Condor Rising 38

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

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

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

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

“Name?”

“Miller Metger.”

“Ah. Two last names, I see.”

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

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

Then he smiled slightly, and appeared marginally less threatening.

He said, “I get that a lot.”

“Enjoy your stay on Lute,” she said.

He nodded back and continued into the building.

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

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

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

“Take me to the Petra Roe Embassy.”

“Sure thing! Right this way, sir!”

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

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

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

The android nodded as information danced across her holoscreen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Absolutely, Marshal. Absolutely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great.”

Metger stood, towering over the Ambassador.

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

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

“Very good. I’ll be on my way, then.”

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

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

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

Finally he nodded and headed for the elevator.

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

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

Condor Rising 37

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

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

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

“Look at that!”

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

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

“Any way the XO could have survived that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benson said, “What happened, Kilmeade?”

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

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

“He struck his commanding officer?”

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes refocused on the ensign.

“What?”

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

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

At last, Benson wiped away the tears and sniffled.

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

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

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

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

Kerpow!

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

Curly grunted and fell, blood splattering on his shoulder.

Benson yelled, “Take cover!”

Everyone fell flat to the ground.

Another flash sparked in the distance.

Somebody shouted, “Incoming!”

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

Bong!

The slug bounced off the transport.

“Everybody back inside! Move it!”

The crew scrambled up and ran for the door.

Another flash of light

Kerpow!

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

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

“Can you still fly this thing, Curly?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

Bong!

Kilmeade said, “Is this thing bulletproof?”

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

“Yes, ma’am!”

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

Bong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Condor Rising 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m surprised PLAIR let them go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Condor Rising 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d love some breakfast.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doing what?”

“Pulling on your earlobe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elephant said, “Hello, Angel.”

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

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

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

“What are our plans now?” Lynx said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are Dolphin and Peregrine still in the vicinity?”

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

Julia pursed her lips, her mind racing with possibilities.

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

Condor Rising 34

Phoom!

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

Raleigh said, “Thank you, Mr. Kim.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. Demand their surrender again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is correct, Captain.”

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

“That is correct, Captain.”

“Alright. Anybody got any other ideas?”

“Let’s blast him apart,” Granny said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-+-

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

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

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

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

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

“Ha! I knew it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up, StarCen.”

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

“XO Chung, I am sensing no—”

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

KARUMPH! KARUMPH!

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

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

-+-

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

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

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

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

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

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

His face dropped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will fire at the appropriate spots.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ultima Mule ported away.

Condor Rising 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will do, Captain.”

-+-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benson stared at the small crowd of sailors around her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pirates,” Chung said.

“Go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chung said nothing. He waited for her decision.

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

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

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

She looked back up at Chung and smiled.

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

“What about you, ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You still would?”

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

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

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

“Aye, aye, sir!”

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

Condor Rising 32

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

“Still missing your sister?” Skylar said.

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

“War sucks.”

Jillian nodded. She could not argue with that sentiment.

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

“Yeah. Dillon is . . . different.”

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

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

“Aw. That’s sweet.”

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

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

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

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

“Mmm. Roast beef and carrots.”

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

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

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

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

Jillian’s fork paused half way to her mouth.

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

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

Both women smiled.

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

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

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

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

-+-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can scrub floors,” Granny said.

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

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

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

He turned and walked to the elevator.

Dillon gave Granny a wide grin.

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

Condor Rising 31

Captain Benson finished the last of her supper and smiled as Chung regaled her with stories of the crew.

He said, “They have a game where they toss credit tokens against the wall. The one who comes closest to the wall without touching gets to keep the tokens.”

“Isn’t that gambling?” she said.

“Ha! They will swear up and down to anyone catching them in the act that it’s not gambling. If pressed, they might say it’s a contest, or simply a game of skill. But they’ll say, ‘No ma’am, it is not gambling, absolutely not.’”

She smiled as she downed the last bite on her plate. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes was a welcome respite from the bland fare they normally had for meals. And that, she thought, was sad to say. But true.

Chung wiped his lips with a napkin and sat back, his own plate nearly clean.

He said, “Any word from StarCen if we’re going to be late to the party?”

Benson nodded and said, “We made up some time by not hanging around at the rendezvous point. She’s extending our jumps a bit, and that helps. Finally, the fleet is pausing for an hour while she positions everybody. If we don’t hang around there, we should show up pretty close to when the action starts.”

“Good, good. I’ll pass the word and get everybody ready for the morning.”

