Previously: The year is 3305. Estranged son, unwitting pirate, and Federal felon Jason Frimantle has found himself an Imperial slave under Baron Ignatio Winterstone, acting as chauffeur in piloting the noble's private pleasure craft. Instead of a prison sentence of ten years, Jason is now possibly in service to Winterstone for the rest of his life...
For what felt to be the millionth time that afternoon, Jason tugged at the tight starched collar of his uniform. Like the butlers and footpersons, Jason had been fitted for Baron Ignatio Winterstone's house livery as soon as had gotten him to Couper Hub in Kamadhenu. They'd implanted the chip first, of course, marking the spot with an 'indentured' tattoo behind his right ear. The mark was the stylized bird of the Empire, with the letter 'I' imposed on top of it - small, but owners and bounty hunters would know what to look for.
Jason swallowed and turned towards the voice, inclining his head and tipping his hat. Yes, the livery had even come with a hat.
"At your service, Master."
"There is an exclusive party at the Capitol," the Baron said, drawing up his rail-thin body and adjusting his monocle as he studied his hand terminal. "I have had the pleasure to be invited by Denton Patreus himself. We need to travel to Dawes Hub with all haste." As Whitestone spoke, one of his footpersons walked up behind him and fastened a capelet around his shoulders. It was a deep red, a color from Patreus's banners, that didn't quite compliment Whitestone's ochre formalwear as much as he probably thought it did. "I trust you have kept my cruiser in top condition? No joyrides, I hope?"
"No, Master. No joyrides." Jason kept his eyes slightly downcast, avoiding contact with Whitestone's haughty expression. "Your cruiser is at the ready, and I am at your disposal."
Something inside of Jason turned acidic and sour. Referring to a custom-built pleasure yacht as a 'cruiser' felt like calling his grandfather's flight jacket a 'frock'. That jacket, and all it represented, was far out of Jason's reach now. He gestured towards the sleek, ostentatious yacht waiting on the landing pad. Since Whitestone was a shareholder in Saud Kruger, he had been able to have the ship created "Gutamaya style" - by hand, and as expensively as possible. Following Baron Whitestone where his 'boy', 'girl', and 'lady', three Imperial slaves who, like Jason, were never referred to by name. They did not wear livery as Jason and the other slaves did, but rather sleek and form-fitting outfits that were designed to both function as pressure suits and easily come off at the Baron's behest.
"Capital." Baron Whitestone snapped his fingers at the trio, and they walked together towards the yacht. "Come along, then."
Jason's stomach flipped another time as he followed, walking up the short stairs into the main cabin, then turned forward and closed the cockpit door behind him. He signaled Couper Hub control that they were departing, then let the ship's advanced docking system guide them out. One of Jason's first tasks had been to tweak the computer so takeoffs and landings were "smoother than the Empress's finest silks", before being forbidden to ever launch or land the ship manually.
Taking a deep breath, pushing away the thought that maybe he preferred prison, Jason plotted their course to Dawes Hub and settled in for the journey. As the yacht jumped from one system to the next, Jason had to wrestle with the highly ineffective thruster placement and the sluggish control responses. Thankfully, the jump range was decent, and it was four short hops between systems.
Dawes Hub, bright and glamorous, spun slowly between the backdrop of the Milky Way and the mottled marble shape of Acheron in the distance. Jason secured docking clearance and handed over control. He leaned back and raised his hands from the stick and throttle, stretching his hands above his heads. When they came back down, he traced his fingers over his earlobes. His fingertips touched the spot behind his right ear where the chip had been implanted.
It was less obtrusive than the shackles he'd worn in prison, but somehow it felt more oppressive. He'd asked the butler and the Baron's "girl" about their feelings, and neither had been terribly forthcoming. Jason got the distinct impression that asking such questions would incur some sort of dire punishment. He sighed and adjusted his livery. More than likely, he'd be ordered to stay with the ship. There was a small fold-out slab to sleep on built into the wall on the port side of the cockpit, next to a claustrophobic shower/toilet. Meanwhile the Baron was luxuriating in a cabin suite twice the size of any of the first class accommodations that had been offered by the Deveraux
when she'd been hired to give a wealthy tourist a private trip to a stellar phenomenon.
"Better days," Jason said quietly. "Probably the best ones, now behind me."
The yacht touched down and Jason moved aft to extend the stairs and walked down to stand off to one side on the deck. As he did, two men approached. They were dressed in severe but well-tailored suits, far more modern in their cut than Jason's livery, and wore dark sunglasses. Jason regarded them suspiciously, then made his face carefully neutral as Baron Whitestone and his trio of companions came down the stairs.
