Halcyon’s Heirs 2

Edgar Munk leaned back in his leather office chair and sighed. The problem with a tetrarchy, he thought, was the vast distance and area it covered. Star League controlled 16 major planets—17 if you counted Epsilon Prime—and a host of less significant ones.

It was too much. Even with the most sophisticated artificial intelligence system ever developed, StarCen, it was still too much. He simply could not keep tabs on everybody.

It was hard enough monitoring social media, electronic communications, and eavesdropping on human speech. The multiple, multiple hours of data generated at all times of the day and night on all the planets covered by StarCen was impossible for humans to sort through all by themselves. Countless quantum-computing cycles were devoted to parsing the info, submitting it to algorithms, looking for signs of sedition and betrayal.

And then there was the other human intelligence that was gathered. SSI was modeled after the Ministerium für Staatssicherheitin the old Soviet-controlled East Germany. The organization had been better known as “Stasi.”

Stasi was organized before advanced computing, and combined the very worst elements of Nazi Germany and Russian-style communism. It used human intelligence as its primary tool of terror and control. Neighbors snitched on neighbors, family members on family members, everyone quick to point out the secrets of those closest to them before they themselves were fingered.

SSI developed tactics based on this grand predecessor. Any agent worth his or her salt studied the great intelligence agencies of the past including the KGB, the Stasi, and the Gestapo. These agencies were lauded by modern SSI, and any techniques that could be learned from their forefathers were considered sacrosanct by most agents.

But now, Munk decided, now they were just too big to keep tabs on everything. He had trouble monitoring his own people. Just the other month, his man at SSI Juventas ordered Tetrarch Thrall’s youngest daughter to be taken out, contravening all rules and decorum. Munk personally got on the line and apologized to Julius Thrall when he found out. The order had been rendered without Munk’s knowledge.

Thrall had been gracious in the call. Martin Evans was already gone by that time. The local police had ruled it a death by natural causes, but Munk knew that Raquel Kirkland could have taken him out. It fit her modus operandito cause heart attacks. She could have easily sneaked into his apartment via the wiring and enacted Thrall’s retribution.

In fact, if Edgar were a betting man, he would have placed all his money on that scenario hitting close to the truth. He knew from reports that one of Martin’s men tried and failed to bring Raquel in at the same time the Navy brought back Thrall’s daughter from a pirate ship. Raquel disappeared, and Martin Evans showed up dead. One did not have to be the proverbial rocket scientist to put two and two together.

The only thing Thrall wanted from him on that call was an assurance that Munk did not know anything about the whereabouts of his daughter. Evidently she disappeared again, shortly after coming home. How she could have vanished from one of the most heavily guarded and isolated sites on Clarion was a mystery to both men.

Munk assured the Tetrarch he had thoroughly reviewed the files, and his daughter was not retrieved by SSI during that rogue operation. In fact, SSI was a little confused about how their men were taken out. Not one member of the team survived.

Thrall graciously let bygones be bygone, although he hinted that Evans’s replacement would likely live longer if he or she did not share their predecessor’s animosity. Munk assured him an appropriately neutral party would be appointed to run SSI Clarion.

He breathed a bit easier after the call terminated. If there was one man Edgar Munk respected, even feared a bit, it was Julius Thrall. The Tetrarch would not hesitate to eliminate the head of SSI Epsilon if he thought he needed to, just as he no doubt eliminated the head of SSI Clarion when Evans crossed the line.

Munk also had no doubts that Raquel Kirkland was with Thrall again. Munk had been there when Thrall took her out of Raton Five, and he had seen how well they hit it off on the flight back home. Even though Munk trained Raquel and officially she was classified as an SSI asset, he knew where her heart was.

He took a deep sigh and returned to the problem at hand. The League was too big to control adequately. Seventeen major planets, and a bunch of minor ones. Billions upon billions of people.

Dividing things up into a tetrarchy had been a stroke of genius. Four planets were infinitely easier to manage. Epsilon could be at the center of things, a headquarters for organizations serving all quadrants.

But even so, even with a tetrarchy, managing state security for the League was proving a gargantuan task.

And here now, back on Epsilon Prime, he had university professors espousing such notions as constitutional representative democracy! The thought of such seditious teaching taking place at his alma mater was almost inconceivable to Munk.

He glanced down at the report Fernando had filed, and the request to terminate that the agent made at the very end. It was marked in code, “801.”

It would have to be termination, Munk thought. Dr. Milford had tenure, and he could not be fired for anything he said during lectures, no matter how politically incorrect. Eliminating sedition like this would involve cutting out the cancer completely.

Munk sighed again, deep and long this time. Then he said, “StarCen?”

The AI’s high-pitched voice came down from the ceiling.

She said, “Yes, Director Munk?”

“Inform Agent Fernando I approve his 801 request.”

“Yes, Director Munk.”

-+-

Fernando sat on a university park bench eating a hotdog from a food cart vendor. He wore a baseball cap, a style unchanged in centuries, and watched Dr. Milford at a safe distance. He also kept a mental eye on his neural connection to SSI HQ. He had filed his report and uploaded the holo an hour ago, almost as soon as class let out. No doubt his superiors kicked it upstairs since he included an 801 request.

Sometimes those requests generated additional investigations. Sometimes they resulted in an outside agent brought in to fulfill the directive. But sometimes, and this Fernando fervently hoped would be the case this time, sometimes the 801 request was approved on the spot.

The professor was oblivious to all the machinations and discussions concerning his fate, and followed his daily routine of eating a sack lunch in the park and feeding popcorn to the local variety of pigeons.

Fernando knew Milford’s routine, often following him to the park and back to his flat in the evenings. He watched the professor throw the last of his popcorn out while sitting at a bench about ten meters away. The older man smiled at the pigeons, happy to watch them scramble for kernels as they hit the ground.

A text message popped up in his mind’s eye: “801 approved.”

They saw it my way, Fernando thought with a smile.

He reached a hand up to the bill of his cap and activated a microswitch. A crosshair lined up in his inner eye, following his line of sight. He stared at the professor’s face and activated the neural connection linked to the tiny weapon in his cap.

A beam of energy shot from the hidden gun, following the agent’s crosshairs. It hit the professor’s forehead, silent and invisible. Fernando concentrated on the same spot for ten seconds, twenty.

The professor wiped sweat from his head. He stood up suddenly and swayed, apparently dizzy. Fernando kept staring at his forehead, maintaining the crosshairs’ location. The beam continued aiming at Milford’s face.

He collapsed, falling to the ground in a heap.

A woman nearby pushing a baby stroller stopped and looked at him.

“Are you alright? Sir, are you okay?”

She bent down to check on him, pressing the implant under her ear to dial 9-1-1.

Fernando stood, confident that the professor was not okay. The energy beam hidden within his cap had caused a cerebral hemorrhage, and nothing short of immediate medical attention would save him.

As he walked away he heard the young mother speaking frantically over her neural connection.

“Yes, I’m in the park, and this man just collapsed. He fell over on the ground. Yes, I’ll stay on the line. Can you see my optics? Yes. Yes.”

Fernando smiled as he left the area.

Rather than a college education, Fernando had spent his formative years under the tutelage of SSI instructors, learning how to infiltrate subversive groups and kill their leaders quietly. He remembered something his assassination instructor had mentioned when discussing professors.

