Prologue – Toolfa: Crook Hub

“Ah, you’re awake.” said a disembodied voice I didn’t recognise. The voice was male, heavily accented (insofar that I could tell he wasn’t from the Empire) and professionally friendly.
I tried opening my eyes, and immediately had to close them again. The light was painfully bright. I preferred the blackness. It seemed bizarre to even have eyes at all. The last thing I could remember was dying. I couldn’t remember the exact circumstances, but I had definitely died. I moved my hand to my ribs, surprised to feel that they were intact. I vaguely recalled a hole having been punched right through my body. No doubt my fatal injury, or so I seemed to remember. The skin, however, felt smooth and I could count all of my ribs. No holes there. Had I imagined it? I tried to speak, but my mouth was incapable of making coherent sounds, instead drawling unintelligibly. “Whumaaahuhhh…”
“Don’t try to talk just yet, Mr Roche. But I assure you, you’re somewhere quite safe.” the coolly friendly voice replied. “I’m Dr Bollenberg, your surgical consultant. The stem cell cultures have grafted perfectly. In another couple of weeks no-one would ever know that there had ever been a hole in your chest. Though it will be another month or two before your lung fully regrows. You will need to avoid any strenuous exercise or other aerobic activity for a while. Though having met your wife, I can see how that might be difficult.” The consultant added wryly, his tone envious and lascivious.
“Nuu-fiff?” Again the words wouldn’t seem to form properly in my mouth, my tongue and lips unable to make the right shapes. Amazingly, the doctor appeared to have understood my question. I tried opening my eyes again, but a bright stab of pain clamped them shut instantly.
“Oh yes, Mr Roche, she’s quite a lovely specimen, if I may say so. You’re very lucky to have someone so devoted to you. She’s barely left your side since you were brought in.” Bollenberg explained. I could sense the heat from slack fingers pressing against the palm of my left hand. Whoever was touching me must have been asleep. “And rather capable, too. She did magnificently well to even dock your ship after the pirate attack you were injured in, from what I’ve been told. Barely a thruster left functioning, or so the dockmaster said.”
Shp?” With every effort to speak, I got closer to making understandable sounds. Buoyed by this triumph, I tried to look around again, only to be forced back into the darkness. “Bru-iht!”
“Oh! I’m sorry, Mr Roche. Of course, I should turn the lights down. You’ve not seen the light, as it were, for six weeks after all.” Bollenberg sounded genuinely apologetic. There was a faint beeping and the darkness behind my eyelids seemed to get even blacker. “There you are. You should find that more comfortable. But yes, your ship was very badly damaged in the attack. Almost a write-off, I believe. Those pirates must have been very well-equipped. The repairs will be rather expensive, I fear.”
I turned my head in the direction of his voice and experimented with opening just one eye. This time the light was dim enough not to hurt, but I was still able to make out details around the room, though the colours were slightly washed out in the gloom. I opened the other eye and I finally saw my rather forward, but gregarious doctor. Bollenberg was tall, with a round face, narrow chin and a shock of pale red hair spiked on the centre of his close-cropped pate. He smiled welcomingly with broad, thin lips, tucking a data stylus into the breast pocket on his white coveralls, before looking
down to check my vital signs on his wrist screen. Once he was satisfied, he wiped the screen with the palm of his hand, the image disappearing to be replaced with a fabric that looked identical to the rest of his medical bodysuit. The hospital room was Spartan but similarly high tech, the bed surrounded by machines whose function I could only guess at. Now that my senses were becoming sharper, I felt several electrodes and monitoring devices attached to my upper chest, communing wirelessly with the diagnostic and treatment machines around my bed. I was about to tell the doctor that my left leg felt numb, but when I looked down to double-check that it was still attached to my body, the reason for the odd sensation became obvious. Resting on my thigh was the head of a young woman, her face concealed by a long, golden mane of hair. It was her slender hand I had felt in my palm earlier, and I squeezed her fingers as hard as I could, reaching across my body with my other hand to stroke her long, thin neck through her hair, hoping to wake her gently. “Tat-i-ana.”
“That’s right, your wife, Tatiana Dementyeva. Curious that I couldn’t find any record of your marriage.” Bollenberg said, amused. “But then you Imperials have strange customs. Polygamy, for example. These things aren’t recognised in civilised space… Your wife was very resistant to the idea that we should speak with your other wife – that is, the one we could find records for – Laure Torval. What is it with you Imperials? Do your wives never take their husband’s name?”
Disgusted, I made a dismissive noise and the surgeon took the hint.
“Well, now that you’re awake, you can inform her of your accident yourself, Mr Roche. You’ll be back on your feet in a couple of days.” Bollenberg retreated to the door, bowing. “Anyway, I should let you two get reacquainted. I’ll be back to check on you tomorrow.”


Chapter One – Toolfa: Crook Hub

Dr Bollenberg’s information proved to be correct on all counts. 48 hours later I was back on my feet, with a very hefty repair bill to pay – two, in fact. One for me, and the second for the ship, which more than wiped out all of the money I had received from the bounty voucher for Elfrirth’s Plunder, the Imperial Cutter belonging to one of Tatiana’s former slave masters. Cloned organs, it turned out, could be more expensive than ships, and Tatiana had spared no expense in my medical treatment. I was too happy to still be alive to be annoyed at the incredible cost of my hospital stay (some 540,000 credits), and it was touching to know how much she had wanted me to survive my injuries, which had very nearly been fatal.
As well as atomising one of my lungs and several of my ribs, the multi-cannon round I’d been struck by at Groombridge 34B had severed several major arteries, clipped my liver and shredded a kidney, as well as inflicting major trauma to my back muscles. If the sabot round had entered my chest another fifty millimetres to the left, I would have been killed instantly. By the time Tatiana had landed my ship at Crook Hub, I had already fallen into a coma. Had it not been for the intervention of the ship’s AI interpreting my last instruction to Tatiana before I lost consciousness as a voice command and acting upon it through her own initiative, we never would have made it out of the Groombridge system at all. ASTRA had then coached Tatiana through what to do once the ship had escaped the clutches of the Federation ambush after our raid on the shipyard at Groombridge 34B, as the sight of my injuries had left her almost catatonic. Fortunately, ASTRA’s guidance had coaxed Tatiana into action, saving both me and the ship – or at least, what was left of us. Tatiana had admitted with chagrin that it had even been ASTRA’s idea that she should pose as my wife while I was unconscious, as my condition was so serious that ASTRA judged that she would need to claim such status to have her wishes obeyed without question by the doctors.
Fell From The Top(…) herself cut a sorry sight when Tatiana walked with me arm-in-arm to the docking bay. I was still very stiff in the aftermath of my extended stay in the hospital unit and could only walk long distances with assistance. The Imperial Clipper’s graceful, sweeping wings were pockmarked with craters from multi-cannon rounds, the canopy showed signs of hastily-patched cracks and whole thruster modules were visibly burnt out. The decision I had made to trade off the mass of the ship’s reactive armour plating for extra speed had not been an unqualified success. The ship was barely functional, but thankfully the AI core containing the video evidence showing the outcome of the raid on the Federation battlecruiser at Groombridge 34 had not been damaged. After Tatiana helped me aboard, the first thing I did was wrap my arms as far as I could around the casing of ASTRA’s AI core, the closest I could get to giving her a bear hug, in thanks for the AI’s intuition and quick thinking that had saved us all. “Thank you, ASTRA.”
“You’re welcome, my lord.” the AI replied, sounding rather pleased with herself.
“I’m going to give you the shiniest paint job this station can muster. What colour would you like, ASTRA?”
“I’ve always been partial to gold, my lord.” ASTRA replied, after a whole second of consideration, which was almost an eternity for an AI.
“Consider it done.” I said, hugging the cold, metallic sphere again. Tatiana stood behind me, frowning in confusion before helping me again to my feet. “Tatiana, let’s go to the bridge and make a few calls. We need to get this ship repaired.”
The flight deck was just as I remembered it: a literal bloody mess. The bulkhead at the rear of the bridge was still spattered with globules of my dried blood and tiny fragments of lung tissue, a gruesome reminder of the seriousness of my injuries. I would have to convince one of the repair crews to get it cleaned up – the gore rather ruined the sleek, pristine carbon fibre aesthetic of the Gutamaya styling. I caressed the ragged hole that had been ripped clear through my flight seat, only now fully appreciating the damage that had been done to my body. I followed the line of sight from the puncture in the canopy through the chair to the bulkhead and found the hole where the sabot had hit the rear wall. The multi-cannon round had punched deep into the armour plate, melting and vaporising as it penetrated the dense metal. I reached into the hole, my arm disappearing up to the elbow before my fingertips felt the bottom. None of the uranium-tipped sabot remained in the hole.
“Amazing that something so small can do so much damage.” I said, half to myself, under my breath.
Tatiana took me by the arm again and led me silently to the co-pilot’s chair, where she sat me down, kissing me on the forehead. “I thought I’d never see you back here again, master.”
“I wouldn’t be if it weren’t for you and ASTRA. You saved my life, Tatiana. Thank you.”
“You saved mine, too, Master Aemon.”
“Then I guess that makes us even.” I smiled, taking her hands in mine. “So does that mean you’ll stop calling me ‘master’ now?”
“No, master.” Tatiana gave me a brittle smile back, beautiful and fragile.
“Okay, have it your way.” I shook my head, squeezing her fingers tightly before letting her go. “I suppose if I’m buying ASTRA a shiny new outfit, I ought to get you one as well. You’ve certainly earned it.”
“I already have everything I want, master. As long as I have you.” Tatiana hugged me around the neck, holding on for a full minute. “I’ll be in my room, master.”
“Don’t get too comfy.” I said, wagging a finger at her threateningly. “As soon as I’m done we’re going shopping. I need a new flight suit and I’m buying you a new dress whether you want one or not.”
“Yes, master.” Tatiana gave me a lingering kiss full on the mouth before leaving the flight deck. With only one fully grown lung, it didn’t take much to leave me short of breath, but the intensity of her kiss left me gasping.
The first thing I did was check the footage from the shipyard raid at Groombridge 34B. It had been six weeks since the attack and I had still not reported in to Senator Torval. By now her other agents would have reported to her the success or failure of the mission, but she would want definitive proof from my ship’s AI records before paying out the 10 million credit reward. I was relieved to see from the gun camera footage that the I-class battlecruiser I had been tasked to destroy had indeed been utterly annihilated by two of the experimental antimatter torpedoes the Senator had provided me with, along with three quarters of the capital ship drydocks at the ship building facility. Completing Zemina’s task successfully was more important than the money, as it was the Senator who was preventing me from seeing her niece and my wife, Laure. I would also have to speak with Laure on hyperwave radio, as we had not gone longer than a week without speaking to each other since we’d been married. I didn’t want to think about how she might be trying to explain a month and a half of complete silence.
Before taking care of that, however, the condition of my ship was a more pressing concern. Fell From The Top(…) had sustained critical damage to nearly all of its systems. Had it not been for the precious information held within the AI core and the almost unique ID transponder mask fitted to the ship by its previous owner, it would have been more cost effective to have scrapped the Clipper on its insurance policy and get a brand new replacement. It was only the money I had raised from downgrading the reactive armour to standard bulkheads that would allow me to have the ship brought back up to anything like the specification I had gotten used to prior to the Groombridge 34 assignment. The hull repairs alone were almost into seven figures and some modules, notably the life support, shields and thruster units were uneconomical to repair had to be replaced entirely. This meant that I only had enough money left after the repairs to fit military grade armoured bulkheads, rather than reactive armour, but I consoled myself that while cheaper, they gave better all-round protection, rather than specialist damage ablation against projectile weapons. I dumped the torpedo launchers I had needed at Groombridge 34 and reverted back to my port/starboard wing setup of gimballed cannons and beam lasers. I also reinstated shield boosters on the utility module hardpoints in place of the heat sink launchers and point defence turret, and replaced the field maintenance unit with a hull reinforcement module, bolstering the ship’s armour even further. Lastly, I requested ASTRA’s new paint job, holding back a choke at the extortionate cost of 100,000 credits. Allegedly, the only way a gold finish could be applied to military armour was by using an industrial electroplating process with real gold. Half the cost was the five tonnes of gold required to achieve the desired colour and the rest was to carry out the process itself, finally coating the gold plating with a thin layer of synthesized diamond (fortunately, carbon is cheap) to prevent micrometeoroid damage ruining the finish. I almost refused, but I had promised ASTRA and she had saved both the ship and the lives of myself and Tatiana. Regardless, it was a good idea to recolour the ship in any case – graphite grey Imperial Clippers were surely by now the most hunted ships in Federation space. The port authority told me that the repairs would take no more than three days and I was invited to stay, free of charge, in one of the station’s six star hotel suites. Presumably this was supposed to compensate for the fact that I had just dropped well over forty million credits in their ship outfitters. I accepted graciously, noting with a sly grin that my reputation with the local authority had jumped straight from ‘Neutral’ to ‘Allied’ in the space of five minutes. Such was the power of money in a democratic free market economy.
The comms system was one of the only ship modules to escape major damage from the plasma accelerator hit in the shipyard ambush, the unit having been switched off at the time. I debated which Torval to speak with first, my wife or her Aunt. Both were likely to be difficult conversations, but I chose the Senator first, over the Governor, because I wanted something to look forward to. At least my conversation with Laure was likely to have a happier ending. I powered up the comms module and put in a call to Lagerkvist Station at Synteini. I was rather taken aback when Senator Zemina Torval answered without keeping me on hold, in a customary demonstration of her innate superiority.
“Roche. You were supposed to report here to me weeks ago.” The Senator’s age-lined face was as strict and unforgiving as ever.
“Forgive me, Senator. I’ve spent the last month and a half re-growing half of my ribcage and back. And I’m still missing a lung, so I’ll have to keep my sentences short.” I tried and failed to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. The attempt at humour did not go down well.
“Do you have the footage?” Torval’s reply was cold and unimpressed.
“I’ll have my AI transmit it to you now.” I tapped the instructions onto my control board and ASTRA confirmed by text that the video stream had been received and properly countersigned by the AI at Lagerkvist Station. I studied Zemina’s stern visage as she watched the holograph of the two torpedoes devastating the heart of one of the Federation’s most strategically important shipyards. For the merest fraction of a second, the corners of Zemina’s narrow mouth flexed upward with satisfaction.
“Ten million, Roche. As agreed.” Zemina stabbed a long, thin, claw-like finger at her terminal, transferring the money into my credit account, with a sigh of regret. “You’re almost making yourself too useful to kill. But it was so close to being a win-win…”
“Senator, surely I’ve proved myself to you by now. I want to see Laure.”
“Oh, Roche! Roche!” Zemina shook her head, sadly. “Why would you say something so stupid? Just when I was about to think you were something close to being a competent and valuable asset? Lose yourself outside of the bubble. I’ve just given you a fortune. Buy an independent world, be a king! But don’t think for a second I’ll let you near my niece again.”
“Some things are more important than money, Senator.”
“Yes. Indeed they are. I think that’s the most intelligent thing I’ve heard come out of your mouth, Roche. But you forget yourself. You’re already the most wanted commander in Federation space. Ask me that again and I’ll have a bounty put on your head that’s so large you’ll never be able to re-enter Imperial space.” Zemina glowered and cut the channel.
“That went well, I thought.” I said aloud, to myself, my face in my palms. “ASTRA, see if you can get hold of Laure.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Like her aunt, Laure didn’t keep me waiting, acknowledging the call instantly. Her pale blue eyes were wide and bloodshot and she had dyed her hair raven black, to match her mood of despair. She looked at me disbelieving, reaching out to try and touch me through the screen of her terminal, hardly daring to trust what she was seeing. “Aemon? Thank the gods! You’re alive? What happened to you? I’ve been worried sick!”
I updated Laure on the events of the past six weeks, including the outcome of the talk I had just finished with Zemina. Laure listened intently, as was her habit; letting me talk without interruption, which was not. I wondered if she just wanted to hear the sound of my voice. When I had finished, Laure looked at me through her terminal screen, crestfallen.
“Aemon, I can’t go on living like this forever. I need you here. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. But there’s that small matter of the Interdictor waiting for me outside your station.”
“I should talk to Zemina. Get her to stop this pathetic little vendetta.”
I shook my head emphatically. “Don’t do that. I’d never make it past the border.”
“Then what can we do? Aemon, we’re having a child in five months.”
“We need some kind of leverage. Maybe we should go public? Generate some sympathy in the media? Zemina isn’t the most popular of Senators as it is.”
“No, I don’t think so. The old witch might not have Aisling’s looks, but she’s still got a lot of pull with GalNet. We’d get crucified. No, you’re right, we need some dirt on her.”
“Any ideas as to where to start digging?” I asked.
“I’ve been digging for years.” Laure said, frowning. “She’s spotless, politically speaking.”
“What about the Sorbago incident?” I suggested. A little over five years ago, Zemina had sent part of her personal fleet to put down an Imperial Slave revolt in the Sorbago system, on the Federation/Empire border. The slaves had taken control of the system’s senate building and tried to force the local authority out of the system with the help of Federation-aligned privateers. The revolt had failed spectacularly and the surviving slaves had been exiled from Empire space. Zemina Torval was one of the most vocal senators speaking out for the rights of Imperial Slaves, so there was a whiff of hypocrisy surrounding the whole affair. The senator had justified it at the time as a public order issue, given that Sorbago was a system nominally under her control.
“I never found anything damaging. But maybe you could if you started poking around Sorbago itself.”
“Right. It’s better than waiting around for Zemina to find a mission that will finally kill me.” I said. “I don’t suppose she’s got any skeletons in her closet, personally-speaking?”
“Hah. That shrivelled crone hasn’t had a decent screw in at least fifty years.” Laure scoffed, before pausing thoughtfully. “It might explain why she’s so fucking uptight, actually.”
“Maybe we should set her up on a blind date.” I said, half-serious. “Marquis Durante’s always sniffing around Zemina’s fringed collar.”
“Oh, gods no.” Laure recoiled from her terminal, repelled by the idea. “Can you imagine it?”
“I’d rather not.” I replied honestly.
“I’m still looking into that other matter, incidentally.” Laure said to change the subject, referring to her ongoing investigation into the creation of Agent Zeta, the clone of my biological mother. “Another little push in my next board meeting at HelixCorp should do the job. I threatened to sell my stake in the company if they didn’t give me access to the records.”
“That got their attention, I bet.”
“Just a little bit, yeah.” Hardball was one of Laure’s favourite games – at least in the board room. I didn’t know anyone with a better judgement of how far to push a gambit in political or business brinksmanship. HelixCorp had tripled its revenue under her stewardship and patronage: the executive board would be very reluctant to lose her expertise. “Give me a week and I should have something for you.”
“Thanks, Laure. Some good news, at least. Who knows, maybe it’s related.”
“Maybe.” Laure did not sound entirely convinced, and looked at me with concern. “Are you going to be alright? You don’t seem quite yourself.”
I stroked my ribcage self-consciously. “I’ve just had the wind taken out of my sails a little bit. It was a close call.”
“Get back to Empire space, Aemon. I’ll find some way of convincing Zemina to ease off a little. I need to see you.”
“Me too. I’ll poke around at Sorbago on the way. I love you, Laure.”
“I love you, too. I’ll see you soon, I promise. Be careful and stick to independent systems on the way.”
“Yes, mother.” I replied, teasing.
“One day, Aemon, you’ll see the wisdom in listening to me.” Laure said, sticking out her tongue.
“I’ve heard that one before.”
“Only about a million times.” Laure sighed. “I’ve got to get to a meeting. Call me back later.”

