AEMON ROCHE – BOOK 1

Redemption

From the Bark & Byte Blog


Prologue – Fotla: Nav Beacon


“New contact: 4km.”

“Target.” I ordered ASTRA, my ship’s AI, to highlight the ship on my radar scanner and I checked the vessel’s type, faction allegiance and legal status. “Right then, who are you?”

I glanced down at the HUD as the scan completed, identifying the ship as a Viper Mark III. I deployed my weapons when I saw that the ship’s commander was affiliated with the Fotla Jet Corp, a local pirate group with ideas above their station. I had been assigned to thin out their ranks to send a message to their leadership that the Empire would not tolerate their presence in the system, nor their dishonourable tactics of shaking down unarmed cargo ships. The contract specified for the destruction of ten Jet Corp vessels. Earlier in the day, I had already taken out half a dozen of their ships, mainly low-rent Sidewinders and Eagles, plus one moderately upgraded Cobra Mark III. None of the engagements had been a serious test of either my ship or my piloting skill and I was hoping that this pilot would present more of a challenge.

“How much is he worth, ASTRA?”

“55,940 credits, my lord.”

“Three more like him and not only will that be mission complete, but I’ll also be able to afford an upgrade for my shield boosters, too. Power to weapons.”

I brought my Imperial Courier about, visually picking out the arrowhead-shaped silhouette of the Viper against the dazzling yellow globe of Fotla’s primary star. ASTRA adjusted the polarisation of my bubble canopy to compensate and prevent me from being blinded, allowing me to see that the pilot of the Viper had noticed my interest and had changed their course to intercept. I checked to see whether the pirate had deployed their weapons, noting that the Viper was armed with twin multi- cannons and rail guns; classic tools of the trade for a pirate seeking to disable ships to plunder their cargo.

“I’m not looking for trouble, Imperial.” the ship-to-ship radio crackled, the interference from the star’s intense magnetic field distorting the pirate’s voice.

“Then you shouldn’t fly for Jet Corp.” I replied, flicking the hat switch on my joystick with my thumb to target the Viper’s power plant. “Defend yourself, pirate.”

I lit the afterburners, boosting past the Viper before it could deploy its weapons.
“Flight assist off.” I ordered ASTRA, looking up to keep my eyes on the pirate ship as I pulled hard on the joystick to flip my Courier around to turn back on itself without losing velocity, the gimbals on my burst lasers tracking upwards to come to bear on the target as the Viper accelerated away, its thrusters leaving a glowing vapour trail behind them. I drifted behind the Viper, engaging my afterburners a second time to stay within weapons range, grunting as the acceleration pressed me back into my flight seat. The Viper’s shields coruscated as my twin burst lasers lit up the nacelles on the wingtips of my ship, the triple-thuds echoing around my cockpit as the weapons capacitors cycled megajoules of energy through the discharge cells of the lasers three times a second. I kept
the trigger depressed as the Viper began evasive manoeuvres, jinking randomly using its lateral thrusters to try and throw off the tracking algorithms of my gimballed weapons. I countered the gambit with short strafes from my own thrusters, the Viper pilot becoming increasing desperate as his shields started to buckle.

“Fuck you, Imperial!” the ship-to-ship radio hissed. “You’ll die for this!”

“Power surge detected.” ASTRA warned.

I threw my nimble Courier into a barrel roll, continuing to fire at the Viper as it suddenly flipped 180 degrees, thrusters flaring bright blue as the pirate disabled the fighter’s g-limiters and flight assistance software. The dual rail guns on the Viper’s nose flashed, the hyper-velocity projectiles crashing into my ship’s shields, perilously close to either side of my cockpit. The Courier rocked under the impact, but my shields held. I continued to roll wildly, strafing vertically as the Viper’s multi-cannons opened fire. Rapid, angry torrents of white-hot tracer bullets whipped past my canopy.

“Full power to systems.” The extra system power reinforced my shields as some of the multi-cannon rounds began to find their mark, allowing them to shrug off the maelstrom of blows of the tiny kinetic projectiles, which were more suited to shredding hull armour than degrading an energy shield envelope. I let my lasers cool down and checked the status of my quarry’s shields: 8%. It would be another couple of seconds before my burst lasers recharged to full capacity, but I needed to keep the Jet Corp pirate on the defensive. Our ships were only 400 metres apart, thrusting and strafing around each other at maximum g-force, trying to keep each other in the line of sight of our weapons. The Viper’s rail guns were on fixed mountings, so it was relatively easy for me to stay clear of their field of fire, but the gimballed multi-cannons were harder to avoid.

I tried to stay above the Viper’s centreline, so that the Viper’s hull blocked the firing solution its multi-cannons had to my ship, while leaving my own weapons in play. I kept the ventral hull of the Courier pointed towards the Viper, as I had not yet sprung my own unwelcome surprise on the pirate. My Courier was not only armed with two burst lasers, but also had a Class 2 Manticore Cannon on a gimballed mounting on its belly hardpoint. Under normal circumstances, I would wait until the shields of my target had fully collapsed before using it on a target, as its ammunition supply was limited. I had already shot 22 of my full combat load of 105 rounds during the engagements earlier today, so while I was not exactly running short on ammo, I still did not want to use the cannon profligately. The uranium-tipped sabot rounds the cannon fired were expensive, each one costing as much as a day’s docking fee. However, the Viper’s pilot was more capable than his Pilot Federation ranking of Competent suggested, so I wanted to end the battle quickly. One shot from the cannon would be all it would take to destroy his shields. I did not let the frenzied pinging of multi-cannon slugs ricocheting off my shields distract me from lining up the cannon shot. When the alignment of relative velocities between our two ships was perfect, I pressed the secondary trigger on my joystick with my thumb. I watched the uranium-tipped projectile crash through the remains of the Viper’s shields, the sabot round piecing the canopy of the Viper. The glass ruptured with an explosive decompression, the shards glittering in the starlight as the gas in the breached cockpit rushed outwards, freezing almost instantly in the vacuum.

“Incoming message, my lord.” ASTRA interjected. “Priority one.”

“For the love of… Can it, ASTRA! Haven’t you noticed we’re in the middle of a fight to the death here?” I snapped back, irritated. The Viper’s hull might have been breached, but the Viper was still mobile and hostile. Depending upon how much the pirate had spent on his RemLok life support system, he still had enough time to make a break for the nearest starport or try and take me down with him.

“My lord, it’s Imperial Navy Command.”

“Hold on. I need another minute here.” I fired the cannon again, the projectile ripping through the Viper’s armour to puncture its power plant. Orange flame spluttered through the hole in the hull plating. A quick check of the HUD showed that the integrity of the power plant was down to 63%. Two more shots would do it. I loosed a third cannon round, knocking the power plant down to 29%. The cannon’s autoloader system whirred as it ejected the spent clip of 5 rounds and retrieved another from the ammo rack below the hardpoint. It would be another few seconds before the cannon would be ready to fire again.

“Comms priorities being overridden.” ASTRA informed me, sounding distressed.

“Lord Roche, this is Command.” The haughty voice of Marquis Durante was the last thing I needed to hear. Especially in the middle of a dogfight.

“Stand by, Command. A little busy here.” I snapped back, trying to ignore the distraction. The Viper pilot knew that there was little chance of him winning our battle. He was running out of air and power, and I could easily outmanoeuvre his wounded vessel. Now increasingly desperate, the pirate disengaged their g-limiters and pulled one of the tightest Immelmann turns I had ever seen to come about, twisting to invert their ship simultaneously though a half-loop and engaging his afterburners, intent on ramming my ship.

“Full power to engines.” I reversed my throttle and engaged my vertical and lateral thrusters at full burn, barely avoiding a collision with the incoming Viper by a matter of centimetres. As the Viper turned for another pass, I rolled my ship and boosted away in a long, broad arc, engaging my dorsal thrusters to widen the radius of my turn. The Viper barrelled in straight towards me, afterburners blazing, but the tracking on my gimballed weapons was faster. My burst lasers, now fully recharged, flared again and I sealed the pirate’s fate with a final cannon round. The containment vessel surrounding the power plant of the Viper ruptured, the resulting explosion twisting and ripping apart the hull as if it were no more sturdy than aluminium foil. The yellow flames were quickly snuffed out by the vacuum, leaving only the charred, distorted hulk of the fighter behind. The HUD flashed, showing that I had been awarded with a claimable voucher for the Jet Corp pilot’s 55,940 credit bounty.

“Marquis Durante, my apologies for keeping you waiting.” I greeted my Naval Controller with the courtesy his rank was due. The fact I couldn’t abide the man was immaterial. Protocol had to be observed. “I just had to finish dealing with some pirate scum.”
“Indeed, Lord Roche. I have been monitoring your progress. Regrettably, I must cut short your mission in Fotla.”

“May I ask why, your grace?” I asked, worried. The Navy had never interrupted one of my assignments before.
“It is not your concern at this time, Lord Roche. You have carried out your instructions admirably to this point and you will be fully compensated for the mission.” Durante avoided answering my question directly, which worried me even more. “Report immediately to Adams Orbital. Governor Torval will brief you on your new assignment. Command out.”

I shifted my weight uneasily in my seat. It had been nearly a year since I had last seen Laure Torval, Governor of the Beta-1 Tucanae system. A woman with powerful family connections, who had granted me her patronage. A woman who had given me both my ship and my first mission with the Imperial Navy. A woman I had once been indentured to as an Imperial Slave for fifteen years.

“ASTRA, new course. Beta-1 Tucanae.” I said, swallowing with apprehension. “It’s time to go see an old friend.”


Chapter One – Beta-1 Tucanae: Adams Orbital


Serf Myles, Governor Torval’s adjutant, escorted me along familiar corridors I could have navigated myself, leading me through my childhood home to the dining hall, where my former Mistress was waiting to brief me on my new mission.

My relationship with Laure Torval was long-standing and complex. Our families had been closely allied for decades and despite the fact that Laure was nine years older than me, our respective parents had planned to formalise the de facto union between our families through marriage. I had been delighted with the idea when it was first mentioned to me during a joint vacation at Eurynome, the Roche family estate on Summerland, when I was only eight years old. Laure doted upon me like an elder sister, and had done for as long as I could remember. During those long, perfect summer days we spent almost every waking minute together, whether Laure was acting as a tutor, a confidante or a playmate, and I adored the time that I spent with her. It seemed pre-destined that we would unite our two families in a blood-bond. Everything changed when the Imperial Navy discovered that my mother had been using my father’s political connections to spy upon the Empire and pass on confidential information to the Federation for over a decade.

I was only ten years old when the Empire executed both my mother and father. Laure had been at my side, trying to comfort me with smooth, gentle fingertips stroking the nape of my neck, as I watched the sentence be carried out. It was not until over a decade later that I learned that she had saved me from an identical fate, having begged the Sector Prefect judging the case for clemency, arguing that I was too young to be held responsible for the crimes of my mother and the incompetence of my father for allowing such treachery to be conducted under his nose. The Prefect had reluctantly agreed, commuting my own death sentence to a 15 year term of Imperial Slavery. Laure had insisted that I be placed in her household, which seemed to her like a good idea at the time.

Thanks to the influence of her aunt, Senator Zemina Torval, Laure had just been installed as the system governor to Beta-1 Tucanae, a solar system at the fringes of Senator Torval’s sphere of influence. Laure was the youngest governor in the Empire, only nineteen years old, but she quickly showed that her aunt’s faith in her was not misplaced. For my own part, a ten year old orphan, blinded by grief, I quickly set about making her life as hellish as I could. Instead of recalling that Laure was my oldest and truest friend, in my eyes she became both a surrogate mother and authority figure – the only person I could rebel against for what I considered to be the unjust fate that had befallen my parents. And rebel I did, to such an extent that Laure forced me to wear a control collar worn by slaves to enforce discipline, an indignity she had initially wanted to spare me from when I became her legal responsibility. The collars were tamperproof and worn at the base of the neck, with a small hemispheric pod resting in the hollow between the clavicle bones. Their designs varied according to the vindictiveness of the slave masters. The most common contained a small explosive charge, specially shaped to sever the carotid arteries and spinal column of the wearer. Fortunately, this type of slave collar was rarely used in Imperial space, as most Imperial Slaves entered voluntarily into a servitude contract to pay off a debt of honour. In the rarer cases such as mine, where the contract had been imposed by the courts, the collars contained vials of chemicals to administer poisons of varying potency to a dissenting slave. The toxin contained in mine was not lethal, but simply unpleasant, the nitroglycerine-derived drug provoking uncontrollable
bouts of dizziness and nausea. The arguments of my adolescence with Laure were usually concluded by violent fits of vomiting after I had finally exhausted her reserves of patience, followed by periods of silent, miserable contrition as I cleaned up the mess of my own making, alone, save for the seismic headaches that accompanied a dose of the poison.

As I approached the end of my term of servitude, our relationship evolved yet again, from antagonism to intimacy. It had taken a decade for me to stop resenting her power over me and her privileged position of authority in the Empire, the Empire that I hated for depriving me of my parents, but Laure’s seemingly inexhaustible reserves of forgiveness and affection eventually helped me come to terms with my loss. On my twentieth birthday she invited me to dine alone with her in her chambers and we talked candidly about my past, the disgrace of my family and what kind of future I wanted. Laure persuaded me that the best hope I had for restoring honour to my family’s name was to demonstrate my loyalty to the Empire through service in the Imperial Navy. I had shown promise as a potential pilot in the aptitude tests, and Laure arranged for me to be tutored by one of the senior Navy instructors based at Adams Orbital. The rigorous training in combat tactics, ranging all the way from hand-to-hand brawls to full-scale fleet battles, not to mention the intensive flight training, gave me something positive to focus on and also kept me out from under Laure’s feet while she attended her duties as system governor. With the petty disputes and the simmering resentment I had directed towards Laure in my youth long forgotten, my energies now directed entirely towards my studies, I realised that I had come to look forward to spending time with her again. With our respective obligations keeping us busy for anything up to 14 hours a day, the short interludes of time we were able to spend together became ever more precious.
It still came as a shock, however, when one night Laure entered my bedchamber unannounced long after midnight and seduced me, adding me to a long list of conquests she had accrued since becoming governor, thanks to both her physical and political desirability.
“I’ve had many lovers, but you’re the only one whose company I actually enjoy.” Laure had told me at the time.

The marriage proposed and nominally arranged by our parents for when I came of age was out of the question, given the very public downfall of my parents in the eyes of the Emperor and high society in the Empire, but that did not deter Laure from discreetly keeping my bed warm in the privacy of her estate.

Eventually, a decade and a half after my parents’ execution, Laure presented me with three gifts. The first was the control chip to my slave collar. I used the chip to disable and remove the collar, but finally freed of the symbolic and literal constriction it had held over me, I couldn’t bring myself to destroy it or throw it away. It was an intrinsic part of what had shaped me as a man since the death of my mother and father; I could no more dispose of it as I could one of my arms or legs. Instead I kept it and repurposed it for my own ends. I replaced the poison cartridges with capsules containing a battle stimulant called Glide. The drug heightened reflexes and increased synapse fire rate by 80%, giving its user unnaturally rapid thought processes for a few minutes. The toxicity of the drug was significant enough to deter habitual usage, but Glide was considered to be harmless enough in small, irregular doses. The stimulant was popular with combat pilots for its effectiveness in giving them the ability to make decisions faster than their enemies at the critical part of a battle, but was so prohibitively expensive that few could afford it. I modified the collar so that it would be worn around  the wrist, rather than the neck, integrating the drug delivery pod into a fashionable silver metal wristband, disguising the flat disc attached to the chain-linked strap with a holographic timepiece.

Laure’s second gift was a prototype of the latest Imperial Courier design that had been recently developed at the nearby Imperial Fleet shipyards at Vequess. Designed to fulfil a long-range fighter role, the experimental Courier was sleek, fast and well-armed, with three weapon hardpoints capable of hosting Class 2 weapons, a significant improvement over the Eagle Mark II it was supposed to replace. The Courier also featured incredibly powerful shields for its size, giving the ship a resilience you would expect only from a much larger combat vessel, such as a Python. I had fallen in love instantly with the ship’s sweeping and elegant lines, which echoed the majesty of larger Imperial ships, but I had been rather less enamoured with the ship’s name: ICX-#1. Laure’s response to my disappointment was somewhat less than sympathetic.

“It’s a prototype, what were you expecting?”

“I don’t know.” I conceded with a shrug. “Something with a little more… you know…”

“Gravitas?” Laure snorted in derision, raising her eyebrows. “It’s a fighter, not a battlecruiser. Listen to you, 25 going on 155… You couldn’t find your gravitas with both hands.” Laure’s pale blue eyes glittered mischievously, her pun sparking a wicked thought. “Actually, that would be an appropriate name: Couldn’t Find His Gravitas With Both Hands.”

“No, no! You can’t!” I protested, too late, as Laure updated the ship’s registry using her wrist terminal.

“Can. Have. All done.” Laure’s snickering laugh haunted me for the rest of the day. The ship’s name would haunt me for a lot longer.
Her final gift was also double-edged: an opportunity to fulfil a combat contract for the Imperial Navy. Success would give me vital funds to start operating as a freelance ship commander and would also set me potentially on a path to redemption and recognition in the ranks of the Imperial Navy. Failure was unthinkable. If I was unable to complete the mission, the only possible outcomes were death or permanent exile from the Empire. With just 1000 credits in the bank and a kiss on the cheek, Laure had sent me on my way. She had been pleased when I returned with the mission complete, but as I travelled throughout the Empire to establish my reputation with the Imperial Navy, my visits to Adams Orbital became less and less frequent and our relationship gradually grew cooler and more professional as our duties kept us apart.
*
My throat was dry by the time Myles opened the door to the dining hall, announcing my arrival as I stepped into the opulent, oak-panelled room. Governor Torval sat alone at the head of the vast mahogany table, picking deftly at the array of platters before her, retrieving bite-sized morsels of party food that were undoubtedly the leftovers from a diplomatic reception held earlier that day. I noticed immediately that she had dyed her wavy, waist-length hair a luxurious, glistening black with dark blue highlights to accentuate the delicate gold stitching of her full-length white silk robe. The robe’s bodice panels hugged her flanks to emphasize the curve of her hips and waist and the front of the robe was immodestly split from neck to navel to permit a tantalising glimpse of her deep cleavage. A familiar tingle rippled down my spine.

