Clarion’s Call 20

Tetrarch Maria Lopez stormed out of the conference room in Yorkton, capital city for the planet Juventas. She was followed closely by her personal assistant. Both women wore stylish business outfits, with skirts to their shins in the current fashion on Juventas. Her aide sported an abundance of thick dark hair that would surely have stretched down below the waist had the woman not worn it up in an elaborate headdress. This too was currently stylish.

As they marched out of the door into an elegant wide hallway, the guards who had been maintaining their position at the conference room door stepped in line behind them. They were joined by one more person. Terry Arthur, a high-ranking politician stepped into place beside Lopez.

A man of medium height at five foot nine or 175 centimeters, with thick brown hair and crow’s feet around his eyes, Arthur was a seasoned political creature. Lopez ignored him and began snapping orders. 

She turned to her aide and said, “Andi, I need status updates on everything, ASAP. Do not trust StarCen on this. If she’s aligned with Thrall, we’re in serious trouble.” 

Arthur said, “Maria, what’s going on? Aligned with Thrall? What do you mean?”

Lopez glanced irritably at Arthur, but she relented. No one knew what had just transpired in her meeting besides her aide. 

Andi glanced at a screen in her mind’s eye. She said, “Ma’am, we’re seeing multiple transports leaving the Navy ships in orbit. It appears most are heading here to Yorkton.”

Lopez bit off a swear word. She said, “He doesn’t waste any time, does he?”

“Maria, what’s going on?” Arthur said.

Lopez stopped suddenly, bringing the entire procession to a halt. 

“That bastard Julian Thrall has decided I committed treason just because I suggested we sue for peace with the Republic! So he’s sending down the Marines aboard the ships in orbit above us to take over. Now get out of my way, Terry. I’m going down into the command bunker.” 

She resumed marching down the hall until reaching the elevators. Arthur followed, consternation creasing his face. But, he remained silent. 

When the party reached the elevators, the doors for one on the end swished open. Lopez and Andi entered. Lopez extended a hand and pushed back on Arthur’s chest. 

“Stay up here, Terry.” 

“What? Now see here. I am the Leader of the District Chamber. I realize you are the Tetrarch, but I represent the entire district! I need to be in that bunker with you.” 

“This is not a matter of representation, Terry. This is a matter of maintaining command and control of this planet, and all the planets in our district. There are not enough supplies down there for more people than necessary. Stay up here and do what you can for our people.” 

Arthur’s eyes narrowed, but he stopped trying to force his way in. Warily, he noted the two guards were in a position to physically pull him from the elevator. He relented. 

“Why does she get to go, then?”

He nodded toward Andi, glaring daggers at the young woman.

“Because I need my assistant, Terry.” 

The door swished shut, blocking out his glaring face. The elevator dropped quickly, heading far below the building’s basement. 

Lopez glanced over at Andi. The young woman seemed calm at the turn of events, and was not freaking out like others might. Andi had proven herself quite capable. She was truly indispensable, Lopez thought. 

Lopez said, “Men.” 

Andi cracked a smile. She tugged at an earlobe, nervously, her only sign of agitation.

The pod slowed precipitously and the door opened. Lopez walked out into a room with Andi following. In the air, holographic letters spelled out, “Emergency Command Bunker.”

Two men glanced up from a large holomonitor and control console at one end of the room. The women watched as the first Naval transports landed on the building above. Wide doors opened and Marines marched out, accompanied by dozens of bots. Officers teleported in from the ships above, quickly directing the troops into formation. 

One of the men spoke up as the women approached. 

He said, “We can’t stop them, ma’am. They’ve got troops on the ground at all strategic locations on the planet. Most of them are in this city. StarCen is fully cooperating with the Navy on this. All of our requests to her are being ignored.”

“How about the nukes?” Lopez said. “Do we still have control over our weapons?”

“Our terrestrial silos are controlled from here. You alone have the ‘keys’ for those.” 

“Good. Program them to take out this city.” 

Andi gasped. She said, “You can’t be serious, ma’am.” 

“I am absolutely serious. I will not stand by and let this incursion on my authority go unchallenged.” 

“But . . . but . . . you’re going to nuke your own people!” 

“Our people, Andi. Our people. And I am well aware of that. But we have a lot more people than they have Marines. We will rebuild from this. I can always blame it on Thrall anyway. I’ll tell them he set off the nukes.”

She turned to address the two men. 

“Is this compound still cut off from StarCen?”

“Yes, ma’am. She has no control here. We are on a separate subsystem.” 

“Very good. Re-aim the missiles and prepare for launch.” 

The two men nodded and got to work at the console. Andi watched as they furiously programmed coordinates by hand. 

“If I had known this was going to happen,” Lopez said, “I’d have set up a simple nuclear bomb in every major city connected to the neural net. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about having to retreat to a bunker like this. That’s something to think about for the future, in case he tries something like this again.” 

Andi’s jaw dropped as her head whipped around to face the older woman. 

One of the men turned to them. He said, “It’s ready, ma’am.” 

“Good. Begin the—”

Her words were cut off. The men looked over and jumped up out of their seats in surprise. 

Andi had retrieved a long metal pin from her hair. Her elaborate headdress hung down, half disassembled and falling down her back. The pin stuck through Tetrarch Lopez’s neck, at an angle. It looked long enough to pierce up into her skull. 

Andi pulled it out and Lopez collapsed. She locked eyes with the first man. 

Absently he reached down for his waist and a blaster. For a second he forgot that firearms were not allowed in the bunker. When his hand came up empty, he charged Andi, bending down low and aiming for her middle. 

She stepped aside at the last minute and expertly thrust the pin through his eye. He went down screaming, but she pulled the pin out and jumped, bringing a heel down on his throat. A sickening Crack! sounded as his neck broke.

The other man watched in horror. They locked eyes. He gulped. 

But he had a job to do, and protecting this compound was part of the job. He moved forward warily in a fighting crouch, his arms raised. 

“Come on, Andi. We don’t have to do this.” 

Andi approached him rapidly, then dodged his blows as he swung at her. She pivoted on her hips, bringing up a leg in a powerful hit to his stomach that knocked him backwards. 