The elimination of high-level targets was always a concern, and professors fell into that group. If they could be discredited, or run out of the institution, that would usually suffice. Anything to remove them from an influential position. But if they were safe from political threats, as tenured professors often were, other steps had to be taken.

What had the instructor said? Fernando quoted him from memory.

“If he has tenure, he meets the Reaper.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 1

Johan Milford stood at the lecture dais wearing a comfortable polo and blue jeans. Blue jeans, that ancient style of clothing, was currently in vogue on Epsilon, and Dr. Milford was a very popular, and hip, professor.

Milford was proud to boast ancestral blood from four continents on Old Earth: North America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. He had nice blended look, featuring light brown skin, dark brown hair and eyes.

He stood five foot nine, or 175 centimeters, with bushy brown hair and a bushy brown beard. He carried too much weight from lack of exercise, good food, and copious amounts of beer consumed on the weekends.

In short, he was a very typical university professor, looking every bit the part. He stepped out from the podium and waved a hand around the lecture hall, filled with undergraduate students hanging on his every word.

Most professors preferred teaching small and intimate gatherings of graduate students, and the lighter grading load such classes entailed. But if Dr. Milford held such a preference, he kept it well hidden. He remained one of the most popular professors at Epsilon University, consistently scoring high on social media surveys. Students loved him, and his classes always filled to capacity.

Today he taught the 400 or so undergraduates in a stadium-style classroom for his Philosophy 101 class. Most in the class were 16-year-old freshmen, although a few older students were mixed in, particularly those who were unable to attend when they were freshmen themselves.

Unlike other lecturers at the university, Milford worked at making his time on stage entertaining. He danced around, gesturing wildly, varying the cadence of his voice. He included amusing anecdotes and used all the techniques of compelling oratory. Holos of his lectures were very popular, even among non-academics, and had racked up millions of views.

Several students were in fact recording him right now, their neural implants storing optical and aural sensory input as they watched him on the stage. Most recorded his lectures for their personal benefit, ostensibly so they could re-watch them before tests. In actuality, parties and personal relationships interfered with studying time for many of them, and the holos were never seen again.

A handful sold their recordings to companies looking to capitalize on the professor’s fame. This practice was officially frowned upon by Epsilon University and was grounds for dismissal if caught. However, it proved too lucrative for some to resist.

One student recorded the lecture for an entirely different purpose. He was registered as a sophomore under the name Ben Fernando. Fernando was an agent for State Security and Intelligence.

SSI had kept tabs on Dr. Milford for years. In fact, SSI monitored almost everyone at Epsilon University, students as well as professors. The hard sciences were watched for developments that could be appropriated by the state, or that might be used against the state. The soft sciences and humanities were monitored for political adherence, although less stringently. Everyone knew liberal arts and the like were mostly useless from a practical standpoint.

However, the war changed things and SSI slowly began to realize the true meaning of a liberal education. Liberal arts and social sciences taught students how to think. And if students learned to think outside established orthodoxy, that could be a problem.

Director Munk himself realized the error in their lax coverage of the humanities late in the war. He had since performed due diligence, including learning about the history of university education.

The liberal arts always rebelled against orthodoxy, it seemed. There may be times when professors adhered to the status quo, but invariably their politics shifted to the opposite side of the spectrum from which they were governed.

Therefore, capitalist societies produced professors who championed socialism. Socialist societies produced professors championing freedom and capitalism. The pattern held true for centuries.

Since the Star League was an authoritarian tetrarchy, it only stood to reason that her universities would produce freedom loving capitalistic professors. So, Munk increased surveillance on the humanities, and Fernando found himself signing up for various classes in liberal arts.

Fernando had to admit, Milford was a very good speaker. He found himself entertained, and often spent time afterward thinking about what the professor said. If it were not for the fact Fernando was an SSI agent, loyal to the state in every way, he might have been influenced to think the wrong way sometimes.

Philosophy was a broad topic, and Milford spent much time going over the classics. But the way he presented philosophical movements, ideas, and opinions always left his students with the notion that more freedom was better for individuals than what authoritarian governments typically allowed; that people flourished when government largely left them alone; that the right to be left alone was to be cherished and sought out whenever possible.

In short, Fernando increasingly grew to realize that Milford was extraordinarily dangerous and spreading seditious rumors and half-truths to his students. He grew increasingly alarmed as the semester advanced, and his reports back to SSI HQ became more strident in tone.

Today Milford expounded upon the philosophies underlying the American Revolution, and Fernando remained particularly alert. These ideas were poison to the League, especially in their ongoing war against the Republic. The Republic was in fact founded on the same ideals.

The Republic even thumbed its nose at the League by naming their most powerful spacecraft after American founding fathers.

So Fernando paid close attention, sitting front and center in the auditorium for a good view, and recorded it all on his neural implant.

Milton paused dramatically and said, “Somebody once said a democracy is like two wolves and a sheep voting what to have for dinner.”

Everyone in the room chuckled. All these students, Fernando thought, had been taught from an early age the evils of capitalism and democracy by state-approved schools and teachers. The notion had been pounded into them relentlessly.

Milton continued and said, “Somebody else said a representativedemocracy is where the sheep has a gun.”

A girl in the back of the room, “Oh, no!”

A few turned around and looked at her. She clapped a hand over her mouth and her ears grew red.

Milton nodded sagely. He said, “Of course, it doesn’t have to a literal gun, although in the case of the United States it certainly was with the Second Amendment to the Constitution. But the weapon in question is really the electoral process. You see, in a representative democracy, the people’s weapons are elections. If the people don’t like who is serving them in government, they can have a revolution at the ballot box and vote the scoundrels out of office.

“This is why representative democracies are the most stable and longest lasting of all governments. Their ‘revolutions’ occur every four years or so. The people in charge change, while the underlying framework within their constitution carries on.”

Fernando heard some mutterings, a couple of “Hmm’s” and “Aha’s.” He looked at the students sitting near him and noticed some eyebrows raised.

Milton had made an excellent point, and his ideas were shaking the carefully entrenched attitudes toward government these students had been indoctrinated in almost since birth.

Milton had also, Fernando decided, signed his own death warrant.

Condor Rising 39

Severs sighed, resigned to yet another meeting with top brass and diplomats. This part of leadership, he decided, was worse than waiting out in space for enemy ships to show up.

He stopped in the hallway and glanced at a giant holoscreen showing the Republican Shipworks orbiting platform, with several vessels in various stages of completion or repair.

After all that waiting, Severs thought, when the League Navy finally decided to show up they were destroyed in less than two minutes. It would have taken less than one minute except for the latecomer who showed up after the initial assault. Apparently, StarCen managed to port that one away before it was totally destroyed, because nothing was left of it save for a few chunks of scrap metal.

In the end, after all that waiting, the Thomas Paine took out an entire fleet. Not just any fleet, a fleet buttressed and expanded with half again as many ships as usual, 92 in all. And they were almost all destroyed. All except the last one that StarCen popped away in the nick of time. PLAIR had assured him privateers later finished off the damaged ship.

It was a phenomenal feat, unheard of in the annals of galactic warfare. Severs and Captain Strand and everyone else were feted as heroes back on Diego.

