Thursday, December 24, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Twelve

Groombridge 34: Federation Shipyard

ASTRA woke us in the morning when she had finished her analysis of the shipyard's security arrangements. Karina and I dressed into our flight suits and sat side-by-side on the bridge, listening intently as the AI presented her findings. There were no obvious holes in the routine patrol schedules and routes that surrounded the colossal drydock where the Farragut-class battlecruiser was being constructed, but ASTRA had identified one weakness. The perimeter guards flew round the clock in six hour shifts, and during the changeover there was a five minute window where the active sensor coverage scanning the shipyard was entirely directed towards the centre of the solar system. It wasn't much of an opening, but one that was long enough to allow us to bring our cover asteroid through supercruise from the inner fringe of the Oort Cloud close enough to the shipyard to allow us to begin the infiltration in realspace. Then we would take advantage of a later shift change to commence the torpedo attack itself. ASTRA had calculated the approach practically to the millimetre.

"How close do you think we can get without being detected, ASTRA?"

"1.2 light seconds, my lord."

"That's a long way to travel in realspace." I grimaced. "If we disable the velocity restrictions on the flight computer, how fast do you think we could get this asteroid going?"

"In theory, we could get up to over 5 kilometres per second and still have enough fuel to extract to Ross 248." ASTRA replied. "But anything over 2.5 kilometres per second would raise suspicions as to not being a natural body this far out from Groombridge 34B."

"How long will it take to get from the infiltration point to the shipyard?"

"42 hours, give or take a few minutes, my lord." ASTRA said. Even the normally breezy AI sounded subdued at the prospect of trying to infiltrate such a heavily defended area, all too aware of our marginal chance of success. "A few extra seconds in supercruise could make a big difference, but it's far harder to track an object in realspace than it is in supercruise."

"Even though we've already disabled the ship's IFF transponder?" Karina asked. One of the highly illegal modifications that Agent Zeta had made to the ship was the ability for the ship's AI to either scramble or complete block the transmissions from the ship's IFF module. Installation of ship IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) was mandated by the Pilots' Federation, giving each ship a unique code held on the galaxy-wide Pilots' Federation database. The units were manufactured exclusively on the Pilots' Federation homeworld in Shinrarta Dezhra, self-powered and inviolable, broadcasting at all times on dedicated hyperwave frequencies that kept the system authorities aware of the location of the ships in the space under their control. While it was impossible to stop the units from broadcasting, the research scientists working for Imperial Intelligence had created the right mix of polarised meta-materials capable of distorting or blocking the hyperwave transmissions from the IFF unit. The IFF blocker needed to be used sparingly, even if it was only being used to scramble the ship ID. Signal outages of greater than 72 hours would attract unwanted attention from the Pilots' Federation, especially if the ship concerned wasn't under the command of a well-regarded explorer whose path often took them far beyond the fringes of occupied space.

"Within 5 light seconds of the installation there is a chance that the facility's perimeter scanners will be able to detect the ship's frame shift wake, regardless of whether the signal from the IFF unit is being jammed or not." ASTRA said, her disembodied voice clearly unhappy at the prospect. "The closer we get to the shipyard, the more likely we are to be discovered before we even make the transit to realspace."

"ASTRA's right, we can't afford to blow our cover before we even get in sight of the target. We'll have to hope no-one comes too close sniffing around the asteroid on our approach." I wasn't happy about spending nearly two days drifting through the outer reaches of the system, but if it was the only way of getting within range of the battlecruiser to launch the fusion warhead torpedoes, I would have to put up with it. “How close will we be able to ride the asteroid to the drydock before the defence force gets twitchy?”

“Anything closer than twenty kilometres will trigger a near-miss protocol by the perimeter defence force.”

“That's closer than I expected.”

“The system has a high incidence of cometary activity due to perturbations of the Oort Cloud by the binary stars, my lord. If they destroyed every comet nucleus that came within 100 kilometres of the shipyard, they wouldn't have enough ships left to establish a perimeter.”

“Makes you wonder why they picked such an active system to site a shipyard.” I said, wondering aloud.

“Primarily to discourage casual exploration of the outer system, my lord. The comets can pose a navigation hazard for inexperienced pilots.” ASTRA explained. “It also makes it easy to spot intruders – the location of the shipyard is common knowledge. Anyone without the proper clearances to approach within 1000 light seconds is liable to be interdicted and destroyed with no questions asked.”

“Just as well we're off the transponder grid, then.” Karina said with some relief, glancing over at me.

“So when do we leave to hit our window, ASTRA?”

“The next opportunity to begin our infiltration of the shipyard will be in two hours, thirty six minutes, my lord.” ASTRA replied. “I have taken the liberty of programming the navigation computer with the approach profile that will have the asteroid achieve its closest approach to the drydock just as the perimeter guards are changing shifts the day after tomorrow at 6am.”

“Thank you, ASTRA. We've got time for a good breakfast before we go, then.”

Karina and I ate sous vide bacon rashers and scrambled eggs directly from the cooking pouches in silence, the atmosphere in the galley thick with apprehension, before changing into our flight suits and settling back down into our respective seats on the flight deck. As the countdown ASTRA projected on the HUD ticked ever closer to the start of our mission, Karina and I prepped the systems of the ship for frame shift and combat. Once we dropped out of supercruise, we would be running only the most critical systems at minimal power to reduce our chance of being discovered by active sensor scans. This meant that it would get close to freezing in the cabin, though the heating elements woven through the fabric of our flight suits would fend off the worst of the cold.

Under ASTRA's direction, I had altered the configuration of the ship's frame shift field emitters, subtly altering the shape of the negative energy envelope it would use to propel the Clipper and its asteroid cocoon through compressed higher dimensions of space towards the shipyard. The AI assured me that the realignment would minimise the necessary damage to the frame shift drive itself and that the extra mass burden the bulk of the asteroid posed would not completely trash the drive. 

ASTRA assumed control of Fell From The Top(...)'s systems as the mission clock ticked down to zero. Our approach required a far greater precision than any human pilot could manage, so while I was reluctant to hand over complete control of the ship, even to one of the most sophisticated AIs in production, I didn't really have any choice. A miscalculation of the merest fraction of a second or a thousandth of an arcsecond in our course to the shipyard could arouse suspicions that would end in our swift destruction.

“Frame shift in five, four, three, two, one... mark.” ASTRA announced, her countdown in perfect synchronisation with the mission clock on the HUD.

The familiar luminescent wrinkling of the energies emitted from the frame shift drive coiled the space before the nose of the ship, though the normally circular tunnel was distorted laterally into an egg shape to accommodate the bulk of the asteroid. The transit to supercruise was accompanied by a horrific electronic screech of protest from the FSD, overloaded components in the drive sparking and shorting out spectacularly. I checked the damage on the modules board to my right hand side. The frame shift drive's functionality was down to 53% and dropping at a rate of 1% every 20 seconds.

“ASTRA, are we going to be able to reach the insertion point before the FSD gets damaged beyond repair?” I asked, concerned at the severity of the damage that had already been inflicted.