"Oh, I say." The Baron adjusted his monocle. "What's all this, then?"
The newcomer on the right, saying nothing, held out an envelope. Baron Whitestone sniffed.
"Drat it all. I should have brought my butler." He turned. "Boy. Take it."
The young man nodded without a word, took the envelope, and opened it. After looking it over, he raised his eyes to Jason for a moment, then turned to show the paper to Whitestone. The baron narrowed his eyes then turned to the men in dark glasses.
"This is outrageous. Call her."
The man on the left produced a personal comm device, keyed a sequence, and handed it to Whitestone. Again, the Baron's "boy" took the device and handed it over to Whitestone. The nobleman snatched it and raised it to his ear.
"First of all, how DARE—"
Suddenly, as if shot by a plasma accelerator, Baron Ignatio Whitestone went ramrod straight. All of the color drained from his face. He began responding in short, soft syllables, and then a few moments later, handed the comm slowly back to the man facing him. With shaking hands, he took the papers from the young slave, held out his hand for a pen from another — the "lady", who seemed to be trying not to laugh — and signed the document. He then pressed his signet ring against its lower corner, and there was a soft hissing noise. Jason had only seen the Baron do this a few times. The ring contained a small quantity of wax, and when used like that, created a seal of the noble house of Whitestone on any document. Like the comm, Whitestone handed the document directly to the man standing across from him.
"Take him," Whitestone said quietly. The two men turned to Jason.
"Jason Frimantle," said the man on the left.
Jason blinked. It was the first time he had heard his name in months, and it was like cold water splashed on his face after staring at an O-type star.
"Come with us," said the man on the right. They turned on their heels and started to walk away. Jason looked to Whitestone, who was trying very hard not to collapse from fright or shock. Before he could think twice about it, Jason hurried to catch up.
The two men had Jason sit in the back of a large, private vehicle, and they moved at speed from the landing pad out onto the ring of the station, where the gravity was at its most Earth-like. They arrived at a sprawling green quadrangle, at least an acre in size, and pulled up at the end of a curved cobblestone path in front of the entrance to a large, palatial manor. One of the men opened the door to the vehicle as the other walked up the steps to the front door, opening it as well. Jason took a moment to appreciate the way the garden was arranged in a way that made it seem like natural growth had occurred there for hundreds of years as it would have on Earth. He even saw ivy climbing up one side of the manor house.
Then, he was inside. He removed his hat, and followed the man to an inner room filled with books. The study featured a deep, plush carpet, a softly ticking grandfather clock, and a crackling fireplace with two chairs on either side of a wide, low table. Seated facing the door was an old woman. Her spine was slightly bent with the weight of years, but her wrinkled skin seemed devoid of liver spots or pallor. She used a cane, its platinum handle fashioned into the head of an eagle, to slowly get to her feet. The tasseled edge of her woven shawl fell to one side around her stately and dark violet dress as she stood, the firelight catching the fine silver filigree worked throughout the fabric of the garment. She appraised Jason with clear blue eyes under well-coiffed white and gold hair.
"There you are." She kept her gaze on Jason as one of the men who'd walked in with him handed her the document. "Ah, bless you, Triton. Is everything in order?"
"Yes, ma'am," Triton said.
"What was the look on his face? Tell me."
"Triton could have punched him, and he'd have looked less shocked," said the other man. The old woman snickered.
"That's the best thing I've heard yet today, Vulcan."
"May... may I ask what's going on?"
Jason was struggling to maintain what Baron Whitestone would have called 'decorum.' This was clearly an Imperial noble of some stature, and as much as he wanted to know what the hell was happening, he wasn't about to start asking pointed questions. The woman's eyebrow raised a bit, and she slowly smiled.
"You're Teddy's spitting image." The woman's voice was kind. "Goodness gracious, I was not prepared for the resemblance. You grew up strong, and I see you have your father's pride in you."
Jason stared. Teddy?
That was his grandfather's name, or at least a shortened version of it. Theodore. Slowly the pieces began to come together...
"Is this some sort of joke?" Jason struggled to stay focused. "Is Master playing a trick on me?"
"First of all, young man, that posh twit isn't your 'master' any longer." The woman's voice had an acidic edge to it. "As a matter of fact, you don't have
an owner any more. Do you see this bill of sale?" She held up the document. Jason saw it was aged parchment, lovingly calligraphied in Imperial script, and bearing the seal of both noble houses involved in the sale. He saw his name, and both signatures of the nobles. After a moment, the old woman took it between gnarled and manicured fingers and tore it in half.