For his part, Severs played down the praise, turning it toward Strand. And Strand heaped praise on Severs in every interview he gave to the media. But the credit for taking out so many ships lay entirely with the new weapon. The press duly noted this in their programs and stories, with varied lurid headlines.

“Star Weapon Devastates Enemy Fleet.”

“Sun Gun Stuns Seychar’s Sons!”

“Harnessing the Sun to Get the Job Done.”

Severs was happy to accept the accolades, but privately he pressed his superiors to be allowed to sail again. The problem with that notion included the fact that Thomas Paine was disabled.

While engineers had perfected the algorithms for teleporting parts of the nearest star into combat, no one had taken into consideration actual combat conditions. In combat, the weapon needed to be used repetitively and in quick succession. So when Strand and his crew began lobbing parts of the sun at the enemy, they ported as many as they could, as quickly as they could.

The resulting power drain melted the Thomas Paine’s core. After the last fireball was sent toward Excelsior, Paine was adrift with nothing but emergency reserves to keep life support operational. The ship had to be towed back to Diego via tandem drive, where engineers with Republican Shipworks swarmed over every inch of the vessel to try and figure out what went wrong.

Their verdict: rapid overuse contributed to the meltdown. Pulling out part of a star took much more energy than typical teleportation. The Thomas Paine used all five Wu Drives in rapid succession to do so, over and over again. This resulted in the entire power core shutting down.

Working overtime, the employees of Republican Shipworks managed to restore the core . . . in two weeks. Severs literally gnashed his teeth at the thought of delay. Their entire planning centered around the Paine being used as a spearhead for a fresh assault on the League. That could not happen now.

Meanwhile, he thought, StarCen’s engineers would be busy developing their own weapon, or devising methods of countering it. The Planetary Republic no longer held the element of surprise.

He could do nothing but wait as workers repaired and outfitted the ship.

Now, today, at last . . . the Paine was ready to go. So was the Diego Fleet. Every spare ship had been called in. The Republic was going to move on the League. Even if the League had their own star gun by now, which everyone doubted, they were down 90 ships. Now was the time to make their move.

And even better, Severs thought as he looked out at the huge holoscreen displaying the orbiting shipyard, they would be bringing two of their newest ships with them: Francis Marion and Patrick Henry. He smiled at the identical Condor-class ships.

“There you are.”

Severs turned at the sound of a voice interrupting his thoughts. Chancellor Elsa Cole walked up, short, petite, and strawberry blonde. The freckles on her face and her easy smile belied her age and the burden of responsibility she carried for the entire Republic during these times of war. But she reached up and patted the larger man’s shoulder affectionately.

She was very personable, he thought, which was how she got elected. She could come across to voters as personable, too. But in private, those interacting with her could tell this was not simply an act to garner votes.

“The Diego Fleet departs in the morning, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’ve been waiting for that, haven’t you? Chomping at the bit.”

“Yes, ma’am. I fear the longer we wait the less advantage we have.”

She nodded, staring at the holoscreen displaying the two new ships ready to sail into battle. A twinkle shined in her eye.

“The Diego Fleet will sail with a new Admiral, you know.”

He turned to her and lifted an eyebrow. “No, I hadn’t heard. What happened to Admiral Caldwell?”

She smiled widely and said, “I’m promoting you to Admiral. You understand the Condor-class and their capabilities. The fleet will have three Condors sailing. I think you’re the best person for the job.”

Severs nodded as the full realization of her words struck home. He had always understood promotions were more rapid in wartime, but this . . . this was the fulfillment of his childhood dream.

His chest swelled while his mind swam with the new responsibilities being placed on his shoulders.

“Thank you, ma’am. I won’ t let you down.”

The petite woman smiled up at him and patted his shoulder again.

“I know you won’t. Go out there and win this war for me, Admiral.”

 

End of Book III

Condor Rising 38

The Parasol popped into orbit around Lute, following her regular yet unpublicized schedule. Cargo was sent down to Port Ryan, including clothing and other imports from across both League planets as well as the Republic’s. Exports were sent back up to the ship’s now empty holds, including agricultural products and tons of cryo-preserved poshbird, the chicken of the stars.

A handful of passengers ported down to the Administration Building, including new embassy staff and those returning from trips home. They passed through Customs without incident, their luggage and even the diplomatic pouches subjected to discreet scans by LuteNet. Customs officials knew several of these people by sight, they traveled between the two planets so often.

Of more interest to the officials were the handful of passengers who came down from the ship. Visitors to Lute were unusual. Typically, the only ones who made it this far either had a good reason to come all this way, or were interested in joining a pirate company. So, each visitor was politely but thoroughly screened.

A particularly large man approached the customs desk after exiting the embarkation/disembarkation zone, carrying a single suitcase on a strap over his shoulder. The agent looked down at her holoscreen at the data on him.

“Name?”

“Miller Metger.”

“Ah. Two last names, I see.”

She smiled up at him to gauge his reaction. She found a large face on a large head atop a very large man. He had thick black hair that was cut evenly, in a pageboy style. It did nothing to enhance his looks.

He looked at her without expression in his dark eyes, and for a moment she wondered if she would need to call for help.

Then he smiled slightly, and appeared marginally less threatening.

He said, “I get that a lot.”

“Enjoy your stay on Lute,” she said.

He nodded back and continued into the building.

Well, if he’s here to join a company, he should make a good pirate, she thought to herself.

Outside the building, Metger blinked in the sunlight and looked up. A young boy ran to him fearlessly.

“Cab, sir? Where do you need to go? Looking for a hotel? Restaurant?”

“Take me to the Petra Roe Embassy.”

“Sure thing! Right this way, sir!”

The boy led him down the steps of the building to the street where autocabs sat parked, waiting to give rides. The boy led him to one and made sure he stayed inside. Then the canopy snapped shut and the vehicle lifted into the sky.

Moments later, it landed on the roof the embassy building. Metger exited the vehicle and approached a receptionist droid underneath a canopied entrance.

He said, “Miller Metger here to see Ambassador Huntington.”

The android nodded as information danced across her holoscreen.

“Step into the elevator capsule, Mr. Metger. It will take you where you want to go.”

He nodded, and entered the waiting pod. When the doors opened again, he found himself walking into an ornate room with walnut paneling and plush carpets. The Ambassador himself stood from his desk and came around to meet him, in clear deference to his status.

Metger did not register anything on his face, but the Ambassador’s efforts pleased him. Proper respect was important.

“Marshal Miller Metger,” the Ambassador said. “I am very pleased to meet you.”

He shook hands with the bigger man warmly. Metger waited for him to say something about his name, or the three identical letters in his name and title, but the Ambassador merely pulled a curled tip of his mustache out and let it spring back, grinning at him all the while.

“I don’t believe I’ve made it out to Lute since the war began,” Metger said, casting his eyes about the spacious office.

“Have a seat, Marshal, have a seat. Yes, travel has been restricted, especially with the League. Not too many debtors can find their way here. Or runaways or prisoners.”

Metger sank into a sinfully luxurious sofa and stared back at the effusive Ambassador without expression.

He said, “We’re not always tracking down debtors. In my case, at the moment, I’m looking for the daughter of a certain Tetrarch.”