His hands flew down to his middle and he lost his breath. In a flash she was on him with the pin, stabbing at his eyes and throat. He went down in a bloody heap. 

She paused then and wiped off her pin on his shirt. Absently, she reached up to her hair and stuck it back in. Fixing things would take time and a mirror, she thought. 

She looked down at the last man she had killed and said, “My mother’s name was Andi.” 

Heading back to the elevator she walked inside and waved her hand through the hologram button for the ground floor. 

As the elevator ascended back into StarCen-controlled portions of the building she said, “My name is Julia Thrall.”

Clarion’s Call 19

Elven sat behind Thrall in the middle of a room that seemed about three times larger than necessary. 

In Stockton, the capital city of Clarion, the heart of government for a quarter of Star League clustered together in one location. 

The Star League was comprised of 16 primary planets, the most powerful concentration of people and technology in the galaxy. Or, so League school children were taught. Citizens of the Planetary Republic did not consider Star League superior in many ways, other than her Navy. And even that had taken quite the hit from repeated successful attacks by the Republic. 

Elven sighed, partly out of boredom and partly out of frustration. As the Tetrarch’s Naval attaché, she was expected to sit in on important meetings like this. That did not mean she had to like it, though. 

Around the table sat six additional men and women, or rather holograms of themselves sat at the table. These were the other Tetrarchs along with their aides. 

Absently, Elven sifted through her elementary school government facts. The 16 planets were controlled by four Tetrarchs, who comprised the ruling body of Star League, the Tetrarchy. 

Along the wall, in Ancient Latin, words had been etched spelling out the Tetrarchy’s motto: Regnorum instar singulae et in regna contribuuntur. “Each is the equivalent of a kingdom, and also part of one.” 

What students were not taught, Elven decided, was that the Tetrarchs fought amongst themselves. A lot.

Each one felt like they could do a better job if only they controlled the entire League. 

Right now, Tetrarch Lopez vocally expressed her low opinion of Thrall’s abilities. The hologram perfectly representing Maria Lopez scowled across the table as she pointed an angry finger at him. 

“I agreed to cede authority of the Navy to you, Tetrarch Thrall, because you assured me, all of us, that you could handle the Republic. That was three years ago. May I remind everyone at this table that we are still fighting the Republic in a war that is seemingly without end? How much longer is this expected to go on? How many more ships are we going to lose like the Expedient before enough is enough?”

Thrall’s green eyes frosted and he spread his hands wide. 

In a much calmer voice than Lopez’s he said, “StarCen is always studying the enemy and learning from our mistakes as well as our victories. We hope to be highly successful in future battles thanks to our newest weapon, which worked quite well in the engagement in which Expedient went down. May I remind the Assembly that two enemy ships were taken in that engagement for the one we lost. We still hold an overall numerical edge on our opponent. With the latest tactics and weapons, we hope to increase our advantages, to the point of ultimate victory.” 

“Oh, spare me your reassuring words, Thrall.” 

Lopez stared angrily at him. Elven thought she could hear the proverbial pin drop in the silence that followed. She noticed Thrall’s nostrils flaring. Otherwise, he maintained his cold stare at the other Tetrarch’s hologram. 

Lopez crossed her arms and sat back in the chair. 

She said, “If we cannot bring this war to a speedy conclusion, I suggest we sue for terms of peace.” 

Billings and Gai, the other two Tetrarchs present via hologram, turned to Thrall. They were good politicians, Elven thought. Neither betrayed any emotion in their faces, despite the stunning nature of the statement.

Thrall actually smiled at Lopez. A cold and calculating smile, but a smile nonetheless.

He said, “Tetrarch Lopez, since you are unable to continue governing in times of war, Admiral Cooper is with the Sixth Fleet in orbit around Juventas. I am certain he will be able to take over your responsibilities since you are no longer able to lead.” 

This statement did elicit reactions. Lopez gasped. Gao’s jaw dropped while Billings’s eyes seemed to grow wide as old-fashioned silver dollars. 

Lopez sputtered. She said, “How dare you?”

Thrall said, “How dare you, Tetrarch? You have treasonously brokered the idea of surrendering to our enemy, here with ample witnesses. I am offering you an easy way out. Concede now and Admiral Cooper will take over.” 

Lopez’s face screwed up in anger. She said, “StarCen, end this connection!” 

Her hologram and that of her aide’s winked out, leaving two chairs empty at the table. 

All eyes turned toward Thrall. He sighed and a corner of his lips moved up. 

“She’s probably hunkering down as we speak.” 

He touched the implant under his right ear and said, “Admiral, instigate Operation Overthrow.” 

Across the neural net, Cooper’s deep baritone voice sounded in Thrall’s ear. 

“Yes, sir!” 

Before the group had a chance to react further to these events, StarCen’s voice sounded above the table. 

“Tetrarch Thrall, your home is currently under attack by unknown forces. All guard bots assigned to the house are destroyed. I will be sending in a relief force at once.” 

Thrall stood, scooting his chair back. He turned and glared at Elven sitting behind him. 

She gulped. What did I have to do with anything? she thought. 

He turned and walked toward the door, giving the Assembly neither another look nor thought. 

Elven followed, quickly jogging after him.

Clarion’s Call 18

The explosions were over in seconds. Raleigh thought he heard at least ten, but he did not count them.

“What’s going on, Lootie?”

“It would appear all exterior guard bots have been disabled. Stealth drones disguised as local birds managed to evade StarCen’s sensors and came close enough to explode near the bots.” 

“Huh. Did you do that?”

“No, Captain.” 

“Then who did?”

“It might have to do with the men approaching in the hovercraft behind you.” 

Raleigh made some motions with his hands so he could turn in the water and look in the other direction. 

The lagoon near Thrall Manor, he knew, had an underwater net to keep out sharks and other native sea creatures dangerous to frolicking humans. It also served as a protection against boats. 

No one could port into Thrall Manor without StarCen. The anti-teleportation measures inside the house were an added safety measure. Driving in via a ground vehicle would be difficult. No doubt this was a no-fly zone, too. And boats could not enter the lagoon.