Jason kept staring. "I... I don't understand."
With a sigh, tossing the parchment into the fireplace, the old woman placed both of her hands on top of her cane. "Perhaps remembering my manners will help. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Olivia Blaine. Officially, in buried marriage records, I am listed as Olivia Blaine-Frimantle. Theodore Frimantle was my husband. Joseph was our son. That makes you my grandson. And, I may add, my only living offspring."
Jason felt his legs go rubbery, and one of the woman's aides — Triton, Jason thought dimly — helped guide him into the plush chair facing Olivia's. The other aide, Vulcan, pressed a cold metal probe to Jason's skin behind his right ear, and there was a low humming noise. It stung and burned. Triton showed Jason a handheld display he recognized - a slave chip control interface. It had his registration number, but the rest of the display said only NO SIGNAL
. The aides faded back and stood on either side of the door as Jason rubbed the burn where the tattoo used to be.
With a satisfied nod, Olivia herself sat.
"Vulcan and Triton both had the same thing done for them when they entered my employ. You may retain a scar, but the pain won't last long." She studied her grandson. "Take your time, darling, I know this is a lot."
It took Jason a full minute to find his voice. As he tried to process what was happening, a slender black cat padded towards them, looking up at Olivia quizzically. Olivia smiled at the pet, which hopped up onto her lap, turning twice in a circle before settling to appraise Jason with large, yellow eyes.
"Where have you been? How... how did you meet my grandfather? What...?"
Olivia waggled a finger of her right hand in a 'tsk tsk' gesture, her left hand scratching between her cat's ears. "One question at a time, dear. First of all — I have been here, at Dawes Hub, keeping an eye on our Emperor and her Chancellor, my cousin Anders. I suppose I can't complain much; I'm nowhere near as suited for a life of adventure and excitement as much as Teddy was."
"Please. Tell me more about him."
Her face became a little wistful. "I suppose there were a lot of things he never told you. A little sad, that. Well, my dear, let's start with the Incident at Delta Pavonis. You know how nobody's entirely sure who fired the first shot? Well, your grandfather has that ignominious honor. You see, he was a deep cover Imperial agent, having joined the Federal Navy to convey information and undertake dangerous espionage missions for the Empire. And one of the Imperial pilots at Delta Pavonis was making a run for the Federation to unveil clandestine Imperial fleet movements. Your grandfather shot him down, and the result was one of the greatest military disasters to date."
Jason blinked. "My grandfather was a spy?
Olivia smirked, her hand stroking the cat's fur, eliciting a low rumbling purr that Jason could hear clearly over the crackling of the fire. "He preferred to be considered a 'operative of subversion,' but yes. He came to visit whenever he could get away, and get his hands on a ship he knew could evade Federal notice." She shook her head. "The closest I ever came to your father were some very charming holo-vids of Teddy and Joseph's nanny playing with him. I've heard, however, that he wasn't the most pleasant of men."
"He had his moments." Jason thought back to his last conversation with his father. "He wasn't the best husband or father in the galaxy. But my mother loved him, and... I guess I did, in a way."
"And he loved you?"
"I... I think he did."
"Did he ever say
Jason took a long moment to think. "I... can't remember."
Olivia's face turned soft. "Oh. Oh, my poor dear." She looked up. "Triton, be a lamb and get us some brandy, would you? My grandson is in dire need of a nip."
Jason thought things through until Triton returned with a silver tray bearing a bottle of Lavian brandy, an ice bucket, and two cut glasses. He poured, and laid the tray on the desk while Vulcan handed glasses to Olivia and Jason. Vulcan then offered a piece of ice held in silver tongs, and Jason nodded. Vulcan put two cubes in the glass, and Olivia waved him off.
"My dad told me that my grandfather was a member of INRA."
Olivia took a long sip of brandy. "Yes, that is true. And, again, he acted in a role that allowed him to keep the Empire informed of their operations." She blinked, looking at Jason as he sipped his brandy. "I'm sorry, dear, but I'm not sure I can continue this conversation until you take off that abominable livery."
"Oh. Oh!" Jason set the glass on the table and immediately began getting out of the livery jacket. Triton stepped up, helping Jason out of it. He then stepped out of the pants, leaving him in the form-fitting blue pressure suit designed to be worn inconspicuously under the clothes. He looked down, and saw the hat of the livery sitting on the table. He met his grandmother's gaze, then picked up the hat and threw it into the fire. With a grin, Olivia raised her glass in salute.