The Ambassador nodded gleefully. He said, “I am well aware of Ms. Thrall. She has evaded every attempt to reunite her with her father. I am sure that now you are here, this situation will be rectified immediately.”

Metger stared at the well-dressed Ambassador blankly. He considered what the man did not say. Every attempt to kill her had failed, too. The Marshal’s Service had resources no other organization in either major government had. And Metger knew that SSI’s office in Clarion had put out a contract on Jillian Thrall. He also knew the Ambassador here had failed in fulfilling that contract. And, the head of SSI Clarion had paid for the contract with his own life. The Tetrarch was not happy.

Out loud Metger said, “I am tasked with returning Ms. Thrall to her father. Unharmed. I hope I may have the resources of your Embassy in fulfilling my task.”

“Absolutely, Marshal. Absolutely.”

“I understand she is with the Ultima Mule Company. Do they have any enemies? Any rival pirate companies looking to take them down a notch or two?”

Huntington shook his head. He said, “It doesn’t work that way. The companies cooperate more than anything. If they compete it’s to see how many League ships they can take in comparison to the others.”

“I see. That is unfortunate. I will likely need some form of assistance if I am to take on an entire company.”

“I use janissaries. You can hire anybody you need here. Assassins, snipers, you name it.”

“Very good. I’ll also need a blaster. Some egg grenades would be nice, if you have them. And a combat knife.”

“Take the elevator down to our armory. Check out whatever you like. I will make sure the droid there knows you are fully authorized.”

“Great.”

Metger stood, towering over the Ambassador.

He said, “I’ll be in touch when I need additional resources. I’ll have no difficulties taking a Petra Roe ship on the way out? I’ll need to catch a ride up to orbit since the local AI will likely consider this a forced abduction.”

“Absolutely. I’ll have a transport standing by, ready to give you a ride.”

“Very good. I’ll be on my way, then.”

As he walked out of the room, the Ambassador stood up nervously.

He said, “I hope the Marshal’s Service will remember the goodwill and cooperation the people of Petra Roe are always willing to offer.”

Metger gave him a flat stare again for a moment, as if trying to read the underlying message in the Ambassador’s words.

Finally he nodded and headed for the elevator.

When he left, Huntington rubbed his hands together in glee.

“Now those pirates are finally going to meet their match! The Marshal is here!”

Condor Rising 37

Curly steered the Excelsior’s transport down toward Halcyon. They neared the surface, flying along at a height of half a kilometer up, over blue water.

A light went off on the holopanel. Behind him someone said, “What’s that mean?”

“It means we’ve lost contact with StarCen,” Curly said. “The Excelsior has likely been destroyed.”

“Look at that!”

Everyone followed the red fireball streaking past in the opposite direction on the holoscreen. It disappeared in the distance behind them.

“It’s gonna hit the water,” Curly said.

“Any way the XO could have survived that?”

Curly shook his head. He said, “He’s probably already dead.”

Everyone sat in silence as the transport continued on its course.

Several minutes later, Curly pointed at the horizon. He said, “Land ahead. I’ll find a good place to set us down.”

He angled the nose of the craft and began slowing down. At long last, they flew over solid ground.

The beach below quickly gave way to foliage, spreading out like a green carpet to mountains in the distance. Curly circled for a bit and found a small river feeding into the ocean. From there, he flew inland a ways until at last they came to an open area that looked big enough for landing.

“We should be safe from the river overflowing or the tide coming in if we park it here. Also, if it’s out in the open maybe the rescue party can see it easier from space.”

He settled the craft down in the middle of the clearing. The rails bumped lightly on the ground, and the door opened. Everyone filed out the door.

Curly stopped to unbuckle the Captain and lifted her gently out of the seat. The crew milled about, looking at the grass and shrubbery, the blue sky and white clouds and distant birds floating on wind currents.

“This place is completely untouched by humans, isn’t it?” Curly said, gently laying the Captain on the ground.

Benson groaned, regaining consciousness as he put her down. Her hand reached up for the back of her head.

The ensign she had been strapped next to knelt down beside her with a look of concern as she sat up.

Benson said, “What happened, Kilmeade?”

“Ma’am, the XO clocked you on the back of the head. He stayed behind and ordered us to evacuate you.”

Benson’s eyes grew wide as she processed the news.

“He struck his commanding officer?”

Kilmeade nodded. “Yes, ma’am. He did.”

Benson glanced at the sky. She said, “Is the ship still up there?”

“No ma’am. We saw it go down. And contact with StarCen is lost.”

Something died in the Captain’s eyes at these words. She stared ahead, unfocused and lost in thought.

“He did say to tell you one thing, ma’am.”

Her eyes refocused on the ensign.

“What?”

“He said to tell you . . . he still would. Do you know what that means, Captain?”

Benson burst into tears. She cried for two solid minutes. Her surviving crewmembers turned away, awkwardly. Ensign Kilmeade felt awkward, too, but she stayed near her Captain.

At last, Benson wiped away the tears and sniffled.

She said, “Yes. I know what it means.”

She stood up, tears gone. She was still Captain, and they were marooned. Emotions came second to taking care of her crew.

Benson said, “Right. We need to find a source of fresh water. And the transport’s food supplies are not going to last very long. Curly, organize a party to scout the area. Identify plants animals we can harvest. See if there are trees or shrubs we can use for fire. Try to get a feel for the land, we might be here for a while.”

Curly nodded and moved toward the others as a flash of light flickered from the distant mountains.

Kerpow!

The gunshot echoed throughout the area, reaching them after the light.

Curly grunted and fell, blood splattering on his shoulder.

Benson yelled, “Take cover!”

Everyone fell flat to the ground.

Another flash sparked in the distance.

Somebody shouted, “Incoming!”

Benson felt the air above her head twist with the humming of a lead ball as it spun above her head.

Bong!

The slug bounced off the transport.

“Everybody back inside! Move it!”

The crew scrambled up and ran for the door.

Another flash of light

Kerpow!

Dust blew up in a small cloud as the bullet hit the ground, but the crew was back inside.

Curly held his shoulder tight, stemming the blood loss, with a grimace of pain on his face.

“Can you still fly this thing, Curly?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He flicked some switches and the door closed. The holoscreen lit up and everybody saw another flash in the distance.

Bong!

Kilmeade said, “Is this thing bulletproof?”

“Let’s not hang around to find out. Get us airborne, Curly. Now!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Curly pulled back on the throttle with his free hand and the transport shot up in the air. He angled it back toward the water and sped away.

Bong!

A final bullet bounced off its side as a parting shot hit the craft.

Kilmeade looked over at the Captain, fear and worry in her eyes. She said, “Why were they shooting at us, ma’am?”

Benson took a deep breath and sighed. She said, “My guess is the natives are hostile. It’s been years since the League sent a ship to this planet. Maybe they think we’re invading or something.”

Several kilometers out over water, Benson ordered Curly to stop. The transport hovered in place while Kilmeade broke out a medpack. One of the engineers, a man by the name of Nguyen, quickly administered anesthetic. He cut into Curly’s shoulder and efficiently extracted the bullet.

“What is that?” Kilmeade said. “A musket ball?”