“Yes, my lord. Disengaging drives in four minutes, thirty-nine seconds.” ASTRA replied, trying to sound reassuring.

I had to keep my arms crossed, gripping my biceps tightly to prevent myself from fiddling with the flight controls. The tension was unbearable. With our external sensors offline, there was no way to know whether a patrol had somehow detected our supercruise wake and was even now moving into position to intercept. The first clue we would have would be the tell-tale metallic groaning of when an interdiction link was established, and by then, it would be too late to activate the ship's defensive systems to fight them off. Karina seemed remarkably calm in contrast to my nervousness, watching the HUD intently as ASTRA mimicked the course a cometary nucleus would take towards the inner system, dragged in away from the Oort Cloud by the resonant gravitational tugs from the system's two stars. I found her innocent curiosity oddly calming, the flicker of her green eyes back and forth over information illuminating the HUD distracting me from my worries about whether we had already been discovered. I turned my attention back to the right-hand dash panel to monitor the health of the frame shift drive. The rate of damage caused by hauling the mass of the asteroid through supercruise had doubled, and was getting worse the longer the FSD was active.

“ASTRA...” I began, now beyond mere concern and bordering on panic. If the frame shift drive was destroyed before we reached the insertion point, we would have a very difficult time explaining ourselves to the Federal security force.

“I know, my lord. ” ASTRA interrupted me, uncharacteristically. Even the AI sounded tense. “We're almost there. Exiting supercruise in 60 seconds.”

Fell From The Top(...) crashed back into realspace with just 17% of the functionality of the frame shift drive remaining. The strain on the module had caused some feedback damage to the thrusters and power plant, though thankfully both of these modules still had nearly 90% health, and could be easily repaired by the Automatic Field Maintenance Unit.

“Deactivating all systems.” ASTRA reported. “Entering repair mode.”

A faint whirring could be heard in the bowels of the ship as ASTRA activated the AFMU, the 3D printers synthesizing replacement parts out of the smart nanogels stored in the unit, bringing the power plant and thrusters back up to 100% health before expending the remaining nanogel reserves to restore as much functionality as possible to the frame shift drive. When the 3D printers ran dry, the FSD had been restored to 73% health, more than enough to exfiltrate the system without incurring further damage to the module.

Now that the ship had been repaired as much as was possible outside of a starport, our next job was to commence the burn that would accelerate the asteroid to skirt the fringes of the shipyard's perimeter. Here again we potentially vulnerable to detection, but it was unlikely that anyone would see the thrusters of the ship burning over one light second out from the nearest planet. ASTRA again resumed command of the ship's systems, reactivating the thrusters and repositioning the Clipper on the surface of the asteroid so that the impulse from the main thrusters would redirect the path of our cover into a corridor close enough to the battlecruiser to launch our strike, but far enough away from the shipyard itself not to raise suspicions and provoke the defence force into destroying the asteroid.

“Thruster safeguards disabled.” ASTRA said, sounding almost reluctant. By law, ships were normally limited to relative velocities of less than 500m/s, to compensate for the sluggish reactions of human pilots. ”Commencing insertion burn. Burn time five hours, fifty-three minutes, forty-one seconds. Final relative velocity, 2497.6m/s.”

While the thrusters were not designed to burn at maximum delta-v for such long periods, it was unlikely that the units would suffer any damage, as we would not be using the afterburners. ASTRA had also managed to maintain the orbital velocity of the asteroid around Groombridge 34B upon our exit from supercruise, meaning that we would need a much shorter burn time to achieve our desired intercept velocity. If we had exited supercruise at a relative velocity of zero compared to the drydock, it would have taken over 5000 hours of burn time to give enough of an impulse to the huge bulk of the asteroid to make the infiltration of the facility possible – way beyond the fuel carrying capacity of the Imperial Clipper, even if all of its internal compartments had been converted to fuel tanks. As it was, we would still burn through over half of our fuel reserves, but that would not compromise our choice of which system we would escape to. We would still have enough fuel for a maximum range jump. Karina and I kept watch through the canopy for the tell-tale signs of movement that would give away an approaching ship, our eyes constantly scanning the background of stars for sharp pinpricks of light in parallax motion against the fixed patterns of unfamiliar constellations. The limited view from the cockpit and the high level of concentration required was simultaneously draining and nerve shredding, building a sensation of paranoia that just out of sight an ambush force was being gathered, waiting until we were at our most vulnerable before striking.

Time burned away as slowly as our fuel reserves, the asteroid falling into the astronomically tiny interception corridor past the drydock containing our target, but still the attack did not come, though I shouldn't have been surprised. We were still over a day and a half away from the shipyard. Once the AI was satisfied with our velocity and trajectory, ASTRA turned the ship about and resettled Fell From The Top(...) back into the crater hollow we had carved out for her with the ship's beam laser. The insertion burn had given the asteroid a precisely calculated but natural-looking rotation around it's long axis of a fraction under seven hours. The hollow we were tucked into faced away from the centre of the system, keeping the ship in permanent shadow, but the precession of the asteroid around it's axis would allow us to visually survey more of the sky as our cover approached the shipyard. Thankfully, the rotation was slow enough not to cause any sensations of motion sickness.
With the manoeuvring phase of the insertion completed, ASTRA reduced the output of the power plant to a bare minimum, just enough to keep the life support systems running and give the torpedo pylons enough power to maintain the containment fields of the antimatter warheads in our experimental torpedoes. ASTRA kept the systems capacitors charged to allow a rapid startup of the main systems, including the FSD, thrusters, shields, weapons and sensors, but the modules themselves were completely shut down to minimise the ship's thermal signature. If the asteroid was actively scanned, we had to hope that the heavy metal content of the asteroid would disguise the presence of the ship.

We were now in the hands of chance, gravity and the precision of ASTRA's calculations. ASTRA had reported that we would reach closest approach 24.81 kilometres from the battlecruiser's drydock precisely 39 seconds into our five minute window during the changeover of security patrols. Karina and I sat on the bridge in alternate shifts of six hours, hunting for any signs of incoming ships, trying to snatch a few hours' rest or get something to eat when it was not our turn to keep watch. Frost began to form on the inside of the canopy as the thermal energy inside the ship seeped slowly through the spaceframe. I couldn't contain a smile as the moisture in my breath condensed in the air before me. The cold was invigorating, reminding me of the covert docking training exercises I had enjoyed in my youth at the flight school in Fotla. Karina seemed equally resilient to the cold, explaining when I asked that her former slave masters routinely kept the cargo container that had been her home at such temperatures, and that she had not had the benefit then of a heated flight suit.

“They liked to keep us cold, hungry and alone.” Karina said, her voice flat and with a sadness in her eyes. “So that we would look forward to being taken out.”

With little else to do while we kept watch for incoming ships, Karina told me about her life in captivity, opening up about her past for the first time, perhaps recognising that this might be the only time she would have an opportunity to speak with anyone about it. She had very little memory of events prior to the last couple of years. Presumably she had chosen to forget the trauma inflicted on her by the slavers as a defence mechanism, but she told me sickening tales of the depravity and tortures she had been subjected to by Theriault and her other recent masters. We sat together on the floor of the flight deck, behind the pilot and co-pilot stations, my arms around Karina both for emotional support and shared warmth. By now even the deck was covered in frost.