“That’ll be all, Myles. See to it that we’re not disturbed. I won’t be taking calls or appointments for the rest of the day.” Laure dismissed him without even looking up from the table, hunting instead for a wafer-thin slice of very rare beef with a silver, two-pronged fork. The adjutant retreated in silence, closing and locking the door behind him.

“Governor. You wished to see me?” I greeted her formally, waiting for permission to approach.
Laure finally looked up and smiled, the stern visage she habitually presented to her servant melting away, her eyes becoming warm and welcoming. “Aemon, please. We’re alone. There’s no need for that. Come and join me, please.” Laure pointed to the seat next to her, indicating where I should sit, watching me carefully as I walked the ten metres from the opposite end of the table. “You look well.”
“Thank you, Laure. So do you.” I took my seat and appraised her more closely. Laure had not changed at all in the eleven months since our last meeting. Despite the pressures of her job, she still seemed as fresh-faced and happy as she had been as a teenager.

“It’s good to see you, Aemon. I’ve missed you.” Her tone carried a mild hint of reproach.

“I’m sorry I haven’t called. The Navy have been keeping me busy.”

“I know. I’ve seen the reports. You’re impressing people in high places. I’m told that you’re to be promoted to Baron soon.” Laure paused, indicating the array of food on the table. “Have you eaten? Please, help yourself. I can recommend the Carpaccio. Kobe beef, shipped in from Witchhaul this morning.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” I filled a gilt-edge porcelain plate with a towering pile of delicacies, imported from all over the Empire and the Old Worlds. As a slice of the Kobe beef Carpaccio dissolved exquisitely in my mouth, a tall square crystal decanter filled with a glistening, mercury-like liquid caught my eye. “Is that Lavian Brandy?”

Laure’s long, curled tresses undulated languidly as she shook her head. “Eranin Pearl Whisky.”

“Even better. May I?”

Laure selected a heavy, thick-bottomed crystal tumbler and poured me a generous double measure of the strong liquor, hesitating only slightly before doing the same again for herself. We toasted each other with a clink of the rims of our glasses before simultaneously taking a large sip of the vanilla and oak-scented spirit. Laure closed her eyes in satisfaction as the alcohol burned the back of her throat, almost purring in contentment. “Delicious. You can practically taste the makers’ contempt for the Federation.”
We ate in silence until I could no longer bear the tension building in the room. “What’s this about, Laure? Why the summons? Why did I get pulled from the assignment in Fotla? Have I done something wrong?”

“No, no.” Laure looked away, distressed, and refilled our glasses with the metallic-toned whisky. “On the contrary. Something terrible has happened, and the Empire needs you. But I wanted to be the one to tell you. And to give you the chance to decline.”

“Decline what?”

“The opportunity of a lifetime.” Laure stood, upset, walking away from the table.
“Laure, what are you talking about? You’re not making sense. I’ve never seen you like this before.”

Laure turned back to face me, holding back tears in the corners of her eyes. “Aemon, save your questions. There will be plenty of time for them in the morning. I need you tonight, not Lord Roche.”

She opened the door to her bedchamber, and stood at the threshold, looking at me with a hunger that had nothing to do with the food on the table. Laure unfastened the back of her ornate gown and let it fall to the floor. I stood as she retreated into her room. Resigned to my fate, I followed her inside, picking up the robe from where it lay before securing the door.
*
It was still three hours before the station’s artificial dawn when Laure awoke in my arms with a soft, satisfied sigh. Her hands closed around my wrists, drawing my arms more tightly around her. Her skin was as soft and warm as the silk sheets that enveloped us like a cocoon. “I wish we could stay like this for an eternity.”

“Laure, what’s wrong with you? Since when did you become sentimental? What the hell is going on?”

“Aemon.” Laure turned over and looked into my eyes, her gaze unflinching, yet vulnerable as she put her arms around my neck. “I’m sorry… You don’t understand. We might never be able to do this again.”

“Any time you’d like to start making sense would be fine by me. What did you mean by ‘the opportunity of a lifetime’, and what does it have to do with me being pulled from the Jet Corp assignment?”

“Three days ago, we received word that a leading Federation Admiral, Lars Stenberg, had been sighted in Kappa Fornacis. An undercover asset we had in the area, Agent Zeta, was ordered to capture or kill Stenberg.”

“I presume they failed.”

“Worse. Zeta tipped off the target and they both withdrew into Federation space.” Laure drew me closer. “The Navy wants them both terminated, with extreme prejudice. And they want you to do it.”
“A rogue Imperial Navy asset would be a PR coup for the Federation if word ever got out.”
“Exactly. Time is of the essence. If Zeta defects to the Federation, the fallout would be incalculable.”
“If time is so critical, why am I here and not already in hyperspace?”
“It’ll still be a few hours before all the necessary upgrades to your ship can be installed. And if you do go after them, you need to know what you’re getting into. Zeta was the best agent we had. Elite. Over thirteen thousand kills. And Stenberg is equally as dangerous. He’s a veteran of the 3260 war.”

“Why me?”

“It’s a test of your commitment and loyalty. If you could succeed, you would be a hero of the Empire. It would go a long way toward the restoration of your family’s honour. Even Zemina would have to admit your usefulness as an asset.” The hopeful look on Laure’s face did not last long, however. “But it’s just as likely that you could be killed. It’s a no-lose proposition as far as the Navy is concerned. Either you return a hero, or the last member of a family of traitors is disposed of.”
“What if I refuse to take the mission?” It did not surprise me that the Navy could be so mercenary, but hearing the confirmation of it from Laure’s mouth was chilling.

“You’ll live. But you’ll never work for the Navy again. And you’ll never be welcome in Empire space.”

“So I don’t really have a choice.”

“You always have a choice, but a chance like this to settle the debt of suspicion that surrounds your family name won’t come again.” Laure warned, her grip tightening around my shoulders. “There’s only really one logical decision, even if it’s a dangerous one.”
“Eliminate Stenberg and Zeta, and try not to get killed in the process.”
“It’s the only way we’ll ever be able to see each other again.” Laure gave me a ravenous, lingering kiss that left me breathless for more. “And if you’re successful, we could get married.”
“Zemina would never allow it.” I sighed. Laure’s aunt had been hostile to the idea when it had been originally proposed, when both of us were little more than children. Following my family’s disgrace, Senator Torval had been consistently adamant that she would never allow her niece to marry the son of a traitor to the Empire.

“It wouldn’t be up to her. Not if you were the saviour of the Navy’s honour and reputation. You’d be promoted to Viscount at the very least. We’d be free from that venomous old witch’s interference once and for all.”
“Laure!” It shocked me that she could speak so badly about her own aunt.
“I’m sick of that frigid crone’s meddling in my affairs. Can you believe she tried to have me married off to that incompetent fool who pretends to run Darius?”
“Governor Malachai?”
“Yes, him.” Laure shuddered in disgust. “The very thought makes my skin crawl. The only man I’m going to marry is you. And I’ve waited long enough.”
“I’m sorry I’m going to have to keep you waiting a little while longer.”
“It is what you want, isn’t it?”
“More than anything.” I replied, gasping with surprise as Laure pressed my shoulders flat on the bed and slid atop of me, her face shrouded in the shadows cast by her hair; the soft, dark tresses tickling my chest.
“Good. We’ve got another couple of hours before your ship will be ready. Let’s make the most of them.”
*
Laure walked with me to the docking bay when the message came through that the work being done on my Imperial Courier had been completed. Laure waited by the ship as I put on my flight suit, the rubberised, carbon nanotube reinforced fabric forming a skin-tight barrier capable of resisting the vacuum of space and its accompanied temperature extremes. It was a standard design, but one that had been refined by the lessons learned in over a thousand years of mankind’s exploration of the stars. A small hump between my shoulder blades contained a reservoir of fluid that could be pumped throughout the capillaries permeating the suit in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, acting as either a coolant or heating system, depending upon the ambient temperature of the external environment. Tiny electrical servos studded the fabric to ensure that the flexibility of the pilot’s joints were not compromised, which was especially important for fighter pilots, who needed a more sensitive feel over their controls than other pilots. I didn’t put on the RemLok helmet straight away, choosing instead to carry it under my arm. I found the helmet too claustrophobic to wear for long periods, so I only ever wore it when ship-to-ship combat seemed imminent. Laure was waiting for me next to the open cargo ramp at the rear of the Courier when I walked the short distance from the Commanders’ Lounge to the landing pad. It was immediately obvious that the rapier-like vessel had undergone a significant overhaul. The usual white and grey paint scheme was noticeably more reflective and luminous under the harsh artificial lights of the docking bay. I could see that one of the shield booster modules and my kill warrant scanner had been replaced with a frame shift wake scanner and chaff launcher, and even an untrained eye would have been able to see that the grill- like frame shift drive emitters across the hull had been replaced wholesale with a model that I had never seen before.

“Other than the shiny new paint job, what have you done to my ship, Governor?” I reverted to a formal form of address, now that we were in a public space and were potentially being watched.

“It’s not just a paint job, Lord Roche. The armoured bulkheads have been replaced with the very latest in mirrored, laser-ablative composite armour. Both of your targets prefer laser weapons. It should give you a decisive defensive advantage in any engagement.” Laure stroked the polished mirror surface of the ship’s port weapon nacelle with a gloved hand. “Your internal compartments have been reconfigured for self-sufficient running and interdiction hunting: a fuel scoop, a frame shift interdiction module, shield cell bank and a hull reinforcement package. All A-rated quality, of course.”

“Thank you, Governor. That will be a great help.” I nodded my thanks, grateful that she had gone to both the trouble and the expense. The Imperial Navy might not care if I survived the mission, but Laure clearly did.

“That’s not the best part, Commander.” Laure’s eyes blazed with pride as she gazed up at me. “I was able to procure a military-grade frame shift drive. You will need to be able to out-jump and out-pace your quarry between star systems, hence the frame shift wake scanner. Your hyperspace range should now be just over 28 light years. I was also able to upgrade your burst lasers to beam lasers.”
“How much did all this cost, Governor?” I gulped, taking in the enormity of Laure’s investment in my safety. She took my arm and drew me closer to the ship standing in the cargo bay entrance, between the main thrusters, where we could not be seen by any of the cameras surrounding the landing pad.

“More than you can afford.” Laure scoffed quietly, under her breath.

“How long will it take for me to pay you back?”
“About a hundred years of happy marriage. Consider it an investment in our future.” Laure whispered. “I love you, Aemon.”
“I love you, too.” I whispered back into her ear. It was only protocol that prevented me from kissing her out of gratitude. “Anything else I need to know?”

“I’ve uploaded the latest intelligence we have to your ship’s AI. It’ll brief you on the way.” Laure paused and turned back to me as she stepped back down the cargo ramp. “They know you’re coming for them. Be careful.”
“I will.”
“Aemon, don’t get boiled.”
“Laure… if I don’t make i-“

“You will.” Laure interrupted me firmly, a self-conscious hand gently caressing her belly. “You have to. One way or another, our families are getting blood-bonded.”

I swallowed hard and nodded, not needing to ask what she meant. I could see the answer in the apprehensive look on her face, and I understood why she had insisted on being the one to brief me about the mission. “I won’t be long. I promise.”
“Farewell, Commander. Good hunting.” Laure gave me a brave, encouraging smile. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. By the time I had collected my thoughts and reopened my eyes to say goodbye, she was gone.

 


Chapter Two – Kappa Fornacis: Harvestport


The intelligence package provided to me by Laure did not prove to be especially illuminating. Other than brief dossiers about Stenberg and Zeta, along with the latest known specifications for their respective ships, there was very little in the way of firm information for me to go on. After Stenberg’s Dropship had been sighted by an informant at the Kappa Fornacis nav point, the report had been fast-tracked to Zeta’s handler, who immediately dispatched the agent to take the Federation Admiral into custody or destroy him in the effort. Zeta had successfully interdicted Stenberg’s ship while it was in transit to Harvestport, but here was where things had started to go awry. Instead of following orders and engaging Stenberg in combat, Zeta had instead warned the Federation Admiral that he was heading into a trap, and they had fled together in the direction of Federal space.

The data trail would have ended there, given that Zeta had disabled the location tracker on their Imperial Clipper after interdicting Admiral Stenberg, had it not been for a local freebooter that had spotted the interception of Stenberg’s ship and diverted their own course to investigate. With no other leads, I had flown to Harvestport myself to track down the commander who was the last known person to have had a confirmed sighting of Zeta and Stenberg in the sector.

Having safely docked my Courier, I exchanged my flight suit for a plain, utilitarian outfit in black cotton, with a padded leather doublet worn over the top of my shirt. The lining of the doublet was inlaid with a kevlar and carbon nanotube weave to provide lightweight, but effective protection against blades and projectile weapons. Kappa Fornacis was an independent system, meaning that I was exposed to double the risk of hostility from not just the locals, but also any visiting Federation citizens. While my clothing lacked the usual ostentatious flair of Imperial tailoring, its high-quality finish would still mark me as an outsider and inevitably draw suspicion from the locals. Wary of taking chances, I strapped on my belt, complete with a high-powered flechette pistol tucked securely away in a bespoke black canvass friction holster. I settled the dart gun on my left hip, feeling its reassuring weight balanced out by the three spare 10 round magazines held in pouches on the opposite side of my waist. I hoped that the mere sight of the long-barrelled weapon would put off the kind of casual thugs that filtered through a third-rate system on the fringes of Empire and Federation space, as I was sure to encounter a multitude of them tonight.

A discreet inquiry, accompanied by an impressively large bribe, had convinced the harbourmaster to divulge the identity of the pilot that had intruded upon Zeta and Stenberg’s collusion. With the incentive of an extra two thousand credits, she gave me the name of the establishment where he was most likely to be found. Inevitably, it was a bar. I already knew Feehan’s well-earned reputation from previous visits to Harvestport. It was a place where all manner of business, both legitimate and clandestine, was carried out and I had always found its bartenders remarkably well-informed, even if their information was somewhat pricey. I was sure that a quick visit would be able to glean some information of value, but even if it didn’t, it was worth the trip if only for the quality of the only genuine Irish stout available in the sector.

By local timekeeping, it was only mid-afternoon when I arrived at the bar, but the atmosphere was already raucous. An especially rowdy bunch of privateers dominated one corner of the bar, drinking Lavian Brandy direct from the bottle and singing the lyrics of obscene shanties, out of tune, at the top of their collective lungs. The sound-dampening privacy fields surrounding the drinking booths contained the worst of it, but occasionally their drunken yelling could be heard over the top of the ambient synth music that permeated the rest of the tavern. I ignored them as I made my way from the entrance to the bar, trying not to react as I noticed that my uncommonly neat and expensive clothing had attracted attention from some of the scruffier independent pilots seated at tables around the edges of the room. While not exactly hostile, none of the pilots gave me a look as welcoming as the tall, lithe and freckled redhead behind the bar did.

“Why, why! Aemon Roche! I’ve not seen that face in a long time… what can I get ya, darlin’?”

“A jar of the black stuff, thank you Mara.”

“Comin’ right up. Are ya here for business or pleasure, darlin’?”

“Business.”

“Shame.” Feehan’s niece shook her head sadly, her green eyes undressing me as she slid a tall, thick glass of jet black stout across the scored and stained mahogany bar top.

“Well, mostly business.” I replied, smiling when I noticed the starburst pattern Mara had traced in the unctuous white foam head of the beer. I took a long draw of the cold, incomparably rich liquid, smacking my lips to suck in a mouthful of air to allow the complex aftertaste of the stout to develop on my tongue. “I swear you could live on this stuff.”
“Only if ya had a second liver implanted. What ails ya, Aemon? Waddaya need?” Mara’s flirtatious manner evaporated, switching mode from airheaded barmaid to savvy information broker in an instant.
“I need to find someone. I’m told they’re a regular here.”

“Go on.”

“You know a guy called Ol Clark? Is he around?”

“Oh, yeah. Poor Ollie. He’s drowning his sorrows over there.” Mara pointed with her sharp chin to a dimly lit table tucked away in a corner of the tavern. The bearded man sitting slumped over the table looked thoroughly drunk and thoroughly miserable. “Got his cargo shot out from under him four days ago, poor bastard. Now he can’t afford his repairs, or the load for his next run.”

“Tough break.”

“It was one of your guys, too. Imperial Clipper.” Mara warned. “Don’t expect him to chit-chat.”
“Got anything that might loosen his tongue?”
“I might have something.” Mara reached under the bar and placed two small paper packets emblazoned with luminous green circles next to my glass.

“A user as well as a runner, huh?”

“Only a casual one. Looks like he could do with a pick-me-up, the poor dear.” Mara selected a one litre bottle of 3281 vintage Leestian Evil Juice from the rack of bottles behind her and set it down in front of me, along with a pair of sturdy shot glasses. The viscous crimson liquor seethed in the bottle from the vibration, almost as if the drink was possessed. “This might help, too.”

“Cheers, Mara.” I tapped the bar twice with my credit chip to settle the bill. The screen inlaid on the chip briefly displayed a cost running nearly into four figures. I was being charged tourist, Imperial rates, but I didn’t even flinch. The information Mara had given me was worth the money and was a veritable bargain compared to the bribe the harbourmaster had required. I stashed the packets of Onion Head into a pocket and drained the remaining two-thirds of my pint of stout in a single gulp. It was almost criminal to rush drinking the divine black nectar, but knew I would need a good layer to protect my stomach from the impending assault by the potent Leestian spirit. I took the bottle of Evil Juice in one hand and the shot glasses in the other before striding quickly across the bar and sitting opposite the forlorn freebooter who was the unwitting keystone for my entire mission.

“Fuck orf.” Ol drawled, his head still flat on the table, his eyes closed as he wheezed labouredly, sucking in air to try and repel the effects of a monstrously large hangover. “Lemme alone.”

“That’s no way to talk to your new best friend.” I poured us both a measure of the cloying Leestian spirit and nudged a glass across the table, leaving the rim beneath the tip of his nose to let him sniff the potent vapours evaporating from the liquid.
Ol snorted audibly, partially lifting his head from the table and opening one eye to regard me quizzically before slurping the liquid offering I had given him. “This is good stuff.”