Jason picked up his glass and touched it to hers as he sat, then took a sip before speaking again.
"I'm not sure I've ever heard an Imperial noble toast to freedom before."
"Well, my dear, I'm something of an oddity among my peers. You see, I do not approve of the Imperial view of human rights, especially where slaves are concerned. I am one of the few nobles here on Dawes who believes very much in the cause and personage of Princess Aisling Duval."
Jason turned his attention to the cat on Olivia's lap. The cat was now asleep, and Jason's mind wheeled a bit as it processed all of the information he was getting. He remembered Baron Whitestone talking about Aisling, watching some of her campaign materials and social appearances, and how Whitestone had called her an 'empty-headed strumpet' and a 'idealistic little fool.' Jason, for his part, had thought the young woman on the holos was passionate and sincere, and behind the more socialite-like behaviors he saw occasionally, he felt a calculated intent. He had wondered if maybe he'd been looking for something there that didn't exist just because he was longing for a connection he might have never found as Whitestone's slave.
"I see you've heard of her."
Jason raised his eyes. His grandmother was gazing at him approvingly. While some of that might have been sentiment and genuine affection, there was also an element of appraisal, evaluating how Jason handled information and made decisions. Jason nodded.
"I have. She seems to mean what she says. Which is probably why Ma— Baron Whitestone doesn't like her."
"Oh, Ignatio loathes
Aisling. She's popular while he's frowned upon, she's motivated while he's idle, and she never returns his calls or opens his letters." She sipped her brandy. "So, she's also very smart."
"That's all the more reason to support her, if you ask me."
Olivia chuckled. "There's something you should know about Imperial nobility. It's just as much a meritocracy as it is hereditary. Proving one's worth to an Imperial of high standing is a path to rising through the rank and file. I've maintained my duchy through donations to various Imperial causes and giving my support where I can. You can, if you wish, do the same. Or, you can leave here and return to Federal spa—"
"Grandmother," Jason said sharply. Olivia blinked, momentarily enraged, and Jason heard Triton and Vulcan move behind him. He met his grandmother's stare. "You could shower me in void opals and throw a harem of princesses like Aisling at me, and it would never be enough for make me go back to the Federation." He paused, then smiled. "I'm not saying don't
shower me in void opals and princesses, mind you..."
After a moment, Olivia burst out laughing. The cat roused from its sleep to stare at Jason. Triton and Vulcan stepped back, and Jason heard Triton chuckling softly.
"Oh, Teddy would have loved
bantering with you, darling. I'm so glad." She finished off her brandy and leaned down to place the glass on the table. The cat hopped down onto the carpet, padded towards Jason, then looked up at him. Jason looked down, and after a moment, the cat slowly blinked at him, then began weaving between his ankles.
"Well, that being said," Olivia said as she leaned back in her chair, "let me propose an idea. I am willing to provide you with starting capital and some resources to return you to the life of an independent Commander. In exchange, I would ask you to pledge yourself to the cause and protection of Aisling Duval. There are small organizations that are associated with the cause but not officially Imperial — I believe one operates out of Smoot Station in the Chona system — and that may give you the opportunities you need to get back on your feet. You are, of course, a free man, now, and not obligated to give me anything. But I hope you'll decide to do the right thing."
This was something Jason didn't need very long to think about at all.
"I'm in. You say I don't owe you anything, but what kind of grandson would I be if I just took what you're handed me and ran off into the black?" He shook his head. "My mother taught me that the choices we make are what define us. I'd rather be defined by standing up for the rights of people who are where I've been, and making you proud."
Olivia closed her eyes and took a deep breath in before letting it out slowly.
"I was worried that prison, or Ignatio's treatment of you, might have made you more selfish or near-sighted."
"Those places taught me a lot," Jason said quietly. "I want to use what I've learned to help others, not just myself."
"Good." Olivia opened her eyes as Triton, having noticed her glass was empty, refilled it and handed it to her. "I managed to liberate your ships from Federal impound, which I may say I was particularly proud of. It was neither easy nor inexpensive, but getting starships here from storage on Tethys in the Sol system is quite a feather in my cap." She paused. "Of course, you understand we can't be officially
associated. I won't be able to recognize you as my heir until I'm gone. Until then, you'll have the benefit of my resources, through various intermediaries and back-channels. With my idiot cousin being Chancellor and all, the scandal caused by the revelation of my affiliation with the Princess would be far too great." She sniffed. "Politics. Not something you need to sully yourself with."