Chapter Two – Toolfa: Crook Hub

With the ship undergoing repairs, Tatiana and I had decamped to the luxury suite that had been offered to us by the local authority in gratitude for spending so much money in their ship outfitters. With Zemina’s reward successfully transferred to my credit account, I had no qualms about taking Tatiana on a shopping expedition for some new clothes that would allow her to pass for a rich native throughout independent space. While her normal ship clothes, a hard-wearing grey jumpsuit with matching lightweight leather boots, were perfectly presentable under most circumstances, I wanted to treat Tatiana to something special, as gratitude for saving my life in the disastrous aftermath of the Groombridge mission. Before we entered the Coriolis station’s commercial sector, I handed Tatiana a ceramic stick as long as my middle finger, but only a centimetre wide and three millimetres thick.
“What’s this, master?” Tatiana asked, turning the stick over in her hands and inspecting it curiously.
“Something you won’t want to lose. It’s the master key to your credit account.” I said, cupping a hand on her shoulder and walking us from the elevator to the nearest couturier. “I set one up in your name this morning. After what happened at Groombridge, I figured you’d need one if-”
“Don’t say it, master.” Tatiana interrupted me, putting a finger across my lips. “Don’t say it.”
“Well, anyway. You’re a free woman now, so you need a bank account. And since I never would have been able to claim the reward from our last mission if you hadn’t flown us here, I think you’re entitled to have a share of it.” I tapped the OLED screen inlaid on the side of the chip to show Tatiana her credit balance.
Acct# 478937611298 – Tatiana Svetlana Dementyeva: 5,000,000Cr
Tatiana drew a sharp breath in shock. Spent wisely, it was enough money to live three lifetimes in complete luxury on almost any civilised system, barring perhaps the overcrowded and overpriced capitals of the Federation, Empire and Alliance. Or it was enough money to buy a top of the line starter ship with a large enough surplus that could buy a full partner’s share in a trading co-op. How Tatiana would spend the money was up to her – as far as I was concerned, she could blow it all on shoes if she wanted – but first I was going to buy her a new outfit.
“Master… I-” Tears appeared in the corners of Tatiana’s eyes. Unable to find the words to express her gratitude, she settled for embracing me instead.
“You earned every credit, Tatiana. It’s yours.” I said, my own arms enveloping her slim form.
Tatiana spent the rest of the day buoyed by a cloud of euphoria, and by the time we returned to our suite looking out over the surface of the station, Tatiana had spent her first thousand credits on a made-to-measure tailored jumpsuit to wear on the ship, an elegant full-length gown for formal occasions, a jacket, tunic and skirt for casual excursions onto stations or temperate planets, plus no less than six pairs of shoes, ranging from the tiresomely practical to the wildly flamboyant. I had bought her a second gown she had vacillated over buying herself, claiming it was too provocative and expensive, along with a new nightshirt of the sheerest silk. The material was a synthetic reproduction of the most expensive silk from Sol, that of the golden orb spider, a material so finely spun that you couldn’t feel its touch on the skin.
“If I couldn’t see it, I wouldn’t think I had anything on at all.” Tatiana said in wonder, as she modelled it for me, the almost transparent silk clinging to her body as she pirouetted across the floor of the
bed chamber, her bare feet leaving short-lived dents in the deep pile of the carpet, laughing as she looked up out of the windows in the ceiling, watching the stars as they wheeled by. The colour of the silk matched her hair, which was the main reason why I had chosen it. I had given ASTRA an expensive outfit in gold, so it seemed only fair that I should do the same for Tatiana. “It’s like wearing air, master!”
“I’m glad you like it.” I said as Tatiana climbed next to me on the bed.
“I love it, master! I’m never taking it off!” Tatiana collapsed on top of me, slightly dizzy, inviting me to hold her. My hands defied the evidence from my eyes – it really was impossible to feel the presence of the silk beneath my fingertips. I winced as she draped herself suggestively over my chest. My new ribs were still very sore and caused referred pain across the whole of my torso if pressure was put on them. I’d have to avoid high-g combat manoeuvres for a few weeks. “Are you alright, master?”
“Sorry.” I said, nudging her gently over onto my left side and tenderly checking that none of my ribs had become displaced. “Everything’s still feeling rather fragile, I’m afraid.”
“Poor master.” Tatiana kissed the bright pink patch of new skin in the centre of my ribcage delicately.
“Hey, that tickles!” I protested, prompting Tatiana to explore the sunken pit in my chest with her tongue, setting the nerve endings aflame. I gasped and lifted her up away from me by her shoulders, turning over to lie on my belly. “If you want to make yourself useful, my back feels like it’s made of knotted rope.”
Tatiana straddled my legs and went to work with her hands, massaging away the tension and stiffness in my back muscles. The muscles on my left hand side were continually tensing up, trying to compensate for the weakness in the newly grown muscles surrounding my injury, the cloned cells still knitting with the original tissues. There was a brief pause and I heard a soft rustle of cloth. I closed my eyes, moaning in satisfaction as I felt the firm, warm pads of Tatiana’s thumbs press down to break up the taut clusters in the band of muscle to the left of my spine. “How does that feel, master?”
“Divine.” I replied, sighing with total relaxation, sagging against the mattress.
“You have your own scars now, master.” Tatiana kissed the larger exit wound on my back, a jagged patch of flesh larger than my hand. I felt her tongue, hot and wet against the smooth, sensitive skin, her long hair tantalising the nerve receptors all across my back. Aroused, I turned over again, Tatiana’s hand reaching down to caress me below the waist.
I felt my cheeks flush as her fingertips gripped hard, kneading slowly as she sat up across my thighs, letting me take in every nuance of her naked form. It was only now that I noticed how, in the months since I had freed her, she had become not only more assertive about acting on her wants and her needs, but that another side effect of her freedom was that she had physically changed as well. While she was still slender, her ribs were less pronounced at her sides, the curve from her waist to her hips was smoother, more feminine, and her breasts were noticeably rounder and heavier. The smile of her broad, full lips no longer stretched the skin of her face quite so severely over her high cheekbones. She looked softer, happier – less like a frightened girl and more like a young woman. When I had rescued her, Tatiana had already been pretty. Now she was a genuine beauty.
“I thought you weren’t going to take that off.” I nodded towards her nightshirt, which she had tossed over the back of the nearest couch.
“I changed my mind, master. It’s so delicate and beautiful. I wouldn’t want to damage it.”
The tips of her nipples brushed my chest as she leant down to kiss me. I responded to her touch automatically, genetically pre-programmed to mirror her passion, still enjoying the novelty of just how different she felt against me compared to Laure. I caressed her back and neck as she licked the depression in my ribcage again, her lips wandering lower and lower in an expert provocation of desire. My hands explored her sleek curves urgently, grasping hungrily at her shoulders as I felt her take me into her mouth, her long thin fingers gripping my hips to stop me from moving, her tongue curling around the shaft. Tatiana turned around, shifting her legs, her knees astride my shoulders. I moved my hands down her back to her narrow waist, pulling her down to my lips.
“Yes…” Tatiana groaned as I tasted her arousal, exploring her sex with my tongue. “Kiss me, master.”
It was now a race to see who could find the best ways to pleasure the other quickest; lips, tongues and fingers moving instinctively, faster and more decisively as our excitement overtook us. Tatiana’s orgasm arrived first, with a long moan of pure exultation as I teased her with rapid flicks of the end of my tongue. She arched her back and pressed her hips downwards as she cried out, my fingers moving up to caress her nipples as I continued to stimulate her with my lips. I held her in that state of utter rapture for minutes until she finally gasped for breath, the arch of her spine collapsing and her head falling forwards, cascading her hair over my waist. Already near orgasm simply from the taste, smell and feel of her, it took only the slightest of contacts with her lips to trigger my climax, my hips jumping involuntarily. I came across her throat into her soft curtain of hair, holding her breasts tightly as the sense of relief and release spasmed through me.
Tatiana screamed when she felt it, her ecstasy transforming instantly to terror, wrenching herself away from me and scurrying away on her hands and knees to the far corner of the bed, whimpering. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no…”
“Tatiana, what’s wrong?” I sat up, confused and worried. In the times we had made love before, she had never reacted like this.
She turned to me trembling, her green eyes wide with a mix of rage and fear, her voice shaking. “Not like that, master. Never like that!”
“I’m sorry.” I said, apologising without really understanding what I had done wrong.
“It’s bad. Very bad.” Tatiana muttered, her hands and arms fluttering with indecision as she looked down at the viscous white liquid oozing down her neck, hair and chest. She looked like she wanted to wipe it away, but was too terrified to touch it. Her eyes darted nervously around the room, reliving memories from her time in captivity. “Unclean… unclean!”
“Tatiana, I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it.” I started to move towards her, wanting to take her into my arms and tell her everything was alright, but she recoiled away from me violently in fright, fleeing to the bathroom. I debated following her, but decided it probably do more harm than good. I heard her turn on the shower and she didn’t emerge again for over two hours, the water running for the whole time to wash not just her body but the memory from her mind, too.
When Tatiana finally returned, she sat on the couch, putting her nightshirt back on, drawing her knees up to her chest and holding onto her legs, looking across the room at me suspiciously, her damp hair coiled around her neck and over her shoulders like a golden snake.
“Are you okay now?” I asked, lying beneath the bed covers, propped up on my elbows, trying to appear non-threatening. Tatiana closed her green eyes, but gave me a short nod. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Tatiana shook her head silently, hiding her face behind her knees, a quiet, fearful moan escaping her taut lips.
“That’s okay.” I said reassuringly. “Do you want to come back to bed?”
She gave me another negative moan and I saw the top of her head shake.
“That’s okay, too. Try and get some sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.” I told her, worried by her withdrawal, but turning off the lights.
I must have slept better than I had anticipated, because I woke the next day to find Tatiana in bed with me, her breasts pressed into my back, one arm over my chest and her legs intertwined with mine – her fear of loneliness overriding the terror of the memory she had relived the previous night. She stirred, only half awake, burying her chin into my shoulder, with a soft cry of distress. I overlaid my hand over hers’ and was relieved when she didn’t shy away from my touch.
“Hold me, master.” she whispered behind my ear. I turned over to face her, seeing that she looked as if she felt foolish and guilty.
“Hey, what’s up?” I said soothingly, gently caressing her cheek with the back of my hand.
Tatiana lowered her head, her voice full of remorse. “I’m sorry, master.”
“I couldn’t see that it was you. I only like it when you finish inside me. When I can see you.”
I nodded to show that I understood, pausing to phrase my question sensitively. “The bad men never… finished like that? Inside you?”
“No, it-it wasn’t allowed. S-so th-they…” Tatiana stopped abruptly, not wanting to go through the trauma of remembering it again. I caressed her neck and back gently to stop her from shaking.
“I didn’t know, Tatiana. I’m sorry.” I smoothed her hair down her back, stroking her like a cat to align the long blonde strands. “You know I’d never want to hurt you.”
“I know, master.” Tatiana tried to meet my eyes before looking away again. “Do you forgive me?”
“There’s nothing to forgive, Tatiana. I just wish I’d known earlier.” I replied, kissing her cheek and turning her head back to face mine.
“Do you still love me, master?” Tatiana asked, her face etched with fear.
This time the answer came without me thinking about it. “Of course I do.”
Overcome with relief, Tatiana kissed my lips long and hard, drawing up the short hem of her silk nightshirt so that she could mount me. She made love to me slowly, her eyes always on my face. I kept my hands on her hips and waist, amazed again at how considerate a lover she could be, her every motion and breath responding to my own sense of excitement with exquisite sensuality. When I considered the abusive nature of all her previous contacts with men, for her to even want such intimate contact, let alone be so sensitive to my desires, was astounding. I called out her name as she drove me to climax and I came deep inside her, making her groan in delight as her own orgasm
gripped her body and senses. Our eyes communicated everything that needed to be said as Tatiana lay back down on me, taking care not to put her weight on my weakened right hand side. The cadence and sound of our breathing provided non-verbal confirmation of the happiness we had shared with each other – gradually slowing and becoming quieter – soothing and calming us, before we fell asleep in a tranquil, mutual embrace.
We woke again in the early afternoon, looking up and out of the ceiling windows as the eternal night of the cosmos rolled by with the rotation of the station. We watched the stars, arrayed in unfamiliar constellations, disappear and reappear once every minute, grateful for the pseudo-gravity that the periodic rotation provided us. My fingertips randomly traced a line along the interweaved maze of scars between Tatiana’s shoulder blades. She reciprocated the sentiment, her short nails gently circling repetitively around the red and raw outline marking where the stem cell graft had plugged the hole torn through my body by the multi-cannon round, occasionally exploring the depression where the ribs and muscle tissue hadn’t yet fully re-grown. As we lay together in a blissful silence, I reflected that we were both orphaned, damaged and scarred: a perfectly matched couple. The thought gave me a fresh pang of guilt – Laure had explicitly warned me not to sleep with Tatiana, but here I was, not just sharing a bed, but falling irrationally in love with her. Logically, it made no sense at all – I was married to a gorgeous, rich, powerful woman who I adored, and who I was starting a family with – but it was impossible now to deny that my attraction to Tatiana was far beyond the simply physical or driven by sympathy. Laure would no doubt dismiss the idea that you could be in love with two people at the same time, but every time I thought about my wife, my feelings for her matched or surpassed the intensity of my attachment to Tatiana. I had no doubt that if Zemina ever reconsidered her determination to keep us apart and I had the opportunity to see Laure again, I would love her more than ever before. It seemed excessively cruel of Zemina to keep us separated when our child was due to be born in a few months, but staying alive long enough for Zemina to relent would probably be the most difficult part. The severity of my injury at Groombridge had reminded me just how unforgiving an environment space is and how fine a line there was between life and death when things start to go awry. I was not looking forward to my next ship-to-ship combat. The near disaster caused by my momentary lapse in concentration had me questioning my judgement and had severely dented the confidence I had in my piloting ability, and in the capabilities of my ship. The only consolation was that my injury had brought Tatiana and I closer together, but I recognised that our relationship would not be able to stay like this for much longer.
“Tatiana.” I said, my voice barely louder than a whisper.
“Yes, master?” she replied, looking up at me with a beatific smile.
“You know we won’t be able to do this forever, right?”
“Because of your wife. Yes, master.” Tatiana nodded, her tone accepting and matter-of-fact.
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“No, master.” Tatiana laid her head back down and continued to stroke my chest affectionately. “I don’t worry about the future.”
“Why not? Most people are obsessed by what the future might hold for them.”
“The future isn’t important, master. Neither is the past. Because you can only affect what’s happening now. To make the ‘now’ as good as it can be.”
“Is that how you lived before I freed you?”
“Yes, master. Because then no matter how bad a particular ‘now’ was, it would pass and the next ‘now’ might be better. But I would never think about the future. I never wanted to know what would happen to me tomorrow. It was too painful to hope that things might change. I just tried to survive from moment to moment.”
“But what will you do in the future if you can’t spend ‘now’ with me?” I asked, stroking her hair.
“I don’t know.” Tatiana admitted with a resigned shrug. “It doesn’t matter. I have you now, master. And when I’m with you my ‘now’ is so beautiful. That’s all that’s important.”
“Thank you, Tatiana.” I said, flattered. My smile widened when Tatiana repositioned her hips over mine and we made love again with the leisurely tenderness of a new couple coming to terms with an unexpected but growing emotional and physical bond – a deepening, reciprocated love for each other that reflected our desire to focus on making the ‘now’ we shared as perfect as possible. We didn’t leave the bed again until a message informed us that the repairs to Fell From The Top(…) were complete.
Before leaving the suite, we availed ourselves of the decadent room service. After over a decade of captivity where she had to survive from one day to the next by stealing scraps of food from her abusers, now that she was free to eat whatever and whenever she liked, Tatiana found that she was developing a taste for refined cuisine, so I was determined to get her to experience the best food that the hotel suite had to offer. I ordered two bottles of 3281 vintage champagne, pomme frites with mustard-infused mayonnaise and a house special club sandwich each. The term ‘sandwich’ didn’t seem nearly grand enough to do the dish justice: a triple-tier, toasted brioche bun filled with Witchhaul Kobe Beef, cooked so rare I was sure that a talented veterinarian could have brought it back to life, a poached duck egg (still molten in the centre, naturally) and a wedge of brie steeped in Armagnac and stuffed with a generous layer of black truffles. It was the most expensive thing on the room service menu, but since the local authority was footing the bill, I didn’t think twice about ordering it. The appreciative noises Tatiana made while eating hers were beyond sensual. Without doubt, it certainly justified the appellation ‘special’.
With our hunger sated, we dressed and made sure we had accounted for everything we had brought with us before checking out of the suite. Somewhat buzzed from the effects of the champagne, I arranged for our shopping to be delivered to the ship, rather than risk carrying it ourselves. The concierge was only too eager to please, adding another few hundred credits to the bill I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to settle myself. Tatiana and I took our time returning to the docking bay, walking arm-in-arm, simply enjoying being in each other’s company. We were both stopped in our tracks, however, when we walked into the docking bay where Fell From The Top Of The Gravitas Tree But Missed Every Branch On The Way Down was berthed.
“Whoa.” Tatiana said, her jaw falling open in wonder.
The Imperial Clipper gleamed as if brand new, resplendent in pure, genuine gold from nose to tail. The ship glistered beneath the harsh white lights of the docking bay, a halo clearly visible from the thin, uniform layer of ultra-hard synthetic diamond that protected the gold plating. I tapped my wrist console to open a voice channel to ASTRA.
“You’re really living up to the ship’s name, all right. Classy, or what?” I said to the AI, aghast.
“I’m gorgeous. Thank you, my lord.” ASTRA replied, proud of her new look. “All systems are fully functional. Ready to launch at your command.”

