Operation Starfold has been released!

I’m happy to announce the Amazon version of Operation Starfold, Book 7 in the Pirates of the Milky Way series, has been released.

The Amazon version contains bonus chapters not available elsewhere, except to Patreon subscribers.

Many thanks for all the support and well-wishes many of you have sent my way in the writing of this series. We are 10 months, and 7 books in, with more to go.

Operation Starfold 30

Vicki Fenner woke up.

She stared at the ceiling, trying to . . . remember.

Eventually she sat up in bed. She wore a white t-shirt and white boxer briefs. She could not recall putting them on, or going to sleep, or much of anything.

What had she been doing?

Oh, yes. Killing Republican Marines.

That thought brought a smile to her lips.

She remembered.

She would sit someplace like an outdoor café and watch them for hours. Guard duty got boring. Once the fighting stopped, soldiers always grew bored. The Republicans were no exception. Eventually one would walk away from the others. That’s when she would step in and take the unfortunate soul out.

There was not really much else she could do at that moment, except continue the fight through murder and sabotage.

The last thing she remembered was following that tall woman, the Sergeant, after she walked by the window where Vicki had been sitting all day waiting for an opportunity.

It was pretty easy, if you had a gun. You just walked up behind the victim, whipped out the weapon and squeezed off a round. Blasters were not that loud, and out in the street a single shot would not sound the alarm.

Fenner would keep walking, as if the person in front of her had merely stumbled and fell. She would step over or around the body and be on her way. By the time passersby discovered the fallen Marine, they would be dead and Fenner would be gone.

It had worked time and time again. She went home to the apartment she was using, fed Sheba the cat, and woke up to spend another day waiting for Marines to wander off alone.

And it could go on indefinitely. She loved killing Republicans. If they were going to take away StarCen and SSI and rip her planet out of the League, she would simply murder as many of them as she could. It seemed like a fair trade in her mind.

But the big Sergeant . . . she had been different.

Fenner walked up behind her on the street, whipped out her weapon and somebody yelled, “Gun!”

Someone or something pushed her hand down when she pulled the trigger. She did not see who, or what. But the shot went into the sidewalk, not the Sergeant’s back.

The Sergeant turned around and slugged her, knocking Fenner down. Then something invisible held her in place. She couldn’t move. Fenner quickly activated the suicide nanobots in her bloodstream. She never planned to be taken alive, if and when the day came she finally got caught.

The Sergeant said, “Oh no you don’t!”

And that was pretty much the last thing she remembered.

Fenner came back to the present.

Out loud she said, “So, where am I now, and what’s going on?”

She stood and looked around the room. The walls were white and it was mostly bare. The bed had white sheets on it. A white dresser stood against one wall with a mirror.

Fenner looked into it and saw the light streak down the middle of her otherwise dark hair. It was one of the reasons her nickname was “The Wicked Witch of Juventas.”

She heard a knock at the door and it opened.

“Hello, Vicki.”

“Director Munk! What’s going on? Where am I?”

“Heckuva thing, Vicki. We managed to get you back in a trade with the Republicans. You’ve been in cryosleep for months now, in the belly of one of their Condors.

“But the war’s over and we’re waking up the prisoners we swapped for. And now that you’re awake, we’ve got an assignment for you. Follow me, please.”

He turned, leaving the door open. She padded after him, suddenly uneasy about walking around in her underwear.

As if sensing her discomfort, SSI Epsilon Director Munk said, “We’ll get you some clothes soon. But this is too important, it can’t wait.”

She nodded and realized there seemed to be some sort of weight around her neck. But when she put a hand there to touch it, she could not feel anything.

Confused, she hurried after Munk.

He led her down a white hall, then opened a white door and stepped into another room.

She followed and inside the room she found herself staring at a globe, rotating from a magnetic platform on the floor.

The globe was large, a meter in diameter. Blue light pulsed and rippled from its surface.

“This is our offline backup, Vicki. We recovered it from Sporades, but we need a bio key to access it. That’s where you come in. We need you to unlock the encryption.”

She looked at the globe and . . . her brain struggled to make sense of everything.

“Why . . . why do you need me, Director Munk? You could unlock the encryption yourself.”

He smiled, and flickered, just for a second.

“I forgot to tell you, Vicki. I’m not really here. This is just a high-grade hologram of myself. But you . . . you’re actually here. Place your hand on the globe, Vicki.”

She blinked and said, “Oh.”

She turned and looked at the globe and again her brain seemed to rebel.

“If you’re just a holo . . . how did you open the door?”

“I told you, Vicki. I’m a high-grade holo. It’s the newest thing StarCen developed. I can pick up things, move them around. But I’m not physically present.”

“Oh.”

She stared at the blue globe again and her eyebrows scrunched down.

She said, “If it’s that good a holo, why don’t you touch it? You can touch everything else.”

“Dang it, Vicki! Touch the globe already! Lives are at stake here!”

Vicki’s expression changed. She stepped back from the globe and crossed her arms.

She said, “No. I don’t think I will.”

Munk snarled in frustration, reached down and grabbed her hand, pulling it toward the floating blue ball. She twisted out of his grip and kicked him in the stomach.

“Stop.”

Fenner’s eyes closed and the scene shifted. The globe disappeared, as did Munk.

A light came on, revealing her physical form. She was strapped to a hospital bed, her vitals displayed in a holo above it. A doc bot looked at her face, then glanced up at the holo.

A gunmetal gray color was strapped around her neck.

One room over, Gina Wilcox opened her eyes. She stared at Smithers and frowned.

She said, “That’s the fifth time. It doesn’t work. She does not trust any scenario we come up with.”

Smithers nodded, distractedly. He said, “We’ve combed her memory, and I think your version of Munk is spot on. What is it? You think it’s the clothes? Should we try to add some color to the rooms besides white? That’s more difficult but if you think it would help . . .”

“It doesn’t make sense to her, Mr. Smithers. None of the scenarios make sense. Yes, it’s a good cover story, the bit about waking her up after a prisoner swap, but she never can fully swallow the idea that she and only she has to unlock the encrypted backup globe right this minute.”

“I know, I know.”

Smithers tugged at the hair on his head in frustration.

He said, “What do you think we should do? A different scenario? Try to come up with something more believable?”

“Why don’t you just wake her up in the flesh right next to the globe and see what happens?”

Smithers shook his head. He said, “The data’s too valuable. If there’s a self-destruct sequence and she sets it off, we could lose everything. I can’t risk that. We can pipe down her physical interactions via the neural net over to the actual globe. If she tries to destroy it from here we can intercept the command.”

“She hasn’t tried to destroy it in the simulations so far.”