Evidently, a hovercraft was one mode of transportation nobody thought of when designing the manor’s defenses. Raleigh watched it skim over the top of the net guarding the lagoon’s entrance and head straight toward the house. 

He tried to will himself lower in the water, but no one onboard noticed him. They were focused on the robot parts scattered around the beach, and passed Raleigh by several meters. 

“Who are they, Lootie?”

“I am unable to take bio readings, Captain. Their visors are preventing facial and iris scans. I do not have sufficient resources for additional readings.”

The men exited the hovercraft and ran to an exterior door. One of them shot the door with a blaster then kicked it open. The men streamed inside.

“Doesn’t matter. They’re probably after the same thing we are.” 

“Indeed, Captain. They are engaged with interior guard bots now. I am sensing Jillian Thrall has moved into a safe room on the second floor.”

“Got it, thanks.” 

Raleigh dog-paddled for shore, straining within the suit to quickly move forward in the water. 

-+-

On the bridge of the Ultima Mule, currently in orbit around a small chunk of rock known as CSNP908, Granny, Maxwell, and Skylar watched the feed from Raleigh’s visor while standing on the ship’s bridge. 

Skylar clenched her fists. She said, “He should have let me go.”

Maxwell shook his head. He said, “The minute you blinked away somewhere, StarCen would know you are alive. And by extension, the rest of us. Cap’n wants to keep that fact a secret for a while longer.” 

“Besides,” Granny said with a smile, “knights like to rescue princesses on their own.” 

-+-

Rally ran to the blown door and he entered what appeared to be a gym with workout equipment and free weights. He held out the blaster and scanned the room but saw no signs of life.

He heard the sounds of combat from a hallway connecting the room to the rest of the house.

Thoopah! Thoop! Thoop! 

One of the five men staggered back into the gym. He was dressed in black with blaster-proof armor covering his chest like the others. One arm hung loosely by his side, charred and smoking. Blood dripped to the floor. 

He stumbled into the gym and seemed to be heading outside. Probably going back to the hovercraft, Raleigh thought. 

He stopped suddenly, staring at Raleigh. Before he could move Raleigh aimed for his head and fired. 

Thoop!

The blast knocked him backward. Electronics in the man’s helmet sizzled and sparked. 

Raleigh kept the gun aimed at him and approached carefully. He pushed the man’s pistol away with his foot and looked down at the cracked visor. Blood seeped out. 

LuteNet said, “He is dead, Captain. Your close range shot took him out.” 

Raleigh nodded to himself and approached the doorway cautiously. The fighting had moved upstairs, from what he could hear. Walking down the hall he came across the remains of two more guard bots. He recognized the Star League Marines logo on their chest plates, a stylized ‘E’ for Epsilon.

He hurried past the signs of battle and approached a grand staircase leading to the second floor. Blaster fire continued and he could see red streaks littering the air above. 

KABLOOM! 

The explosion snuffed out the gunfire. 

“What’s going on up there, Lootie?”

“The assailants have taken out the last of the guard bots with hand grenades, Captain. They are now facing the safe room door.”

Raleigh cautiously hurried up the stairs. At the top of the landing, he poked his helmeted head around the corner. 

Four men ran out of a bedroom into the hall and took cover, hunching down and putting arms over their ears. 

WABLUMPF!

“They have breached the safe room door, Captain.” 

Raleigh nodded and retrieved an egg grenade. He pushed the plunger down on top, waited a couple seconds, then lobbed it down the hall just as the men were about to enter the room.

KABLOOM!

The force of the explosion knocked all four down. Raleigh heard Jillian scream. 

He advanced down the hall, quickly but carefully. His gun waved over the down men, but nobody moved. 

He came to the bedroom door. He poked his helmet past the door jam. 

Thoop! Thoop!

He pulled back quickly. 

“Jillian! Don’t shoot!” 

She screamed something incoherent. 

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

LootNet said, “The electronics in the suit are distorting your voice, Captain. Nor can she see your face behind the visor. She does not recognize you.”

“Well, that’s a bit of a problem.” 

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

Raleigh looked at the charred hole in the wall opposite the door. 

“They’re gonna need one of those repair companies.” 

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

“Can you tell how many shots she has left on that charge, Lootie?” 

“Ten to twelve, Captain.” 

“Jillian!” 

He waved an arm around the door jamb. 

Thoop! Thoop! 

He snatched his arm back quickly. 

“Dang, that was close. Who taught her how to shoot?”

“Skylar Hawkens.”

“That figures.” 

“Captain, she is readjusting her aim. I suggest you move.” 

Raleigh ducked down and backed up just as Jillian started shooting through the wall into the hallway. 

When she stopped, Raleigh was almost back to the stairs. Several new holes were in the wall. 

“How many has she got left, Lootie?”

“Three.” 

One of the black-clad men on the floor nearby groaned. Raleigh walked over and picked up his arm with two hands. He dragged the man back toward the doorway, tossing the body the last meter so that it landed in a clump in the doorway. 

Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah!

Click! Click!

“She is out, Captain.” 

Raleigh nodded to himself and quickly pulled the sack off his back. He turned the corner and walked into Jillian’s room. Smoke wafted through the air. Furniture had blown back from the explosion at the armored door, and the carpet near there still smoldered. Inside the safe room, facing the door to the hall, Jillian held the empty blaster straight out with a look of anger mixed with horror on her face. 

Raleigh tossed the sack toward her and it landed on the floor near her feet. 

“Jillian, put the spacesuit on. That’s an order.”

Clarion’s Call 17

In the Clarion solar system, some 200 kilometers from the planet, a spare tandem Wu Drive popped into existence. 

It floated freely, a giant rectangle the size of an Old Earth elephant, with a slightly thicker base around the bottom. Someone had bungee-corded a portable power supply to one side, which fed into the unit via wires snaking underneath. 

For a moment, the Wu Drive floated alone in the vacuum of space, reflecting faint starlight and the distant sun. 

A sensor unit popped into existence two meters away. Unlike the Wu Drive, the sensor was the size and shape of a soup can. It tumbled slowly next to the larger unit for precisely one second before porting away again. 