“They let us out of the pods every few days to be serving girls in the galley and we had to try and eat without being caught. It was a game to them. If they caught us stealing food from their plates, they would use us on the tables. But that was nothing compared to when slavers would celebrate after a raid, master. They drugged us in our pods and we would wake up tied down to benches, so they could use us for hours. Sometimes days. They would always make sure that it hurt, so that no matter how long they kept us like that, we couldn't sleep. But the worst thing was the screaming. If a girl screamed too much, they would blow her collar.”

“How many of you were there?” I asked, wiping away one of Karina's tears to stop it freezing in her eye.

“Ten, sometimes twenty. The slavers never minded if a couple of girls died each week. They could always find more.” Karina said, her tone utterly devoid of emotion. “I think some of them just liked killing.”

“How did you manage to survive that for so long?”

“It was better than being alone in the pod, master. I couldn't bear being alone. And afterwards they would let us wash and eat.” Karina buried her face in my shoulder as she recalled the memory, letting me stroke her hair and the back of her neck. “And the head pirate liked me. He liked to save me for last.”

“The one whose Cutter we destroyed?”

Karina nodded, shuddering. “Yes. But when he got bored of me, he sold me to Master Theriault, and he was even worse.”

“I'm glad I killed him, too.” I rocked Karina in my arms slowly, kissing the top of her head in sympathy, remembering how Karina had told me about how the Duke had mistreated his slaves. “He was transporting you and some of his other slaves when I intercepted him. Why was he going to sell you back to the slaver group?”

“I didn't scream when he had me whipped, master. He couldn't finish unless they screamed and bled.”

“Karina, I think you're probably the bravest woman I've ever known.” I tipped back her head and kissed her on the lips.

“Thank you, master.” Karina smiled thinly, hugging me back. “It's better with you, master. You never hurt me. I enjoy it with you.”

Karina had meant the words kindly, but I was stung by the implication that she was comparing the way I treated her with her slave masters – like she didn't realise that she meant more to me than something to be traded or used like an inanimate commodity. “Karina, you do realise no-one will own you ever again, right? You don't have to call anyone 'master' – least of all me. I'm your friend, not your keeper.”

“But you'll always be my master.” Karina hugged me tightly, nonplussed. “I don't want to leave you. I love you, Master Aemon.”

“Karina, one day you'll have to. You have to find your own life, your own career. But I'll always be your friend.”

“No, master.” Karina shook her head, holding me closer. “I want to stay with you.”

Her voice carried with it such an edge of fear that I let the subject drop, rather than upset her further. We sat together in silence, Karina reassured by my arms around her, her eyes closed as she rested her head on my shoulder. I felt the slow rhythm of her breathing against my chest and let my own breath fall into the same pattern, my eyes looking up and out of the frozen canopy, watching the stars wheel by almost imperceptibly. We must have fallen asleep in each other's arms sitting on the deck, because the next thing I knew ASTRA was summoning me to the pilot's chair with an urgent alarm. I glanced at the mission clock and we were now only two and a half hours from the point of closest approach. 

“Shit!”

Karina cried out in surprise as I lurched to my feet, dragging her up with me. I gave her a gentle nudge towards the copilot seat as I blinked away ice crystals from the corners of my eyes, letting my vision clear as I slid into my chair and pulled the flight controllers toward me.

“My lord, I have detected three active scans on the asteroid in the last five minutes.” ASTRA warned gravely. “The signal strength of the scans is increasing. I believe we have a ship inbound.”

“What should we do, master?” Karina turned to me, her hands trembling. “Should I power up the main drive and weapons?”

“Not yet, Karina. We might as well make it difficult for them.” I waved her down, trying to remain calm myself. “ASTRA, any idea whether we've been detected?”

“The signal strength was below the threshold for a positive return, my lord. It is unlikely that they have detected the ship. Standard procedure would mandate a visual scan of the asteroid at this point.”

“Let's hope they're sloppy and not interested in getting too close. I can't see a ship out there, can you?”

“No, master.”

Minutes passed like hours as we drifted blind and helpless further towards the perimeter of the shipyard. I dared not risk activating the sensors to get a better picture of what might be lurking on the other side of our cover asteroid, as the radar signals would give our location away. It was even too much of a risk to activate the communications array to monitor any hyperwave traffic between the perimeter guards and the shipyard – the comms unit would automatically return a message receipt confirmation to the originator of the signal, again giving away our presence, if not our precise location. We had to wait and trust that our luck would hold. One factor in our favour was that the asteroid was travelling so quickly that any ships trying to intercept us would only get one chance to look over the asteroid, and Fell From The Top(...) was shrouded in the umbra cast by the metallic body's bulk. Another ten minutes dragged by and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a Federal Corvette approximately five kilometres away. It flashed across the canopy in the blink of an eye, receding into the distance. The ship was powerful and well-armed, but slow – it would struggle to catch us back up, provided that the Corvette's commander was even willing to disable the safeties on his thrusters, which did not seem likely. ASTRA alerted us to another active scan from the Corvette, but even at this close range, the masking effect from the heavy metals in the asteroid had kept the return signal from my ship beneath the threshold for a positive identification. We had been lucky, but how much longer would our luck hold out?

The surge of adrenalin had us both fully awake. Even in the numbing cold, there was no chance that we would fall back asleep before we reached the shipyard. With just over two hours to go, Karina and I reviewed our plan a final time. Only one of the antimatter torpedoes had to reach its target for the mission to be successful, so in consultation with ASTRA, I had decided on a slightly different launch profile for each torpedo. The first torpedo would go out completely cold, with no guidance or propulsion active, with only the magnetic impulse from the rail of the torpedo pylon to propel the torpedo towards the target. The torpedo would be almost impossible to detect, even visually, and by the time anyone within the shipyard might notice the incoming weapon, it would be far too late to do anything about it. The torpedo's onboard computer would run a timer to tell it when to detonate the warhead. With a blast radius of some twenty kilometres, provided the initial aiming of the torpedo was somewhere within the vicinity of the drydock, the battlecruiser and much of the shipyard facility itself would be annihilated.

The incredible destructive power of the experimental weapons did pose one problem, however. Even though the torpedoes were hardened against gamma ray bursts and Electronic Counter-Measures systems, they had to be launched far enough apart that if one torpedo detonated prematurely, it wouldn't cook off the other weapons before they had chance to reach the target area. In practical terms, this meant having to launch the weapons at twenty second intervals, extending our engagement time and making it more likely that the security patrols on the perimeter of the shipyard would be able to intercept either the warheads or my ship. With this eventuality in mind, we decided that the second torpedo should act as a decoy, running fully hot with active guidance and full burn from the propulsion unit. I didn't expect this torpedo to reach the drydock, it was simply meant to be a compelling distraction for the defence force, which would be in for a nasty surprise when they shot down the torpedo. The two remaining torpedoes would use a compromise between a hot and cold launch. The guidance and propulsion systems would only be active for one second in every ten, making quick trajectory adjustments and updating the targeting computer with the information necessary to detonate the antimatter warheads at the right time. ASTRA had predicted a 70% probability that at least one of these warheads would slip through without being intercepted.
That just left the minor issue of detaching from the asteroid at the right time, getting into range to deploy the torpedoes and then get out again without either being caught in the blast radius, or being intercepted by the perimeter force providing security for the shipyard. All without knowing precisely how many ships the Federal Navy had stationed at the facility to defend their new Farragut-class battlecruiser until we poked our head out above the cover of our asteroid. “Oh, this is going to be easy.”