“I take good care of my friends, Ol.” I assured him, taking a delicate sip from my own glass before topping them both up. The grizzled pilot levered himself upright to take a proper look at me and it didn’t take long for an ugly sneer to distort his features as he recognised the origin of my tailoring.

“Imperial.” he hissed, recoiling slightly, but still taking another slug of liquor. “Tell me why shouldn’t I tell you to pike off right now? Especially after what your friend in the Clipper did to my ship…”
“The commander of the Clipper that relieved you of your cargo is no friend of mine, I assure you.” I replied, soothingly. “Anyway, if I go, so does the free booze you’re currently pouring down your neck.”
“Good point.” Ol conceded, rubbing his eyes and temples to ward off a headache. “What do you want, Imperial?”
“I’m interested in this Clipper that ripped you off. Tell me what happened.”
“Why are you so interested?” Ol’s eyes narrowed, suspicious, before his thoughts returned back to his immediate predicament. “And what’s in it for me?”

“Other than this fine bottle of Evil Juice?” I saw that he would need something more substantial than a night’s alcoholic oblivion to tempt him into revealing the information I wanted. “Answer a few questions for me and the holes in the hull of your Cobra will miraculously disappear.”

“Who the hell are you, man? Imperial Black Ops? INRA?”
“I just need to find that Clipper. You don’t need to know any more than that. You’ve got a choice here. If you don’t talk, I walk. And you don’t get to run your next load of Onion Head into the Federation.” I stared Ol down, my voice quiet and cold. “What’s it going to be? Are you going to tell me what I want and get flying again, or are you going to sit there getting drunk until you run out of money and the bar owns what’s left of your ship?”
“Gimme that fucking bottle.” Ol spat as he snatched the Evil Juice from across the table. “Ask your bloody questions.”
“We can start with you telling me how your ship got shot up.”
“By being stupid, that’s how.”
“Come on, Ol. I’m going to need more than that.”
“Okay, okay. I’d just dropped out of hypo at the nav beacon, on a normal run, nothing illegal. Land enrichment systems.”
“To help grow the Onion Head better.” I interjected, making Ol bristle with annoyance.
“I was just about to kick in the FSD when I noticed something odd in my contact list.”
“The Clipper.”
“Right. Not exactly a common ship ’round these parts. So I give it a minute’s head start and follow it into supercruise. That’s when I see what it’s after: a goddamn Federal Dropship.” Ol downed another shot of juice and grimaced. “I keep my distance as the Clipper interdicts the Dropship. The Fed doesn’t put up any resistance at all, drops straight out of SC, and I figure this is going to be a short fight. I wait around a while before I lock in on their FSD wake, hoping for a little something precious I might be able to salvage out of the wreckage.”
“But there wasn’t any wreckage.”
“Nope. Just the two ships, nose to nose. Hanging there, hardpoints stowed.”
“What do you think they were up to?”
“Talking, I ‘spect.”
“Did you overhear any chatter?”
“Not a peep. Must’ve been sending text on a tight beam.”
“What happened next?”
“I don’t think they appreciated being disturbed. As soon as they clocked me the Dropship turned tail and jumped out. The Clipper kicked my ass. One mean ship. Not some fucking amateur with turrets, neither. Gimballed beams and cannons. Melted my shields in five seconds flat and then took out my thrusters. Then I got hit with this.” Ol pried a cuboid as long and wide as his palm and only a couple of centimetres thick out from a leg pouch and slid it across the table toward me.
“Cargo hatch limpet. Miniaturised and top of the line quality, too. Not many people can afford these.” I inspected the surprisingly heavy composite and metal prism closely. The power cell still had enough energy left in it to crack two more hatches. Multi-use limpets were illegal throughout the Empire and Federation, making them rare enough to be able to trace their origin and sale. Ol didn’t object when I slid the limpet into my pocket: he was too busy refilling his glass.
“Like I said, not an amateur. A real pro. Emptied my cargo racks and then shot the canisters right in front of me.” Ol lamented, still drinking steadily. “I’d sunk all my capital into that run. 180k. Now I’m fucking cleaned out. Dead in the water.”
“You were lucky not to get your power plant popped.”
“I don’t feel very fucking lucky, Imperial.”
“What happened next?”
“The Clipper followed the Dropship into hyper while I was putting out the fires and doing a system reboot to get some thruster capacity back.”
“Did you get an ID on either or the ships, or where they went?”
“The ship and commander ID codes were scrambled, but I did clock their hyperspace vector. LHS- 1163.”
“Federation territory.” I frowned. It now looked increasingly likely that Zeta was trying to defect. It would be difficult to intervene, given that Zeta had a four day head start, but I had no option other than to try.
“If you’re going to go after them, try Hunziker Terminal. It’s the only station in the system large enough to dock a Clipper.” Ol advised.
“Thanks, Ol. I think you just earned yourself an extra bonus.” I palmed him the two packets of Onion Head. Ol looked at them, and then at me, stunned.

“You know, you’re alright, man. For an Imperial.” The look on his face was almost one of affection. Almost. “Anything else? Or are you going to get my ship fixed up now?”
I stood, tucking away my seat under the table. “Don’t worry. You’ll be ready to fly by the time you come down.”
“Come down?” Ol replied, momentarily confused. He fiddled with one of his packets of the psychedelic Onion Head seeds for a few seconds before the joke sank in. “Oh, yeah. Right. Very good.”
“See you around, Ol. Watch yourself out there.”
“Watch out yourself, Imperial.” The smuggler raised a full glass unsteadily in a grudging salute.
I made the necessary arrangements with the harbourmaster to have the major damage to Ol’s ship repaired and was just leaving the harbourmaster’s office to return to my ship when I saw a flash of  movement in the edges of my peripheral vision. I felt a hand grab at the handle of my dart gun, only for it to be recalled with a loud yelp, as the fingerprint scanner on the pistol grip delivered a 50,000 volt shock, having identified that the person trying to take the weapon wasn’t the authorised owner. Instinctively, I ducked a large, meaty fist that was aimed towards my face at high velocity by a second thug on the opposite site of the door. I span and kicked the man who had tried to take my gun in the centre of the chest, simultaneously catching the wrist of the pugilist with one hand, the fingers of my other hand clamping over his fist, twisting hard to dislocate the wrist and lever him onto his back. I let go of the extended arm with one hand, keeping the elbow and wrist locked, dropping to one knee to thrust forward with the heel of my free palm, smashing the would-be boxer’s elbow with a sickening crack, his arm bending with a geometry never intended by nature. Before his friend could recover his feet and get back in the fight, I drew my dart pistol and shot both men through the kneecaps, two rounds each. The thugs both screamed in agony, clutching at their legs, trying to staunch the bleeding. As I paused to catch my breath and get my bearings – the whole fracas had taken less than 5 seconds – I became aware of the sound of enthusiastic applause from the corridor behind me.

“Oh, bravo! Well done!” The connoisseur of violence continued clapping as I aimed my dart gun towards the source of the sound. An attractive, willowy brunette with straight, chin-length hair, wearing a battered leather flight suit emblazoned with pirate markings I didn’t recognise leant casually against the wall, laughing with glee as she saw the other men, also wearing similarly-marked flight suits, continue to writhe on the floor behind me. “Zenith and Sharky were so sure they could take you, too.”
“Were they really?” I kept my dart gun aimed at the woman, even though she appeared unarmed and non-hostile. Appearances could be deceptive. Now that I had been able to take a good look at their faces, I remembered them as being part of the large group I had seen in Feehan’s earlier, with the questionable taste in bawdy songs. “They should have stuck to singing. They have more talent at it.”
“Ha-ha-ha! Oh, I like you, Roche. It’s going to be a shame to have to kill you if you keep sticking your nose in where it’s not wanted.” The woman crossed her arms, her tone a mix of admiration, annoyance and melancholy.

“How do you know who I am? Who are you working for?”

“I’m only going to warn you once. Don’t go after Zeta. Not if you value your life.”

“Brave talk for someone on the wrong end of a gun. Who are you, pirate?”

“You can call me Suzie. My associates call me Thunda.”
The barrel of my pistol wavered uncertainly. “You’re Thunda Sue?”
“Ah-huh.” Her brown eyes sparkled wickedly as she smiled, eyeing me hungrily, like a wolf would regard a lame deer. “Weren’t expecting that, were you, sugar?”

“I should kill you where you stand.” The Thunda Crew was the single-most notorious pirate gang in the sector, with a fearsome reputation for ruthlessness and barbarity. The bounty on the group’s
leader, Thunda Sue, stood at nearly a million credits. I steadied the dart gun, aiming directly for her heart.
“You won’t though, will you?” The Pirate Queen smiled, walking towards me slowly with a confident, sensuous sway of her hips. “Far too dishonourable for an agent of the Imperial Navy to murder an unarmed woman isn’t it, sweetie?”
Thunda Sue extended a slender finger and placed it on the end of the barrel of my weapon, lowering it slowly to the floor, pressing it downwards into my friction holster. My heart raced, partly in fear and partly in excitement. It wasn’t every day you got to meet one of the most wanted people in the galaxy. She put one hand over mine and teased my fingers away from the grip of the dart gun, leaving it secure in the canvass sheath on my left hip.

“That’s better, isn’t it, sugar?” Her icy gaze met my eyes and I found that I couldn’t move when she gently caressed my cheek with surprisingly soft fingertips. “Pray that we’ll never meet again, Roche. Because if we do, it’ll be in space. And you will need God to help you.”

“We’ll see.” I replied, trying not to show how intimidating I found it being so close to her. Thankfully, my voice didn’t tremble.
“I guess we will.” Thunda shook her head, frowning, saddened that she hadn’t been able to dissuade me from my quest. She shrugged, grabbed the armscyes of my doublet with both hands, pulling me to her by the shoulders, and kissed me directly on the mouth. I tasted the Lavian Brandy on her breath and was taken aback by just how good a kisser a multi-murderess pirate gang leader could be. Eventually, she released her hold on me and gave me a push in the direction of the docking bay. “I’ll have this mess cleaned up. Get out of here, Roche. Before I change my mind.”

I didn’t need to be told twice.

 


Chapter Three – LHS-1163: Nav Beacon


 

The spaceframe of (…)Gravitas(…), my Imperial Courier, shuddered as it plunged back into realspace, the FSD spinning down with rhythmic thuds. I zeroed the throttle as I gained my bearings, not wanting to stray too close to the system’s primary star as I accessed the navigation HUD on the holographic panel to the left of the combat scanner to select the system’s largest station, Hunziker Terminal. LHS-1163 was a binary system, the secondary star orbiting an average of nearly 86,000 light seconds away from the star whose million-degree corona my ship was currently surfing. The ethereal solar wind buffeted the ship as I eased it further into the star’s atmosphere at the relatively low velocity of 100km/s, topping up my main tank with the fuel scoop. Its powerful magnetic fields channelled a third of a tonne of hydrogen plasma per second into the Courier’s fuel tank, so after only a few seconds, I was able to redirect my velocity vector towards my destination, the heat and radiation of the star receding quickly into the distance as I brought up the throttle to maximum, the ship’s drive hurling my vessel through ten-dimensional space faster than light.

Given that the LHS-1163 government was allied to the Federation, I knew that any reception I was likely to receive here would be much less welcoming than the frosty indifference I had been given in Kappa Fornacis. While I held the Imperial Navy rank of Lord, technically I was an independent Commander, as I was not formally allied to any political faction. In theory, I ought to be able to expect free passage throughout Federation space. The practical reality was rather different. I wondered how long it would take for one of the local law enforcement officers to take note of my Empire-made ship and demand a stop-and-search inspection. To help with my cover story, I had taken on a couple of data package transport jobs from the Kappa Fornacis bulletin board. Stowed safely in my ship’s computer were a pair of 3D printer designs for the newest models of autonomous mining drone. The money I was being paid to ensure that the schematics reached their intended owners without being intercepted by corporate saboteurs was considerable, nearly 200,000 credits. Money I could use to grease palms with for information on my targets. As I had little else to do other than keep an eye on the contact scanner while I made the transit of over one hundred and seventy Sol-Earth distances from LHS-1163 A to the starport, I opened a hyperwave channel to call to Laure at Adams Orbital. Much to my surprise, she answered straight away, rather than shunting my call via her adjutant to make me leave a message.

“Aemon, where are you? Is everything alright?”
“I’m fine. I’m heading for Hunziker Terminal, following up a lead on Zeta.”
“Hunziker, that’s in LHS-1163… watch your step there, Aemon. It’s Stenberg’s backyard. He has a base there.”
“Do you know where?”

“It’s off the grid. You won’t find it on any system maps. But if you head out to Carson Enterprise, you’ll find that it has a companion station in an anti-phase orbit. It doesn’t have a target beacon, you’ll have to find it visually.”
“Same orbital period and inclination, but on the other side of the planet? Clever. Nice way to mask obvious traffic to and from the station, as well.”

“Do you think Stenberg and Zeta might be in the system?”
“It’s a possibility. They definitely passed through here, according to the smuggler whose ship they trashed in Kappa Fornacis. Laure, I need a favour. I’m getting ASTRA to send you the serial number on a hatch breaker unit Zeta hit my informant with. Can you find out where it was sold? I’m going to need another lead if things run dry here.”
“Receiving the data now. I’ll have my people look at it right away.”

“Thanks, Laure.”
“Need anything else?”
“Some more info on Zeta would be nice. They seem to have an odd taste in friends.”
“What do you mean?”
“You were right about Zeta knowing I was coming. What I didn’t expect was that Zeta was going to have someone watching out for me.”
“I trust that you put Zeta’s thugs in their place.”
“The thugs, yes. The Pirate Queen, no.”
“Pirate Queen? Do you mean who I think you mean?” Laure’s voice rose an octave in panic.

“Suzie has remarkably good taste in Lavian Brandy.” I deadpanned, letting Laure try to deduce for herself how I had come by such information. “How in the hells does a woman like that end up working as an enforcer for a rogue intelligence agent?”
“Suzie?! You’re on first name terms, now? How- no, actually, I don’t want to know.” Laure spluttered, before answering my question, sounding increasingly frustrated. “I’ve no idea how. Since Zeta went AWOL I can’t get any details about their service record or background, and believe me, I’ve tried. It’s all been classified. I’d need Senator-level privileges to get anything you might find useful.”
“What about Thunda Sue? Could you keep me updated with her movements?”

“I will. For the moment, her ship Kurgan is still berthed at Kappa Fornacis.”
“Kurgan? That’s an unusual name.”
“It’s appropriate enough. A kurgan is a burial mound.”
“Great. She made it pretty clear that I was next on the list to go underground if I kept going after Zeta.”
“Keep up the pressure on Stenberg.” Laure advised. “If Zeta gets wind of it, they might get nervous, and that might make them call in the Thunda Crew for extra protection. Your new ‘friend’ Suzie might lead you directly to Zeta.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Thanks, Laure. I’ll be in touch.”
“Fly safe, Aemon. Good hunting.”

I shut down the comms channel as I began to throttle down on my final approach to Hunziker Terminal. The supercruise transit had been remarkably uneventful. While there were no less than six ships from the local police force patrolling the system in my immediate vicinity, all of them appeared to be studiously ignoring me, concentrating instead on heading over to the nav beacon at the system’s primary star. I eased my Courier into looping trajectory, ducking below and then back into the ecliptic plane of the system, aiming to enter into orbit between Hunziker Terminal and its parent planet. The less-direct path would slightly extend my flight time in supercruise, but would also make it harder for my ship to be interdicted by a hostile vessel. Anyone wanting to interdict my ship would need to duck further out of the ecliptic plane to achieve an intercept vector, advertising their intentions long before they were able to strike. I kept my eyes on the scanner, relaxing when I saw that no-one was obviously trying to get aft of my ship to establish an interdiction link. I dropped out of supercruise only 10km from the Ocellus starport, it’s spherical docking bay glinting in the planetshine scattered from the thin atmosphere of the station’s orbital parent body. The station was five kilometres long, from docking port to radiator spire. The docking bay was where all the real business was done, a metal and composite sphere just over a kilometre in diameter, which contained the station’s commodities market, shipyard and recreational centres. Behind the docking bay were the habitation modules, which took up the next kilometre of its length, with the final half of the station being given over to technical functions, rather than living space. Colossal power reactors, solar arrays and radiator panels, along with recycling plants for air, water and solid waste made up the remaining half of the station’s impressive bulk, but even at five kilometres in length, the Ocellus-class station paled in comparison to a fully developed Orbis starport, which could be anything up to double the size of Hunziker Terminal. Even so, it was an impressive and imposing sight compared to my home base of Adams Orbital.

I reoriented the ship to point more directly at the station, activating my afterburners to get me into the safety of the station’s no fire zone as quickly as possible. “ASTRA, activate docking computer.”
“Auto-dock engaged.” ASTRA responded, the Courier taking on a life of its own and barrelling in towards the station at maximum velocity, once docking approval had been confirmed.

“Observe all local laws and protocols during your stay, Commander.” was the cold, perfunctory message from the traffic controller as my ship entered the neutral sanctuary of the station’s no-fire zone. With nothing else to do but listen to a soothing waltz by Strauss as the docking computer steered (…)Gravitas(…) unerringly to its docking pad beneath the apex of the towering control spire at the base of the docking bay, I located the twenty pulse laser turrets arrayed about the docking bay to deal with intruders and fugitive ships. As a matter of routine, they would dispatch anything up to a few dozen commanders per day in their constant vigilance against smuggling and piracy. The weapons themselves were the size of a small fighter craft; Class 10 turrets that would not have been out of place on a Federation Dreadnought. I was careful to always obey docking procedures and never linger in the docking port when exiting a station. Even my Courier’s shields would not withstand more than a couple of direct hits from a station’s defensive weapons grid. I jumped in my seat when I saw one turret swivel and open fire over the top of my ship’s canopy. I twisted my neck back and around as far as I could and caught a glimpse of a huge Lakon Type-9 Heavy cargo transporter craft, stuck in the ‘toast rack’ grills at the entrance to the station’s dock. Type-9 pilots looking to maximise their cargo capacity by running without shields or docking computers frequently managed to scrape their hull against it, often with catastrophic results, jamming their ships so badly in the docking port that the flight controllers had no option other than to destroy the unlucky vessel, so that other commanders were not inconvenienced or delayed on time-critical missions. This appeared to be one of the occasions where the ship was caught so badly in the grills that there was no option other than to destroy the offending ship to clear the way. The so-called Cow Catcher, it seemed, had claimed yet another victim.

