. “Incoming jump signatures. All ships, stay within five kilometres of Duval’s Glory. Don’t let the criminal scum draw you out into single combat. Stay within range of fire support.”
“Here we go again.” I checked the radar scanner. The Mafia retaliatory force was impressive: forty ships, including three Anacondas, six Pythons and a dozen Asps. The rest of the criminal fleet was made up from assorted fighters and the odd small utility vessel; Sidewinders, Eagles, Adders and a few Cobra Mark IIIs.
With the outpost now secure, the four troop transporters joined the fray, bringing the considerable firepower of their beam lasers and multi-cannons to bear. The radio chatter was constant as the fighter pilots took instructions from their squadron leaders and the flight controllers back on the Interdictor, coordinating fire onto the Mafia ships being targeted by the cruiser’s interceptor and rail guns. I eavesdropped on the Imperial channel, assisting in picking off the hostile fighter craft one by one, quickly eliminating the weaker vessels before turning my attention to the larger Pythons and Anacondas. The Mafia crews fought valiantly for honourless criminals, but for all their courage and determination to take back the outpost or die in the attempt, they were no match for the power of Duval’s Glory and its attendant fighter squadrons. In less than thirty minutes, it was all over and the outpost was indisputably under the control of Senator Zemina Torval.

Chapter Six – Bridi: Harawi Vision

Sticking around to help INV Duval’s Glory clear up after the takeover of Boston Ring proved to be a good decision on two counts. Not only had I been able to score enough kills to complete Zemina’s kill contract on the Clayahu Mafia during the operation, but Prince du Plessis had been true to his word and spoken kindly on my behalf when he had reported the success of the mission to the Senator. Her congratulations for the successful completion of the task, while not exactly warm, had not been overtly hostile, either. Zemina had instructed me to wait further instructions in a nearby system and was keeping me on standby for the time being, until she could find another suitably dangerous assignment. We had been docked at Harawi Vision for nearly a week with still no word from the Senator and I was starting to go a little stir-crazy, so I reasoned that I should take some time out. After all, a return of 1.7 million credits for a day’s work – admittedly very high risk work – was cause enough for celebration and an excuse for a night out on the town, because if Zemina had anything to say about it, I might not be around for very much longer to spend it.
Harawi Vision was a Coriolis-class station run by Bridi Systems, an Empire-aligned high tech corporation partially owned by Senator Torval. While not as large or superficially impressive as an Orbis starport, Harawi Vision’s owners had still invested billions of credits in making sure that the station was among the best-appointed for its class in the Empire. Even the dive bars frequented by tramp commanders and other less-well-off independent operators, which backed onto the docking bay barrel itself, were all clean, safe and well-maintained. Teams of AI-controlled cleaner droids and human operatives (mostly Imperial Slaves under contract to Bridi Systems) constantly patrolled the labyrinthine corridors, ensuring that not a single illumination cell out of the millions lining the walls of the station had burnt out and that the floors were kept free from litter and that their surfaces shone like mirrors. The station was famous for its virtual reality nightclubs, ludicrously expensive cocktail bars, avant garde restaurants and hoopy casinos. Tatiana had taken some convincing to leave the hermetically safe environment of the ship, but I had bribed her with a promise of the best meal she had ever eaten, plus a 5,000 credit budget to spend on her outfit for the night. Imperial fashions were renowned for their opulence, both in terms of cost and style. I had asked ASTRA to show her a selection of evening dresses, shoes and accessories that she was free to choose from. Any one of the dresses could have paid our docking fees for a fortnight, but it represented only a fraction of my earnings from the Boston Ring operation and Tatiana needed something to wear for leisure excursions off the ship that wouldn’t attract unwanted curiosity, especially in a place renowned for being at the cutting edge of Imperial society. I was getting changed into my full dress uniform, my status as an Imperial Viscount guaranteeing that I wouldn’t have to worry about reserving a table at Munster Mash, an exclusive restaurant in the French tradition, famous for its tarte flambée, a dish that hailed from the region of eastern France where the ancestors of the restaurant’s proprietor had once owned and ran restaurants of their own. As I was preparing to slip on my jacket, ASTRA alerted me to an incoming hyperwave call.
“My lord, receiving a signal from Adams Orbital. It’s Governor Torval.”
“Put it though, ASTRA.” I instructed, settling the dress jacket over my shoulders and pulling the heavy material taut along my arms as I faced the camera inbuilt on the thin bezel on my terminal’s flat screen.
“Hello, Aemon.” Laure’s greeting was warm and affectionate, but the tension around her eyes betrayed some of strain we were both feeling from the forced separation imposed upon us by her aunt. She must have felt particularly stressed lately, as she hadn’t found time to change her hair colour, which was still the striking platinum blonde she had worn during our last conversation. It wasn’t within her usual spectrum of colours, but I thought that it suited her. She raised her pale eyebrows, which had naturally been dyed to match, when she noticed my formal dress. “You’re looking sharp tonight. Going somewhere interesting?”
“Just going out for dinner. I’m bored of ship’s rations and I can afford it. It’s not every week you earn a seven figure payout. Might as well spend some of it while I can.”
“Are you taking your pet with you?”
“Laure… Tatiana’s not a pet. She’s a human being. I am taking her out, since you ask. She should see some of the best our society can offer. There’s no harm in giving the poor girl a decent meal for once in her life.”
“Aemon, you’re playing with fire and you don’t even know it.” Laure warned. “But I do, I know you too well. You see this poor, broken creature, wounded by her past and you want to heal her. Because you see so much of yourself in her. But you’re fooling yourself, Aemon. Some wounds don’t heal and you can’t always fix things that have been broken.”
“You’ve never even met her. How can you sit there and judge her from a hundred light years away?”
“I’ve read the reports on the destruction of her colony.”
“You found her homeworld? And her family?”
“I did. Aemon, she’s been enslaved since she was five years old. I don’t like to think about some of the things that she must have seen, or the things they must have done to her. The group that took her make the Thunda Crew look like petty credit-chit snatchers.”
“Who are they?”
“Salazar’s Salamanders. They were wiped out in a turf war with Osterberg’s Myrmidons about five years back. Your new ‘co-pilot’ has been passed around between some of the galaxy’s worst scum for the last eighteen years. She needs help, you’re right about that. But you’re not a doctor or psychiatrist.”
“I don’t think it’s that bad. Tatiana’s tough. She sat through the mission at Boston Ring without any trouble. Most first-timers in ship-to-ship combat wouldn’t have stomached the kind of manoeuvres I was pulling.”
“I hope you’re right. Because if you’re not, the first clue you’ll have is the knife at your throat. Someone who’s been enslaved that long is inevitably going to pick up traits from her abusers.” Laure frowned at me, worried that I wasn’t listening to her.
“Tatiana doesn’t strike me as the violent type. I appreciate your concern, but I’ll be fine.”
“Have you fucked her yet?” Laure asked, pointedly. “I’ve seen the holos, she’s an attractive girl.”
“No. The only person I want to do that with is you, whenever your delightful aunt decides that she’s not going to block my access to your docking bay with a contraceptive cruiser or two.”
“Zemina’ll come around soon. She was almost complimentary about your performance at Clayahu. But watch yourself. The girl might offer herself to you as a prelude to an attack.” Laure seemed reluctant to call Tatiana by name, preferring to use the third person and impersonal terms when referring to her, unwilling to give Tatiana more than the most basic of acknowledgements.
“I’ll bear that in mind.” I replied, deadpan, deciding it would be better if I didn’t tell her that Tatiana had already tried to have sex with me in the first week after her rescue back at Afli, even if in the subsequent weeks there had been no further ‘tests’. “What can you tell me about Tatiana’s family?”
“Her mother and father were both killed on an unsanctioned colony just beyond the fringe of Empire space, out towards the Coalsack nebula, in the HIP 18536 system. There’s an Earth-like there, just inside the outer edge of the Goldilocks Zone. A little on the frosty side, but no terraforming required. Perfect for a low rent operation without major corporate backing. The colonists called it Elysian Fields.” Laure explained. “They’d only been established for a couple of years before the attack. Not long enough to pay for AAA defences or have more than a handful of air superiority fighters for defence. They never stood a chance. The colony’s administrators managed to get out a distress call during the assault, but by the time help got there, all that was left were smouldering buildings and corpses. They murdered the adults, of course, and took the children for slaves. Roughly two thousand dead, three hundred abducted.”
“Son of a bitch.” I snarled, my outrage barely under control, consoled only by the knowledge that the pirate group responsible had been wiped out by one of its rivals. “Anything else?”
“I don’t have anything on the father other than a name: Mikhail Sychyov. No trace of any extended family. He must have gone to some lengths to get himself off the data grid. The mother was easier to find. Svetlana Volkova. The girl’s birth certificate registers her under the mother’s name.”
“Any living relatives?”
“An aunt and uncle in the Tomani system. They’ve got a farm on Tomani 2, a terraformed Earth-like controlled by Tomani Blue State Co. I’ll send you the co-ordinates.” Laure said, looking down to tap brief instructions on the keyboard of her terminal.
“Olha Volkova and Konstantin Volkov. Thanks, Laure. I appreciate it.”
“You better.” Laure stuck out her tongue, playfully.
“One last thing. Any news yet on finding out who ordered the clone of my mother taken?”
“Not yet, no. The HelixGen board haven’t been terribly forthcoming. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that someone was trying to stall the investigation.”
“Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know. Especially considering that I’m the majority shareholder in the company. I’ll get to the bottom of it, though. As soon as I find out anything, I’ll give you a call.”
“Thanks, sweetie. I’ll let you know how things go at Tomani.”
“Stay safe, Aemon. Be good, now.” Laure signed off, blowing me a kiss.
I straightened the epaulets on my jacket, double-checking that everything was in order in the mirror before leaving my stateroom to check whether Tatiana was ready. Not wanting to interrupt my conversation with Laure, ASTRA had wisely decided to flash up a message on my terminal that the package containing Tatiana’s outfit had arrived and that one of the AI’s servitor drones had taken delivery of the parcel and delivered it to Tatiana’s stateroom.
“Tatiana, how are you getting on?” I asked through the door.
“Almost ready, master.” Tatiana replied.
“You’ve really got to stop calling me that.” I admonished her, dryly. “Aemon. Call me Aemon. Remember, you’re my co-pilot now.”
“Yes, Master Aemon.”
“That’s going to be a hard habit to break, isn’t it?” I mused to myself, smiling.
The hatch snapped open with the hiss of pneumatic rams. “How do I look, Master Aemon?”
I almost did a double-take, such was the transformation. Tatiana had chosen a gothic-inspired brocade ball gown, in black and vermillion, with a close-fitting bodice, a boned waistline to accentuate the curve of her waist and hips, and the dress had a dramatic slit up one leg from her right ankle halfway up her thigh, revealing silk stockings and a pair of high-heeled, knee-length black leather boots. She wore her long blonde hair loose over her bare shoulders, pearl hairpins tucking her hair behind her ears to expose matching platinum and pearl studded earrings. The only thing that looked out of place was the repurposed slave collar strapped around her slender wrist. “Absolutely stunning.” I told her, genuinely impressed by her taste in clothing. “Imperial tailoring suits you.”
Tatiana beamed with pride. “Thank you, Master Aemon.”
“You won’t be able to wear that on the station, though.” I warned her, indicating the slave collar timepiece. “If security get one look at that, they’ll arrest you on the spot. Not to mention the fact that it rather ruins the look of your outfit.”
Tatiana frowned, stroking the dome of the collar’s drug pod in distress. “I don’t want to take it off.”
“You’re going to have to leave it behind. Otherwise we can’t go out. If anyone were to suspect that you used to be a slave, people might start asking awkward questions. And not even my position in the Navy would be able to prevent you from getting arrested.” I explained, taking her hand and unfastening the strap. She didn’t put up any resistance, even though I could tell from the look on her face that she wasn’t happy. “You have to put your past behind you, Tatiana. You’re not a slave anymore, you’re a free woman. If anyone asks, your name is Tatiana Dementyeva, and I hired you at Penzias Dock in Fotla to be my co-pilot.”
“Yes, master.” Tatiana nodded, as I slipped off the collar’s strap over her hand and placed it back in her quarters, next to the computer terminal. We had already rehearsed the cover story several times a day in the weeks since Laure had set up the false ID, but this would be the first field test. Any slip ups could have very severe consequences, and not just for Tatiana. “I remember.”
“Can you remember not to call me ‘master’, too?” I added, sardonically. “That might attract some unwanted attention, as well. If you must use a title, use my Imperial rank. ‘My lord’ is acceptable in public, but when we’re alone on the ship, it’s Aemon. Not Master Aemon. Just Aemon. Got it?”
“Yes, my lord.” Tatiana replied, again retreating reflexively behind the use of titles, as if reminding herself of her inferiority. It was a habit that was starting to drive me up the wall, given that I wanted her to start thinking of herself as a person and not a slave to be ordered around.
“Have you ever been out onto a station before?”
“No, my lord. My masters always told me they weren’t safe for little girls.”
“Well, you’re not a little girl anymore, Tatiana. And this one is safe, one of the safest in the Empire. You’ll like it, I’m sure. Just let me do the talking if we get approached. The place is crawling with freelance GalNet press hounds and corporate security. You can hardly move in the nightclubs without tripping over a holo celeb.”
“What’s a holo celeb?”
“You should be glad you don’t know.” I chuckled. “There’s nothing more depressing than watching an episode of Made in Codorain… Brainless farmhands dressed up in togas having orgies in barnyards, and pretending to be someone with an actual personality. It’s pathetic.”
Tatiana stared at me blankly. She’d never even used the terminal in her room to check the local traffic reports, let alone check the latest GalNet updates or look at the millions of entertainment channels broadcasting throughout the bubble of colonised space. In fact, what she did to keep herself occupied in her stateroom remained a complete mystery to me. I could have asked ASTRA, of course, but I wanted to respect her privacy. The ship’s AI would have told me already if it was anything I needed to worry about.
“Come on, Tatiana. Let’s go. Stick close and don’t wander off. If we do get separated, ask a security team to bring you back to the ship, docking bay 10. ASTRA will let you in.” I said, sticking out my elbow and offering her my arm. Tatiana hooked her own arm through it, linking us together so we could walk side by side, as equals.
I kept my pace deliberately slow so that Tatiana would have time to take in her surroundings without information overload. She was mostly familiar with how things looked in the docking bay, having spent hours on the flight deck, simply watching the incoming and outgoing traffic, but the real test would be once we made it onto the main concourse of the entertainment sector. I wasn’t sure how Tatiana would react to the crowds of revellers, the lurid advertising screens or the cacophony of chatter, music and background noise. We stepped out of the lift onto the bustling concourse, thousands of people flowing across the deck, seemingly at random as they tried to negotiate their way to their destination amongst the hundreds of bars, clubs, restaurants and casinos. The crowd
was almost exclusively young, not a single person appeared to be approaching the century years of middle age, the vast majority being in the first flush of youth, dressed in outrageously expensive and fashionable outfits, ranging from the positively demure and chaste to the frankly obscene. Tatiana gasped when she was gently nudged aside by a party of six towering, raven-haired beauties wearing nothing except for make-up, perfume and identical silver-plate bikinis with matching stiletto-sharp high-heeled shoes. One of the gorgeous, alabaster-skinned creatures licked her lips seductively as she passed Tatiana, eyeing her gown jealously.
“Come and find me later, darling.” The woman kissed Tatiana on the back of her hand, her lipstick leaving behind a perfect replica of the shape of her full lips. “I’d like to try you on.”
“Perhaps another time.” I answered for Tatiana, declining the offer graciously, as Tatiana’s panic levels started to rise.
“Your loss.” The temptress gave me a truly stunning smile, revealing a flawless set of sharp, brilliantly white teeth, sighing theatrically to flash me the silver, barbed stud pierced through her long, broad tongue, before turning to catch up with the rest of her party. I felt a flash of envy and pity for the unsuspecting victim she would be taking to bed later that night.