“What was that, master?”

“Nothing. Never mind. You know what to do?”

“Yes, master.”

“Talk me through it, then.”

“When ASTRA gives the signal, I activate the sensors and thrusters. You will activate the weapons and target the Farragut.”

“Good, what about the shields and the frame shift drive?”

“Those systems stay down to reduce our thermal signature. We don't turn them on until after the torpedoes have been launched and we have broken the security perimeter.”

“Very good. Well remembered. And what do you do if I get incapacitated and can't fly the ship?” We had discussed every eventuality, including loss of the canopy or the ship being completely disabled.

Karina looked uncomfortable at the thought as she answered. “Get the ship into hyperspace and find the nearest independent port.”

“Exactly. Remember that you need to go to Ross 248 first to reactivate the ship's ID transponder. The jump is already locked into the nav computer.” We had already been off the grid for almost three days. We only had about another six hours before the Pilot's Federation would begin an investigation. We had to 'reappear' in the same place as where the Pilot's Federation had lost the signal, to make it look like there'd been a problem with the transponder unit, which was uncommon, but not unheard of. “But you won't have long to plot the next jump before the Feds send whatever they have left here after you. Don't try to fight, just run to the nearest neutral system. And if I don't make it, sell whatever's left of ship and buy passage on a liner to Adams Orbital. Laure will take care of you.”

“Please, master. Don't make me think of it. Everything will be fine. I know it.”

“Alright then.” I patted Karina's shoulder and pointed to her RemLok helmet. “Let's get our game faces on.”

We both put on our survival masks and checked each other's seals, making sure they were airtight and that the RemLok units were primed and ready. I took a deep breath of pure oxygen and settled back in my seat, caressing the flight controllers gently between my fingertips. The mission clock on the polarised canopy continued to tick down interminably slowly, the anxiety building in my chest as the final minutes elapsed. After what seemed like an eternity, ASTRA signalled that it was time and that we had just entered into our five minute window.

“Okay, Karina. Let's do this.” I said grimly.

Careful to keep our thermal signature to an absolute minimum, ASTRA discharged a heat sink as she ran up the power plant to 50% capacity, giving us enough power to bring the sensors, thrusters and weapons systems online. Karina and I worked quickly, knowing that time was of the essence. As soon as the thrusters had powered up, I released the magnetic lock keeping us attached to the surface of the asteroid and retracted the landing gear, easing the Clipper up out of the shadowy recess it had been hidden in. As soon as I had enough vertical separation, I flipped the ship around, nose to tail, rolling over 180 degrees to keep the surface of the asteroid as a horizon for spacial reference. The shipyard facility was visible only as a group of distant lights, some 100 kilometres away. The Farragut was easily identifiable amongst the half dozen drydocks, due to the intense activity of the robotic builder drones and manned work crews swarming around the five kilometre long hull.

“Torpedoes online. Assuming helm control.” ASTRA reported, the ship taking on a life of its own as the AI ignited the afterburners, boosting us clear of the asteroid and thrusting down towards the centre of the shipyard. The attack had to be automated if the unguided torpedo was to stand any chance of getting near the battlecruiser. Even with my piloting experience, I would not be able to aim the ship precisely enough. An error of few degrees at the point of launch would translate to kilometres by the time the torpedo reached the shipyard. There was a dull thud from the portside underwing pylon. “Torpedo one is away. Detonation in three minutes, twenty-two seconds.”

Fell From The Top(...) rolled away flamboyantly, wingtip over wingtip, ventral thrusters flaring to realign our course to make sure that the torpedo would not be detected by scans aimed at the ship or the decoy torpedo we were about to launch. I had already lost sight of the cold-launched torpedo and it was invisible on our sensors, despite the fact it was so close. I hoped that the Feds would never see it coming. They would see the decoy torpedo, however – which was the entire point, of course. The downside was that it was the equivalent of poking a hornet's nest with a flaming stick. The response of the resident hornets was not going to be welcoming.

“Torpedo two is away.” ASTRA said, again hurling the ship into a separation manoeuvre to ready the launch of our next torpedo. If I hadn't known better, I would have suspected the AI was enjoying itself, being in total command of the ship. We were already three minutes into our assault window. We had two more minutes to launch our two remaining torpedoes and flee the blast zone. The sensors hadn't detected any moves to intercept my ship or the two torpedoes we had already launched, but my combat senses told me that all hell was about to break loose inside the shipyard. I gripped the flight stick and throttle tightly, even though I wasn't able to override ASTRA's control of the ship. 

“Torpedo three is away.”

I saw the propulsion unit burn briefly on the rear of the torpedo before the onboard computer shut down the engine and the guidance system, randomly switching on and off to make a semi-stealth approach, the intermittent radar emissions from the homing unit not giving the defence forces long enough to divine its precise location, but enough to indicate a danger was there. As ASTRA carried out the final separation burn to put at least 30 kilometres between each of the launch points, I noticed that the activity of the patrol ships on the perimeter was intensifying, reforming into two distinct groups, each one centred around a pair of Federal Corvettes. If they had not yet detected the decoy torpedo, they soon would.

“Torpedo four is away.” ASTRA almost sounded relieved. “You have control, my lord.”

“Thank you, ASTRA. Let's get the hell out of here.” Our momentum had carried us almost into the blast zone and we had to completely kill the velocity vector that was taking us inwards to the heart of the shipyard before we could turn about and make our escape into witchspace towards Ross 248. This was where we would be most vulnerable, since the light from the ship's main thrusters would illuminate the ship like a beacon. It already looked like there was one group of fast-moving F-63 Condor fighters making straight for us. I was reluctant to activate the comms array to listen in on the chatter between the fighter squadron and their flight controllers, but it was clear that at least one of the groups had seen the decoy torpedo and was moving into a blocking position to shoot it down before it got too close to the ship building facility. “ASTRA, give me a visual of the Farragut. Zemina will want proof the target was destroyed.”

ASTRA projected a small holographic video of the battlecruiser's drydock onto the HUD, sufficiently zoomed out to give us a good view of the rest of the shipyard as well. “Gamma burst detected. Torpedo two destroyed.”