“Docking successful.” ASTRA reported as (…)Gravitas(…) settled onto its landing pad with a solid thunk. The HUD flashed up the station service interface, dominating my view from the cockpit. Now that we were safely docked, the ship’s AI automatically repurposed the switches on my joystick to allow me to navigate and traverse the multitude of options from the station’s various trading, maintenance and bulletin board services. I completed the delivery of the two data packages I had taken aboard at Kappa Fornacis, adding a not inconsiderable 192,245 credits to my bank balance. I spent some of it immediately, ensuring that my subsystems were fully maintained up to design spec and that my internal fuel tank for intra-system manoeuvring was topped off. While the teams of technicians performed diagnostics on my internal modules and refuelled my supercruise reservoir, I browsed the bullletin boards for local jobs that would take me out to Carson Enterprise, so that I would have an adequate excuse for being in the region while I searched for Stenberg’s base of operations in the region.

It didn’t take long for a suitable job to appear on the bulletin board; an anti-Federation propaganda mission to deliver a data package to pro-independence activists working on the outpost. The job only paid a few thousand credits, but the important thing was that the job would give me a good reason for being in the vicinity of Carson Enterprise if I was challenged by the local security force.
Less than an hour after I had landed, the spaceport hangar crews had finished performing their maintenance duties on my ship and I was returning to the cold, hard embrace of the vacuum of space. I did not retract the ship’s landing gear until I was well beyond the docking port, wary of incurring a speeding fine whilst (…)Gravitas(…) was still within the station’s no fire zone. It was only just over 2000 light seconds, or 4 Astronomical Units – the standard Sol-Earth distance still used to measure interplanetary distances – between Hunziker Terminal and Carson Enterprise, a relatively short jaunt compared to that between the system primary star and its companion I was now orbiting.

I was surprised for a second time in as many hours that I had not been intercepted on my trip between Hunziker and Carson, again docking without trouble. After turning in my data transport job, this time I didn’t bother accessing the local bulletin board, despite the fact the thriving industrial platform would have plenty of contracts that needed fulfilling. Instead I worked with ASTRA to plot a search pattern that would allow me to hunt for Admiral Stenberg’s base, which hopefully wouldn’t attract the attention of the local police force. ASTRA presented me with two options: either launch from Carson and wait for its hidden counterpart station to come to us, or actively hunt for the station by flying opposite to the orbital platform’s path and hope to pick up the secret base visually as it approached.

Never the one to take the passive option, I opted to go hunting, flying a reciprocal course to Carson Enterprise’s orbit, my eyes peeled for the faintest flicker of light that might betray the location of the hidden Federation outpost. After just 40 minutes of scanning the sky I detected the tell-tale glint of light that indicated that an object was in orbit where there should be nothing but empty space. As I homed in on the scintillating speck of light, rapidly approaching my trajectory around the planet, two more contacts flying in close formation appeared on my scanner, heading directly toward me on an intercept course. A quick check of my targeting computer showed me that one contact was a Cobra Mark III, whilst the other was a Federal Dropship. Eager to identify its pilot, I moved my Courier to intercept, powering up my Frame Shift Drive Interdictor module. The Federal pilots anticipated my move, pre-emptively dropping out of supercruise to realspace. I ordered ASTRA to target the FSD wake of the Dropship, bringing us out of supercruise as soon as my ship was within range. Realspace warped and collapsed around my ship as the FSD span down into standby mode, the glittering spiral arm of the galaxy reforming straight ahead of my ship. A quick glance at the scanner showed me the Cobra and Dropship flying in close formation 20 kilometres to my starboard wing.

“Activate hardpoints. Power to shields and weapons.” I instructed ASTRA, who complied instantly. I was content to let the Federal ships come to me, taking a few seconds to assess what kind of threat the two ships posed. The Dropship was by far the larger of the two ships, armed exclusively with burst laser turrets, but the Cobra was arguably the more dangerous, given that it was smaller, faster and far more agile. The Cobra was armed with four multi-cannons, which would shred my hull in seconds if my shields failed. I targeted the Cobra first, selecting its power distributor as a subsystem target. The armour protecting the Cobra’s power distributor was weaker than for the power plant, and disabling it would mean that once the capacitors for the shield generator, afterburners and weapons had been drained, they would no longer be able to be recharged. The catch was I needed to destroy the Cobra before the Dropship’s laser turrets did too much damage to my shields. Fortunately, I had a plan for that.

I rolled my Courier through ninety degrees, standing the ship on its starboard nacelle, and pulled up the nose until the Cobra was between my velocity vector and the Dropship’s. Another check of the scanner revealed that the Dropship’s commander ID was scrambled, just as Ol had reported in Kappa Fornacis. The Cobra’s pilot ID was being broadcast, however. I saw that Ensign Pedersen was combat rated as Dangerous, so we would be closely matched in terms of ability, though I was confident that I had the better ship. I eased the throttle forward, increasing our closing speed to prevent the pilots of the Cobra and the Dropship from reacting to my opening gambit.

“Under attack.” ASTRA reported, less than usefully, as the first multi-cannon rounds began to ping off my shields. With the two Federal pilots initiating hostilities, at least I didn’t have to worry about incurring a Wanted status. I immediately returned fire with both beam lasers, the gimballed mountings tracking the Cobra unerringly as Pedersen threw his ship into an evasive manoeuvre, rolling and jinking wildly. I countered with vertical and lateral thrusts of my own, keeping the throttle wide open, simultaneously yawing hard to the left to arc behind the Cobra as it passed just 200 metres off my port wingtip, constantly adjusting my trajectory to not only keep the Cobra within the tracking range of my weapons, but also to make sure that the Cobra obstructed the firing solution the Dropship’s turrets had on my ship. For all the Dropship’s size and power, it lacked speed and had all the agility of a drunk elephant on a zero-g assault course. As the Dropship wallowed ineffectually into a turn to bring the field of fire from its turrets back around towards me, I depressed the trigger on my joystick again, unleashing another sustained volley from my beam lasers, red-hot scars slashing across the Cobra’s hull as its shield envelope collapsed. My laser fire herded the Cobra aft of the Dropship, again forming a shield between my ship and the turrets on the Dropship’s starboard flank.

“No!” Pedersen finally broke the radio silence as I rolled my Courier over to expose the Manticore cannon on my belly hardpoint. I boosted in behind the Cobra and unleashed three shots from the cannon at point blank range, less than 100 metres away. The Cobra’s power distributor disintegrated under the barrage, the dart-like sabot rounds crashing through the hull and tearing ragged exit wounds in the ship’s composite skin. “Dammit, Admiral! I need help here!”

Too late, Pedersen disengaged his flight computer’s assistance to flip his ship to face mine, just as the Dropship cleared the obstruction the Cobra was posing to its turrets. Three of the Dropship’s five turrets were now clear to start tracking my ship, and Stenberg opened fire. Pedersen did likewise and the first ring of my defensive shield envelope started to flicker under the strain. Unfortunately for the Federation Ensign, he didn’t have the presence of mind to alter his course, allowing me to line up my cannon directly with his cockpit. Pedersen’s scream on the radio was short-lived as I emptied the remaining two rounds in my cannon’s auto-loader clip directly through his canopy. Our ships were so close together that I saw his pilot’s chair get ripped from the floor and be thrown by the recoil into the bulkhead at the aft of the cockpit compartment, carrying Pedersen’s shredded remains with it.

“Full power to shields. Deploy chaff.” With the Cobra no longer a threat, I could concentrate on Stenberg’s Dropship. There was a rapid series of dull thuds as the chaff launcher spewed cascades of long, thin mylar ribbons into the space surrounding my ship. They glittered like fireworks in the starlight, but their job was not simply to look picturesque. The radar-reflective streamers hampered the tracking ability of the Dropship’s turrets, giving me valuable seconds to allow my shields to recharge and try to manoeuvre into the blind spot of the Dropship’s turret coverage. The scanner told me where to look through my canopy to pick up Stenberg’s ship visually. My eyes told me that Stenberg was aiming his ship directly at mine, all five of his burst laser turrets blazing. Thanks to my chaff screen, hardly any of the shots were finding their mark. The Federation Admiral did have the option to lock all his turrets into a fixed firing position to counter the effect of the tracking disruptive cloud, but that would put him at an even greater disadvantage, due to the superior agility of my ship. If he did lock his weapons into a forward-firing position, I could simply dance the Courier between the fields of fire of the Dropship’s hardpoints, they were so widely-spaced. Using my dorsal thrusters, I pitched my ship onto its tail, engaging my afterburners to boost towards the Dropship, practically on a collision course. I didn’t even bother firing on the first pass, simply rolling my ship to pass between the two sets of stabilising fins at the top and bottom of the Dropship’s tall hull. “Flight assist off.”

As soon as I saw the glow from the Dropship’s main engines in my peripheral vision, I turned the ship about, yanking into a maximum-g pitch flip that momentarily caused my vision to grey-out as the blood in my head rushed to my feet, my flight suit constricting automatically around my sternum and thighs to keep some blood circulating above my waist. I boosted again, draining nearly all the energy from my engine capacitor, to bring me back in behind the Dropship’s tail, close enough to see the vapour trail from the larger ship’s thrusters distort the starlight in the distance. Only the pair of medium, Class Two turrets on the Dropship’s flanks were able to get anything close to a firing solution on my ship, but I was able to evade most of their fire by using short bursts of my lateral and
vertical thrusters at random to confuse the tracking algorithms of the turrets. I manually redirected a pip of my power distribution setting from shields to weapons and opened fire on the Dropship. “ASTRA, target the Dropship’s power plant.”

The targeting reticule on the HUD showed the location of the power plant, just above the rear set of ventral stabiliser fins. The Dropship’s shields were strong, refusing to buckle, even after I had drained my weapons capacitor twice over. The Dropship deployed its own chaff screen, causing the gimbals on my beam laser mountings to drift wildly, but I was only 75 metres behind the larger vessel, so even at the extremes of the gimbals’ tracking range, I was still assured to land a hit. I emptied another clip of 5 cannon rounds into the Dropship’s tail as my beam lasers recharged. The Federation pilot was skilled, but not good enough to compensate for the deficiencies of his ship in a dogfight with a more nimble vessel. It was only a matter of time before the Dropship’s shields failed.

“You’re a decent pilot, for an Imperial.” Stenberg’s voice, deep, resonant and surprisingly calm, echoed across my cockpit. “Not too bright, though.”

“Admiral Stenberg, I presume… So now you want to parlay, just as I’m about to carve my way through your shields?”
“That’s right. I know why you’re here, assassin. I even know who you are, Lord Roche.”
“That’s fascinating, Admiral. If you want to talk, do it quickly. You’ve got about thirty seconds before your shields go down and I breach the armour plating protecting your power plant.” I replied, refusing to be distracted as I matched the Dropship manoeuvre for manoeuvre, never straying out of the blind spot of my target’s turrets.
“Roche, don’t be a fool. Kill me and you’ll never make it out of Federation space alive. I propose a ceasefire. I have information about your mission you weren’t told. Your Imperial masters haven’t been entirely truthful with you.” Stenberg’s voice began to show the first signs of stress as his shields began to crumble.

“Target shields offline.” ASTRA reported. I checked the status of the Dropship’s power systems. Despite the fact Stenberg was overmatched, he showed no signs of charging up his frame shift drive to try and escape either into supercruise or hyperspace. No doubt he had seen that my ship was equipped with a wake scanner and a frame shift interdictor. He could delay the inevitable, but not avert it. Unless, of course, he was simply stalling for time while reinforcements made their way here from the secret outpost only a few dozen light seconds away.

“Get to the point, Admiral. You now only have 20 seconds.” I unleashed the first cannon round of the new clip, the uranium-tipped sabot crashing into the armour over Stenberg’s power plant at a velocity of 1000m/s. A small lick of yellow flame spurted out from the hole in the hull plate, a sure sign that the hull’s integrity was compromised. I had to react quickly to avoid a collision when Stenberg unexpectedly brought his ship to a stop. I wrenched my joystick to the right and pulled back the throttle to reverse my engines, fully expecting a barrage of laser fire to impact my shields as I drifted out of the Dropship’s blind spot. I was taken aback when I saw that instead of opening fire, Stenberg was stowing his weapon hardpoints. The HUD told me that Stenberg had even taken his shield generator offline, so he wasn’t simply stalling to let his shields recharge. Intrigued, I brought my own ship to a stop, using tiny impulses from my trimming thrusters to align my weapons with the tiny hull breach over the Dropship’s power plant. “Alright, Admiral. You have my attention. You just bought yourself an extra minute. Say your piece, but make it good.”

“It seems that you’re a reasonable man after all, Roche. I’m not surprised, given your heritage.”

“Careful, Stenberg. My family is a touchy subject.” I warned, my temper flickering. My danger sense still tingled, my cautious instincts not allowing my attention to get fully dragged into the conversation over the radio. Silently, I searched the navigation console for a nearby independent system I could take refuge in, knowing that whatever the outcome of the conversation, I would be wise to steer clear of Federation space for the remaining duration of the mission. ASTRA flagged up the neighbouring system of LHS-1067, an independent corporate state, just under 15 light years away. I had the navigation computer begin preparatory hyperjump calculations, just in case Stenberg was mugging for time to allow reinforcements to come to his rescue.

“I would expect so. It can’t have been easy for you, watching your parents’ execution. How old were you? Ten?” Stenberg’s sympathetic tone sounded sincere. “They were fine people, Roche. I knew them both well.”

“Really?” I feigned interest, trying not to let my sense of cynicism affect my voice as I kept my hands busy on the control consoles of my ship, using the lull in hostilities to reprioritise the power distribution priorities for the major power systems of (…)Gravitas(…). I wanted to have all the ship’s capacitor banks fully charged, just in case any unexpected guests dropped by. “A Federation Admiral and an Imperial Noble. You must have had very stimulating dinner parties.”

“Don’t be facetious, Roche. Surely you suspected. Neither of your parents were who you thought they were.” Stenberg scoffed.
Angry, I brushed my thumb over the secondary trigger on my flight stick, propelling a second cannon round through the hull breach over the Dropship’s power plant. The yellow flame surged out of the ruptured composite more insistently. “I’m starting to get bored of this conversation. I’m going to begin making my own entertainment very soon, unless you start telling me something interesting.”
“Roche, stop! The Empire has been lying to you for years! Your father was just as culpable as your mother! They were both leaking information out to the Federation for decades.” Stenberg’s voice now carried a hint of desperation, which was unsurprising, given that I had just brought his power plant to the brink of a catastrophic breach.

“I don’t believe you, Admiral. I believe you’re just telling me what you think I want to hear while your reinforcements make their way here.”
“Aemon, I don’t make a habit of lying to family. Your father was my brother.”
“You’ve got thirty seconds to explain before I blast your sorry hide out of the sky.” I croaked, quietly furious, my hands gripping my flight stick and throttle tightly.
“Come with me to my base, Aemon. I’ll explain everything.” Stenberg implored.
“Twenty seconds.”
“Aemon, please! I can prove it all! Why do you think I only came with one escort? How could I kill my own nephew?” Stenberg asked, on the verge of panic.
“Ten seconds.”

“Damn you, Roche! You’re just like your mother! So bloody stubborn! That’s what got your father killed!” Stenberg snapped. I was about to reply when the situation escalated out of control in the space of a couple of heartbeats.
“Target has deployed hardpoints. Under attack.” ASTRA announced as the Dropship’s turrets inundated my ship with a torrent of hard light. “New contacts detected.”

“Fuck!” I swore, instinctively depressing both my primary and secondary triggers on the flight stick. The dual beam lasers on the wingtip nacelles of (…)Gravitas(…) lit up instantly, followed a fraction of a second later by the concussive reports of my underbelly cannon firing the three remaining rounds in its auto-loader clip in under two seconds. The Dropship exploded in a cascade of bright sparks as its power plant ruptured under the weight of fire, shrapnel ricocheting from my shields. Before I even had chance to think, I had brought my ship to full throttle, ducking beneath the glowing wreckage and driving out into free space. A quick glance at my scanner showed six contacts bearing down on my position. I looked left to the navigation board, identifying the vessels as half a dozen Viper Mark III heavy fighters. They had a slight speed advantage over my Courier, but I had a head start of almost 15 kilometres. There was no chance that they would be able to enter weapons range before I was ready to enter hyperspace, and the Vipers didn’t have the range to out-jump my vessel, thanks to Laure’s foresight to equip (…)Gravitas(…) with a military grade frame shift drive. Even so, given recent events, I was unwilling to take chances. “Full power to engines. Prep for frame shift.”

“Acknowledged, my lord.” ASTRA replied as I wheeled the ship through a sharp turn towards the vector that would take me to LHS-1067. “Weapons retracted. Frame shift online in ten seconds.”
I ran (…)Gravitas(…)’s engines to maximum capacity, lighting the afterburners every few seconds to maintain maximum velocity from my pursuers. A high-pitched warning tone shrieked in my ear to alert me that the Vipers had launched a tempest of dumbfire missiles in my wake, despite the fact I was on the outer edge of their effective range. The proximity alarm sounded as I wrenched the Courier through a barrel roll, watching the propellant charges of the missiles burn out as they passed scant metres above my canopy. A couple of stray rockets struck glancing blows to the swept wings of my ship, but my shields held yet again, a testament to the efficiency of the shield projectors and boosters that had been specially designed for the Courier to give it a resilience far beyond its hull class.

“Frame shift in five… four… three… two… one… engaged.” ASTRA intoned calmly, my body sinking into the g-compensation gel pads of the flight seat under the pseudo-acceleration as the frame shift drive ripped a hole in the fabric of realspace to propel the ship at unimaginable velocities through higher dimensional witchspace to the neutral sanctuary of LHS-1067.


Chapter Four – LHS-1067: Kuhn Port


 

I sat patiently meditating in the cockpit of (…)Gravitas(…) as it sat motionless in the hangar beneath landing pad 12 of Kuhn Port, a Coriolis-class station in the independent system of LHS-1067. I was waiting for a response to my request for a call to Laure, as the maintenance crews refuelled and rearmed my ship. I was still unsettled by Stenberg’s revelations during our brief conversation following his apparent surrender at LHS-1163, even though I wasn’t simply willing to accept Stenberg’s claims at face value. In any case, assertion that he was somehow connected to my father didn’t explain why his encounter with Agent Zeta at Kappa Fornacis had resulted in a conspirators conversation, rather than a battle. I was still missing essential clues that might help me decode the mystery, clues that I hoped Laure would be able to provide me.