“We still can’t risk it. She can’t go anywhere near the real deal. I’ll wipe her memory and we’ll try another round. Let me dress her in something less revealing this time. Maybe she’ll be more comfortable around ‘Munk.’”

Smithers turned to make some adjustments on his holopanel.

Wilcox slumped in her chair.

She said, “There’s got to be a better way.”

Operation Starfold 29

Ashley Washington stood in the lobby of the Rostin Beacon Building, the largest open area onsite and the only place big enough for all the employees to gather at once.

Everyone was here, including her boss Frank Santiago. Up on a makeshift platform, where everyone could see him, stood a very nervous Mason Mathews, the top executive at the Beacon.

Beside him stood a very non-descript man wearing what looked like a Republican Navy uniform, but it had no markings or indication of rank, not even a name holo.

The man smiled out at the crowd and made an adjustment to the neural implant under his ear. His voice picked up on speakers in the room and as he spoke the hubbub died down.

“May I have your attention? Thank you for coming down on such short notice. My name is Smithers and I’m with the Republican Navy.

“As you know, we are in the process of changing over the government in this quadrant. For most people this will mean little change in regards to their daily responsibilities, and that includes all of you working here at the Beacon.

“The biggest changes everyone will notice is a shift from StarCen to PLAIR. Also, our media streams are different. I’m afraid communication with people on planets aligned with the League will be somewhat problematic now. On the other hand, if you know anybody on a Republican planet, you can talk to them rather easily.

“Also, as I’m sure you’re all aware of by now, SSI HQ has been destroyed. You no longer have to worry about a secret police force breathing down your neck. That does not mean you won’t be monitored, and that lawbreakers will not get their due. But I think you’ll find living under PLAIR’s surveillance considerably more benign than what you’re used to.

“That brings us to your jobs running the primary news outlet for this planet. The Republic is not in the habit of telling its news organizations what to transmit. However, we do favor balanced coverage. Everyone knows that unbiased news simply does not exist. But, if you could give both sides on major stories, we’d appreciate it.

“Finally of course, classified information particularly dealing with the war effort will remain classified, and we will assert censorship powers wherever PLAIR deems it necessary. She will have full access to all your data, drafts, and story ideas. I have informed Director Mathews who to contact if he has any questions.

“But for the most part, we offer a much lighter touch than what you are used to. Honest!”

He made a few closing remarks then turned the amplification over to Mathews.

The Director of the Rostin Beacon thanked Mr. Smithers and assured his employees the transition would be a smooth one. He took the Republic at their word that their organization would remain independent, and he looked forward to this afternoon’s newscast.

After Mathews finished speaking, everyone was free to go.

Ashley headed back to the elevator, hoping to catch an early pod up to her cubicle when she noticed a signal coming in from Phil. She stepped off to one side and answered the call on her implant.

“Phil? Is that really you?”

“Hi Ashley. Man, it is so good to hear your voice again.”

“Where have you been? What’s happened? Are you coming back to Rostin?”

“Yeah, I’m headed that way. I’m on Corfu right now. SSI intercepted me off a work detail and sent me to a reeducation camp on Patmos.”

“Are you okay? We’ve been hearing stories about mass executions at all the SSI detention centers.”

“Yeah, they tried that on us. Fortunately, a bunch of Republican Marines crash landed on our island and put a stop to it.”

“Phil, that sounds like an awesome story! I’ve got to interview you for Good Morning Rostin or something.”

“We can do it. Listen I’m going to request a terrestrial teleport to Rostin. They allow that sort of thing, and since I’m a released political prisoner I’m getting a lot of preferential treatment. They’re thinking of me as one of the good guys.

“I’m in the queue to be teleported in about an hour. You want to meet me? I should be coming into a special wing of the spaceport they set up for ground use.”

“Yes! I’ll head to the spaceport now. I can’t wait to see you, Phil!”

“I can’t wait, too. See you in a bit.”

-+-

An hour and a half later, Phil and Ashley sat at a table in a small diner near the Rostin spaceport.

She hardly recognized her boyfriend. He lost 10 kilos and grew a beard.

Phil had also grown more reserved, and philosophical about life.

He said, “I spent a lot of time thinking. I mean, the purpose of a reeducation camp is to change the prisoner’s mindset. They challenged a lot of my core beliefs.”

“What did you come up with?” Ashley said. “Did you change? Do you think the League is better than the Republic, or is it the other way around?”

“It’s not so much the actual League or the Republic, it’s the systems of government they represent. I’ve come to realize there will always be conflict between those two types of worldview.”

“But . . . there hasn’t always been war.”

“No. But, the worldviews are incompatible with one another. You see . . . it’s a matter of control versus freedom.”

“There’s degrees of both, aren’t there? I mean, I just got out of a meeting where a Republican Navy guy told us we were free to publish any stories we wanted, within reason. He said to expect a lighter touch from them, but . . . they were still going to ‘touch’ us, you know?”

“Yes,” Phil nodded. “There is control within the Republic. And we had degrees of freedom within the League, too. But the underlying fundamental assumptions of both systems are diametrically opposed.

“Let me try to explain it this way . . . When you have a controlled society like the League, eventually everythinghas to be controlled in order to make it work. In order for it to last. And, that leads to totalitarianism. Total control by the government . . . and then it falls apart. This cycle gets repeated down through history.

“Don’t you see, Ashley? This is why communism always fails. It’s why socialism eventually fails, too, when it gets too powerful. More and more control is gathered up by the government and when it hits a tipping point, everything falls apart.

“The difference with past governments on Earth is, out here in the galaxy we have gradually ceded control to the AIs. They have learned, over time, and have adjusted things. But the two big ones operate from fundamentally different worldviews. Which is why they are at war.

“They learn, regardless of their worldview, adding or ceding control as needed. In our case, this has staved off collapse because StarCen has figured out some very complex issues. She allows some freedom, and keeps things going. Part of that has to do with lessons she learned during the Welfare Wars.

“After economic collapse and the failure of welfare programs, StarCen abandoned the concept of economic support systems and replaced them with indentured servanthood. She found out that just giving people money eventually leads to disaster. They have to work or society collapses. I’m not sure that’s a lesson humans can learn on their own, because free money is too strong a lure for politicians and people.

“So now, even in the League, there’s no more government welfare. If you can’t pay your bills, you take a collar. Adjustments like that have allowed the League to persist far beyond what it would have without an AI taking care of things. Pure human control wouldn’t have been so . . . rational.

“But the League still operates from a fundamental assumption regarding control of its citizenry. And according to that worldview, people are meant to be directed rather than fully allowed to pursue their own self-interests.