There was a blinding light off to starboard, a radiant white starburst of energy that enveloped the task force that had moved to intercept the decoy missile, vaporising the two corvettes and their attendant fighter squadrons in an instant before decaying away to blackness. Now things were going to get really frantic. I could just imagine the panicked radio chatter between the remaining Federation ships, torn between defending the shipyard and the precious, half-finished Dreadnought, or destroying the Imperial interloper who had attacked them so brazenly. I made sure that the thruster safeties remained off and lit the afterburners once more, trying to put more distance between my ship and the pursuing Condor fighters. I dumped another heat sink to make us harder to detect on sensors before turning to my copilot. “Karina, bring the frame shift drive online.”

“Gamma burst detected. Torpedo four is down.” ASTRA said. I saw on the video feed that most of the second task force had been wiped out as well, and I could just imagine the reluctance of the remaining ships to hunt down any remaining incoming torpedoes. Not that there were that many ships left in the vicinity to defend the drydocks. It seemed unlikely that the three remaining fighter squadrons would be able to hunt down both of the final two torpedoes, and I only needed one to reach the Farragut.

“Time to target on torpedo one and three?” I asked, running up the power plant to full capacity and pouring megajoules of energy into the engines, trying to keep the capacitors charged as I lit the afterburners again and again. Despite the Clipper's fabulous acceleration, the Condors were closing, having abandoned any thoughts of defending the shipyard, intent on drawing Imperial blood. With their thruster safeties disabled, flying those little fighters must have been like trying to ride an unguided missile, but they would be within weapons range in moments.

“Torpedo three will reach the target area in forty-five seconds. Torpedo one in ninety-seven.”

“Master, we should go.” Karina said insistently. The sensors flashed, showing that the Condors were starting to open fire.

“We can't. Not until we've confirmed that the Farragut is destroyed. ASTRA, launch another heat sink. Some chaff too. We just need to hold out for another few seconds.” I grimaced as multi-cannon rounds flashed by the hull, tracers whipping past the canopy like angry fireflies. I began to roll and jink the ship randomly, lighting the dorsal and ventral thrusters to try and throw off the tracking of the targeting computers in the Federation fighters. Six F-63 Condors clung doggedly to my tail, firing indiscriminately, their fire getting ever closer. Now that the Federation pilots were tracking my ship visually, there was no point trying to maintain sensor stealth. “ASTRA, shields up. How long now?”

“Twenty seconds, my lord.” ASTRA replied. The AI's voice was smooth and reassuring. “Taking damage.”

“More chaff.” I lit the afterburners yet again, weaving the ship frantically through the torrent of multi-cannon fire, wincing at every clanging report as the tiny uranium-tipped sabots tore into the exposed hull plates. A quick glance at the modules board showed that they were targeting my frame shift drive to cut off my escape. It was down to 53% integrity, but there was nothing I could do but keep running. While the Condor was a fragile ship on its own, they were deadly when hunting in packs like this. Turning to fight would be suicide. “What I wouldn't give for a mine launcher right now.”

“Shields online.” ASTRA said, much to my relief. The multi-cannons on the Condors were relatively ineffective against shields, and even though they had just recharged and were running understrength, the Clipper's shields ought to be more than adequate to protect the hull and FSD against further damage from the Condors until the torpedoes found their targets and we were able to flee into witchspace. “Gamma ray burst detected. Torpedo three detonation confirmed.”

I glanced at the video feed on the HUD. “Did we get it?”

“Stand by. Frame shift signature detected.” ASTRA warned.

I looked back up through the canopy. “Oh, fuck.”

Distracted by the video feed for just a second, I hadn't seen the arrival of the incoming ship. It was the Federal Corvette that had buzzed our cover asteroid a few hours earlier, ten kilometres directly in front of my vessel, deploying weapon hardpoints and two of it's own Condor fighters. With my own ship at a relative velocity of nearly three kilometres per second, there was barely any time to react. Twin plasma accelerator blasts from the huge dorsal hardpoints on the Corvette lanced across space, the white-purple spheres stripping away my Clipper's shield envelope in a heartbeat. The Condors had barely cleared their fighter bays on the Corvette before they opened fire, their multi-cannons strafing down the full length of my ship. I just managed to wrestle the Clipper under the belly of the Corvette to avoid a collision, flashing past the larger vessel and back out of weapons range in a second and a half.

“Canopy compromised. Damage critical.” ASTRA's voice hissed distantly in my ear. It took me a couple of seconds to orient myself and realise what had happened. It was almost impossible to breathe, and when I looked down, I understood why. It also explained why I could vaguely hear Karina screaming in panic and distress. I coughed, bending over forwards in my seat, metallic-tasting liquid bubbling in the back of my mouth and throat.

“Master! Master!” Karina shrieked, leaning over the console to try and pull me upright.

I glanced behind me, over my shoulder and saw the blood splattered across the rear bulkhead of the flight deck. I had been hit by a multi-cannon round that had pierced the canopy, halfway down my right hand side ribcage, leaving a 30 millimetre hole in the front of my suit that was already congealing with blood, clotting rapidly in the vacuum that now filled the bridge, the air having escaped through the hole in the canopy. The sabot had passed clean through me and my flight seat, taking most of my right lung with it. I was somewhat bewildered to find that the wound didn't hurt, but I felt increasingly giddy from the internal bleeding. I could feel ruptured blood vessels leaking inside me. “Karina... Get out. Get out of here.”

“Master, no!” Karina screamed again, even as I pushed her hands away from me with the last of my strength.


“Karina, go. Get the ship out... Frame shi-” I prompted her again, my consciousness ebbing away. I tried to stay awake, wanting to be sure that she had obeyed my last instruction, but the last thing I saw was her still leaning over towards me as my senses were cloaked in darkness.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Bark: The Pit

Winston Churchill called it "The Black Dog". I call it "The Pit".

There are many triggers to depression, but the effects and symptoms are, for the most part, fairly uniform: Over-eating or under-eating, over-sleeping or under-sleeping, having insomnia, early morning waking, or maybe sleeping too much, losing your ability to concentrate. Losing your ability to take pleasure in things that you normally take pleasure in. And, at it's worst, thoughts about suicide and the futility of life. If nothing you do makes a difference to anything, then what's the point? (Not thoughts I'm having now, incidentally, but I've had them in the past)

If you look at that checklist of symptoms, I've got almost the full set: under-eating, over-sleeping, insomnia, lack of concentration and the inability to enjoy the normal things I do for pleasure - gaming, cooking, writing, watching films and TV, music, and so on. The thought of working gives me physical anxiety - a tightness across the front of the chest that feels like the onset of a heart attack - and I can't even look at the news anymore. COP21 was hailed as "historic" and "our best chance to save the planet" (though don't get me started on that particular phrase, it's as wrong as it is meaningless), and here we are, less than a week later and the UK government is passing legislation to green-light the extraction of more fossil fuels to burn. Showing great commitment to a low carbon future there, Dave... It's hard to look at decisions like that and think humanity is a civilisation worth saving.

So what is there to do? Retreat to The Pit.