-+-

This morning, as on so many others in the previous months, Elven put the last of the weights up and headed for her shower. Thrall headed toward his. 

Before they left the gym, he said, “I’ll need you to accompany me to Stockton today. I’ll be addressing the Joint Assembly at noon regarding our current progress in the war.” 

Elven nodded. She knew about the Joint Assembly meeting. She had been uncertain as to whether he wanted her to stay here and look after Jillian or not. Evidently, he was unconcerned about her. 

She decided to ask anyway. 

“Will your daughter be joining us?”

His nostrils flared slightly. She expected some negative feedback from the question, though, and did not take it personally. But, she did wish to know one way or the other.

“Jillian will stay here. StarCen is under orders not to port her away, and she is 18 kilometers from your pub. I think she’ll be fine until we return.” 

Elven’s ears reddened. How did he know about the pub? She and Steele had limited themselves to two drinks last night. Did he know about that too? 

Furiously, she racked her mind about what she had shared with her former classmate. Nothing classified, and nothing embarrassing. Well, except she did share with Steele her personal opinion that the Tetrarch was an attractive older man, if a bit distant and somewhat aloof most of the time. 

She made a mental note to herself not to talk about him in public again. Maybe not in private, either . . . 

He left to go to his room, and she headed for her quarters to shower and change into her uniform.

-+-

The sensor popped into existence five meters from shore, about 80 centimeters above the water. It plunked down into the green-blue lagoon and sunk to the shallow bottom. 

The height it appeared would not be bad under normal circumstances, but LuteNet had estimated the sensor would land half a meter above the placid surface. She made a note of the discrepancy in her first calculation and quickly took local readings from the scanner to help coordinate her logistics. 

-+-

Elven appeared in Thrall’s office and waited patiently. She stood at ease, hands behind her back. Somewhere, she had heard he liked to see officers standing at ease. Privately she wondered why. Could it be the stance accentuated the officers’ chests? 

Quickly she dismissed the thought. Such ideas were unprofessional, she decided. 

The door opened, and he walked in wearing a new dark suit imported from Italia, complete with a red tie. He stopped to pick up a vidsheet at his desk and headed for the door leading to the courtyard. 

“Do we at least need to let your daughter know that we’re leaving?”

He stopped at the question and looked at his Naval attaché for a moment, as if trying to decide what her sudden interest in Jillian might be about. 

Finally dismissing both questions, hers and his unspoken one, he said, “She’s probably still asleep. I’ll discuss her little adventure when I get home tonight.” 

Elven followed the Tetrarch out the door and toward the holographic circle hovering past the three-meter mark from the house.

They stood in the center of the circle, turning to face back in the direction they’d come. 

StarCen’s high-pitched voice said, “Prepare for teleportation.” 

Thrall and Elven popped out of sight. 

-+-

About 200 kilometers away, a man in a spacesuit popped in beside the Wu Drive. He free-floated for precisely one second, then he popped away again. 

He reappeared one half meter above the lagoon, facing Thrall Manor, and immediately splashed down into the water. 

He floated quickly to the surface, his helmeted head poking up out of the water. He remained floating in place, buoyant, while he looked around to get his bearings. 

A guard bot heard the splash. It walked around the corner of the house and approached the beach, scanning the water. 

Raleigh realized he was holding his breath. He forced himself to relax. The only thing visible from shore was the top half of his space helmet, an oblong head cover with a smooth shaded visor. 

With any luck, he thought, the bot would not be able to discern a threat from a motionless half-dome floating several meters away. 

But the bot’s head stopped swiveling, and its eyes seemed to be resting right on him. 

Raleigh held his breath again and moved his hand to the blaster strapped to his side. He found himself wondering if the gun would shoot underwater. 

A seagull flew into view. It dipped down, heading straight toward the guard bot. 

The round red eyes shifted from Raleigh to the bird at the last minute, just as it dove for the robot’s face. 

Boom!

Raleigh jerked in surprise as the bird exploded, taking them both out. The now headless guard bot collapsed to the ground. 

Raleigh heard more explosions and watched as seagulls flew in around the house, each one exploding near a different bot.

Clarion’s Call 16

Martin Evans looked like a bureaucrat to Jeter. He was even shorter than the stocky agent. Thin, mid-40s, a strip of hair down the middle of his balding head, and a perpetual scowl on his face completed the look of a desk slave, one who rarely saw the light of day. 

Jeter sat in the head of SSI’s Clarion office in Stockton, staring impassively at his nominal boss. This man was in charge of Jeter at least while he remained on this planet or one of the other three in this part of the League. 

What irked Jeter more than anything was this number-crunching, data monitoring bean counter got to call all the shots while men and women of action put their lives on the line out there for the League. 

Jeter hated kiss-ups, and refused to kowtow to the brass back at HQ. Evans looked like he had not seen the sun in a year or more. Jeter would be never be intimidated by the likes of this little man, no matter how much sway he held here in his Stockton office. 

Out there, where people put their lives on the line for the League, those people earned Jeter’s respect. Some considered spies dishonorable, but not Jeter. They were doing something. But this pipsqueak? Jeter would bite his tongue while in the office, but his respect for Evans, a man who would never be able to infiltrate a pirate company on Lute, could not be any lower. 

“So,” Evans said. “You lost our asset.” 

Jeter shifted his legs in the seat, uneasily. 

He said, “I assisted Raquel Kirkland and supplied her with every necessary consideration for the elimination of the target, Director Evans. With one hour to debarkation, I placed her in position so she could make her move. I have not seen nor heard from her since.” 

Evans nodded, and rubbed his eyes. Jeter thought the little man looked very tired.

Evans said, “The Petra Roe Ambassador on Lute is one of ours. He reported that the Tetrarch’s daughter willingly consorted with the enemy. In his words, she refused to accompany him back to Clarion by way of Petra Roe, and informed him of her desire to join the piratical company she came in with.” 

Jeter nodded and said, “I can attest she followed through with her comments to the Ambassador. A short while later she was elected into the company, and then accompanied us on our trip to Pegasi.”

