Halcyon’s Heirs 18

The transport settled down where wagon tracks ended in front of a large cave entrance. They were in the foothills of the mountains, above the valley cutting through the peaks the river made on its way to the sea.

Outside the cave a group of miners stood, shifting weight on their feet awkwardly.

Inside the transport, Curly stared at the men through the holoscreen. He turned to the ensign in the seat next to him.

“Something doesn’t look right, ma’am.”

Kilmeade said, “Why do you say that, Curly?”

He nodded at the men in the holoscreen and said, “They’re nervous.”

She shrugged. “Their friend got hurt.”

He nodded. “They should be showing anxiety, worried for his safety. They’re not. They’re nervous. I smell a trap.”

Kilmeade looked back at the screen and tried to see the situation through older sailor’s eyes. She was young, fresh out of the Academy at 16 years old. One thing her instructors had drilled into her cohort was the need to trust the experience of people who have been around a while, even if they ranked below you.

“More than one ship has been lost due to the arrogance of her officers.”

The words of Dr. Colgate, one of those instructors, rippled through her memory as she recalled the lecture touching on this issue. It had been drilled into the future officers repeatedly. Take charge, but listen to what those you are leading are saying to you.

“Okay, Curly. Stay here with the ship. Don’t let anybody on it, of course. Keep Vargas onboard with you.”

She stood and addressed the others.

“The rest of you, arm up and be on guard. If we’re stepping into a trap, we want to go down with guns blazing. At the same, don’t shoot anybody accidentally or unprovoked.”

Her statements were met with a chorus of “Yes, ma’am!”

She turned back to Curly and said, “Can you bring us up and turn us around? I want to walk out facing the cave entrance with the transport behind us so nobody can snipe us at a distance.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The look on his face told her he thought that was a good idea.

He pulled up gently on the stick and the transport levitated a meter into the air, then he swiveled it so the door faced the cave. He landed again, the rails lightly bumping the ground.

When the door to the transport opened, the men in front of the cave looked surprised to see a young girl stepping out in a blue Navy uniform carrying a rifle. She looked both ways, scanning the mountainside, then nodded. Five more sailors followed out behind her, all armed.

She said, “Where is the injured man?”

One of the miners said, “Uh, he’s several meters inside the cave. If you all would follow me, I’ll bring you to him.”

Kilmeade nodded. She pointed at one of the sailors and said, “Yoo.”

The man snapped to attention.

“Stay out here and keep an eye out. The rest of you, follow me.”

She touched the implant under her ear and said, “We got neural net?”

From inside the transport, Curly said, “We do out here, thanks to the transport. I don’t know how far into that hole you can go before you lose it.”

Kilmeade said, “Stay on the line. Let’s burn the juice anyway, I think it’s worth it.”

She nodded to the three men in front of the cave and said, “Lead on.”

One of them gulped, but together they walked inside the yawning entrance. Kilmeade and the others followed.

The sailor named Yoo found himself alone, everybody else either in the cave or in the transport. He pulled out his blaster and held it with both hands, pointed up at an angle.

Before him, the mountainside stretched upward. At this height there was little vegetation, and he could see the timberline a few meters above, where nothing seemed to grow. The gray and brown rocks made for a pretty sight, though, stretching up to a bright blue sky. Something white further up caught his eye.

He squinted, wishing he had a scope on his gun, but it was only a pistol. He watched as the lump of white moved quickly. Then it . . . jumped from one outcrop of rocks to another.

“Huh. Mountain goat. Is there anything to eat up that high? Or is it just wandering around up there?”

No one replied to his query. He stood watching it for a couple minutes. It jumped again, and wandered off toward the left.

Yoo shielded his eyes with his hand and tried to follow the goat’s trek. It marched steadily toward the left. Yoo took a step sideways, then another, trying to keep the goat in sight.

Kerpow!

The slug hit him in the back of the head, throwing him forward.

-+-

To the transport’s far left, 50 meters up, two miners smiled at one another. One man was older, the other one younger.

“That was a phenomenal shot, Mr. Hix.”

“I tell ya, Darrius, we got the best of both worlds here. You see, back in America’s early days you had all these German immigrants who knew a thing or two about gunsmithing. They knew that if you rifled the barrel of a musket, you could add spin to a ball and greatly increase its range and accuracy. They designed what became known as Pennsylvania Rifles, although some folks called them Kentucky Rifles.

“Anyhow, these things were just devastating in the American Revolution. They could pick off Redcoats with ease several meters away. This was back when all the guns were produced by hand, before Eli Whitney finished with his cotton gin and started mass producing muskets on an assembly line.

“Then a Frenchman designed the Minni Ball. He realized that a slug more cone-shaped did better flying through the air. It was widely adopted by the American Civil War. So, we got the best of 18th century arms here, and 19th century ammunition. Combine that with a modern electronic scope . . . and we can handle the Navy.”

Darrius nodded, smiling. He was not surprised by the lecture, but he knew that would be part of sitting up here with the older man, waiting to ambush the sailors.

He said, “I can’t wait to tell Mr. Darcy you got one.”

Hix smiled and said, “If they come out of there, we’ll get some more. Hand me that rifle and get to reloading this one.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 17

Lexi made her way through the crowded dance floor, eager to reach the anti-grav area. The party was in an older building on the edge of campus. Once abandoned, it had been retrofitted as a nightclub and served as the current hotspot for students.

She saw Beck, her dealer, dancing by himself in a corner. The tall blond boy seemed blissfully unaware of the heavy techno beats thrumming from the ceiling. He slowly danced with an imaginary partner. Lexi supposed he had an augmented program running.

She tapped his shoulder and smiled at him when he turned around.

“Lexi!”

“Got something for me, Beck?”

“I do, I do.”

He slipped a capsule surreptitiously into her hand, a small liquid-filled cartridge. She gave him a ten-credit token, which he pocketed.

He smiled at her and said, “Have fun!”

He resumed dancing with a partner only he could see.

Lexi popped the cartridge into her medical bracelet. Like most bracelets designed to slyly deliver drugs in public, it was disguised with costume jewelry. She activated the pneumatic injection system, and synthetic opiods flooded her bloodstream.

She smiled, relishing the high. Beck had designed the synthetic specifically for her body. She would suffer few, if any, side effects. The drug was called “Malicious Melody,” and she loved the feelings it gave her. All of her synapses seemed to be firing, and she felt on top of the world.

Finally she made it to the anti-grav area and waited in line, dancing in place with others and soaking up the music. She didn’t care how long she remained in the queue so long as she was high.

She lifted her arms above her head and twirled, the hologram blouse perfectly following the contours of her chest. Lexi laughed in delight, completely forgetting the test she had tomorrow, or the League History project that was overdue. She was de-stressing, in the best way she knew how.

Finally it was her turn for the anti-grav floor. She took a step out onto a large white circle and immediately floated up. She danced in zero gravity, shaking her legs and arms in time with the music as dozens of other students floated around her.

Somebody threw up nearby, and she ducked out of the way as globules of vomit sped for her face.  A vacuum bot spotted the fluid, and puttered over quickly, sucking it all up with loud slurping noises. A tractor beam shot out, as the operator pulled out the sick dancer.

“What a way to spoil the mood,” a voice said near her.

She turned and saw the epitome of a “cute guy” smiling down at her. His long hair floated in the air, and his t-shirt drifted lazily around some well-defined abs. Lexi could see them clearly from her angle.

Lexi said, “I know, right?”