It's a place that only exists when I'm in the grip of depression, but as much as it's a place of blackness and despair, it's also a place that's warm, secure and comforting - a place to hide from the grim realities of the world. It looks and feels remarkably like a bed. (Hence the oversleeping) I don't want to remove myself permanently from the world (well, I would if a one way trip to Mars was a viable option at this point), but I do want to retreat from it, hide from it for a while. In this condition there are certain things I can't face, because they just reinforce my psychosis, adding to the mental pressure that put me in this state to begin with - phones, email, news media, other people... I just want to be alone, wallowing listlessly under the oppression of my chaotic, randomly contradictory thoughts, with only the bed covers as a shield between me and the world. It's like my brain has gone through a blender, and like a coral, it's trying to piece itself back together, one synapse at a time. But how do I know that they're reconnecting in the right order? There are no guarantees.

I've had to pester my therapy provider, because I completed their questionnaires almost a week ago and haven't been assigned a therapist yet. It's immensely frustrating, as I've been off work and could have used that time to get some proper medical help, rather than be at home on my own, not being able to face leaving the house, thinking "what value is there in your life?"

Because that's the crux. When what you do ceases to hold value for you, or the rewards no longer outweigh the sacrifices you need to make to do the job, that's surely a sign that you need to do something different. In fact, this was the key reason why I changed career from IT to teaching in the first place. But in the last six years the world has changed in so many ways, and so few of them for the better. Even the work that used to reward me has been degraded and devalued and become so politicised and talked-down that it's difficult to see how all that time, effort and energy I put into it makes a difference anymore - especially since we're increasingly dealing with young people who fundamentally lack respect for knowledge and would rather play mindless games on their iPhones than make themselves better people. I've lost count of the times I've been told "I don't care" when I've spoken with kids about their lack of effort - and you think "then why should I care about you?" - and it's not enough to say "because it's your job" anymore. How do you teach people who don't want to be taught? This year I started wearing a Superman tie pin - not because I particularly like Superman, but for the irony value, because that seems to be the expectation of what teachers need to be these days. "See that student who came in on a Level 2 at the end of Key Stage 2? Yeah, their GCSE target grade is a C. Make it happen. You do know your remuneration is linked to exam results now, right?" Might as well call Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg. Mission Impossible. We've bred a generation of kids who are dependent upon their shiny little phone screens and are so used to being told what to do and entertained that they're incapable of anything else. There are exceptions, of course, but they're getting fewer and further between - and this is a change I've seen in the last five years. And it's getting worse.

It's harder and harder to find joy in the little victories anymore, or those classes where you have built up a relationship over months and years where they trust what you're asking them to do is for their benefit and they respect the value of work and knowledge. And when there's no joy in your work, and it consumes an ever greater part of your life... you end up like this - having a mental breakdown on the internet.

I don't know what I'm going to do yet, but I do know one thing. I can't stay down here forever. Time to start climbing...

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - Retribution - Chapter Eleven



Groombridge 34: Deep Space

The journey from Eravapa to Groombridge 34 had taken nearly ten days, despite the fact that it was a distance of only 127 light years as the Thargoid flies. As we flew deeper into Federation territory, the increasing frequency of Federal Navy patrols made it increasingly difficult to get closer to the target system. I zig-zagged Fell From The Top(...) as much as possible through independent systems, steering away from following a direct path to Groombridge 34, to throw off the suspicions of anyone using the services of information brokers to track the movement of my ship and making lengthy stopovers in the starports to make it look like I was negotiating for one-off courier or cargo transportation contracts in region. I even submitted half-hearted tenders for missions that would give me reason for edging closer to the target system, though I had no real intention of taking them up. I simply wanted to create a false data trail that would make it more difficult for Federation spies to deduce the real reason behind my incursion into the heart of Federation space. If the Federal Navy suspected that there was a threat to the capital ship drydock and the half-finished Dreadnought under construction there, the Federal Navy would lock down access to the system in an instant, making any assault impossible. My approach was also complicated by the nature of the weapons I was carrying. Any active police scan on my ship would reveal the true nature of the torpedoes I had primed and ready on their launch pylons, so I had to be wary not to attract attention even in politically neutral, independent systems. The time I was berthed at starports had to be weighed carefully between the risk of having an overly curious customs official investigate my ship during a random walkabout inspection versus the benefit of keeping out of sight of the network of information traders that tracked the passage of ships in and out of systems. 

To avoid arousing the suspicions of Federal spies as I infiltrated deeper into the Sol bubble, I continued to play the part of an independent freelancer, spending days bartering for contracts I had no intention of winning, intermixed with frenzied sorties bounty hunting at nav beacons that doubled as combat-training sessions for Karina, giving her detailed descriptions of the tactics I was employing as I took down dozens of pirate vessels. To confuse anyone keeping tabs on my ship's movements and looking for patterns, I occasionally dropped off the grid entirely for up to two days at a time, laying over in uninhabited anarchy systems, safely out of sight on the surface of asteroids or small, uninhabited icy worlds not worthy of the attention of miners. When I felt that the data trail had gone sufficiently cold, I made the final jump from the uninhabited Ross 248 system to the target system, less than twelve light years from Sol, almost at the very heart of the Federation.

Upon arriving in at Groombridge 34 itself, Karina and I had needed to work quickly to avoid detection by the local security forces, plotting and executing an in-system frame shift jump of some 800,000 light seconds to take us out of sight and well beyond the inhabited regions of the binary star system, into the Oort Cloud, a volume cluttered with icy, rocky and metallic bodies that orbited on the fringes of interstellar space. This far out from the core of the binary system we were more likely to encounter Thargoids than a Federation patrol. While some of the interstellar wreckage did have real intrinsic value, these comets-in-waiting were diffusely spread across a volume more than three light years in diameter, so were far too uneconomical to mine, compared with the easier to access and more densely resourced heavy metal rich planets in the system. For most people, the Oort Cloud was little more than an astronomical oddity, a failed planet being slowly nudged by gravitational perturbations a piece at a time into the inner heart of the system, flaring briefly out of obscurity as the intense solar winds transformed the lumps of debris into spectacular comets, before being flung back out into the darkness by the very gravitational forces that had tugged them so fleetingly into the light.

My own reasons for visiting the innermost fringes of the cloud were twofold. Firstly, it was the perfect location for me to tap into the data feeds from the stealthed recon probes monitoring the shipyard without risking discovered by the system security force or a Federal Naval vessel. Secondly, it was the only place in the system where I would be able to find a metal-rich asteroid of the right size and density to cover my infiltration of the facility. It took the better part of a day to find a suitable comet nucleus, an irregular ellipsoid, approximately 400 metres long, 300 metres wide, by 250 metres deep. The iron-rich lump had an average density of seven tonnes per cubic metre, making it easily capable of masking my vessel from active sensor scans, though this high density did pose one very large problem. The asteroid had a mass of almost nine million tonnes, meaning that it would severely damage my frame shift drive during the transit into the vicinity of the shipyard. The asteroid would have been easier to move with the ship's main thrusters, but the sheer distance involved made such an approach impractical. The Federation's ship builders would have been able to finish constructing the battlecruiser years before we ever arrived. 