I saw Tatiana’s chest strain at her bodice rapidly as she began to hyperventilate in alarm. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m right here. They’re just party girls looking for a good time.”
Tatiana responded by tightening her grip with her arm, drawing me closer to her. After a few seconds, her breathing rate subsided and she looked visibly calmer, the flush of pink cooling away from her cheeks. When I sensed she was ready, we continued on through the crowds, weaving past clusters of people surrounding street artists performing on the concourse. Pairs of security officers clad in white and blue high-impact body armour stood at practically every storefront, the AI-linked Head-Up-Displays on their helmet visions constantly feeding them information and assessing the mass of bodies swarming over the concourse for threats, stun rifles held tightly across their chests and backup sidearms containing lethal flechette darts strapped to their hips. With such a conspicuous and overbearing security presence, the crowd was a good-natured one. I heard an almost constant string of apologies being uttered as people squeezed past each other on their way to the multitude of possible destinations. GalNet and security camera drones buzzed overhead, competing for air space with the luminous advertising billboards, projecting vibrant holographs of desirable products from around the Empire, accompanied by maddening musical jingles to make the five second clips embed themselves in your memory. Adverts for everything imaginable, from starships, consumer technology, premium foodstuffs, jewellery, clothing, and even personal weapons filled the space above our heads. If I found it intrusive, I wondered what Tatiana made of it. She clang hard onto my arm with both hands, letting me guide her further down the concourse to the restaurant I planned to eat at, gawping open-mouthed at the sights and sounds around her, bewildered.
A long queue was already forming outside the entrance to Munster Mash. I overheard respectful muttering between the waiting couples and groups as I led Tatiana arm-in-arm directly to the hulking bouncers standing guard at the door. Citizens got to queue. Naval dignitaries and their companions were not expected to wait in line. It was irrelevant that the restaurant had been fully booked for months in advance. Any establishment worth frequenting in the Empire intrinsically
understood that it was sensible to keep private tables in reserve for unexpected, high-prestige patrons. It was unthinkable that a restaurant of Munster Mash’s standing and reputation would turn away the patronage and favour of an Imperial Viscount. One of the suited and shaved gorillas whispered inaudibly into his earpiece as soon as he recognised my uniform from over thirty metres away. By the time Tatiana and I arrived at the entrance, the doors were already being held open for us and I was greeted by the maitre d’, Monsieur Hengy. His eyes lit up with genuine pleasure as he directed us to the pre-prepared table for two. “My lord Roche! It’s an honour to see you once again.”
“Hello, Seb.” I returned the warmth of his greeting with a broad smile. “You should know by now that I can’t resist the siren call of the best tarte flambée in the Empire for too long.”
“My lord is far too kind.” Hengy bowed, accepting the compliment with typical grace and charm. He pulled back the leather-bound chair from the table to allow Tatiana to sit, before doing the same for me. “I see my lord has brought a lovely companion along for the evening. But not the Governor Torval, no?”
“Unfortunately her duties require her to be elsewhere tonight. This is Tatiana Dementyeva, my new co-pilot.” I introduced her the maitre d’, who nodded respectfully as he handed us paper-thin data tablets displaying the menu on an elegantly designed, art nouveau-inspired OLED touchscreen.
“A newcomer to the Empire, I take it?” Hengy asked, almost offhandedly, his face the very epitome of detached diffidence.
“I’d love to know how you divined that, Sebastien.” I asked, narrowing my eyes in suspicion. It wasn’t common knowledge, but Hengy was an extraordinarily well-connected manager of a network of freelance informants that spanned the Empire and some of the surrounding systems beyond, one of the reasons I frequented the restaurant at least six times a year. He always had interesting scraps of information for me.
“A professional secret, my lord.” Hengy replied enigmatically, before trying to direct my attention to the wine menu. “May I recommend the Lodi Zinfandel? The 3297 vintage is quite spectacular.”
“Oh, Sebastien, I really must know.” I made sure my tone carried a sufficient hint of threat.
“If you insist, my lord Roche… Mademoiselle Tatiana’s hair… the texture of cut and the colour. It’s really not en vogue.” Seb made a show of studying her like a stylist. “Almost parochial, in fact.”
“What’s wrong with my hair?” Tatiana asked, unaware that Hengy and I were conducting a coded conversation on a completely different plane from the banalities of the latest fashions in hairdressing and which wine we should drink with dinner.
Hengy tactically ignored Tatiana’s question, continuing unflustered. “Remarkably, the mademoiselle matches almost exactly the description of a recent missing person’s report from Afli.”
“How actively are the relatives pursuing leads?” I asked, trying not to notice as Tatiana started to get agitated.
“What’s wrong with my hair?” she asked again, louder, more insistently.
Hengy placed a soothing palm over her hand, and looked her in the eye. “Your hair is magnificent, Mademoiselle Tatiana. It will be setting new trends before the night is out, I’m sure.” With Tatiana placated, the smooth maitre d’ turned back to me and continued our conversation.”Only in passing, my lord. The young lady in question was not regarded with great affection by the family.”
“Have they offered a reward for her safe return?” I asked casually, keeping my eyes fixed intently on the menu tablet.
“No, my lord. I fear that she will not be missed.” Hengy shook his head, sadly. Open-palmed, he indicated a second entry on the wine list. “Might I instead suggest the Lussac Saint-Émilion? Their latest Grand Cru is said to be the best in over a decade.”
“I’ll have the Zinfandel after all, Seb.” I replied, signalling my gratitude for his information and insight. The Lodi was four times the price of the Lussac. “And a bottle of Lisbeth Rouge for the lady.”
“Tout de suite, my lord.” Hengy bowed and scurried towards the kitchens, relaying my drinks order to the waiting army of serving staff.
“What was all that about?” Tatiana asked, frowning.
“Nothing you need to worry about.”
“Were you talking about me?”
“Tangentially, yes. The good news is that Theriault’s slaver friends aren’t going to come looking for you.”
“So what’s the bad news?”
“That information cost me a bottle of wine that’s almost as expensive as your gown.” I told her with an expression that was half grimace and half smile.
“Oh.” Tatiana shifted uncomfortably in her seat, unsure of what to say.
“Don’t worry, Tatiana. I expected that. It was one of the reasons we came here in the first place.”
“And what were the other reasons, my lord?
“Good food, good drink and good company.” I replied, as one of Hengy’s immaculately dressed flunkies brought us our drinks. The sommelier half-filled my wine glass with the crystal-clear ruby wine. I swirled the vanilla, oak and blueberry-scented liquid around the bowl of the glass, watching carefully how it clang to the tall, inward slope towards the top of the glass. A brief sniff sent a heady shot of alcoholic vapour deep into my nostrils, its potency taking my breath away. A tiny sip confirmed that its taste matched the heady scent, bursting onto my tongue with hints of blackberry, plums and toasted spices. I looked up at the blonde sommelier and gave her a nod to grant her permission to fill my glass and leave the rest of the bottle. “Monsieur Hengy wasn’t exaggerating. That is spectacular.”
“Can I try?”
“Hmm. I’m not sure you want to develop a taste for this.” I counselled, studying the label of the wine bottle intently. “I’d stick to water if I were you.”
The sommelier filled the glass bulbs on the left of our place-settings from the tall red bottle of mineral water that she had also brought to the table. Despite having been shipped all the way from Sol, Lisbeth Rouge wasn’t nearly as expensive as the fabled Waters of Shinrarta, but the carbonated spring water was still pricier than a 10 year old vintage bottle of Lavian Brandy, albeit undoubtedly a great deal healthier. The sommelier was instantly replaced at the table by the deputy head waiter, who took our food order without fuss or ceremony. I took the liberty of ordering on behalf of Tatiana, who’d never even heard of the majority of dishes on the menu.
“Next time you can try a choucroute,” I told Tatiana, returning the menu tablets to the waiter. “But the first time you come here, you really have to try the tarte flambée.”
“What is it?”
“Heaven on a plate. A thin crust of bread dough, topped with fromage blanc, onions and bacon lardons. Nothing fancy, but it doesn’t need to be when it’s done this well. They’ve not had to change the recipe in centuries.” I took another sip of the exceptional, full-bodied Zinfandel, savouring every flavour in anticipation of the meal to come. “After one of these, you’ll never want to eat pizza again.”
“Pizza?” Tatiana inquired, scratching the back of her skull, thoroughly nonplussed.
“You’ve never had pizza?” I responded, aghast. “Well that’s great, I’ve just ruined pizza for you.”
Less than ten minutes after our order had been taken, the deputy head waiter returned with wooden platters, each one laden with a wafer-thin circle of toasted dough, liberally laden with the finest ingredients from ancient Alsatian cuisine.
“Mademoiselle’s tarte flambée,” the waiter announced, setting down the platter before Tatiana, before moving across to my side of the table. “Monsieur’s tarte au Munster. Bon appétit.”
I watched Tatiana in silence as she sniffed at the savoury-loaded flatbread doubtfully, before using her knife and fork to saw away a sliver of the tarte from the edge and pop it experimentally into her mouth. Her jade green eyes widened with surprise as she tasted the perfect balance between the saltiness of the bacon strips, the acidity of the fromage blanc and the sweetness of the caramelised onions. I chuckled as a shudder of delight rippled from her shoulders to her toes, Tatiana leaning forward to reduce the distance between the platter and her mouth as her hands worked quickly and systematically to carve the tarte into edible fragments as fast as she could, her eyebrows wrinkling and creasing together in absolute concentration. My own tarte was equally as good, but with the added complexity of the earthiness of cumin seeds and the creamy, ammonia tang of Munster cheese. It was more of an acquired taste than the traditional tarte flambée, but well worth the effort of mastering.
“What do you think then, Tatiana? Is it a hit?”
“I could eat three.” Tatiana didn’t look up from her plate, concentrating on dissecting the remains of the toasted, delicious disk.
“Hold your horses there, you need to leave room for dessert.” I advised her, between mouthfuls. “I’ve got some good news for you. My wife was able to track down some of your relatives. I’m going to take you to meet them.”
“Who are they?”
“Your mother’s parents. Do you remember them?” I asked, Tatiana looking blankly at me for a few seconds before shaking her head. “They live on an agricultural world, Tomani 2. You’ve never been there?”
“I can’t remember.” Tatiana replied distantly.
“Are you alright?” I studied her face, which gave the distinct impression that she was feeling slightly spaced out. If she hadn’t only been drinking water, I would have suspected that she was drunk.
“I feel a little weird.” Tatiana swayed back and forth on her chair a few centimetres as she breathed. It was then I noticed that the lipstick mark on the back of her hand had changed colour from vermillion to a metallic blue. I took her hand in mine from across the table and lifted it to my nose, sniffing gingerly. There was no smell at all, other than that of the normal beeswax base for the lipstick, but the colour change implied that something had been absorbed from the lipstick through the skin. “It’s quite nice, actually.”
“I think your admirer laced her lipstick with fentanyl.” I explained, dousing the corner of a napkin with some of the mineral water to wipe the waxy residue from the back of Tatiana’s hand.
“Mmmm… what’s that?” Tatiana asked drowsily, her eyelids becoming heavy.
“A recreational opiate. Very popular with date-rapists and blackmailers.” I explained, now definitely feeling sorry for whoever ended up being the object of the tall brunette temptress’s ministrations later this evening. I beckoned across the nearest waitress. “I think Miss Dementyeva is going to need some coffee. She’s feeling rather tired, all of a sudden.”
“Yes, my lord. Any coffee in particular?” the waitress asked, retrieving a wireless tablet to add the order to our bill.
“The strongest and blackest you’ve got. And plenty of sugar.” I squeezed Tatiana’s hand to keep her awake. “Hey, stay with me. Keep your eyes open and take deep breaths. You’ve had quite an evening. Your first tarte flambée and an opiate overdose.”
Tatiana protested at the bitterness of the coffee, but was nonetheless persuaded that it would be better to drink it than pass out at the table in one of the most exclusive restaurants in the sector. With Tatiana still teetering on the verge of consciousness, we demurred on dessert and settled the bill. Privately, I thanked Hengy for the information he had provided me with and asked him to send us half a dozen uncooked tartes for my ship’s food stores in the morning for Tatiana to enjoy later without any unexpected chemical impairment. He charged an extortionate price, naturally, but promised to add in a case of the remarkable Lodi Zinfandel as well. I helped Tatiana to her feet and walked her back to the ship, with her clinging to my arm unsteadily with both hands, barely opening her eyes the whole way.
I sat Tatiana on her bunk, still fully dressed in her gown and boots. She looked up at me beatifically, her eyes still glazed. “Thank you for dinner, Aemon.”
“You’re welcome, Tatiana.” It was the first time Tatiana had called me by name, without a title, since her rescue. I returned to my own stateroom full of hope that, despite the unfortunate intervention of the party predator on the concourse, Tatiana had coped well with her first evening out in public. It was only a small step on a long path to a normal life, but the first steps were often the most important. The next step was to reintroduce her to family life by visiting her maternal grandparents on Tomani 2. I slept soundly, feeling sure that the omens tonight had been good ones.

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 Tatiana 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, Tatiana’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 Tatiana 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 Tatiana’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, her hair dyed to match her jet black mood.
“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 Tatiana 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, Tatiana. I didn’t see you there.”
“Your wife doesn’t like me, does she?” Tatiana asked, having overheard the tail-end of our conversation.
“She doesn’t even know you, Tatiana. 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.” Tatiana 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, Tatiana. 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.”
Tatiana 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, Tatiana 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 six 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. Tatiana’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 Tatiana’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. Tatiana’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 Tatiana’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.
“I don’t think too many people are going to miss him.” I told Tatiana, 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.” Tatiana 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 Tatiana. “Well, that’s one less slaver in the galaxy. And good riddance.”
Tatiana didn’t reply.

Chapter Eight – Tomani: Tomani 2

The supercruise journey to Tomani 2 was as short as it was uneventful and I berthed Fell From The Top(…) at Gold Dock, the Ocellus starport servicing the terraformed agricultural planet below. The planet’s proximity to the tiny red dwarf star gave it a warm, arid atmosphere and the huge axial tilt of 123o but short orbital period of just 4 standard days meant that the planet’s climate remained remarkably stable. The dense atmosphere pressure of 2300 millibars offset the relative lack of oxygen in the atmosphere, which was over 90% nitrogen. The mineral and metal-rich soils made for fertile land that was exploited by the tens of thousands of commercial and private farming operations, which competed with the refinery corporations for space on Maia, the planet’s largest continent. The relative lack of water in the atmosphere meant that there was still an ongoing terraforming operation, which was already running into its second century. Every few months, an ice- rich cometary nucleus would be towed from the system’s Oort Cloud and aerobraked through the thick atmosphere, adding millions of tonnes of much-needed water vapour. The aerobraking events were spectacular sights, often broadcast live on GalNet, as specially-designed tugboats skipped off the fringes of the planet’s atmosphere, leaving fiery vapour trails hundreds of kilometres long in their wake as the frigid body they towed outgassed from the friction, melting away under the shockwave of air battering away at the surface layers of ice. Terraforming experts predicted that it would be at least another hundred years before the levels of water vapour in the atmosphere would become high enough to sustain a precipitation cycle that would make the climate more tolerable for general habitation, but the planet’s ecology was already able to support a thriving viticulture and perfect conditions for the rapid growth of grain, exotic fruit and vegetables requiring a hot and dry environment.