He stood up to go, although it seemed to Benson he moved toward the door somewhat reluctantly. She smiled and stood up, too. She had sensed Chung’s affections before. They would, however, both remain professional.

Well, mostly professional.

She said, “You know if I wasn’t married to the Navy, Chung, I’d ask you to marry me.”

He broke into a wide grin.

“If you ever proposed, ma’am, I’d say yes.”

With that, he walked out the door and it swished shut behind him.

She sighed, wondering if he knew how close to the mark her comments were. Chung once told her in confidence his first name, Jun, meant “truthful.” How she hated having to dance around the truth with him. Her comment about marriage, although delivered in jest, was true. If it were not for their roles in the Navy, she would have been very much interested in a relationship with Jun Chung. He was the kind of man she admired. Honest, earnest, a good head on his shoulders. She liked his looks, too. Tall, dark, and handsome.

But right now, they had a ship to run, a battle to fight and a war to win. All romantic notions must perforce be suppressed.

Maybe someday, she thought. Maybe someday, after this war is over . . . Maybe she’d stop in a café somewhere on Epsilon Prime and there, at a table, Chung would be sitting alone and nursing a cappuccino. She would see him, walk over and join him. They could interact as real people instead of Captain and XO of the SLS Excelsior.

They could have a life.

Maybe.

Someday.

But not today.

She climbed into bed and called it a night early so she could be fresh for whatever lay in store in the morning.

-+-

“Battle stations. Battle stations. Battle stations.”

StarCen’s high-pitched, emotionless voice sounded throughout the ship. The clock floating at the front of the bridge signaled 05:59, and the Excelsior quickly approached Seychar, gaining distance with every second. They had caught up overnight, and StarCen would bring them through the final point without pausing.

“Listen up, everybody,” Benson said, her words bouncing out of the ship’s public address system. “We’re showing up a little late as usual . . .”

She paused as everyone on the bridge laughed.

“But not that late. StarCen tells me we’re less than a minute behind the others. So when we show up, it’ll be in the thick of battle.

“Now, if predictions for what lies ahead bear out, there won’t be much of a battle. Supposedly the Republicans only have a dozen or so ships in this system. But, you know how the best laid plans of mice and men go. So, I want you all to be ready for anything.

“Keep an eye on the clock. We’re almost there. That is all.”

Everyone on the bridge watched the jump clock as it ticked down, and the icon of the Excelsior on the holographic space map as it crawled closer to Seychar and Gotha Mu.

Finally, the clock reached zero, and they stopped. The ships remaining drones shot out the landing deck portal.

Before them on the holoscreen, Gotha Mu floated in all its celestial glory. Around it, a debris field the likes of which no one had ever seen floated in messy disarray.

Chung said, “Holy cow . . . what happened?”

A wave of metal parts and chunks of ships floated near them, bumping into their shields, along with other things tumbling through space.

Benson said, “Is that . . . is that a body?

-+-

Severs stood in dim light on the Paine’s bridge, silent. Captain Strand maintained authority on the ship, and Severs would not interfere. There was little for the Commodore to do at the moment.

Strand, meanwhile, shouted at his engineers. The holoscreen showed the five Wu Drives, swarming with technicians.

“Get us back online, Smith!”

The lead engineer looked into the camera and said, “Captain, the Wu Drives appear mostly intact. It’s our power core that’s suffering. This is the first time the weapon has been used extensively. It’s never been shot this many times in a row, even in trial runs. It takes a lot of power to teleport the sun. Or, pieces of one anyway. And we just did it repeatedly.”

“Okay, fine. How much time?”

“We’re operating on reserves at the moment. We’ll have to open up the core and take a look at. I can’t give you an estimate at the moment, sir. If I had to guess, the core will need replacing. We may have to rethink power supplies on the Condors if we’re going to be using this weapon a lot.”

“Sir!”

Strand and Severs both looked at the ensign manning the system map. She pointed to a flashing light circling Gotha Mu.

“A new League ship has appeared, sir!”

Strand focused back on the engineer. “Smith, can you get us one more fireball?”

Smith said, “Yes, sir, I think I can. It will likely deplete our reserves, though. Completely. We may even do more damage to the core, I can’t say without looking. But if you’re prepared to sit in the dark and maybe go without gravity . . .”

“Do it. Let’s take this last one out.”

The Commodore said nothing. Technically, he could intervene and suggest the other ships around Seychar jump over to engage the latecomer. But . . .