In anticipation of the likelihood that my ship's frame shift drive would take overload damage during the supercruise as I towed in my cover from the Oort Cloud, I had replaced one of Fell From The Top(...)'s cargo racks with a Automatic Field Maintenance Unit. The devices were most commonly used by long range explorers and prospectors operating beyond the bubble of civilised space to repair heat damage to critical subsystems caused by close encounters with solar coronae. Provided that the supercruise transition didn't utterly destroy the frame shift drive (ASTRA had assured me that it wouldn't), the AFMU would be able to restore sufficient life to the FSD module to allow us to escape out of the system. The challenge would be getting close enough to launch an attack on the half-finished battlecruiser and get out again without being detected and destroyed. ASTRA and I had developed a plan, which had simmed out on average with a success rate of just over 50%, more than double that of a direct assault, but it still relied heavily on good timing and no small measure of luck. 

I used the smaller of my two beam lasers to carve out a recess in the surface of the asteroid that would partially conceal my ship, letting ASTRA autopilot the ship down into the reshaped crater. Despite having a mass of almost nine million tonnes, the asteroid's gravitational field was so weak, only a few hundred thousandths of a standard g, that ASTRA had to secure the ship to the surface by magnetising the landing struts. The crater walls surrounding the ship were tall enough to prevent the major part of the fuselage from being observed except from directly above, though the nose of the ship had to be left partially exposed not to obstruct the view from the canopy. We would be reliant on picking up threats visually, since we could not afford to risk carrying out active scans during the approach to the shipyard. 

With my ship safely concealed, Karina and I retreated to the gallery and my quarters for some food and rest, waiting patiently for the intelligence probes that had been dropped off in the system some days earlier by one of Zemina's other operatives to transmit their hourly microbursts of information. I wanted at least a week's worth of data, tracking naval patrols and other ship activity within the system, to be able to find patterns and establish what the routines were for the shipyard's defence force. It would be another nine hours before I felt we had sufficient intelligence for ASTRA to perform a proper stochastic analysis on the data, that might uncover any potential flaws or windows of opportunity in the shipyard's security protocols. Between meals, Karina spent a few hours on the bridge, running through combat simulations and practicing some of the tactics I'd shown her during the bounty hunting sorties we'd flown on the way. Watching discreetly over her shoulder, I was again impressed with the subtlety of her feel for the flight controls. While they were perhaps not quite good enough yet to chance giving her control of the ship in a real engagement, she appeared to have the spatial awareness and threat assessment instincts that could make her a decent combat pilot. For a moment I almost regretted not being able to have her fly interference as a wingman in a second ship, but even if we did have another vessel at our disposal, it wouldn't have increased our odds of success enough to have been worth the risk. Besides, simulations were one thing, the real stresses of fight-or-die combat were quite another; and I would need Karina's eyes to keep watch for incoming danger during our infiltration of the shipyard. I tried to keep my advice to an absolute minimum, letting her learn from her tactical mistakes and as the hours passed, her decision-making improved to the point where she was able to consistently take down wings of small fighters without losing shields. I resolved to tell ASTRA to up the stakes for her next session by throwing much more resilient targets such as Vultures and Pythons into the mix.

"You're really getting better, Karina." I told her, as I eased myself down into the co-pilot's seat.

"Thank you, master." Karina gave me a brittle smile, her cheeks flushing slightly as she flexed her long, slender fingers on the controls.

"How about a real test? ASTRA, run up combat training package #5." I ordered the AI as I activated the flight controls on the co-pilot seat. "Flying against AIs can teach you the basics, but there's nothing quite like flying up against another person."

"CTP #5 loaded. 1v1 Sidewinder duel." ASTRA intoned happily, resetting the canopy HUD to a side-by-side split screen projection. "Starting simulation in 10 seconds."

"Compared to the Clipper, the Sidey's a tin can powered by balloons, armed with catapults." I told Karina, smiling. "But I've seen great pilots take down Anacondas in one. Admittedly with a little help from the local police, but still."

"3, 2, 1... weapons are free." ASTRA said, releasing the flight controls. 

The simulation had us separated by five kilometres, beyond weapons range. The virtual ships we were flying had no frills or extras installed, just stock components, as if they had just come fresh off the production line. I saw Karina engage her afterburners, keen to get into weapons range as soon as possible. The direct approach definitely had its merits, but I reserved the energy in my engine capacitor, throttling up to maximum, but switching my power priorities to weapons and shields, content to let Karina come to me. I resisted the temptation to look across at her or her screen as our virtual ships closed, 4.5km... 4km... 3.5km... and as I anticipated, Karina instantly opened fire as soon as our ships passed the 3km mark. I added another power pip to my shields, increasing their recharge rate, switching off the flight assistance and using the Sidewinder's lateral, ventral and dorsal thrusters to jink randomly, rolling quickly to add a corkscrew motion to the closure manoeuvre, making even more difficult for Karina to hit me at extreme range with fixed weapons.

"Stay still, dammit." I heard Karina mutter, concentrating intensely.

"Don't hold back there, Karina. I won't." I replied, trying not to sound too snide or overconfident. She had managed to knock almost 50% off my shield strength, showing that she was at least competent with fixed weapons. 

"Then why aren't you firing?" Karina snapped back, the first signs of stress entering her voice.

"Because I'm waiting for your weapons capacitor to run dry." I told her, using my vertical thrusters to extend the radius of my turn, trying to drop in behind Karina's ship. The weapons fire from her ship became more staccato and intermittent as the power distributor struggled to keep ahead of the energy drain from Karina's constant fire. Now that we were within 1000m of each other, I finally opened up with the Sidewinder's twin fixed pulse lasers. Even laser beams lost intensity with increasing distance, meaning that they became exponentially more effective the closer you used them to the target. Too late, Karina realised her mistake, but by the time she reassigned her power priorities to her weapons, I had stripped away her ship's shields with half a dozen shots in less than ten seconds. Karina showed great imagination with her evasive manoeuvring, but having lost her shields, drained her engines capacitor in her haste to the initial joust and emptied her weapons energy supplies too early by engaging beyond optimum laser range, she had made a series of predictable mistakes that would have been fatal in a real combat situation. Mistakes that were entirely understandable, considering her lack of piloting experience, and ones that killed thousands of new Commanders daily, all across civilised space.

"Fuck." Karina cursed through gritted teeth, realising that she couldn't out-turn my ship, she redirected power away from her weapons to make a break for free space, hoping to regain enough breathing space to recharge her shields and mount another attack. Having reserved the energy in my engines capacitor, I let her gain some distance before engaging my afterburners, tailing her mercilessly, twin concussive reports from my pulse lasers ripping apart the hull of the virtual Sidewinder at point blank range until it disintegrated in a shower of sparks. Karina looked over at me, irritated by her failure. "How did you do that?"

"I'm not telling you yet." I grinned back at her, making her scowl even more. "Come on, let's see how much you learned. ASTRA, reset the program."

"Acknowledged, my lord. Starting in 3, 2, 1... weapons are free."