With planetary landing restricted by the local government to officially licensed traffic only, we had to leave Fell From The Top(…) safely stowed in a hangar at Gold Dock and ride a shuttle down to Novy Kostroma, a city of over five million inhabitants. Once planetside, I rented a Cardinal SRV, a lightly- armed two-seater survey vehicle that would be able to take us the three hundred kilometres from the city centre to the plantation owned by Tatiana’s grandparents. The eight tonne vehicle offered both speed and security, but not much in terms of creature comforts, sacrificing living space for reactor power and armament, a Class One beam laser turret adorning the top of the driver’s cabin. Tatiana sat in the navigator’s chair, using the console in front of her to highlight a route through the city to our destination, deep inside the local tea and coffee plantations that sprawled for thousands of square kilometres beyond the suburbs of the city. The lightweight cabin had the characteristic feel of a Lakon-made vehicle, open and airy, with good all-round visibility. The six pairs of wheels, each pair two metres tall and attached to an independent suspension arm, churned over the dirt tracks outside the spaceport with ease, throwing rooster tails of ochre dust nearly a hundred metres into the air. The huge shock absorbers connecting the suspension arms to the main body of the vehicle giving a comfortable, smooth ride over the rough, primal terrain. Driving the Cardinal was not unlike flying a small ship, with HOTAS controls for the steering, throttle and external thruster modules that allowed the rover to jump over obstacles too large or rugged to be negotiated by the wheels. It was a lot of fun to drive, and I pushed the engine to its top speed of nearly 200 metres per second, using the thrusters to soften the impacts when the SRV occasionally took to the air over the inclines and dips in the makeshift road. About 45 minutes after leaving the city, I spotted the Volkov’s farmstead on the horizon, perched on a ridge surrounded by seemingly never-ending rows of camellia sinensis bushes that stretched across the undulating terrain for as the eye could see. The tea plants had been
imported from Sol to aid oxygen production in the terraforming effort, but had proven so well- adapted to the local climate that a huge export market had sprung up on the planet. The Volkov family had been amongst the first families that had emigrated from the Core Worlds to the nascent colony, and they owned one of the largest and most favourably located plantations on Tomani 2.
“There it is.”
The farmstead itself was a sprawling array of prefabricated habitat modules, lacking finesse but prioritising function. At the heart of the farm was the largest building, the Volkov family estate, with smaller buildings surrounding it in concentric rings, with the living quarters for the workers clustered protectively around the main estate building, themselves ringed by the units where hundreds of tonnes of tea were processed, graded by quality and packaged for distribution every day. At the edge of the farm was a private landing pad large enough to accommodate a Panther Clipper. The pad was currently occupied by a Lakon Type-9 Heavy trader, in the process of being loaded with over 500 tonnes of processed tea leaves to be sold on the stock markets at Gold Dock in orbit above the planet. As we entered the outer fringes of the estate, I slowed the Cardinal SRV down to a more dignified speed, not willing to risk creating a poor first impression before we met Tatiana’s grandparents. While I had called ahead from the spaceport to arrange a meeting and ensure that we were expected, I had decided that given the sensitive nature of Tatiana’s relationship to the Volkovs it would be better if I kept the finer details as to the ultimate purpose of the meeting to myself before we met in person. Sensitive to the proudly independent sensibilities of the system’s government, Tatiana and I had dressed down for the occasion, abandoning the opulent styling of Imperial-made clothing for the dour, utilitarian tailoring favoured by the upper-working classes on Tomani 2. Tatiana and I both wore spectacularly inoffensive jumpsuits, thickly-padded at the knees, shoulders and elbow, a flexible touchscreen wrapped around the left wrist to control the smart fabric’s thermal regulation filaments, which could adjust the permeability of the suit to cool or warm up the wearer as they saw fit. I wore my dart gun on my hip, the utility belt and ammunition pouches strapped tightly around my waist. Out here near the fringes of civilised space, it was not uncommon for people to travel with personal armaments, both for self-defence and deterrence value. It was unlikely that I would offend anyone by travelling armed.
As we drove slowly down the main road towards the centre of the farmstead, we were able to take a closer look down the endless rows of tea shrubs. Each plant was serviced by an irrigation tap that provided not only a supply of liquid water for the root system, but also a fine mist that condensed around the leaves of the bush at sunrise and sunset, replicating the monsoon climate of Sol’s Indian sub-continent. The system spanned the entire plantation and must have cost hundreds of millions of credits to install, illustrating the vibrant market in the local star systems for the farm’s produce, which commanded premium prices all the way down to the Empire. I bought the SRV to a stop at the gate to the compound, the two armed guards eyeing the vehicle warily, checking the rental record by wirelessly accessing the port database to confirm my identity before grudgingly raising the barrier to admit us.
“Are you ready?” I asked Tatiana, as I parked the SRV into a recharging bay a hundred metres from the main farmhouse. Only the building’s size gave any indication of the inhabitants’ wealth. The habitat’s modern, austere aesthetics trumped any sense of style its owners could have easily afforded. Tatiana hooked her arm around my elbow to bolster her courage as we walked side-by-side
to the main entrance to the towering prefab building, waiting in silence to be greeted and invited across the threshold.
We were met by Nikita, the head housekeeper, an open, friendly-faced woman with greying hair, who was remarkably spry for someone approaching their third century. As she escorted us at a gentle pace to the drawing room of the mansion-sized habitat, Nikita was only too willing to point out the plethora of rare artworks adorning the walls as she guided us instinctively from the reception hall along a maze of immaculately decorated corridors, filled with paintings, rare first edition books sealed away in airtight cases, and sensual marble statues carved in the Greek and Roman tradition. She sat us down on an immense, bottle-green leather-bound lounger in the drawing room to wait for Olha and Konstantin, inviting us to refresh ourselves from a steaming porcelain teapot, with matching cups and saucers arrayed before us on a beautifully decorated and carved mahogany table. I was hardly an expert in antique furniture, but I estimated from the flowing curves of the table legs and the density of carefully repaired woodworm holes that the table was at least 1000 years old and probably worth more than my Imperial Clipper. “Please help yourself to tea, my lovelies. It’s our special blend.”
The special blend did not disappoint. The black tea was lightly smoked, with hints of vanilla, clove, cinnamon and all-spice, packed full of intense flavour but not so heavy that it required toning down with milk. It didn’t take long for our hosts to arrive.
“Mister Roche, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” Konstantin Volkov greeted me warmly and with a diplomat’s tact, his wife Olha following him only half a step behind as they entered the room. His accent was identical to Tatiana’s, I noticed. I stood respectfully and we shook hands, giving my host a small but deferent bow. “I trust you had a safe trip out from Novy Kostroma.”
“Not just safe, but spectacular. You live on a beautiful world, Mister Volkov.” I replied, addressing him formally. “The scenery on the journey out from the city was incredible.”
“It wasn’t always quite so picturesque, Mister Roche.” Konstantin told me as he waved a hand to invite me to sit back down. He sat down with his wife on the silk-upholstered divan opposite the lounger on the other side of the serving table. Ohla had not yet introduced herself and hadn’t taken her eyes off Tatiana. She had recognised the family resemblance and was watching the younger woman like a hawk, as if ready to swoop down and pounce on any sign of vulnerability. “When Ohla and I first moved here a hundred years ago, everything around here for ten thousand square miles was nothing more than dirt. We’ve built this estate from scratch.”
“You must be very proud. It’s an impressive facility.”
“Proud? No. Satisfied, yes.” Konstantin smiled, the warm, open look on his features a direct contrast to his wife, who continued to stare at Tatiana in a way that was even making me feel uncomfortable. “Pride is a wasted emotion, like envy. Having pride in our achievements here would make us complacent, and there’s no room for complacency in business, Mister Roche. But I do feel satisfied by what we’ve achieved, even if we’re not the largest operation here on Tomani 2. Though I’m not envious of the bigger plantations, either. The scale of what they do brings them their own problems. There’s no point in being jealous of your competitors, Mister Roche. It just saps away the energy you should be using to make yourself better.”
“Very true, Mister Volkov. I’ll have to remember that.” I nodded my head respectfully to acknowledge the point. “Excellent advice.”
“I could sit here and accept your complements all day, Mister Roche, but I’m a busy man. Why are you here?”
“He’s here about her.” Ohla Volkova interrupted me before I even started. “Why did you bring her here?”
“I would have hoped that was obvious, Mrs Volkova.” I replied, taken aback by the hostility in her voice. “Tatiana is your granddaughter.”
“Tatiana… that was my mother’s name.” Ohla said, without the merest trace of emotion.
“Her resemblance to Svetlana at that age is remarkable.” Konstantin pitched in, taking the time to study Tatiana’s face closely.
“And I suppose you want to dump her on us.” Ohla sneered. “Take her in like some abandoned kitten.”
“I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, Mrs Volkova. But Tatiana is a part of your family, no?”
“Because blood is thicker than water, Mister Roche? If only my daughter had felt the same. Then she wouldn’t have eloped with that rogue to the outer rim.” Olha shot back, her cheeks flushing in fury. “Do you have any idea how humiliating that was? To be abandoned by your only child for some penniless deadbeat who stole one of our ships along with our daughter? Who promised her a life of adventure, but instead got her gang-raped and murdered by some of the galaxy’s vilest scum?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs Volkova. I didn’t know the circumstances of how Svetlana and Mikhail moved to Elysian Fields.” I murmured, dumbfounded by the vehemence of her reaction.
“And now you present me with the living proof of my daughter’s betrayal, expecting me to welcome her with open arms?” Ohla snapped. “How dare you? How dare you?!?”
“Ohla, please.” Konstantin settled his wife with a hand on her forearm. Tatiana’s grandfather sat in silence for a long minute, studying the young woman intently. “Where did you find her, Mister Roche?”
“I rescued her from a slave trader named Theriault, who was based in the Afli system.”
“Imperial territory. You’re an Imperial, then?” Konstantin asked, and I gave him a nod in reply. He turned to address Tatiana directly. “Poor girl. You escape from the hands of slavers to end up in the clutches of one of the Empire’s assassin’s for hire.”
“Master Aemon has been kind to me.” Tatiana spoke up in my defence. “He’s a good man.”
“You’ve got some nerve, Mister Roche. Coming here uninvited, expecting to dump an inconvenient trophy from one of your contracts off on us.” Konstantin turned back to me, his face a mask of stone.
“But Mister Volkov, she’s your granddaughter. You’re the only family she has.” I said, unable to understand why both of them had reacted to the news that Tatiana was their granddaughter so badly.
“Svetlana gave up any right to call herself my daughter when she ran away with that cheap crook in one of my freighters and nearly half a million credits worth of my stock. Tatiana may be our granddaughter, but there’s nothing for her here, Mister Roche. What use would I have for a girl who’s spent her entire life as a slaver’s whore? Having her here would be a constant reminder of Svetlana’s crime against us and an unwelcome distraction for my workers.” Konstantin shook his head, sadly.
“No, I’m sorry, Mister Roche, but it would’ve been better if she had died along with her parents on Elysian Fields. At least then we wouldn’t have to relive the anguish caused by Svetlana’s mistake.”
“Mister Volkov-” I started, only to be cut off, which was just as well, because I didn’t really have any idea of how to counter Konstantin’s argument.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Mister Roche. Take Tatiana with you. If you’re not gone from my property in the next hour, I’ll have you prosecuted for trespass.” Konstantin touched his wife’s shoulder and they stood in unison, only the sound of their synchronised footsteps on the marble tiled floor breaking the deadly silence that had descended on the room.
Feeling stunned and empty, I took Tatiana’s hand and let her back to the SRV, Nikita guiding and consoling us on the way. The wizened servant stopped Tatiana with a tender caress of her cheek and enveloped her with a hug as she was about to climb into the SRV’s cabin. “Your mother was a lovely child, my sweet. It’s a shame that Master Konstantin and Madam Ohla can’t see past their grief. Maybe one day they’ll want you back. It was nice to meet you. Farewell, Miss Tatiana.”
Nikita wept in sorrow and gave Tatiana a goodbye kiss before returning to the mansion. I helped Tatiana up the steps into the SRV’s cabin and strapped myself into the driver’s seat. I looked into Tatiana’s green eyes as I brought the vehicle’s reactor back online, seeing only a hollow look of resignation on her face. I reached over to stroke the back of her neck in sympathy, Tatiana closing her eyes and leaning against my palm as I smoothed her hair over her tense shoulders. “Let’s get out of here, Tatiana. I never want to see this second-rate excuse for a planet ever again.”

Chapter Nine – Tomani: Gold Dock

It was already sunset by the time we had returned the SRV at the Novy Kostroma spaceport and boarded the shuttle that would take us back to Gold Dock. Not wanting to fly tired, Tatiana and I had dinner in the galley of my Imperial Clipper, finishing the remaining supply of tarte flambées I had acquired at Harawi Vision. Tatiana and I shared the ruby contents of two bottles of Lodi Zinfandel, trying to cheer ourselves up after what had proved to be a thoroughly depressing day. I out-drank Tatiana by three glasses to one, as she was unused to drinking any alcohol at all, let alone such a strong and full-bodied red wine as this one. We had hardly said a word to each other since leaving the Volkov estate. Tatiana’s body language alone was eloquent enough and I couldn’t think of anything that I could say that would console her in the slightest. So we simply ate and drank quietly, until the only thing left to do was get some sleep before the start of a new day, walking to our staterooms slightly dazed by the effects of the day’s events and the wine.
I wasn’t surprised when Tatiana sought refuge and comfort in my quarters later that night. In the weeks since her rescue, she had made remarkable progress in terms of her resilience and independence, and she was now used to sleeping alone in her room, but the point-blank refusal of her maternal grandparents to accept her into their family had hit her hard. I had been lying awake, staring at the ceiling wondering what we would do next, when the door opened. Without a word, Tatiana joined me in my bunk, wrapping herself in my arms and holding them tight to mould me around her, as if I were a defensive shield that could protect her from the uncaring whims of the universe. Tatiana had kept her dignity and refused to cry, but I shared her confusion and frustration. I found it baffling that Tatiana’s family would not be willing to accept her, despite the conclusive proof we could offer beyond mere family resemblance that she was a blood relation.
We laid together in silence for over an hour before Tatiana was finally able to find the words to express her torment. “Why doesn’t anyone care about me, master?”
The brutality of the question appalled me. “Tatiana… That’s not true. I care about you. I wanted to help you find your family and people who love you. I never expected they’d react like this. But I’m not going to abandon you.”
“Not even when you can live again with your wife?” Tatiana’s question was barbed, cutting through any pretence of sentiment. Laure would never be able to tolerate her in the long-term, not even as a co-pilot and employee. Laure saw her only as a threat to our marriage and Tatiana knew it.
“I rescued you from Theriault. I feel responsible for you. After everything you’ve been through, you deserve a chance to be happy. And I’m going to help you, no matter what Laure thinks.”
“But if you had to choose, you’d choose her.” It wasn’t a question. Tatiana’s voice was sad, defeated.
“Tatiana, I love her. I’ve always loved her.” Even when I hated her, I thought.
“What does it feel like?”
“I’m not sure I understand. What does what feel like?”
“To be loved. I can’t remember ever being loved.” The sorrow in her voice was heart-wrenching.
I turned Tatiana over to face me and I caressed her cheeks in my hands, wiping away the tears of despair that glistened at the corners of her green eyes. “It’s the most joyous thing. To feel like you’re two halves of the same person, sharing the same body and soul. Knowing that making the one you love happy is more important than making yourself happy.”
“I’ve never felt that.” Tatiana closed her eyes. “I don’t think I’ll ever love. I don’t know how.”
“Tatiana, don’t say that.” I drew her closer, feeling her body heat, my fingertips gently stroking the pale network of paper-thin, almost invisible scars on her back through the satin of her nightshirt.
“Can you show me, master? Show me how to love.” Tatiana whispered, pleading, but not hopeful. Her eyes were still tightly shut, bracing herself for yet another rejection.
I heard Laure’s disembodied voice at the back of my mind, disgusted, from two hundred light years away. You never could resist a damsel in distress…
I wasn’t sure whether it was because I had drunk too much wine, because I was feeling lonely myself, or because I pitied Tatiana’s plight, or because I thought we could comfort each other, but I banished the image Laure’s disapproval from my mind’s eye and took Tatiana’s face tenderly in both hands, giving her a long, feather-light kiss on the lips. Tatiana responded hesitantly, her breath escaping in short gasps as I slipped her nightshirt off over her outstretched arms. She lay back on the bunk, letting me explore every square centimetre of her skin with gentle fingertips and hungry lips. Tatiana cried out involuntarily as I tasted her ecstasy, her long fingers gripping the back of my skull, her soft urgent moans of pleasure arousing my need to bring her a joy she had never experienced before. She arched her back, raising her body to meet mine when I lay over her. We made love, tenderly, languidly, her hands grasping my shoulders as we kissed again. Her slender figure trembled as she reached orgasm, her breath escaping in a single long, guttural groan as she wrapped her legs around mine, trapping me inside her as I joined her in a guiltless rapture.