What a stupid thing to say, she thought. He’s going to think I’m some kind of airhead.

But he smiled at her and said, “I’m Rick.”

She returned the smile. “Lexi.”

He stretched as far as he could, reaching out. She reached up toward him and they shook hands, awkwardly at different angles and heights.

He said, “You wanna get out of here?”

“Absolutely!”

They signaled the operator, who pulled them down with the tractor beam.

They left the club together, and once they exited the building and walked away from the loud, thumping music, they could talk. She found Rick very easy to converse with, and they wandered through the campus, ignoring other pedestrians and focusing exclusively on each other.

When they got to a park, Rick lowered his voice and began telling her about a new drug he had recently bought: Elixir of Life. Although it had been programmed specifically for his body, he thought she might like it. He gave her a capsule and she plugged it into her bracelet.

The high was different than what her dealer supplied. She felt blissful, relaxed, and something to close to an alcohol buzz. It seemed very pleasant.

They continued talking as the night progressed. Maybe it was his drugs, but Lexi had never been able to talk so freely. She revealed things from her childhood, her dreams and ultimate desires in life. Then she told him about the Resistance and how they were starting a chapter at EU.

Rick seemed open to the idea. He belonged to a fraternity. In fact he had come to the club with several buddies, but he was the only one interested in the anti-grav dance floor and had separated from them. But he assured Lexi his fraternity held very libertarian attitudes, and joining the Resistance would prove popular. There were others in the Greek system on campus who likely felt the same way.

The next morning she woke up in Rick’s frat house, downstairs on a couch next to him, with a surprisingly clear head. The powerpack on her holo-blouse had gone out, much to her embarrassment. Rick smiled and took off his own t-shirt and gave it to her.

“Omigosh, I’m late for class!”

She rushed out of the house, promising to talk to Rick later.

Somehow she got through her History exam, and went back to her dorm to work on projects through lunch. Around suppertime she got a text from Rick on the neural net. The words showed up in front of her face.

“Hey, a bunch of us are going to your meeting. See you there!”

Maybe this thing will actually take off, she thought.

After supper she waited around in her dorm room, browsing social media on the neural net. Somebody had uploaded a new holo of the mountain dogs of Morvana. They were different from dogs found on other planets because they spent a lot of time on two legs. Their puppies were adorable, and Lexi lost herself in the documentary.

Finally, the time came and she hopped out of bed and headed out the dorm.

Lexi casually glanced at her internal clock and said, “Omigosh! Late again!”

She picked up her pace, hurrying toward “The Lab.”

At last the building came into sight, campus lamps lighting up the sidewalk out front.

She stopped as the door burst open and a crowd of students came out. Behind them, SSI officers wearing black blaster armor shoved them through the door. The officers held their guns aimed at the students. They herded the students with curses and vicious blows to their backs.

One of the girls looked at the man behind her and he struck in the face. Lexi watched her nose blossom red with blood.

Another girl ran screaming as soon as she cleared the door.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

Three SSI officers shot her down from behind. Her body lay on the grass, smoke drifting up from her back.

Lexi saw Caroline, hands restrained behind her back, as she stumbled out of the building. An officer shoved her and made her join the others in the grassy area in front of the building.

One of the SSI officers said, “Take them away, StarCen.”

Students started disappearing, popping away in clusters while officers covered them with their weapons. So many! Lexi thought. Several wore fraternity or sorority shirts.

Lexi covered her mouth in horror as she saw Rick stumble out with the last of the students. He stood in the middle of the grassy area looking miserable until he popped out of existence with several others.

“You need to get away.”

Lexi jumped in surprise. She turned and looked behind her. The boy staring back at her was skinny, of medium height, and looked like a classic nerd.

“I’m Basil. You’re Caroline’s friend, right? Lexi?”

She nodded.

“They’ll be coming for you. They’ll be coming for me, too. I’m sure they’ll find out all about us during interrogation. They’ll want to know who else is involved.”

Lexi watched as the last of the students popped away, along with some of the officers. A handful in SSI uniforms milled around the door.

Basil said, “Come on, it’s not safe to go back home. I know somebody who can help. They can put us up for a while until we figure out what to do.”

He turned and slinked away in the darkness.

Lexi looked back one more time. Her heart ached and the first wave of guilt hit her like a tidal wave.

Then she turned and followed Basil into the shadows.

Halcyon’s Heirs 16

Niles looked around with interest at the Administration Building’s interior and people. He continued his nonstop chatter, following the Marshal as the bigger man headed toward an information kiosk. The droid attached to the chair smiled at the men.

“How may I help you?”

Metger said, “We need to book passage on the first ship out.”

He glanced at Sergio and said, “Make that the first ship headed for Petra Roe.”

“Very well, sir. The Parasol is in orbit at this moment, and is scheduled for departure in about three hours. Would you like to book passage?”

“Yes. Charge two tickets to the Marshal’s Service.”

“Very well, sir. Do you have anything to declare to Customs prior to departure?”

Metger snorted. “No.”

Niles smiled at the attractive droid and said, “I have nothing to declare, either. I’ve lost all my luggage. Pirates took it. I’ve just got the clothes on my back. But, boy, have I got a story to tell. I’m taking that back with me!”

“Our security scans are showing guns in your bag, Mr. Metger. As you know, weapons are not allowed onboard, nor in the Administration Building.”

“These belong to the Petra Roe Embassy,” Metger said. “I’m sure somebody will be along to pick them up shortly.”

“Very well. You may deposit them here.” The droid reached her hand out.

Metger handed over his duffel bag full of weapons somewhat reluctantly, noticing the perfect nails on the female droid’s hands. He wondered if droids had manicures, or if the nail polish was permanent somehow.

The droid opened a locked container under her desk and dropped the bag inside.

She said, “I am receiving a message that Customs would like a word with you. If you would step that way, please.”

She pointed toward a doorway. Metger frowned but moved in that direction, fully confident laws and treaties protected him. Sergio followed, his head continuing to swivel, taking in the sights.

Inside the door they met a human this time, a pleasant looking fellow of African descent with a genial smile. His hair was shaved short and he had a goatee.

He said, “Mr. Metger? I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but we have a few fines to assess before you can leave Lute.”

Metger’s eyebrow shot up. “Fines?”

“Yes. It appears you have violated a handful of rules. Let me get the list out.”

The Customs officer waved in the air and a holopaper appeared. The text scrolled up when he flicked it.

“Yes, let’s see. Unauthorized use of a skycab, that’s a 5,000 credit fine. Unsafe exit from a skycab while in motion, that’s another 5,000. Uh, terroristic threats, 10,000. Oh, here are the big ones. External damage to a building. Hm. Seems like damage on the ground floor by agents employed by you or your agency and some damage higher up. Internal gunfire led to additional damages . . . 100,000 for the upper floor damage, 50,000 for the street level. Now, administrative processing adds some to that, you understand. Plus, the company whose building you damaged has filed a grievance. We have checked with our local AI who agrees with the grievance based on her observations, thus obviating the need for a magistrate to weigh in. So, that’s an additional 100,000. Last but not least, bringing unauthorized weapons into the Administration Building without proper clearance. So, your total for everything is . . .”

The Customs officer flicked his finger over the holosheet again and the text scrolled to the bottom.

“. . . A grand total of 350,000 credits.”

While the officer spoke, Metger’s expression shifted from amused to annoyed to incredulous to anger. Finally, when he finished, Metger’s expression shifted to his normal one of arrogance.