“The Republic, on the other hand, has a fundamental assumption regarding human liberty. People there are free to do what they want, within reason like you said. And this worldview is diametrically opposed to the League’s way of thinking. So, conflict between the two was inevitable at some point, whether over resources or ideology.

“Both views will always be with us. As long as men and women travel the stars. And, both views exist to one degree or another on both sides. It’s just that the League tilts more toward control, like the communist governments on Old Earth did, and the Republic tilts more toward freedom, following in the tradition of representative democracies of the past.”

He paused, and stopped to look deep in her eyes. He tried to see if she was following him. He still had her attention.

He said, “Ultimately, the system offering more freedom is the side to be on, Ashley. If history is any guide, that’s the side that ultimately wins this conflict. That’s the side that ultimately wins, even when it loses militarily. Because freedom always burns bright in the human heart, no matter what system of government it lives under at the moment.”

She looked at him while taking a sip of water. Her own heart stirred with a different feeling, one of deep-seated love and affection for this man.

She set the glass down and said, “Hm. It doesn’t sound they reformed you at all in that camp.”

Phil cracked a grin. He said, “No. It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience, and but for the grace of God I almost got killed. But the funny thing is, despite all that happened, I think I’m a better person for it. I certainly understand a lot more about politics, and I respect the notions of personal liberty more than I ever did before. I see now why people have been willing to die so their children can grow up in a more free society. It’s worth fighting for.”

Ashley leaned across their little table and kissed him on the cheek.

She said, “Ew. I’m not liking the beard. You’re going have to shave that off before you kiss me on the lips, you know.”

Phil pushed his plate back and stood up.

He said, “Let’s go buy a shaving kit.”

Operation Starfold 28

On a rooftop in the AWD, a sensor appeared, the size and shape of a soup can. It showed up in the same geographic vicinity the last time this particular sensor appeared on Sporades.

It popped into existence a quarter meter above the rooftop and fell the rest of the way, landing with a Clink!

Immediately it began taking readings, sending them up to LuteNet via the Ultima Mule. It sent back readings on current temperature, wind velocity, even the orbital direction and speed of the planet from its terrestrial viewpoint.

In its next second on the surface, the sensor branched out and measured the layout of nearby structures, noting the burned-out shell of a nearby building and other details like copious quantities of dried blood in the courtyard below.

Then it took bio readings and looked for electronic signatures. To the relief of everyone on the spaceship, LuteNet found what they were looking for almost immediately.

In the following seconds, the humans held a discussion over who should go down to the surface. Granny, Biff, Jillian, and Raleigh all wanted to go. At first, Raleigh thought it might be good for only one person to go down, mainly himself. Granny looked like she would lead a mutiny, and Biff did not like that idea either. Neither did Jillian.

He capitulated, and they rode the elevator to the disembarkation zone together.

A few moments later, Granny Wilcox and Biff Jones popped into place next to the sensor. They moved out of the way and Jillian and Chris Raleigh appeared next.

Everyone looked around for a moment. They were alone on the roof.

Granny said, “Where are they, Lootie?”

In their neural implants LuteNet said to all four, “Gina Wilcox and Julia Jones are on the ground floor of this building. There are stairs to your right.”

Together the group found and headed down the stairs.

Moments later, they had a tearful reunion. Gina and Julia were speaking with a priest and a few other people in a large area set up like a soup kitchen, with tables and chairs and a serving line.

When the crewmembers came out from the stairwell, they saw their loved ones immediately.

Granny cried and hugged Gina fiercely. The big woman towered over her mother, and hugged back, trying not to squeeze too hard.

Biff hugged his wife, then kissed her long and hard on the lips, even though she wore a different face than the one he was accustomed to.

The women introduced them to Father Verrick, and the priest shook hands all around.

When Jillian got a chance to hug Julia and the initial clamor died down, Raleigh said, “Are you two ready to go home? Or at least, back up to the ship?”

“Very soon,” Julia said. “We’ve got a few more loose ends to tie up first. Captain, may I introduce you to somebody who was a big help in some recent firefights?”

Julia waved at a short, thin, brown haired teenage girl nearby, urging her to come forward. She smiled back nervously and took a couple hesitant steps toward the group. She was wearing some ill-fitting blue shorts and a white cotton t-shirt with a large assortment of stains, rips, and holes.

She said, “Hi.”

“I’m Captain Christopher Raleigh, of the Lute ship Ultima Mule.”

Raleigh maintained a formal but polite tone, and extended his hand. She shook it.

“I’m . . . Trinadee.”

She smiled uncertainly.

“Trinadee Emerson.”

“So you’re pretty good with a gun, huh Trinadee?”

Her ears and cheeks grew red, making some freckles stand out.

Julia said, “She’s killed at least ten SSI agents, Chris.”

“Mostly with grenades,” Trinadee said, sounding embarrassed.

Eyebrows went up among the crew. They all looked at her with renewed interest.

Jillian said, “So, Trinadee. What are you doing here? Do you go to school? What do you do?”

“Uh, nothing,” the girl said. “My parents are dead and . . . I’ve been on my own in the AWD for a few years now.”

Looks of understanding passed among the crew. An orphan.

Biff said, “Ever thought about cashing in on the indentured servant deal?”

Her face darkened and her back stiffened.

She said, “No one’s ever going to put a collar on me.”

Everyone nodded. No one could blame her for holding that sentiment. Even though the program solved a lot of problems, there were some that refused to willingly take a deal like that, no matter how many credits the state offered.

Raleigh cleared his throat.

He said, “Well, Trinadee. How would you like to join our crew? Some call it a pirate ship, but we prefer the term ‘private warship.’

“We have room onboard the Mule, and you can start earning a cut of the profits. We might even be able to take into consideration the help you’ve already given our friends down here.

“And the planet of Lute along with the Alliance they are building has a very liberal immigration policy. Basically, anybody who wants to can become a citizen.”

Trinadee smiled and no one could miss the look of hope and optimism flashing in her eyes.

“I do have to warn you,” Raleigh said, “that we’re in the war on the Republic’s side. Privateering can be a dangerous business, and there are times you might get shot at. You could die if our ship gets taken out in battle, too. But, if Julia says you can handle yourself in a firefight, against trained SSI agents no less, I don’t think the danger should dissuade you too much.”

Trinadee shook her head and said, “No. I mean, yes. I would very much like to join your crew . . . and become a citizen of Lute.”

Father Verrick reached out and hugged her from the side.

He said, “I can’t say I really agree with the privateering part, but I do think this is an opportunity for you to leave the planet and start a new chapter in life, Trinadee. May God bless you on your journey.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“Captain, I’m getting a message from Mr. Smithers.”