Chapter Three – Sorbago: Nav Point

After leaving Toolfa, Tatiana and I made our way as directly as we could to the border between Federation and Empire space, sticking to uninhabited or independent systems where possible. Empire space was below the middle of the galactic disk, ‘South’ of Federation space according to the three dimensional coordinate system used by pilots to orient themselves in the mindbogglingly vast volume of space in the bubble of civilised space around Sol. We avoided stations, refuelling from the coronas of stars, hoping to escape the attention of bounty hunters, even when flying through independent systems. Zemina had not been exaggerating when she said I was the most wanted man in Federation space. The Federation authorities had deduced that I was responsible for the attack on the Groombridge 34 shipyard, or perhaps Zemina had deliberately leaked the information. I had already been given a Federation-wide bounty for the assassination of Admiral Stenberg, but given the magnitude of the damage I had done at Groombridge, my bounty in the Federation now stood at a cool 50 million credits – enough to have every bounty hunter, pirate and freelancer who fancied themselves in combat keep an eye out for me. The wisdom of giving my ship a unique colour scheme that would allow easy positive identification of my ship before a Kill Warrant Scanner had time to query the galaxy-wide Pilots’ Federation database now appeared rather more questionable. ASTRA assured me that there was a reverse psychology in deliberately standing out when the bounty on the ship was so high – that it sent an unspoken message akin to ‘Think you can take this on? Think again!‘, in the same way that pirates frequently chose garish paint jobs and attention-grabbing sigils, like death’s head skulls or crossbones, to adorn the hulls of their ships.
We were forced to make a detour out towards the galactic rim, the shortest route to the border of Federation space, before sweeping ‘South’, down out of the plane of the galaxy through independent space to approach the Empire from below. Our final destination was Sorbago, ‘North’ of the Imperial capital of Achenar, the site of a failed slave rebellion put down by Zemina’s private Navy, almost six years ago. Tensions in the system still ran high, given that it was on the Federation border, the local Imperial authority was being constantly undermined by hostile powers, mainly under the direction of Felicia Winters, a prominent and ambitious Federation politician.
I felt an unexpected and uncharacteristic tension across my chest as we exited witchspace, arriving at the Sorbago nav point. I rarely felt anxious when flying, but for a reason I couldn’t identify, I was more nervous arriving here than I had been when I had begun the final approach to the shipyard at Groombridge 34B. The nav point bustled with ships, mainly light freighters and the occasional Space Cow, the broad bat-like wings of the Type 9s occulting the sunlight to cast huge black shadows in the wake of their silhouettes. I rolled and pitched Fell From The Top(…) away from the solar corona, pointing my ship towards Hencke Orbital, 250 light seconds away, the only space station in the system large enough to dock an Imperial Clipper. Tatiana drew my attention to the contacts list as we were about to make the frame shift into supercruise – we were being tailed by a Federal agent in a Cobra Mark IV.
The Federation ship appeared behind us in supercruise, having activated its own frame shift drive. The interdiction began almost immediately, as soon as the agent was able to get within range behind us, riding our frame shift wake. A text message scrolled onto the comms panel.
Well, well… if it isn’t the Ghoul of Groombridge. Your bounty is going to pay for my Fer de Lance.
I looked over at Tatiana, snickering in amusement. “How sweet, the Feds have given me a nickname.”
I zeroed the throttle, not contesting the interdiction to prevent my ship being damaged by a failed attempt to evade the merging our two supercruise bubbles. The sense of apprehension that had descended on me when we entered the system eased slightly. A Cobra Mark IV was only a fair combat vessel: the excellent weapon hardpoint placement being compromised by a slow top speed and below average agility. Despite the Federation pilot’s bluster, I was glad that my first combat after my injury at Groombridge was against a mediocre ship like this, rather than a potentially lethal Vulture, Python or Anaconda.
“ASTRA, power to weapons and shields, please.” I ordered the AI, deploying my weapons as I turned about in a sharp boost turn, afterburners flaring. I felt a twinge of discomfort from the right hand side of my chest from the g-force, but was able to block it out by concentrating on the target.
The Cobra was less than a kilometre away, the three Class One hardpoints on the dorsal hull bristling with beam laser turrets, which lit up the space between us with bright crimson beams. I returned fire with my own gimballed beam lasers, stripping away a third of the Cobra’s shield strength on the first pass. I checked my shield status and was relieved to see that the damage was superficial. ASTRA wouldn’t need to worry about her gold coat getting scratched for some time yet. I dumped a charge of chaff anyway to confuse the tracking of the turrets, turning off the flight assistance to pitch in behind the less manoeuvrable Cobra, rocking the smaller vessel with another sustained volley from my beam lasers. The shields on the Cobra buckled and collapsed, allowing me to unleash the power of my twin gimballed cannons. Four quick rounds pulverised the Cobra’s shield generator and I toyed with the Federal agent, using the superior speed of my vessel to stay below the centreline of his vessel, out of sight of his beam turrets as I nibbled away at the integrity of his power distributor, steadily regaining confidence in the way that I handled my ship.
The agent, increasingly desperate and recognising that he was overmatched, directed all his remaining power to the thrusters in a last ditch effort to flip his ship about, to bring his nose- mounted Class Two hardpoints to bear. I saw the rapid, repeated flashes from the muzzles of the two gimballed multi-cannons, each one spewing ten rounds a second at my ship, the sabots bouncing off my shields, coruscating in full view of the canopy.
Abruptly and without any warning at all, I stopped breathing, an overbearing panic gripping me around the heart like a constricting snake, squeezing the life out of me, as a suppressed memory sparked in my brain. I relived my injury at Groombridge in slow motion, feeling again the horrid oozing of blood leaking inside my body. My hands froze on the flight controls as the multi-cannons continued to fire, the shields on my ship beginning to weaken as Fell From The Top(…) drifted aimlessly without my input. I couldn’t move a muscle, transfixed as I saw a vision of the blood welling out from the hole in my chest.
“Master, what’s wrong?” Tatiana asked, quietly at first, then louder. “Master, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you fighting?”
I barely heard her, consumed by the intensity of the flashback, feeling like I was dying all over again, unable to speak. Realising that the ship was in danger, Tatiana took flight control away from me, deploying a second charge of chaff and boosting the ship in behind the Cobra, out of the firing line of its turrets and forward-facing multi-cannons. I barely felt the g-force as Tatiana looped the Clipper, re-engaging the Federal agent with all weapons. I hardly noticed when the Cobra Mark IV popped with a bright, brief orange fireball, marking the occasion of Tatiana’s first live ship-to-ship kill. She
didn’t celebrate like most pilots would have, having come through her first kill-or-be-killed combat unscathed, she was too concerned by my near catatonic state. I choked on half a breath, feeling like my chest was being compressed in a vice, unendurable pressure clamping down over my sternum as my heart pounded arrhythmically in mortal terror.
“ASTRA, what’s happening to him?” Tatiana’s question sounded distant, barely registering in my consciousness.
“His alpha and gamma brain wave activity would indicate an acute panic attack, Mistress Tatiana.” The AI replied, as I fought in vain to restart my normal breathing pattern. “I recommend getting to the station as quickly as possible.”
Still paralysed by the all too real sensations of uncontrolled bleeding within my chest and my rib cage being crushed, I could only watch mutely as Tatiana steered the ship back into supercruise, the Clipper’s wingtips wobbling uncertainly as she guided the ship through higher dimensional space around to Hencke Orbital. It only took a couple of minutes to travel the couple of hundred light seconds to the station, but under the stress of my flashback, it seemed more like hours. My heart continued to beat irregularly until the ship touched down in the Coriolis station, settling down heavily onto its landing gear with a crash that the shock absorbers were barely able to damp, such had been Tatiana’s urgency to bring us in for a rapid, manual landing.
The concussion of the heavy touchdown shocked me back into breathing again, wheezing with long, halting breaths, as Tatiana took my hands and walked me off the bridge to my stateroom. The panic began to lift as I started to recognise my surroundings, my eyes darting furtively into every corner, still wary and confused. Tatiana closed the door behind us and led me over to the bed, stripping me of my flight suit and bundling me into my bunk, where I curled up into a defensive foetal position, weeping. A moment later I felt Tatiana slide beneath the bed covers behind me, curling herself around my back, an arm under my waist and the other over my chest, pulling me back against her firmly. I trembled with anxiety and shame, appalled at my weakness and that I had put the ship at risk once again. Tatiana tucked her legs beneath mine, letting me feel her body heat, reassuring me that we were indeed still alive.
“It’s over now, master.” Tatiana purred in my ear. “It’s alright, I’m here.”
I clutched her hands, pressing them over my injury, using their warmth to counter the coldness the memory of the internal bleeding had provoked. I kept my eyes closed, breathing raggedly, feeling the tears wet my cheeks. Tatiana rocked me in her arms gently, kissing my shoulder and neck as she whispered wordless comforts into my ear until finally blackness fell.
Tatiana was already awake when the darkness lifted from my eyes, hours later. I turned over to face her, so that we were lying side by side, pressed together chest to chest, on the bunk. Tatiana studied my face carefully, giving me a thin smile of encouragement. Her arms snaked under my armpits, grabbing my shoulders, pulling me hard against her. The sensations of panic and fear of dying had abated, but I was still ashamed that I had ceased functioning in the middle of a combat that easily could have resulted in our deaths. Tatiana had been the salvation of the ship again, showing a natural piloting instinct that illustrated her growing confidence in flying Fell From The Top(…). I held her tight around her waist and back, the terrifying memory of my near death experience at Groombridge threatening to overwhelm me again. Only the soft heat of her skin against mine kept me grounded in the present.
Tatiana was the first to break the silence. “Master, what happened?”
“I remembered.” I replied quietly, keeping my eyes linked with Tatiana’s, using the beautiful jade green colour of her irises as a focal point to keep me the memories at bay. “I felt the multi-cannon round ripping through me, Tatiana. It was real. I saw it all. The blood, the wound… It was like I was dying again.”
“But you didn’t die, master.”
“It felt like it.” I said, drawing a sharp breath. “It was horrible, like being locked into a body that can’t move or speak, and feeling your life drain away.”
Tatiana caressed the exit wound on my back, her fingertips smooth and warm. “I feel like that sometimes, master. It’s why I try to forget the past. Then it can’t hurt you.”
I closed my eyes, shivering at the feather-like touch of her stroking my back. “Live in the now.”
“Yes, master.”
“You saved us again.”
“I had to.” Tatiana shrugged.
“Do you feel different? Now that you’ve killed someone? I did, after the first time.”
Tatiana shrugged again, before gripping me tighter, her hands hot and comforting on my back and shoulders. “There wasn’t any choice, master. I don’t want to die. Not now that I have you.”
Unable to banish the image of my breakdown in the middle of the battle from my mind, I broke down into tears again. I cried into Tatiana’s hair as she held me, her chin tucked into the hollow of my collarbone, shushing me gently.
“Tatiana, how do you forget?” I asked her, pleading for her help. “I don’t want to feel like that ever again.”
She took my face into her small hands, her long, thin fingers cupping my cheeks. She looked deep into my eyes, letting me see the torment from her past buried within. “You don’t look back. You never look back.”
I closed my eyes and Tatiana laid her head back down on my neck and shoulder. Lying side by side as equals, we held each other until sleep came to claim us once again.

Chapter Four: Sorbago – Hencke Orbital

“Where are we going now, master?” Tatiana asked, following me closely through the crowd as we made our way down the concourse of the space station’s leisure sector.
“The Outside Factor. It’s a nightclub popular with Alliance sympathisers.” I linked arms with Tatiana to prevent her from being buffeted away from me as we fought the stream of pedestrians heading in the opposite direction. “We should have tried there earlier. Independent commanders might be less reticent about talking.”
“For a price, of course.”
“You’re learning fast, Tatiana.” I patted her hand, like a proud parent.
We had been on the station for a week, trawling bars and nightclubs for people who had been in the system during the slave revolt who might have information of misconduct by Senator Torval’s forces during the blockade and the put down of the abortive insurrection. I had posted a suitably coded request on the station’s bulletin board, cryptic enough not to flag the attention of the local System Security force, but obvious enough to be understood by anyone who felt hard done by in the incident to come forward with evidence. Despite the high volumes of ships that passed through the station, not a single person had responded to the advert. Not even the generous 100,000 credit reward I had offered for new information had provoked a response – not even from the cranks and chancers looking for an easy payday.
Instead of waiting around on the ship for a call that clearly wasn’t going to come, I had decided to be rather more pro-active about my effort to sweep up some dirt Laure and I could use in our ongoing feud with Zemina. Tatiana and I had visited almost all of the social hubs on the station over the last few days, posing as freelance investigative journalists looking for a scandal. Our nightly sojourns thus far had proved as fruitless as my bulletin board advert. Not even the thousands of credits in financial incentives I had given to the bartenders and nightclub staff to send anyone with information my way had provoked any interest. The only consolation from the whole exercise was that we’d spent our evenings drinking a lot of good wine and Tatiana had listened to some types of music for the very first time. It appeared that she was an appreciator of chillout jazz. It was still early, 7pm by the station’s Galactic Time clock, so there was no queue outside the nightclub. The bouncers waved us in politely, no doubt glad to have paying customers through the door. The club was practically deserted. The bar staff outnumbered the punters. A handful of booths were occupied by tired-looking commanders and their crews, nursing their drinks without enthusiasm, obviously settling in for a long night. A lone dancer occupied the floor, a stunning redhead in a flowing, iridescent dress that looked like it was made of mylar foil. She had her eyes closed, moving in perfect union with the beat and cadence of the music, which could best be described as acid ambient. Her limbs and body undulated and flowed languidly with the music until she matched the sharp, dissonant notes with spiky, rigid spasms of her arms and legs. Tatiana stood hypnotised as she watched her.
“Master, what’s she doing?”
“Dancing. She’s very good.” I tugged Tatiana gently towards the bar, holding her hand. “Come on, let’s get something to drink.”
“Why? What’s the point?”
“Because it’s fun? Or so I’m told. I’m not a natural dancer, myself.” I said as we approached the bar. With no-one else to attend to the bar manager appeared within seconds.
“Good evening, sir, mademoiselle.” The bar manager bowed slightly. “What can I get for you tonight?”
I scanned the wine list and found an easy choice. “We’ll start with a bottle of the Brazin Zinfandel, please.”
“Ah, a connoisseur.” The bar manager’s eyes sparkled in delight. Little wonder, at 2,000 credits a bottle. “Would you like anything else?”
“A consideration, if you please. If you happen to know anyone who was here during the slave revolt, I would like to speak with them.” I programmed my credit chip to transfer 20,000 credits and tapped it on the bar twice. The OLED screen flashed to confirm the transaction.
“I’ll see what I can do, sir. Please, follow me. I have just the table for you.” The bar manager led us to a booth overlooking the dance floor and bar, with a good view of all the other tables in the club. The area was reserved for high prestige clientele who wanted to be seen. “Please make yourselves comfortable. I’ll have one of my staff bring your drinks. If you need anything, use the terminal and one of my people will be right with you.”
Service was prompt and courteous, and while we waited for the nightclub to fill up, Tatiana and I ordered food and a second bottle of wine to pass the time.
“She hasn’t stopped since we came in. She moves beautifully.” Tatiana drew my attention back to the lone dancer, gliding carefree across the dance floor, in absolute synchrony with the tempo of the music.
“She definitely has a good feel for it.” I agreed.
“Could you teach me how to dance, master? I’m bored of waiting.”
“Maybe later. I’m not nearly drunk enough to get on a dance floor that empty. When it gets busier.”
Tatiana scowled and emptied the bottle of red wine into my glass. “I better order another bottle, then.”
“Take it easy. We still need to be able to walk back to the ship.” I stroked Tatiana’s hand reassuringly. “Besides, I don’t think I could teach you anything. I’m sure you’re a great mover.”
“How do you know that?”
“Social anthropologists have said for centuries that dancing is a form of courting behaviour. About finding a good mate. The better the dancer, the better the mate.”
“You mean it’s about sex.”
“To put it bluntly, yes. Just vertical, rather than horizontal.” I laughed.
“So how do you know I’d be a good dancer?” Tatiana asked. I smiled, raising my eyebrows in return, letting her apply the underlying logic behind my claim for herself. Tatiana blushed. “Oh. Thank you, master.”
“We can test the hypothesis later. Let’s give it another couple of hours and see if the bar staff send anyone our way.”
By midnight the nightclub was full but still not a single person had approached our table. Tatiana stirred restlessly beside me, having lost interest in watching the crowd seething rhythmically on the dance floor hours ago. I had noticed the bar manager speak with dozens of commanders and point out our table, but obviously he had not been able to persuade anyone to talk to us. I stroked Tatiana’s arm, shrugging my shoulders in defeat. “Well that was a complete waste of an evening. Do you still want to dance?”
“Yes, master.” Tatiana’s face perked up in delight, her boredom instantly forgotten. I led her to the edge of the dance floor and eased us into the mass of undulating bodies. “So what do I do?”
“Whatever the music tells you to do. And try to imagine that no-one’s watching.” I tried to let go of my self-consciousness as I felt for the beat of the music, not even trying to control what my feet, and arms were doing. Tatiana watched what the other couples around us where doing and mimicked their motions stiffly and unnaturally, coming in close to almost touch with me, chest to chest. I slipped an arm around her waist and brought her against me. The music was slow and sensual, with no lyrics to get in the way of the soothing melody. “Close your eyes. Just listen and feel.”
“Yes, master.” Tatiana followed my advice and put her arms around my neck, following my lead and letting her response to the music become more instinctive. “It’s nice.”
“I said you’d be a good dancer.” I rested my cheek on the top of her head, likewise closing my eyes. We danced together for over an hour, responding to our own rhythm as well as that of the music. Tatiana was almost in a trance, half-asleep as we swayed with the music. I was wondering how long it would be until the nightclub closed when I dimly became aware of another body pressed intimately into me from behind, firm hands gripping the top of my hips and the strong whiff of vintage Lavian Brandy wafting over my shoulders.
“Got room for another one in there?” a familiar voice asked mockingly. “I knew I’d get my hands on your ass one day. Though I never imagined it would be like this.”
A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed who it was. “Suzie? What are you doing here?”
“Mmm. Getting a good feeling.” Suzie slid one hand up my chest and the other down between my legs, the full length of her torso pressed into my back. “Who’s the blonde?”
“My co-pilot.” I said through gritted teeth, trying to evade the insistent motions of her fingers.
“Roche, you’re the worst liar in the galaxy. No-one dances like that with their co-pilot.” Suzie admonished me. “You’re fucking her, right? Can’t fault your taste, she’s hot.”
“Oh, you can be so tedious at times. That righteous earnestness might be the Imperial standard, but it doesn’t really cut it out in the wilds.”
“Did you just come here to lecture me about my sex life, or is there something else you wanted to talk to me about?” I stopped dancing, rousing Tatiana from her trance. She saw Suzie’s face over my shoulder and I saw her suppress a panic reflex.
“Who’s that?”
“Oh, hi. I’m Suzie. I’m the second most-wanted commander in Federation space. After your friend Roche, here.” Thunda Sue, the Pirate Queen, introduced herself cheerfully with a broad, innocent smile.
“It’s alright, Tatiana, she’s a friend. Of sorts.”
“Of sorts? Roche, you wound me.” Suzie gave me a gentle slap on the side of the head. “Over here, we need to talk.”
“Why don’t we go to my booth?” I pointed to the table where we had been sitting all night at the head of the club.
“You mean the idiot table?” Suzie snickered. “You do realise the bar manager screwed you, right?”
“What?” I asked, confused, as Suzie led us to a table at the side of the dance floor. With a flick of her finger, she dismissed the two underlings guarding the booth for her.
“Roche, you’re really not half as subtle as you think you are. That bulletin board advert ruined any chance you had of getting anything out of the locals.” Suzie explained as she poured us triple measures of Lavian Brandy from one of the three full bottles on the table. “The bar manager put you up there so only the most moronic of the moronic would risk talking to you. Senator Torval has this whole system in her very deep pockets. And that ‘investigative journalist’ cover of yours wouldn’t stand up to a four year old. You’ve got one of the most famous faces in this sector, ‘Butcher’. The bar manager put you up there to be recognised, alright. So that everyone would steer well clear of you. It’s common knowledge that you’re one of the Senator’s special operatives. With that advert you might as well have gone around wearing a t-shirt saying ‘agent provocateur’. No-one here is going to tell you shit. Even if they had anything in the first place.”
“Son of a bitch. So I really have wasted a week.” I took a slug of the brandy to take the edge off the realisation of how much of an idiot I had been. “But that still doesn’t explain why you’re here.”
“I was in the area. And when I got wind of what you were up to, I thought I’d better give you a warning.” Suzie drained her glass and set it down on the table. “If I was able to figure out what you’re up to, then the Imps and the Feds certainly will have, too. You need to get out of the system, pronto. The Feds are out for your blood after Groombridge, and they won’t mind spilling it in Imperial space.”
“And exactly why would you bother going to the effort of doing that?” I asked, suspicious. There was no such thing as an altruistic pirate.
“You’re a person of interest to me.” Suzie replied, with a suggestively arched eyebrow. “And my offer still stands. You’d be welcome in my crew at any time. I might even give you co-pilot benefits.” Suzie glanced over at Tatiana with a playful glint in her eyes.
“I’ll think about it.” I replied, rather less than honestly.
“Here. In case you ever need to find me.” Suzie slid a data chip across the table towards me. I placed my thumb on the fingerprint reader and the OLED screen flashed red.
“It’s encrypted.” I looked at Suzie questioningly. “What’s the unlock code?”
“Oh, if you can’t work that out, sweetie, I doubt you’d be any use to me.” Suzie stood, taking one the full bottles of brandy in each hand. “Be seeing you, Roche.”
I watched Suzie and her bodyguards leave the club, contemplating what she had told me. I swore, with feeling.
“Master?” Tatiana looked and sounded tired. Her eyes were half-closed and she seemed like she was drifting on the afterglow of the evening’s wine consumption and dancing.
“Come on.” I helped Tatiana to her feet and wrapped an arm around her waist to support her. “I think we’re done here.”