Part of me knew that I had just committed an infidelity against my wife, but another part of me had enjoyed it, if only for the opportunity to share a moment of uncontrolled pleasure with Tatiana. I would have to face the consequences for my disloyalty to Laure later, but at that moment, it was worth it to give a glimpse of the purity of love to an alluring, gentle, but vulnerable and damaged young woman. I reasoned that it was a necessary part of her healing process. Surely Laure would understand. I swallowed hard when Tatiana opened her eyes and looked up at me. She could sometimes be difficult to read, but there was only one word to describe the emotion in the way she gazed at me now.
“I never knew…” Tatiana said with a gasp, her lips flushed and crimson. “I never knew it could be so beautiful.”
“That’s how it should be.” I replied, suddenly feeling uncomfortable in her arms.
“Thank you, master. I could feel it. I felt as if I were a part of you.”
“And how do you feel now?”
“Happy.” Tatiana smiled, hugging me tightly. “I’ve never felt happier.”
“That’s good.” I smiled back as I came to the realisation that it was inexplicably important for me to make her happy. I wanted nothing more than to make her feel content and safe. Was what I felt nothing more than infatuation, the excitement of the touch of flesh of a new lover, or was it something more?
“Is it always like that, when you love your wife?” Tatiana asked, breaking the spell.
I hesitated, unsure whether to tell her the truth.
“Please, master. Tell me.”
“Not always, no. Laure can be very…” I searched for the right euphemism. “Passionate.”
“Show me, master.”
“I don’t think so, Tatiana. You might not like it.” I warned.
“Please, master. Show me.” she said, her hands gripping my shoulders and neck insistently.
We made love again, this time abandoning all restraint and tenderness and taking the most direct route to the giving and receiving of pleasure with our bodies, surrendering to the sensation of it. Surprised by how much I wanted her, I was not gentle. My climax triggered hers, simultaneously yelling in release as I held her beneath me. I lay at her side as we both gulped for air, Tatiana shrinking back to my chest, pulling my arms around her to cup my hands protectively around her breasts.
“It was good, but I preferred it the first time.” Tatiana sighed, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “I liked it when you used your mouth on me.”
“I liked it better first time, too.” I rested my cheek on the back of her neck, smelling her hair and kissing her gently under the ear. “You’ll find someone who loves you Tatiana, I’m sure. Your past doesn’t have to be your future.”
“What is my future, master?”
“Whatever you want it to be. What do you want, Tatiana?”
“I don’t want to be scared anymore.” She squeezed my hands with her fingers, tightening my hold on her. “I want to stay with you. I’m not scared when I’m with you, master.”
“Staying with me might be difficult, and dangerous.” I warned, caressing her reassuringly, my lust still enflamed by the feel of her against me. “You’ve seen the kind of work I do. I can’t keep you on board just as a passenger forever. You could get killed. It would be safer for you if we found somewhere for you to live on a planet or station. I have an estate on Summerland. You could stay there as long as you wanted – until you can figure out what you want to do with your life.”
“You just want to get rid of me.” Tatiana replied, matter-of-factly, lying passively in my arms. “Now that you’ve used me, you just want to pass me on somewhere else.”
“No! Tatiana, that’s not right. I’m not like one of your old masters, I’m your friend. And friends try to do what’s best for each other.” I told her, horrified that she had reached such a terrible, fatalistic conclusion. “I know that’s what it might seem like to you, but it’s not true. You could have a long, happy life on Summerland. But if you stay here on the ship, we might both be killed tomorrow.”
“But at least I’d be with you.” Tatiana turned her head to face mine. “I love you, master.”
“Tatiana…” I hesitated. I wanted to contradict her, but who was I to tell her what she felt? “You know that I’m married.”
“And that your wife hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you, Tatiana. She doesn’t even know you. Though she wouldn’t be pleased if she ever found out about this.”
“I won’t tell, master.” Tatiana promised, taking one of my hands and trapping it between her narrow, soft thighs. I knew that she was trying to manipulate me, but it was impossible to resist the temptation as she offered herself to me again, lying on her belly. “Love me, master…”
Annoyed with myself for not being able to control my arousal and succumbing so easily to temptation she offered, I gripped her buttocks hard as I mounted her from behind. Tatiana stifled her moans by pressing her mouth against the mattress, biting down on the covers, and I kissed the scars on her back as we made love again. Tatiana watched me over her shoulder, never taking her eyes off me, letting me see the pleasure and desire to be loved on her pretty features. I waited until I heard and felt Tatiana’s orgasm before lifting her up to me by the hard cones of her breasts, kneading them firmly until I came, our cries of pleasure echoing around the stateroom. I let go of Tatiana, completely drained, and lay down again, on my back. Neither of us spoke, leaving the questions about her future unresolved. Tatiana put an arm across my chest and huddled up next to me as I closed my eyes, needing sleep. The thoughts in my head churned with a maelstrom of confused feelings and emotions. My senses were overloaded with the tingling afterglow of our lovemaking and the silky heat of her body against mine. I was still aroused by the touch of her skin, her scent and the residual taste of her on my lips. My hand strayed down her back, caressing the network of long, thin scars, as if my touch could magically make them disappear along with the trauma that had caused them. I couldn’t decide whether my attraction to Tatiana went beyond simple physical chemistry. Had something deeper than that provoked me into making love to a women who wasn’t my wife? Why had I done it? I loved Laure – that much I did know – but was my desire to make Tatiana happy driven by something beyond sympathy? Too exhausted to think any longer, I slept, with Tatiana pressed against my side. Any answers would have to wait until later.

Chapter Ten – Tomani: Gold Dock

The morning after our night of intimacy was not as awkward as I feared it might be. I woke over an hour before she did, keeping her close to me with an arm around her shoulders, until Tatiana slipped out of the bed, seemingly oblivious to the power of her nudity. My gaze was drawn to her sleek figure as she walked to the gallery to make us a morning pot of tea, as if the events of the last twelve hours had been nothing out of the ordinary routine that we had established over the last few months. I couldn’t take my eyes off her when she re-entered my stateroom quarter of an hour later, carrying a tray laden with a teapot, mugs and two cooked breakfasts. She set the tray down on the desk next to my terminal and re-joined me on the bed, hungry for an entirely different kind of nourishment. As we kissed, I knew that Tatiana was seducing me as an avoidance tactic, not wanting to confront the possibility that the life she had gotten used to on my ship might change. Despite myself, I reciprocated her passion, part of me wondering why I wanted her touch so badly. Words were unnecessary as we moved together in perfect unison, the synchronicity of our breathing and the insistent exploration of our hands, grasping possessively at each other, providing all the encouragement we needed to reach an inevitable climax. Tatiana clang to me with her arms and thighs as I flowed inside her, our eyes locked together, our souls as bare as our bodies. It was impossible not to compare her to Laure, the thought provoking another twinge of guilt at my inability to stay faithful to her. In almost every respect, they were total polar opposites: Laure was confident, dominant, her beauty voluptuously and effortlessly feminine. Tatiana was passive, fearful, possessed of a fragile, angular and slender beauty compared to Laure’s full, sensual curves. But no matter how much I loved Laure, I couldn’t deny that I felt a powerful attraction to Tatiana, one that had only gotten stronger the more time I had spent with her. Perhaps it was that profound difference between the two women in both their physicality and personality that drew me towards Tatiana in the ongoing and forced separation from my wife. Lovemaking with Laure was often an exercise in control: exciting, energetic and competitive, Laure wanting to be the one in charge, her own pleasure taking highest priority. It was completely different with Tatiana. She seemed to instinctively know just how to move, or what sound to make at the perfect time, to enhance the intensity of every single touch and caress as we made love. Her own ecstasy always appeared to take her by surprise, accompanied by tremulous groans that both flattered my ego and strengthened my need to please her. I wasn’t sure exactly what I felt for Tatiana, a bewildering mix of lust, sympathy and protectiveness, but I felt that it was a complementary desire, rather than a replacement one for my absent wife. At least, that was what I told myself as we untangled our arms and legs reluctantly. I kissed her lips and forehead before climbing out of the bed, noting that the breakfast that Tatiana had prepared was now stone cold. I left the food untouched, my appetite lost in the aftermath of the seismic shift in the nature of my relationship with Tatiana, my thoughts still reeling as I contemplated the possible future consequences.
I dressed into my flight suit, relieved when ASTRA summoned me to the flight deck to receive a call from Zemina. The Imperial Senator had finally conjured up a suitably lucrative and potentially lethal mission for me to undertake on her behalf, and given the spectacular and painful failure of my quest to reunite Tatiana with her family, a stupidly dangerous assignment that might turn into a suicide mission seemed an appropriate thing to do next. Especially if a successful resolution of the operation brought me closer to being reunited with Laure. It would also feel good to be on the move again following the double frustration of having been kept on standby for weeks and the disastrous outcome of the meeting at the Volkov farmstead.
Zemina ordered me to report to Bohr Orbital, a Coriolis station under her patronage in the Eravapa system, deep in the heart of the Senator’s territory. The only thing I knew about Eravapa was that it was home to a research facility specialising in ship-to-ship weaponry. Senator Torval had not been forthcoming about the details of the assignment, saying only that I would be properly briefed when I arrived at the starport. As soon as Tatiana had put on her flight suit and joined me on the bridge, I sent a request to the control tower to ask for permission to undock. The tone of the flight controller suggested that they were only too happy to get rid of us, bumping my ship right to the top of the schedule. I lit the afterburners in the middle of the docking slot, the rungs of the toast rack flashing past in an instant, the reassuring pressure of the acceleration from the thrusters pushing me back into my flight seat as the ship drove out of the mass lock of the station towards the uninhibited freefall of open space. I barrel-rolled the Clipper twice in glee, happy to be out among the stars once again. I showed Tatiana how to program the navigation computer and got her to plot a course to Eravapa, using the control console to the left of her seat. It was a multi-jump route of just over 150 light years that would take a couple of hours, depending upon what we encountered when we topped off the fuel tanks with hydrogen in the solar coronas of stars along the way. Refuelling ships were a favourite target of privateers looking for targets of opportunity, since being on the fringes of the gravity well of a star limited the ability of ships to avoid interdictions.
I was happy to take more time than usual between jumps, continuing to train Tatiana in the use of the ship’s systems and even allowing her to pilot the vessel into fuel scooping range when the radar showed that there were no contacts in range that might be about to swoop down upon us in ambush. Regardless, I kept my hands close to the flight stick and throttle on my own chair, ready to reassume control of Fell From The Top(…) if it looked like the ship was about to come under threat. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Tatiana had a good feel for the controls, manipulating the pitch, roll and throttle with a soft, sensitive touch, rather than the jerky twitches of overcompensation that plagued most neophyte star pilots.
“You’re a natural, Tatiana. When we get to Bohr Orbital we should get ASTRA to put together a couple of simulation packages. With a couple of days’ practice, you could probably dock the ship as well as I do.” I said, making Tatiana blush with pride.
The journey passed without incident, even though our route took us through the fringes of Federation space. While the bounty I had earned for assassinating Stenberg had now lapsed and become dormant, I was still fair game for the Federal Navy. Fortunately, we managed to evade the roving patrols, jumping out to the next system before any Federation ships got close enough to notice that my ship was equipped with an IFF code scrambler to conceal my identity. I was almost disappointed not to have been shot at along the way, so to add an extra frisson of adventure to close the day, I deactivated the docking computer and let Tatiana mirror the inputs on my flight controller – the way she had done during the assault on Boston Ring – as I executed a manual docking, the starboard nacelle of my ship scant centimetres from the side of the docking slot as I skimmed at almost a hundred metres per second through the toast rack. Fell From The Top(…) touched down on its five landing modules with the merest bump as the ship alighted onto the pad tail first, the Clipper’s regal nose elevated by only a couple of degrees, in a textbook touchdown. I cut the thrusters, letting the shock absorber of the forward landing strut absorb the energy of the impact as the cockpit fell to the horizontal, the dampers settling the rocking motion of the ship in under a second.
“What do you think, Tatiana? Do you want to try it next time?” I asked, eyebrows raised.
“No, master!” Tatiana replied, aghast. “It’s terrifying!”
“That’s why most people usually leave it to the computer. Maybe try it in simulation first. When you can do it twenty times in a row without fouling the ship on the Cow Catcher, I’ll let you do it for real.”
I left Tatiana on the flight deck, with ASTRA putting her though some of the Imperial Navy’s standard flight training VR simulations, while I retreated to the privacy of my stateroom, this time locking the door as I checked in with Senator Torval. Zemina kept me on hold for two hours, just to remind me of her superiority in our relationship, before finally deigning to speak to me.
“Reporting as ordered, Senator.” I bowed to the camera embedded in the top of my terminal screen, hoping that I hadn’t let any of my annoyance at being kept waiting slip into either my voice or facial expression.
“Ah, Roche. Finally.” Zemina’s lined face wrinkled with displeasure, her condescension clear in her tone and body language. “Still not dead, I see.”
“Sorry to disappoint, Senator.”
“Hah! While it pains me to admit it, you’re proving to be quite a valuable asset. One day you might actually convince me that you’re worthy of that title the Navy has given you. But not today.” Zemina said, trying to stare me down through the screen, her eyes as cold as liquid nitrogen.
“You have a job for me.” I replied, staring right back, unflinching.
“I do.” Zemina nodded, a hint of approval sparkling in her eyes, impressed that I was standing up to her intimidating demeanour and refusing to kowtow before her like some of her other vassals. “One of my undercover recon units has discovered that the Federal Navy has commissioned a Farragut- class Dreadnought from the Core Dynamics shipyard at Groombridge 34. It’s still in the early stages of construction, less than 50% of the superstructure is complete, but they’ve just finished installing the bridge and power plant modules. I want you to infiltrate the drydock facility and destroy it. Forcing the Federal Navy to recommission the vessel will be a substantial drain on their procurement budget.”
“With the greatest of respect, Senator, my ship doesn’t have a fraction of the firepower necessary to be able to do that.”
“Not yet it doesn’t.” Zemina’s smile was chilling. “That’s why I asked you to come to Eravapa. Refit your ship’s Class Two weapon hardpoints with torpedo pylons. Tomorrow you’ll be contacted by another one of my operatives, Lord Dominguez. He’ll supply you with some very special prototype torpedoes that’ll get the job done.”
“Prototypes? What kind of payload?”
“Dominguez will give you the details in the morning. Report back to me in Synteini once the job is done. I’m transmitting your intelligence package now. Good luck, Roche. You’ll need it.”
I held my tongue until Zemina cut the channel. “Thanks a lot, Senator…”
While I waited for Zemina’s contact to arrive at the starport, I read, re-read and memorised every detail I could from the briefing material the Senator’s intelligence teams had forwarded to my ship’s AI. ASTRA had previewed the package, categorising the data into three batches of descending value but increasing volume: Mission Critical, Useful and Miscellaneous. I scoured each batch of files for hours on end, hoping to glean the merest flash of inspiration from the assembled information that would provide me with the right tactics to infiltrate one of the best defended shipyards in Federation space and get out again without either being set upon by the facility’s perimeter guard ships or be caught in the blast of whatever experimental weapons Zemina intended for me to use to complete the task. Tatiana had joined me in my stateroom, sitting beside me at the desk and keeping me lubricated with an endless supply of strong, milky tea as I talked her through the finer details of the intelligence package, finding it helpful to articulate my thoughts as I began to put together what I hoped was a workable strategy. Given the frequency of the security patrols at the shipyards, it was clear that trying to shoot my way in or out was unworkable, which only left the option of a stealth approach. The Imperial Clipper’s sheer size did not make it an ideal ship to infiltrate a hostile system teeming with trigger-happy corporate enforcers only too happy to shoot first and collect their paycheque later, but I wasn’t willing to give up Fell From The Top(…)’s speed and firepower. With my two underwing weapon hardpoints out of action, needed instead to carry the torpedo payload required to destroy the half-finished capital ship, I briefly considered swapping out my Class 3 gimballed beam laser and cannon for a pair of Class 3 beam laser turrets. In the end, I decided to stick with what I already had, and not just because of the prohibitive expense of the turrets.