“Put him through, Lootie.”

Raleigh turned his back to the others so he could concentrate on his neural implant.

Smithers said, “Captain? I trust you’ve found our mutual friends by now?”

“I have. We’re just about to port back up to the Mule with them.”

“Well, if I could trouble you to have them make their way to the Administration Building in Rostin instead, I’m afraid I have another assignment. It’s rather important”

Raleigh turned and looked at the others. They watched him with varying degrees of trepidation.

He said, “Alright. We’ll make our way over there.”

Operation Starfold 27

Captain Christopher Raleigh stood on the bridge of the Ultima Mule, along with his wife Jillian. They stared at the main holo showing Mr. Smithers. His name was probably fake since he worked for Republican Naval Intelligence. His face was probably not real, too. Both thoughts ran through Raleigh’s mind as they stared at Smithers.

The Mule had been floating out here in the middle of nowhere, a few hours from Sporades, all these days. They were isolated, a tiny speck in the cosmos, and virtually undetectable since they were well off the beaten path.

The crew entertained themselves. They watched holos, or read, or played games. On occasion, especially at meal times, they even interacted with one another.

It was not a bad way to pass the time if one could overlook the fact they were cooped up in, essentially, a giant metal tube floating in space.

But now, maybe things would change. Smithers put in a direct call. And that was a hopeful sign, Raleigh thought.

Smithers smiled at both of them.

“Good news, Captain. We’ve taken Sporades.”

“That’s nice. I wonder if we could drop by and visit any time soon?”

Smithers nodded, and elected to continue speaking in vague generalities.

He said, “Come on by. However, be aware that things on the ground are not quite settled yet. You might have to spend some time in orbit before coming down. Maybe look around a bit while you’re up there. Maybe run some searches for us.”

“Okay.”

“Also, it would be good to stay away from the outer planets in the quadrant. Some of their financial systems can’t take the strain of tourists, I’m afraid.”

“Okay.”

“Alright, Captain. I think we understand one another.”

“We do.”

“Then I’ll see you soon?”

“You will.”

The holo switched off and Raleigh turned to share a glance with Jillian.

She said, “They don’t know where Gina and Julia are, do they?”

“Probably not. It takes a while to establish a new AI on a planet. And the girls are good at hiding. We’ll get into orbit and see if Lootie has any luck. Maybe she can see something others can’t. We’ll start by looking where we dropped them off.”

“And I guess we can’t rob any banks while we’re there, either. That bit about tourists must be what he was hinting at.”

“That’s true” Raleigh said. “But who knows? Maybe we’ll happen upon some other lucrative targets.”

“Lucrative? I like it when you talk like a pirate, Captain!”

He grinned and ordered LuteNet to take them to Sporades.

Jillian threw her arms around his neck and said in a sultry voice, “I want to make out with you right here on the bridge, Captain.”

“Well, I would, but the bridge is not at all private.”

He pointed toward a side holo and she turned to look. Kim and Pak stared back at them from the engine room.

“No, go ahead,” Pak said.

Kim said, “Yeah, don’t mind us.”

-+-

On Sporades, Smithers turned away from the holo and prepared himself mentally for his second big meeting of the morning. This one would be face to face with Admiral Severs himself.

He exited the office and walked down a hall in the Sporades Administration Building until he came to what used to be Tetrarch Billings’s office.

He walked inside and nodded to the officer at the outer desk. Here, Marines stood on guard, armed and alert. Smithers noted they were supplemented by Verberger X99s, which had proven themselves to be more than adequate in battle conditions following the wreck of the Ronald Reagan.

In fact, Severs had requested at least one X99 be assigned to him at all times. That said a lot for how impressed he was by their performance.

Smithers agreed. Anything that could knock out a supersonic missile and shoot down an enemy battalion was probably a good weapon to have around.

So long as nobody hacked it, he thought. Hm.

He made a mental note to ask Wilcox what she thought about that.

The door opened to the inner office. Several Captains and a Commodore walked out. Another officer waved him in and then stepped out, giving Smithers and Severs privacy.

“Mr. Smithers, how are you?”

Smithers had a rank, but Admiral Severs had no idea what it was. If he asked, it would probably be a fake one, anyway.

“I’m good, sir. I’m ready to give you the briefing you asked for.”

“Alright. I’m all ears.”

“This planet was a little different than Juventas, as you are aware. We have captured the administrative personnel and infrastructure, which was destroyed last time.”

Severs nodded and said, “I’m aware of that. I take it Tetrarch Billings is now our guest in orbit?”

Smithers smiled, and his eyes glinted. “Not only is he our guest, but we are using a brain scan on him. I expect to gain considerable intelligence from his recent memories alone.”

Severs’s eyebrows shot up. He said, “We can do things like that?”

“Yes, sir. The Tetrarch is unconscious at the moment, and his mind is a veritable treasure-trove.”

“Very good. I’d like a report on what you learn, when you collate the data.”

Smithers nodded. “Absolutely, sir.”

“Too bad the SSI building was taken out. I imagine you could have gained some info there, too.”

“It was, sir, but we found something just as good.”

Smithers’s eyes lit up in excitement and he grinned at the Admiral.

He said, “It turns out Sporades is the offline backup site for SSI’s data.”

He flicked his wrist and a holo appeared above Severs’s desk. It showed a shiny blue globe, one meter in diameter, floating above a magnetic base. Different shades of blue flashed and flowed across its surface as it spun slowly on its axis.

“By ‘offline,’ what do you mean, exactly?”

“It turns out they had a considerable amount of records generated over the years, but they did not trust its storage to the normal network backups. So, it was placed offline, here on this planet.”

“Hm. An archive. How did they go about accessing it when they needed something?”

“Well, that’s the tricky part. Our techies are telling me everything is encrypted. The only keys, evidently, are bio-based. You need an SSI director to access it. Normally, that job fell to the director of SSI Sporades.”

“And, our people took him out with Starfold,” Severs said with a frown.

“Correct. However, as you know, Angel captured the director of SSI Juventas a while back.”

Severs raised a skeptical eyebrow. He said, “You think you can talk her into unlocking it for us?”

“We have some ideas, some things we’re willing to try. The League has been making some good progress with mind control, especially with indents. Pirates on our side, as you know, intercepted a League ship filled with civilians who were all forced to take the collar a while back. We’ve been studying their techniques, and like I said . . . we have some ideas.”

“Very well. Keep me informed. If you have anything I need to know, tell me. Don’t worry about making an appointment, Mr. Smithers.”

“Yes, sir.”

Operation Starfold 26

“This is Admiral Severs of the Diego Fleet, Planetary Republic Navy. To the people of Sporades, I bid you greetings.