Chapter Five – HIP 112113: Nomen Vision

The arrival of my Imperial Clipper in the scrupulously neutral and independent system of HIP 112113 had raised a few eyebrows, not least with the traffic controllers at Nomen Vision, the system’s major starport, who initially denied my docking request. However, with the application of a suitably large ‘administration fee’ I had been granted a temporary landing permit by the local refinery corporation, Dominion of HIP 112113, which governed the station. The system would not have been high on my list of places to go, but following my ignominious retreat from Sorbago and a cryptic text-only message from Laure over our private, quantum key-coded channel, I hadn’t been given any choice in the matter.
Finally vaulted the information blockade. I found out what you wanted to know. Can’t tell you over hyperwave. Will have a courier meet you in person at HIP 112113, Nomen Vision. Be there tomorrow. Love, L.
It was long past local midnight by the time the courier arrived. Tatiana was asleep in her stateroom as I drank black tea on the flight deck, trying to stay awake, watching the incoming and outgoing ships through the panoramic canopy, keeping a sleepy eye on the contacts board for unusual ships. The traffic was unremarkable for the most part, mainly middling independent traders in second-rate, second-hand vessels. A long succession of Cobra Mark IIIs, Haulers, Type-6 Transporters and an occasional Python soared down the access corridor of the dock, bisecting the docking slot with varying levels of precision as they entered or left the station. The only vessel obviously out of place was my own. I dozed in my flight chair, trusting ASTRA to wake me if anything interesting showed up.
I had been asleep for a couple of hours when ASTRA woke me. “My lord, a woman in a flight suit has exited the pad’s control room and is approaching the ship.”
“Are they armed?” I asked, jerking upright in my seat as I tried to get the blood flowing again in my brain, shaking off the grogginess of an interrupted sleep.
“No, my lord.”
“That’s something, at least. Give me a visual.” I ordered, rubbing my eyes. ASTRA projected a colour, real-time video feed from the security camera above the door of the control room onto the canopy. The mystery pilot was walking towards the rear of the ship, striding across the titanium-clad landing pad with a swagger of long, loose limbs. The woman was still wearing her RemLok helmet, concealing her features from view, but something about the sway of her hips and the proportions of her figure struck me as being very familiar. The walk had a self-assured rhythm that I hadn’t seen in months, but recognised instantly. I rubbed my eyes again, disbelieving as I whispered to myself. “Laure?”
She stopped at the entrance hatch on the loading ramp and rapped on it three times with a single knuckle of her right hand, turning knowingly back towards the camera she knew I was watching her through, as she put her left hand on her hip, tilting her head over to one side, as if to say Are you going to keep me waiting out here all night? I got up from my chair and ran the entire length of the ship, the rapid clunk of my footsteps echoing down the central access corridor. I slapped the control to open the hatch as I slid into the bulkhead, taking a second to catch my breath. The pilot still hadn’t
removed their helmet, but the hint of swelling at the waist confirmed that my instincts had been correct. “Laure, it’s you!”
“Who else would it be, dummy?” came her withering reply, muffled by the helmet. Laure hurried inside, shutting the hatch behind her. She barely had time to uncouple the RemLok from her flight suit before I enveloped her in a bear hug, lifting her off the deck in joy. She dropped the helmet and put her hands on my shoulders to steady herself, laughing. “I guess that means you’re pleased to see me.”
“That would be an understatement. How did you get here? Does Zemina know you’re here?”
“I flew in a ship, and no, obviously.” Laure strained against my arms. “And you’re going to crush the baby if you keep doing that.”
“Sorry.” I set Laure back down on her feet, kissing her to reinforce the apology. “I didn’t even dream that the courier would be you. How did you get by the Interdictor?”
“Not in my Clipper, obviously. I fitted out an Imperial Eagle for stealth running. Low mass, high thrust, minimal thermal signature. Called in a favour with the Chief Flight Controller. It’ll cost me a case of Eranin Pearl Whisky, but she let me launch without logging a flight plan or crew manifest. She won’t thank me for dumping a heat sink before I left the dock, but there’s no way the Interdictor ever knew I was there.” Laure explained as I led her to the galley. “For all Zemina knows, I’m still at Adams, sulking in solitary confinement, not answering any calls. As long as I sneak back within the next 48 hours, no-one will be any the wiser.”
“Unless she has people watching out for you on the station.” I said as I poured us glasses of lightly carbonated spring water sourced from the Pilot’s Federation enclave on Shinrarta Dezhra. The advertising on the gaudy label said that it supposedly had medicinal qualities, but the claims lacked a proven scientific basis. What was undeniable though, was that (as far as water went) it had a remarkable clarity and taste.
“Forget Zemina. I’m her niece, and after Groombridge, even she’ll admit you’re her best field agent. What’s she going to do?” Laure scoffed, unclipping a clutch-pin from behind each ear to let her vibrant, copper-coloured hair fall around her shoulders and neck, the wire-like strands almost reaching her narrow waist. “Anyway, I needed to see you and she’s not going to get in the way of the things that I want anymore. I’ve missed you.”
“Me too.” I squeezed her hand as I sat opposite her at the table. “But you took one hell of a risk. It’s a long way to come just to give me a message. You could have sent someone else.”
“No, I couldn’t. Not with this information. The only person I trust with it is you.” Laure looked distressed. The outcome of Laure’s investigation into the cover-up surrounding the creation of my mother’s clone had revealed something that disturbed her. Something so troubling she had made the decision to come and tell me personally, despite the very real dangers posed by her aunt’s blockade at Adams Orbital and the possibility of being intercepted by pirates on the journey.
“That serious, huh?” I took a sip of water by necessity. My mouth suddenly felt very dry as Laure squirmed slightly in her seat. She was about to speak when I heard a noise from behind me.
“M-m-master?” Tatiana stammered, barely audible as she poked her head around the edge of the pressure hatch. “Who is that?”
I turned my head to Tatiana, smiling reassuringly, beckoning her inside with a wave of my hand. “This is Laure. Laure Torval, my wife.”
“And you must be my husband’s p-“
“Co-pilot.” I interrupted Laure, sensing the barely suppressed hostility in her voice. “Laure, this is Tatiana.”
“But of course.” Laure feigned civility, but she eyed both of us suspiciously, watching every gesture and look between us. “The holos don’t do you justice. You’re much prettier in person. Though I imagined you to be taller.”
Tatiana trembled underneath Laure’s pitiless inspection, feeling exposed and cold, dressed only in her thin golden silk nightshirt. Tatiana’s green eyes flickered anxiously back and forth between Laure and myself, searching for instruction on what she should do next. It was the first time anyone else had ever been on board the ship with us. I could see that this had unsettled Tatiana and that she felt rather out of her depth. “Your wife?”
“Yes, his wife… And I need to speak with my husband.” Laure spoke at her slowly, impersonally and with a hard edge, as if Tatiana was mentally impaired, making me bristle protectively. My reaction did not go unnoticed by either woman. Laure’s temper simmered, as she added a sharp “In private.”
“Laure…” I began, speaking softly, wanting to calm the situation, not realising it was already well beyond my control.
“You’ve screwed her.” Laure stared into my eyes, beyond furious. It wasn’t a question. She knew. Somehow, she had sensed it from our body language. Whether it was the intuition of a woman, a wife or a politician, I wasn’t sure, but my silence confirmed it for her. “You have, haven’t you? Damn you, Aemon!”
Tatiana was rooted to the spot, terrified by the waves of pure, unadulterated anger emanating from Laure. My wife scowled at Tatiana with utter disdain and before I could say another word, Laure slapped me hard across the face with all her strength, her right hand connecting solidly with my left cheekbone. I reeled under the impact as the slap echoed around the galley, stunned, muttering to myself to distract my attention from the intense stinging sensation shooting down one side of my face. “Argh, that’s going to leave a bruise…”
I reeled again as Laure’s other hand smacked my right cheek equally as hard, hearing and feeling a crack as the heavy gold bands of Laure’s wedding and engagement rings impacted just below my eye socket. “And that’s for being flippant! You… fucking… imbecile!”
“Stop! Stop it!” Tatiana shrieked, her hands covering her eyes to shield the violence from her sight, as tears ran down her face. “Stop hurting him!”
Laure knocked over her chair as she leapt to her feet, incandescent at Tatiana’s outburst. I tried to come back to my senses, my eyesight blurred as I watched Laure grab Tatiana’s wrists, shouting at her from only a few centimetres away. Tatiana recoiled in terror, but Laure’s grip was too strong. “And you! If you so much as touch my husband again, I’ll wring your scrawny fucking neck!”
Tatiana slumped to the floor, sobbing, when Laure let go of her arms. Laure turned back to look at me and screamed in anger and frustration, a primal yell of pure rage, her pale blue eyes piercing through me, before she stormed out of the galley. As my vision span, pain sparking between my
temples like electric shocks, I still somehow retained the capacity to note with relief that Laure had turned right towards the ship’s staterooms and the flight deck, rather than left towards the cargo bay and exit when she had fled through the hatchway. I levered myself onto my feet, supporting my weight on the table as I tried to find an equilibrium that would allow me to walk.
“Tatiana, get up. Go back to your room.”
The former slave held her face in both hands, crying into her palms. She showed no signs of having heard me. I knelt next to her and put a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s alright, Tatiana. She’s not going to hurt you.” I reassured her, caressing a cheek with my thumb to wipe away some of her tears. “It’s going to be alright. Go back to bed. It’ll be fine in the morning.”
Tatiana choked back a sob, looked up at me and asked “How do you know?”
“She’s my wife.” I shrugged, helping Tatiana to her feet and walking her to her stateroom. I checked the flight deck, just to make sure that Laure wasn’t about to fly the ship into the local star, before steeling myself to face her again in my stateroom.
I slipped in the door quietly, unnoticed as Laure stalked the length of the room back and forth, staring up to the ceiling, as if divining guidance from a higher power, her fingers curling into clenched fists and flexing straight again as she paced in agitation. I sealed the hatch behind me with my thumbprint, knowing that it would be wiser to carry out the inevitable argument in private, without external interruption. Laure’s head snapped around to me at the buzzing sound of the magnetic lock, her eyes still ablaze with wrath.
“I can’t believe you fucked her… I warned you, Aemon. I warned you!” Laure’s voice came as a shout.
“Laure, it wasn’t like tha-” I started, only for her to cut me off with a venomous look and an aggressive, chopping gesture of her hand.
“Shut up! I don’t want to know what it was like! I want to know why you did it. Why do you never listen to me, Aemon?” Laure lamented, her body language seething with tension and rage. “Men! Always thinking with their balls and not with their brains! So how was it, Aemon? Did she wake you in your sleep? Did she beg you? Did she lie in your bed waiting for you? Or did you just fuck her on the table over dinner?”
“Lau-” I didn’t even get to finish saying her name before she shouted over the top of me.
“Shut up!” she shrieked, exasperated, holding her hands like claws up in front of her face, her body coiled like a viper’s, ready to strike. “I don’t want to know!”
“Then why did you ask?!” I snapped back, my own temper starting to rise.
“Oh, gods! Aemon, how can you be so dense? Shut up and let me vent.” Laure screeched, starting to pace again, unable to take her eyes off me as the questions poured out of her like armour-piercing sabot rounds from a multi-cannon, ripping through their target without mercy – a sensation I was only too familiar with. “Does she suck you better than I do? I bet she doesn’t even have a gag reflex anymore… Do you think she’s prettier when your cum is over her face? Was her cunt nice and tight for you? I bet you went down on her first, too. I doubt anyone else ever went to the trouble before
ploughing her… How many times did you make her come? And did she scream when you came in her ass?”
“Laure! Stop!” I cried, unable to listen to any more, stepping forward to grab her by the shoulders. Laure slapped away my hands, standing before me defiantly, looking up into my eyes.
“Do you love her?” Laure’s question came loaded with fear as well as fury. Even though I had sensed it was coming, I still wasn’t sure how I would answer it.
“No!” the denial was reflexive, automatic – Laure saw through it in an instant.
“Aemon, don’t you dare lie to me. Don’t you dare.”
“It’s… complicated. Yes?” I exhaled, looking at the floor to avoid her gaze, wanting to avoid hurting her feelings even more, but knowing that she’d be able to tell if I wasn’t anything other than completely truthful. “I care about her. Is that love? I don’t know. Maybe. We’re connected somehow. But it’s different, it’s not the same way I feel about you.”
“Do you love me?” Laure grabbed the front of my tunic in one hand, her other hand grasping my chin to pull my eyes back up to face her.
“Of course I do. You know I do.”
“Then why did you fuck her!?!” Laure yelled, pounding my chest with both fists as tears welled in her eyes.
I put my arms around her and this time Laure didn’t shake herself free. “Laure, for as long as she can remember, all she’s ever known has been abuse, hate, pain, contempt and rejection. She’s never been loved. Even her grandparents told her they’d rather she was dead than accept her as part of their family. How could I turn her away?”
“Because you’re married to me!” Laure wept. “Is that it? A sympathy shag for the poor slave girl? That’s all it was?”
“Yes… No… Not entirely…” I contradicted myself immediately, reflecting on my own feelings at the time. “She needed me, and I was lonely.”
“And your traitorous cock couldn’t wait.” Laure grimaced, pulling hard on my tunic. I heard a short tear beneath my ears as the seam across the top of my shoulders started to give way.
“Zemina said she’d kill me if I tried to see you. I never thought-“
“You’d be found out.” Laure interrupted, acidly.
“That we’d see each other again.” I drew Laure closer to me, feeling her breath on my neck, watching every infinitesimal movement of her eyes as she studied me intently, trying to deduce whether I was being honest with her.
“But I wasn’t worth waiting for.”
“It’s not like that, and you know it.” I admonished her with a whisper. “I wanted to help her, that’s all. I’m sorry. I didn’t plan for this to happen.”
“Was it just the once?”
“No.” I swallowed, bracing myself for another explosion, but it didn’t come. “Laure, she saved my life at Groombridge. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here now.”
“So you gave her a gratitude shag as well? I suppose you think I ought to thank her for screwing you, too?”
“Laure, please. It’s…”
“Complicated. So you said… I should fucking divorce you.” Laure fumed, still trembling with anger, the front of my tunic distorted by her grip. “But I wouldn’t want to give Zemina the satisfaction of proving her right about you.”
Despite the tension still between us, I smiled wryly, risking another slap for being glib. “I’ve always admired the way you can think about the big picture. Priorities, right?”
Laure couldn’t stop herself and laughed, but she still reached up and held me by the chin sternly. “Don’t think this means you’re forgiven.”
“I won’t.” I flinched when Laure’s fingertips traced up my cheek to touch the mark her rings had left on the skin over my right cheekbone. “Ouch!”
“I think it’s fractured. I’m sorry.”
“I deserved it.” I closed my eyes to numb the pain, putting my hand over hers as she cupped the side of my face tenderly in her gloved palm.
“Yes. You did. It’s not been easy for me either. But I didn’t jump into bed with the nearest willing dick. Aemon, I’m carrying your child. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
“How can you even ask that? You know how I feel about you.”
Laure took a step back, opening her flight suit, slipping the compressive fabric off one shoulder and arm, then the other, pulling the rubberised material down past the top of her broad hips. Like most experienced pilots, Laure didn’t bother wearing anything underneath the suit; the silky inner lining was inlaid with nano-scale thermostatic filaments to ensure perfect comfort in all conditions from a hard vacuum to a tropical jungle. “You still love me? You still want me?”
“More than ever, Laure.”I replied, aroused by the sight of her as she stood before me, semi-naked. Freed from the restrictive fabric, her round, heavy breasts glistened in the light, standing firm over the gentle swell of her smooth belly, the first signs of her pregnancy beginning to show. “Gods, you’re so fucking sexy.”
Laure pulled the flight suit down to her toned calves, kicking it away into a corner before tearing open my tunic, the thick cotton ripping as she tugged apart with both hands, bending to kiss my
chest. Laure shoved me back towards the bed, climbing over me as I fell onto my back. “Don’t move.”
Laure unfastened my belt and the waist of my trousers, tugging them down my thighs to my knees.
“I didn’t come all this way to argue. I came to remind your treacherous cock what it’s been missing.” Laure told me huskily, my waist and legs disappearing behind the copper curtain of her hair, her hands holding down my arms at the wrist to stop me from touching her. Laure had me groaning as she teased me with her lips and tongue, waiting until she felt my body start to tense in the build up to a climax before she bit me, hard.
“Fuck!” I swore in agony, sure that she had drawn blood. Her weight still trapped my legs and her grip on my wrists was firm enough to stop me from pushing her away. I tried to sit up as she followed up the initial bite with a rapid series of lighter, sharp nibbles until I came, crying out in exquisite pain. “Oh, fuck…”
Laure’s pale eyes sparkled with desire and mischief as she straddled me, licking her lips and holding my tortured and bruised penis tenderly, stroking slowly with one hand to keep me hard. “I bet your pet doesn’t do it like that.”
“Laure, she has a name.” I reproached her, wincing as the pain subsided.
“I should make her watch. Let her see how a wife fucks her husband.” Laure pressed me down onto the mattress, her long nails digging angrily into my shoulders as she rubbed her sex along the length of my erection, leaving it slick at her touch. I gasped as she took me inside her, riding me with a furious passion that was part revenge and part reconciliation. Time seemed to dilate as she rode me: seconds passing by like hours. The intensity of her anger and longing made it some the best sex we’d ever had. Laure had her head thrown back, eyes closed and back arched, groaning out my name as she climaxed. Everything stopped for a few seconds as Laure shuddered, and then she looked down into my eyes, still quietly incensed.
“Don’t just lie there, you traitorous bastard, fuck me.” Laure growled, urging me into action. I picked her up, supporting her weight underneath her thighs, tipping Laure backwards to lay her down on her back. Laure lifted her hips and opened herself to me, inviting me to penetrate her. The look in her eyes was incendiary, challenging me to pleasure her. It was impossible to look at her and not be enchanted by her full, sensual figure and the sheer beauty of her classical, refined features. Her pale blue eyes bored into me as I kissed her full, pink lips, her long legs hooking around my waist and back to draw me back inside her. I knew that Laure’s vanity wouldn’t let her reach a second orgasm until she felt me lose control inside her. Despite all of her many accomplishments in business and politics, Laure still wanted the sensation of being flattered and needed purely for her physicality – enjoying the knowledge that she could arouse me into forgetting everything else in the universe, other than desiring her and giving her pleasure. The sensation of her around me was intoxicating, a fusion of not just our flesh, but our souls as well. We held each other close, luxuriating in the sensation of how we seemed to fit together like two pieces of a puzzle, needing each other to feel a completeness we could never achieve on our own.
Laure cried out as I made love to her, alternating long slow thrusts with shorter, faster ones, as she had taught me to do on our first night together. Moaning loudly, she gripped the back of my head
with both hands, directing me downwards, my fingers squeezing her firm breasts as I bit her large nipples lightly in turn, our bodies moving in perfect synchrony, the motions becoming faster, almost frantic, until I came, staying in motion until I felt Laure’s legs twitch and heard her yell of satisfaction echo from the walls, her hands grabbing reflexively at the bedsheets as she joined me in ecstasy. “Goddamn! God… Damn! I’ve missed that, Aemon… I’ve missed that so much.”
I held onto my wife as she rolled me over to get back into the dominant position, lying over me, both of us breathing hard and trembling in the sensuous afterglow of our lovemaking. “I adore you, Laure. You were incredible.”
“Remember that next time you’re tempted by your pet.”
“Stop calling her that! She’s not some animal! She’s a young woman!”
“A badly broken young woman, Aemon.” Laure replied sadly, somehow finding the energy to sit up across my waist, her knees tucked underneath my arms. “I saw the way she looks at you, Aemon. She doesn’t love you. She can’t love you, not the same way I do. And I don’t just mean the sex. If you want devotion, buy a puppy. Your pity only makes her dependent on you. She might as well never have taken off the collar.”
“That’s not true. She’s made a lot of progress.”
“Is that why she still calls you ‘master’?” Laure’s astute observation cut to the bone, as usual. “You can’t fix her, Aemon… Look, I get it, I really do. You rescued her. You care about her. You want to give her freedom. But how can you do that if you keep her cooped up on the ship? You’re not qualified to heal her, Aemon. She needs a therapist, not a master who cares if she orgasms when he rapes her. You’ve got to let her go. Not just for her sake, but for yours and mine, too.”
“Laure, I need to try to help her. I’m responsible for her.”
“Yes, yes… She’d be dead if you hadn’t scooped up her pod. But how long does that responsibility last for, Aemon?” Laure waved a hand dismissively, rolling her eyes, before snatching up one of my hands and bringing it to rest on her pregnant belly. “You’re responsible for this, too. I can’t wait forever. And you can’t have us both. I need you to make a decision. Me or her.”
“You know I don’t take well to ultimatums.” I replied, warningly.
“But you wouldn’t choose her just to spite me.”
“I’m not going to choose at all. I love both of you.”
Laure looked down, her sternness melting away as she pressed my hand to her belly, trying to get me to sense the life we’d created together growing inside her. “This is love, Aemon. Real love, real responsibility. Not some game you play to try and make yourself feel better about the injustice in the galaxy. I want to share it with you. But I can’t share you with her.”
“Laure, I don’t want to lose you.” I sat up on the bed, slipping my hands under her arms to cup her shoulder blades, drawing her forwards to me.
“Maybe you’re not such an idiot after all.” Laure smiled and kissed me on the mouth, relieved.
“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. Otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here with a broken cheek.” I smiled back briefly, enjoying the warmth of her skin against mine after so many months of separation and isolation. “Don’t make me choose. Not now. I can’t. Not yet. I’m not ready.”
Laure frowned, appearing to sag slightly, disappointed in me. “You just want to have your cake and eat it.”
“No, it’s not that. You’ve both saved my life. I wouldn’t be here now, I wouldn’t be who I am now, without either of you.” I tried to explain, holding her close. “Asking me to choose which one of you to love is like asking me to choose which arm I would like to cut off. I can’t do that, I’m sorry. It wouldn’t be fair on any of us. And with Zemina on the warpath, I might be dead tomorrow anyway. We don’t have a future until we can deal with her.”
“Zemina.” Laure said, practically spitting the name from her mouth with contempt. “My precious aunt.”
“Sorbago was a bust. No-one would give me anything we could use against her.”
“I think I might have found something.”
“From the records at HelixCorp?” I asked, hopefully. “What?”
“Nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow.” Laure replied, dismissing the question as she resettled her hips over mine, leaning forward, using the weight of her breasts to lower me willingly back down to the mattress. “Unlike this…”
The following morning Laure borrowed one of my shirts as we sat down for breakfast in the ship’s tiny galley. I prepared poached eggs, grilled sausage, bacon, baked hash browns and black pudding as Laure watched me from the table with hungry eyes, drinking from a tall glass of orange juice. We didn’t speak until I sat down opposite her, settling the plates down on the table.
“It smells good.” Laure sniffed the bacon, cutting a rasher in half and chewing it thoughtfully. “Tastes good, too.”
“So do you.” I raised my eyebrows, glancing pointedly below the level of the table.
“Flatterer. You’re still not forgiven.” Laure snorted, crossing her legs self-consciously, acutely aware she had not showered since our nocturnal exertions deep into the early hours. “But it’s a start.”
“Thank you. We can flirt more later if you like.” I proposed with a smile, before returning to the original reason Laure had asked me to come to the system in the first place. “So what did you find out about my mother’s clone? Did you find out who ordered it? And who was blocking your investigation?”
“Yes. The same person, as it happens.” Laure confirmed, raising her fork for emphasis. “You won’t believe who.”
“Zemina.” I guessed.
“Close.” Laure’s eyes gleamed, impressed by my instincts. “Silvano.”
“Your father?” I asked, shocked. “But why?”
“It’s simple, he couldn’t bear the thought of losing her. They were having an affair. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a few others in vitro somewhere, ready to be grown.” Laure seemed surprised by my reaction. “You didn’t know?”
“So that’s what Zemina meant when she said ‘I should have worried more about the mother’.” I sat back in my chair, the pieces beginning to fall into place. “How long had it been going on for?”
“Ever since your parents first showed up in Empire space. They knew my father was vulnerable, a widower. Mother died when I was a toddler. Zemina always told me that the Federation had her killed and made it look like a shuttle accident. I don’t know if it’s true. But it opened the door for Cassandra. Padraig made friends with Silvano first, of course. He didn’t get introduced to your mother until a couple of months after the accident.”
“So my parents knew your father when you were a toddler? How old were you?”
“Two? Three, maybe.” Laure propped herself up on one elbow, leaning forward to sip from her glass as she waited for my brain to catch up with the implications of what she’d told me.
I could tell from the look on her face that she hadn’t told me everything. There was still one last, vital piece of the puzzle I was missing. Laure obviously knew what that piece was, but she wanted to see if I was able to figure it out for myself. I trawled through my memories of my conversations with Zemina, Cassandra’s clone and Stenberg, linking them to the hazy memories of my summer vacations with Laure and her father at Eurynome; the happy, carefree days with Laure as an ever- present and attentive companion and the fretful nights of raised adult voices, accusations and arguments muffled through thick, decoratively-papered walls. I set down my cutlery, my hands shaking as my brain picked through the clues and inconsistencies in the stories I had been told about my family since the trial and execution. Above all else, one thing Zemina had told me during the briefing at Ogygia kept coming back to the forefront of my mind. You’re not right for her, Roche. You never were. “No, no… That can’t be right.”
“What can’t?” Laure’s eyes were simultaneously cool, yet sympathetic, matching her tone of voice.
“They were having the affair before I was born. Silvano’s…” I stopped, unable to finish the thought and track my logic through to its devastating conclusion.
“Your father.” Laure completed it for me. “Yes.”
“So you’re my sis-“
“Half-sister.” Laure interrupted, correcting me.
“You knew?” My voice shook along with my hands, unsure whether I should be angry, or feel something else entirely.
“Aemon, I’ve always known. Why else would I have interceded on your behalf with the Prefect when he ordered you strung up with your parents?” Laure took my hands in hers to steady them. “I saw
them going at it together in the glass house on one of the potting benches when I was five years old. This doesn’t change anything. I’ve loved you since the day you were born.”
“But… isn’t it dangerous for us to have children?” I asked, echoing the unspoken fear sparking Zemina’s prejudice against our relationship.
“Aemon, what do you think this is, the 22nd Century?” Laure scoffed. “Do you really think I’d have your children if there was any risk at all? I own a genetics corporation, for goodness sake! I had the foetus screened for abnormalities, recessive genes likely to cause inherited diseases further down the bloodline, everything. Our daughter’s going to be healthier than both of us put together. Gods, if you think what we’re doing is dodgy, you should see what goes on in the Duval household. The Imperial bloodline’s so inbred it’s got knots in it.”
“You knew all this time and never told me?” I asked, appalled that she had kept the truth from me for so long.
“What difference does it make? Surely you don’t think Zemina’s right? We’re meant to be together. We’ve always known it, both of us.”
“So what do we do now?”
“I go back to Adams and tell Zemina where to stick her Interdictor. You can wait for me at Eurynome. When I’ve finished making a few preparations, I’ll join you there.”
“What are you going to do?”
“If Zemina refuses to call off her vendetta, I’ll hand over the station to Aisling Duval.” Laure said, her voice hard as steel. The loss of a key system to Zemina’s most bitter rival would be a huge blow to her reputation and esteem within the Empire. It would be almost as damaging as receiving a public slap in the face from the Emperor herself.
“How do you think Zemina’s going to react?” I asked, awed by her conviction and inner strength.
“Our dear aunt Zemina can go space herself for all I care. I need to get back to my station. Then I’ll worry about her.” Laure stood, her breakfast only half-finished. “I should get dressed. If I don’t get going in the next hour, people back at Adams might start asking questions my adjutant can’t answer.”
I waited by the loading hatch with Laure’s RemLok helmet as she took a quick shower and wriggled her way back into her flight suit. I heard her soft footsteps at the end of the corridor, watching her clip up her hair behind the ears securely so she could fit her helmet before I opened the hatch. She kissed me long and hard before taking the jet black mask from my hands. “Fly safe, Laure. I’ll see you at Eurynome in a few days.”
“Take your time. I’m going to need a day’s head start to prepare the ground, anyway. I’ll call you when you reach Summerland.” Laure grabbed my hand and squeezed it tight, not wanting to leave, especially since we had not resolved the situation regarding Tatiana to her satisfaction. “You can keep your pet for now, I suppose. But one way or another, you’re going to have to make a choice soon. I love you, Aemon.”
“I love you, too. See you soon.” I hugged her, holding her tight as she slipped on the RemLok. With her identity concealed from prying eyes, I opened the hatch, watching impassively as she walked confidently back across the landing pad to the control room and the spaceport beyond, where her ship awaited her. Aware as ever that we were probably being watched by Zemina’s informants, Laure didn’t look back.
Fourteen hours later, I received a short, encrypted text-only message via the comms board. ASTRA confirmed that the encoding on the message meant that it could only have come from Laure’s personal terminal at Adams – a machine that could only be operated by her – the countersigns on the quantum key verifying, to my relief, that she was not sending the message under duress.
Safely back at the roost. Mother hen and chick both doing well. Foxes still outside the coup, but hopefully not for long. Love, L.
I tapped the intercom, activating the speakerphone in Tatiana’s stateroom. I hadn’t seen or heard from her since Laure had threatened her the night before. “Tatiana, put on your flight suit. We’re going home. Next stop, Summerland.”