A lone ship could still damage half a dozen sent against it. And, this was the first real test of their new weapon, in combat. If it would have problems taking out a fleet, they needed to know. Better to find out now than later. So, he felt it was a good idea to stretch the ship out and see how far they could push her.

Severs nodded when Strand raised his eyebrows at him, the question and answer passing unspoken between them.

The lights dimmed again . . .

-+-

“How did this . . . StarCen, what happened?”

“I am still processing the data, Captain Benson. I believe I can state with certainty the Republic has a new type of weapon.”

“What did they do, set off a bunch of nuclear bombs?”

“No, Captain Benson. This is not nuclear . . .”

Chung said, “Something’s coming in—”

A flash of bright white light burst onto the holoscreen and time seemed to stop. Raw energy from the heart of Seychar’s sun exploded near the ship, sending a massive amount of fire rushing toward Excelsior. All of her drones incinerated instantly.

Within microseconds, the energy washed over the ship’s shields, obliterating them, bursting against her outer hull, perforating, burning and ripping through the metal . . .

StarCen popped Excelsior away as the rest of the star’s energy rushed into the empty space where the ship had been.

WahhWahhWahhWahh!

Benson said, “Damage report!”

Chung said, “Outer hull breach!”

“Where?”

“Everywhere! The entire skin of the ship has been burned away.”

“Casualties?”

“Too many to count at the moment. Corridors are sealed. We’ve got no shields, Captain. And we’re losing pieces of the ship with every jump!”

“StarCen! Stop porting us!”

The stars stopped moving in the main holoscreen.

“Status report! StarCen, what’s our status?”

StarCen said, “Captain your hull is critically damaged. You are losing too much oxygen. I am going to bring you to the nearest planet where you will evacuate all survivors and await rescue.”

The stars began shifting again.

Benson looked over at Chung, eyes wide with shock and horror.

Chung took a deep, shuddering breath.

He said, “I guess we weren’t so lucky this time, Captain.”

Benson shook her head. She said, “No, you’re wrong. We were the lucky ones. At least we managed to port away before total destruction. The others . . . the others weren’t so lucky.”

Condor Rising 30

[Author’s Note: Condor Rising 29 is a bonus chapter available in the Amazon version or on Patreon.]

 

Every sailor and every Marine was wide awake by 04:00. Breakfast was served on all the ships at 04:15, robotic chefs preparing reconstituted eggs and cryo-preserved sausages along with copious amounts of coffee. By 05:00 everybody was ready, waiting at battle stations even though combat was still an hour away. Finally, the League ships stopped teleporting five AU’s out.

In his private suite, Meena removed Admiral Kwan’s plate and brought it to the kitchen as he headed for the door. She returned and kissed him on the lips before he walked out.

“Tonight,” he said, I’ll take you down to Seychar. I’m sure there’s a governor’s mansion or some other suitable residence worth confiscating. We’ll enjoy a night under the stars instead of in the midst of them.”

She smiled sweetly up at him and said not a word as he left.

On the bridge, Kwan called into the ships and addressed all personnel, every man and woman under his command.

“Ladies and gentlemen, where we are about to go is where this war started. This is where it all began. Seychar rightfully belongs to the League, but we never paid much attention to it. Too many other things distracted us. Then they found gold. An entire planet of gold ore. It’s a small planet, mind you. But it’s still a planet practically made of gold. And the Republic sought to wrest it from our grasp.

“They won. At the end of the day, three years ago, they won the battle. They had a solitary ship still in the sky while we had none, and that counts as a win. And those Republican bastards have been mining that planet ever since. The gold they’ve dug up has financed their side of the war, and they have made more and more ships, and they have attacked us again and again, and they just won’t quit.

“But now it all ends. In less than an hour, we . . . the League Navy . . . the Fifth Fleet with combined elements from the Sixth Fleet . . . we are going to make this right. We are going to take back what is rightfully ours and put a stop to this conflict. We are going to remove the biggest source of gold from the Republic, and then we’re going to move on Diego itself.

“It started here. Now, we’re here to end it!”

Everyone on the bridge of the Reliant erupted into a roar. The holoscreen switched to the bridges of other ships, StarCen showing the Admiral everyone within the sound of his voice cheering him.

Once the hubbub died down, Kwan called for a Captains-only conference. From there he outlined the battle plan again. Their Eagles would be going in first against the 15 Republican ships expected to meet them in the Seychar system.