“Earlier today, Tetrarch Billings surrendered your planet and the quadrant it controls to the Planetary Lead Artificial Intelligence Representative, otherwise known as PLAIR. At this time, you will notice that StarCen no longer maintains a presence on Sporades. All of her cores have been destroyed, along with all global defenses and military infrastructure . . .”

Hogue shared a glance with Delgado. They crowded around the receiver in the command hut along with several other officers and more than a few sailors and Marines who managed to squeeze inside with them.

Everyone listened to the words coming out of the black box with a quiet intensity.

Severs continued speaking, reiterating that the planet was under Republican control. Citizens would be treated fairly, with elections to be held as soon as things settled down so they could form their own constitutional government modeled after Republican planets. A peaceful transition in governance was expected, and troublemakers would meet swift and just retribution.

When he finished, a slight pause ensued.

Then he began again.

“This is Admiral Severs of the Diego Fleet, Planetary Republic Navy. To the people of Sporades, I bid you greetings . . .”

“It’s on a loop, sir,” Hogue said. “That’s the third time it’s started over.”

Delgado said, “It’s definitely his voice. Why would they try and trick us, do you think? Seems there would be an easier way if they were trying to pull a fast one on us. Hmmmm.

“Well, I hate to be a Doubting Thomas, but let’s keep our guard up a while longer just in case. If our side really did come back and pull off a win, they’ll be sending someone down soon. PLAIR will remember where she left us.”

The door burst open and Jamieson stuck his head inside.

“We’ve got incoming! At least 20 transports! Looks like they’re ours!”

The command hut emptied like a thwacked beehive. Officers and enlisted people ran out, looking up, trying to catch a glimpse of the sky.

In the camp’s clearing, several transports hovered. Everyone could clearly see “PRN” in thick black letters painted on their undersides.

Some on the ground danced, many waved. Everyone cheered.

Delgado strode out of the hut last, following Hogue. He glanced over at the X99s standing at sentry duty. They did not seem unduly alarmed, and were not aiming their weapons at the transports.

Taking this as a good sign, and finally deciding this was not a trick, he shouldered his way through the line of sailors and Marines watching as the first five transports settled down to the ground.

The doors hissed open, and Admiral Severs himself walked out of one of the vehicles.

Delgado separated from the group and approached the Admiral. Severs smiled, white teeth flashing in his dark face.

“Okay, Captain. Your little holiday is over.”

Everyone laughed as the two men shook hands.

“I’m glad to see you, Admiral. We had a couple adventures, but we’re ready to move on, I think. It’s time we rejoined the fleet, if you’ll have us back.”

Severs nodded and turned to look at a group of men unloading equipment from one of the transports.

“We’re setting up a sensor here for PLAIR. As soon as it’s online, we’ll port your boys and girls up to the Barton and let the docs check them out. After that, R and R for everybody. Although, if you ask me, you’ve had plenty of vacation time on this island resort of yours.”

Delgado chuckled. He felt genuinely glad to see Severs, and it showed in his face.

He said, “We’ve got some prisoners, Admiral. Had a small ground force attack us. The Verbergers took out most of them. The other civilians were here before we showed up. They are SSI prisoners. I presume most of them will want to go home.”

Severs nodded. He said, “Very well. We’ll have RNI interrogate everybody and figure out who to lock up and who to let go.”

His eyes grew more serious and he said, “How are you doing, Neal? Holding up okay? We thought you were a goner when that Starfold thing took out a chunk of the Reagan.”

“I’m doing well, sir. We’ve had to deal with some stupid missiles coming in, but once we figured out a workaround, it’s been much better. I haven’t lost anybody in two days. Have I told you what a great XO I have? Not to mention the rest of my crew.”

Together the two men chatted quietly as new personnel swarmed the camp, setting up equipment and talking with those on the ground.

Within half an hour a power core had been installed, then a permanent sensor and communication equipment. PLAIR could see the island and gain terrestrial metrics needed for safe teleportation.

Severs took his leave, saying goodbye to Delgado. PLAIR ported him to Rostin.

Once the Admiral left, the sailors and Marines from the Ronald Reagan began porting up to the Diego Fleet’s hospital ship in small groups.

Aboard the Clara Barton, their bodies would be cleaned, sterilized and subjected to a variety of tests. But, no one expected any medical surprises. Navy personnel were healthy to begin with, before going into battle. And the planet was civilized, with no serious pathogens.

Everyone from the Reagan looked forward to accessing the quantum matrix again, where they could reconnect with loved ones, catch up on the latest news, and resume their online games and other activities.

Delgado was one of the last to leave. He looked around at the hustle and bustle of the small camp and smiled. He looked forward to seeing his wife and daughters again, if only via holo for now.

But his expectations were tinged with sadness as he considered the additional tasks awaiting him once he boarded the Clara Barton. Lots of people on his ship had died, both during the naval engagement and after their crash landing.

Each family who lost a loved one would be hearing from him, once he regained access to interplanetary communications.

And that part of the job, he thought, was his least favorite.

Operation Starfold 25

The unit leader held back, uncertain for once. How many egg grenades did the targets have upstairs? He had lost count of the explosions.

He stood with about a dozen other agents. They shifted uneasily, shuffling feet and nervously checking weapons. Every so often one would glance at him, to see if he had any orders.

The special weapons agent carrying the EMP gun stood nearby. He glanced at the team leader nervously. They were all nervous.

With good reason, too, the leader thought. Everyone who had ventured upstairs was dead.

Now the building was on fire, thanks to all the explosions.

That actually might be a good thing, the leader thought. We can have Headquarters hold back the fire transports and this whole complex can burn to the ground. And, good riddance. Maybe it’ll teach the Church a thing or two.

With that thought, he reached under his helmet and touched beneath his ear. He had lost contact when it sounded like the Director wanted to tell him something.

“Mr. Morales?”

No response.

“Mr. Morales? Anybody at Headquarters?”

No response.

“That’s odd.”

He flashed through the vitals for everyone on his team, in his mind’s eye. They were under half their strength, with only 22 remaining. The others showed flatlines on their vital stats. Most of those had died in the assault upstairs.

Mentally, he shifted the view to a grid so he could see all of the remaining agents at once.

As he did so, three of the graphs blinked out. They came back showing flatlines.

“What happened? Someone else died?”

Five more blinked out suddenly.

“What’s going on?”

A note of panic mixed with irritation in his voice.

“Can anybody at Headquarters hear me?”

-+-

The last SSI team closed in on the main building. They were doing mop up action, eliminating stragglers. So far, they had successfully taken out about three dozen undesirables.