“It looks like a Minnie ball,” Nguyen said. “See how it’s shaped? It’s a step above a simple round ball. This kind is more accurate. If I had to guess, it came from a flintlock or something. They were using muzzleloaders. Really old technology.”

“Effective, though,” Curly said, his mind still working despite the pain. “A few inches over and it would have caught me in the neck.”

Nguyen said, “Stay still, Curly. Let’s get the nanobots in your system so they can repair you.”

Curly nodded and watched as Kilmeade pulled a pneumatic syringe out.

Benson said, “Let’s open the armory doors. Everyone retrieve a weapon. We’ll wait until nightfall to land again and establish a perimeter. I don’t want to be taken by surprise from snipers again, no matter how primitive their weapons.”

Kilmeade said, “Why were they shooting at us, ma’am?”

Benson shook her head and said, “I don’t know.”

She reached out and took a gun someone handed her, nodding her thanks.

She said, “But it was a foolish decision.”

Condor Rising 36

The holographic circle appeared in the courtyard outside Thrall Manor, and Julian Thrall popped into existence.

He walked in silence to the house, head bent down and eyes unfocused.

He passed the new and improved guardbots the Navy had sent. These recent models from Thespar Industries had armored heads. They were square, with sloping sides that connected to the shoulders. They had no neck, and personally Thrall thought they looked like monstrosities. But Thespar engineers had assured him this new model could not be taken down by small explosions to the head like the previous ones.

Thrall ignored the two at either side of the door to the gym, which swished open for him as he approached.

Inside, all had been cleaned and repaired from the recent attacks on the house. It still irritated him that SSI had managed to infiltrate his home so easily and attack his daughter. And, Jillian had somehow escaped.

At first, he thought she had been captured by SSI. But, with the help of StarCen he finally figured out that Jillian had teleported away. She had teleported without the assistance of StarCen.

This was still something of a mystery to the Tetrarch. He struggled to fill in the gaps of his knowledge. Evidently, an enemy ship had sneaked into their solar system and taken her. That was the only feasible explanation for what happened.

Then word from the Petra Roe ambassador on Lute came back to him. Jillian was seen on that world again. Even more intriguing, the ambassador thought a woman who looked like his other daughter was present as well. Julia had been off his grid for over a year.

He still did not know how the pirates pulled off the stunt, but he knew what to do from the lesson learned by it. First, he had taken steps to once again retrieve Jillian, now that he knew where she was. The Navy and SSI retrieved her last time, it was true. But both organizations were stretched thin at the moment, and he certainly did not trust SSI. So he called in one more favor, this time with a different organization . . .

The other measure involved security. He directed the Navy to increase diligence in all League solar systems, and keep an eye out for enemy ships lurking at the periphery.

Sure enough, another pirate ship . . . the same one? . . . was caught hiding out in the Juventas system. This time they were not so lucky, and were quickly chased off.

But Thrall was not so sure their mission had been a failure. SSI Juventas had suffered some serious setbacks lately. He had difficulties getting much information from them. But Thrall and Edgar Munk went back many years, and maintained a cordial professional relationship. Munk now headed up SSI on Epsilon, and nominally, at least, was head of the entire organization. A personal call to Munk had led to the news that SSI Juventas had truly suffered. Terrorists had taken out their director. Thrall knew something about that since one of his Vice Admirals was killed in the same bombing.

But Munk hinted at something more. Some other lapses occurred that Munk was more vague about. One of his best field agents had disappeared while trying to bring in some valuable intelligence. Munk did not know what the data pertained to, but if he heard anything that would help the Navy, he assured Thrall he would mention it.

Thrall paused at the stairs and wondered if the agent had discovered something about the Republican’s new Condor-class ship and its devastating weapon.

If so, it truly was a pity they did not have that information before Operation Golden Return commenced. The Republicans had been waiting for them. Waiting for them to show up in force so they could wipe them out.

Already, Thespar engineers were working to replicate the weapon. Nobody had ever thought of teleporting the sun before and harnessing its energy as a weapon. Soon, they assured him, soon the League would have a similar weapon. In the meantime, StarCen would teleport away any ship in sign of danger. She had taken measurements when the Excelsior showed up late at Gotha Mu, and the AI knew how fast to respond now.

Speaking of Excelsior, StarCen had informed him the surviving members of her crew were safe on Halcyon. They could wait. As far as Thrall was concerned, they could stay there until the war was over. He put Excelsior out of his mind.

Admiral Cooper was not happy with that decision. Excelsior was part of the Sixth Fleet after all, and he felt like Benson and her people were being abandoned. But Thrall reminded him that not only was there a Republican squadron nearby at Seychar, they had a ship there that outclassed anything the League had in the sky at the moment. No, Benson and her people could wait.

He sighed. Cooper had not balked against the orders, but Thrall saw the look on his hologram’s face. Thrall had no doubt the stubborn Admiral would have willingly sent two dozen ships just to recover the few survivors, never mind all would likely get blown out of the sky just like the expanded Fifth Fleet had.

At the top of the stairs he turned toward his room down the recently repaired hallway, and Raquel poked her head out the door.

She said, “There you are! I thought I heard something.”

He smiled, all the troubles of managing a war temporarily forgotten at the sight of her beautiful face and blonde hair.

She said, “Hard day? Let me give you a back rub.”

He nodded and walked in, sitting down in a leather wingback. She moved behind the chair and started rubbing his shoulders.

“What’s the matter, sweetie? What’s troubling you so much?”

He sighed again and said, “We’re in a bad spot. We’ve lost over 90 ships to this new weapon the Republicans have. If they choose to attack with it—and they will, I’m certain of it—we can’t fight back. Not yet.”

“This is the nuclear torpedo substitute you were talking about? Sun teleportation, wasn’t it?”

He nodded, grateful for her kneading fingers rubbing out the tension in his neck and upper back.

“StarCen can port our people away in time, right?” she said. “Now that we know what they’ve got, we can take steps to prevent it from destroying anything else.”

“It’s not that simple. They can still destroy things before StarCen reacts. Then whatever she ports away is no longer there to defend locations. They can take over entire planets easily, at least until Donald Sanford’s company can come up with a counter-weapon.”

“The pirates got him and his wife recently, didn’t they?”

Thrall nodded. “They were on the Coral Reef. Thespar paid an outrageous ransom to get them back.”

“I’m surprised PLAIR let them go.”

“The Sanfords run the company but they know very little about its inner workings, especially classified projects. That was a deliberate choice they made at the start of the war, and a smart one. So, with no intelligence, they were useless to hold onto. The pirates took the money instead.”

“I see. Well, in their case it’s good to be useless then.”

She finished rubbing his back, walked around the chair and sat down in his lap, throwing her arms around his neck.

“You’ve got to look on the bright side of things, sweetie. The Republicans haven’t attacked. Maybe we’re weaker and maybe we can’t fight off their fancy new weapon just yet, but they have not taken advantage of the situation. Maybe their big old ship with its big old gun was only good for one round right now.”

She kissed him then, to help take his mind off his troubles.

When she finished he looked into her beautiful blue eyes and for a moment all seemed well in his world.

Then his own eyes clouded over with worries and doubts again as reality quickly snatched the moment away.

He said, “There is no bright side in war.”

Condor Rising 35

“At some point,” Biff said, “we’ll get married again.”