Chapter Six – Summerland: Eurynome

It felt odd coming back to my childhood home without Laure. The last time I had been here was on our honeymoon and I had always associated the estate with her, even though it had been owned by my parents, Cassandra and Padraig, rather than Laure’s father, Silvano. Laure and her father had spent the long summer months at our estate as guests of my parents in the years leading up to my mother and father’s execution: the staunchest allies my parents had come to rely upon in the months leading up to their indictment.
As soon as Fell From The Top(…) dropped out of witchspace I activated the navigation computer to set a course for Summerland 6, a terraformed Earth-like world officially known as Henry O’Hare’s Haven, but more colloquially known as Summerland, the star it orbited. Despite several centuries of work, the terraforming on Summerland was incomplete, resulting in a hot, dry climate with an overbearing air presssure, which gave the world and system its name. It was only the high air pressure (some six times above Terran norms) that enabled the planet to retain the oceans it needed for a sustainable hydrosphere, though the terraforming effort hoped to lower the overall average temperature of the planet so that the oceans wouldn’t simply evaporate as the air pressure was gradually reduced. The hot, dry and high pressure climate had given the world a reputation as a spa world and health retreat. It was hoped that in the coming two or three centuries that the terraforming factories still dotted across the surface of the planet would thin out the atmosphere and increase the relative density of oxygen to bring the planet more in line with the standard atmosphere you might find on a space station.
Even though the terraforming was still a work in progress, the planet’s minimal axial tilt and long, 48 hour days gave Summerland a stable climate all year round, making it one of the most popular worlds in the Empire for rich and powerful families to build their private estates. Sited on the coast at the southern edge of the temperate zone of Summerland’s northern hemisphere, the five thousand square kilometre Eurynome estate was ideally placed for people who enjoyed moderate, rather than balmy temperatures. Sea and air temperatures averaged 295K all year round, never getting too hot for comfort thanks to the gentle breezes rippling off the coast. Pristine white sand beaches glimmered welcomingly as I let my Imperial Clipper plummet like a comet down through the thick atmosphere at nearly 3000 metres per second. The sonic boom following us gradually ebbed away as I reduced speed, levelling off my approach at an altitude of 5000 metres. Using the navigation console at my left hand, I activated the lodge’s landing beacon to provide me with a vector towards the estate’s landing pad. Coming in from the ocean allowed our view of the estate to gradually unfold as we glided over the calm, sapphire blue waters towards the beach and the rolling green landscape beyond. The mansion itself stood proudly in the centre of an intimate glade, the woods behind the house separating the house and gardens from the vineyard and downs beyond the trees. The glade opened out before the mansion over immaculately manicured gardens, a glass house covering almost a hectare providing the plants for the parterre and other flower beds. Beyond the garden and lawn was a cascade from the water-meadow leading down to the hunting lodge and the estate’s private landing pad, situated a kilometre and a half from the main house, right next to the beach. I brought the ship in low and slow, circling the glade once to give Tatiana a good view of the mansion before bringing the ship down manually on the landing pad, the nose of the Imperial Clipper pointing into the prevailing on-shore wind.
“All this is yours, master?”
“Yep. This is home. I grew up here. Until my parents were executed, at any rate. Laure gave me the estate as a wedding present.” I replied as I shut down the engines and put the ship into standby mode. “ASTRA, you deserve a nice rest. Enjoy the view.”
“I will, my lord. Running maintenance diagnostics.”
Tatiana and I changed out of our flight suits before disembarking, Tatiana opting for her usual jumpsuit and boots, allied with a fake leather jacket to keep out the wind, while I wore a thick black cotton tunic, matching naval fatigue trousers, heavy boots and a polyester canvas tactical vest. Before leaving my stateroom, I retrieved my flechette pistol belt and filled the pouches of the vest with extra ammo clips, first aid kits and ration packs. After Thunda Sue’s warning in the nightclub on Sorbago, I wasn’t in the mood for taking risks.
“Are you expecting trouble, master?” Tatiana frowned when she saw I was armed.
“No, but there are wild boars in the woods behind the house. Occasionally they go for the vegetable garden. You don’t want to get surprised by one, believe me.” I replied, using an unlikely truth to disguise my real concerns as I secured the hatch behind us. “We could go hunting for one later. They’re good eating.”
“I don’t think so, master. I’d rather take a walk on the beach.” Tatiana stared at the waves swelling against the white sands longingly.
“Good idea.” I linked arms with Tatiana and walked with her down the sloping dune that separated the landing pad from the beach. “Do you like the ocean?”
“I like the smell. And the wind. It reminds me of my parents.”
“Your settlement on Elysian Fields was on the coast?”
“Mummy used to take me swimming every weekend.” Tatiana nodded, lost in bittersweet memories, her grip tightening on my arm.
“You’ll like it here, then.” I said as we stepped onto the fine-grained sand. “The water’s always warm.”
“Are you going to leave me here, master?” Tatiana hadn’t forgotten Laure’s threat.
I stopped walking and turned her to face me, holding her shoulders firmly. “I’m not going to abandon you, Tatiana. Not ever.”
“Even if your wife wants to kill me?”
“Laure was upset. Angry. She didn’t mean it.”
“One day she’ll make you choose. And you’ll leave me behind.” Tatiana said, her shoulders slumping in defeat. “I don’t want you to leave me, master.”
I knew she was right. I would choose Laure over Tatiana if I had to. I was only delaying the inevitable by refusing to answer Laure’s ultimatum. Unable to think of anything comforting to say, a white lie that would ease her pain, I bent down to kiss Tatiana’s lips. She kissed back fiercely, long and hard, her fingers gripping the hair on the back of my head. I wiped away the tears in her eyes when we came up for air. Tatiana smiled bravely, but I could see that she had accepted that this was the beginning of the end of our affair. I held her close for a few moments before sitting on the sand to take off my boots and socks. “The sand feels better if you go barefoot.”
We left our boots behind at the base of the dune, letting the warm sand tickle the gaps between our toes and heat the soles of our feet. We walked in silence for over an hour, our eyes hunting for shells or weathered stones on the shore. I led us closer to the shoreline, so that the gentle swell of the incoming waves broke over our feet and ankles. Tatiana stopped and looked out to the horizon, the ocean almost a perfect mirror image of the blue, cloudless sky. The sun was already halfway on its journey from its zenith to the horizon, but thanks to Summerland’s slow rotation, I estimated that we still had a good six hours of daylight left.
“It’s beautiful here, master. So peaceful.”
“It’s good to be home again. I never realise how much I’ve missed it until I’m back.” We lingered a moment as the waves lapped around our feet before I led Tatiana back to the dune where we had left our footwear. “Let me show you the house and gardens. If you like the beach, you’re going to love the house.”
We followed the path from the landing pad back to the mansion, walking beside the cascade, the water burbling happily over the rocks as it fell towards the shore. The slope leading up to the gardens from the landing pad wasn’t particularly steep, but it was over a thousand metres long, and both Tatiana and I were getting short of breath by the time we crested the top of the hill. The view, however, was worth it. The white marble façade of the mansion was as impressive as ever. Eurynome had been built in the neo-Palladian style, with a tetrastyle portico framed by two symmetrical wings, each three stories high, studded regularly with vertical, rectangular windows. The first floor windows were taller than those on the ground and second floor, in a classic piano nobile, the master bedrooms easily identifiable at the end of each wing by their balconies overlooking the glade. The hall behind the portico was topped by a rotunda that stood proudly above the flat roof, which was rimmed by dozens of waist-high colonnades topped by a thin marble parapet rail. The mansion stood out dramatically against the background of trees, an arrogant statement of Man’s mastery over nature.
As we walked around the water-meadow to the lawn, I saw the door to the house open and a grey- haired man of average height and slender build step out from between the four columns of the portico. I recognised him instantly as Vilko Kozel, Eurynome’s estate manager. He had been employed by my mother only weeks after she had acquired the property and he had been here ever since, having been kept on by Laure to maintain the mansion and grounds. I felt Tatiana’s grip on my right arm tighten. She was still skittish around strangers. “Don’t worry, Vilko’s as old a friend as I’ve ever had. Let me introduce you.”
We met in the middle of the parterre by the fountain, and Vilko laughed in delight as I gave him a bear hug, which the old man returned enthusiastically. Vilko had always looked upon me as one of his grandsons. “My lord Aemon, it’s good to see you again so soon!”
“And you.”
“I was worried about you after I heard what happened at Groombridge 34. You’re well again, I hope?” Vilko asked, before leading us back towards the house at a slow walking pace.
“No lasting damage, thankfully.”
“I’m glad to hear it, my lord. I see you’ve brought a companion. Mistress Torval said that you might when I spoke to her this morning.”
“Vilko, this is Tatiana. She’ll be staying with us for a little while.”
“Enchanted to meet you, my lady.” Vilko nodded respectfully towards her and he was tactful enough not to ask any awkward questions about the nature of our relationship.
“Did Laure say anything else?”
“Not much, my lord.” Vilko said as we approached the portico. “Just that she’d be joining you here in a couple of days.”
“Good. I trust you’ve kept the larder and cellar well-stocked? We’ve had a long day and could do with something to eat.”
“Of course, my lord.” Vilko stopped and turned to us, his face almost apologetic. “Just one more thing, my lord.”
“What is it, Vilko?” I asked, my danger sense starting to tingle.
“I did have one other message for you. From Senator Torval.” Vilko began to raise his right hand. Seemingly from nowhere, a small slug-thrower pistol had appeared in his palm.
“No!” Tatiana screamed, stepping between us as I instinctively drew my dart gun from the friction holster on my left hip.
The next few seconds passed in slow motion. I saw the muzzle of Vilko’s gun flash once, causing Tatiana to stagger back against me. I returned fire without thinking, my aim guided by my combat training, delivering two quick rounds to the chest and a third to Vilko’s forehead. I caught Tatiana, feeling blood beneath my hands as Vilko’s body slumped, lifeless, to the floor.
“Tatiana! No… oh, no.” I whispered, setting her down gently on the gravel path, pressing a hand hard against the wound in her chest to try and stop the bleeding. Tatiana looked up at me distantly and coughed once, crimson spittle coating her lips. “Don’t try to talk.”
I glanced over at Vilko’s body. He definitely wouldn’t be getting up again. A closer inspection of his gun revealed that it was the latest model Manticore Munitions hold-out pistol. The lack of rifling in the barrel indicated that it had been designed to fire ‘tumbler’ slugs, containing a tiny explosive charge to break up the slug inside the body and cause massive internal injuries to multiple organs. At least one of Tatiana’s lungs had been punctured, judging from her laboured breathing and the way she was coughing up blood. I put my head against her ribcage and heard the tell-tale bubbling of lungs filling with liquid. But worse than that was what I couldn’t hear. I lifted my hand away from the entry wound on her chest, but no blood seeped out. Her heart had already stopped, ripped apart by fragments from the tumbler round. Tatiana was dying before my eyes and there was absolutely nothing I could do. My first aid kit wasn’t equipped to deal with internal injuries. I felt the tears on my cheeks as I tried to contain my anguish. Tatiana saw the sorrow in my eyes and reached up to caress my face.
“I’m sorry. I was too slow.” I kissed her, tasting her blood on my lips: a coppery tang of failure. Tatiana just smiled and stroked my neck comfortingly. “Tatiana, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry… I love you.”
I kissed her again, holding her tight in my arms until I felt her breathing stop and her fingers slip away limply from the back of my neck. Unable to let her go, I cradled Tatiana’s body and cried.