“Aemon, are you there?” Laure’s soft voice broke the silence. Her intonation was calm, reassuring and steady, not even betraying the merest hint of concern. “Sorry to keep you on hold. I was in a meeting with the system council, and you know what they’re like. No interruptions, not even in the event of a supernova.”

“Stenberg is dead.” I told her, my voice flat, betraying nothing.
“I know, I received confirmation from Imperial Intelligence about an hour ago. The Naval review board just promoted you to Baron. Congratulations.” I didn’t need to see Laure’s face to know that she was beaming with satisfaction and pride. I could hear it in her voice. “You’re halfway there. When you get back here after you’ve finished dealing with Zeta I’ll have a little something waiting for you at the shipyard.”

“Do you have any more information on where Zeta might be?”

“We haven’t had any confirmed sightings since Kappa Fornacis, I’m afraid. But my people were able to track down where that cargo limpet came from. Feynman Orbital, an industrial station in the Hai Ho system. It’s a Federal Corporate State. Plenty of local bylaws to allow the production of contraband tech illegal in the rest of the Federation.”
“That’s just shy of 50 light years from here. Zeta might have headed there to resupply.”
“That’s a definite possibility. Be careful if you do enter the system. Word’s gotten out that you were responsible for Stenberg’s assassination. You’ve got price on your head in Federation space.”

“How much?”

“Half a million credits. Killers of members of the Admiralty carry a premium.” Laure told me, wryly.
“Great. A bounty that big should put off amateurs and chancers, though.”
“You could come back to Imperial space to lay low until the Kill Warrant clears.” Laure suggested.
“And let the only lead we have on Zeta go cold? I appreciate your concern Governor, but we’ll never track down Zeta if we wait another week for my bounty to expire. I’ll have to take the risk.”

“It’s your call, Aemon.”

“Any sign of movement from the Thunda Crew?”
“They dropped completely off the grid about three hours ago. Kurgan left Harvestport with two escort ships in tow and hasn’t been seen since.”
“Oh, fantastic. Let me know if you hear anything.”
“I will.” Laure paused, sounding worried. “Are you alright? You seem a little… off colour.”
“It’s probably nothing. Mind games. Stenberg claimed that he knew both my parents.”
“What?” There was no hesitation before Laure’s outburst of surprise. “That’s ridiculous!”
“You haven’t heard the best part yet. He claimed that he and my father were brothers.”
“Bulls-” Laure started, before regaining a modicum of calm. “I don’t even know where to start with that. Did he give you any proof?”
“He was trying to tempt me back to his station to show me the evidence, but then half a dozen Vipers rocked up and everything went to hell.”

“Sounds like he threw you a hook to chew on while his friends turned up. Just as well you didn’t bite.”
“I reached the same conclusion myself. It’s just…”
“Just what?”

“What if he was telling the truth?” I asked Laure. There was a long, silent pause before she replied.
“What if… In the wrong hands, ‘what if?’ is one of the most useless questions ever invented by mankind. What if humans had never invented spaceflight? What if we had never discovered alien life? What if the Thargoids had never attacked? What if the INRA hadn’t practically wiped them out with a bio-engineered nerve agent?” Laure ranted, exasperated, saving her most fanciful example until last.

“What if… the Emperor was a fucking unicorn?!?”

“Whoa, Laure… calm down.” I replied, aghast.

“Aemon, don’t waste your time and energy thinking about hypothetical crap. Stenberg was just messing with you, trying to catch you off guard so that his reinforcements could ambush you. There’s nothing more to it than that.” Laure counselled me sternly.
“Yeah, but…” I wanted to believe her, but a tiny, nagging doubt at the back of my mind simply wouldn’t go away.
“But nothing.” Laure interjected, vehemently. “Get yourself over to Feynman Orbital and see what the manufacturer of the limpet can tell you. If Zeta is in the area, you sniffing around one of their suppliers might be all it takes to draw them out into the open.”


Chapter Five – Hai Ho: Nav Beacon


I took Laure’s advice and headed directly for the Hai Ho system after my ship had been fully serviced and I had grasped the opportunity to settle down for almost eight hours of restful, uninterrupted sleep at one of Kuhn Port’s more exclusive pilot lounges. At a rate of 30 credits per hour, a night at the Kuhn Commander’s Lodge cost double the docking fee of my ship, but it was a good investment. I’d been flying for nearly twenty hours straight since leaving Beta-1 Tucanae. A tired pilot was a combat-ineffective pilot. Following the stress of the encounter with Stenberg at LHS-1163, I knew that, mentally and physically drained as I was, continuing to chase Zeta without being well-rested would likely get me killed. The gorgeous house courtesan who escorted me to my room had been somewhat bemused my by polite, but firm decline when she offered me her services, but nonetheless had accepted my 500 credit tip with characteristic good grace after I had explained that I was only after the comfort of the establishment’s silk sheets, rather than that of its silken-skinned bed attendants.

Suitably refreshed and ready for another long day in the commander’s chair, I had left LHS-1067 immediately after eating a calorie-laden breakfast to travel to the Hai Ho system for a meeting with the illicit tech reseller Zeta had bought their batch of multi-use cargo hatch limpets from, which the rogue agent had used to empty Commander Ol Clark’s cargo racks in Kappa Fornacis. As the frame shift drive span down and recharged, I checked for any interesting ship contacts on the scanner. I was taking a big risk just being in the system, having been labelled a legal fugitive in Federation space following the death of Admiral Stenberg. Even if I made it to Feynman Orbital without attracting the attention of the local police force, docking would be risky. If I was bounty-scanned by the picket force providing security for the station, I’d be lucky to make it inside the Coriolis station’s toast rack before my Courier was shot out from under me. I was hoping that my presence in system would be enough to spook Zeta into playing their hand. There was good money to be made from simply reporting the types and numbers of ships in transit from and into a system. Interested parties included not just pirates wanting to plunder heavily-loaded cargo ships, but also local police ships looking for privateers and freebooters, plus bounty hunters and assassins trying to track down their targets. Given the size of the bounty on me and my ship, it surely wouldn’t take long for me to be noticed by the information brokers that kept watch on which ships were ingoing and outgoing from the system.

“Hai Ho, Hai Ho, it’s off to work we go…” I muttered in a sing-song tone as I secured the ship from hyperspace, reprioritising power assignments to ensure that all my systems capacitors were fully charged. With no immediate threats revealing themselves on my radar scanner, I ordered ASTRA to lay in a course for Feynman Orbital. The industrial station was part-owned by the QED Foundation, a Federation-aligned corporation that specialised in the production of technologies with a disputed or ambiguous legal status, including the multi-use cargo hatch limpet that I had retrieved during my investigation at Kappa Fornacis. It was only a relatively short hop of 647 light seconds from the navigation point to the station, but it didn’t take long for my new legal status to attract attention of the unwanted kind from the local police force.

“Prepare to submit for a crime scan, pilot.” came the verbal warning, a scant five seconds before the police Asp engaged its frame shift interdiction module to attempt to rip my ship out of supercruise for a standard ship inspection. Under normal circumstances, it would be a simple matter just to throttle back, submit to the interdiction and let the police pilot do their job. Indeed, this would normally be the manner in which I’d respond to such an interdiction attempt, but given that I was flying around with a 500,000 credit bounty on my head following the events at LHS-1163, I wanted to avoid an engagement with the local police force at all costs. The space outside the Courier’s appeared to seethe and coalesce as the Asp established an interdiction tether between our two supercruise bubbles. Disrupting the integrity of the multidimensional supercruise field surrounding a ship could have catastrophic effects on the hull of a vessel ripped from higher dimensional witchspace to standard four dimensional realspace, hence why most pilots chose to simply submit to the interdiction and take their chances. A failed evasion attempt from an interdiction had the potential to do significant damage to their ship. Given my situation, however, I had no choice other than to risk evading the interdiction attempt. I could ill-afford adding a cop-killer’s bounty to the already considerable price on my head.

My ship appeared to stall as the interdiction tether was established, joining the supercruise bubbles between the local police ship and (…)Gravitas(…) together with a multidimensional conduit that would either pull our ships together in realspace, or leave one ship badly damaged as the one ship outmanoeuvred the other. ASTRA marked an escape vector on the HUD and I kept the throttle set to 100% as I pitched and rolled the ship toward it, making constant fine adjustments as the escape vector weaved across the canopy, seemingly at random, as the interdiction tether twisted and shimmered. The hull groaned in protest, like a submarine approaching crush depth, as the supercruise field around (…)Gravitas(…) quivered, straining and threatening to collapse. Seconds turned into minutes as I fought off the interdiction attempt, my trajectory through the system spiralling and doubling-back on itself again and again as I struggled to break the tether binding my ship to the police vessel’s supercruise bubble. The Asp’s interdictor module must have been almost military quality in its range and effectiveness, as against a civilian-grade module, I normally would have expected to have been able to break the link by now, given my ship’s superior agility and speed. I was considering whether it would be wiser to submit to the interdiction and outrun the Asp in realspace, when I noticed three new contacts on my scanner moving to interdict the Asp. Intrigued by the bizarre turn of another ship interdicting the ship interdicting me, I kept manoeuvring at full speed towards the escape vector, hoping that I would be able to get away in the confusion.

My optimism was short-lived, however. I set aside a fraction of my attention from flying the ship to try to identify the three new contacts. The ship models alone were not encouraging reading: Eagle, Adder, Anaconda. I was not close enough to scan the ships for their pilot IDs, but I suspected I already knew the commander of the Anaconda. The pilot of the Asp was too preoccupied with trying to intercept me to notice that he was under threat himself. The Anaconda slipped into the witchspace slipstream of the Asp and latched onto it with its own interdiction tether. Caught by surprise, the police pilot wasn’t able to react fast enough to evade the disruption of his supercruise bubble. The tether linking us together also collapsed with enough force to catapult me back into realspace with the Asp, where the three new contacts were waiting for us.

“Hull and module damage sustained.” ASTRA, as was her usual habit, stated the blindingly obvious, while I brought (…)Gravitas(…) out of a flat spin from its uncontrolled drop back into realspace from supercruise flight. It took me a couple of seconds to regain my sense of 3D space as the fluids in my inner ear continued to slosh around from the centripetal acceleration of the spin, threatening to make me dizzy.
“Deploy hardpoints, ASTRA. We might be in a spot of bother here.” I ordered, bringing my Courier back onto an even keel, letting the scanner resolve the ID beacons on the four contacts only eight kilometres away.

“Ahoy there, me hearties!” I recognised the strident voice crowing over the ship-to-ship radio with a cringe. I was most definitely in trouble. “Sorry to stoop into cliché, but it’s what’s expected from a famous pirate, you know? After all, it sounds a lot better than ‘Hey youse cunts, you’re fucking dead’, right? Sharky, I believe you and Zenith have a score to settle with Roche over there. You keep him busy while I take care of this stupid Asp who thought they could get between me and my prey.”

“Roger that, Thunda.” came the acknowledgement from the pirate Adder, which fell into a loose echelon left formation with the Eagle as they boosted on full afterburners past the police vessel, which was closing in to engage Thunda Sue’s Anaconda, somewhat ambitiously.
“Commander Thunda, you are wanted for the crimes of piracy, murder and theft in the Federation. Stand down your weapons and engines or prepare to be destroyed.” The police pilot demanded.

“Is this idiot for real?” Thunda Sue laughed hysterically. “Where do they find these guys?”

“You have ten seconds to comply.” The Asp pilot blustered, apparently oblivious to the reality of his situation. Even if I had wanted to intervene, I had my own problems, with Sharky’s Adder and Zenith’s Eagle now closing to weapons range.
I targeted the Eagle first, anxious to get one ship out of the fight as quickly as possible. While I had shot to wound and disable during our fracas outside the harbourmaster’s office at Kappa Fornacis, I could not afford to give any such quarter here, outnumbered by four-to-one; the spirit of fair play and sporting chances be damned. I had flown Eagles for over a thousand hours during my flight training at Beta-1 Tucanae, so I was intimately acquainted with their strengths and flaws. Ironically, its greatest strength was also its greatest vulnerability. The Eagle was the most nimble ship of all currently in active service, with a pitch and roll rate so fast that novice pilots often were overcome with motion sickness during their first solo flights. This agility, however, came at the price of a fragile hull and a lack of ultimate speed, due to its undersized power plant. The armoured plating surrounding the Eagle’s frame shift drive was particularly weak, meaning that a critical hit was able to cause a cascade feedback reaction through the power distributor that could cook off the power plant and the shield generator. “ASTRA, target the Eagle’s FSD. Full power to weapons.”

“Acknowledged. Targeting subsystem. Under attack.”

The Adder and Eagle opened hostilities in tandem. The Adder was armed with a gimballed pulse laser on its Class 2 dorsal hardpoint, with a pair of Class 1 rail guns on its belly. At this distance, it was easy enough to alter my course at random intervals as we closed to avoid the magnetically-driven projectiles, but the gimballing on the pulse laser was harder to evade. The Eagle had an armament of three fixed multi-cannons to minimise the power demands on its reactor, while still posing a real threat to larger ships. I ignored the ringing the tiny uranium sabots made as they deflected from my shields, instead bringing all three of my own weapons to bear on the narrow profile of the Eagle as it bored in towards my ship. Crimson beams seared from my wingtips, raking across the prow of the Eagle, boiling away its shield envelope in less than three seconds.
“Bastard!” Zenith growled, flinging his Eagle into an evasive barrel roll, lighting his afterburners, to try and evade the tracking of my gimballed beam lasers.

I continued to ignore the incoming fire from the Adder, even as a stray rail gun round clipped my aft shields, registering as a vivid red flare over the ship’s avatar on my HUD, indicating the location and incoming vector of the damage. I ignited my own engine boosters, clinging doggedly to the Eagle’s vapour trail, knowing that my Courier could easily out-pace the Eagle. I kept my eyes fixed on the Eagle’s forward-swept wings, my combat instincts allowing me to anticipate the small ship’s every move, interpreting the tell-tale neon blue flames bursting from the thruster modules every time Zenith moved his ship’s control stick. I depressed my primary and secondary triggers simultaneously, my beam lasers leaving radiant scars across the Eagle’s urban camouflage skin, needing only two concussive reports from my Manticore cannon before the fighter disintegrated in a shower of orange sparks. The HUD flashed briefly to inform me that I had been awarded with the pirate commander’s bounty, but I was too preoccupied to take note of how much it was, other than noticing that it had been a six figure sum.

“Good kill, Roche!” Thunda Sue congratulated me, as if her own fight with the police Asp was little more than an irritating distraction. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her ship, Kurgan, reaching out towards the Asp with eight fiery fingers of hard light, the beam laser turrets tracking inexorably closer to the police vessel and threatening to sear it into tiny, blackened chunks. “I know you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but I never could stand Zenith, anyway. You’ve done the universe a favour. See if you can do it another one.”
I didn’t reply. It was a common tactic amongst pirates to try and distract a pilot’s attention by making provocative comments. Pirates liked to goad their quarry into arguments, as it distracted them from the business of piloting, making them lose focus and become easier targets. Rather than responding, instead I concentrated on making sure that Sharky joined his partner Zenith as a cascade of rapidly freezing meat molecules as quickly as possible. I knew that it wouldn’t be very long before Thunda Sue dispatched the Asp, and then I would have a real fight on my hands.

The Adder was larger and more resilient than the Eagle, but slightly less manoeuvrable. It was about my ship’s equal in agility, but I again had a speed advantage, which would allow me to stay clear of the fixed mountings of the rail guns on the Adder’s underwing hardpoints.
“Gonna fuck ya up, Roche.” Sharky promised. “Are ya ready to feel Sharky’s bite?”

I snapped my Courier into hard turn, just as Sharky unleashed both rail guns. I saw the blue trails left behind the twin projectiles whip past almost instantaneously, one above and one below my starboard wing, within a couple of metres of striking my shields. I retaliated with a five second burst of my beam lasers. I’d fought Adders on hundreds of occasions during my career and I knew their weaknesses almost as intimately as I understood those of the Eagle. Their life support system was located behind the aft bulkhead of the ship’s cockpit. The shape of the Adder’s hull meant that any shot directed at the life support system from the forward aspect of the ship would breach the flight deck. Any hit that caused the life support system to incur a critical failure would most likely kill any crew in the cockpit. Using the thumb selector on my flight stick, I cycled through the Adder’s subsystems until I saw the life support model being highlighted on the HUD. It would have been quicker to use a voice command and get ASTRA to select it for me, but as I took down the Adder’s shields, I didn’t want Sharky to get wind of my strategy. Pirates did have the nasty habit of listening in to private conversations between a pilot and their AI.

Unlike his former compatriot, Zenith, Sharky was a competent pilot, who was able to use his ship’s agility to maximum effect, always keeping his dorsal pulse laser in play, even if I was able to keep clear of the line of fire from his rail guns. Unfortunately for the pirate, my beam lasers were far more effective against his shields, making them teeter on the verge of collapse before he had whittled away 30% of my shield strength. I pressed my advantage, knowing that I would soon have a sterner test, in the shape of Thunda Sue’s Anaconda.
“ASTRA, redirect engine and weapon power to shields. Full recharge.” I ordered, sending the first of three rounds crashing through the tenuous remains of the Adder’s shield envelope, the sheer kinetic energy of the dart-like sabot rounds hammering the Adder’s life support system into microscopic fragments. As my Manticore cannon buzzed, replacing the spent clip with a fresh 5-round magazine, I sealed the Adder’s fate with a sustained burst of beam laser fire. Another six figure bounty voucher acknowledgement flashed up in the upper right corner of my HUD, but I was too pre-occupied to take proper notice. White hot fragments from the Adder’s hull glanced off my shields as I wheeled (…)Gravitas(…) about, just in time to see the Anaconda ram the Asp with its nose, pitching the smaller ship into an uncontrolled tumble. Kurgan’s laser turrets homed in on the helpless police vessel, half a dozen bright red beams enveloping the Asp in a lethal embrace.