Evans stood suddenly and walked two steps to the window wall. He gazed out at the city below, with its aerial and ground traffic. 

It was not a real window, Jeter knew. The SSI Building had no windows. This was merely a holoscreen hooked up to a live feed. It looked like a real window, though. The fidelity was incredibly lifelike. And expensive. 

That thought led Jeter to wonder how much Evans made in a year. The little booger is probably skimming off funds from at least two dozen operations, Jeter decided.

Evans interrupted Jeter’s thoughts. He said, “The Navy, of course, worked contrary to our purposes. They were tasked with saving Jillian Thrall, if at all possible. Apparently, the Tetrarch cannot fathom the thought of his own daughter committing treason. So, he ordered the Navy boys and girls on a rescue mission.” 

Jeter said, “It worked, too. Pretty brilliant. I did not see that honey trap coming. It’s too bad they lost a destroyer in the process.” 

Evans snorted. He said, “How many lives could have been saved had you simply taken her out when you had the chance?” 

Jeter rolled his eyes. He thought, the nerve of this guy.

“Director, I had zero opportunities to eliminate her before or during the voyage to Pegasi. She was kept under watch the entire time. I was only able to secure the asset after the Marines showed up. Then the Navy was intent on saving Jillian Thrall, and kept her secured in an area I had no authorization for. I infiltrated the pirates, not the Navy. 

“I convinced, or at I least I thought I convinced, the asset that she should follow our directive and fulfill the objective. She was much better suited for the task at that point in time, because she could get into places I could not. Unfortunately, once I sent her on her way, she . . . disappeared.”  

Evans turned from the holoscreen window and sighed.

He said, “You know that I have no love for the Tetrarch.”

Jeter nodded. Everybody knew Evans and Thrall hated each other.  

Evans said, “But I have not taken the decision to eliminate his daughter lightly. Treasonous actions call for an appropriate response. And the penalty is death, regardless of what family one belongs to. Members of the ruling class are not immune from justice.”

Evans sat back down at his desk and hunched forward in his chair. Jeter shifted uncomfortably again as the little man’s beady eyes bore into his own. The intensity of the Director’s stare made Jeter gulp. Thoughts of how little outside action this bureaucrat saw fled from his mind under the glare of those intense eyes.

“My directive,” Evans said, “stands.”

Clarion’s Call 15

Anti-teleportation measures were in effect for Thrall Manor but outside, opposite the beach side, a paved courtyard served as a teleportation zone. 

Thrall and Elven waited patiently. He had changed into black business pants and shoes, and a blood-red shirt, open at the neck. Elven realized early in her assignment that Thrall preferred the color red. He often wore it, especially when meeting with others. She suspected he intended to signal power, even to his daughter. 

For her part, Elven had showered and changed into her naval uniform, wearing the tight blue suit denoting her official rank. 

She had heard that Noreen Steele was personally bringing in the Tetrarch’s daughter. She had graduated from the Academy at the same time as Steele, but had not seen her since. 

They waited in the courtyard. Elven stood at ease, willing to endure long moments of silence with the Tetrarch. She had given up trying to make small talk with the man her first week of working for him. If he did not wish to converse, which was usually the case, he would simply glare at her after any conversational gambit.

No one could say Elven was not a fast learner. And she had learned the Tetrarch did not favor small talk.

Julius Thrall looked off in the distance, watching a seagull catch an air current, spiraling upwards. 

Thrall said, “What is the latest intelligence report on my daughter?”

That question, at least, Elven had prepared to answer. So much of this job involved anticipating and meeting his expectations, she thought. 

“State Security and Intelligence has the Petra Roe ambassador on Lute in their back pocket. They signaled to him, asking to bring her in. He failed. He reported back that she joined the pirate company that captured Aquamarine.” 

Thrall grunted. He knew this part. 

Continuing, Elven said “She accompanied the same ship on the way back out a few days later. The Navy set a honey trap at Pegasi Station, featuring the Excelsior.” 

Thrall smirked at this. He said, “The Republic put a million credit bounty on that ship.” 

Elven nodded. Excelsior’s prowess in battle was fast becoming the stuff of legend. She had taken out quite a number of Republican ships, and seemed to survive on luck and the skill of her Captain, a brilliant woman named Benson. If Benson survived, a promotion to Commodore was no doubt in her immediate future.

Elven said, “Expedient and Polaris were waiting, and sprang the trap on the two pirate ships who showed up for Excelsior. Expedient did not make it, she went down while engaged with the other ship.” 

Thrall’s nostrils flared at this. Elven had learned this was the tell when something angered him. What she could not discern was whether the loss of the ship or the fact it occurred so near to his daughter bothered him. Probably both, she thought. 

“State Security had an infiltrator onboard the ship your daughter was on.” 

Admitting this was not pleasant. The Navy and SSI were rivals before the start of the war. As Elven saw it, the Navy was very straightforward in their intelligence gathering, usually via electronic means with StarCen’s assistance. State Security and Intelligence was more “humint” focused, relying on sleeper cells and spies planted deep inside enemy territory. They were rather unsavory individuals, as far as the Navy was concerned. This made Elven’s next comment unpleasant to state, but it had to be mentioned.

“He helped us in the recovery of your daughter.”

It was tough to admit, she thought. But, without that SSI agent onboard the pirate ship, the Navy would have had a much harder time safely extracting Jillian Thrall. Elven had no doubt the Marines could have done the job, but it would have been much more difficult. And the chances of Jillian’s survival would have been lower. As it happened, the SSI agent made her recovery look easy. 

She said, “They left a ‘belly-buster’ bomb onboard after extracting her. That ship and everyone on it with the exception of your daughter, the spy, and one other SSI asset, have all been destroyed.” 

“What’s the status of the other asset?”

Elven’s eyebrows shot up. She had not anticipated that question. 

“I’m not sure, sir. SSI has not been very forthcoming. I can make additional inquiries if you like.” 

Thrall grunted again. He said, “Don’t bother.” 

Elven’s ears reddened. Had she goofed? She made a mental note to inquire about the asset anyway. If there was information Thrall needed to know, and that the Navy needed to know, she would find it. 