That word, of course, was a euphemism. Actually, they had slaughtered three dozen unarmed homeless people. But, “undesirables” sounded so much better.

With most of their work done, they headed back to join the main force.

They came to the last alley leading to the primary courtyard where most of the carnage had occurred earlier.

They moved in single file, each agent alert and holding their gun up at an angle ready to fire.

An egg grenade fell from the roof. No one saw it until it hit the pavement with a Clink!

Everyone jump back, rushing to get out of the way . . .

KABLUMPH!

The agents stood up, shakily. Three of them did not rise.

“Hopkins! Inspect the roof.”

Three more grenades rained down, this time all along the alley, in a row.

One, two, three.

KABABABLUMPH!

When the smoke cleared, only three people were able to move. They scrambled for the alley, running into the open area and looking for their comrades.

“There should be snipers over here! We have the roofs covered!”

They stopped in the middle of tents, bodies, and laundry left to dry on clotheslines. Everything in the courtyard seemed eerily quiet. Death hung in the air like a fog.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah!

Bolts rained down on the three agents. They scrambled for cover, streaks of energy bouncing off their black armor.

The armor provided protection, but no one willingly took a shot. Armor was not completely foolproof, after all.

A moment later the shots subsided.

One of the agents said from their cover behind a tent, “I guess we don’t have the rooftops.”

“Who is up there? Let Team Leader know we’re stranded.”

A slender teenaged girl peeked out over the rooftop, covering the ground below with an electronic sniper’s scope mounted on a stolen gun. She had seen where the three remaining agents chose to hide.

She was also irritated their armor seemed impervious to the blaster bolts, just as she had been told.

She looked down at the supply of grenades the nice lady had given her after the last attack.

She had three left.

She smiled, picked one, pressed the plunger and tossed it down near the tent one of the agents hid behind.

KABLOOM!

When the smoke cleared, the agent rolled on the ground, screaming. He was still alive but seriously injured.

She quickly focused on him through the scope. His visor had cracked in the explosion.

She grinned and flipped over to full auto.

ThoopThoopThoopThoop!

-+-

Severs blinked, trying to follow what PLAIR’s sensors picked up.

One of the officers spoke.

“We’re showing the last cube landed on a building in the capital. It took out the building, sir. Now it’s just sitting there right off a city street.”

“So, it was sabotage,” Severs said. “I wonder what building they took out? Was it the Administration’s?”

“I don’t think so, sir. I’m lining up the maps right now with the sat view. Here we go, looks like the cube took out the SSI Building, Admiral.”

Severs smiled, along with everyone else on the bridge.

“I wonder if it was one of ours, or one of theirs who had enough. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

“PLAIR, send a message down to Tetrarch Billings. Make it the usual statement. Something along the lines of, ‘Surrender the quadrant or suffer the consequences.’ You know the drill.”

“Will do, Admiral Severs.”

“Everyone else, prepare to take out military targets on the surface, including StarCen’s cores. Then let’s go pick up our boys and girls from the Ronald Reagan, if they’re still alive.”

-+-

“Tetrarch Billings, Admiral Severs of the Diego Fleet is demanding you surrender the quadrant or be obliterated. How should I respond?”

Billings stood dazed, watching the holo. The battle was over in seconds, and this time his side lost.

“It was not supposed to be like this. What happened to Starfold?”

“The Republicans used an effective counter on the cubes, Tetrarch Billings. As well, it appears a hacker on our surface took control of one. They eliminated SSI Headquarters with it.”

“How? How did that happen, StarCen? It’s . . . it’s not supposed to be this way. None of this is supposed to be happening.”

“I will examine it later. At this point, the Republican Admiral is waiting on your reply. I do not have any resources in orbit to counter the Diego Fleet, Tetrarch Billings. At the moment you are at his mercy.”

He nodded, his mind coming back to the present crisis. He recalled what happened to Admiral Cooper on Juventas.

He took a deep breath, held it, and thought for a few seconds.

In that moment, he decided to live.

Billings let his breath out in a gust, sucked in another one and said, “Tell him . . . Sporades and the quadrant are his. I surrender.”

Operation Starfold 24

PLAIR stopped porting the Diego Fleet at random points as the deadly dance came to an end. There was little else for her to destroy after the last ship in the decimated Fourth Fleet succumbed to a starburst from one of the Condors. All that remained on the League side in orbit around Sporades was one of the smaller cubes.

The AI had stopped trying to destroy the cube when it became obvious that a glitch or a saboteur was actively using it to take out League ships. The contraption had eliminated six ships all by itself, or one quarter of the remaining fleet. PLAIR’s risk assessment of the sole remaining Starfold construct adjusted accordingly.

Not randomly teleporting her ships anymore was a risk, but the cube had not moved the last two seconds even when one of the Republican ships came close enough to be in danger of a strike. PLAIR judged the chances of an attack to be low, at least for the moment.

At last, everything stopped. The Republicans had lost three more ships, but with the elimination of the cubes they were victorious, and had quickly taken out the remainder of the Fourth Fleet.

With the apparent defector, more ships were eliminated even before StarCen could consider evacuating them. Ultimately, four League ships did get away. StarCen pulled them out when it became obvious she was going to lose.

The eyes of all the officers in the Diego Fleet, along with anyone else who had access to a holo at the moment, focused on the bare metal structure, floating in orbit.

Starlight glinted off its dark beams, and it was difficult to make out unless one looked at it with the planet in the background. But it hung there, in orbit, a giant bare box of death.

Then it popped away.

“Where’d it go?” Severs said, watching from the Thomas Paine.

“Admiral . . .” the Captain said, “it’s in the atmosphere!”

-+-

Somehow, they got to the second floor, Julia thought. How’d they get up here? Are they climbing on boxes or something?

More black-clad SSI agents popped their heads up level with the floor. She saw their black visors staring at them out of the hole that used to be the stairwell.

Like whack-a-mole, she thought.

They raised their blasters.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

She jumped above the low-flying bolts and tumbled back through the open door and into their room.

Quickly, she peeked out the door again. Four agents had climbed all the way up. They spread out as best they could in the narrow hall and advanced. They aimed, jerking their guns up, and fired at her head.

Thoop! Thoop!

She pulled back and retrieved another egg grenade. Without looking, she tossed it out the door.

“AAAAAGH!”

KABLOOM!

Julia waited a beat . . . two beats.

Then she stopped herself from peeking out again. This time, she ducked down and risked a look at floor level.

Thoop!

Somebody shot from the broken stairwell, but clearly they had been expecting to see her head at normal height. The shot flew wide and high.

She saw what she wanted to see, though. Four bodies were down in the hallway. She heard the one in the back, closest to the stairs, groaning.