“Damn you, pirate!” the Asp pilot screamed as the Anaconda’s lasers burned through the police ship’s armoured plating. The Asp vanished in a short-lived explosion as the laser fire from Kurgan cooked off the power plant, unleashing the energy stored within.
“Just you and me now, Roche.” Thunda Sue chuckled, as she brought her Anaconda around in an unnaturally tight cobra turn to intercept me, the long nose of her ship twitching as she fought the considerable momentum of the hull without the help of the flight assistance computer. “How about we dance?”

Thunda’s Anaconda was a formidable vessel, one of the largest that was available for private ownership. Not that she had obtained her ship legally, judging from the disguised markings strewn across Kurgan’s hull. The infamous Thunda Crew’s sigil was painted over the hull in a half-hearted attempt to disguise its original registration with the Federal Navy. No doubt she had ‘liberated’ the ship from its rightful owners, and was now using it as the flagship of her pirate fleet. With no less than eight beam laser turrets, Kurgan was a mobile fortress with enough firepower to take down my shields in a only few seconds, but its sheer size and mass did give the ship one vulnerability: my Courier could out-turn and outpace the Anaconda easily, so if I could stay close enough to its tail, not only could I avoid being hit by the larger ship’s turrets, but I would also put myself in the perfect position to disable the ship’s main thrusters. Taking out the Anaconda’s thrusters would take longer than destroying its power plant, increasing the likelihood that I would take damage, but simply killing Thunda wouldn’t gain me anything in my investigation. On the other hand, if I was able to disable her ship, I would be in a position to demand information as to Zeta’s whereabouts. The challenge was to stay alive long enough to be able to do so. “ASTRA, flight assist off. Engage afterburners.”

Kurgan’s turrets flared into action, crimson fingers of destruction snatching at the space around my ship as I raced at maximum boost to close the three kilometres between our vessels. I dumped a charge of chaff to cover the closure manoeuvre, confusing the tracking of the turrets as I twisted and weaved the ship in a spiralling trajectory towards the Anaconda, holding fire until I was at point blank range, where my beam lasers could do maximum damage against the Anaconda’s immense shields.

“Oh, you’re clever, Roche.” Thunda congratulated me, mockingly. “You might actually be a good enough pilot to make me break sweat.”
I ignored her, barely even hearing her words as I concentrated hard on keeping my ship in the vapour trail of her engines, out of reach of the majority of the Anaconda’s turrets. With my shields now fully recharged, I redirected my power priorities back to my weapons, my gimballed beam lasers searing across the tail of the Anaconda, gradually chipping away at the integrity of the shield envelope. Thunda countered by initiating a long tumble of rolling scissors manoeuvres, trying simultaneously to throw off my pursuit and bring more of her turrets into a firing solution with my ship. I kept up my fire as the Anaconda dropped and span through space, rolling over like a dog trying to impress its master, its dorsal and ventral thrusters sparking as the nose of the ship pitched end over end, trying to shake me out of the ship’s defensive blind spot. The odd stray shot from the Anaconda’s turrets grazed my shields, biting a small, but cumulatively significant lump from their overall strength. Fully focused, my hands manipulated the flight controls instinctively, my eyes fixed on the Anaconda’s sleek blue and white hull, using continuous, minute tweaks of my joystick, throttle and trimming thrusters to stay out of the line of fire as much as possible. My beam lasers continued to nibble away at the Anaconda’s shields, which were now only at half strength. My own shields were holding well, at just under 80%, plus I had four shield reinforcement cells in reserve. The fight had descended into a battle of attrition, a battle that I was currently winning; a fact that hadn’t escaped Thunda’s notice.

“When Zeta told me who the Imps had sent after her, I did some research.” Thunda Sue sounded impossibly relaxed, considering the circumstances. Our ships were locked in mortal combat, yet she sounded as if we were sitting down for a civilised afternoon tea. “You’re a throwback to a more civilised age, Roche. I’m told you’ve never killed a woman in combat, is that true?”
I didn’t reply. I knew that the Pirate Queen wasn’t truly interested in an answer. She just wanted me to waste my mental faculties on engaging in pointless conversation, taking my focus away from the dogfight.

“A strong, silent type, too.” Thunda lamented. Disappointed by my lack of response, she tried another tack. “Are you still fucking that Imperial bint at Beta-1 Tucanae? Torval? All curves and cleavage? Hips broader than a Python? Norks like an Ocellus? Changes her hair colour more often than her underwear? I bet she gives you access to all her docking bays.”
I tried not to let my temper flare, strangling a defensive retort, instead depressing my secondary trigger and spearing a cannon round into the Anaconda’s failing shields. It wasn’t that effective in terms of damage, but I emptied the clip, sending Thunda what I hoped was a wordless, but otherwise eloquent reply to her taunts.

“Oh, have I touched a nerve there, Roche?” Thunda asked, her voice the epitome of bemused innocence. “Tell me, which of her docking bays do you like the most? Fore or aft?”

“Suzie, if you don’t shut up right now, you’re going to find out the limits of my gallantry first hand.” I snapped back, emptying another clip of cannon rounds into the Anaconda’s shields. They had begun to buckle, some of my weapons fire leaking through the deflective energy bubble to damage Kurgan’s hull.

“You’re my kind of man, Aemon.” Thunda responded, amused. “I’d ride you to a coronary. I like it from behind the best. Here, try it.”
I didn’t even have time to swear as Thunda reversed throttle and re-engaged her flight assistance computer, coming to a full stop in less than a second. Inwardly cursing myself for being stupid enough fall for her distraction tactics, I cut my own throttle, wrenching my joystick desperately to try and avoid a collision, but my momentum carried (…)Gravitas(…) into the aft of the Anaconda, my right nacelle smashing into the rear of the larger ship, damaging my starboard beam laser and acting as pivot to spin my Courier out of control over the dorsal hull of the Anaconda. I applied quick torques with the pitch and yaw thrusters to counter (…)Gravitas(…)’s rotation, almost getting the ship’s attitude to match its velocity vector when I came under fire from the Anaconda. The brief spin had caused me to drift into the line of fire of the Class 3 turrets forward of the Anaconda’s cockpit. My Courier reeled under the impact and I knew that the tide of the battle had turned. Now I was suddenly on the defensive, and my Imperial Courier’s slight hull would not withstand the kind of punishment I had been meting out on the Anaconda. If I didn’t regain the initiative in a few seconds, it was all over.

“ASTRA, deploy chaff. Power to shields and engines. Afterburners now.” It was now my turn to plunge (…)Gravitas(…) through a defensive series of scissor and cobra turns, hoping that the chaff would throw off the tracking of the turrets for long enough to find the Anaconda’s blind spot in the lee of its main thrusters once again.

“Shields offline.” ASTRA notified me, a high-pitched warning alarm chiming rhythmically in the background. “Taking damage.”
“Fuckfuckfuck…” I swore under my breath, as I’d forgotten in the confusion of the collision’s aftermath that I could have reinforced my shields with a recharge cell. Now that the shield envelope had fully collapsed, this was no longer an option. I hoped that my mistake would not prove fatal. It would take another thirty seconds for my shields to recharge and come back online. I had to hope that the ship’s hull would hold out that long and rely on (…)Gravitas(…)’s speed and faster turn rate to keep me out of trouble. “ASTRA, more chaff.”
“Such a shame. You were good, Roche.” Thunda sounded almost mournful. “But not good enough. I did warn you.”
I was too busy trying to evade turret fire to respond, hurling my Courier through evasive manoeuvres, trying to out-turn the tracking of the turrets and get back onto the tail of the larger ship. A thick crimson beam raked across the nose of my ship, barely missing the cockpit as it trailed backwards across my port wing, leaving a deep scar in the mirrored surface of the hull composite, the protective coating being boiled away by the intense laser radiation.

“Hull integrity at 75%.” ASTRA intoned neutrally.

“Boost.” I used the remaining energy in my engine capacitor to try use the Courier’s superior speed in a high yo-yo turn to overshoot and then drop in behind the Anaconda. It was a dangerous gambit, as if I was unable to pull off the manoeuvre, I wouldn’t have enough energy left to boost out of weapons range of the pirate vessel. I used Thunda’s own tumble tactic against her, ejecting another load of chaff as I rolled (…)Gravitas(…) over and over to confuse the Anaconda’s turret tracking programming and keep Thunda guessing as to what I was trying to do. “ASTRA, one more pip to weapons.”

I exhaled, trying to stay calm as the crimson lances of deadly light reached back out towards my unshielded vessel, which I managed to wrestle back into the wake of the Anaconda’s thrusters with
only a fraction of a second to spare before my chaff screen dispersed. Having regained the initiative, I blasted Kurgan’s thruster modules with both beam lasers and another full clip from my cannon, reducing the Anaconda’s top speed and agility. I knew I had to work quickly, as the Pirate Queen’s shields were less than a minute away from recharging. It was now Suzie’s turn to swear. “Oh, shit! No you don’t!”
I responded with more cannon fire, a further five rounds tearing the Anaconda’s thruster control module into pieces, leaving the pirate ship drifting and unable to manoeuvre. I kept mobile to prevent the still-functioning turrets from getting a target lock, switching my targeting computer to aim at the power distribution subsystem, located behind the Anaconda’s cockpit. Ten more quick rounds crippled that system too, leaving the Anaconda stranded and helpless. I cut my throttle back to zero as my shield envelope re-established itself around my ship, letting the stricken pirate vessel drift slowly into optimal weapons range.
“Well. That was unexpected.” Thunda Sue’s voice crackled over the ship-to-ship radio, ironically amused.

“Where can I find Zeta?”

“What? No gloating? No threats?” the Pirate Queen asked, pleasantly surprised. “You really are a gentleman, aren’t you Roche?”
“Don’t waste my time, Suzie. I know you’re doing a system reboot. But I can crack your power plant quicker than you can repair your thrusters.”

“I don’t have to tell you shit, Imperial.” she snorted in reply, her pride still intact.
“I don’t have to let you live, either. A million credits is a lot of money, Suzie. Start talking. Where is Zeta?”

“Behind you.”

“Quit stalling. Patience isn’t one of my strongest virtues.”

“No, I’m serious. Zeta’ll be dropping in on us any second. I’d pop a shield cell now if I were you.”
“New radar contact. 18 kilometres.” ASTRA reported.
“See? Told you.” Suzie smirked. “Here’s your dilemma, Roche. You won’t be able to take me down before Zeta gets here. It’s either Zeta or me. And the Imperial Navy doesn’t care about me.”

“Dammit, I knew I should have just killed you on Harvestport.” I grimaced, reluctantly following her advice and deploying a shield recharge cell to ensure that my shields were fully topped up before Zeta’s Imperial Clipper got within weapons range.
“Too late now, sugar.” Thunda chuckled. The Kurgan began to limp away under minimal thruster power to disengage from the combat zone, as its frame shift drive began charging for a hyperspace jump. “That’s twice you should’ve killed me but didn’t. Don’t think that fact’s gone unappreciated, mind. One day I’ll make it worth your while. Another time, Roche.”

 


Chapter Six – Hai Ho: Deep Space


I watched as space-time itself seemed to wrinkle over the bow of the Anaconda and a second later there was a flash of light as the Pirate Queen’s ship vanished into hyperspace. A quick check of my radar scanner told me that the incoming ship was only ten kilometres away and closing fast. I brought (…)Gravitas(…) about in a 5g Immelmann half-loop, bringing the Courier up to its maximum speed.
“ASTRA, do you have an ID yet?”

“Negative, my lord. Both the ID and ship registration codes are encrypted.”

“That’ll be Zeta, alright.” It was difficult to make out the silhouette of the ship against the background of stars, but the wide, elegant wings and bright yellow vapour trails from the outboard nacelles told me it was an Imperial Clipper. I double-checked that the seal on my flight suit helmet was airtight and that the RemLok emergency life support pack between my shoulder blades was fully charged and primed to deploy. Almost as an afterthought, I took my hand off the flight stick to retrieve the emergency survival pouch from beneath the right-hand dash panel and attach it to the utility clips on my thigh. As well as containing an extra cylinder of oxygen for the RemLok, the packet contained all of the utility equipment I usually took with me off-ship during a layover at a starport, including my dart gun. I didn’t know what possible use it would be against a heavily armoured starship, but I felt inexplicably reassured knowing that I had it to hand.

There was no pithy preamble from Zeta. No ominous warnings or vengeful promises of a quick and painful death. The Clipper pilot simply opened fire as soon as we closed within weapons range. I noted that Zeta had opted for a port/starboard weapon setup, with beam lasers on their port wing, complemented by cannons on the starboard wing. It was a configuration favoured by experienced combateers that liked to exploit the Clipper’s high pitch and roll rates. As Commander Clark had observed back at Kappa Fornacis, Zeta was a professional, not some wealthy amateur toying with the idea of a glorious bounty hunting career. I returned fire with my beam lasers, saving my precious cannon ammo for later, when it could do maximum damage against the Clipper’s hull and power plant. Our ships whipped past each other at a combined closing velocity of nearly 800m/s, thrusters blazing as we tried to keep each other within the tracking ranges of our gimballed weapons. The Clipper’s fox-like snout pitched violently, pushed upwards by long tongues of bright blue flames from the ventral thruster modules, aiming towards the tenuous blue-white vapour trail left in my wake.

There was no real time to think about what I was doing. The Clipper’s graphite grey colour scheme made it ghost into the background, only becoming clearly visible when it occulted the bright arm of the galactic plane. It required nearly all of my attention to keep the ship in sight, using the flashes from the thruster units around its hull to try and predict the Clipper’s next move. Pure instinct guided my hands on the Courier’s throttle and flight stick, making continuous adjustments to all six degrees of freedom – pitch, yaw, roll, positive and negative velocity vectors, plus lateral and vertical strafing – working hard to maintain a firing solution on the Clipper’s power plant.
Zeta was an exceptional pilot, completely at one with their ship, using the Clipper’s boost speed and engine recharge rate to bring me back into the tracking range of the larger craft’s dorsal Class 3 hardpoints whenever I was starting to turn inside the larger vessel. With my Courier’s hull having been moderately damaged during the fight with Thunda Sue and her unfortunate lackeys, I was already at a significant disadvantage, made worse by the deficit in my ship’s firepower compared to
Zeta’s Clipper. My only chance was to use my ship’s greater agility and faster acceleration rate to avoid getting dragged into a battle of attrition, and hope that my remaining supply of chaff would last long enough to take down the Clipper’s shields and inflict critical damage to its power plant.

I had to be specially alert for the tell-tale flashes from the Clipper’s starboard hardpoints and watch for the propellant trails left behind by incoming cannon rounds. The Clipper’s underwing cannon was identical to the one on (…)Gravitas(…)’s belly hardpoint, but the Class 3 cannon on its starboard wingtip nacelle was an order of magnitude more powerful. While my mirrored composite armour provided good protection from thermal weapons, it would not stand up to a barrage of Class 3 cannon rounds. Now over a minute into the battle, it was clear that we both had a similar level of piloting skill. The engagement was most likely to be won or lost on whoever made a mistake first. We had both disabled the AI assistance from the flight computer, preferring to trust our own intuition and judgment of speed and momentum as we entered a classical dogfighting sequence of rolling vertical and flat scissors, linked together with high-g cobra turns that traded off velocity for turn rate, all the while using our beam lasers to sear away chunks of each other’s shields whenever the one ship overshot the other in the ongoing sequence of turns and half-loops. Sooner or later, it was inevitable that a misjudgement would be made that exposed one of our ships to a devastating volley of fire that would irrevocably tip the balance of the fight one way or the other.
“Glide.” I whispered. Zeta was beginning to make the Clipper’s superior weapon power tell, so I opted for some chemical assistance. The voice command triggered a brief stinging sensation on the inside of my left wrist as the adapted slave collar mechanism delivered a 5 millilitre dose of combat stimulant. The effect was almost instantaneous, my heart rate increasing to pump the drug throughout my body, allowing muscle fibres and brain neurons to fire faster. My sense of time started to dilate, seeing things as if they were occurring in slow motion, but with no impediment to the speed of my decision making. For the next three minutes, my thought processes and reflexes would be heightened, as if the flow of time outside my body had come almost to a complete stop. Incoming cannon rounds were almost trivial to evade as they crawled at a snail’s pace across space towards my ship and I eased my ship out of the gimbal-range of the Clipper’s beam lasers as I popped my second shield cell, reinforcing the damage-ablating energy shell surrounding (…)Gravitas(…) back to full power.

I only had two shield cells remaining and I was starting to run low of chaff cartridges. The Clipper’s shields were still at 30% strength and I only had four chaff screens left. Unless I could force Zeta into making a mistake, at current rate of damage over time, I would only have one chaff spread remaining after the Clipper’s shields failed. It was unlikely that my cannon would be able to breach the armour surrounding the Clipper’s power plant before I ran out of chaff. Without the disruptive effect the mylar ribbon screens had on the Clipper’s targeting systems, I would be much more vulnerable to the disparity in weapon power between our ships. Then things would start to get really hairy, but there was no other option than to keep fighting. I had no future in the Empire unless I was able to eliminate Zeta. Even if I were to cut my losses and run, I was a now a fugitive across Federation space, leaving me only the unaligned independent worlds or the Old Worlds Alliance in which to take refuge. I dismissed the thought from my mind almost instantaneously, my resolve steeled by two thoughts: the first being that if I ran, I would never see Laure again, a thought even more intolerable than the second; that my family’s name and honour would never be redeemed.

No, I would not, could not, run. I would kill Zeta or die in the attempt. At least then, if Laure had indeed conceived our child on the night before I left Beta-1 Tucanae, as she had implied in the docking bay, at least then she could say truthfully that their father had died a true, loyal subject of the Empire.

I loosed another salvo from my beam lasers, reducing the Clipper’s shield strength to 25%, draining my weapons capacitor. I balanced my power distribution evenly between shields, weapons and thrusters, trying to stay as close as possible to the larger ship, which continued to use its higher boost speed to create enough separation between our vessels to allow Zeta to continue to make headway against my own shields. The immense power of the Clipper’s Class 3 beam laser ripped huge gashes in my Courier’s shield envelope, which struggled to re-equalise the overall strength of the deflective sphere, even as I continued to chip away at Zeta’s own shield strength, using cannon rounds in tandem with my beam lasers to try and force a rupture that would expose the Clipper’s hull.