Using data provided to me by Zemina, I had re-enacted simulated assaults on the drydock containing the under-construction Farragut-class, with ASTRA playing the role of the local defence forces. With no firm information yet about the precise nature of the payload carried by the experimental torpedoes that would be given to us by the Senator’s contact in the morning, it wasn’t possible to infer that the simulations were entirely representative, which was just as well, given that my success rate on achieving an approach that allowed me to get into a firing range of the battlecruiser where the torpedoes could not be intercepted was only around 35%. That percentage dropped more towards the 20% level if I factored in trying to get out alive. They weren’t hopeless odds, but they certainly weren’t what I’d call favourable. I was hoping that Zemina’s experimental prototype torpedoes had a longer range and a greater ECM resistance than the standard-issue heat-seekers that had come with the torpedo pylons I’d had fitted to my ship on the Senator’s order.
The simulations had certainly demonstrated the futility of trying fight the wings of security patrols. Even using beam laser turrets to provide an all-round defence was counter-productive, with the laser fire attracting the attention of more distant patrols, reinforcing the space around the shipyard more rapidly and making it almost impossible to escape into witchspace after the torpedoes had been launched. Even though I was reluctant to make further changes to the outfitting of my ship, I had Fell From The Top(…) stripped of its reactive armour plating and replaced it with standard, lightweight bulkheads, substantially reducing the mass of the spaceframe and increasing the Clipper’s boost speed by 10% to over 440m/s. I also replaced the frame shift wake scanner and shield boosters with point defence and heat sink launchers, complementing the defensive capabilities of the ship’s chaff launcher. The heat sink launcher would allow me to minimise the
vessel’s thermal profile on approach, making the ship hard to detect on active sensor scans. I knew from my own experience fighting Agent Zeta that Fell From The Top(…) would be difficult to pick up visually from anything beyond a couple of kilometres, thanks to its graphite grey colour scheme. Speed and stealth would be my defence against the overwhelming numbers of hostile ships securing the system. I knew I would only have one opportunity to get close to the Federation Dreadnought – a literal one shot deal. Screw it up, and I’d either be caught in the blast from the torpedoes or get mopped up by the facility’s defence force. The extreme hazard pay Zemina was offering for the mission – some 10 million credits – almost seemed irrelevant compared to the level of risk. Certainly, it was a great deal of money, but more importantly, if I pulled it off and was able to destroy the Dreadnought, the Senator would have to admit that I’d proved my worth and my loyalty, which was more motivation to me than the size of the payoff. If an assignment this important and dangerous didn’t convince Zemina that I was deserving partner for Laure, nothing would.
Sleep wouldn’t come as I waited anxiously for the delivery of the prototype weapons, my eyes restlessly combing the intelligence dossier for any snippets of information that might make the difference between success and failure. It was almost dawn when the fatigue caught up with me, lulling me into a fitful sleep, straining my neck as I drooped sideways over the arm of my chair. I managed to doze for a couple of hours before ASTRA’s calm, smooth voice awoke me with a jolt.
“My lord, incoming message from Lord Dominguez.”
I pressed my knuckles into my face, massaging my eyes back to life. “Put him through.”
“Good morning, Viscount Roche.” Dominguez’s lean, tanned face smiled at me through the terminal’s screen.
“It’s definitely a morning. Not so sure about the good part, though.” I said wearily, trying to kickstart my brain. “How are you, Jimmy?”
“All good, thanks for asking, Ames.” Dominguez and I were old friends, having risen though the ranks of the satellite campuses of the Imperial Academy at Beta-1 Tucanae and Fotla together. “I have a small delivery for you from a mutual benefactor of ours.”
“When do I get to know exactly what this delivery is?”
“Soon. I’ll be docking in the next ten minutes, assuming I don’t get shot down first.” Dominguez snickered. His amused response gave me two very important pieces of information: one – that he didn’t think much of the local security force, which wasn’t surprising, given that he was infamous for his ability to infiltrate into stations unseen, even though his ship – an Imperial Eagle named Budgie – was painted a vibrant red, a colour conspicuously and fundamentally at odds with his chosen profession of smuggling small tonnage, high-value cargoes into well-guarded starports; and two, that the warheads of the torpedoes he was delivering were seriously capable battlefield weapons, which were no doubt illegal not just here, but in any civilised system between Achenar and Alioth. “Hire a couple of loader suits from the dockmaster. We need to get the transfer done before anyone starts poking around. I’ll be landing in the bay next door to yours. Number 42.”
“Okay, Jimmy. I’ll see you there.”
I cut the channel to Dominguez and called the dockmaster, who had already arranged for a pair of loader exoskeletons to be delivered to docking bay 42. It turned out that the dockmaster was one of the many agents Zemina had dispersed throughout the systems under her control and that he had been instructed to make sure that the delivery of torpedoes to my ship went unrecorded in the station logs and unnoticed by the local law enforcement authorities. His help came with a warning, however. “Get that shit off my station in less than an hour, otherwise I’ll report you myself.”
Dominguez was just touching down on the pad when I entered the control tower of his docking bay a few moments later. I palmed a 1000 credit chit to the bored-looking flight controller in charge of the bay, suggesting that she might want to take a break for an early lunch.
“My lord, it’s not even 10am yet.” she replied, looking up at me from behind her desk, confused.
“Take a hint, Francine.” I said, jacking a thumb over my shoulder towards the door, reading her name from the tag on her uniform tunic. “And take your time.”
The grey-haired controller mumbled a half-hearted protest about my request being ‘most irregular’, but eventually stood, taking her leave along with the credits. I hacked the controller’s terminal using the station governor’s override code that Zemina had provided in her intelligence dossier, shutting down the landing pad’s cameras before Dominguez debarked from his ship. There would be no video record as we swapped the torpedoes currently loaded in my Clipper’s pylons for the mysterious experimental weapons Dominguez had shipped across the system in his stealthy Eagle. Knowing that we were operating on a strict time limit, Dominguez and I skipped the formal pleasantries, instead strapping ourselves into one of the loader suits. The three metre tall exoskeletons were easily capable of lifting loads of up to ten tonnes each, so transporting the four cargo pods, each one containing a single experimental torpedo, was a simple enough task. After extracting one of the cargo pods, Dominguez and I worked in tandem to stow the canisters securely to the honeycombed storage rack on the back of my suit. The operation only took a few minutes, Dominguez giving me the signal that we were ready to transfer the weapons to my ship.
“Looking good, Ames.” Dominguez said, giving me a thumbs-up. “Let’s go.”
“Roger that.” I replied, turning my loader suit towards the hangar exit with Dominguez following close behind. Each hangar in the station’s kilometre long docking bay was linked together by a network of tunnels that was used to transport cargoes between ships and the frantic commodities markets. Lamps mounted on the shoulders of the loader suits illuminated our way as we clomped between the neighbouring hangar bays that housed Budgie and Fell From The Top(…).
“So, why didn’t I get an invite, Ames?”
“You mean to the wedding? No-one got an invite, Jimmy. It was just me and Laure.”
“Shotgun wedding, or did you elope?” Jimmy asked cheekily.
“We eloped, I guess. To Summerland.”
“All that way? You rebel.” Ames smiled, snickering like a hyena at the lack of ambition in our defiance of Zemina’s wishes.”Is that really why the Senator wants to send you on a one way trip?”
“Yeah, though I’ve never been her favourite person. Zemina has always been very protective about her niece, but that’s not something I can afford to worry about right now. What can you tell me about these torpedoes?”
“They’re heavy duty shit, Ames. Ten megaton TNT-equivalent antimatter warheads. You don’t want to be within twenty klicks when these fuckers go off.”
“I’ll bear that in mind. How stable are they?”
“As long as you keep them juiced up, they won’t cause you any problems. If you let the Penning traps decay, however… they’ll see the gamma ray burst on Capitol in about seventy years.” Dominguez told me gravely, as we paused in the tunnel for the airlock to the docking bay to cycle open, revealing the elegant form of my ship. He looked back and forth between me and sweeping lines of Fell From The Top(…)‘s fuselage and wings, before whistling appreciatively. “Well, well… an Imperial Clipper. You really have moved up in the world. Wedding present?”
“Actually, I hijacked it.” As we moved to the ship and started to unload the standard torpedoes from their pylons, I briefly recounted the story of how I had come into possession of the ship and I thought for a second that I had actually rendered Jimmy speechless for once in his life.
“You sneaky bastard.” Dominguez said, his tone an ambivalent mix of admiration and disbelief, as he extracted the final torpedo from the starboard underwing hardpoint, allowing me to replace it with one of the experimental antimatter weapons. “Nuking a Federation Dreadnought should be easy in comparison to that.”
Jimmy stood still as I stacked the four cargo pods into the rack attached to the rear of his loader suit, each canister now containing one of the conventional torpedoes we had removed from the launchers on my ship. ASTRA reported that the prototype weapons were drawing power normally from the distribution grid and were functioning perfectly. I took the AI’s word for it, since I’d never know if the magnetic bottles securing the antimatter charges in the torpedoes failed. The ship, not to mention anything around it within a five kilometre radius, would be instantly annihilated. As soon as all four pods were secure, Jimmy headed for the exit, retreating back to his own ship.
“Nice seeing you, Ames. Shame we don’t have more time, I’d buy you a Pearl Whisky. I’m based out of Vequess these days. Come and see me sometime. And bring your blonde co-pilot, too. I saw the GalNet footage of you two on Bridi. Her figure’s as deadly as those torpedoes. You could introduce us.”
“I could.” I replied, failing to keep the sense of reluctance out of my voice. Jimmy was a decent enough guy, but at the Imperial Academy he had gained the nickname ‘Heartbeat’, thanks to a well- deserved reputation for not having entirely discerning criteria when deciding who he shared his bed sheets with.
“Keeping her to yourself, huh? Don’t blame you.” Jimmy chuckled, turning back at the airlock to flash me a good-natured, but nonetheless obscene, gesture with the exoskeleton arms of his loader suit. “Good luck, man.”
“Be seeing you, Jimmy.” I checked the time as I parked the loader at the side of the hangar bay. I still had nearly half an hour to vacate the system, before the dockmaster would make good on his threat to report the illicit weapons transfer to the local authority. With Tatiana’s growing familiarity with the ship’s systems, we rushed through the pre-flight checks and got Fell From The Top(…) ready to launch with over ten minutes to spare. The surly dockmaster approved my launch request immediately and created a two minute window in the traffic control schedule that would allow my ship to undock without the risk of being accidentally rammed by an oblivious pilot fixated on making it through the docking slot in their appointed time, regardless of whether other ships were in their way or not. I appreciated the fact that the dockmaster was making a great effort to allow my ship to disappear out of the system unnoticed, even if his motivation had less to do with the ultimate success of my mission and more to do with the fact that he wanted the military-grade battle weapons I was now carrying off his station as quickly as possible. A minute later, afterburners blazing, my Clipper broke the mass lock radius of the space station and disappeared with a flash of light into the chaos of witchspace.

Chapter Eleven – Groombridge 34: Deep Space

The journey from Eravapa to Groombridge 34 had taken nearly ten days, despite the fact that it was a distance of only 127 light years as the Thargoid flies. As we flew deeper into Federation territory, the increasing frequency of Federal Navy patrols made it increasingly difficult to get closer to the target system. I zig-zagged Fell From The Top(…) as much as possible through independent systems, steering away from following a direct path to Groombridge 34, to throw off the suspicions of anyone using the services of information brokers to track the movement of my ship and making lengthy stopovers in the starports to make it look like I was negotiating for one-off courier or cargo transportation contracts in region. I even submitted half-hearted tenders for missions that would give me reason for edging closer to the target system, though I had no real intention of taking them up. I simply wanted to create a false data trail that would make it more difficult for Federation spies to deduce the real reason behind my incursion into the heart of Federation space. If the Federal Navy suspected that there was a threat to the capital ship drydock and the half-finished Dreadnought under construction there, the Federal Navy would lock down access to the system in an instant, making any assault impossible. My approach was also complicated by the nature of the weapons I was carrying. Any active police scan on my ship would reveal the true nature of the torpedoes I had primed and ready on their launch pylons, so I had to be wary not to attract attention even in politically neutral, independent systems. The time I was berthed at starports had to be weighed carefully between the risk of having an overly curious customs official investigate my ship during a random walkabout inspection versus the benefit of keeping out of sight of the network of information traders that tracked the passage of ships in and out of systems.
To avoid arousing the suspicions of Federal spies as I infiltrated deeper into the Sol bubble, I continued to play the part of an independent freelancer, spending days bartering for contracts I had no intention of winning, intermixed with frenzied sorties bounty hunting at nav beacons that doubled as combat-training sessions for Tatiana, giving her detailed descriptions of the tactics I was employing as I took down dozens of pirate vessels. To confuse anyone keeping tabs on my ship’s movements and looking for patterns, I occasionally dropped off the grid entirely for up to two days at a time, laying over in uninhabited anarchy systems, safely out of sight on the surface of asteroids or small, uninhabited icy worlds not worthy of the attention of miners. When I felt that the data trail had gone sufficiently cold, I made the final jump from the uninhabited Ross 248 system to the target system, less than twelve light years from Sol, almost at the very heart of the Federation.
Upon arriving in at Groombridge 34 itself, Tatiana and I had needed to work quickly to avoid detection by the local security forces, plotting and executing an in-system frame shift jump of some 800,000 light seconds to take us out of sight and well beyond the inhabited regions of the binary star system, into the Oort Cloud, a volume cluttered with icy, rocky and metallic bodies that orbited on the fringes of interstellar space. This far out from the core of the binary system we were more likely to encounter Thargoids than a Federation patrol. While some of the interstellar wreckage did have real intrinsic value, these comets-in-waiting were diffusely spread across a volume more than three light years in diameter, so were far too uneconomical to mine, compared with the easier to access and more densely resourced heavy metal rich planets in the system. For most people, the Oort Cloud was little more than an astronomical oddity, a failed planet being slowly nudged by gravitational perturbations a piece at a time into the inner heart of the system, flaring briefly out of obscurity as the intense solar winds transformed the lumps of debris into spectacular comets, before being flung
back out into the darkness by the very gravitational forces that had tugged them so fleetingly into the light.
My own reasons for visiting the innermost fringes of the cloud were twofold. Firstly, it was the perfect location for me to tap into the data feeds from the stealthed recon probes monitoring the shipyard without risking discovered by the system security force or a Federal Naval vessel. Secondly, it was the only place in the system where I would be able to find a metal-rich asteroid of the right size and density to cover my infiltration of the facility. It took the better part of a day to find a suitable comet nucleus, an irregular ellipsoid, approximately 400 metres long, 300 metres wide, by 250 metres deep. The iron-rich lump had an average density of seven tonnes per cubic metre, making it easily capable of masking my vessel from active sensor scans, though this high density did pose one very large problem. The asteroid had a mass of almost nine million tonnes, meaning that it would severely damage my frame shift drive during the transit into the vicinity of the shipyard. The asteroid would have been easier to move with the ship’s main thrusters, but the sheer distance involved made such an approach impractical. The Federation’s ship builders would have been able to finish constructing the battlecruiser years before we ever arrived.