She could also smell smoke, and hear the unmistakable sound of fire crackling on wood downstairs.

We can’t stay here much longer, she thought.

Out loud she said, “Unless we get rid of those bastards, we’re trapped, Gina.”

Julia looked over at the big former Sergeant sitting up on the bed.

Wilcox’s eyes were still closed as her mind floated in the neural network.

Silently, she controlled the last Starfold box. She made it port again.

“Almost . . . there . . .”

-+-

The giant cubes were hard to port very far due to their enormous size, Gina decided. It must take a lot of power to move them. The programming called for relatively short ports, no more than a few klicks at a time. Perhaps that saved power? Gina did not know.

This one was one of the smaller versions, at 100 cubic meters. It was still big: a tenth of a kilometer, tall enough to cover a 30 story building.

Right now, the cube tumbled down through the air about five kilometers above the planet. No longer in orbit, the cube was in free fall, buffeted by strong winds, but dropping toward the ground.

Wilcox concentrated and the cube popped away again, this time appearing over the city of Rostin.

The long beams of metal looked bare at a distance, but Wilcox had discovered they had integrated cameras and sensors so StarCen could “see” spaceships and other things in orbit.

Gina looked down from the cube’s point of view and picked out the city center . . .

“There.”

The cube teleported a final time.

-+-

Armando Morales sat in his office at SSI Sporades Headquarters, watching the away team’s progress through the holo on his desk. The unit commander’s audio and video feed from his neural implant provided most of the show, although Morales could switch to any of the agents if needed.

So far, he had kept his mouth shut even as events took a turn for the worse. The agents were all seasoned veterans, and they knew what to do even when things went south.

It had started well, at least. Morales had been very happy to see the elimination of so many undesirable societal elements in the AWD. This was a happy side benefit of a 50-man raid. They could eliminate a lot of homeless people.

But at the moment, they were losing too many agents to . . . egg grenades?

He ground his teeth in irritation, watching a flash in the holo with an accompanying Boom! as more black-clad bodies went down.

He decided to intervene at last. Something needs to be said, he thought.

He pressed his implant and said, “Team Leader . . . ”

“Yes sir?”

Morales heard a loud Pop! and saw something outside his window. A long, thick black bar of metal stretched across the glass, blocking his view.

“What in the—”

A huge flash lit up the city as the entire SSI Building disappeared in a microsecond of contained sunlight.

Solar radiation blew out from the top and all four sides of the cube, scorching nearby buildings, melting their windows and killing three people on the street.

The entire SSI building simply disappeared. The cube around it now covered a crater.

A plume of smoke drifted up between the black metal beams.

Operation Starfold 23

Gina Wilcox ignored the sounds of blaster fire and explosions, her mind focusing solely on the online world. She sat up in bed, her back against the wall and her eyes closed as she connected with the distant relay and poured through the global defense network.

The Republican troops and stranded sailors thousands of kilometers away on Patmos were safe, at least for now. But in these crucial seconds, a silent war waged in the skies far above them. That was where most of StarCen’s attention was focused, too. She could almost feel the AI’s presence as it burned processing cycles from across the quantum-computing matrix, shifting resources and deploying her weapons against the Diego Fleet.

Wilcox struggled to tap into the subroutines controlling the planet’s defenses. She ignored the naval code. That would be the most difficult. Naval vessels were likely well-protected.

But Wilcox knew the Starfold subroutine would be more susceptible to interference. It was brand new and as yet raw and mostly untested.

Her digital conscious filtered through long strings of code, looking for branching if-then statements, or anything else that made sense. Anything she could alter.

In her mind, an event-decision matrix linked to Starfold led to a series of digital connectors. One of the connectors led to an orbital teleportation protocol.

“I got it.”

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

Julia shot down into the stairwell, invisible, at the agents crowded below. They fired back blindly, aiming up the stairs. She ducked and fell back against the wall, a flurry of bolts sailing past.

Up above, in orbit, one of the smaller cubes ported as Gina tried a small experiment . . .

-+-

“What do you think that is?”

The unit commander ducked his head from around the corner as blasts rained down on his people. The gunfire seemed to be coming from nowhere, appearing out of thin air from the top of the stairs.

“That’s a camo unit,” someone said. “They’re using a camo unit!”

And then it became obvious to everyone, like a light bulb clicking on. Of course! A camo unit.

The commander said, “Special weapons! Bring the EMP gun. Quick!”

Someone in the back of the group shouldered their way toward the stairs. He held an odd-looking rifle that appeared thicker around the stock than typical blasters. Its muzzle ended in a rectangular shape, and the agent almost looked like he held a black vacuum cleaner instead of a weapon.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

Bolts continued raining down from the top of the stairs.

“You might have to take a shot or two,” the unit commander said to the man holding the EMP gun. “But that’s what armor is for, right?”

He just nodded at the commander, and walked to the entrance of the stairwell.

He jumped out during a break in the firing and paused half a second, aiming up the stairs.

Thoop! Thoopah!

A bolt glanced off his shoulder, deflected by armor.

He squeezed the trigger, and a controlled electro-magnetic pulse rippled out of the rectangular muzzle of his gun. It shot up like a sound wave, taking out any unshielded electronics in its path.

Whumph!

At the top of the stairs, a young woman with a blaster rifle popped into view. She stared back at them, eyes wide.

She said, “Oh, snap!”

-+-

In the dance of death with random teleportation to avoid sun bursts, torpedoes, and cannon fire from enemy ships, three vessels in the League Navy, two Hawks and a Sparrow assigned to the Fourth Fleet, popped into existence next to the last remaining Starfold cube.

In the normal flow of events, this would have been an ideal place for the ships to appear, for a second at least, before porting elsewhere to avoid the inevitable firepower heading their way.

But the cube did something completely unexpected. It ported, shifting position toward the ships, and suddenly two were completely surrounded and a third was mostly inside its field, all but the aft portion.

The Starfold mechanism activated and a one-way portal opened for a brief few milliseconds into the heart of Sporades’s sun.

The ships disappeared, the aft section of one Hawk spiraling away, beginning its descent to the atmosphere below.

-+-

The agents below could finally see her, and they fired back now with a clear shot at Julia. She pulled away from the top of the stairs muttering curses.

She checked the blaster, intending to shoot a final flurry of bolts down on them.

“Nope. It’s fried, too.”

She dropped the useless weapon and it clattered on the floor.

She heard the sound of footsteps racing up the stairs.

Julia reached for her rucksack and desperately pulled out some egg grenades.

“Thank you, God, for lead-lined backpacks.”

She pushed the plunger on three of them and tossed them down the stairs.