We were rapidly approaching the endgame of our dogfight, and I was beginning to find Zeta’s silence rather unnerving. Elite combateers were well known for letting their ship’s weapons speak for them, but given that Zeta knew the circumstances of why I was hunting them, I had expected them to respond with some kind of verbal psychological warfare, as Thunda Sue had done. Our ships pirouetted in interlinked spirals around a common centre of motion, as if in a wildly perturbed binary orbit, struggling to gain the slightest supremacy in kinetic energy and turn rate. I tried to stay as close to the Clipper as I could, relying on my Courier’s smaller mass and greater manoeuvrability to keep me outside of the tracking cones of the Clipper’s hardpoints. I released another yet load of chaff, the thin silver ribbons glistering in the starlight as they erupted in a protective bubble around my ship. As the fire from Zeta’s weapons drifted uselessly wide of their mark, I pressed my advantage, slashing a gaping wound in the Clipper’s shield bubble with a prolonged discharge of energy from my Courier’s twin beam lasers and emptying another clip of cannon rounds, the incredibly dense sharp-tipped darts sparking against the Clipper’s reactive armour. Shaped, explosive plates lining the hull of the Clipper exploded outwards as my cannon rounds struck its hull, mitigating the damage from the sabot rounds.

“Oh, terrific.” I groaned, dismayed at the ineffectiveness of my cannon rounds. The integrity of the power plant of Zeta’s Clipper was still over 90%, despite the barrage I had subjected it to from my Manticore cannon. While Zeta’s shields were on the verge of collapse, barely providing any damage mitigation against my weapon fire, I was running short of ammunition, making it marginal that I would be able rely on kinetic weapons alone to breach the integrity of the Clipper’s power plant.

Concerned by the steady erosion of my ship’s shield strength as (…)Gravitas(…) continued its waltz to the death with Zeta’s Clipper, I deployed my penultimate shield cell charge, hoping to extend the battle long enough to at least give Zeta something to worry about as the Imperial Clipper’s shields began to fail. The cell hissed as it surged energy into the ship’s shield capacitor, but it would be another half-minute before the energy from the cell finished reinforcing the projected shield bubble itself. The effects of the Glide combat stimulant began to wane, my time-sense gradually speeding back up to normal as Zeta and I continued to manoeuvre for a final, fatal blow to the Clipper’s power plant. I emptied my Courier’s weapons capacitor with another long burst from my dual beam lasers, smiling as the Clipper’s shields ripped open and collapsed, like a balloon bursting in slow motion, the energy field snapping backwards towards the overloaded shield projectors. As I rolled my ship over onto its back to allow my cannon to track in on the Clipper’s fuselage, Zeta flipped their ship nose-to- tail, simultaneously boosting to kill their velocity vector almost instantly. There was no time to react before I saw the flashes of the cannons on the Clipper’s starboard wing. With less than two hundred metres between our ships, the cannon rounds travelled from source to target in under a fifth of a second, too short a time to twist my ship out of their path. The larger, Class Three projectile arrived first, crashing through my shields at their most vulnerable point, by the wingtips, wrecking my port nacelle, destroying its array of thrusters along with one of my beam lasers. My eyes widened in horror when I saw the trajectory of the second cannon round, fired from the Clipper’s underwing hardpoint. I leant right as far as I could in my seat, bringing up my left arm to shield my face as the dart-like sabot smashed through my canopy, glancing off the top of the radar scanner to pulverise the navigation console. The resulting sparks were immediately snuffed out as the front half of the glass bubble enclosing the cockpit ruptured, hurling fragments outwards explosively into space.

“Shields offline. Taking damage. Canopy compromised.” ASTRA’s voice sounded distantly through my flight helmet’s headphones. I barely registered the words, rather more concerned that I only had thirty minutes’ worth of oxygen for my RemLok system. Though as Zeta’s beam lasers glinted in the darkness, vaporising my remaining beam laser and disabling the thrusters on my starboard nacelle, it appeared that I’d be lucky to live another thirty seconds.

When Zeta’s words finally came, I was surprised to see that it was via ship-to-ship text, rather than radio. And now you die, assassin.
The Clipper hung ominously over my ship maintaining station, as (…)Gravitas(…) drifted uselessly, the wrecked attitude thrusters on the remains of the Courier’s wingtips no longer able to provide fine control over the ship’s orientation or course. The main thrusters at the rear of the fuselage were still intact, but I wasn’t sure what help they would be. The navigation computer was destroyed, so even if I was able to somehow avoid the Clipper’s death blow long enough to charge my frame shift drive, there was no way to select a new system to escape to, let alone calculate a safe witchspace route. Another cannon round from the Clipper hammered into my ship, just aft of the cockpit.

“Hull integrity at 25%. Power plant breach detected. Containment failure in 20 seconds.” ASTRA informed me, her cheery, sing-song pitch at odds with the dire nature of the news being delivered. There was no point in cursing, screaming obscenities at the universe, in the way so many other pilots did just before their end. Instead, I considered what options I still had left in the time that I had. Zeta was holding fire, waiting instead for the power plant’s containment field to catastrophically breach, savouring the kill. I wasn’t simply going to give up and wait to die. Instead, I had an idea. An idea born of lunatic optimism. An idea that would require exquisite timing and no small measure of luck. An idea that only needed three words to put into action.

“Glide.” The first word made my wrist sting again, this time accompanied by a sense of queasiness as the stimulant reacted toxically with the byproducts from the first dose I had taken only moments ago. My time sense slowed to a crawl, seconds feeling like minutes as I spoke the second word to carry out my plan. “Boost.”
The main engines of (…)Gravitas(…) fired for a final time, the afterburners surging the crippled Imperial Courier beneath the hull of Zeta’s ship. I looked up, waiting until the Clipper’s forward landing strut hatch was directly overhead before saying the third and final word.

“Eject.”

Explosive bolts detonated only six hundredths of a second after I had finished articulating the word, separating the remains of the canopy from the Courier’s spaceframe. A further fifteen hundredths of a second later the rocket motors beneath my seat propelled me upwards with an acceleration of 25g, launching me towards the ventral hull of the Imperial Clipper. Half a second later, the maglock keeping me attached to the seat disengaged, allowing me to kick free from the chair, adjusting my momentum to follow the upward, sweeping curve of the Clipper’s rear hull, my outstretched fingers scraping over the metal and composite plating until I came to a stop between the truncated cones of the ship’s rear exhaust cowlings, holding tightly onto the edges of the ship’s cargo hatch, establishing secure hand and footholds as Zeta eased the Clipper about to keep (…)Gravitas(…) in sight. My heightened reflexes allowed me to compensate for the blasts of acceleration from the manoeuvring thrusters as the ship turned, even as I searched the survival pouch attached to my right thigh for the small metal and composite cuboid I had taken from Commander Clark at Kappa Fornacis.

I attached the limpet to the hatch controller module and it immediately went to work, hacking the mechanism to open the cargo bay. There was a bright flash over my shoulder and I turned my head just in time to see the final death throes of (…)Gravitas(…), the breach from the power core popping the sleek ship’s hull like a kernel of corn in a frying pan. The destruction of the ship would be logged by the local authority and was undoubtedly already being flagged up at the headquarters of the Imperial Navy. I didn’t have the time to worry about the potential fallout at Achenar over my presumed death, as I was too busy trying to avoid my actual death. If I wasn’t able to get inside Zeta’s ship before the Clipper engaged its frame shift drive, the consequences would be rather unpleasant: my body would be ripped to pieces at a sub-atomic level by the energies that suffused witchspace. The tiny OLED screen on the cargo hatch limpet flashed, signalling that its work was complete. The door to the cargo bay opened with a shower of ice crystals, as the atmospheric gases inside the bay vented into space, the moisture in the air condensing almost instantly. I eased myself inside the ship feet first and prized the limpet away from the controller mechanism to get the hatch to reseal behind me.

After I had settled both feet onto the floor, I felt the deck plates vibrating beneath my feet as the Clipper’s frame shift drive span up to full power. Zeta evidently didn’t want to stick around for long at the scene of my ship’s final battle. Safe for the moment in the cargo bay, I ducked between two of the empty cargo racks and took stock of my resources. Despite the loss of my ship, my mission orders were still achievable. I would just have to eliminate Zeta personally, rather than destroy them with their ship. I rummaged through my survival pack for equipment that might help me on the Clipper’s flight deck against Zeta. I had my flechette pistol, but while the weapon was relatively low-powered, the darts it fired were more than capable of piercing the Clipper’s canopy. In the event of a hull breach, there was not enough time for me to travel to a friendly or neutral system, given that my RemLok’s air supply was already partially drained, so I couldn’t risk using the gun. The other contents of the survival pack, including a weatherproof, self-inflating tent, self-heating food ration packs, water pouches, and all-in-one multi-tool did not immediately suggest themselves as suitable improvised hand-to-hand weapons. Even the main blade on the multi-tool was too short and unlikely to be sharp enough to slice open a carbon nanotube-reinforced flight suit. There was, however, one item in the pack that might prove useful – an adhesive webbing glove. The glove’s oval-shaped palm pad contained a pressure-sensitive dispenser that could be used to create spider web strands to lash down objects, or create shelters from loose materials in the field and secure them against strong winds or violent ground movements. The epoxy-based glue enveloping the webbing strands was designed to dry to a hard, solid resin within a second upon its exposure to air. Each adhesive pad could dispense twenty metres of 5cm-wide webbing, hopefully far more than I would need in the circumstances. I slipped the adhesive glove over my right hand, hoping that it could be used to help subdue Zeta quickly, giving me the option of turning the rogue agent over to the Imperial authorities or executing them as I had been instructed.

The hull groaned and shook as the Imperial Clipper frame shifted into witchspace, surging to a new star system at an equivalent of tens of thousands of times the speed of light. Feeling the effects of the battle stimulant still coursing in my bloodstream, I felt my way past the cargo racks, practically in pitch darkness, to the door that would give me access to the main crew space of the ship. At least I didn’t have to worry about any anti-intruder systems. A hostile ship-to-ship boarding action was not generally considered to be a risk for ships below Corvette-class and the hijacking of vessels outside of starports was exceptionally rare. I hoped that it certainly wouldn’t be something Zeta was expecting. Treading as lightly and silently as I could, I made my way down the central access corridor past the small galley and the two crew staterooms to the access door to the bridge.

I waited until I felt the whole body of the ship tremble again before triggering the switch to open the bridge airlock. The resonant thudding of the frame shift drive spinning down covered the pneumatic hiss of the opening hatch. The bridge was bathed in the bright orange light of a G-type star that filled the panoramic viewport looking over the ship’s smooth, broad nosecone. I noticed that Zeta, unusually, was sitting in the left-hand seat of cockpit. Lone Imperial Clipper commanders usually took the right-hand chair. Zeta dropped the Clipper out of the normal post-hyperspace supercruise state into normal space to let the frame shift drive recharge without fear of being interdicted, a precaution I assumed meant that we were still in space where the presence of an Imperial-made ship would be considered an act of provocation, at the very least. Zeta saw my reflection moving across the canopy and did a double-take before rising from the chair to try to defend themselves.

My combat instincts enflamed by the Glide still in my system, I focused my entire attention on the movements of Zeta’s hands and feet. The traitor operative may have been a hugely talented pilot, but their movements in hand-to-hand combat were slow and predictable, thanks to my drug- enhanced state. I ducked a flailing punch easily, stepping inside Zeta’s guard, a sweep of my right leg kicking Zeta behind both knees to lift their feet from the deck, my left hand snagging the outstretched arm by the wrist, pulling it forward and up to apply a rolling torque on my shorter, more slender adversary. While Zeta spun helplessly in the air, I activated the webbing glove to cocoon the agent’s arms and legs in a tangle of rock-hard resin-encrusted rope. Once Zeta’s limbs were sufficiently immobilised and strapped together, I deactivated the webbing glove and grabbed the rogue Imperial pilot by the shoulder and ankle to slam them face first into the flight deck. Zeta tried to struggle, but their limbs were completely locked in place by the resin-impregnated strapping, and the agent was utterly unable to move, as if trapped in amber.

A quick check of the Clipper’s radar scanner and status board told me that we were alone in a stable orbit around the star and that the atmospheric pressure in the cabin was normal. I took off my flight helmet, glad to be freed from the skin-tight and claustrophobic apparel. With Zeta successfully neutralised, I had a difficult decision to make. Should I try to deliver Zeta back to Achenar alive, or simply kill them, as I had been ordered originally? Wordless noises of frustration leaked from Zeta’s helmet. With a flick of my foot, I rolled the immobilised pilot onto their back, noticing for the first time from the cut of the flight suit that Zeta was female. I knelt beside her and the muffled sounds of frustration behind her helmet turned to rapid, panicked breathing when Zeta saw my face. She tried in vain to wriggle away from me in apparent terror.

I understood her reaction from the point of view that she had been rendered helpless and was trapped in the same place with someone that had been sent to kill her, but the sense of mortal terror now radiating from Zeta had only started when she had seen me without my flight helmet. My curiosity piqued, I set about unfastening Zeta’s helmet, curious to know the face of the person I had been sent to kill.
“No!” Zeta screamed, as I flipped the latches to break the airtight seals on her flight helmet. There was something familiar about her voice that triggered an old memory. I had to place a hand firmly on her chest to hold Zeta still as I wrenched off her helmet. I froze when I saw her fear-lined face, recognising the cut of her chin-length strawberry blonde hair.
“Mother?” The word sounded ridiculous coming from my mouth. I had watched her being executed almost a quarter of a century ago. Or had I? “How in the hells…?”

“Aemon?” Zeta stopped struggling, her luminous green eyes narrowing in suspicion, but her question carried an air of hope. “Is that really you?”

Bewildered by the turn in events, I sat down on the flight deck next to her, looking down onto the face of Cassandra Roche – my mother, Imperial Agent and twice a traitor to the Empire. “Don’t act so surprised. Your pet Pirate Queen told me you knew it was me hunting you.”
“I suspected the Imperials would send you. I’ve been keeping tabs on your career, Aemon. You’ve done well, so far. You have my piloting skill and your father’s talent for innovative thinking.”

“You also know why I’m here, then.”

“The son atones for the sins of the parents. Honour before sentiment. It’s the Imperial way.” her words dripped with bitter contempt.
“You brought this upon yourself. You never should have turned against the Empire. Why did you do it, mother?”
“Aemon, you must release me.” Zeta pleaded, trying in vain to break her plastic bonds.
“I don’t think so, considering you just destroyed my ship and tried to kill me. You’ve got some explaining to do before I decide anything.”
“Aemon, I know this must be difficult for you. It’s not how it looks. You have to free me.”
“I’m not doing anything until you tell me what the hell is going on. How does someone go from being a traitor to the Empire to one of their most valued agents?”

“I’m not telling you anything until you get me out from this ridiculous webbing.” Her voice carried a familiar edge of haughty defiance to it, the same tone with which she’d used during her frequent arguments with my father back at our country estate on Summerland, but still my instincts told me that something was a little bit awry. There was a slight tremor to her voice that couldn’t be completely explained by the stress of the situation.

“Ah!” I exclaimed, clapping my hands together loudly, shaking my head before looking down to meet her gaze, sadly. “I get it now. You’re not my mother. You’re a clone.”
“Aemon! How dare you-!” Zeta spluttered, incensed by the accusation.
“The way you roll your r’s. Mother never spoke like that. It’s a flaw in the DNA coding of your speech centres. You might have her face, but you’re not her. The only thing you have in common is that you’re both traitors. They must have taken the tissue cultures just before you were executed.”
“No… you’re wrong! I am your mother. The Empire, and your beloved Laure, have lied to you.”
“That’s what Stenberg said. About what, exactly?”
“I’m no traitor. I was never loyal to the Empire in the first place. Neither was your father. You’ve been brainwashed by the Empire for too long to remember. Your father and I were deep-cover agents for the Federal Intelligence Service. You come from a Federation family, Aemon. Cut my bonds and I’ll take you home – to your true home.”
“What was your mission? For the Federation, I mean.”
“That’s not important right now.”
“I’ll be the judge of that. Tell me, otherwise I set a course for Achenar right now.”
“You always were an obdurate boy.” Zeta grimaced, her tone disapproving.
“Stenberg told me I inherited that trait from you.” I replied, pointedly. I retrieved my flechette pistol from my survival pack and made a show of checking that it was loaded and ready to fire, ejecting and reinserting the clip and chambering a dart using the cocking slider mechanism. “Or I can execute you now, if you prefer.”
“You would threaten your own mother?”
“You’re not my mother. My mother is dead. Real mothers don’t abandon their children for their own selfish gain. Whether you’re a clone or not, you don’t have the right to claim the title of ‘mother’. For all its faults, the Empire nurtured, raised me and gave me a future, not you.”
“If you kill me, you’ll never find out the truth.” Zeta warned, the first signs of genuine fear creeping into her voice.
“I’m not going to kill you. I’ve never killed someone who’s not capable of defending themselves or fighting back.” I put away my dart gun and stood up, stooping to pull Zeta upright off the deck with both hands. “You can answer for your crimes back at Imperial Centre. I’m taking you to Capitol.”

“No! Aemon, please. Listen to reason. You can’t do this. You’ll always be viewed with suspicion by the upper echelons of Imperial society. But in the Federation, your talent and ability could take you to the very top.” Zeta implored, as I dragged her from the flight deck towards one of two crew staterooms.