Julia smiled, turning her head on the pillow so he could see it on her face.

“Good morning, love. Careful what you say.”

She had a playful tone, but they both knew what she meant.

He leaned over and kissed her, despite their mutual morning breath.

When they broke apart he said, “Cops have certain privileges.”

“Mm. Except when cops have travelled off world and have been involved in one of the biggest murder cases ever.”

He paused to consider it. Then he said, “Okay. You might have a point. Want some breakfast?”

“I’d love some breakfast.”

He got out of bed and padded into the kitchen area of the small apartment. Julia sat back and thought about their dilemma.

So far as anyone knew, Biff had met someone new and she had moved in with him. He had taken a few additional days off since the shooting, going into HQ only to answer questions. The rest of the time they had spent together.

True to his word, Sergeant Jefferies had the body of “Andi Jones” quickly cremated, and quietly let Biff have the ashes. Biff thanked him, and promptly poured them into the Thallick River which cut through the middle of Yorkton. There was nothing left to recover of the SSI agent known as Natasha Krizinksi.

Today marked the first time Biff would be going back to work since he left to go find her. He would be given desk duty for the foreseeable future. One of the benefits of this assignment included being home every night. Despite that, she felt certain the department would be watching him closely, at least for the foreseeable future.

Maybe StarCen did not monitor police in the privacy of their homes. When she married him the first time, he had no idea of her identity, and they did not have to play any games. But now . . .

Could he keep his mouth shut about her real identity? And if he slipped, like this morning, would it matter? Would StarCen ignore it, or would somebody else be listening?

Time would tell. For now, Julia would be on her guard and hope and pray that Biff could adapt. Already he had called her Andi twice, but that would be understandable. She read somewhere that men often mixed up the names of their wives and girlfriends. So long as he did not call her “Julia” they were probably safe as far as name mistakes go.

She remained curious about the eavesdropping, and wondered if there might be a way to determine who was currently under additional surveillance on the police force. For now, though, they would have to play it safe regardless.

“You want breakfast in bed or at the table?” Biff called from the kitchen.

“Table. You know I hate crumbs in bed.”

Fortunately, she thought, StarCen had been programmed to ignore similarities between her personalities. Julia and Andi hated crumbs in bed, too.

“You’re doing it again,” Biff said as she walked into the kitchen where he had placed two plates piled high with pancakes on the table.

“Doing what?”

“Pulling on your earlobe.”

She smiled sweetly, sitting down at the table in front of her plate.

She said, “Everybody has their little quirks, Officer.”

After breakfast, Biff put his uniform on and left for work. Julia walked out of the flat and took the skybus to a different part of town. She wandered around on the street for a while, taking in the sights, and eventually found her way to a seedier, run down neighborhood.

After walking a few more blocks she felt confident there were no sensors anywhere nearby. She jumped over a metal barricade blocking the entrance to an abandoned subway and made her way down into the darkness.

Julia found a sensor at the bottom of the stairs. It looked relatively new, but someone had broken it recently. She headed down the tracks past other broken sensors and turned into a service tunnel.

She opened an old-fashioned door set on hinges and walked into a room holding four chairs and a table. Elephant, Lynx, and Owl smiled at her when she came in.

Elephant said, “Hello, Angel.”

Julia smiled back at them and said, “Miss me?”

Owl said, “We lost Shark getting you back.”

Julia said, “Shark is in good hands. He’ll continue the fight elsewhere.”

“What are our plans now?” Lynx said.

Julia smiled again and sat back in her chair. She said, “I think it’s time to stir things up a little more on Juventas.”

“We’ve stirred things up pretty good while you were gone,” Elephant said. “Lion took out a Vice Admiral and the Director of SSI in one blow.”

Julia’s eyebrows shot up. She said, “Samson maneuver?”

All three nodded back. Julia’s lips quirked down at the news. Lion had been a good asset for the Resistance.

Elephant said, “And Shark almost took out Cooper. Missed him by a second, apparently. Since then I don’t think the Admiral has set foot outside.”

“Who took over at SSI? The Wicked Witch?”

Everyone nodded again. Owl said, “She’s still getting her feet wet. But she’ll be just as bad as Fleming was, if not worse.”

Julia said, “Okay. I’m willing to leave Admiral Cooper alone for now so long as he doesn’t start forcing indents or commit other egregious acts. Let him stew in paranoia for a while. But Vicki Fenner moves to the top of the list. Get with Weasel and find out what you can about addresses, schedules, anything else that will help us.”

The three nodded. Elephant said, “Anybody you have in mind for this?”

“Are Dolphin and Peregrine still in the vicinity?”

“Yes. Although, we haven’t seen or heard from Peregrine in a while, I believe she is still available. We can contact Dolphin easily.”

Julia pursed her lips, her mind racing with possibilities.

She said, “Very well. Get in contact with those two and let’s wage a little war on SSI.”

Condor Rising 34

Phoom!

“The anti-Wu field has been activated, Captain. We’ll bring the net back in now.”

Raleigh said, “Thank you, Mr. Kim.”

“They’re in bad shape,” Granny said, chomping down on a fresh cigar.

Raleigh nodded, standing with Jillian on his right and Maxwell on his left. Dillon sat in the pilot’s seat, staring in awe at the holoscreen image floating before them.

The Excelsior’s outline no longer gave the sleek appearance of a warship. Instead the hull showed extensive damage, with jagged chunks of metal and ripped plates jutting out. Not a single square meter remained unmarred from what they could see. The ship looked like a sick mishmash of melted and twisted parts that used to form a vessel.

Raleigh said, “Was the suppression grid adequate, Lootie, or do they have their Wu Drives shielded like everybody else?”

“It appears our efforts met with success. Their engine room is already damaged. Apparently the shielding is cracked. That and the other damage they have already incurred means they will not be leaving, Captain.”

“Good. Demand their surrender again.”

“I have done so. StarCen tells me Captain Benson refuses.”

“Does she understand she doesn’t have much choice?”

“I do not know her cognitive reasoning, Captain.”

They watched as a transport shot out from the warship’s flight deck. It angled downward and headed for the planet’s surface below.

Dillon said, “We’ve got drones, right? Should we send the drones after them?”

Raleigh shook his head. He said, “That’s not the way we do business. Let them go. Lootie, was that all of them?”

“StarCen indicates one officer remains onboard, and he is still unwilling to surrender the ship.”

“What? Unbelievable. Okay, what are our options?”

“I am sensing considerable internal damage, Captain. It would appear life support is probably broken as well. You could wait him out.”

“Hm. The rest of his crew just left. If there’s only one person using up the air, he could last quite a while.”

“That is correct, Captain.”

“And in the meantime, the League could show up looking for them. And if that happens, the chances of us obtaining the bounty goes way down.”

“That is correct, Captain.”

“Alright. Anybody got any other ideas?”

“Let’s blast him apart,” Granny said.

“How hard is it to destroy an Eagle-class without shields, Lootie?”

“It is not impossible, Captain. However, the fastest and most efficient means of destruction remains placing a bomb onboard.”

“Like them bastards tried to do with us,” Granny said.

“What kind of defenses could they muster against a boarding party, Lootie? It doesn’t look like their guns are operable.”