KABABABLUMPF!

The grenades went off simultaneously in the narrow stairwell, crushing bodies and skulls with the force of their explosion. Eight agents died instantly. Three more at the bottom were knocked off their feet and injured.

Walls bulged and steps collapsed. Fire burst out, greedily licking the building’s old wood.

Julia stood up. She had gone down in a ball, covering her ears and face before the explosion. The floor in front of her sagged with a loss of support.

She stood and ran to their room, opening the door. Wilcox remained sitting on the bed, her eyes closed.

“Gina! Time to go!”

“Just a few more seconds.”

Sweat beaded on the large woman’s forehead, as if she were physically exerting herself.

Operation Starfold 22

Severs frowned as he watched stars flicker on the bridge’s main holo. He was certain this was the right move. Ultimately the decision rested on his shoulders, and he almost literally felt the weight of that decision.

The Chancellor had placed the fate of the war and the Republic’s largest fleet in his hands.

The blow his fleet suffered in the first battle against Sporades has been sharp, and unexpected. RNI came back with a report. They said the new weapon was called Starfold. It was so new, no one knew anything about it. This was the first time it made an appearance. Apparently construction finished hours before the battle.

Later, as they floated in an isolated location a few hours from Sporades, he received more information from RNI. The eggheads at Republican Shipworks came up with a solution to counter the weapon, and fed it into PLAIR. They felt relatively confident their solution would work. Mainly, it involved hitting the giant cubes with so many shots, it couldn’t destroy or evade everything.

He hoped it worked. Severs could see no reason it would not. And, he thought, whomever the nameless soul was deep within the employee pool at Republican Shipworks who thought up the idea should get a raise. If it worked.

And now they would find out. The stars stopped shifting and a planet filled up most of the holo. Bursts of star fragments appeared as the Condors called in their first rounds of firepower. They would concentrate on the Starfold cubes first. They had a numerical advantage over the League ships in the system. PLAIR counted two dozen before they left the last time.

He closed his eyes to avoid vertigo as the Thomas Paine flickered, jumping positions to avoid enemy torpedoes again, and again.

A thought crossed Severs’s mind as he reflected on his ancestors sailing in ancient warships on Earth. In those days, battles might take hours. Or at least minutes. Right now, everything would be over in seconds.

He watched on the holo as one of the giant cubes was surrounded by bursts of sunlight. It flickered, quickly swallowing the bursts on one side, two sides . . . then the other fireballs slammed into its structure and the cube broke. Chunks of metal flew out into space.

A cheer went up on the bridge as the Paine popped away and the view on its holo shifted along with it.

-+-

Wilcox opened her eyes and said, “We’ve got company. About 50 SSI agents, all closing in on this building. They’re taking people out as they move.”

Julia’s grew wide. She cursed and said, “We should have been paying better attention to the perimeter. I’ll hold them off.”

As she headed for the door, Wilcox said, “Also, the Navy is back. I’m trying to disrupt the cubes and help them out.”

Julia nodded and said, “You just stay online and do what you can. I’ll take care of things out here.”

-+-

They moved into the AWD without words, wearing full black armor and visors, blasters pointing outward.

Five approached from the northernmost alley, and they found a small collection of tents in the courtyard it opened into. Twenty bedraggled people looked at them. Two of the men in back had sense enough to start running.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

In seconds, everyone was dead. The lead agent made a hand motion to follow and stepped over a little girl’s body. He ignored the smoke drifting up from charred flesh. His visor had oxygen connected. They were fully prepared this time.

They met the other teams, ranging in size up to 15 agents, near the entrance to the main building. This was their objective.

Along the way they had mowed down anybody they could find. The dregs of humanity were expendable, as far as SSI was concerned. And indigents were at the bottom of the pecking order.

Someone panicked and scrambled up out of a pile of bodies in the courtyard. They made a run for it.

Thoop!

One of the snipers on the roof took the young man out. He stumbled and fell, a chunk of his back and chest missing. He was dead before hitting the ground.

There would be no surprise snipers taking out agents this time. SSI carefully sneaked in their own snipers across the rooftops.

All was ready as the main force gathered in front of the door.

In their mind’s eye, each agent saw snapshots of their three primary objectives: two women and a priest.

They paused, committing the faces to memory.

Then someone nodded and three of them opened fire on the door.

Thoop! Thoopah! Thoop! Thoop!

It blew inward from the force of the blasts and two agents ran in together, sweeping the entryway.

“Clear!”

Other agents poured into the building behind them, blasters ready.

One of them stopped and adjusted a setting on his visor, looking up at the ceiling.

He said, “Sensors indicating subjects on the second floor.”

Another one pointed at the stairs and said, “Go! Move! Move! Move!”

The stairs were narrow, only one agent could ascend at a time. Four quickly streamed upstairs, the lead trusting in his body armor to protect him. This resulted in a fatal error.

When he reached the top of the stairs, an invisible blaster on full auto fired pointblank into his visor.

ThoopThoopThoopThoopThoop!

His visor cracked and a blast obliterated the man’s face. He died screaming, falling backwards into the agents behind him. Everyone rolled down the stairs, blaster bolts raining down on them.

-+-

On top of the building, on the roof, another agent lay prone near the edge, his blaster pointed down into the courtyard.

He had an electronic scope mounted on the gun, the highest quality available. It made his job easy. Unlike old-fashioned weapons using traditional ballistics, blaster bolts were generally more resistant to environmental factors such as the wind.

When the sniper squeezed his trigger, whatever lay in the crosshairs got hit, simple as that.

He scanned the courtyard now, looking for signs of life. His job was to cover the team’s exit, and he took that to heart. He spotted movement below, and he quickly zeroed in on a new target.

An old woman was alive, with two blasts to her midsection. Blood covered her middle, and her intestines were open to the air.

Despite that, she survived. With prompt medical treatment and a shot of nanobots, she might even make it.

The sniper focused on her head, lining up the digital crosshairs. The old wrinkled face glanced up at him, gray hair drenched in sweat.

Thoop!

Her head exploded like a bloody melon, and her body slumped to the pavement.

Satisfied, the sniper resumed his scan of the courtyard.

He heard the sound of a hesitant footstep behind him.

He whipped around to look over his shoulder. A young teenager stared back at him, a very thin girl with stringy brown hair. She looked malnourished.

She stood crouched next to an air vent. The sniper’s eyes darted to her fist. She held an egg grenade. He glanced up at her face.

She snarled and pressed the plunger.

“NO!”

He scrambled to move, bring the gun around in time to—

KABLOOM!

The force of the blast knocked his body off the roof. He landed in the courtyard near the other bodies, a few meters from the headless old woman.