“I gave you your chance. Don’t expect the interrogators at Achenar to be quite so polite.” I replied coldly, lying Zeta on the bunk in the larger of the two staterooms. I used the webbing glove to pin the immobilised agent to the bed, so that they wouldn’t be injured, should I have to engage in any high-g manoeuvring while I made my way back to Imperial space.
“Aemon! No! Stop, don’t do this!” Zeta shrieked as I returned to the cockpit, sealing the hatch to the stateroom behind me. Her muffled pleas faded into silence as I walked back to the bridge, considering what to do next.
I sat down in the commander’s seat and scanned the ship’s flight controls and the status of its secondary systems. I was surprised to see that the ship had no voice comms system at all, explaining why Zeta’s only contact with me during our battle had come via a text channel. Ship-to-ship text communication was limited to direct line of sight, meaning that I had no way of communicating directly back to the Empire. Somehow I would have to make it back to Imperial space without my legal status in Federation space invoking a swarm of attention from bounty hunters and local police forces alike. Not only that, as I was now flying the ship of the most-wanted criminal in the Empire, I could hardly expect a friendly reception once I cleared the Federation border systems. Manipulating the galactic map with an archaic keyboard and touch-screen interface (the ship didn’t appear to have an AI installed), I noticed that one of the closest Imperial systems to my current position was Beta-1 Tucanae, just five jumps away. The navigation computer indicated that it would be possible to reach the system without needing to refuel. Once there, all I needed to do was to find some way to contact Laure, and she would be able to use her considerable political influence to allow me to deliver Zeta to the headquarters of the Imperial Navy at Achenar. The only catch was I had to find some way of convincing the local security forces not to blast me out of the sky before I was able to explain the situation. Tapping the survival pouch still attached to my thigh, I had an idea. Reattaching my RemLok helmet to my flight suit, I pulled out the multi-tool from the pouch and briefly left the ship for a short EVA, making a small but significant modification to the main engine cowling, just above the sweeping curve where the wing root joined the ship’s fuselage. I finished the work and got back inside the ship with just three minutes’ worth of oxygen remaining in my RemLok’s supply. After securing and re- pressurising the airlock, I detached the helmet once more before heading back up to the bridge, via the stateroom I’d left Zeta in.

“Are you feeling any more talkative yet?” I asked, as the door to the stateroom hissed open. A quick glance at Zeta revealed that she wouldn’t be doing any more talking. Her neck was twisted, as if in great pain, her head hanging backwards, limply. I ran across the stateroom to the bunk, taking her head into my hands and checked for signs of life. Zeta wasn’t breathing and I could not feel a pulse when I checked the carotid artery on her neck. Her green eyes stared dully up at the ceiling, robbed of their vitality, conveying only the shock and distress of her final few seconds of life. When I opened her mouth I caught a faint whiff of almonds and saw that the two rearmost molars on her lower jaw were smashed, paper-thin shards of broken white ceramic littering the back of her mouth. Rather than be interrogated by Imperial Intelligence, Zeta had chosen the only option for escape she’d had left open to her, biting down on the fake teeth to release a suicide dose of cyanide. Her death meant that my mission was complete, but rather than feeling relieved that I had passed the Empire’s test of my ability and loyalty, I couldn’t shake a sensation of melancholy. I’d probably never know now whether anything Stenberg or Zeta had told me was true or not. Not that it mattered. There was only one thing left for me to do: return to the only home I had left, and the only person in the galaxy I truly loved.

 



Chapter Seven – Beta-1 Tucanae: Nav Beacon


I was bathed in intense blue light when the Imperial Clipper plunged out of the energetic maelstrom
of witchspace back into reality, the frame shift drive thudding characteristically as it span down to
recharge. My trip across Federation and independent space to return home had been uneventful,
but surely had not gone unnoticed by the network of informants and trackers that passed on the
locations of ships of special interest to the many different parties willing to pay a premium price for
such information. I knew I wouldn’t have long before the system security forces and a myriad of
bounty hunters looking for a payday were likely to come swooping down on my ship. I brought up the
ship’s throttle to retreat from the nav beacon quickly, hoping that no other ships would jump in
before I finished turning the ship towards my destination, Adams Orbital. I selected the station in the
navigation computer interface at my left, keeping one eye on the radar scanner as I pitched and
rolled the ship towards my supercruise vector. I was about to activate the frame shift drive to propel
me into supercruise when I caught the tell-tale flash of an incoming ship dropping out of hyperdrive
about ten kilometres off my port wing. It was too far away to catch me before my ship could enter
supercruise, so I indulged my curiosity to check the contact list and see what it was. A chill ran down
my spine when I saw the ship class. It was an Anaconda. I took a closer look at the spearhead-shaped
vessel out of the viewport. It was a very familiar-looking Anaconda.

“You’ve got to be kidding me…” I breathed in exasperation, just as the ship-to-ship text console lit up.

Well, well, sugar. Fancy meeting you here. I’m impressed you made it this far, Roche.

What do you want, Suzie? Secondly, how the hell did you know it’s me?

That part was easy, sweetcakes. When Zeta didn’t show up for our rendezvous, I put two and two
together. Ballsy move, Roche, hijacking a ship in space. You should come work for me.

I’m flattered, but I think I’ll pass.

Your loss, Roche. We could make a lot of money together. More than enough to replace all the beds
we’d break. Still, I’ve got another proposition for you. Wing with me. I owe you for letting my butt
wiggle away from Kappa Fornacis and Hai Ho. It’s only fair that I protect yours and get it safely to
Adams. No punk of a bounty hunter is going to touch you if you’re flying on my wing. Once I get you
into the station’s no fire zone though, you’re on your own.

Thunda Sue’s Kurgan was now only three kilometres away, taking the lead in an echelon right
formation. Its hardpoints were stowed and its frame shift drive was charging.

What’s the catch?

No catch, Roche. I like your ass, that’s all. It’d be nice for me to know that it’s still out there
somewhere and that at some unspecified point in the future, I might be able to get my hands on it.

No promises. But I’ll take the escort.

Good choice, Roche. If you ever get bored of that Imperial tart’s docking bays, remember that I’ll keep
a berth open for you.

I responded only by accepting Thunda’s wing request, closing up our formation until I was within 200
metres of the imposing Kurgan. I could see that the damage I had done less than a day earlier to the
flying fortress had been hastily repaired, no doubt at great expense. If we did get dragged into a fight
on the way to Adams Orbital, I pitied the commander that would be on the other end of the
Anaconda’s immense firepower.

Nav computers locked. Wing link established. Jumping in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…mark!

The fabric of space-time wrinkled and coiled into a luminous white tunnel before the noses of our
ships, lancing us forward into supercruise with a brief stab of pseudo-acceleration. It would take
several minutes to cross the 3500 light-seconds between the system’s star and the Coriolis station, so
with little else to do, other than make minor course corrections and keep a watch on the scanner for
hostile contacts, Thunda Sue turned out to be a chatty travelling companion.

I suppose this is going to be a pretty big break for you, isn’t it Roche? Taking down two enemies of the
state in a couple of days? That’s got to put you on the fast track.

What would you know about it?

I toyed with the idea of a career in the Navy. At least until I realised that I couldn’t stand being told
what to do every five seconds by people who don’t know their ass from their elbow.

That still doesn’t explain how you became a pirate. Plenty of other things you could have done.

I like this way of life, Roche. The thrill of living on the edge. Knowing your next fight might be your
last, but fighting anyway.

You could get that from bounty hunting. Why piracy?

More money. More notoriety. Better sex. When have you ever heard of anyone falling over
themselves to get into bed with a bounty hunter? Pirates get more respect, not to mention a better
class of tail.

There’s got to be more to it than that.

Like what, Roche? A sob story about a broken home, an exploited childhood and an escape into the
underworld? Not from me. My parents run a very successful export business out of Coulter City in
Tionisla. I could have followed in the family footsteps, running cargo around the Old Worlds, probably
dying of boredom before anything else. I chose this instead. Big, fast ships and plenty of excitement,
money, men, women and booze. What more could I possibly want? How much are you worth, Roche?
I’ve been doing this for nine years and my crew has enough put away in assets to buy our own star
system. Think you’ll ever earn that much in the Imperial Navy?

At least my hands are clean.

You’re not qualified to judge me, Roche. There’s no such thing as an innocent out here. I thought
you’d have learned that by now.

Coming up on Adams Orbital. I typed, wanting to change the subject.

I see it. Let’s see what kind of welcoming committee the Governor has waiting for you. Disengaging
FSD in 3, 2, 1… mark.

The Anaconda and the Clipper dropped back into realspace thirty kilometres away from the Coriolis
station. Between us and the station was a very well-armed Fer-de-Lance heavy fighter, its scorched
and scarred livery carrying the air of bounty hunter about it. I saw that it was deploying hardpoints,
its armaments including a formidably destructive Class 4 Plasma Accelerator. Thunda and I
responded in kind, arming our weapons. I checked the HUD and saw that my cannons were still wellstocked,
with over fifty rounds each.

Oh, Commander Creighton! It’s so nice to see you again! Thunda announced, boosting ahead to
engage the Fer-de-Lance with her beam laser turrets, dodging vertically at the last moment to strafe
out of the way of an incoming plasma sphere.

You know this guy?

Ex-husband. Wants to kill me. Long story. Make a break for the station, I’ll keep him busy.
As I flew past the warring former lovers, I blasted the Fer-de-Lance with the Clipper’s full
complement of weapons, weakening the heavy fighter’s shields substantially.

Roche, don’t fight. Just run. He might have friends on the way. Get to the no fire zone.
You’re sure you don’t want a hand?

We go through this every couple of months. Don’t worry. He’s as good in a pilot’s chair as he is
between the sheets. Which is about as useful as ant powder on a Thargoid nest. Go.
I stowed my ship’s weapons, redirected my weapon power to shields and engines and boosted
beyond the Fer-de-Lance’s weapons range as it floundered under the assault from Kurgan’s eight
beam laser turrets. I was just five kilometres short of the no fire zone when a horde of contacts
emerged from the radar shadow of the Coriolis starport. It was an Imperial Clipper, escorted by no
less than eight Core Dynamics Vultures, flying in an inverted-Vic formation, with the Clipper taking
the rearmost position at the base of the V. I recognised the gold and purple insignia on the side of
the Clipper instantly. It was Laure’s personal ship, Athene Noctua.

How dare you come here, Zeta? After all that you’ve done? Laure signalled, the plain text appearing
on my comms console only hinting at the full extent of her fury. And I see your traitorous stench
brought some vermin in with it. Praetor 1 through 6, deal with that pirate scum.
The first three rows of Vultures in Laure’s fighter group instantly engaged their afterburners, boosting
past me to engage the Anaconda and the Fer-de-Lance.

Laure, it’s me. Stand down your fighters. I typed, using the running lights on the nose of the ship to
flash a private signal in Morse code. We had first discovered the ancient method of communication
during a family vacation on Summerland, before my parents’ disgrace, using it to tap messages
through the bedroom walls to each other, long after I was supposed to have been asleep.
Wuh-oh… Time for me to go. I’m out of here, Roche. Come find me sometime. I’ll put some
excitement in your life. Thunda messaged me over our private wing channel, when she noticed the
half-dozen Vultures bearing down on her tussle with the Fer-de-Lance. Kurgan appeared to be
undamaged, but the heavy fighter was very much the worse for wear, with one wingtip missing and
flames gutting out from multiple breaches in the ship’s armoured plating. The Pirate Queen rolled
her ship and boosted for open space, the dorsal radiator vents glowing brightly in the darkness as the
Anaconda’s frame shift drive span up.

See, Zeta? Even your hired scum shows you no loyalty. I’m going to enjoy watching your ship burn.
Praetor 7, take out their thrusters. Praetor 8, destroy the ship’s FSD. But leave the death blow to me.
Laure’s two escorts opened fire with Class 3 rail guns, knocking 30% off my shield strength in a single
salvo. I redirected full power to my shield recharge rate, boosting towards Laure’s Clipper, so that she
could see my Morse signal more clearly. Laure, stop! It’s me, Aemon! Zeta’s dead.

My Imperial Clipper could outrun the Vultures, but I had to stay close to Laure’s ship so that she
stood a chance of seeing my signal with the running lights, and I couldn’t afford to stray too far from
the station’s no fire zone, in case any other bounty hunters turned up. Neither could I head directly
for the station itself, as Laure could ensure I was denied docking permission and even command the
starport to destroy me outright. My only hope was that I could convince Laure in time that I was who
I said I was. As I rolled and pitched the Imperial Clipper through a series of defensive scissor turns, I
noticed that the flight of Vultures Laure had sent after the Fer-de-Lance and Thunda Sue’s Anaconda
had entered engagement range. The crippled Fer-de-Lance was overwhelmed in seconds, vanishing
in a bright starburst of sparks as the ship’s fuel stores were detonated by a rail gun round. Kurgan’s
turrets reached backwards, red fingers of hard light raking across the shields of the incoming
Vultures, covering the larger ship’s retreat, its sheer firepower warding off the swarm of heavily
armed fighters until it blinked away into witchspace with a brief flicker of white light. The six Vultures
wheeled about applying full boost, to reinforce the two ships trying to disable my ship. Another pair
of rail gun projectiles crashed into my shields, a sonic alarm ringing across the bridge to alert me that
the protective energy bubble was on the verge of collapsing.

Laure, please! Call off your fighters! I aimed my ship’s nose directly at her ship, signalling frantically
with the running lights. My shields failed as four more rail gun rounds from the Vultures slammed
into the Clipper’s hull, taking its thrusters and frame shift drive offline. I didn’t even try to perform a
system reboot to allow the ship’s systems to try and reroute some of the components from my other
modules to bring back some functionality in the damaged subsystems. It would never complete in
time, anyway. I used what little power there was left in the fine control vernier thruster modules to
point the nose of my ship directly at Laure’s. The eight Vultures formed a globe around my vessel,
waiting for the order to strike one final time. I kept signalling with the landing lights on the Clipper’s
nose, praying that Laure would eventually see the message only I could have sent her. I saw the
reflections glint from Laure’s canopy as she brought her ship to within a hundred metres of mine, the
beam laser turrets on her wingtip nacelles and the multi-cannon turrets on her underwing
hardpoints pointed directly at my cockpit. I surrender.

You coward, Zeta. You can’t even die an honourable death. Why won’t you fight?
I made the mistake of fighting you a long time ago. It was wrong then, and it’d be wrong now. It
really is me, Laure. And I love you, no matter what. But before you do anything, check the ship’s
registry. Not electronically. Check the hull code. I closed my eyes. There was nothing left that I could
do. Seconds ticked by, the tension making it feel like hours. Nothing happened. Seconds turned into
minutes and when I reopened my eyes, I saw that the Vultures were retreating towards the starport.
Aemon?

Yes, Laure?

I’m coming aboard. Give me a minute to get the docking tube connected.
Laure’s Imperial Clipper rolled and ducked beneath the belly of my stricken ship, using its dorsal
thrusters to ease gently into a position where it could link together our landing ramps and their
airlocks to allow my ship to be towed further into the no fire zone surrounding Adams Orbital, also
allowing free access between one ship and the other. I stopped signalling with the landing lights. The
code I had been sending was the same sequence of letters that I had etched into the hull on my EVA
before jumping back to Empire space: FFTTOTGTBMEBOTWD. To the untrained eye it would just
seem like a standard hull registration code. For Laure and I, however, the sixteen letter sequence
held a much more personal significance. It meant Fell From The Top Of The Gravitas Tree, But Missed
Every Branch On The Way Down, an accusation Laure had levelled in my direction, following my
protestations at her renaming of my Imperial Courier.

I met her at the airlock, once our ships were secure. Even dressed in an unflattering flight suit, Laure
was effortlessly gorgeous, despite her tearful, red-rimmed eyes. Her long hair was tied behind her
head in a spiralled coil, having been re-dyed with a hint of cherry red to replace the blue she had
worn when I had departed on the mission. We embraced without a word as soon as the airlock
opened. When we were both suitably reassured that we weren’t just imagining being back together, I
took Laure’s hand and led her back towards the flight deck.

“Aemon, I’m so sorry. I almost had you killed. When I got the news that your ship had been
destroyed… I… I went a little crazy. And when Zeta’s ship turned up… I didn’t think it could be you.”
“It’s okay. You got my message in time. That’s the important thing.” I squeezed Laure’s hand in mine
as I opened the door to the stateroom where I had left Zeta’s body. The corpse of the strawberry
blonde woman lay motionless on the bunk, as I had left it. “Here she is, Agent Zeta.”

Laure walked over to the bunk, looked down at Zeta’s face and recoiled with a gasp of shock and
recognition. “Aemon, that’s…”

“You didn’t know?” I watched Laure’s face carefully, hunting for any signs of duplicity. I knew her well
enough to see through her politician’s poise and sense if she was lying.
“I had no idea.” Laure’s blue eyes were wide with genuine shock. “No wonder Naval Command
insisted that you be the one sent on the mission. What greater test of your loyalty could there be
than to kill your own mother?”

“I didn’t kill her. She took her own life. Cyanide capsules hidden inside false teeth.”
“You brought her to justice, Aemon.” Laure replied, proud of what I had done. “You achieved your
mission objectives. The Imperial Navy won’t forget that. You’ll be a Viscount before the end of the
week, I promise you.”

“What happens now?” I asked, taking Laure’s arm and leading her to the bridge, satisfied that she
had been as much in the dark about the true identity of my target as I had.
“We report your success back to Command, and while we wait for your promotion to be confirmed,
I’ll get this ship refitted for you. I was going to buy you an Imperial Clipper to celebrate your elevation
to Baron, but I see you acquired one already.” Laure said, ironically amused, as she sat on the broad
circular projector for the holographic radar scanner, beneath the panoramic canopy. The customised
purple glow from the holographic HUD emitters gave her pale skin an ethereal, exotic look.
“How much will I owe you for that?” I asked, leaning against the armrest of one of the flight seats
and smiling.

Laure looked up into my eyes, her full lips moist and inviting. Laure eased her torso backwards,
propping herself up on her elbows. “I’m sure I’ll be able to come up with a reasonable repayment
schedule. We can discuss the full terms after the wedding.”
“Are you sure you want to risk upsetting Zemina?” I stepped forward to keep eye contact as Laure lay
down on the radar scanner’s carbon fibre bulkhead between the ship avatar and target HUD
projectors.

“Definitely.” Laure’s azure eyes sparkled with defiance, as she reached up to take my hands and lean
me forward over her. I had to support myself with my knees against the edge of the bulkhead to stop
myself from falling. “She’s going to have to get used to the fact that I’m not some lapdog at her beck
and call. I’ve always thought of you as family, Aemon. Tomorrow you’ll truly be a Torval. No-one will
hold your family’s past against you then.”

I bent down to kiss her lips, revelling in the scent of her perfume and the warmth of her hands on
the back of my neck. “I love you, Laure.”

“I love you, too.” The beauty of her smile was heartbreaking. Her expression turned impatient as the
seconds passed. “What are you waiting for, Aemon?”

“Permission to dock, Governor.”

“Oh, I thought you’d never ask…”

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