In anticipation of the likelihood that my ship’s frame shift drive would take overload damage during the supercruise as I towed in my cover from the Oort Cloud, I had replaced one of Fell From The Top(…)‘s cargo racks with a Automatic Field Maintenance Unit. The devices were most commonly used by long range explorers and prospectors operating beyond the bubble of civilised space to repair heat damage to critical subsystems caused by close encounters with solar coronae. Provided that the supercruise transition didn’t utterly destroy the frame shift drive (ASTRA had assured me that it wouldn’t), the AFMU would be able to restore sufficient life to the FSD module to allow us to escape out of the system. The challenge would be getting close enough to launch an attack on the half-finished battlecruiser and get out again without being detected and destroyed. ASTRA and I had developed a plan, which had simmed out on average with a success rate of just over 50%, more than double that of a direct assault, but it still relied heavily on good timing and no small measure of luck.
I used my Imperial Clipper’s beam laser to carve out a recess in the surface of the asteroid that would partially conceal my ship, letting ASTRA autopilot the ship down into the reshaped crater. Despite having a mass of almost nine million tonnes, the asteroid’s gravitational field was so weak, only a few hundred thousandths of a standard g, that ASTRA had to secure the ship to the surface by magnetising the landing struts. The crater walls surrounding the ship were tall enough to prevent the major part of the fuselage from being observed except from directly above, though the nose of the ship had to be left partially exposed not to obstruct the view from the canopy. We would be reliant on picking up threats visually, since we could not afford to risk carrying out active scans during the approach to the shipyard.
With my ship safely concealed, Tatiana and I retreated to the gallery and my quarters for some food and rest, waiting patiently for the intelligence probes that had been dropped off in the system some days earlier by one of Zemina’s other operatives to transmit their hourly microbursts of information. I wanted at least a week’s worth of data, tracking naval patrols and other ship activity within the system, to be able to find patterns and establish what the routines were for the shipyard’s defence force. It would be another nine hours before I felt we had sufficient intelligence for ASTRA to perform a proper stochastic analysis on the data, that might uncover any potential flaws or windows
of opportunity in the shipyard’s security protocols. Between meals, Tatiana spent a few hours on the bridge, running through combat simulations and practicing some of the tactics I’d shown her during the bounty hunting sorties we’d flown on the way. Watching discreetly over her shoulder, I was again impressed with the subtlety of her feel for the flight controls. While they were perhaps not quite good enough yet to chance giving her control of the ship in a real engagement, she appeared to have the spatial awareness and threat assessment instincts that could make her a decent combat pilot. For a moment I almost regretted not being able to have her fly interference as a wingman in a second ship, but even if we did have another vessel at our disposal, it wouldn’t have increased our odds of success enough to have been worth the risk. Besides, simulations were one thing, the real stresses of fight-or-die combat were quite another; and I would need Tatiana’s eyes to keep watch for incoming danger during our infiltration of the shipyard. I tried to keep my advice to an absolute minimum, letting her learn from her tactical mistakes and as the hours passed, her decision-making improved to the point where she was able to consistently take down wings of small fighters without losing shields. I resolved to tell ASTRA to up the stakes for her next session by throwing much more resilient targets such as Vultures and Pythons into the mix.
“You’re really getting better, Tatiana.” I told her, as I eased myself down into the co-pilot’s seat.
“Thank you, master.” Tatiana gave me a brittle smile, her cheeks flushing slightly as she flexed her long, slender fingers on the controls.
“How about a real test? ASTRA, run up combat training package #5.” I ordered the AI as I activated the flight controls on the co-pilot seat. “Flying against AIs can teach you the basics, but there’s nothing quite like flying up against another person.”
“CTP #5 loaded. 1v1 Sidewinder duel.” ASTRA intoned happily, resetting the canopy HUD to a side- by-side split screen projection. “Starting simulation in 10 seconds.”
“Compared to the Clipper, the Sidey’s a tin can powered by balloons, armed with catapults.” I told Tatiana, smiling. “But I’ve seen great pilots take down Anacondas in one. Admittedly with a little help from the local police, but still.”
“3, 2, 1… weapons are free.” ASTRA said, releasing the flight controls.
The simulation had us separated by five kilometres, beyond weapons range. The virtual ships we were flying had no frills or extras installed, just stock components, as if they had just come fresh off the production line. I saw Tatiana engage her afterburners, keen to get into weapons range as soon as possible. The direct approach definitely had its merits, but I reserved the energy in my engine capacitor, throttling up to maximum, but switching my power priorities to weapons and shields, content to let Tatiana come to me. I resisted the temptation to look across at her or her screen as our virtual ships closed, 4.5km… 4km… 3.5km… and as I anticipated, Tatiana instantly opened fire as soon as our ships passed the 3km mark. I added another power pip to my shields, increasing their recharge rate, switching off the flight assistance and using the Sidewinder’s lateral, ventral and dorsal thrusters to jink randomly, rolling quickly to add a corkscrew motion to the closure manoeuvre, making even more difficult for Tatiana to hit me at extreme range with fixed weapons.
“Stay still, dammit.” I heard Tatiana mutter, concentrating intensely.
“Don’t hold back there, Tatiana. I won’t.” I replied, trying not to sound too snide or overconfident. She had managed to knock almost 50% off my shield strength, showing that she was at least competent with fixed weapons.
“Then why aren’t you firing?” Tatiana snapped back, the first signs of stress entering her voice.
“Because I’m waiting for your weapons capacitor to run dry.” I told her, using my vertical thrusters to extend the radius of my turn, trying to drop in behind Tatiana’s ship. The weapons fire from her ship became more staccato and intermittent as the power distributor struggled to keep ahead of the energy drain from Tatiana’s constant fire. Now that we were within 1000m of each other, I finally opened up with the Sidewinder’s twin fixed pulse lasers. Even laser beams lost intensity with increasing distance, meaning that they became exponentially more effective the closer you used them to the target. Too late, Tatiana realised her mistake, but by the time she reassigned her power priorities to her weapons, I had stripped away her ship’s shields with half a dozen shots in less than ten seconds. Tatiana showed great imagination with her evasive manoeuvring, but having lost her shields, drained her engines capacitor in her haste to the initial joust and emptied her weapons energy supplies too early by engaging beyond optimum laser range, she had made a series of predictable mistakes that would have been fatal in a real combat situation. Mistakes that were entirely understandable, considering her lack of piloting experience, and ones that killed thousands of new Commanders daily, all across civilised space.
“Fuck.” Tatiana cursed through gritted teeth, realising that she couldn’t out-turn my ship, she redirected power away from her weapons to make a break for free space, hoping to regain enough breathing space to recharge her shields and mount another attack. Having reserved the energy in my engines capacitor, I let her gain some distance before engaging my afterburners, tailing her mercilessly, twin concussive reports from my pulse lasers ripping apart the hull of the virtual Sidewinder at point blank range until it disintegrated in a shower of sparks. Tatiana looked over at me, irritated by her failure. “How did you do that?”
“I’m not telling you yet.” I grinned back at her, making her scowl even more. “Come on, let’s see how much you learned. ASTRA, reset the program.”
“Acknowledged, my lord. Starting in 3, 2, 1… weapons are free.”
This time Tatiana’s approach was much more cautious, saving her afterburner energy for a separation manoeuvre. She still opened fire at extreme range as soon as we closed to within 3 kilometres, but was slightly more restrained with her weapons fire, more considered and less profligate. I was still able to dodge a lot of her fire using my strafing thrusters, disabling the flight assistance to allow my velocity vector to drift, increasing the ship’s responsiveness through turns. I could see that Tatiana hadn’t discovered the advantages of disabling the flight assistance when fighting equally agile ships yet, and I wondered how long she would need before she figured it out on her own, or whether I would need to tell her. Again, I waited until our ships were within 1000 metres of each other before opening fire, only discharging my weapons when I was certain it would achieve a hit, allowing me to prioritise the shields and engines in my power distribution assignments, reinforcing the protective energy envelope surrounding my ship and giving my Sidewinder a crucial edge in its speed and manoeuvrability compared to Tatiana’s. Tatiana was still able to score the odd glancing blow to my shields, and they teetered on the verge of collapse just as I started to make
headway against the integrity of the exposed hull of Tatiana’s Sidewinder. When I had reduced her ship’s hull strength to 60% her nerve broke, boosting away for clear space as her shields began to recharge. The impulse was as understandable as it was fatal. I activated my own afterburners, using the extra momentum to cut off the corner of the turn, dropping in three hundred metres behind her ship. In just a handful of seconds, it was all over. Tatiana threw up her hands in despair, cursing me vilely in her native tongue.
“The third time’s the charm, Tatiana.” I reassured her. “Once more?”
Tatiana growled, murmuring vicious curses under her breath, but nodded her agreement. This time, Tatiana mirrored my own approach, saving the energy in her afterburner reservoir and weapons capacitor until we had approached to within one kilometre. It was only my greater experience and better power management that had my ship’s shields in better shape following the initial joust: Tatiana’s ship was down to 31% shield strength, whilst my Sidewinder still had 47% shield capacity remaining. This time Tatiana’s nerve didn’t buckle, prolonging the engagement and using her strafing thrusters to enter a seemingly never-ending sequence of vertical rolling scissors, our ships trading off velocity for turn rate and vice versa, exchanging hits as our ships twisted and tumbled though space. We circled around each other, like prowling tigers lashing out at any sign of weakness, gradually wearing down our shields into oblivion, the dull ringing of simulated dual laser strikes against fragile hull plating ringing in our ears. Tatiana refused to back down after her shields failed, continuing to fight and make inroads into my own hull strength, even though her ship’s hull was 20% closer to destruction than mine. I had eked out this advantage by diverting the power distribution away from my now useless shield systems to my weapons and engines, making my ship more nimble to avoid Tatiana’s fire and my weapon strikes pack a greater, more frequent punch. Tatiana cursed again in frustration, but instead of submitting to the inevitable attrition of my pulse laser strikes against her hull, she lit her afterburners, ramming my ship and inflicting catastrophic damage before I had a chance to react.
“Eject, eject, eject…” ASTRA instructed in stereo to us both.
I turned to look across at Tatiana, unable to stop myself from laughing. “We’ll call that one a draw.”
“How do you do it, master? Why do you always beat me?” Tatiana asked, still frustrated.
“You almost had me on that last joust.” I reassured her, truthfully. “My flight instructor Jay taught me that a combateer had to remember one thing if they wanted to survive in combat.”
“What’s that, master?”
“That they should fight as if they were already dead. That you never quit against an equal opponent, no matter what. Survival in a dogfight is rarely a matter of reflexes, talent or what ship you’re flying. It’s about who wants to live the most. But if you’re going to run, run before the shooting starts. Wimping out in the middle of a battle never ends well.”
Tatiana swallowed apprehensively, before nodding, feeling chastened. “Yes, master.”
“Don’t feel so bad, Tatiana. You did well. I’ve had years more practice on the stick than you have.” I walked around the central console on the bridge to rest a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “With the proper training, you could be a great pilot.”
“Do you really think so, master?” Tatiana asked, looking up at me with an incredulous look on her face.
“I know so.” I bent down to kiss her briefly on the lips, stroking the back of her neck affectionately. “I think I’m going to get some sleep. You should, too. Tomorrow could be a long day.”
The pneumatic hiss of the door to my stateroom opening roused me from a fitful, unsatisfying doze. I had fallen asleep at my desk, reviewing the intelligence reports beamed to my ship by the stealthed recon probes distributed throughout the Groombridge 34 system, trying to find openings in the shipyard’s defences, even though ASTRA was already busy with her analysis – the outcome of which the AI had promised me by the morning.
“Master Aemon? I can’t sleep.”
“What’s up, Tatiana?” I asked, still not entirely awake. I blinked, rubbing my tired eyes and sitting upright in my chair. When I able to focus properly I was confronted with the sight of Tatiana standing just centimetres away from me, naked, save for a pair of nanofibre “geckoskin” deck socks – their powerful van der Waal’s forces all that was securing her to the floor in the microgravity surrounding the metallic asteroid we had chosen to harbour the ship.
Tatiana put her arms around my neck, drawing me towards her, resting my cheek against her breast and holding me tight. “ASTRA says we’re probably going to die tomorrow. Is that true?”
“ASTRA ought to keep her fucking mouth shut.” I snarled, consoling Tatiana by hugging her back, my arms encircling her slim waist. “It’s a dangerous mission, Tatiana. The odds of success aren’t great.”
“So this might be our last night together?”
“I hope not.”
“But it might be?”
“Then spend it with me, master. Let me love you.” Tatiana implored, letting her nipples linger enticingly against my lips.
We had not slept together since our liaison at Tomani and though it had been almost two weeks, my attraction to Tatiana had not diminished. She breathed heavily and rapidly with excitement as I kissed her breasts, carrying her almost effortlessly in the microgravity to my bunk. She welcomed me inside her, riding me fiercely, only objecting when we shifted to a position that wouldn’t allow us to maintain eye contact.
“I need to see that it’s you, master.” she told me.
Later, as we lay arm in arm beneath the covers to stop ourselves from floating around the room in the near zero-g, I lazily stroked Tatiana’s back beneath her long golden hair, my fingertips tracing over the crazed web of paper-thin scar tissue, that looked as if it had been spun by a caffeine-addled spider.
“Master, why do you always touch my scars? Don’t you think they make me ugly?”
“They’re just a part of what make you you, Tatiana. Just as much as your eyes, your hair, your legs or your breasts.” I told her, making her giggle and squirm as I kissed her back, tracing the tip of my tongue along the pale, hard lash marks. “They can’t disguise or distort how beautiful you are as a person.”
Tatiana turned over, hooking her thighs around my waist and putting her arms around my shoulders, pulling me down onto her. “You think I’m beautiful, master?”
I groaned as she drew me inside her, arousing my desire for her again in an instant. “Oh yes, Tatiana. You’re beautiful.”
“Then love me, master. Please love me.” Tatiana urged. Our eyes never broke contact, locked in a mutual gaze of exquisite intimacy, communicating our need to each become one half of a complete being that only existed when we shared our bodies and souls. Our climax, when it eventually came, had us clinging to each other, breathless. “Oh, master… I love you.”
“I love you too, Tatiana.” I replied, after only the slightest hesitation, though still unsure whether I had simply said it because it seemed like the right thing to say, or because I actually meant it.
“Master, let’s not die tomorrow.” Tatiana said, squeezing my shoulders. The intensity of the look in her eyes could have ignited magnesium.
I smiled back down at her, still panting for air. “Yeah, I agree. Dying would be a really bad idea.”

Chapter Twelve – Groombridge 34: Federation Shipyard

ASTRA woke us in the morning when she had finished her analysis of the shipyard’s security arrangements. Tatiana and I dressed into our flight suits and sat side-by-side on the bridge, listening intently as the AI presented her findings. There were no obvious holes in the routine patrol schedules and routes that surrounded the colossal drydock where the Farragut-class battlecruiser was being constructed, but ASTRA had identified one weakness. The perimeter guards flew round the clock in six hour shifts, and during the changeover there was a five minute window where the active sensor coverage scanning the shipyard was entirely directed towards the centre of the solar system. It wasn’t much of an opening, but one that was long enough to allow us to bring our cover asteroid through supercruise from the inner fringe of the Oort Cloud close enough to the shipyard to allow us to begin the infiltration in realspace. Then we would take advantage of a later shift change to commence the torpedo attack itself. ASTRA had calculated the approach practically to the millimetre.
“How close do you think we can get without being detected, ASTRA?”
“1.2 light seconds, my lord.”
“That’s a long way to travel in realspace.” I grimaced. “If we disable the velocity restrictions on the flight computer, how fast do you think we could get this asteroid going?”
“In theory, we could get up to over 5 kilometres per second and still have enough fuel to extract to Ross 248.” ASTRA replied. “But anything over 2.5 kilometres per second would raise suspicions as to not being a natural body this far out from Groombridge 34B.”
“How long will it take to get from the infiltration point to the shipyard?”
“40 hours, give or take a few minutes, my lord.” ASTRA said. Even the normally breezy AI sounded subdued at the prospect of trying to infiltrate such a heavily defended area, all too aware of our marginal chance of success. “A few extra seconds in supercruise could make a big difference, but it’s far harder to track an object in realspace than it is in supercruise.”