He said, “I am a Marshal with the Marshal’s Service. All of this damage occurred while in the process of performing my job. I am not liable, nor is my agency, for anything. I may not be fined for anything done in the course of my job.”

The Customs officer scratched his nose. He smiled politely again and said, “Maybe on other planets, but I’m afraid that’s not the case here on Lute.”

He made another motion with his wrist and a different holosheet appeared, floating in the air. He twisted it with his hand so that Metger could read the words on it.

“According to Section 18, Article Five, paragraph four . . . ‘If in the process of attempting to execute a warrant or apprehend an individual, the foreign agent incurs damage to private property or other individuals, said agent will be held as indemnification for any and all damages, as well as additional sums in due recompense for pain and suffering when aggrieved parties file an injunction . . .’

“Well, there’s more and I’m no lawyer, but I’m sure you can ask our AI any questions you might have. The long and the short of it is, when we get 350,000 credits from you or your agency, you will be free to go. Until then, I’m afraid you must remain here. That’s the ‘holding for indemnification’ part. We have accommodations ready for you in another part of the Administration Building.”

At this point a couple of security bots walked into the room, accompanied by a live police officer.

Metger’s face grew red as he realized they were actually going to detain him.

He said, “This is outrageous! I’ve never made that much in my life! For 350,000 credits I could buy my own spaceship to fly home! There are laws! There are treaties governing the Marshal’s Service between both systems!”

The Customs officer nodded in agreement. “Indeed there are. However, Lute is part of neither major system. And though we are allied with the Republic in this current conflict, we remain self-governing and adhere to our own laws and regulations. You are welcome to contact your home agency, but as a law enforcement officer I think you will understand that I have to enforce ourlaws now. Laws which you have clearly violated. Repeatedly.

“If you will please follow this gentleman, the guard bots will accompany you to our holding area.”

Metger turned to glare at the bots and realized they both had weapons drawn and aimed at him. The blood in his face drained away.

He turned back to the Customs officer and said, “This . . . is . . . outrageous!”

“I should warn you that threatening a Customs official is also an offense, and doing so will increase your fine and possibly the time you remain with us.”

The man smiled pleasantly at Metger, who glared at him for another full minute. Finally, the Marshal turned and marched out, following the human officer while the guardbots covered his back.

Niles watched them leave. He turned to the Customs officer and said, “Hi. What about me? I’m Niles Sergio.”

“I am told you are a guest at Mule Tower. You may return now. LuteNet? Please port this gentleman to the Ultima Mule Company.”

“Wait! I—“

Niles popped away.

The Customs officer flicked the holopapers and they disappeared. Past the door, out in the hallway, he heard Metger bellowing his rage.

He smiled and said, “Days like this I really love my job.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 15

“This is just phenomenal. I can’t say how happy I am to see you, Marshal. I think this will make a great holo. ‘Rescue from Lute.’ Or maybe, ‘Saving Niles Sergio.’ Yeah, I kinda like that. I wonder if I should star as myself? We’ll probably have an artificial actor do most of the action, you know they just look better. And they don’t get hurt when doing stunts! I’ll have one made of myself. You, too, no doubt. I’m sure we can make the Marshal’s Service look really, really good. And this will help the war effort! Heck, it’ll help recruiting efforts for your agency. I’m sure it’ll help your dating life. You’re going to have to beat the girls off with a stick after this holo comes out. Or, whatever preference you have, I don’t judge. Myself, I prefer young girls. The younger the better. You know, it’s been a long, long time for me. Did you know pirate women are kinda hot? Unfortunately they won’t even give me the time of day. I guess it’s because I’m a captive. There’s probably some rules about sleeping with the enemy, you know? Anyway, when I get back I’m going to make you a star. You’ll see!”

Metger tuned out Sergio’s incessant chatter. The man was annoying, no doubt, and his tendency to talk nonstop played a huge role in that annoyance. But Metger had more important things to consider.

The motto of the Marshal’s Service was “Force if necessary.” The implied threat underlying the motto usually worked in the Marshals’ favor. People, organizations, even governments typically complied with the agency’s demands in order to avoid their use of force.

The Texas Rangers used to have a saying: “One riot, one ranger.” The implication was that a solitary law enforcement officer of that organization’s caliber could handle any number of situations, including a large-scale riot.

The Marshal’s Service operated with a similar perspective. Early in the colonization of space, when it became apparent that dueling modes of government would prevail on the settled planets, an independent law enforcement agency was founded that could operate between both systems. The idea was loosely based on American federal agencies. While the Texas Rangers became that state’s investigative arm, the Federal Bureau of Investigation served as the national version. Federal agencies could freely operate in every state, and superseded local ones.

It was not a perfect analogy, primarily since the planets were not states that were united. They were more like separate countries comprised of different planets. It took some treaties to be signed by the systems, but eventually both sides could see the benefit of having one law enforcement agency that could act as a neutral third party. If a fugitive from one system found his or her way to the other, the Marshals would track the person down and bring them back to justice.

While lip service was freely given, local governments on some planets proved more reluctant when it came to compliance. Thus was born the Marshals’ reputation for ruthlessness. Many years ago, a Marshal killed 72 people in one day while extracting a Republican fugitive off Epsilon. The death toll included19 local police who unwisely tried to intervene. Another Marshal killed over 50 people on Diego in a similar episode, while capturing a League fugitive.

Over time, law enforcement agencies were instructed by their respective governments to fully cooperate with the Marshal’s Service rather than obstruct them in any way. Even more important, Metger thought, the AI systems were programmed to remain compliant. That made all the difference.

Even on this backwater planet, which likely had only the one decent city, its AI would be aligned with PLAIR. Metger had no concerns about her. In the end, as always, the assignment would be completed. He would return Ms. Thrall to her—

The door to Raleigh’s office swished open, interrupting Metger’s thought and Sergio’s babbling. Raleigh walked in, smiling.

“I have some good news, Marshal. Well, good for me and Jillian, not so good for you I suppose. We are married. She is now Jillian Raleigh, and I am her husband and next of kin. That being the case, I am afraid I cannot let you take her. And, if you try to do so by force, you’ll be in violation of the law.”

The two men stared at him. Metger glared while Niles looked dumbfounded.

Niles said, “You married the Tetrarch’s daughter?”

Metger said, “LuteNet, confirm.”

“This information is correct, Marshal Metger. Christopher Raleigh and Jillian Thrall are legally wed, and the records have been updated here as well as with PLAIR. I am rescinding my permission for you to port her off planet in your custody.”

Niles looked between the two men staring at one another, the Captain smiling and the Marshal frowning.

“What’s the big deal?” Niles said. “You can still grab her and we can go, right? I’m mean, you’re charged with taking her back, right? This shouldn’t make any difference.”

Metger grunted. He said, “It’s not that easy. The Captain here is now her next of kin since he’s her husband. It throws a whole monkey wrench in the thing. This is a dirty trick, Raleigh. We call that a ‘marriage of convenience’ where I’m from. It’s a legal loophole. You wouldn’t have been able to do this back in the League. Or the Republic, I bet.”

Raleigh shrugged. He said, “I was going to marry her anyway. You just forced my hand and sped things up. Anyway, now that your reason for coming here has been negated, let’s discuss damages to my building.”

Metger sniffed and looked away. He said, “Take up any claims you might have with the main office of the Marshal’s Service. But good luck with that. Everything was in the line of duty. And it wasin the line of duty, at the time. Your marrying her doesn’t change that. She wasn’t married when I first came here.