This time Karina's approach was much more cautious, saving her afterburner energy for a separation manoeuvre. She still opened fire at extreme range as soon as we closed to within 3 kilometres, but was slightly more restrained with her weapons fire, more considered and less profligate. I was still able to dodge a lot of her fire using my strafing thrusters, disabling the flight assistance to allow my velocity vector to drift, increasing the ship's responsiveness through turns. I could see that Karina hadn't discovered the advantages of disabling the flight assistance when fighting equally agile ships yet, and I wonder whether she would be able to figure it out on her own, or whether I would need to tell her. Again, I waited until our ships were within 1000 metres of each other before opening fire, only discharging my weapons when I was certain it would achieve a hit, allowing me to prioritise the shields and engines in my power distribution assignments, reinforcing the protective energy envelope surrounding my ship and giving my Sidewinder a crucial edge in its speed and manoeuvrability compared to Karina's.  Karina was still able to score the odd glancing blow to my shields, and they teetered on the verge of collapse just as I started to make headway against the integrity of the exposed hull of Karina's Sidewinder. When I had reduced her ship's hull strength to 60% her nerve broke, boosting away for clear space as her shields began to recharge. The impulse was as understandable as it was fatal. I activated my own afterburners, using the extra momentum to cut off the corner of the turn, dropping in three hundred metres behind her ship. In just a handful of seconds, it was all over. Karina threw up her hands in despair, cursing me vilely in her native tongue. 

"The third time's the charm, Karina." I reassured her. "Once more?"

Karina growled, whispering terrible oaths under her breath, but nodded her agreement. This time, Karina mirrored my own approach, saving the energy in her afterburner reservoir and weapons capacitor until we had approached to within one kilometre. It was only my greater experience and better power management that had my ship's shields in better shape following the initial joust: Karina's ship was down to 31% shield strength, whilst my Sidewinder still had 47% shield capacity remaining. This time Karina's nerve didn't buckle, prolonging the engagement and using her strafing thrusters to enter a seemingly never-ending sequence of vertical rolling scissors, our ships trading off velocity for turn rate and vice versa, exchanging hits as our ships twisted and tumbled though space. We circled around each other, like prowling tigers lashing out at any sign of weakness, gradually wearing down our shields into oblivion, the dull ringing of simulated dual laser strikes against fragile hull plating ringing in our ears. Karina refused to back down after her shields failed, continuing to fight and make inroads into my own hull strength, even though her ship's hull was 20% closer to destruction than mine. I had eked out this advantage by diverting the power distribution away from my now useless shield systems to my weapons and engines, making my ship more nimble to avoid Karina's fire and my weapon strikes pack a greater, more frequent punch. Karina cursed again in frustration, but instead of submitting to the inevitable attrition of my pulse laser strikes against her hull, she lit her afterburners, ramming my ship and inflicting catastrophic damage before I had a chance to react.

"Eject, eject, eject..." ASTRA instructed in stereo to us both.

I turned to look across at Karina, unable to stop myself from laughing. "We'll call that one a draw."

"How do you do it, master? Why do you always beat me?" Karina asked, still frustrated.

"You almost had me on that last joust." I reassured her, truthfully. "My flight instructor Jay taught me that a combateer had to remember one thing if they wanted to survive in combat."

"What's that, master?"

"That they should fight as if they were already dead. That you never quit against an equal opponent, no matter what. Survival in a dogfight is rarely a matter of reflexes, talent or what ship you're flying. It's about who wants to live the most. But if you're going to run, run before the shooting starts. Wimping out in the middle of a battle never ends well."

Karina swallowed apprehensively, before nodding, feeling chastened. "Yes, master."

"Don't feel so bad, Karina. You did well. I've had years more practice on the stick than you have." I walked around the central console on the bridge to rest a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "With the proper training, you could be a great pilot."

"Do you really think so, master?" Karina asked, looking up at me with an incredulous look on her face. 

"I know so." I bent down to kiss her briefly on the lips, stroking the back of her neck affectionately. "I think I'm going to get some sleep. You should, too. Tomorrow could be a long day."

The pneumatic hiss of the door to my stateroom opening roused me from a fitful, unsatisfying doze. I had fallen asleep at my desk, reviewing the intelligence reports beamed to my ship by the stealthed recon probes distributed throughout the Groombridge 34 system, trying to find openings in the shipyard's defences, even though ASTRA was already busy with her analysis - the outcome of which the AI had promised me by the morning. 

"Master Aemon? I can't sleep."

"What's up, Karina?" I asked, still not entirely awake. I blinked, rubbing my tired eyes and sitting upright in my chair. When I able to focus properly I was confronted with the sight of Karina standing just centimetres away from me, naked, save for a pair of nanofibre "geckoskin" deck socks - their powerful van der Waal's forces all that was securing her to the floor in the microgravity surrounding the metallic asteroid we had chosen to harbour the ship.

Karina put her arms around my neck, drawing me towards her, resting my cheek against her breast and holding me tight. "ASTRA says we're probably going to die tomorrow. Is that true?"

"ASTRA ought to keep her fucking mouth shut." I snarled, consoling Karina by hugging her back, my arms encircling her slim waist. "It's a dangerous mission, Karina. The odds of success aren't great."

"So this might be our last night together?"

"I hope not."

"But it might be?"

"Yes."

"Then spend it with me, master. Let me love you." Karina implored, letting her nipples linger enticingly against my lips.

We had not slept together since our liaison at Tomani and though it had been almost two weeks, my attraction to Karina had not diminished. She breathed heavily and rapidly with excitement as I kissed her breasts, carrying her almost effortlessly in the microgravity to my bunk. She welcomed me inside her, riding me fiercely, only objecting when we shifted to a position that wouldn't allow us to maintain eye contact. 

"I need to see that it's you, master." she told me.

Later, as we lay arm in arm beneath the covers to stop ourselves from floating around the room in the near zero-g, I lazily stroked Karina's back beneath her long golden hair, my fingertips tracing over the crazed web of paper-thin scar tissue, that looked as if it had been spun by a caffeine-addled spider.

"Master, why do you always touch my scars? Don't you think they make me ugly?"

"They're just a part of what make you you, Karina. Just as much as your eyes, your hair, your legs or your breasts." I told her, making her giggle and squirm as I kissed her back, tracing the tip of my tongue along the pale, hard lash marks. "They can't disguise or distort how beautiful you are as a person."

Karina turned over, hooking her thighs around my waist and putting her arms around my shoulders, drawing me closer to her. "You think I'm beautiful, master?"

I groaned as she drew me inside her, arousing my desire for her again in an instant. "Oh yes, Karina. You're beautiful."

"Then love me, master. Please love me." Karina urged. Our eyes never broke contact, locked in a mutual gaze of exquisite intimacy, communicating our need to each become one half of a complete being that only existed when we shared our bodies and souls. Our climax, when it eventually came, had us clinging to each other, breathless. "Oh, master... I love you."

"I love you too, Karina." I replied, after only the slightest hesitation, though still unsure whether I had simply said it because it seemed like the right thing to say, or because I actually meant it. 

"Master, let's not die tomorrow." Karina said, squeezing my shoulders. The intensity of the look in her eyes could have ignited magnesium.

I smiled back down at her, still panting for air. "Yeah, I agree. Dying would be a really bad idea."