“Even though we’ve already disabled the ship’s IFF transponder?” Tatiana asked. One of the highly illegal modifications that Agent Zeta had made to the ship was the ability for the ship’s AI to either scramble or complete block the transmissions from the ship’s IFF module. Installation of ship IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) was mandated by the Pilots’ Federation, giving each ship a unique code held on the galaxy-wide Pilots’ Federation database. The units were manufactured exclusively on the Pilots’ Federation homeworld in Shinrarta Dezhra, self-powered and inviolable, broadcasting at all times on dedicated hyperwave frequencies that kept the system authorities aware of the location of the ships in the space under their control. While it was impossible to stop the units from broadcasting, the research scientists working for Imperial Intelligence had created the right mix of polarised meta-materials capable of distorting or blocking the hyperwave transmissions from the IFF unit. The IFF blocker needed to be used sparingly, even if it was only being used to scramble the ship ID. Signal outages of greater than 72 hours would attract unwanted attention from the Pilots’ Federation, especially if the ship concerned wasn’t under the command of a well-regarded explorer whose path often took them far beyond the fringes of occupied space.
“Within 5 light seconds of the installation there is a chance that the facility’s perimeter scanners will be able to detect the ship’s frame shift wake, regardless of whether the signal from the IFF unit is being jammed or not.” ASTRA said, her disembodied voice clearly unhappy at the prospect. “The closer we get to the shipyard, the more likely we are to be discovered before we even make the transit to realspace.”
“ASTRA’s right, we can’t afford to blow our cover before we even get in sight of the target. We’ll have to hope no-one comes too close sniffing around the asteroid on our approach.” I wasn’t happy about spending nearly two days drifting through the outer reaches of the system, but if it was the only way of getting within range of the battlecruiser to launch the antimatter warhead torpedoes, I would have to put up with it. “How close will we be able to ride the asteroid to the drydock before the defence force gets twitchy?”
“Anything closer than twenty kilometres will trigger a near-miss protocol by the perimeter defence force.”
“That’s closer than I expected.”
“The system has a high incidence of cometary activity due to perturbations of the Oort Cloud by the binary stars, my lord. If they destroyed every comet nucleus that came within 100 kilometres of the shipyard, they wouldn’t have enough ships left to establish a perimeter.”
“Makes you wonder why they picked such an active system to site a shipyard.” I said, wondering aloud.
“Primarily to discourage casual exploration of the outer system, my lord. The comets can pose a navigation hazard for inexperienced pilots.” ASTRA explained. “It also makes it easy to spot intruders – the location of the shipyard is common knowledge. Anyone without the proper clearances to approach within 1000 light seconds is liable to be interdicted and destroyed with no questions asked.”
“Just as well we’re off the transponder grid, then.” Tatiana said with some relief, glancing over at me.
“So when do we leave to hit our window, ASTRA?”
“The next opportunity to begin our infiltration of the shipyard will be in two hours, thirty six minutes, my lord.” ASTRA replied. “I have taken the liberty of programming the navigation computer with the approach profile that will have the asteroid achieve its closest approach to the drydock just as the perimeter guards are changing shifts the day after tomorrow at 6am.”
“Thank you, ASTRA. We’ve got time for a good breakfast before we go, then.”
Tatiana and I ate sous vide bacon rashers and scrambled eggs directly from the cooking pouches in silence, the atmosphere in the galley thick with apprehension, before changing into our flight suits and settling back down into our respective seats on the flight deck. As the countdown ASTRA projected on the HUD ticked ever closer to the start of our mission, Tatiana and I prepped the systems of the ship for frame shift and combat. Once we dropped out of supercruise, we would be running only the most critical systems at minimal power to reduce our chance of being discovered by
active sensor scans. This meant that it would get close to freezing in the cabin, though the heating elements woven through the fabric of our flight suits would fend off the worst of the cold.
Under ASTRA’s direction, I had altered the configuration of the ship’s frame shift field emitters, subtly altering the shape of the negative energy envelope it would use to propel the Clipper and its asteroid cocoon through compressed higher dimensions of space towards the shipyard. The AI assured me that the realignment would minimise the necessary damage to the frame shift drive itself and that the extra mass burden the bulk of the asteroid posed would not completely trash the drive.
ASTRA assumed control of Fell From The Top(…)‘s systems as the mission clock ticked down to zero. Our approach required a far greater precision than any human pilot could manage, so while I was reluctant to hand over complete control of the ship, even to one of the most sophisticated AIs in production, I didn’t really have any choice. A miscalculation of the merest fraction of a second or a thousandth of an arcsecond in our course to the shipyard could arouse suspicions that would end in our swift destruction.
“Frame shift in five, four, three, two, one… mark.” ASTRA announced, her countdown in perfect synchronisation with the mission clock on the HUD.
The familiar luminescent wrinkling of the energies emitted from the frame shift drive coiled the space before the nose of the ship, though the normally circular tunnel was distorted laterally into an egg shape to accommodate the bulk of the asteroid. The transit to supercruise was accompanied by a horrific electronic screech of protest from the FSD, overloaded components in the drive sparking and shorting out spectacularly. I checked the damage on the modules board to my right hand side. The frame shift drive’s functionality was down to 53% and dropping at a rate of 1% every 20 seconds.
“ASTRA, are we going to be able to reach the insertion point before the FSD gets damaged beyond repair?” I asked, concerned at the severity of the damage that had already been inflicted.
“Yes, my lord. Disengaging drives in four minutes, thirty-nine seconds.” ASTRA replied, trying to sound reassuring.
I had to keep my arms crossed, gripping my biceps tightly to prevent myself from fiddling with the flight controls. The tension was unbearable. With our external sensors offline, there was no way to know whether a patrol had somehow detected our supercruise wake and was even now moving into position to intercept. The first clue we would have would be the tell-tale metallic groaning of when an interdiction link was established, and by then, it would be too late to activate the ship’s defensive systems to fight them off. Tatiana seemed remarkably calm in contrast to my nervousness, watching the HUD intently as ASTRA mimicked the course a cometary nucleus would take towards the inner system, dragged in away from the Oort Cloud by the resonant gravitational tugs from the system’s two stars. I found her innocent curiosity oddly calming, the flicker of her green eyes back and forth over information illuminating the HUD distracting me from my worries about whether we had already been discovered. I turned my attention back to the right-hand dash panel to monitor the health of the frame shift drive. The rate of damage caused by hauling the mass of the asteroid through supercruise had doubled, and was getting worse the longer the FSD was active.
“ASTRA…” I began, now beyond mere concern and bordering on panic. If the frame shift drive was destroyed before we reached the insertion point, we would have a very difficult time explaining ourselves to the Federal security force.
“I know, my lord. ” ASTRA interrupted me, uncharacteristically. Even the AI sounded tense. “We’re almost there. Exiting supercruise in 60 seconds.”
Fell From The Top(…) crashed back into realspace with just 17% of the functionality of the frame shift drive remaining. The strain on the module had caused some feedback damage to the thrusters and power plant, though thankfully both of these modules still had nearly 90% health, and could be easily repaired by the Automatic Field Maintenance Unit.
“Deactivating all systems.” ASTRA reported. “Entering repair mode.”
A faint whirring could be heard in the bowels of the ship as ASTRA activated the AFMU, the 3D printers synthesizing replacement parts out of the smart nanogels stored in the unit, bringing the power plant and thrusters back up to 100% health before expending the remaining nanogel reserves to restore as much functionality as possible to the frame shift drive. When the 3D printers ran dry, the FSD had been restored to 73% health, more than enough to exfiltrate the system without incurring further damage to the module.
Now that the ship had been repaired as much as was possible outside of a starport, our next job was to commence the burn that would accelerate the asteroid to skirt the fringes of the shipyard’s perimeter. Here again we potentially vulnerable to detection, but it was unlikely that anyone would see the thrusters of the ship burning over one light second out from the nearest planet. ASTRA again resumed command of the ship’s systems, reactivating the thrusters and repositioning the Clipper on the surface of the asteroid so that the impulse from the main thrusters would redirect the path of our cover into a corridor close enough to the battlecruiser to launch our strike, but far enough away from the shipyard itself not to raise suspicions and provoke the defence force into destroying the asteroid.
“Thruster safeguards disabled.” ASTRA said, sounding almost reluctant. By law, ships were normally limited to relative velocities of less than 500m/s, to compensate for the sluggish reactions of human pilots. ”Commencing insertion burn. Burn time five hours, fifty-three minutes, forty-one seconds. Final relative velocity, 2497.6m/s.”
While the thrusters were not designed to burn at maximum delta-v for such long periods, it was unlikely that the units would suffer any damage, as we would not be using the afterburners. ASTRA had also managed to maintain the orbital velocity of the asteroid around Groombridge 34B upon our exit from supercruise, meaning that we would need a much shorter burn time to achieve our desired intercept velocity. If we had exited supercruise at a relative velocity of zero compared to the drydock, it would have taken over 5000 hours of burn time to give enough of an impulse to the huge bulk of the asteroid to make the infiltration of the facility possible – way beyond the fuel carrying capacity of the Imperial Clipper, even if all of its internal compartments had been converted to fuel tanks. As it was, we would still burn through over half of our fuel reserves, but that would not compromise our choice of which system we would escape to. We would still have enough fuel for a maximum range jump. Tatiana and I kept watch through the canopy for the tell-tale signs of
movement that would give away an approaching ship, our eyes constantly scanning the background of stars for sharp pinpricks of light in parallax motion against the fixed patterns of unfamiliar constellations. The limited view from the cockpit and the high level of concentration required was simultaneously draining and nerve shredding, building a sensation of paranoia that just out of sight an ambush force was being gathered, waiting until we were at our most vulnerable before striking.
Time burned away as slowly as our fuel reserves, the asteroid falling into the astronomically tiny interception corridor past the drydock containing our target, but still the attack did not come, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. We were still over a day and a half away from the shipyard. Once the AI was satisfied with our velocity and trajectory, ASTRA turned the ship about and resettled Fell From The Top(…) back into the crater hollow we had carved out for her with the ship’s beam laser. The insertion burn had given the asteroid a precisely calculated but natural-looking rotation around it’s long axis of a fraction under seven hours. The hollow we were tucked into faced away from the centre of the system, keeping the ship in permanent shadow, but the precession of the asteroid around its axis would allow us to visually survey more of the sky as our cover approached the shipyard. Thankfully, the rotation was slow enough not to cause any sensations of motion sickness.
With the manoeuvring phase of the insertion completed, ASTRA reduced the output of the power plant to a bare minimum, just enough to keep the life support systems running and give the torpedo pylons enough power to maintain the containment fields of the antimatter warheads in our experimental torpedoes. ASTRA kept the systems capacitors charged to allow a rapid startup of the main systems, including the FSD, thrusters, shields, weapons and sensors, but the modules themselves were completely shut down to minimise the ship’s thermal signature. If the asteroid was actively scanned, we had to hope that the heavy metal content of the asteroid would disguise the presence of the ship.
We were now in the hands of chance, gravity and the precision of ASTRA’s calculations. ASTRA had reported that we would reach closest approach 24.81 kilometres from the battlecruiser’s drydock precisely 39 seconds into our five minute window during the changeover of security patrols. Tatiana and I sat on the bridge in alternate shifts of six hours, hunting for any signs of incoming ships, trying to snatch a few hours’ rest or get something to eat when it was not our turn to keep watch. Frost began to form on the inside of the canopy as the thermal energy inside the ship seeped slowly through the spaceframe. I couldn’t contain a smile as the moisture in my breath condensed in the air before me. The cold was invigorating, reminding me of the covert docking training exercises I had enjoyed in my youth at the flight school in Fotla. Tatiana seemed equally resilient to the cold, explaining when I asked that her former slave masters routinely kept the cargo container that had been her home at such temperatures, and that she had not had the benefit then of a heated flight suit.
“They liked to keep us cold, hungry and alone.” Tatiana said, her voice flat and with a sadness in her eyes. “So that we would look forward to being taken out.”
With little else to do while we kept watch for incoming ships, Tatiana told me about her life in captivity, opening up about her past for the first time, perhaps recognising that this might be the only time she would have an opportunity to speak with anyone about it. She had very little memory of events prior to the last couple of years. Presumably she had chosen to forget the trauma inflicted
on her by the slavers as a defence mechanism, but she told me sickening tales of the depravity and tortures she had been subjected to by Theriault and her other recent masters. We sat together on the floor of the flight deck, behind the pilot and co-pilot stations, my arms around Tatiana both for emotional support and shared warmth. By now even the deck was covered in frost.
“They let us out of the pods every few days to be serving girls in the galley and we had to try and eat without being caught. It was a game to them. If they caught us stealing food from their plates, they would use us on the tables. But that was nothing compared to when slavers would celebrate after a raid, master. They drugged us in our pods and we would wake up tied down to benches, so they could use us for hours. Sometimes days. They would always make sure that it hurt, so that no matter how long they kept us like that, we couldn’t sleep. But the worst thing was the screaming. If a girl screamed too much, they would blow her collar.”
“How many of you were there?” I asked, wiping away one of Tatiana’s tears to stop it freezing in her eye.
“Ten, sometimes twenty. The slavers never minded if a couple of girls died each week. They could always find more.” Tatiana said, her tone utterly devoid of emotion. “I think some of them just liked killing.”
“How did you manage to survive that for so long?”
“It was better than being alone in the pod, master. I couldn’t bear being alone. And afterwards they would let us wash and eat.” Tatiana buried her face in my shoulder as she recalled the memory, letting me stroke her hair and the back of her neck. “And the head pirate liked me. He liked to save me for last.”
“The one whose Cutter we destroyed?”
Tatiana nodded, shuddering. “Yes. But when he got bored of me, he sold me to Master Theriault, and he was even worse.”
“I’m glad I killed him, too.” I rocked Tatiana in my arms slowly, kissing the top of her head in sympathy, remembering how Tatiana had told me about how the Duke had mistreated his slaves. “He was transporting you and some of his other slaves when I intercepted him. Why was he going to sell you back to the slaver group?”
“I didn’t scream when he had me whipped, master. He couldn’t finish unless they screamed and bled.”
“Tatiana, I think you’re probably the bravest woman I’ve ever known.” I tipped back her head and kissed her on the lips.
“Thank you, master.” Tatiana smiled thinly, hugging me back. “It’s better with you, master. You never hurt me. I enjoy it with you.”
Tatiana had meant the words kindly, but I was stung by the implication that she was comparing the way I treated her with her slave masters – like she didn’t realise that she meant more to me than something to be traded or used like an inanimate commodity. “Tatiana, you do realise no-one will
own you ever again, right? You don’t have to call anyone ‘master’ – least of all me. I’m your friend, not your keeper.”
“But you’ll always be my master.” Tatiana hugged me tightly, nonplussed. “I don’t want to leave you. I love you, Master Aemon.”
“Tatiana, one day you’ll have to. You have to find your own life, your own career. But I’ll always be your friend.”
“No, master.” Tatiana shook her head, holding me closer. “I want to stay with you.”
Her voice carried with it such an edge of fear that I let the subject drop, rather than upset her further. We sat together in silence, Tatiana reassured by my arms around her, her eyes closed as she rested her head on my shoulder. I felt the slow rhythm of her breathing against my chest and let my own breath fall into the same pattern, my eyes looking up and out of the frozen canopy, watching the stars wheel by almost imperceptibly. We must have fallen asleep in each other’s arms sitting on the deck, because the next thing I knew ASTRA was summoning me to the pilot’s chair with an urgent alarm. I glanced at the mission clock and we were now only two and a half hours from the point of closest approach. “Shit!”
Tatiana cried out in surprise as I lurched to my feet, dragging her up with me. I gave her a gentle nudge towards the copilot seat as I blinked away ice crystals from the corners of my eyes, letting my vision clear as I slid into my chair and pulled the flight controllers toward me.