“And for the record, I’m taking young Sergio, being held against his will, back with me. I’ll consider that a partial victory.”

He stood and walked to the open area in the office, beckoning Niles to follow.

“Port us to the Disembarkation Zone, LuteNet.”

A yellow circle appeared around them, and they popped away.

Halcyon’s Heirs 14

“Terrestrial teleportation incoming. Please stand clear.”

A yellow horizontal circle appeared on the roof of Mule Tower, and a moment later a man popped in wearing a black business suit.

Raleigh walked over to shake the man’s hand. He stood at medium height, about five foot nine or 175 centimeters, with nondescript short brown hair, olive skin and brown eyes.

“Pastor Dawson, how are you?”

“I’m fine.”

Raleigh noted the man had a rich, deep voice doubtless beneficial for speaking from the pulpit.

“Can I offer you something to drink? Baptists avoid alcohol, don’t they?”

“Some do,” Dawson said, looking around at the city from the view afforded at the top of the skyscraper. “Especially pastors and deacons. I’ll take some water, though.”

Raleigh motioned to his bot who hurried over with a glass of water.

The Pastor took a sip then met Raleigh’s eyes and said, “Now, what can the First Baptist Church of Port Ryan do for you, Captain Raleigh?”

“I need to get married.”

Dawson nodded. He said, “Very well. I don’t usually marry people who are not members of the church, but it’s not unheard of. I’ve done it before. I like couples I marry to go through a newlyweds’ class. It’s a series of discussions, really, where we talk a lot about what it means to be married, examine what the Bible has to say about marriage, and then explore some topics that help bring to light the differing expectations couples bring into marriage. You might be thinking one thing and she might have different ideas. These are sessions on finances, how many children you plan on having, which family you’ll visit for Christmas. Things like that. I want to make sure all the unspoken expectations are hashed out before the ceremony to help solve problems before they start.”

“Well, I’m afraid we don’t have time for that. This is an emergency.”

The pastor nodded again and said, “These emergencies typically take about nine months to manifest, Captain. I’m sure we can work the Newlyweds Class into however much time is left before then.”

“No, not that kind of emergency. This one’s different. Look, we need to get married today. Right now, in fact. I’ve paid the license fee and LuteNet has the paperwork ready. All we need is a certified pastor to say the words, lead us in our vows, and we’ll be good to go.”

Dawson blinked in surprise. He said, “Well, uh . . . it doesn’t usually work that way. I’m sorry, Captain, but I have to get back to the office. Perhaps you could have somebody at the Administration Building help you with a civil ceremony.”

“I would, but everyone there is on holiday, and I need somebody right now. You’re it.”

“Look, Captain, I’d like to help you. But you need to go through the Newlyweds’ Class. Marriage is not something to be taken lightly. It’s a lifelong commitment, or at least it should be. God says in the Bible, ‘I hate divorce.’ The classes are well worth your time. They’ll help prevent a divorce from happening later.”

Dawson set the glass of water down.

He said, “Now, if you’ll excuse me I really must be getting back. We’ve had an influx at the orphanage and I need to make sure everything goes well for mealtime tonight, along with a hundred other things.”

Raleigh said, “I will of course, pay your fee.”

Dawson smiled and said, “I do take an honorarium for weddings, but even so, I want you two to go through the class. Call my office and make the first appointment. We’ll talk later.”

“Wait. I need to get married today. Right now. If you’ll follow me, the bride is waiting in the cafeteria. All you need to do is pronounce us man and wife.”

Dawson shook his head.

“I really need to be getting back, Captain.”

“Lootie?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Deposit 10,000 credits into the orphanage managed by First Baptist Port Ryan.”

“Done, Captain. I have transferred 10,000 credits from your personal finances into the Lute Baptist Orphanage account.”

Dawson’s eyes grew wide.

Raleigh said, “Consider that your honorarium. Now, if you would follow me, we have a ceremony about to start. They’re waiting for us.”

-+-

Jillian stood crying in front of one of the large picture windows in the cafeteria. On one side of her Skylar hugged her, offering comfort. Granny stood to her other side, still hoisting a blaster over her shoulder and chewing on a cigar.

Several crewmembers sat in chairs at tables nearby, casting sympathetic looks at her.

Jillian sniffled and Skylar offered a tissue. She took it and dabbed away tears.

“I’m sorry. I just . . . this is not how I expected to get married, you know? It was going to be a beautiful ceremony on Italia with rose petals in the aisle, and mountains and beaches and horse-drawn carriages and everyone I knew was going to be there . . . Instead I’m in the cafeteria. It’s just not a special day, you know?”

Skylar nodded and squeezed her again, offering unspoken support.

Granny frowned. She said, “You love him, don’t you?”

Jillian nodded, dabbing her eyes with the tissue.

“Then it don’t matter. Getting’ hitched is the important thing. The Captain’s quite the catch. Ain’t never seen a woman able to reel that fella in like you did.”

Several sitting at the tables in the cafeteria murmured in agreement.

Kim and Pak sat together nearby. Kim said, “We thought the Captain would remain a bachelor forever.”

A chorus of agreement came from others in the crowd.

“You definitely changed his attitude toward marriage,” Skylar said, giving her friend a big smile.

Jillian gasped as she had another thought. “What if he’s just doing this for convenience? What if he doesn’t love me?”

Several people chuckled, including Skylar and Granny.

Granny said, “Girl, that boy is head over heels in love with you. There ain’t no doubt about that.”

Before Jillian could explore the notion further, the elevator dinged open and Raleigh stepped out with Pastor Dawson. Raleigh headed for the window, the pastor in tow.

Dawson nodded at the pirates who looked back at him expressionlessly. He blinked at the big gun over Granny’s shoulder, but made no comment. She smiled at him, removing her cigar to do so.

So far, nothing cracked his shell, or caused him any discomfit. He was a pastor on a pirate planet, after all.

Jillian dried her tears and stood up straight. Raleigh introduced them.

“Pastor Dawson, this is Jillian Thrall my bride.”

Dawson’s exterior finally cracked, wide open. He stared at her in astonishment.

“Jillian Thrall? The Tetrarch’s daughter? What are you doing here?”

She smiled at the expression on his face and said, “It’s a long story.”

The pastor took a moment to gather his wits. He kept staring at Jillian, utterly flabbergasted.

Finally, Raleigh turned him around to face the crowd, who now sat up in their seats expectantly.

Skylar gave Jillian a final hug then stepped aside.

The elevator dinged again and Maxwell came out, hurrying over to the window. He gave a gold ring to Raleigh, and another one to Jillian.

“They’re brand new,” he said in a reassuring tone. “I didn’t steal these.”

Granny moved over so Max could stand next to the Captain, serving as his best man. Jillian and Raleigh turned to face the pastor.

Dawson looked at the pirates seated in the cafeteria, then at the couple facing him. He took a deep breath and smiled, relaxing. Likely, this would be the only sermon many in the room would hear in a while. Perhaps it would be the last sermon for some of them, based on the precarious lifestyle of pirates. Dawson determined to make the most of his opportunity.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered today to unite these two in holy matrimony . . .”

Halcyon’s Heirs 13

Word spread quickly among the crew. In fact, Benson discovered she was one of the last to hear the news that the surrounding land was rich in gold. Some of the Methodist women shared when bringing over food that in certain parts of the countryside you could literally reach down and pick up solid nuggets off the ground, if you looked for them.