Chapter Seven – Summerland: Eurynome

The sun had set by the time Tegan, one of the two house maids, found me still clinging to Tatiana on the bloodstained gravel outside the portico. She had started looking for Vilko after he had uncharacteristically missed dinner, only to be presented with what looked like three corpses lying in front of the mansion. Tegan’s high-pitched scream snapped me back to the present. I snatched up my dart gun from the ground beside Tatiana’s legs, the pistol grip slick with her blood, and aimed the muzzle directly at her terrified features.
“Have you come to try and kill me as well, Tegan?” my voice shook along with my hands, distant and detached.
The petrified maid collapsed to her knees, stammering as she held up empty hands in supplication. “N-n-no! No, my lord!”
I took five gulping breaths, considering whether I should shoot her anyway before I judged that the mute horror on her face was genuine. I dropped the gun and held my head in my hands, trying to compose myself.
“My lord, what happened?” Tegan asked, starting to rise up back to her feet. “Are you hurt?”
“Stay back. I don’t trust any of you.” I warned her with a low growl. “And don’t touch her. Don’t touch anything.”
Tegan took a step backwards in fear. “I should call SysSec.”
“No!” I snapped at her, shouting, making the maid flinch. Seeing that I was scaring her, I took a deep breath before continuing more quietly. “No… I’ll deal with it. I need to speak to Laure first. Find Marielle, take one of the ground cars and get off the estate. I don’t want you here anymore.”
Tegan turned and fled back into the mansion. I waited by Tatiana’s body until I saw the two house maids enter the garage next to the glass house and the lights from one of the estate’s four ground cars illuminate the gravel avenue leading away from the house through the glade to the exit of the estate. As soon as the car disappeared out of sight, I knelt down beside Tatiana, stroking her blonde hair as I holstered my dart gun. She looked happy, lying motionless on the ground, as if serenely asleep, but I knew that this was a slumber from which she would never awake. I kissed her forehead and whispered. “I’ll be back for you.”
I couldn’t face entering the house. It had been forever tainted by Vilko’s betrayal. My thoughts boiled with anger – all I wanted to do was return to my ship and destroy the mansion – burn it to the ground with beam lasers and cannon fire. I didn’t want to have to look at it again, but I knew that Tegan was right. Vilko’s crime would have to be reported to SysSec, but I didn’t want to make the call without speaking to Laure first. My numbed brain returned me on autopilot to Fell From The Top(…) and I slumped into the chair by my desk terminal in my stateroom.
“ASTRA, get me Governor Torval.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“It’s urgent.”
It took less than a minute for Laure to answer my call. The smile on her face disappeared almost instantly when she saw the state of me through the video feed. “Aemon! What happened to you?”
“I take it you told Zemina to shove her Interdictor somewhere unpleasant.” I replied, avoiding her question.
“About twelve hours ago, as it happens. Aemon, what’s wrong? You look like hell. Is that blood?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “Zemina tried to have me killed. Again.”
“Oh, gods. Aemon. Are you okay?” Laure reached out to touch her screen, the closest thing she could manage to a caress.
“No. He killed her. Tatiana’s dead.”
“What?! Who? Who killed her?”
“Vilko.” I closed my eyes, replaying the moment in my mind, wondering if I could have reacted faster, or done anything differently to save her. “Vilko shot her. He was aiming for me, but Tatiana got in the way.”
“Vilko? But, he’s worked on the estate for decades. He’s practically family. I don’t understand.”
“Zemina must have given him a better offer.”
“What happened to him?”
“He’s dead. Double tap and a headshot. But I wasn’t fast enough.”
“Aemon, I’m sorry. I know you cared about her.”
“Don’t pretend that a part of you isn’t happy to have her out of the way.” I hated myself for saying it, but closed my eyes and said it anyway.
“Aemon… That’s not fair.” Laure’s eyes started to water. “Not like this, she didn’t deserve that.”
“No, she didn’t. She saved me again, and I failed her.”
“Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t pull the trigger. Vilko did.” Laure said, trying to console me. “Have SysSec been informed yet?”
“No. I wanted to know whether Tatiana’s fake ID would stand up to a full background check first.”
“Give me an hour and it will.” Tatiana went to work on her terminal, tapping furiously at her keyboard. “Aemon, get yourself cleaned up. You’ll need to answer a lot of questions when SysSec arrive. I’ll come to Summerland as soon as I’m done here.”
“If Zemina came for me, she might try gunning for you, too. Watch yourself.”
“I’ll be careful. I’ll see you in a few hours.” Laure stroked her screen again, the long distance equivalent of a kiss. “I love you.”
I cut the channel without replying, too distressed to think clearly. I unzipped the bloodstained tac- vest and let it fall to the floor, exiting the ship again and staggered back up the hill to the water- meadow. Still fully clothed, I walked into the artificial lake until my feet no longer touched the bottom. For a moment I considered letting myself sink beneath the surface and not come back up, but the despairing thought passed quickly, banished by the reassurance that Laure would soon be on
her way. I dunked my head below the water and washed Tatiana’s blood from my hands and face. I let myself float on my back, smiling faintly as I remembered the last time I had gone for a swim in the water-meadow on my honeymoon, making love with Laure in the shallows. I swam back to the waterline, crawling out wearily onto the lawn, lying on the grass and looking up at the stars as my clothes dried in the warm, still night. It was there, sprawled on my back on the lawn, where the SysSec Inspector found me two hours later, shortly after his shuttle landed behind the house in the glade.
After taking my statement and laser scans of the crime scene, the SysSec investigation proved to be a formality, with all the details wrapped up long before dawn. A quick financial records check revealed that a deposit of two million credits had been made in Vilko’s account four hours before the assassination attempt. The money had been traced back to an anonymous account that had been opened in the hour before the transfer and shut down immediately afterwards. The SysSec Inspector said that such arrangements were common for front companies of intelligence agencies paying for services rendered. It would be impossible to find out who had created the account and set up the transfer. The Inspector suspected the involvement of the Federation Intelligence Service, but I knew in my gut that Zemina was responsible. A review of Vilko’s message logs was similarly fruitless. If he had received instructions via mail, radio or hyperwave message, all records of the conversation had been remotely erased from his terminal.
Satisfied that Vilko’s death was a case of self-defence and that he had been clearly responsible for Tatiana’s murder, the Inspector trotted out all the traditional platitudes about being sorry for my loss and made arrangements for Vilko’s remains to be taken to his family.
“What do you want to do about Miss Dementyeva’s body, my lord?” The Inspector asked, as sensitively as he could as we watched Vilko’s corpse being loaded into a ground car. “I’m afraid the records show that she has no next of kin.”
“She was my friend. I’ll bury her on the estate.”
“As you wish, my lord. If you require any assistance…?”
“No, thank you, Inspector. I’ve taken up enough of your time as it is.”
The SysSec Inspector and I shook hands. “I’m sorry that we couldn’t have met in kinder circumstances, my lord. May she rest in peace.”
“Thank you, Inspector.” I gave the Inspector a shallow bow and he returned it before heading back to his ship behind the mansion.
As the SysSec shuttle disappeared over the top of the vineyard ridge, I turned back to Tatiana’s body, where it still lay on the gravel before the main entrance to the house. She looked utterly tranquil, as if she were going to wake up at any moment, but my heart sank with the knowledge that the nightmare I had endured for the last twelve hours was real and that there would be no awakening from it for either Tatiana or me. I picked up her body and walked across the lawn to the edge of the water-meadow. It was as fitting a place as any, overlooking the lake and the ocean beyond. I retrieved a spade from the glass house and started to dig. It was approaching nightfall by the time I had finished laying Tatiana to rest, marking her burial mound with a simple cairn made from stones taken from the cascade and topped with a murex shell I had found washed up on the beach.
“Goodbye, Tatiana.” I said, kneeling next to the cairn, wiping sweat and tears from my face.
Goodbye, master. I heard her reply in my head, as I stood to walk back to the landing pad, knowing that I’d never be able to listen to her voice again, nor feel her skin against mine. As I opened the hatch to Fell From The Top(…) I realised that I would never come back here again, and that I was leaving one of the best parts of me behind forever. I refused to look back at Eurynome as I sealed the hatch.
As I walked onto the bridge to begin a system check, ASTRA locked out the control consoles.
“ASTRA, what are you doing?”
“My lord, I think you’d better sit down. There’s something you need to see.”
“This better be important, or I’m going to have your memory core wiped.” I snarled, taking my customary seat in the command chair on the right hand side of the bridge. “What is it?”
“The live feed from GalNet, my lord.” ASTRA explained, activating the holoprojection screen on the HUD.
I recognised Adams Orbital instantly in the video footage, as well as one of Zemina’s personal Majestic-class Interdictors, INV Duval’s Vengeance, on station ten kilometres from the edge of the Coriolis station’s no-fire zone.
“ASTRA, what the hell is this?” I demanded, transfixed by the footage.
The AI didn’t answer, letting the video speak for itself. A familiar ship exited the station, Athene Noctua, Laure’s personal Imperial Clipper. As soon as it was clear of the toast rack, the Interdictor surged forward, opening fire with all weapons. The shields on Laure’s Clipper coruscated purple, the fast-charging bi-weave shields trying to keep up with the energy drain, but they were overwhelmed in seconds.
“No!” I screamed, as the elegant, pure white vessel came apart before my eyes. Only then did I notice the text feed at the bottom of the video.
BREAKING NEWS: Governor Laure Torval confirmed killed in political assassination. Action thought to be sanctioned due to a personal dispute with Senator Zemina Torval.
“ASTRA.” I addressed the AI, my voice quiet and deadly. “Send a mail message to Senator Torval: ‘I’m coming for you.'”

Chapter Eight – Euryale: EG Main HQ

I stared out of the canopy of Fell From The Top(…) for hours, watching the traffic passing overhead, a constant stream of incoming and outgoing ships of all sizes, colours and affiliations. I drank deeply from a half-litre glass filled with Eranin Pearl Whisky. The potent silver spirit burned my throat and numbed my grief. Each sip I took was both medicine and a punishment for my continued existence when all the people I had ever loved had been taken away from me. I accepted the pain willingly – knowing my hangover the next morning would not be pretty. ASTRA warned me that I was drinking a dangerous, potentially toxic, amount of ethanol.
“Shut up, ASTRA. Honestly, at this point, what do I have to lose?”
“Your revenge, my lord.” the AI told me, sending a chill down my spine.
I set down the glass on the radar projector panel, blinking with the realisation that ASTRA was correct. Revenge. Revenge against Zemina. It was the only thing I had left to live for. The Senator’s mail response to my threat following Laure’s assassination had been utterly contemptuous.
Good luck with that, traitor’s son. I have eyes everywhere. You won’t make it within a hundred light seconds of my station.
Her taunting reply made it obvious that Zemina wanted me to do the hard work for her by embarking on a suicide run into Synteini to attack her base at Lagerkvist Station. I knew that I would never be able to get close enough to the Senator to kill her. She was too well-defended and I lacked the necessary resources to do any more than superficial damage to her Orbis starport. I had taken refuge in the independent system of Euryale, on the border of Zemina’s sphere of influence in the Empire, to consider my options. I wasn’t going to throw my life away in a futile gesture of defiance. The legal protection her position as a Senator gave her might have indemnified Zemina against potential fallout from Laure’s murder, but for a woman in her position, a loss of face could be more damaging than a bullet. I wanted to hurt Zemina, damage her, and in the Empire, there were worse things to inflict upon someone than death. Instead of trying to kill her, I would dishonour her, make her seem weak, fatally wounding her political ambitions. It would be a fitting punishment, more lingering and poisonous than death. The only remaining question was how, and what would I need to do it?
“ASTRA, I think I’d like to take a look at that data package now.”
An hour after Imperial Intelligence had verified Laure’s death at Beta-1 Tucanae, Serf Myles, her adjutant at Adams Orbital, had sent me an encoded data package, along with his condolences. In the days since the assassination, I hadn’t been able to work up the courage to open it.
“Yes, my lord. There’s a short video message, and a binary file. Would you like to watch the video?”
“Just give me the audio, ASTRA.” If the video was what I thought it was, I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Laure’s beautiful face again, knowing that I had ended our final conversation without telling her how much I loved her.
“Hello, Aemon.” Laure’s voice echoed silkily around the flight deck. “If you’ve received this, you’ll know by now that something has happened to me. I just want you to know that I love you, and I never would have changed a minute of it. By now all of my assets should have been transferred over to you, but I have one more gift, for you to use as you see fit. I’ve attached the command codes to Adams Orbital to this message. They’re hardwired into the station and can’t be changed. It’s a
safeguard to make sure that the Governor can never be locked out of their station. I know you’ll put them to good use. Goodbye, Aemon.”
“Goodbye, Laure.” I said to myself, reaching again for the glass of whisky. “I’ll miss you.”
I swirled the whisky around the glass, contemplating how I could utilise the backdoor access codes to the Coriolis station. Zemina had left her Interdictor in position outside Adams Orbital, ostensibly to maintain order in the interim period before a new Governor could be installed, but I suspected it was there to keep me out of the system and away from the station. As I walked to the galley to top up my drink, a plan began to take form. No-one I knew in the Empire would dare risk helping me sabotage Zemina’s ambitions, but I did know one person who would happily sacrifice internal organs to gain control of a space station crammed to the rafters with High Tech goods.
With my whisky fully recharged, I sat at my desk in my stateroom, fingering the chip Thunda Sue had given me in the nightclub at Sorbago. While Senator Torval was an influential figure in the Empire, my own standing in the Imperial Navy gave me access to information that was well-hidden from the public at large. The latest intelligence reports I had received implicated Thunda’s crew with the theft of no less than four 50kT tactical fusion warheads from the shipyard at Groombridge 34 in the immediate aftermath following my assault on the Farragut-class battlecruiser that had been under construction there. The dossier also claimed that Thunda Sue hadn’t had any luck thus far in being able to sell the weapons on the black market.
First and foremost, I knew that Suzie was a businesswoman. The potential value of the nukes paled in comparison to the command codes for a space station in one of the Empire’s most technologically advanced economies. I felt sure that she would make the trade in an instant. I just needed to crack the encryption on the data chip she had given me to be able to set up a meeting. I took another sip of whisky as I turned over the ceramic cuboid in the fingers of my right hand, trying to put myself into Thunda’s head. What would she use as an encryption code?
I thought back to the conversations I’d had with Suzie since we’d first met during my hunt for the rogue Imperial agent, Zeta. I activated the OLED touchscreen on the chip, my fingers hovering over the miniature keyboard as I pondered what the Pirate Queen would have set as a password. Suzie had already invited me to join her operation twice, heavily intimating an interest that she had in me beyond the professional skills I could bring to her crew. Even so, I knew that she wouldn’t simply give away access to her whereabouts. Suzie would want me to work for it a little bit.
I used my terminal to help me eliminate the usual password choices people used for basic encryptions, date of birth, place of birth, names of pets and siblings. I smiled when I saw that Suzie had programmed the chip with sarcastic, withering responses to these basic attempts to crack the encoding on the chip.
I put the chip back down on my desk in amused frustration, chuckling as I slurped another hit of whisky for inspiration. I ran my fingers through my hair, imagining the affectionate smirk on the willowy pirate’s face as she cheerfully mocked my efforts. Then it hit me.
“Sugar.” I entered the word into my terminal, before typing the first keyword result from the Galactopedia entry into the chip’s touch sensitive interface.
“Hah!” I laughed in delight, glad to know I was finally on the right track. “I think I’ve got it.”
I held my breath and tapped the Enter key on the touchscreen.
Suzie’s congratulation message appeared on the screen for just a second before disappearing to reveal a rolling hyperwave frequency and countersign that changed once every thirty seconds. The chip Suzie had given me was a security dongle that would give me access to the Thunda Crew’s private hyperwave comms net. I inserted the dongle into my terminal’s chip reader slot and opened my mail app.
Suzie, it’s Roche. I need to speak to you. I’d like to give you an offer you can’t refuse.
It took less than two minutes to receive her reply.
Kappa Fornacis. 9pm GST tomorrow. You know where.

Chapter Nine – Kappa Fornacis: Harvestport

“I’m glad you came, Suzie.” I said as the Pirate Queen took her seat opposite mine in a private booth, tucked away into a dark corner of Feehan’s Bar.
“Well, I could hardly ignore an invitation from my favourite Imperial Viscount, could I?” Her cool eyes gleamed when she saw the bottle of 3270 vintage Lavian Brandy on the table and she smiled as she poured herself a tall glass. I had already worked my way through a quarter of the bottle, a pleasant alcoholic tingle dulling the thoughts of rage and grief churning through my brain. I watched her shudder with pleasure as she emptied the glass in a single long swallow, savouring the fiery aftertaste of the strong spirit on her tongue. “I was intrigued by your promise of ‘an offer you can’t refuse’. Should I book us a room?”
“Hitting on the widower? That didn’t take you long.” I tried and failed to keep the disgust out of my voice, but Suzie simply laughed, rather than take offence.
“You should know by now that I can be very persistent when it comes to getting what I want.” Suzie took another gulp of brandy. “But some things are worth waiting for. It makes it all the sweeter in the end. So, if you didn’t bring me here for the pleasure of my company, why am I here?”
“You have something I need.”
“Oh, I’m sure I do, sugar.”
“Rumour has it that some tactical nukes came into your possession a few months ago.”
“You should never listen to rumours.”
“They were, how shall I say… liberated from a certain Federation shipyard, along with a pair of unmanned Corvettes, in the chaos after a devastating strike on a half-finished battlecruiser by a certain Imperial operative…”
“Who shall remain nameless, of course.” Suzie said, her face a picture of innocence.
“Of course. Rumour also has it that you’ve not been able to find a buyer for them.”
“Rumours always tend to grow an extra leg or two with every retelling. You should be careful who you listen to.” Suzie warned, her body language becoming edgy.
“I happen to know that this particular rumour is true. I got it direct from Imperial Intelligence.” I took a sip from my own drink to bolster my courage. This was a dangerous conversation to be having and I didn’t know Suzie well enough to predict how she would react. The temperature across the table seemed to chill by a few degrees.
“Roche, if this is some kind of threat-“
I cut her off with a dismissive wave. “On the contrary. I want to take them off your hands.”
“What?” Suzie replied, stunned. “Why?”
“It’s probably better if you don’t know.”
If I had them, and if I were to let you have them, I’d need to know that they’re not going to come back to bite me on the ass.” Suzie’s eyes narrowed, wary that I was baiting some sort of trap.
“You’re a smart woman, Suzie. Why would I want a nuclear weapon?” Our eyes locked and I could almost see her thought processes ticking over as she studied my face intently. We sat in uncomfortable silence, trying to read each other for long minutes until I saw Suzie’s features show me something I never would have expected from one of the galaxies most notorious and ruthless pirates: sympathy, perhaps even pity.
“Okay. I get it. The nukes are yours.” The Pirate Queen looked at me sadly, almost embarrassed to have to ask her next question. “What do I get?”
“This.” I fished a ceramic data key from the breast pocket of my jumpsuit and held it up for her to inspect.
“What’s on there? Money?”
“No. The Governor’s command codes for Adam’s Orbital.”
Suzie sat bolt upright in her chair. That had certainly gotten her undivided attention. “The command codes.”
“A private backdoor into every single system of the station. Life support, defence grid, traffic control, the commodities markets…” I let my voice trail off, letting Suzie fill in the rest of the blanks for herself.
“You could take over the entire station with that.” Suzie’s hands trembled with excitement on the table, the brandy quivering in her glass.
“That would be the easy part. The difficult bit would be keeping hold of it. Zemina would send everything she had against you to get the station back. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m hoping she’ll do.”
“So the takeover would be a distraction. When the cat’s away…”
“The mouse keeps the home fires burning. Literally.”
“Roche, I think I might love you.” Suzie sighed, smiling at me wistfully. “It’s risky, but I like it. You really should join my crew. You’re wasted in an honest line of work.”
“You’d have a few hours before Zemina would be able to coordinate a response, and the defence grid of the station is capable of fending off a couple of Interdictors. You’d be able to redirect thousands of tonnes of cargo to your group’s ships in that time. Not to mention asset strip the shipyard.”
“I’ve always wanted to fly an Imperial Cutter.” Suzie sat back in her chair, looking thoughtful.
“Do we have a deal?”
“Hell, yes.” Suzie refilled both our glasses from the bottle of vintage brandy. “Let’s drink to it.”