“That is correct, Captain. It should be possible to enter their flight deck without resistance.”

Jillian said, “You can’t just let that man die, Chris. She said there’s one man left onboard. If you blow them up, he’ll die!”

Raleigh looked at her and sighed. He said, “He’s not leaving me with a lot of choices, darling.”

“I have an idea,” Pak said from the engine room.

-+-

On the Excelsior’s flight deck, the lights flickered as Chung palmed open panel after panel.

“The XO of the ship requires the XO panel to be opened. ‘Explosive Ordinance.’ ‘Executive Officer.’ Ever notice how they’re both referred to as XO, StarCen?”

“The Captain of the privateer requests your surrender, XO Chung.”

“The answer is still no. Now, the standard procedure is a boarding party, correct?”

“Yes, XO Chung. I am sensing a smaller ship leaving their flight deck now.”

“Ha! I knew it.”

He pulled out two egg grenades from the storage compartment, and two neural switches. Then he turned and hurried toward the red glowing portal.

He placed one grenade on the floor to the right of the portal, the other to the left. Then he quickly attached neural switches to the grenades.

“We are going to take them out right when they try to come inside, StarCen!”

“That is unwise, XO Chung. The ship is already damaged. Such an explosion will prove even more detrimental.”

“Yeah, but it’ll be worth it to kill some pirates.”

Chung approached the doorway to the corridor and turned in the flickering light back toward the portal. He focused on the two switches over the neural network and waited.

“XO Chung, causing egregious damage to a naval vessel is not allowed as per—”

“Shut up, StarCen.”

He could see the ship approaching now, through the hazy red force field. It turned, its nose pointing inward. A final burst from its engine would bring it inside.

“XO Chung, I am sensing no—”

The nose of the craft poked through the red force field. Chung activated the neural switches on the two grenades.

KARUMPH! KARUMPH!

Both went off almost simultaneously, obliterating the smaller craft along with a chunk of the deck, the portal, and the force field.

Chung smiled in triumph. His expression changed when oxygen quickly rushed out the giant hole. Transports and spare parts and scrap metal flew out the jagged opening. Chung tumbled above the tarmac and out into space with all the other flotsam.

-+-

Everyone on the Mule’s bridge watched as the drone eased over to the stricken vessel. Pak’s suggestion was to resurrect the idea of sending over a bomb on a drone, like they tried when the Excelsior was parked at Pegasi. This time, she was not going to teleport away at the last moment.

It was safer than sending in a team to plant a bomb, Pak insisted. Who knew what damaged equipment could be floating inside around the flight deck? Who knew how psychotic the last living crewmember they left behind could be?

As the nose of the drone entered the red force field of the portal, they received an answer to the last question.

Everyone blinked as the camera snuffed out. The holoscreen shifted to an external view of the Excelsior. A huge debris cloud blew out of the landing deck portal.

“What happened, Lootie? Did our bomb go off prematurely?”

“No, Captain. It would appear somebody booby trapped their flight deck.”

His face dropped.

Maxwell said, “Good thing we sent a drone over and not a transport full of people.”

Raleigh nodded. Maxwell would likely have been on that transport, leading the team.

Granny said, “I guess they figured the ship was toast anyways.”

They watched as the Excelsior spun downward from the expulsion of air.

“Lootie, I take it her orbit is deteriorating?”

“Yes, Captain. And the ship is no longer manned. I am sensing no life aboard.”

“Anything we can do to speed things up her destruction?”

“I will fire at the appropriate spots.”

LuteNet moved the Mule closer to the stricken destroyer and began shooting her forward guns at selected points. More pieces of the ship blew off with each strike, and it tumbled further out of orbit. The Mule followed and continued shooting.

LuteNet said, “The ship is now entering the planet’s atmosphere, Captain. It will burn up within minutes.”

They watched on the holoscreen as the crippled vessel dropped lower and bumped into Halcyon’s top layer of atmosphere. The Excelsior sped down rapidly now, heat from friction making her glow. More and more pieces peeled off and burned away.

The ship became a bright red dot sluicing through the sky. LuteNet magnified the image, showing it go down, down, down.

What was left of the ship hit the planet’s ocean hundreds of kilometers from shore, sending up a geyser of water.

“Captain, I have verified that PLAIR has deposited one million credits in the company’s account on Petra Roe.”

“Good. Okay, Lootie. Get us out of here before the cavalry shows up. Let’s go home.”

The Ultima Mule ported away.

Condor Rising 33

Ultima Mule popped into existence in orbit around Halcyon. Everyone onboard looked at the nearest holoscreen and watched her sun cresting the edge of the planet.

“It’s beautiful,” Jillian said on the bridge with Raleigh.

He grunted in a non-committed tone, his mind on other things besides the scenery.

Raleigh said, “Tell us more about this planet, Lootie. Seems kind of useless.”

“Halcyon was discovered to be life bearing approximately four years ago. The League claimed it and had begun initial efforts at colonization when hostilities commenced. Since then they have not revisited the planet.”

Jillian said, “Really? That seems harsh. Why haven’t they at least dropped in with a supply boat or something?”

“For one thing, Jillian Thrall, the planet is too close to the disputed Seychar system. Odds are strong that StarCen calculated there was too high a risk to send vessels this way. Therefore, the planet has remained in a state of bureaucratic limbo.”

“And we think the damaged League ship from Seychar will show up here?” Jillian said.

“It’s probably a case of ‘any port in a storm.’ Right Lootie?”

“That is correct, Captain. I predict a 75 percent chance of the ship arriving soon.”

“Alright. Prepare us accordingly and let us know the second she shows up.”

“Will do, Captain.”

-+-

The lights flashed red and StarCen’s voice sounded repeatedly throughout the corridors.

“Prepare to abandon ship. Evacuate to the flight deck. Prepare to abandon ship . . .”

The elevator door opened and Benson rushed out with Chung. They went straight for the tarmac.

The lights flickered on the flight deck, showing the structural damage. Both officers glanced toward the portal, still covered in a red glowing force field. Stars flickered hazily with every jump.

“Thank God the portal is intact,” Benson said. “StarCen, is the ship in danger of breaking apart?”

“It will become uninhabitable within hours, Captain Benson. Life support is critically damaged. Air is not being recirculated. Outer parts of the hull are unstable and exposed to space. An immediate evacuation is necessary.”

A handful of people stood on the tarmac in front of one of the transports. Chung and Benson joined them. Then a handful of others came from the elevator.

StarCen said, “Captain Benson, all remaining Navy personnel onboard are on the flight deck and accounted for.”

Benson stared at the small crowd of sailors around her.

“So few. Are you sure there are no more living? Are there any injured? Is anyone immobile who can’t make their way to an elevator?”

“No, Captain Benson. Anyone who can make it is present.”

Benson stared at the people around her. These were her people, under her care and authority. She felt she had let them all down.

StarCen said, “The Excelsior will be in orbit around Halcyon in eleven seconds. Ten. Nine. Eight . . .”

“Everybody get on board. Curly, you can pilot this thing. Do it.”

A large bald man nodded, walked up the ramp and sat down in the pilot’s chair. Others filed in behind him.

“Your ship is now in orbit around Halcyon. Warning. A private warship is also in orbit. You have been spotted. The ship has moved into position nearby.”