In fact, most townfolk spent a good portion of each day panning the riverbed for gold dust and nuggets, or walking around the countryside looking. A staking system had been developed, and people mostly respected a marked stake. If they did not, they stood a good chance of getting shot. A few people already had been shot over disputed claims.

The really lucrative areas were rumored to be up in the mountains. That is where Darcy’s men and others spent most of their time. Supposedly there were caves with huge steaks of gold in the walls. Darcy was rumored to have a million credits in nuggets stashed away in several hiding places. He was widely considered by one and all to be the richest man on the planet.

All such talk increased the feeling of unease growing in Benson. Gold did things to people, she thought. Gold did things to entire governments. It made people act irrationally, and it brought out their baser elements.

She called a mandatory meeting after supper that night. When everyone settled down, sipping on tea or fruit juice, she stood up in front of the church and faced her crew.

Benson said, “We’re leaving first thing in the morning.”

Gasps and other surprised exclamations rippled across the group.

“What?”

“Why?”

She narrowed her eyes at the sailors making comments.

She said, “This is the reason why. Already, discipline has deteriorated. You are League sailors. You’re not settlers, you’re not . . . forty-niners or anything like that. We’re getting in the transport and heading to Winthrop right after breakfast. There we will assist local authorities in their efforts to remain self-sufficient until such time as we are rescued.

“We are not staying. We are not going to become . . . prospectors, or settlers, or anything like that. There’s a war going on. We’re going to return to doing our part in that war as soon as possible.”

She heard grumbles, and she noticed a few dark looks cast her way, but her words struck home. Clearly some wanted to stay. They probably wanted to try their hand at panning for gold, she thought. Well, that’s not going to happen.

Someone raised a hand. Benson looked at the man and struggled to remember his name for a moment. Then she had it.

“Kang? What is it.”

Kang said, “We’re probably not going to be picked up until after the war, ma’am.”

Benson heard several gasps throughout the small crowd. To her knowledge, this was the first time the topic had been publically broached.

“I realize that, Mr. Kang. However, the war is still going on, and we are still in the Navy. Just because they might not be able to send someone to pick us up right now does not mean we are going to pretend we’re not sailors.

“Is that clearly understood? We are sailors. We will continue to act like sailors. Each and every one of us is in the League Navy until such time we are discharged. That time is not now. We are still in the Navy, even though we are marooned here.”

She looked at them, hands on her hips, and met the eyes of everyone. Some turned away, while others nodded.

“I realize you may not all agree with that,” she said, looking back at those who avoided meeting her eyes. “But, you will be on the transport in the morning, or charged with desertion.”

A few gulped. A few others nodded, reluctantly.

-+-

Benson woke up at first light, her internal alarm clock going off. She made her way to the front of the church, intending to check with the guard posted at the front door.

So far they had not had any trouble, but she maintained guards overnight in front of the church and outside the transport where a few members of the crew continued to sleep.

Before them the town spread out, wooden buildings hastily erected. Beyond that, the river snaked away in the distance toward the beautiful mountains, their craggy peaks reaching up into the sky. The view, Benson thought, was stunning.

Curly stood outside the door, turning his head as she exited. He saluted her with a smile, despite the bags under his eyes.

“Captain.”

“Any trouble last night, Curly?”

“No, ma’am. Same as the other nights.”

She nodded, glad to hear it.

“You don’t want to become a prospector, do you Curly?”

The big bald man shrugged, then grinned at her. He said, “It’d be nice to pick up a few kilos of gold, if all it takes is digging. But, it occurs to me there’s not much to spend on out here.”

Benson chuckled. “That pretty much sums it up. Maybe you can buy stuff in their big city, Winthrop. But out here . . . out here there’s not much of anything.”

“Nope. But . . . I’m not sure that thought has occurred to everybody, Captain.”

She nodded, her face turning grim. She said, “That’s one of the reasons we’re leaving.”

Benson turned to go back inside when the sound of distant hoof beats broke through the morning. She turned and watched as a rider raced into the other side of town.

Benson squinted. She said, “Can’t see much at this distance.”

Curly grunted and brought his rifle into position, lining up the electronic scope.

He said, “The fellow looks rough. Probably been riding all night. He’s heading to City Hall.”

“Is he bringing news? Did something happen?”

Curly said, “We’ll find out soon enough. The mayor is heading this way.”

Benson watched as Carver ran out of the door of City Hall and headed down the street toward the church.

“Aim your gun up,” she said.

Curly nodded, abandoning the view his scope offered.

In moments, Carver ran up, breathless.

He said, “Captain, there’s been an accident in one of the mines! Someone’s been hurt, bad. Can you help?”

“How bad is the person hurt? What’s the nature of the injury?”

“They say he was crushed by falling rock. He’s barely hanging on. But if you have nanobots, he might stand a chance!”

“Is this one of Darcy’s men?”

Curly shot her a look when she said that. It sounded cruel, she knew, but she had to know.

“No, ma’am. This is the first big cave we found. Several people in town have a stake in it. Mickey Torrez is the fella who got hurt. Please . . . if you can do anything for him, we’d all be mighty grateful.”

Benson nodded, her mind made up. She said, “Curly, gather up six sailors. Be sure and get Kilmeade, she knows a thing or two about medicine. I’ll have the rest continue preparing for departure. When you come back you can pick us up.”

The mayor blinked in surprise. He said, “You’re leaving?”

“Yes. We’re headed to Winthrop as soon as possible. But, we’ll go see if we can help this man. Do you have coordinates for the cave you can give us?”

-+-

Fifteen kilometers away, in the foothills of the mountains outside town, two men crouched behind a boulder, their horses staked several meters away. They had an excellent view of Wallisville at a distance.

The first man was large, standing at least six foot four, or 193 centimeters. His brown hair was long and unruly under his hat, and his beard looked tangled.

The other man was shorter, and badly in need of a bath. He was covered in dust. He watched everything through an electronic scope, following the rider in the morning light, the mayor running to the church, and the Captain as they discussed things.

He said, “Looks like she bought it, Mr. Darcy. I see a group getting together, heading for the transport.”

The big man next to him nodded. He said, “Good.”

 

Halcyon’s Heirs 12

Benson ordered Curly to move the transport to the other side of town and park it behind the church. She sought out and received permission from both the Methodist and Baptist ministers to keep housing her people in the church, at least temporarily. Both men seemed happy to give the idea their blessing. The building was only used on Sunday mornings, and occasionally on Wednesday nights. With access to the large building, the crew could finally leave the cramped quarters of the transport.

The Captain decided the town indeed seemed to hold a very strong independent streak. While not overtly rebellious, to a person they all seemed quite sure of themselves. While many were not happy to see the Navy here, most understood that the Excelsior’s crew was stranded. Therefore, they were considered guests and treated as such.

The Methodist Women’s Bible Study Group organized dinners for the crew, and started bringing over breakfast, lunch and supper to the church. Benson immediately protested, saying she had some remaining food supplies on the transport. She was waved aside by Betty Galavez, the self-proclaimed matriarch of Wallisville and chairwoman of the MWBSG.

Betty had dark brown skin, due in part to strong Hispanic blood and due in part to spending most of her days tending to her garden. She also had tight white coiffed hair assiduously maintained by weekly appointments in the town’s beauty salon. She was in her late-60s, and a widow. Her husband had died in an accident, falling off a horse.

But the Good Lord placed her here for a reason, she informed the Captain. Several reasons, actually. One of those was to inform the Mayor of all his mistakes, which were plainly evident to Betty if not to anyone else. Another reason was to chair the MWBSG and make sure things were taken care of at the church, even if it was a building they had to share with those pesky Baptists.