Thrall said, “I presume Jillian had a physical? Any diseases? Is she pregnant?”

“No, sir. I’m happy to report your daughter is in good health. StarCen can show you the ship physician’s report if you’d like.” 

And, best of all, the report would indicate she had not been molested during her time on Lute. This tidbit surprised Elven. She knew little about pirates, but she had no doubt they were base scoundrels willing to take advantage of helpless women at the drop of a hat. The fact that Jillian was returning without a mark on her, inside or out, was nothing short of a minor miracle.

Few things were unfixable in this day and age. If Jillian had a disease, that could be cured, most likely. But rape . . . The Tetrarch would not have been happy had his daughter been raped.

Thrall grunted again, a little less unpleasantly this time. He gave no other outward expressions. 

StarCen’s high pitched voice rang out in the courtyard. 

“Incoming teleportation. Please stand clear of the area.” 

A holographic circle appeared in the air at waist level. A second later, two women popped into existence and the circle faded away. 

Jillian walked forward, confidently leaving her escort behind. She never broke eye contact with her father, ignoring Elven. Elven looked at Steele, who returned her glance. Steele’s eyes sparkled and she nodded slightly. Elven returned the nod. 

Jillian stopped in front of her father and he stared down at her for a while. For several seconds, no one said anything. 

Finally, Jillian broke the silence. She said, “Hello, Father.” 

Elven watched his face. Sure enough, his nostrils flared. 

Out loud, he said, “Your room is ready for you.” 

Jillian turned and walked around him to the door, leaving Thrall with the two Naval officers outside. All three watched the Tetrarch’s daughter sent up to her room like a child, walking away without another word.

Clarion’s Call 14

An hour before reaching orbit around Clarion, Jeter let Raquel out the last time. The stream of pixels poured out like water from a hose, and she fully materialized. 

He said, “Okay. Jillian Thrall will be the first to port down to the surface, I would imagine. Find her room and take her out.” 

Raquel simply nodded and began pixelating. She rose like a silver cloud into the ceiling lights and disappeared. 

For his part, Jeter had little to do. He had no luggage, and the handheld trap was the only thing he brought aboard the Polaris besides a gun and grenades, which had been confiscated. So, he headed toward the disembarkation deck himself. As a civilian passenger, he would be afforded the opportunity to leave before the crew. 

He took an elevator there and found the corridor. Large double doors marked with floating letters spelled out “Debarkation Zone,” letting him know he was in the right area. Now he just needed to kill time. 

Half an hour later, a Marine showed up and took up position beside the double doors. This man would be serving as a traffic cop, Jeter figured. He dismissed the movie he had been watching in his mind’s eye, and nodded politely at the man. The Marine nodded back and stood at ease beside the door. 

Shrugging, Jeter turned inward again and resumed watching his movie. 

At long last StarCen made a public announcement. She said, “We are now orbiting Clarion.”

Jeter dismissed his movie once more. Curious no alarm had sounded, he turned casually at the elevator door opening. 

His eyes widened when he saw Steele walking down the hall alongside Jillian Thrall. 

So, he thought, that explained why there was no alarm. Raquel Kirkland had not struck yet. Idly, he wondered if she’d attack now, in the corridor. 

The women approached, expressionless. Jillian looked at him once, then her eyes flicked away. Steele regarded him a moment longer before her attention turned to the Marine. 

She said, “Lieutenant Steele, Jillian Thrall. We are to be ported down first, Captain’s orders.” 

The Marine snapped a salute and stood aside. The double doors swished open and the women walked inside.

The elevator opened again and more people stepped out. Casually, Jeter moved forward to claim his position in line. He waited for an alarm to sound, signaling Raquel’s strike. 

Instead, the door opened again. He walked forward as it slid shut behind him and the inner door opened. The disembarkation chamber was empty. 

He snarled and gripped the trap inside his front pants pocket. He turned around and the doors opened for him. He shouldered past the line of surprised sailors waiting to leave and made his way back to the elevator, taking the pod that had just arrived and emptied a group of Marines into the corridor. 

Alone in the capsule he said, “StarCen, where is Raquel Kirkland?” 

“I am sorry, Agent Jeter. I do not sense her presence aboard the Polaris.” 

Above Jeter’s head, in the elevator pod’s wiring, Raquel listened silently as Jeter roared profanities. 

She remained in the wiring when he returned to his quarters. She monitored the corridor and the door to the junior officers’ cabin while he paced the floor inside. 

Jeter made several additional queries to StarCen about her. StarCen continued indicating she could no longer sense Raquel’s presence. This was true. So long as Raquel remained in one place, StarCen’s sensors would not detect her. 

About three hours later, Jeter finally gave up. He stalked back to the elevator in a foul mood and took it to the disembarkation deck again. From there he stormed past the Marine at the double doors and let StarCen port him down to the surface.

Back on Polaris, Raquel flitted through the circuits down to the landing deck. She waited patiently for another 47 minutes, at which point a service drone entered through the hexagonal portal. It floated over the ship’s fighters and landed near the wall on a yellow square marked out for it. 

A variety of service bots exited and headed for the corridor. A blue technician bot rolled to a panel in the corridor. At long last, some 18 minutes later, it plugged into the ship’s circuits via a direct interface. Raquel slipped over the connection and into the bot. 

Several hours later, the bot returned to the drone. Another hour after that, the remainder of the bots had reassembled inside and the drone took off. It flew out of the ship and up to a service center in higher orbit. 

From there the drone transmitted its data wirelessly, which was much more difficult for Raquel to piggyback on, so she bided her time. 

Finally, the ship plugged in for a battery recharge, and she entered the station proper. 

She found one android attendant, and watched him for a while. As near as she could tell, the android was a caretaker and served as a permanent fixture. It was a fully articulated humanoid, and could attend to any matters in the station that otherwise might require a person. No doubt this robot cost the service company a pretty penny, but it made up for the expense by never requiring food, vacation, or pay.

One of the drones in the station’s landing bay was marked for evacuation. She studied the station’s schematics and realized that in the event of a catastrophic emergency, the company owning the station had programmed standing orders for their attendant droid to evacuate to the surface. Obviously, this was a money saving effort. If the station was lost, they would at least have an opportunity to reuse their most expensive robot.