“StarCen is diverting significant resources to this next jump. Instead of coming in batches of five every second, she’s going to bring us all in at once. She is now positioning us in the optimal configuration for what we expect are eight ships orbiting Gotha Mu. We will appear and surround them, then move swiftly to take them all out.

“Are there any questions?”

The Captains remained silent.

“Then, ladies and gentlemen, I will speak with you again tonight from the surface of Seychar.”

Smiles lit up the holoscreens as all the Captains signed off.

Admiral Kwan looked up at the ship’s clock, the numbers floating near her pilot. The time read, “05:58”

He said, “Captain . . . prepare for departure.”

A total of 91 ships appeared suddenly around Gotha Mu. They popped into formation, perfectly surrounding the center of the planet. Immediately, the Eagle-class ships near the front adjusted their positions to aim at the Republican warships in orbit.

-+-

On the Thomas Paine, an alarm sounded and the lights flashed red. Commodore Severs and Captain Strand were both on deck. They turned to the main holoscreen, showing the view from one of their destroyers. Stars were blocked out by ship after ship. So many vessels filled the screen, few stars could be seen between them.

PLAIR said, “As expected, Commodore, the Fifth Fleet is here with support from the Sixth.”

“Very good. Evacuate all our ships from orbit around Gotha Mu.”

Before the League vessels could begin firing, all eight Republican destroyers surrounding Gotha Mu popped away, reappearing near Seychar.

-+-

On the Reliant, Admiral Kwan nodded, as if expecting the move. The ship they were closing in on, an Eagle-class like the Reliant, had suddenly disappeared.

He said, “They have withdrawn to the populated planet. This one is ours. Prepare to advance.”

“Sir . . .”

Kwan and Captain Nichols both turned to a young ensign manning one of the holoscreens. He pointed to a grid of the solar system floating in front of him. Seychar featured over a dozen flashing red lights. Gotha Mu had 91 flashing green. Between the two, he pointed to a solitary flashing red icon.

The ensign said, “They have one ship halfway between here and there.”

Kwan walked over for a better look.

He said, “StarCen, identify this ship.”

“I am unable to, Admiral Kwan.”

Kwan and Nichols exchanged a glance.

Kwan said, “Is this their new class, StarCen?”

“I believe so, Admiral Kwan. I do not recognize anything from this distance.”

Nichols said, “Perhaps we should take steps to eliminate this ‘lone ranger’ first, sir? We can pop over and get a closer look.”

“Maybe. But what can it do at this distance? We see no drones. It’s too far away to shoot at us. If it stays out of the way, it’s not a problem.”

-+-

On the bridge of the Thomas Paine, Severs said, “Fire when ready, Captain. Let’s unleash a little hell on them.”

“Aye, aye, sir. You heard him, boys and girls. Fire the star gun and take them out.”

Deep within the engine room of the Thomas Paine, her five Wu Drives began humming. Ordinarily, a ship needed only one Wu Drive, but the advances of war made Republican engineers realize the benefits of having more than one. Right now, all five concentrated in mutual effort, pulling a huge swath of energy from deep within the nearest star.

Each machine teleported out a chunk of Seychar’s sun, the increased power plant on the ship working to grab part of the star from one of its deeper points, at the edge of its core and radiative zone.

The immense energy required to port pieces of the star’s heart sapped the entire ship. Sailors in the Paine looked up as lights dimmed overhead. They felt themselves grow lighter as the ship’s artificial gravity weakened.

Then it was over. Five separate chunks, each 100 cubic meters of raw sun suddenly popped into existence in the middle of the League fleet.

Uncontained from the enormous gravity well from which they had been snatched, the balls of starlight expanded instantly, with devastating effect.

From the main holoscreen of the Paine, the crew watched as a lone camera on Gotha Mu’s surface showed the sky above erupting into light.

Sun, raw natural energy, expanded and wiped out the ships around them.

On the bridge of the Thomas Paine, Severs nodded in satisfaction.

“Do it again,” he said. “Take them all out.”

Condor Rising 28

Captain Strand looked over his shoulder as Commodore Severs walked out of the elevator pod and onto the bridge.

Somebody shouted out, “Commodore on deck!”

Everyone stood to attention.

“As you were, as you were,” Severs said. The tall man smiled at Strand, white teeth shining bright in his dark face as he came over to where the Captain stood.

Together they turned and watched a side holoscreen showing the view of Gotha Mu from one of the Republic ships parked in orbit. Both men stood with their hands behind their backs, watching the planet slowly rotate.

“Hard to believe a war started over that lifeless chunk of rock,” Strand said.