And another reason God had no doubt placed Ms. Betty Galavez here on Halcyon in this day and age was to make sure this poor woman’s crew was well-fed instead of eating packaged emergency rations from their little spacecraft.

Benson gave up and let the Methodist women take turns preparing meals for her people. The food was actually pretty good. She made private inquiries to Mayor Carver, who assured her that while technology may be lacking in Wallisville, food was one thing they had in abundance. A mere additional two dozen mouths to feed was nothing.

“What are you all doing out here, anyway?” she asked the Mayor one day after lunch.

Carver had stopped in to check on them, a habit he evidently was forming. This was now their third day in the village. The Captain took the opportunity to pump him for information.

Carver looked surprised at the question, but he quickly shifted into a sort of tour guide role. He was proud of their little town out in the middle of nowhere on a virgin planet.

“Initially, the plans were to harness the river and their falls, the ones you saw when flying over the mountains, and build a power plant. We actually have the turbines, they came in on one of the last supply ships before the war started. But . . . we don’t have any wires. They were scheduled for a future shipment. So the turbines are sitting in a warehouse in Winthrop somewhere collecting dust.”

The Captain nodded. She said, “Winthrop is the capital, right?”

“Well, I guess you could say that. It is the biggest city. Heck, it’s the only real city. There’s just Winthrop and a handful of towns like this one scattered along the road out to here. We’re end of the line, so to speak.”

“Winthrop has your spaceport, then.”

He nodded. “That is correct. They still might have some powerpacks charged up for emergencies, too. I don’t know if they’ve figured out a way to recharge them yet. I heard something about some coal powered power plants the Governor was trying to build.

“Meanwhile, they’ve figured out how to harness wind and water, basic stuff that humans have been using for millennia. So, they got a nice sawmill and they do some blacksmithing. Plenty for all the buildings that have gone up. We’ve built houses and carts with tools like shovels and hammers.

“We’re doing okay on Halcyon. I figure we mine enough copper, we’ll get around to making our own wires, too. Then our home-grown technology will really take off on this planet.”

“So, Wallisville is a sort of company town? It was built for the purpose of building the power plant?

“Correct. And that project is on hold long term, until we can figure out the wires. Long distance, high-tensile electric wires. Until then, Winthrop gets by without us.”

“So, why are you all still out here? What’s the point? Why not go back to civilization, or the next best thing, in Winthrop?”

Carver raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You didn’t know? There’s gold hereabouts. The mountains is practically crawling with it.”

He grinned at her and said, “That’s one of the big reasons why Darcy and his boys don’t want the League to show up and start interfering with things. No, we was all set to build the power station for Winthrop out here. The town is situated ideally. These newfangled designs don’t impede the water flow much. They just use the river’s current to generate electricity. But the stronger the current, the better. In front of the falls is best, of course. Strongest river current for a thousand kilometers from Winthrop is right near here. But with no high-tensile wires to run the electricity back to the city, there’s no point.

“We was going to pack up and go back when somebody saw something yellow in the water. And the gold rush was on. The town doubled in size. People ride in on the stagecoach, yes we got those too. Or they come here on their own horses and strike out for the mountains searching for gold. I suspect you all first landed too close to Bill Darcy’s new stake. He was likely worried that the League was going to come in, claim it all for the Tetrarch, and shut down the independent operators.”

Benson sank in her seat and covered her face with her hand.

“Gold. That’s what led to the start of this war. That’s what led to the Navy going back to the Seychar system. We called it ‘Operation Golden Return.’”

Carver looked at her and tilted his head, like a puppy. He said, “That what got your ship?”

“Partly. The Republic developed a super weapon that took out an entire fleet. We got the tail end of it, but StarCen was able to port us away before the ship was completely destroyed. Halcyon was the nearest habitable planet. Unfortunately, a private warship working for the Republic got here about the same time. We couldn’t defend ourselves.”

Carver nodded sympathetically. He said, “We don’t get any news at all from the outside. All we know is there’s a war going on. Sounds like the League is getting the worst of it.”

“They are at the moment,” Benson said in a glum tone.

“Well, look. Why don’t you get over to Winthrop? That may be the best place to wait for rescue. Surely any ships that come here, when they get here, will go there first.”

“How far is it?”

“About 600 kilometers.”

“That’s, uh . . . quite a ways.”

“Oh, it’s not too bad. If you don’t think your transport has the power for it, a stagecoach runs every few weeks. Of course, not all of you can fit in one stage. It holds, uh, eight people I think. Maybe you could squeeze more on if some rode on top. They’re mostly empty on the way back to Winthrop. Once folks get out here they tend to get the gold bug and stay.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 11

Captain Benson stood in the town’s church, the largest building in Wallisville. On the front pew, the boy Charlie lay shirtless, a large bandage from the transport’s first aid kit wrapped around his middle. He was lying still as the nanobots Ensign Kilmeade had injected worked on him, silently patching things up, repairing the bullet’s destruction.

Outside Benson had stationed four guards, one on each corner of the church. They were armed and keeping an eye out for trouble. Few civilians were let inside with the crew, but most of the town’s population milled about in front of the church, anxiously waiting to hear word about little Charlie.

Mayor Carver stuck his head in the wide double doors at the front of the church. Benson waved at him to come in, and he did so, shutting the doors behind him as he came, hat in hand.

He looked down at Charlie, who looked back up at him from the pew.

“Will he be okay?”

Benson said, “Yes. He needs time to rest, and he shouldn’t move much for a week. The nanobots will rebuild what was damaged.”

The boy said, “Will they stay in me forever, Captain?”

Benson could not help but smile. The wide-eyed innocence of the boy had captured everyone’s heart, including hers.

“No, Charlie. They’ll stay and speed your recovery, then their power will go out and your system will flush them out.”

“Through my pee?”

“Yes, through your pee. But you’ll never see them go. They’re almost microscopic.”

“I’m gonna look! I’ll pee in a bottle so’s I can see ’em!”

Benson and Carver smiled at his enthusiasm.

The Mayor turned back to the Captain and said, “I apologize again for the shooting. Those boys were part of the Darcy Gang. They don’t represent the town. And, truth to tell, nobody will miss them now that they’re gone, either.”

“Who is this Darcy gang? Could one of them have been responsible for shooting us when we landed near the beach yesterday?”

Carver nodded. “Could well be. The leader, Bill Darcy . . . he prospects quite a bit on the other side of the mountains. If he saw your transport touch down, I could see him opening fire on you. That man hates the Navy with a passion. Unfortunately, out here, that sentiment is not uncommon.”

Benson said, “Come on, let’s leave Charlie alone for a while.”

She led Carver into the back of the building, behind the baptismal chamber, where a few private rooms offered tables and chairs.

“Not a bad little church you have here,” she said, opening the door for him into one of the rooms.

Carver nodded and said, “We use it for all denominations. Well, except the Catholics. They’re funny that way, you know. Something about having to bless a building and reserving it only for Catholic use. I don’t understand it all. I was raised Church of Christ myself. Anyways, we don’t have a Catholic priest out here, so the point is moot. But the Methodists use it first thing every Sunday, then the Baptists. For those that want to show up, that is.”

“What if you’re neither? What if you’re not a Baptist or a Methodist?”

Carver shrugged. “You just choose whichever one fits you best. Or don’t bother coming at all.”