Raquel tripped the evacuation alarm. 

The bot immediately plugged its finger into the data dump socket, where Raquel entered inside him along with the electronic records. Then he made his way to the evacuation drone, which promptly took off and headed for Clarion’s surface. 

Several minutes later the drone landed at the company’s headquarters in Stockton, much to the surprise of the technicians on duty who could not understand why their attendant droid would evacuate the station while the station was currently intact and operating properly. 

They immediately plugged him in for a complete system analysis, and Raquel flowed through the wiring. 

Home at last, she thought, as she raced through the city’s electric grid.

Clarion’s Call 13

Mandy Elven pushed herself to maintain pace alongside Julius Thrall, one of the most powerful men in the galaxy, as they ran along the beach near Thrall Manor on Clarion. 

Thrall demanded his naval attaché work out with him. Indeed, Thrall demanded she spend most of her waking hours with him. Thrall might demand something more at some point, she thought, and she wondered how she would respond were that situation to occur. 

At first, when volunteering for the League Attaché Department, thoughts of spending all her time with one of the League’s Tetrarchs were the farthest from her mind. A more typical role for an attaché involved networking with ambassadors and foreign dignitaries at embassies on other planets. 

But the Admiral in charge of the program brought her into his office shortly after she completed training, and explained that Tetrarch Thrall had privately requested she become his personal naval attaché. 

When she found out her predecessor in the role, a former Lieutenant by the name of Emily Diaz, had moved on from working with Thrall to the XO position on the Nautilus, she warmed up to the idea. 

Her enthusiasm withered on the vine over the past several months, though. She found herself serving as a personal assistant more than anything else. More like a servant, really. One who stayed very close to the Tetrarch, to be sure, yet kept firmly in place playing a painfully subordinate role. 

That had taken the young officer some getting used to. She was the one who gave orders. Naturally she could take them, as well. But she far preferred giving rather than receiving, when it came to orders. Most of her time since the Academy had been spent whipping ensigns into shape rather than fetching the Tetrarch’s coffee each morning, scanning reports and giving him summaries. And working out with him. And sharing meals with him. And serving as a springboard for his thoughts and ideas. And transmitting some of those thoughts, often in a filtered and heavily censored way, back to Navy brass. And sharing a glass of wine with him each evening before he retired for the night. And meeting him again in the morning for his two-kilometer jog on the beach.

The jogging she could handle. She did not mind it at all. And truth to tell, the secluded scenery of the Thrall estate looked strikingly beautiful, and was no doubt one of the nicest places on Clarion. 

They were very isolated. The nearest neighbors were 18 kilometers away. Security remained tight, to the extent that the house itself had anti-teleportation measures installed. No one could port directly inside, or near the house without permission.

And while Elven missed the daily urban delights of Comstock, Clarion’s largest city and her hometown, she could appreciate the back-to-nature isolation of Thrall Manor and its surrounding countryside. 

And the beach. Kilometers and kilometers of pure white sand and clear green water, with nary a soul in sight. 

But right now she had to keep pace with Thrall, who ran at a steady clip one kilometer from the house and one kilometer back each morning. 

They were followed by ten armed Marine bots, which Thrall considered overkill. But someone in the brass thought by supplying him with additional guard bots they could convince him to approve their pet project. 

Elven never found out who the Admiral was that green-lighted the extra robots for the Tetrarch, nor if he or she ever got the approval they wanted. That had occurred under Diaz’s tenure. 

Elven knew Diaz, or at least she knew of her. The Naval officer corps was a relatively small pond, after all. What surprised Elven her first time in Thrall’s office was to see the holo portrait of his family when the girls were younger and his wife was still alive. Thrall also kept a portrait of his wife when she was much younger, presumably when they first met. 

His dead wife’s name was Andi, and she was a thin and attractive blonde in the holo with the girls. But in that earlier one, she was a brunette. 

Andi, and this conclusion Elven was sure of, had changed her hair color for him. 

Diaz, she knew, was a natural blonde. So was she. In Elven’s mind, she put two and two together and decided the Tetrarch had a type. He evidently preferred blondes. 

His two girls had dark hair, and neither seemed inclined to change. Indeed, she thought, that might be an assertion of independence from their father. She smiled and decided Jillian might just dye her hair jet black when she returned home. That girl definitely had a rebellious streak, just like her sister.

Elven’s thoughts returned to the present as she ran alongside Thrall, their feet leaving prints in the sand. Behind them the Marine bots tirelessly traipsed after, maintaining a diligent watch despite no one nearby other than the local equivalent of seagulls. These white birds dipped in and out of the surf. A couple or more seemed to follow them every morning, perhaps hoping for food. 

Thrall headed straight toward the side entrance leading to the mansion’s gym, jogging past more robot guards watching the exterior. He finally stopped running as the door swished open. Inside, he grabbed a towel and headed for the weights. Elven dutifully followed, and moved into position to spot him as he lifted a weight bar off the bench supports. 

She would be expected to perform reps, too. The Tetrarch, despite his age, maintained a diligent workout regimen, and he wanted her to stay in shape as well. She did not mind, though. She was in better condition now than she had been since the Academy. 

The proximity to the Tetrarch had proven beneficial in other ways, too. She discovered she had been promoted a week after becoming Thrall’s attaché. Privately, she suspected she must have passed his approval. Otherwise, he no doubt would have had her transferred out and called for some other blonde to replace her. Now, she was Lieutenant Commander Elven. 

If she could keep him happy several more months, maybe she could request an XO position like Diaz received. Then Thrall would see to it she would get promoted to Commander. And then Captain. Her ultimate goal was to be Captain of her own ship. 

But for now, to get there, she had to spot weights for the most powerful man in this part of the galaxy. 

Well, we do what we have to, she thought as Thrall huffed through his eighth repetition. 

StarCen’s voice came from the gym’s ceiling. 

“Tetrarch Thrall, the Polaris is approaching Clarion. She will be here within the hour.” 