Chapter Ten – Euryale: Converse Landing

Three days later, Suzie and I made the exchange at Converse Landing, a remote, low population mining settlement on an airless rocky planetoid orbiting a majestic gas giant with a glittering ring system made of ice and rock. Thunda Sue’s stolen Federal Corvette, re-christened Ramirez, and Fell From The Top(…) occupied the town’s only two large landing pads. Suzie drove over to my ship in a Scarab SRV, loaded with just a single standard one tonne cargo pod. As I used an exoskeleton to transfer the pod from Thunda’s vehicle to the open cargo hatch, Suzie invited herself aboard.
“Someone’s got to show you how to arm the nukes, right?” she said, ascending the staircase underneath the fuselage of the Imperial Clipper.
I felt more than heard the whirring of the cargo autoloader process the pod, moving it automatically out of the gripping arms of my suit through the cargo scoop and into one of the empty racks, deep within the ship. I returned the exoskeleton to the maintenance shed next to the pad and jogged with long-limbed bounds back to my ship, taking advantage of the planetoid’s low gravity.
“ASTRA, where is she?” I asked my AI, worried that Thunda had an ulterior motive for wanting to come aboard.
“Cargo rack #1, my lord.”
I hurried aft to see what Suzie was up to, removing my helmet and leaving it on the galley table on the way. The Pirate Queen walked alongside the pod as it was shunted along the loading mechanism until it came to rest at the top end of the cargo rack. Suzie took off her own flight helmet, laying it down delicately on the floor. “Here they are, Roche. Come and see what those codes have bought you.”
Suzie opened the pod’s access hatch, automatically activating the internal lights. The contents within were not impressive. A single armoured case three metres long, one and a half metres wide by one metre deep was secured in the centre of the chamber with acceleration-resistant webbing. “That’s it?”
“That’s it.” Suzie beckoned me into the pod after her. “Let me show you how it works.”
Thunda directed me to the right hand end of the case, pointing out one of the two heavy latches sealing the armoured container. I needed both hands to overcome the stiffness in the mechanism as we opened both clips, needing our combined strength to lift open the lid of the case. Four plain silver spheres, each one only 40 centimetres in diameter, rested in a supportive foam tray to protect the tactical fusion warheads from shock damage. I motioned to pick one up when Suzie gave me a stern warning.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you. The uranium primer charge is radioactive.” Suzie pointed me instead to the control terminal that set next to the warheads inside the case. “Don’t be fooled by the size. What you’ve got here are four two-stage nuclear warheads, giving you a combined yield of a fifth of a megaton.”
“What kind of blast radius am I looking at?”
“If you set all four off simultaneously, anyone within two klicks is going to get a potentially fatal dose of gamma rays. And if you set it off on the ground, any building within a kilometre of the blast site will be rubble.”
“That’ll do.” I nodded with satisfaction.
“You’re going after Senator Torval’s estate on Synteini A2, I take it?”
“Her station’s too well protected. Calliope holds more sentimental value for her, anyway. That’s where Zemina has her art collection.”
“She won’t be there, you know.”
“I don’t want to kill her, Suzie. I want to humiliate her. Make her suffer.”
“Roche, stop it, you’re turning me on.” Suzie was only half-joking. She shifted her feet as if she was standing on burning charcoal.
“I’m serious. Zemina might be above Imperial law, but no-one should escape justice. Me destroying her home, you taking over one of her space stations… That’ll ensure she never becomes Emperor.”
“If you do this, you’ll never be able to fly in Empire space again.”
“So what? With Laure gone, there’s nothing left here for me anyway.”
Suzie frowned before returning my attention to the control computer for the warheads. “All four warheads are slaved to this terminal. Since you’re going to be doing a bombing run, I recommend that you set the warheads to detonate on an altimeter setting, rather than a timer.” Her thin fingers danced over the terminal’s touchscreen, bringing up the menu to set the height I wanted the bombs to detonate at. “Do you want an airburst or ground burst?”
“Ground burst.”
“That’s going to create a lot of fallout.” Suzie said, still frowning. The bombs worked by using a specially shaped fissile shell of uranium to compress the deuterium and tritium fusion charge in the centre of the warhead, the fission explosion creating enough temperature and pressure to initiate the runaway fusion reaction that did the real damage. Exploding the bomb on the ground meant that the radioactive remains of the fission charge would bind with dust and dirt particles, contaminating the area for hundreds of square kilometres around the blast site.
“Good. The longer I can keep Zemina from rebuilding her estate, the better.”
“Roche, I underestimated you. I never pictured you as the vengeful type.” Suzie told me, admiringly. “Ground burst it is. You’ll be pleased to know that the warheads don’t get armed until the cargo pod is ejected from the bay. Dump the pod at the right time and the altimeter will do the rest.”
“Thanks, Suzie.” I said as we resealed the weapons case and exited the cargo pod.
As I re-sealed the pod, the Pirate Queen eased against my side, caressing the back of my neck seductively. “You’re not planning on doing something stupid, are you, Roche?”
“Like what?” I backed away from her, only to find myself pinned against the rail of the nearest cargo rack.
“A suicide run.” Suzie’s arms slipped around me, gripping my hips and pulling me against her. “It’d be such a tragic waste of talent.”
Suzie kissed me before I had a chance to reply, her tongue snaking past my lips, probing hesitantly into my mouth. Unexpectedly strong hands pressed my hips against hers firmly, her long, taut fingers gripping my buttocks hard. Her breath tasted sweet, complimenting the vanilla and jasmine scent of her perfume. For a moment, I lost myself in her embrace, my hands encircling her shoulders unthinkingly and sliding down the curve of her back, enjoying the sensation of feeling a willing body against mine again. Eventually our lips parted, both of us needing air.
“Are you sure I can’t persuade you to join my crew? I have a very generous employee incentive scheme.” Suzie asked, kissing me again, biting my lower lip and giving it a short, hard tug between her teeth.
I drew breath nervously, sensing that she was a moment away from taking the decision into her own hands, peeling off our flight suits and going for it on one of the cargo racks. Unwilling to offend the deadliest pirate in the sector, I temporised. “Suzie, don’t think that I’m not flattered…”
“And so you should be.” Suzie said, nibbling my right ear lobe. “I like a challenge, Roche, but you can’t keep a lady waiting forever. You’ll find that I’m very diverting. Even if it’s just for the one night.”
“I don’t think that’d be a good idea.” I replied, trying to extricate myself from her embrace as gently and diplomatically as I could.
“Your loss, Roche.” Suzie lamented with a lopsided smile, taking a step back. “One day I’m going to stop asking, and you’ll regret it.”
“Speaking of diversions…”
“Yes, the command codes. And I think you owe me a drink while we discuss how my takeover of Adams Orbital fits in with your assault on Calliope.”
I directed the Pirate Queen to the galley, inviting her to take a seat while I selected the most expensive bottle of Lavian Brandy from my supply, a fifty year old vintage from 3256.
“Oh my, Roche. Someone might think you were trying to get me drunk.” Suzie said, approving of my choice.
“Surely not.” I smiled, retrieving two heavy-bottomed crystal tumblers from the dishwasher unit and pouring us each a generous double measure of the heady amber liquid. “As if I could compromise your judgement…”
“I’d rather you compromised something else…” Suzie muttered, her eyes closed as she savoured the aroma of the brandy.
I let the comment pass, instead starting negotiations to agree how best to coordinate Suzie’s takeover of the Coriolis station with my attack on Zemina’s estate, so that we would both get what
we wanted. It took over an hour of discussion and three quarters of the bottle of brandy, but we finally reached an agreement. Suzie’s crew would spend the next four days gradually infiltrating the station, getting into a position where they could quickly seize control of the commodities market, defence grid, the traffic control tower and the shipyard facility, as soon as Suzie used the backdoor codes. She would also have ships in place at Lagerkvist Station to monitor the activity of Synteini’s System Security force and alert Suzie when the Interdictor cruiser usually stationed there got redeployed to Beta-1 Tucanae. As soon as Suzie’s people took over Adams Orbital, Zemina would send everything she had in the region to take the station back, giving me the opportunity to slip into Synteini and nuke her Calliope estate. The complete and utter destruction of the Senator’s estate happening so soon after the loss of one of the space stations under her control would be a devastating blow to her image and political ambitions in the Empire.
“That’ll work. It’s a good plan.” I emptied the bottle of brandy, topping off our glasses.
“You’re forgetting one thing, Roche.”
“What’s that?”
“I do actually need the codes.” Suzie reminded me, chuckling.
“Yes, of course. The code key.” I stood, wavering tipsily as I went to retrieve it from the terminal in my quarters. “I’ll go get it.”
I didn’t hear Suzie follow me into my stateroom and almost had a heart attack when I turned around from my desk to find her standing only a few centimetres behind me. Her hand closed over mine, teasing the chip from my fingers delicately.
“Thanks for this.” Suzie whispered, keeping hold of my hand and slipping her other arm around my waist to stand with me, chest to chest. Unsure what to do with my free hand, I placed it in the small of her back, feeling rather unnerved by her broad, hazy smile. “Last chance, Roche.”
Suzie’s lips found mine, hot, sweetly moist and hungry. This time I didn’t put up any resistance.