“Pirates,” Chung said.

“Go!”

Benson pointed to the ramp for the last few people. They rushed onboard to buckle into the seats.

The last young woman about to board threw her hands up. She turned around to go back. Chung stopped her with an arm across her chest.

He said, “Get onboard. Do not go back.”

“I can’t! I can’t do this! Don’t you understand? I just can’t!”

She struggled to get away from him. He tightened his arm around her middle and picked her up to carry her back to the transport. She squirmed and screamed, completely out of control.

Chung lost his grip and she fell to the floor. She crouched up, preparing to make a run for it. He reached down and thumped her behind the ear, knocking her out. She collapsed flat on the tarmac.

He reached down and picked her up in both arms. He brought her into the transport, placed her in a chair and strapped her in.

Chung looked out the doorway again and noticed the Captain standing there. He went back out to join her.

StarCen said, “Captain Benson, the privateer demands your immediate surrender. What should I tell him?”

Benson locked eyes with Chung. She said, “Well. I guess our luck has run out.”

Chung said nothing. He waited for her decision.

She said, “The ship cannot be forfeited so long as a League sailor remains onboard and conscious.”

She made it a statement instead of a question. Both knew the answer.

StarCen said, “That is correct, Captain Benson.”

She looked back up at Chung and smiled.

“Get onboard, XO. Get my surviving people down to the surface. StarCen will send a rescue vessel shortly.”

“What about you, ma’am?”

“There is no way I am giving up this ship to the enemy. Now, go.”

She pointed at the doorway. Everybody inside watched as Chung nodded.

Benson turned back toward the elevator. Chung swung around and thumped her on the back of the head behind her ear. She collapsed to the floor.

He reached down and picked her up, just as he had done with the other crewmember. He brought her onboard the transport and strapped her in.

To the ensign in the chair next to her, he said, “When she comes to, tell her I still would.”

“You still would?”

He nodded. “She’ll know what it means.”

He went back to the door and pointed at the pilot.

“Take off, Curly! Head to the planet’s surface and wait for rescue.”

“Aye, aye, sir!”

Chung headed for the elevator while Curly flipped a switch. The ramp pulled in and the door to the transport closed. It rose a meter above the tarmac, and Curly pushed forward on the control stick. The transport rushed through the portal, and he pointed it down toward the surface.

Condor Rising 32

Skylar stood in line with Jillian as they waited for their food. They moved forward as a robot handed out plates to everyone in line.

“Still missing your sister?” Skylar said.

“Yeah. I mean, it was such a shock to see her again. And now, just like that she’s gone. I think it wouldn’t be so bad if she were somewhere I could get to, but I can’t really go to any League planet, you know?”

“War sucks.”

Jillian nodded. She could not argue with that sentiment.

She said, “So, you’re spending a lot of time with our new recruit.”

“Yeah. Dillon is . . . different.”

“I’ll say. Does he always talk to himself? I passed him in the corridor earlier and he was mumbling away about something.”

“Pretty much. Yesterday he was looking at me and pretending he was a narrator in a movie. He was saying, ‘Hear she comes . . . the most beautiful woman in the galaxy . . . She’s looking at the boy. He gives her his best James Dean impression. She smiles. She’s amused. She doesn’t know his heart started beating faster when she entered the room.’”

“Aw. That’s sweet.”

“I know, right? He doesn’t treat me like every other guy I’ve ever known. For the first time in my life I’ve found somebody who isn’t completely put off by my abilities. He just thinks they’re ‘cool.’ It doesn’t freak him out.”

“And it doesn’t bother you he’s younger?”

Skylar shrugged. She said, “He’s not that much younger.”

They each took a plate of food from the serving bot. Jillian held hers up and sniffed.

“Mmm. Roast beef and carrots.”

Together they walked into the mess to find a table. They found an open one and sat down with their trays.

Jillian said, “So, have you dated a lot? You haven’t, have you?”

Skylar shook her head. “No. After Raton Five and all the experiments, Samuel and I just focused on getting away. Then we made it to Lute and we joined the company, and that’s pretty much been my life.”

Skylar smiled but her face looked grim. She said, “I’ve killed more men than I’ve ever kissed in life. Far more.”

Jillian’s fork paused half way to her mouth.

She said, “Huh. That’s a disturbing thought. So, in all this time you’ve never dated? Nobody in the company ever caught your eye?”

“Well, sure, there were guys who interested me. And if they’d asked I would have gone out with them. But they never asked. The whole Intangible thing pretty much kept guys out of the picture. That, and the fact Samuel would have killed anyone who mistreated me.”

Both women smiled.

Jillian said, “You would have killed anyone who mistreated you. You didn’t need Samuel to do it for you.”

“Yeah, and everybody knew it, too. That didn’t help my dating life, either. Now I’ve got a young whippersnapper who is too foolish to know better than be afraid of me.”

“Well, I say never look a gift horse in the mouth. You’re still young. Date him. Live a little. Find out what it’s like to enjoy a little romance in your life for a change.”

Skylar gave her a mock salute. She said, “Yes, ma’am!”

-+-

“Captain, PLAIR has requested we divert course to Halcyon. Apparently the Fifth Fleet attacked the Seychar system, and her forces devastated them. However, there is one surviving ship, and PLAIR predicts with a high degree of confidence that the damaged vessel will head toward Halcyon.”

Raleigh said, “Sounds like a wild goose chase, Lootie.”

“That’s from Shakespeare!” Dillon said, with a grin.

Raleigh gave him a flat stare, at the same time wondering what he was doing up here on the bridge. Granny frowned at him, too.

LuteNet said, “PLAIR will make it worth your time, Captain. She believes this might be the Excelsior. It was an Eagle-class destroyer that showed up late at Gotha Mu.”

“Hm. Yeah that sounds like Excelsior. Always lucky like that. Does the one million credit bounty still stand for her capture or destruction?”

“It does, Captain. PLAIR tells me she will compensate the company at least a quarter million credits for this diversion, even if the ship is not Excelsior.”

“Alright. Change our course and divert us to Halcyon. Any planetary forces present that you know of?”

“No, Captain. Halcyon is a frontier planet, and StarCen has mostly ignored it since the start of hostilities.”

“A frontier planet?” Dillon said. “Awesome. Do they have, like, cowboys and horses and stuff?”

“Remind me again why you’re up here?” Raleigh said.

“Oh, yeah. So, I’ve been going through the flight training modules. I’m your new pilot!”

Granny smirked. She said, “We don’t need a pilot.”

Dillon said, “Well, hey, it’s true your AI drives this thing. But there are times when a pilot is useful. And if I’m going to be part of your crew, I need a job, don’t I?”

“You can scrub floors,” Granny said.

Dillon tilted his head with a perplexed look. He said, “Don’t you have bots for that?”

“We do,” Raleigh said, coming to a decision. “If Lootie checks out your progress on the training modules and certifies you as ready to fly, I’m willing to let you fill that role. You may as well learn how to operate the transport while you’re at it. Many times, that takes a human.

“Okay, that’s settled. I’m headed for lunch.”

He turned and walked to the elevator.

Dillon gave Granny a wide grin.

She said, “Hmph! You’d be more useful mopping the floors.”