"Would it help you if I did? Would it help the Princess?"
Olivia regarded him with a twinkle in her eye. "My, my. Jumping in with both feet, are we?"
"The Federation's a corrupt plutocracy only concerned with the bottom lines of shareholders, and not its people." Jason felt his blood starting to boil. "All of the Empire I've seen has been aristocrats who, likewise, see people as resources or, worse, playthings. You say Aisling wants to change that. I want to change that, too."
She leaned towards him. "There's always the Alliance, my dear. Far less dangerous to work with them, if you like the ideas of independence and human rights."
"I know enough about the Alliance to know that they squabble and bicker so much they can barely decide on anything," Jason said. "Besides — my grandmother isn't part of the Alliance." He paused. "I feel like I should ask more questions. Be more skeptical. But, if what you say is true, if you really did get my ships and everything out of impound, I..."
"Hold that thought." She looked up towards the door. "Vulcan, go get Teddy's things, would you?"
Jason felt his back go rigid. No. It's not possible...
Moments later, Vulcan returned with a small bundle. He set it on Jason's lap. With trembling fingers, Jason undid the twine and opened the plain brown wrapper. Olivia sipped her brandy as she looked on.
There, in front of him, were his grandfather's revolver, gun belt, and flight jacket. He looked up at her, and saw she had tears in her eyes.
"My Teddy," she said quietly. "He cut such a dashing figure in that jacket. He would be so proud to know a man like you is wearing it."
Jason blinked at her, his own tears blurring his vision. She wiped her cheeks with a handkerchief.
"Oh. I'm sorry." Her voice remained a quavering whisper. "I didn't think I was going to cry."
Jason set aside the bundle and got to his feet. He moved around the table, knelt, and looked at the woman. He waited until she looked at him, then rested a hand on her shoulder. Moments later, they were embracing.
"My boy," she whispered. For the first time, Jason didn't feel stung being called that. It made him weep into her arm. "My darling boy. You've come home."
* * * * * *
Some time later, Jason stood in one of the large hangars in the center of Dawes Hub. It was privately owned by Olivia Blaine. She stood beside him, her hands resting on her cane, as they regarded the ships in front of them.
Jason ran a gloved hand over the nose of the Wayfarer
. The battered Adder had all of the scuff marks and impact dents he remembered. If it was a fake, someone had gone to a lot of trouble to replicate the superficial damage down to the micrometer. Beside it was the Gladius
, which hurt Jason to look at. He might sell it. It had been used to hurt innocent people, even though he'd been at the controls. Third in line, to his surprise, was the Deveraux
, purchased from Baroness Sightseeing because Olivia had a gripe with the Imperial shareholders — including Ignatio Whitestone — and her grandson had evaded capture in it.
The last ship, however, was new to Jason. The Cobra Mk.III, modified and glistening under the hangar lights in a blue paint job reminiscent of the color of Jason's pressure suit, bore the name of Strider
. Olivia gestured towards it.
"Your grandfather's most reliable and favored ship," she said. "He took a Diamondback Explorer out on his last mission, since he didn't want to risk losing her. He told me once the only things he loved more than this ship was me... and you." She turned to Jason. "He saw in you the great things you can do when you were very young. He told me so much about you when you were a boy. And now, I get to know you as a man. He'd be so pleased, so proud."
Jason took his grandmother's hand in his. "Thank you, grandmother. If this is a dream, I hope I never wake up."
At that, there was a loud whack
as Olivia's cane struck Jason's shin. He yelped, hopping on one foot for a moment.
"This is no dream, my darling boy. This is reality. And you best keep your head in it if we're both going to survive." Her eyes glittered with eagerness and danger. "We're going into uncharted territory now, you and I. When you get to Chona, it's on you to give your best for our Princess. I'm taking a risk here, as much as you are in trusting me. Don't you dare disappoint me."
Jason smiled, ignoring the throbbing in his leg. "Well, don't you
dare disappear. I can't do this without you. There's only so much one pilot can do to make a difference. Same goes for a single crotchety old duchess."
"You've got some cheek to you, young man."
"Must have inherited that from you."
Olivia smiled and reached up to pinch his cheek. Then, together, they turned to his grandfather's ship.
"So," she said. "Shall we begin?"
Jason tugged at the flight jacket's collar. "Might as well. After all, I can't reach the right delta-v to carry us forward until I get this ship out into the black."
Image courtesy Macros Black