“My lord, I have detected three active scans on the asteroid in the last five minutes.” ASTRA warned gravely. “The signal strength of the scans is increasing. I believe we have a ship inbound.”
“What should we do, master?” Tatiana turned to me, her hands trembling. “Should I power up the main drive and weapons?”
“Not yet, Tatiana. We might as well make it difficult for them.” I waved her down, trying to remain calm myself. “ASTRA, any idea whether we’ve been detected?”
“The signal strength was below the threshold for a positive return, my lord. It is unlikely that they have detected the ship. Standard procedure would mandate a visual scan of the asteroid at this point.”
“Let’s hope they’re sloppy and not interested in getting too close. I can’t see a ship out there, can you?”
“No, master.”
Minutes passed like hours as we drifted blind and helpless further towards the perimeter of the shipyard. I dared not risk activating the sensors to get a better picture of what might be lurking on the other side of our cover asteroid, as the radar signals would give our location away. It was even too much of a risk to activate the communications array to monitor any hyperwave traffic between the perimeter guards and the shipyard – the comms unit would automatically return a message receipt confirmation to the originator of the signal, again giving away our presence, if not our precise location. We had to wait and trust that our luck would hold. One factor in our favour was that the
asteroid was travelling so quickly that any ships trying to intercept us would only get one chance to look over the asteroid, and Fell From The Top(…) was shrouded in the umbra cast by the metallic body’s bulk. Another ten minutes dragged by and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a Federal Corvette approximately five kilometres away. It flashed across the canopy in the blink of an eye, receding into the distance. The ship was powerful and well-armed, but slow – it would struggle to catch us back up, provided that the Corvette’s commander was even willing to disable the safeties on his thrusters, which did not seem likely. ASTRA alerted us to another active scan from the Corvette, but even at this close range, the masking effect from the heavy metals in the asteroid had kept the return signal from my ship beneath the threshold for a positive identification. We had been lucky, but how much longer would our luck hold out?
The surge of adrenalin had us both fully awake. Even in the numbing cold, there was no chance that we would fall back asleep before we reached the shipyard. With just over two hours to go, Tatiana and I reviewed our plan a final time. Only one of the antimatter torpedoes had to reach its target for the mission to be successful, so in consultation with ASTRA, I had decided on a slightly different launch profile for each torpedo. The first torpedo would go out completely cold, with no guidance or propulsion active, with only the magnetic impulse from the rail of the torpedo pylon to propel the torpedo towards the target. The torpedo would be almost impossible to detect, even visually, and by the time anyone within the shipyard might notice the incoming weapon, it would be far too late to do anything about it. The torpedo’s onboard computer would run a timer to tell it when to detonate the warhead. With a blast radius of some twenty kilometres, provided the initial aiming of the torpedo was somewhere within the vicinity of the drydock, the battlecruiser and much of the shipyard facility itself would be annihilated.
The incredible destructive power of the experimental weapons did pose one problem, however. Even though the torpedoes were hardened against gamma ray bursts and Electronic Counter- Measures systems, they had to be launched far enough apart that if one torpedo detonated prematurely, it wouldn’t cook off the other weapons before they had chance to reach the target area. In practical terms, this meant having to launch the weapons at twenty second intervals, extending our engagement time and making it more likely that the security patrols on the perimeter of the shipyard would be able to intercept either the warheads or my ship. With this eventuality in mind, we decided that the second torpedo should act as a decoy, running fully hot with active guidance and full burn from the propulsion unit. I didn’t expect this torpedo to reach the drydock, it was simply meant to be a compelling distraction for the defence force, which would be in for a nasty surprise when they shot down the torpedo. The two remaining torpedoes would use a compromise between a hot and cold launch. The guidance and propulsion systems would only be active for one second in every ten, making quick trajectory adjustments and updating the targeting computer with the information necessary to detonate the antimatter warheads at the right time. ASTRA had predicted a 70% probability that at least one of these warheads would slip through without being intercepted.
That just left the minor issue of detaching from the asteroid at the right time, getting into range to deploy the torpedoes and then get out again without either being caught in the blast radius, or being intercepted by the perimeter force providing security for the shipyard. All without knowing precisely how many ships the Federal Navy had stationed at the facility to defend their new Farragut-class
battlecruiser until we poked our head out above the cover of our asteroid. “Oh, this is going to be easy.”
“What was that, master?”
“Nothing. Never mind. You know what to do?”
“Yes, master.”
“Talk me through it, then.”
“When ASTRA gives the signal, I activate the sensors and thrusters. You will activate the weapons and target the Farragut.”
“Good, what about the shields and the frame shift drive?”
“Those systems stay down to reduce our thermal signature. We don’t turn them on until after the torpedoes have been launched and we have broken the security perimeter.”
“Very good. Well remembered. And what do you do if I get incapacitated and can’t fly the ship?” We had discussed every eventuality, including loss of the canopy or the ship being completely disabled.
Tatiana looked uncomfortable at the thought as she answered. “Get the ship into hyperspace and find the nearest independent port.”
“Exactly. Remember that you need to go to Ross 248 first to reactivate the ship’s ID transponder. The jump is already locked into the nav computer.” We had already been off the grid for almost three days. We only had about another six hours before the Pilot’s Federation would begin an investigation. We had to ‘reappear’ in the same place as where the Pilot’s Federation had lost the signal, to make it look like there’d been a problem with the transponder unit, which was uncommon, but not unheard of. “But you won’t have long to plot the next jump before the Feds send whatever they have left here after you. Don’t try to fight, just run to the nearest neutral system. And if I don’t make it, sell whatever’s left of ship and buy passage on a liner to Adams Orbital. Laure will take care of you.”
“Please, master. Don’t make me think of it. Everything will be fine. I know it.”
“Alright then.” I patted Tatiana’s shoulder and pointed to her RemLok helmet. “Let’s get our game faces on.”
We both put on our survival masks and checked each other’s seals, making sure they were airtight and that the RemLok units were primed and ready. I took a deep breath of pure oxygen and settled back in my seat, caressing the flight controllers gently between my fingertips. The mission clock on the polarised canopy continued to tick down interminably slowly, the anxiety building in my chest as the final minutes elapsed. After what seemed like an eternity, ASTRA signalled that it was time and that we had just entered into our five minute window.
“Okay, Tatiana. Let’s do this.” I said grimly.
Careful to keep our thermal signature to an absolute minimum, ASTRA discharged a heat sink as she ran up the power plant to 50% capacity, giving us enough power to bring the sensors, thrusters and weapons systems online. Tatiana and I worked quickly, knowing that time was of the essence. As soon as the thrusters had powered up, I released the magnetic lock keeping us attached to the surface of the asteroid and retracted the landing gear, easing the Clipper up out of the shadowy recess it had been hidden in. As soon as I had enough vertical separation, I flipped the ship around, nose to tail, rolling over 180 degrees to keep the surface of the asteroid as a horizon for spatial reference. The shipyard facility was visible only as a group of distant lights, some 300 kilometres away. The Farragut was easily identifiable amongst the half dozen drydocks, due to the intense activity of the robotic builder drones and manned work crews swarming around the five kilometre long hull.
“Torpedoes online. Assuming helm control.” ASTRA reported, the ship taking on a life of its own as the AI ignited the afterburners, boosting us clear of the asteroid and thrusting down towards the centre of the shipyard. The attack had to be automated if the unguided torpedo was to stand any chance of getting near the battlecruiser. Even with my piloting experience, I would not be able to aim the ship precisely enough. An error of few degrees at the point of launch would translate to kilometres by the time the torpedo reached the shipyard. There was a dull thud from the portside underwing pylon. “Torpedo one is away. Detonation in three minutes, twenty-two seconds.”
Fell From The Top(…) rolled away flamboyantly, wingtip over wingtip, ventral thrusters flaring to realign our course to make sure that the torpedo would not be detected by scans aimed at the ship or the decoy torpedo we were about to launch. I had already lost sight of the cold-launched torpedo and it was invisible on our sensors, despite the fact it was so close. I hoped that the Feds would never see it coming. They would see the decoy torpedo, however – which was the entire point, of course. The downside was that it was the equivalent of poking a hornet’s nest with a flaming stick. The response of the resident hornets was not going to be welcoming.
“Torpedo two is away.” ASTRA said, again hurling the ship into a separation manoeuvre to ready the launch of our next torpedo. If I hadn’t known better, I would have suspected the AI was enjoying itself, being in total command of the ship. We were already three minutes into our assault window. We had two more minutes to launch our two remaining torpedoes and flee the blast zone. The sensors hadn’t detected any moves to intercept my ship or the two torpedoes we had already launched, but my combat senses told me that all hell was about to break loose inside the shipyard. I gripped the flight stick and throttle tightly, even though I wasn’t able to override ASTRA’s control of the ship. “Torpedo three is away.”
I saw the propulsion unit burn briefly on the rear of the torpedo before the onboard computer shut down the engine and the guidance system, randomly switching on and off to make a semi-stealth approach, the intermittent radar emissions from the homing unit not giving the defence forces long enough to divine its precise location, but enough to indicate a danger was there. As ASTRA carried out the final separation burn to put at least 30 kilometres between each of the launch points, I noticed that the activity of the patrol ships on the perimeter was intensifying, reforming into two distinct groups, each one centred around a pair of Federal Corvettes. If they had not yet detected the decoy torpedo, they soon would.
“Torpedo four is away.” ASTRA almost sounded relieved. “You have control, my lord.”
“Thank you, ASTRA. Let’s get the hell out of here.” Our momentum had carried us almost into the blast zone and we had to completely kill the velocity vector that was taking us inwards to the heart of the shipyard before we could turn about and make our escape into witchspace towards Ross 248. This was where we would be most vulnerable, since the light from the ship’s main thrusters would illuminate the ship like a beacon. It already looked like there was one group of fast-moving F-63 Condor fighters making straight for us. I was reluctant to activate the comms array to listen in on the chatter between the fighter squadron and their flight controllers, but it was clear that at least one of the groups had seen the decoy torpedo and was moving into a blocking position to shoot it down before it got too close to the ship building facility. “ASTRA, give me a visual of the Farragut. Zemina will want proof the target was destroyed.”
ASTRA projected a small holographic video of the battlecruiser’s drydock onto the HUD, sufficiently zoomed out to give us a good view of the rest of the shipyard as well. “Gamma burst detected. Torpedo two destroyed.”
There was a blinding light off to starboard, a radiant white starburst of energy that enveloped the task force that had moved to intercept the decoy missile, vaporising the two corvettes and their attendant fighter squadrons in an instant before decaying away to blackness. Now things were going to get really frantic. I could just imagine the panicked radio chatter between the remaining Federation ships, torn between defending the shipyard and the precious, half-finished Dreadnought, or destroying the Imperial interloper who had attacked them so brazenly. I made sure that the thruster safeties remained off and lit the afterburners once more, trying to put more distance between my ship and the pursuing Condor fighters. I dumped another heat sink to make us harder to detect on sensors before turning to my copilot. “Tatiana, bring the frame shift drive online.”
“Gamma burst detected. Torpedo four is down.” ASTRA said. I saw on the video feed that most of the second task force had been wiped out as well, and I could just imagine the reluctance of the remaining ships to hunt down any remaining incoming torpedoes. Not that there were that many ships left in the vicinity to defend the drydocks. It seemed unlikely that the three remaining fighter squadrons would be able to hunt down both of the final two torpedoes, and I only needed one to reach the Farragut.
“Time to target on torpedo one and three?” I asked, running up the power plant to full capacity and pouring megajoules of energy into the engines, trying to keep the capacitors charged as I lit the afterburners again and again. Despite the Clipper’s fabulous acceleration, the Condors were closing, having abandoned any thoughts of defending the shipyard, intent on drawing Imperial blood. With their thruster safeties disabled, flying those little fighters must have been like trying to ride an unguided missile, but they would be within weapons range in moments.
“Torpedo three will reach the target area in forty-five seconds. Torpedo one in ninety-seven.”
“Master, we should go.” Tatiana said insistently. The sensors flashed, showing that the Condors were starting to open fire.
“We can’t. Not until we’ve confirmed that the Farragut is destroyed. ASTRA, launch another heat sink. Some chaff too. We just need to hold out for another few seconds.” I grimaced as multi-cannon rounds flashed by the hull, tracers whipping past the canopy like angry fireflies. I began to roll and
jink the ship randomly, lighting the dorsal and ventral thrusters to try and throw off the tracking of the targeting computers in the Federation fighters. Six F-63 Condors clung doggedly to my tail, firing indiscriminately, their fire getting ever closer. Now that the Federation pilots were tracking my ship visually, there was no point trying to maintain sensor stealth. “ASTRA, shields up. How long now?”
“Twenty seconds, my lord.” ASTRA replied. The AI’s voice was smooth and reassuring. “Taking damage.”
“More chaff.” I lit the afterburners yet again, weaving the ship frantically through the torrent of multi-cannon fire, wincing at every clanging report as the tiny uranium-tipped sabots tore into the exposed hull plates. A quick glance at the modules board showed that they were targeting my frame shift drive to cut off my escape. It was down to 53% integrity, but there was nothing I could do but keep running. While the Condor was a fragile ship on its own, they were deadly when hunting in packs like this. Turning to fight would be suicide. “What I wouldn’t give for a mine launcher right now.”
“Shields online.” ASTRA said, much to my relief. The multi-cannons on the Condors were relatively ineffective against shields, and even though they had just recharged and were running understrength, the Clipper’s shields ought to be more than adequate to protect the hull and FSD against further damage from the Condors until the torpedoes found their targets and we were able to flee into witchspace. “Gamma ray burst detected. Torpedo three detonation confirmed.”
I glanced at the video feed on the HUD. “Did we get it?”
“Stand by. Frame shift signature detected.” ASTRA warned.
I looked back up through the canopy. “Oh, fuck.”
Distracted by the video feed for just a second, I hadn’t seen the arrival of the incoming ship. It was the Federal Corvette that had buzzed our cover asteroid a few hours earlier, ten kilometres directly in front of my vessel, deploying weapon hardpoints and two of its own Condor fighters. With my own ship at a relative velocity of nearly three kilometres per second, there was barely any time to react. Twin plasma accelerator blasts from the huge Class 4 dorsal hardpoints on the Corvette lanced across space, the white-purple spheres stripping away my Clipper’s shield envelope in a heartbeat. The Condors had barely cleared their fighter bays on the Corvette before they opened fire, their multi-cannons strafing down the full length of my ship. I just managed to wrestle the Clipper under the belly of the Corvette to avoid a collision, flashing past the larger vessel and back out of weapons range in a second and a half.
“Canopy compromised. Damage critical.” ASTRA’s voice hissed distantly in my ear. It took me a couple of seconds to orient myself and realise what had happened. It was almost impossible to breathe, and when I looked down, I understood why. It also explained why I could vaguely hear Tatiana screaming in panic and distress. I coughed, bending over forwards in my seat, metallic- tasting liquid bubbling in the back of my mouth and throat.
“Master! Master!” Tatiana shrieked, leaning over the console to try and pull me upright.
I glanced behind me, over my shoulder and saw the blood splattered across the rear bulkhead of the flight deck. I had been hit by a multi-cannon round that had pierced the canopy, halfway down my right hand side ribcage, leaving a 30 millimetre hole in the front of my suit that was already congealing with blood, clotting rapidly in the vacuum that now filled the bridge, the air having escaped through the hole in the canopy. The sabot had passed clean through me and my flight seat, taking most of my right lung with it. I was somewhat bewildered to find that the wound didn’t hurt, but I felt increasingly giddy from the internal bleeding. I could feel ruptured blood vessels leaking inside me. “Tatiana… Get out. Get out of here.”
“Master, no!” Tatiana screamed again, even as I pushed her hands away from me with the last of my strength.
“Tatiana, go. Get the ship out… Frame shi-” I prompted her again, my consciousness ebbing away. I tried to stay awake, wanting to be sure that she had obeyed my last instruction, but the last thing I saw was her still leaning over towards me as my senses were cloaked in darkness.