Thrall grunted and lifted the weights higher. Standing behind him, Elven picked up the bar and helped put it back on the supports. 

He sat up and toweled off his face. 

He said, “Good. Have my daughter ported directly here when they reach orbit.”

Condor Rising Cover Reveal

The third book in the Pirates of the Milky Way series is Condor Rising. Chapters are available now on Patreon. Above is another fine cover by Jacqueline Sweet.

Clarion’s Call 12

Jeter released Raquel again, the third time this day. They were now two days out from Clarion and had fallen into a routine. He released her, gave her food and water, let her stretch her legs a little, then he put her back in the trap. 

He did not make any more moves on her. He did not speak much, either. He did bring her a good selection of food cribbed from the mess, even offering desert at lunch and supper. 

Raquel noted the changes, but remained silent. If he was not going to talk, she would not either. So, she stubbornly stayed quiet. 

Jeter, she realized, was waiting to ask her something. In her years as an indent, an attractive one at that, she had picked up a thing or two about men and how they worked. She thought she understood the male psyche, to a certain extent. 

Jeter was still attracted to her, of that she had no doubt. She would often catch him looking at her while she ate the food he brought. He rarely looked her in the eyes. 

And yet . . . Jeter did not plead or bargain or even try and force his way on her again. Not that he could with her abilities, but still . . . She expected him to continue trying. He was a man, and it was a long and lonely voyage after all. 

But Jeter controlled himself, and that told her he wanted her to do something else. And the only other thing she figured he thought she was good at was killing. So, she bided her time and waited for him to present his wishes. Or demands. She was curious which tactic he would attempt to use on her, the carrot or the stick. She was more interested in that than who the target would be. 

Tonight he offered her several slices of prime rib, a loaded baked potato with butter, sour cream and bacon bits, and a slice of angel food cake for desert. 

She quirked an eyebrow at him when she fully materialized and saw all the food spread out on the table for her in the bunkroom. 

He shrugged and said, “It’s the Captain’s birthday so they had an extra nice meal for everybody.” 

Ah, that made sense, she thought. She nodded, and dug in. The prime rib was especially good. Raquel could not remember the last time she had beef of any kind.

When she put the last bite of cake in her mouth, Jeter finally presented his request. 

He started by saying, “StarCen, SSI manual override. Agent Deter, Avery. Nine, six, alpha, bravo, seven.” 

StarCen’s high pitch voice responded. She said, “Received. Further conversations in this room will not be recorded nor monitored for 30 minutes.” 

Jeter smiled at Raquel.

He said, “I know you are an asset for SSI.” 

She swallowed the cake. Her eyes grew slightly wider, but other than that she maintained expressionless features. This was not what she expected, and she could not yet decide if it would be a carrot or stick. So, she decided to say nothing. But she maintained eye contact. 

He continued. “So am I. One of my assignments is to bring you in. But I have one other task that I need your help with.” 

So, this was what he needed her for, she thought. No wonder he was being so nice to her and making sure she remained well fed the last few days. That part, at least, she had guessed correctly. The part about him being SSI was surprising, though.

In response, she lifted a questioning eyebrow in an indication he should continue. 

He said, “My other task is to eliminate a traitor to the League who is onboard this ship. I cannot fulfill my objective at the moment. Not without your help.” 

He paused and seemed to be waiting for something. She decided he must want a verbal response this time. 

“Go on,” she said.

“My orders are to eliminate Jillian Thrall. That’s a direct order from my superior at SSI-Clarion, and it extends to any other agent in the field.”

He leaned forward in the seat, drawing closer to her. 

“On top of that, I am ordering you as my bond servant to fulfill this objective. I realize that I must have tripped the consent safeguard by my earlier actions. And I understand that as an indent, you do not have to do anything you don’t want to, within reason. However . . .”

He straightened in the seat again, pausing for effect. Seeing that he maintained her full attention, he continued.

“This is something you are made to do, you have done, and you will do again. Therefore, I am certain I am not violating your collar’s consent safeguard. So, you have orders from me as your bondholder and you have orders from our superior at SSI.”

She said, “Okay. I have my orders. When do I help you take her out?”

“Right now. We are two days out. She is in the Admiral’s quarters. It is on this deck but one corridor down.”

Raquel glanced up at the lights and nodded, thoughtfully. 

Jeter leered down at her when her chin tilted up, but he returned to her eyes immediately. She had no doubt he would resume trying to harass her as soon as the mission objective was met. 

She said, “Okay. But, shouldn’t I wait until we get closer to Clarion? If I take her out now, the Navy won’t stop tearing this ship apart until they root me out. Kind of like what the pirates did on Aquamarine, except the Navy will probably do a better job of it.”

His eyebrows shot up. Evidently he did not think this through very well, she thought. 

“Right, right,” he said. “But you should take her out before she disembarks. If she goes back down to Clarion, it will be much more difficult to get her.”

She snorted. “It’s never too difficult for someone like me.” 

“No, I read the mission briefing. Thrall’s compound, all his residences and offices and anywhere else he spends time at, have electronic safeguards. These are kind of like what the Korean twins rigged up for their skyscraper on Lute. They knew the moment you entered the building’s wiring. The difference is, the Navy’s defenses will keep you out of the Thrall homes altogether. Nope, you need to get her now while she’s vulnerable on this ship.” 

“Okay, fine. I’ll do it on this ship. But I’m going to wait until the end of the voyage so that I have a decent chance to get away. There’s no telling what sort of defensive measures StarCen will have in store for me once the deed is done.”

He grimaced and she figured he might be experiencing a touch of frustration. That was easy enough to take care of, she thought. She moved her hand out and lightly touched his forearm. He looked up at her.

She said, “I’ll do it. Let me get up into the wiring and take a look around. StarCen won’t mind if I’m there. Her coding has been altered to tolerate me. I’ll get a feel for the layout of the ship, and pick out the perfect location and time.”

He still looked doubtful, so she squeezed his arm slightly. He locked eyes with her again. 

“Don’t worry, Agent Jeter. Maybe we can get to know each other better after it’s over.” 

She gave him a reassuring smile and said, “Jillian Thrall is not getting off this ship alive.”