They both sat down at the table in the small room. Benson noted it and the chairs were crude, like the church building itself. She decided it must have been constructed from local materials. An oil lamp hung on the wall, giving light. She suddenly realized there was no electricity in the town. That was interesting. She filed it away for later.

“So tell me about this Darcy Gang. You’ll pardon me if I feel a little bit like I’m in the Old West here.”

Carver nodded and said, “I can see how you might feel that way, Captain. There are some similarities. So, your people took out some of the members of that gang when they shot back. Bill Darcy has about 15 or so close followers. They’re men who like to stick together, you know? Same ideology and everything. And, uh, they never show up for either the Methodist or the Baptist services, if you know what I mean.”

“So . . . what ideology are we talking about?”

Carver grew visibly uncomfortable. He shifted in his chair and refused to meet Benson’s eyes.

“They’re separatists, Captain.”

“Separatists? Separate from what?”

“From the League. They are for a free and independent Halcyon. They made their way out here to the edge of civilization on this planet so they could gather gold and prepare for things.”

“Prepare for things? You mean, like the return of the Navy?”

Carver nodded and finally met her eyes. He said, “Now you see why they was shooting at you.”

Benson frowned and sat back in her chair. She said, “What are they, like a cult or something?”

“No, no. It ain’t religious or nothing. It’s like this . . . You know something of our history, right? Halcyon was to be the newest planet in the League. Colonization ships landed, we got all our resources together. We were going to be the next major planet.

“Then the war came and everything stopped. We ain’t heard nothing. Weeks stretched into months, and now it’s been near three years since the last spaceship has been in our orbit.

“There’s a movement out here, Captain. It’s made up of men and women like Bill Darcy, who hold a grudge against the League for abandoning us. They want full independence. You all been gone so long, they think they can get it.”

Benson steepled her hands, listening. Carver searched her eyes to see if he was getting through.

“You understand where they’re coming from, don’t you Captain? We ain’t seen hide nor hair of the League . . . no Naval ships, no merchants, no supply ships . . . nothing in three years. Meanwhile, we’ve done okay. We’ve got ample resources. Draft animals for heavy lifting and transportation. Food animals for eating, plus the local wildlife. Water power, sawmills, forges. We’re making it okay by ourselves. It ain’t the height of technology, but people have gotten by on less.

“Truth to tell, most of us share Darcy’s sentiment to one degree or other. There’s always differing opinions, and some people just want to go home. But out here in the sticks . . . well, most of us came to Halcyon to help colonize this place. We’re happy to stay out here . . . alone. We’ve made it this far without help from the League, and most of us are happy to keep it this way.”

The Mayor drew himself up straight in the chair. Benson could see the pride he held. They were independent in many ways. And, despite the crudeness of everything and the lack of modern conveniences, they were indeed making it quite well out here in Wallisville.

Carver said, “Of course, that don’t make it right to shoot at the Navy when they finally do show up. But you wanted to know why they shot at you. That’s the reason why.”

“Okay. I understand their reasons,” Benson said. “My question for you is, what will this Bill Darcy do when he finds out that I’ve killed four of his men?”

The Mayor nodded, and his eyes went down to the table again.

He said, “Yeah. I think there’s gonna be trouble.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 10

Caroline looked both ways down the hall, then knocked on a door nervously. It swished open and she walked in to her friend’s dorm room.

Lexi stood preening in front of a mirror, touching her hair which was bunched up like mouse ears on top of her head. She turned when Caroline came in and smiled brightly, showing perfect white teeth.

“How do I look?”

She twirled in front of the other girl.

Caroline raised a skeptical eyebrow. Lexi wore a pair of tight purple shorts that did not quite cover everything. Her butt cheeks poked out in back. And her top looked . . . revealing. It was also purple but seemed skintight. And, it shimmered.

“What is that?” Caroline said.

“This is the latest thing. It’s a hologram that looks like a blouse. Here, touch.”

Lexi grabbed Caroline’s hand and pulled it to her midriff. Caroline raised her other eyebrow as her fingers sunk through purple light and she brushed the other girl’s skin.

“Isn’t that the sweetest thing?” Lexi gushed. “It feels so free! I don’t have to wear a bra or anything.”

She raised her arms above her head and danced a little jig, making everything shake. The hologram followed the movements of her upper body flawlessly.

She said, “This is going to be great in the summer!”

“Uh, so what happens when the power goes out?”

“Phsh! The powerpack lasts for hours, don’t worry.”

Changing the subject, Caroline said, “Is that a tattoo?” She pointed down at Lexi’s leg. “Tell me that’s not permanent.”

“You like it?” Lexi lifted her leg a bit to show it off. Two letters were inked on her inner thigh: EU.

Lexi said, “It’s in the same font the old European Union used, but it stands for ‘Epsilon University,’ of course. All the cool kids are getting one. I can tell you what parlor we use if you want to get one, too, Caroline.”

Caroline sighed and said, “No thanks. I don’t want a tattoo.”

Lexi wrinkled her nose. She said, “You are such a cube, Caroline.”

“I am not!”

“Yes, you are. You’re positively cubic. I mean look at what you’re wearing. A sweatshirt and dumpy pants.”

Caroline glanced down at her own clothes. She looked back up with a glint in her eye.

“At least I don’t dress like a prostitute.”

“Hey! I do not dress like a prostitute. I am the normal one here. You’re the cube, wearing cubic clothing! You’re never going to get a boyfriend dressed like that, Caroline.”

“I don’t want . . . I’m not looking for a boyfriend right now, Lexi. Look, I came by to talk about something serious. Are we alone? Is anybody else here?”

Caroline looked around the spacious suite. The middle of the room was dominated by a giant bed, at least three times the size of a normal one. Caroline furrowed her brows as she noticed it.

“What’s with the bed? Why’s it so big?”

“Oh, that’s the latest thing. Communal sleeping. All my roommates and friends, we all sleep together. It’s so close and intimate. I feel safe.”

Caroline stared at her incredulously. She said, “How many of you sleep together each night?”

“It varies. Usually five or six. Last night Lizzie had her boyfriend over and my cousin was in town, so we had eight. You should try it! You’re always welcome to sleep over here.”

“Ew. No thanks. I could never . . . no. I prefer sleeping in my own bed.”

“Aw! You should try it one night, at least. There are times when I wake up and we’re all breathing in sync together. I think maybe our heartbeats match too! I just love moments like that. Then I fall back to sleep again lying next to everybody else. It’s like puppies sleeping together for comfort, you know?”

“Okay, look.” Caroline shook her head to clear it of the disturbing images the other girl invoked. “What I’m here about is we’re starting a . . . well, it’s sort of a club. You know about Dr. Milford’s death, right?”

“Yeah, that was so sad. He died in the park after his lecture. They say he keeled over while feeding the pigeons.”

“It wasn’t a natural death. I can’t prove it. But we have reason to believe that Dr. Milford was taken out by SSI.”

Lexi covered her mouth with her hand. She said, “Are you serious?”

“Yes. Look, there are a few of us getting together and . . . and we’re thinking about starting a chapter of the Resistance. Here at the university.”

“Omigosh, Caroline! The Resistance? That is so cool! I can’t wait to tell Liz about this!”

“Well, no. This is not something we want to get out. I mean, if SSI really did kill Dr. Milford, they could be coming for us if they find out we’re even thinking about resisting.”

Lexi’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

She said, “Oh.”

Caroline nodded. “That’s why we want to keep this on the down low. Okay?”