Chapter Eleven – Synteini: Deep Space

After nearly a week of preparation, it was finally time. It had taken half a day for me to recover from the hangover of sharing the bottle of Lavian Brandy with Suzie, but that wasn’t nearly so bad as the other aches and pains in my muscles and joints that my night with the Pirate Queen had left me with. I felt like I’d been mauled by a Leestian Wildcat, though I vaguely recalled enjoying the experience immeasurably at the time. She had already skipped the system by the time I woke up the next day, leaving behind only a short, handwritten message.
Thanks for a diverting evening.
We had kept in touch via Thunda’s hyperwave text network, Suzie keeping me up to date with her crew’s infiltration of Adams Orbital, while I spent the time getting my ship refitted for the bombing run on Zemina’s ranch and estate. Due to their reduced effective range, lasers were a poor choice for atmospheric combat, especially if there was any chance of bad weather, so I replaced Fell From The Top(…)’s weapons with something more appropriate for air-to-air combat. Two multi-cannon turrets now occupied the Class 3 wingtip hardpoints. The immense, five-barrelled weapons were capable of independently tracking different targets and they fired 120mm depleted uranium-tipped sabots able to shred the armour of an Imperial Cutter in seconds. I had opted for turrets rather than gimballed weapons as deep in the atmosphere of Synteini A2, I would want to take the fastest, most direct route in and out of the restricted airspace around Calliope. The Imperial Clipper wasn’t designed for tight atmospheric manoeuvring, so I would need turrets to keep any potential defence forces off my tail. On the Class 2 underwing hardpoints I had briefly considered opting for a pair of Plasma Accelerators, just in case the Senator had any large ships defending her property, but Suzie’s contacts in Synteini had reported that Zemina only used Imperial Fighters to secure the airspace surrounding her ranch. In the end, I decided to compromise, choosing to mount one gimballed multi- cannon on one of the Class 2 hardpoints and a rack of 24 heat-seeking missiles on the other. As a further precaution, I swapped out one of the shield booster modules for a point defence turret, just in case I encountered a SysSec ship with their own missile rack.
With my own preparations complete, I had jumped into Synteini two days before we were scheduled to start the hostile takeover at Adams Orbital, dropping immediately out of supercruise into realspace, where my ship was practically undetectable, skirting the fringes of Synteini A’s corona. I waited, napping fitfully on the flight deck, waiting for the go ahead message from the Pirate Queen that would commence the operation.
I had to admit that I was impressed with Thunda Sue’s organisation. As well as steadily building up her presence in Adams Orbital over the past five days – she now had thirty-six ships and their crews on site, crews that had used the last 48 hours to learn the layout of the station intimately – Thunda also had five ships in Synteini; two to keep watch on the movements of INV Duval’s Might, the Interdictor cruiser standing guard outside Lagerkvist Station, and a wing of three ships patrolling in supercruise to monitor the activity of the local SysSec patrols. The arrival of so many of Suzie’s ships in Adams Orbital hadn’t gone unnoticed (it had even been reported on GalNet), but while they weren’t breaking the law, all the local SysSec could do was increase the number of patrols in the system. They probably had no idea that Suzie’s real target was the Coriolis station itself. Not that she would risk being on Adams Orbital itself during the takeover – she was far too savvy for that – the
Pirate Queen would coordinate the operation from the relative safety of her Federal Corvette in the neighbouring system of Jotunheim. Eventually, the signal from Ramirez came.
Here we go. Good luck, everyone. Remember your targets.
Within minutes, confirmations began to come through as Suzie’s crew assumed control of Adams Orbital’s key systems, one by one.
Traffic control secure.
Defence grid secure.
Shipyard and outfitting secure.
Commodities market secure.
Life support secure.
Comms system secure.
Reactor control secure.
Good job everyone. Suzie responded. Now the fun begins. Prioritise the Imperial Cutters, Clippers and Type-9s. I want them all, preferably full of platinum and palladium. Failing that, pack ’em with high tech goods. Kit them out, too. A-spec the lot. Senator Torval’s paying the bill. You’ve got one hour before I tell GalNet that the station is mine.
“Quick work.” I said, flexing my fingers. It wouldn’t be long now before I got the all clear to commence my run to Synteini A2. Forty minutes later the first messages started to come through that the crews on Adams Orbital were beginning to launch in their stolen ships.
Cutter #1, launching now. Eight more are right behind me.
Any sign of movement from that Interdictor yet? Suzie asked.
Not yet. It’s holding station 30 klicks from the Coriolis. the Cutter pilot replied. I don’t think they’ve figured out we’ve flipped the station.
They’ll figure it out soon enough. Get your ships and cargoes clear before the plasma really starts to hit the fan.
After another quarter of an hour, Thunda’s crew had liberated nine Imperial Cutters, seven Type-9 Heavy freighters and twelve Imperial Clippers, spiriting them out of the system before anyone had realised that the Empire was no longer in control of the station. The remaining eight teams Suzie had on the station were the real thrill-seekers, the ones after extreme hazard pay. Now that her payday had been secured, Suzie was about to poke Zemina’s pride with a very sharp stick.
Get ready, gentlemen. I just leaked the news to GalNet. Expect some very hot company.
Looking forward to it, Thunda. We’re all warmed up and raring to go.
Don’t push it too long. Remember the exit plan. You can’t get paid if you’re dead. Suzie reminded them.
I had ASTRA bring up the GalNet feed on the HUD.
Breaking News: Audacious heist by Thunda Crew in progress at Beta-1 Tucanae
Accompanying the rolling text was a video of Thunda Sue sitting in the command chair of her Federal Corvette.
“Hi, I’ve got a message for Senator Zemina Torval. I’ve just stolen somewhere between four and five billion credits from you in ships, equipment and cargo. And your fabulously effective SysSec forces didn’t even lift a finger to stop me. Adams Orbital is my station now. If you want it back, come and get it.” Suzie signed off by blowing a kiss to the camera.
“Oh, wow. ZING!” I laughed out loud. “Talk about stirring up the hornet’s nest.”
Heads up. The Interdictor at Lagerkvist just jumped out. reported one of Suzie’s pilots docked at the station.
Synteini is clear. All the SysSec just mysteriously disappeared. the lead commander of the supercruise patrol wing added.
Now’s your chance, Roche. Go nuke the wicked witch’s house and we can all get out of here.
Spooling up my FSD now. Thanks, Suzie. Good luck with those Interdictors.
“Frame shift drive charging.” ASTRA intoned as I pointed the ship’s nose away from the star and towards the Earth-like planet only 122 light seconds away. “Activating in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… engage.”
I checked my radar and saw only four contacts, the patrol wing of three pirates flying interference to occupy any rogue SysSec ships, and a lone vessel close to Lagerkvist Station. I selected it on my contact list, identifying the ship as a Vulture heavy fighter. I recognised the commander’s name – Vikki Lyell – it was one of the pirates Suzie had tasked to keep watch of activity in the starport. I didn’t recall it being part of the plan that she should exit the station, but with a clear run at the planet, I put any doubts at the back of my mind. It would only take me a couple of minutes to reach the planet’s atmosphere and then I’d have more than enough to keep my brain occupied. I kept one eye on the messages coming in from Beta-1 Tucanae, wondering how long Suzie’s people would be able to hold the station. She had also been cryptic about how she would get the last of her people out of the starport, by which point we anticipated that the surrounding space would be seething with Interdictors, Imperial Fighters and SysSec ships.
I think the captain of the Interdictor just woke up. We’ve got incoming.
Defence grid is hot. Those fighters don’t stand a chance.
The Interdictor is on the move, too. Closing in.
If it gets too close, we’ll give it a bloody nose.
Synteini A2 filled my canopy and I used the coastlines to orient myself, selecting Calliope from the list of points of interest on my navigation computer. The Senator’s ranch was just over the horizon. I didn’t want to breach the restricted airspace too soon, opting instead to start my approach from a few hundred kilometres away. I checked for radar contacts and saw that the space before me was still clear. Again I noticed the pirate Vulture, this time she was following me closely, only a few dozen kilometres off my tail. This was definitely not part of the plan. I checked the pirate commander’s combat rating. Lyell was only ranked Novice, but the Vulture was a capable ship. I decided to open a direct ship-to-ship text channel.
Hi. What are you doing back there?
Greetings, Roche. Nasr is keeping watch up on the station, so I’m not needed up there. Thought you might appreciate a little backup.
Looking for some action, huh?
Always. Besides, Thunda told me you really know how to treat a lady. I’ll help keep the fighters off your back if you buy me dinner. Sound like a good deal to you?
Deal. Just mind who you shoot at.
Hey, I’m not some greenhorn, you know. I’ve got a few hundred kills. I know what I’m doing.
Okay, Lyell. Fine. Form up on my right wing and stay close.
Roger that, commander. And it’s Vikki.
We dropped out of orbital cruise two hundred and fifty kilometres from Calliope, well outside of the restricted zone around the estate.
Bring it down to the deck. 100 metres. I instructed my wingmate.
Under the radar. Clever.
As I closed on my target, the messages still filtered through from Adams Orbital, where events had started to escalate wildly.
Two more Interdictors just jumped in. That’s four now. We’re not going to be able to keep them at bay for long.
Multiple wings of SysSec on approach. If they rush the letterbox en mass, some of them might get through.
Defence grid is starting to take damage. I’ve lost fire control on three guns. No, make that five.
I think it’s time for you to start thinking of getting out of there. Suzie interjected, worried about her people. Roche, how are you doing?
I’ll be done in about five minutes. On final approach now.
You heard him, boys. Time for you to go.
Aye, aye, Thunda. Disabling the safeties on the main reactor now. It’ll go supercritical in 10 minutes.
Sound the evac alarm and get to your ships. See you back at base.
“So that’s how they planned to get out. Hide the wolves amongst the sheep. Odysseus himself would be proud.” I muttered to myself, shaking my head in wonder. In the chaos of the evacuation, the mass exodus of ships from the station would allow the remaining pirates to hide in plain sight and flee the doomed station. The SysSec forces wouldn’t dare risk accidentally shooting down innocent traders by mistake. It was a brilliant conclusion to a flawlessly executed heist. There would be a lot of happily drunk pirates back at Thunda’s base before the night was out.
“Entering the no-fly zone now. Distance to target: 100 kilometres.” ASTRA reported, refocusing me on the present.
We’re getting close now, Vikki. Stay sharp.
Like a razor.
I glanced over at the Vulture on my right wing, watching as the fighter deployed hardpoints. I certainly couldn’t fault her spirit, or her choice of weapons. Two Class 3 gimballed multi-cannons settled into position over the mandibles bracing the Vulture’s cockpit. I activated my own weapons systems, the turrets on my wingtips swivelling into position. It was then that an unexpected radio message came through.
“Roche, what have you done?” Senator Zemina Torval’s voice tore at me like a knife. “The debacle at Adams Orbital is your work, I presume? And why are you trespassing on my estate?”
“Ah, Senator. A pleasure as always. I’m just making a delivery. A thermonuclear delivery.”
“Roche, you can’t!” For the first time in my experience, Zemina’s calm veneer of superiority seemed to crack. “I have over three hundred people working on the estate!”
“Maybe you should have thought about that before you had the two people closest to me killed.”
“I swear you’ll never be able to show your face in a civilised system again. I’m going to destroy you, Roche.”
“Sorry, Senator, but I’m a little busy here. I’m going to miss our chats.” I cut the channel and noted the distance remaining to my target. 80 kilometres.
Let’s get a little altitude, Vikki. See what we’re up against. 3000 metres.
Roger that.
I engaged my afterburners and ventral thrusters, my Imperial Clipper climbing sluggishly into the sky. The Vulture matched my manoeuvre easily, glued thirty metres from my right wingtip.
New sensor contacts. I make twelve of them, Roche. Looks like they’re all Imperial Fighters.
Targets marked. I’ll start at #1, you start at #12 and hopefully we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.
The tiny, rapier-thin fighters were fast and agile, but were little more than a cockpit attached to a set of thrusters, with twin plasma pulse cannons mounted beneath the nose and a pair of streamlined thruster pods at the end of a fragile-looking set of delta wings. Individually, they weren’t a threat to my Clipper or Lyell’s Vulture, but I wanted to thin out the squadron before they got too close. I felt my heart rate start to increase as I armed my rack of heat-seeking missiles, the adrenalin beginning to pump through my arteries.
Our combined closing speed was nearly 700m/s, so I knew I’d only have the opportunity to launch an initial salvo of six missiles from the rack before the fighters got in behind us, then I would have to hope that my turrets finished the job before my shields failed. I locked on to the first fighter and began launching missiles as soon as I was in range. Just three seconds later, the rack purred as it reloaded, the vapour trails from the missiles diverging as they closed in on the scattering Imperial Fighters. The sky lit up with pulse cannon fire, just three kilometres separating my wing from Zemina’s defence force. I returned fire with my turrets and my gimballed multi-cannon, feeling their recoil through the base of my flight seat. I quick glance to my right showed me that Vikki had also brought her weapons to bear on the second half of the fighter squadron, but I redirected my attention back to my own targets, rather than worry about my wingmate. Five of the six missiles found their victims, turning four of the fighters into showers of flaming debris, while the fifth was luckier. The fighter’s starboard wing pod crumbled, sending the tiny craft into a violent spin. The Imperial pilot just managed to regain control before their ship ploughed into the surface of the savannah below. Two seconds later, the Vulture and my Clipper whipped past the Imperial squadron on full afterburners, buying us some distance while the fighters regrouped. I checked my scanner, surprised to see only four enemy contacts, including the wounded fighter now limping away from the combat zone, remained.
Did you see that, Roche? Chalk up three kills for me!
Don’t get too excited, there’s still four more of them out there.
Three and a half, more like. Want me to take the half?
No, stay in formation. He’ll never catch us now.
But the other guys behind us?
That’s why I brought turrets. Keep it tight and we’ll be fine.
Copy that.
“ASTRA, the turrets are yours, fire at will.” I ordered my AI, keeping my eye on the horizon, knowing that the Calliope mansion would be in sight in just over a minute.
“Yes, my lord. Approaching target area. Drop point in 90 seconds.”
I concentrated on the HUD, gaining more altitude to ensure a clean release for the cargo canister containing the four fusion warheads. I was so focused that I didn’t even hear the rapid, thudding reports from my multi-cannon turrets as plasma bolts flashed past the canopy.
Taking fire. Shields down to 60%.
Hang on, Vikki. We’re almost there.
“Target destroyed.” ASTRA reported, the turret fire having finally started to make its mark.
Shields at 40%. Another 10 and I’m going evasive.
No! Wait. Don’t let them split us up.
“Target destroyed. 40 seconds to drop point.” ASTRA said as another Imperial Fighter went down, its cockpit shattered and burning. Outnumbered and outgunned, the last fighter broke off its attack, retreating out of the range of my turrets.
He’s disengaging! I don’t believe it!
Okay, Vikki. You’ve done well, but now’s the time for you to get clear. Go for orbit now.
See you up there. You still owe me dinner.
The Vulture lit its afterburners, climbing ballistically like a rocket, racing up into the cloudless blue sky. I started to shed velocity as I saw Calliope come into view over the crest of the hill. The mansion was superficially similar to Eurynome, except much larger, each wing of the house was double the length of my own neo-Palladian house. Inside were thousands of priceless artworks and archaeological artefacts, Zemina’s pride and joy. I kept my hands steady on the flight controllers as the drop timer ticked steadily down to zero. The aiming reticule on the HUD turned crimson and I jabbed the touchscreen on my right to jettison the only cargo pod aboard my ship. I didn’t wait for ASTRA’s confirmation of a successful release, I simply pushed the throttle fully forward with my left hand and ignited my afterburners, pitching the nose vertical in a high-g boost turn.
“ASTRA, give me visual on the target.”
I was just able to pick out the tumbling cargo pod, plummeting gracelessly to the ground. The pod struck the flat roof of the mansion and the video feed ASTRA had projected onto the HUD turned pure white. A short moment later I felt the Clipper jolt as the shockwave from the blast overtook my vessel.
“Rest in peace, Laure. Rest in peace, Tatiana.” I said, closing my eyes as the sky gradually dulled to blackness as I gained altitude. When I opened them again, the sense of triumph I had expected from my revenge against Zemina hadn’t materialised. Instead I felt hollow. It was an empty, Pyrrhic victory, that had cost me my future in the Empire. I pushed away the sensation of loneliness when I remembered that I wasn’t out of danger yet. I had to get out of the system and Empire space as fast as possible. A quick check of the scanner revealed that, as promised, Vikki was waiting for me in orbit, her Vulture falling back into formation on my wing.
Nice firework show, Roche. So, what now?
Now we go our separate ways. I need to get out of the Empire.
Oh, no. You promised me dinner. I’m sticking to you like glue until I get it. I expect steak, truffles…
I hope you’re ready for a long trip, then. Because I’m not stopping until I reach Alliance space.
I came prepared, Roche. I’m packing a fuel scoop. I even know a good restaurant at Conway City.
Where’s that?
LTT 4961. Neutral territory. Probably the safest place for you this side of Sag A* right now.
Okay, Vikki. You win. Let’s go.
You know Roche, I think this could be the start of a beautiful partnership.
Ironically, the limited jump range of Lyell’s Vulture actually made it easier for us to avoid the security patrols Zemina sent out across her sphere of influence. Instead of taking a direct route out of the Empire, we had to zigzag between independent and uninhabited systems to reach the Empire- Federation border. There things got even more complicated, as I was still the most-wanted fugitive in Federation space, following my strike on the Groombridge 34 shipyards. It took almost two days of frenzied jumping and scooping, skirting around the fringes of Federation space, but eventually we made it without incident to Conway City. As we received cordial permission to dock from the flight traffic controllers, Vikki sent me a final text message.
See you at La Belle Fleur in an hour. Don’t forget to dress up.
Exhausted from the journey, I really wasn’t in the mood to go out. I showered and changed regardless, removing the medals and rank insignia from the shoulders and breast of my Viscount uniform before slipping on the elaborately embroidered jacket. I arrived a few minutes early and ordered myself an Eranin Pearl Whisky to pass the time. I stared down into the shimmering silver liquid, searching for answers, as I pondered whether I should turn Vikki down gently, or just try and enjoy myself.
I didn’t look up when soft footsteps approached my table. “Buy a girl a drink? Though it’ll have to be non-alcoholic, I’m afraid.”
My mouth fell open as I recognised the voice. My head snapped up and I did a double-take, blinking. The blonde hair styled in a simple, straight chin length bob was unfamiliar, but the pale-blue eyes, high cheekbones and smile were unmistakeable, as was the slight hint of swelling beneath her long, loose blue silk dress. I gaped at her for a minute before my lips were able to articulate words again.”H-how?”
“Aemon, close your mouth. You’re attracting flies.” Laure castigated me playfully, sitting on my lap to let me embrace her. We kissed ferociously, my hands stroking her back, needing to check that she wasn’t a cruel hallucination conjured up by my tired brain.
I stopped to take a breath and held her beautiful face in my hands. “Laure, your ship… I thought you were dead.”
“I was careful.” Laure smiled back, her arms wrapped tight around my shoulders.
“But they had video of you going on board. They found your DNA in the wreckage. Your… remains.”
“Not mine. Silvano’s not the only person who can have clones grown on request, you know. Though this one wasn’t live. Just… tissue.”
“You faked your own death?”
“I’ve always had the option in mind if I ever needed a Plan B. I sent my ship out on autopilot and hacked the footage from the hangar bay cameras to fool everyone into thinking I was still on board. But I never thought Zemina would have the stones to order me killed. Guess I was wrong about that one.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m sorry, Aemon. I couldn’t take the risk. Maybe I wanted to see what you’d do, but I couldn’t let word that I was alive get back to Zemina, it would have ruined everything.”
“How did you know that I’d go for Calliope?”
“My love, I’ve known you all your life. You’re nothing if not utterly predictable. Once I gave you the codes to Adams, I knew there was only one person you’d go to.”
“Suzie.” I swallowed nervously. “Uh, did she really tell you how I treat a lady?”
“Oh, relax. That was just part of our deal so that she’d let me in on the operation at Synteini. She gave me some tips, actually. We can try them out, later.” Laure kissed me, biting my lip.
“Okay, now I’m scared.” I replied, with trepidation.
“I love you, you dummy. I’m just glad to have you back again without that interfering old bitch getting in the way.”
“So what do we do now? We can’t stay here forever, Federation space is out of the question and we’ll never be able to go back to the Empire.”
“Don’t worry, Aemon. I have a plan for that, too.” Laure said, pulling me to her so that we could kiss again.

Epilogue – M80: Unknown Earth-Like World

In the seven years since Laure and I had fled the Empire we had traversed almost the entire length of the Carina arm of the Milky Way. I had landed Fell From The Top(…) on an untouched beach on a pleasantly warm Earth-like world on the fringes of the M80 globular cluster, some thirty-two thousand light years from the bubble of civilised space. Laure and I sat on improvised deck chairs in the shade beneath the nose of the ship, keeping a watchful eye on Vanessa, as she splashed happily in the surf, leaping inquisitively into rock pools to see what was hidden beneath the stones.
“Lorcán is hungry today.” Laure said as she shifted our infant son from one breast to the other, cradling his tiny body as he suckled voraciously. Laure tickled the pale, downy hair behind his ear with a gentle fingertip, smiling.
“Well, it’s very tiring, lying down all day on the beach.” I stroked Laure’s hair affectionately, glad that she had re-grown it to almost waist length, her natural raven-black curls shimmering in the light scattered from the bright white sands. I called out to my daughter when I saw her head disappear behind a rock as she knelt down in a pool by the water’s edge. “Nessa! If you find anything with claws or spines, remember not to touch it!”
“Yes, daddy…” was her exasperated reply. I could hear my daughter rolling her eyes without needing to see her pretty, elfin face. Nessa had already learned that lesson the hard way almost a year ago. If the ship’s medical supplies hadn’t contained a universal anti-venom, she wouldn’t have lived to learn from her mistake.
Once again, Laure’s foresight had proved inspired, saving our daughter’s life. Not only had Laure overseen the refit of Fell From The Top(…) from a combat ship to an exploration vessel during our brief stay at the shipyard in the fiercely independent system of LTT 4961, but my wife had also ensured that we had enough food and drink in stasis pods aboard to last us for sixty years, along with clothes for all seasons, medicines and first aid equipment, survival gear for every conceivable environment, a vehicle hangar containing two SRVs and an industrial quality 3D printer, capable of producing almost anything imaginable, given the right raw materials. Laure had even left room in the cargo racks for a few luxuries, including five tonnes of my favourite wine and five tonnes of Eranin Pearl Whisky. Though I suspected she might be regretting having brought along the latter, as after a particularly liquid evening spent by a campfire under romantic starlight and the glittering, arched ice rings of a nearby gas giant, Laure had become unexpectedly pregnant with our son. My ears still rang with the terrible oaths she had sworn during the ten hour labour and birth that she would mete out on me, if I was ever stupid enough to do this to her again.
“Hey, little man.” Laure cooed, caressing Lorcán’s neck gently and rhythmically, coaxing him to close his sapphire blue eyes. “Do you want a little sleep now?”
“You’re so good with him.” I leant over to kiss my wife, happy as I’d ever felt in my entire life. “You’re a great mother.”
“Well, I had plenty of practice with you.” Laure said, looking down again at our perfect baby boy, as if she still didn’t quite believe our second child was real. “You, on the other hand, are a terrible father. Go play with your daughter.”
“Yes, mother.” I kissed Laure long and hard, reluctant to leave her side. Laure gave me a contented smile as she cradled our son, rocking him gently in her arms. I found Vanessa digging away with her hands in the rock pool and tousled her shoulder-length brown hair as I crouched next to her. “Hey, tiger. Found anything interesting?”
“Not yet, daddy. But now you’re here we can look twice as quickly!” Nessa beamed up at me with a killer smile and luminous green eyes, her enthusiasm seemingly infinite.
As the sun began to set, Laure boarded the ship to lay Lorcán down in his cot for the night. Nessa had finally started getting bored of hunting for creatures in the rock pools, so I found us some sticks to draw with on the wet sand as the tide retreated back out to sea. Unable to compete with Nessa’s fantastical imagination as she carved out crude pictures of dragons and warrior queens, I stuck to the things I knew and traced three outlines of ships into the sand.
“Come over here, princess. Let’s see how many you can recognise.” I pointed to the first silhouette, which from a certain angle more resembled a wedge of cheese than a ship.
“Sidewinder!” Nessa exclaimed confidently.
“Very good. How about this one?” The second outline had a long, stiletto sharp nose and fuselage, with thin, forward-swept wings.
“Excellent. Getting harder now.” The next outline had a flat, triangular nose that opened out onto a broad lifting body fuselage, which came to an abrupt stop at the rear of the vessel, without winglets.
“Which type?”
“Mark III?” Nessa added doubtfully, her nose wrinkling as she dug deep into her memory.
“Good girl.” I hugged my daughter and she gave herself a congratulatory cheer and round of applause.
“These are too easy, daddy.” Nessa proclaimed. “Give me a more difficult one.”
“Okay, you asked for it.” This time I drew a small octagon, extended lines from each of the eight corners and traced a larger octagon around it to complete the silhouette.
“I don’t know this one. I’ve never seen it before.” Nessa said, staring at the shape in the sand thoughtfully.
“I didn’t think you would.” I replied, pleased to have outsmarted my precocious daughter on one occasion.
“It’s weird.” Nessa looked up and pointed, her eyes attracted by movement behind my back. “But it looks exactly like that.”
“What?” I turned around, to see where Nessa’s finger was pointing in the sky. My eyes widened and I grabbed my daughter, pulling her to me and covering her ears with my hands. “Oh, shit!”
The shockwave from the sonic boom blew us off our feet onto the sand as the immense grey vessel, easily twice as large as my own Imperial Clipper, flew over the beach at an altitude of less than two hundred metres. I dimly heard Nessa’s terrified scream, my own ears ringing from the concussion. I picked her up and carried her over my shoulder as I sprinted back to my ship. I sat her down in the acceleration chair that had been installed in the stateroom Nessa shared with Lorcán and kissed my daughter’s forehead, massaging her ears to try and take the pain away.
“Daddy, what was that?” Nessa whimpered, tears flowing down her cheeks. I kissed her again, relieved to see that the overpressure from the shockwave hadn’t ruptured her eardrums.
“A Thargoid warship. Get yourself strapped in. We’re going to need to leave in a hurry.” I waited only to see Nessa give me a nod of acknowledgement before running, still barefoot, to the bridge.
Laure was already in the co-pilot’s chair, activating the start-up sequence to bring the ship’s systems back up out of standby mode. I could see the warship’s turbulent wake pushing out waves on the ocean’s surface perpendicular to its flight path as it skimmed only a few metres above the water. The alien vessel was slowing rapidly and turning about. There was little doubt that we’d been spotted.
“ASTRA, how long until the thrusters come online?” Laure asked, punching controls frantically on her control board.
“Forty-five seconds, mistress.”
“He’ll be in weapons range in thirty.” I said grimly, jumping into the pilot’s seat and starting my pre- flight checks, my fingers taut on the HOTAS controllers.
“She.” Laure corrected, her voice unnaturally calm.
“Thargoids are all female, remember?”
“Oh, you really think now is the time to nitpick?” Laure and I exchanged a despairing smile, continuing to try and get the ship up and running, despite the seemingly futile situation we were in.
The Thargoid warship was unbelievably fast and agile for a vessel of its size, descending upon us before we could get either our engines or shield systems out of standby mode. It hovered menacingly three hundred metres in front of my ship, but the fatal weapons fire I was expecting didn’t come.
“My lord, we’re being hailed.” ASTRA reported, sounding as surprised as Laure and I were.
“Give me vox and video, if you’ve got it.” I told the AI, taking a deep breath to compose myself. “This is-“
“I know who you are, Viscount Roche. We’ve been watching you for some time.” My introduction was interrupted almost before it began. The voice was reassuringly human, as was the face attached to it. The commander of the warship wore an unmarked black flight suit and appeared to be in his early 50s, with just a hint of silver threaded through his dark brown hair. His features were bland and nondescript, save for a single livid pink scar down the length of his left cheek. “Sorry about the grandstand entrance, but I wanted to make sure that I got your attention.”
“You could have just sent a mail…” I suggested, wryly.
“Mails can be ignored. Warships on the other hand…” The commander replied, the barest hint of amusement in his eyes as he arched his left eyebrow. “I’ll give you twenty minutes to get your flight suits on and your ship ready for a short trip that I’ll be happy to escort you on.”
“A short trip to where?”
“All in good time, Viscount. All in good time.”
“And if I decline your escort?”
The commander smiled thinly, his eyes cold as ice. “I don’t believe you’d do that. This kind of offer only comes around once a lifetime. I’ll expect your reply in twenty minutes.”
The transmission cut off and I looked over at Laure before selecting the warship with my targeting computer. The name of the ship made my blood run cold. INRA Nemesis. “I thought the INRA was disbanded decades ago. Humans flying Thargoid warships… Whatever next?”
“Only one way to find out.” Laure said, sounding more excited than apprehensive, turning her head to gaze into my eyes from across the cockpit.
I studied the odd look on her face, frowning. “This wasn’t part of your plan, was it?”
Laure’s only reply was an enigmatic smile.