“Okay. But I want to help. And being in the Resistance sounds so exciting! You don’t mind if I tell Lizzie, do you? We can trust her!”

“Just be careful, okay? This is not a . . . it’s not a social thing, alright? We just want to see if we can do something to strike out against . . . against authoritarianism. Totalitarianism. Suppression. That sort of thing. It’s not about the cool people getting together and trying the latest synthetic drugs.”

“Hey! That’s not all we do. We make out, trade clothes and talk and stuff, too.”

Caroline frowned at her.

“Just be careful who you tell, okay Lexi?”

Okay! Gosh, you’re such a cube.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 9

Basil looked carefully in both directions before going through an old-fashioned glass double door. There were no sensors in this part of Epsilon University, and the building he entered was old. It was simply called “The Lab,” and it served as a sort of study center. The building indeed had laboratory space available for students taking Chemistry, although all the “chemicals” were present as augmented reality holograms. If someone created an explosive mixture by accident (or, more often, on purpose), the resulting explosion would be purely holographic.

Other labs were reserved for dissecting various holograms of animals, human anatomy, computer programming, and the visual arts. Personal study cubicles were available as well as rooms that could be reserved for group work.

Campus security kept an eye on things here, as elsewhere, but monitoring was lax. Basil knew a record of his entry and exit would be recorded, but it was not uncommon for students to visit The Lab at all hours of the day and night. Entry records would likely be checked only in the instance of something egregious happening.

He glanced at his reflection in the old style doorway. He was 16 and had mostly Asian and Hispanic ancestry, although his last name was Fleur thanks to French blood on his father’s side. Despite the conclusion some might draw from his surname, his complexion, hair, and eyes were all dark brown.

He quickly made his way to a stairwell, where the monitor was conveniently busted. From there he headed down to the basement.

The doors down here were old-fashioned, too, with simple locks rather than palm panels. He headed down to a room at the end of the hall and tried the handle. As expected, it opened for him. At the back of the room, another doorway led to more steps leading further down, where another broken sensor stood as a mute and useless sentry along the wall.

Now he was in the steam tunnels, a legendary place in university lore. All campuses had steam tunnels in ages past, and tales of students exploring them, playing in them, and getting in trouble in them resonated through the centuries.

It was common knowledge that StarCen had trouble eavesdropping on conversations underground. Concrete, steel, and dirt interfered with electronics. So, in this day and age as in centuries past, students wishing to discuss things in secret headed for the steam tunnels.

Basil made his way down a damp concrete passageway, following water and electric lines along with various and sundry other cables. A thin streak of water collected at the center of the path, which he avoided, making his way by the light of old-style LED lights spaced at intervals every few meters.

At last he came to his destination, an unmarked wooden door. He tried the handle and found it locked.

The code to get in was silly, he thought. He knocked to the rhythm of the ancient melody, “Shave and a Haircut . . . Two Bits!”

Basil had no idea what “two bits” meant. He resolved to look it up someday, if he could be assured doing so would not result in SSI investigating him. For now, he would remain willfully ignorant.

The door opened and a girl about his age, maybe 16 or 17, met him. She had short bleach-blonde hair and looked very pretty. She also appeared smart, maybe because of the light blue glasses she wore. Glasses were a fad for young people on Epsilon at the moment. No one had actually needed them in centuries.

She glanced outside nervously to see if he was followed, then opened the door wider so he could get in.

“Hi, Caroline.”

“Hi, Basil.”

He squeezed past her, being careful not to touch her despite their shared proximity. They were not going out, at least not yet. Basil still held out hope, and he did not want to offend her by rubbing up against her.

Inside, he was surprised to see another guy, an older student, staring back at him. Before either male could say anything, Caroline shut the door and moved between them.

She said, “I wanted to bring both of you in for a discussion because . . . because, as you know, Dr. Milford passed away suddenly.”

“He was a good professor,” Basil said, with a touch of earnestness coloring his tone. “Probably the best one at Epsilon U. Everybody liked him. His classes always filled up every semester.”

“They killed him.”

Both boys looked at Caroline.

“Can you . . . prove that?” the other boy said.

She shook her head. “No. But I know. The day he died in the park, he talked about democracy and freedom, and how a representative democracy is the best form of government. He pushed it too far.”

“He died of an aneurism,” Basil said.

Caroline said, “SSI has tools. They have heart attack guns and invisible rays that can make blood vessels burst at a distance. They have untraceable poisons, exploding nanobots and a dozen other ways to kill people and make it look like an accident. It was them. Dr. Milford was too important, too popular. They couldn’t make him disappear. They had to make sure he had an accident or a natural death.”

“How do you know all this?” the other boy said. Basil glanced at him again. He seemed a little older, and of Hispanic descent. He also seemed more sure of himself than Basil.

He thought, perhaps this was why Caroline invited him here tonight? Because he’s self confident in a way I’m not? Is she interested in this guy?

Caroline said, “People talk. Late at night when no one’s listening. Sometimes in chat rooms or while doing quests on an isolated node in Off World. You pick up things. And if you pay attention you can follow what SSI does in the shadows. Is there a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser stirring things up against the Tetrarchy? Something always happens to them. They disappear, or die in a mysterious accident, or suffer a strange heart attack.

“After a while, nobody is willing to speak up anymore. Nobody who wants to stay alive, that is.”

Basil’s eyes widened in the sudden realization that Caroline was right. There had been a lot of sudden deaths or disappearances involving outspoken people.

“I never thought of it that way before, but you’re right,” he said. “There’s so little dissent because anyone who says anything is . . . eliminated.”

She nodded and said, “I was there, in the lecture before Dr. Milford died. He pushed the ideas of democracy further than I’d ever heard him. It was too much. They were listening. They decided they’d had enough and took him out.”

Silence. All three students looked at each other.

Basil cleared his throat, nervously. He said, “So . . . what are we going to do? What can we do?”

Caroline said, “I’ve reached out to somebody I happen to know who is in the Resistance. They have a very weak presence on Epsilon, but they do exist. They’re much stronger on Juventas and other places, but not here.

“I think we can help them. I think we can maybe strengthen the Resistance here on Epsilon by encouraging other students to join and . . . well, resist. We need to stand up for freedom and democracy. It’s what Dr. Milford would have wanted. I think the three of us should reach out to others we know who might feel the same way. You don’t have to ask anyone directly, but you can lead the conversation around by talking about Dr. Milford’s suspicious death. See what they think. If they agree that his death was fishy, and if you sense they might want to do something about it, let’s bring them in.”

Basil nodded. “Yeah. We need to do something. I’m tired of sitting around and just . . . studying for class and stuff. I mean, is this all there is? I want to do something with my life. If I can help bring about change, if we can reform the system, get the Tetrarchs to listen to us . . . maybe bring in some democratic reforms to the League . . . I’m all in.”

Basil and Caroline both turned to the older boy.

He looked at them both and said, “I’m in. Anything I can do to help. I’m glad to be on the ground floor. I want to know everything.”

Caroline nodded. She said, “Okay. This then is the official first meeting of the Epsilon University Resistance. Let’s meet again and bring at least one trusted friend each. Maybe more if you can find them.”

She smiled at both boys and said, “This is going to be big. I know it. We’re going to make a difference! Dr. Milford will not have died in vain.”

They moved toward the door. Basil held it open and Caroline walked out. The other boy nodded his thanks and followed her.

Basil said, “Hey, I didn’t catch your name.”

The older student stuck out his hand to shake Basil’s and said, “I’m Ben Fernando. Pleased to meet you.”