Severs smiled again. Strand was still in his 30s, he thought. Not for long, though. He’d hit 40 in a few months.

“A trillion credits at least, Captain Strand,” Severs said. “That’s what PLAIR estimates is available in the ore on that lifeless rock, if it were all recovered. Feasible mining will yield less, but still . . . for that much gold, yes, people are willing to kill.”

Strand nodded and stole a glance at his pilot and XO, both in front of the main holoscreen.

“The hardest part is waiting,” the young Captain said. “Waiting for the League to show up.”

“About that,” Severs said, his smile broadening into a wide grin. “I just received word from Diego. Our spies on Juventas were finally able to sneak a report out. It seems Admiral Cooper gave up half the ships in the Sixth Fleet recently, including most of his Marines and Eagle-class destroyers.”

Strand lifted his eyebrows. He looked around the bridge again, and everyone stood completely silent, even though no one looked at them. This conversation would no doubt spread throughout the ship.

“Do we know where they went?” Strand said.

“PLAIR has made an educated guess. The Fifth Fleet is in transit, too. She thinks they’re joining up and coming here, over 90 ships in all, carrying a Marine host of disproportionate size. Large enough to subdue a well-populated planet. And take over the mining of a smaller one.”

“Hm. An overwhelming force. Standard tactic.”

Severs nodded. “Yep. All rushing here to line up against our little squadron.”

He sighed and said, “I suppose we should make our final preparations for their arrival. PLAIR?”

“Yes, Commander?”

“Evacuate all humans from Gotha Mu immediately. All robots and other mechanized equipment should take cover, preferably underground where possible.”

“Yes, Commander.”

The bridge remained quiet once Severs gave the order, all conversation stalled. Strand said nothing, staring back down at Gotha Mu where miners and bots even now were seeking shelter or porting off-planet.

Finally he looked back up at the Commodore with a grim expression. Not an expression of regret, or remorse. But one foretelling the destruction to come.

He said, “A lot of League sailors and Marines are about to die.”

-+-

Andre Kwan, Admiral of the Fifth Fleet, leaned back in his chair and pushed the plate away.

He preferred dining in his private quarters, and had no desire to visit the bridge or anywhere else in his flagship very often. Instead, he preferred remaining in his suite and eating meals prepared by his indent, Meena.

These thoughts ran through Captain Justin Nichols’s mind as he hurried to catch up, downing the last few bites of his own dish.

At least, Nichols, thought, Meena was a decent chef. She had grilled the steak to perfection.

As if summoned mentally, Meena appeared to clear the plates away. Nichols could not help but watch as she stooped to gather everything up. Kwan had her dressed in a simple white satin teddy. It left her legs and arms bare, and clung tight to the rest. That was all she wore, other than the gunmetal grey biocollar around her neck.

Barefoot, Meena padded back to the kitchen area, carrying their dirty dishes.

Kwan noticed Nichols’s eyes following her and smiled.

“Rank hath its privileges, if that’s what you’re thinking, Captain.”

Nichols smiled politely. He thought, the Admiral has a way of cutting to the chase, doesn’t he?

Out loud he said, “It’s certainly true that I could not get away with bringing along someone, either a wife or indent.”

Kwan said, “Technically, I’m not supposed to either. But did you know, no one has ever had the guts to tell me no?”

Now that is a revelation, Nichols thought.

“So,” Kwan continued, pushing his chair back and crossing his legs. “I think it goes without saying that we’ll use our Eagle-class destroyers against the squadron at Seychar. I’ve asked StarCen to port us in formation accordingly. We’ll stop a few AU’s out and give her a chance to organize the fleet and properly prepare our mindset before going in.”

Nichols nodded. They were very close now, just a few hours away. In fact, they were scheduled to attack first thing in the “morning,” at 06:00 Epsilon Standard Time. That last stop would be at 05:00, giving them plenty of time to prepare and coordinate before jumping the last bit.

It was going to be a long day for everybody, Nichols thought. But at the end of the day, he had no doubt that the Seychar system would be firmly in the League’s column. Finally.

Personally, Nichols felt Gotha Mu should have been the focus of the Navy from the beginning. But so many other battles had proven distracting, both to the Tetrarchs and, he privately suspected, to StarCen herself.

Now, at last, they were returning to claim the prize they had been forced to leave behind at the start of this war. The source, in fact, of all the conflict.

Well, one good thing about it, Nichols thought. I’m in the lead on this one.

Kwan said, “Once their guard detail is out of the way, we’ll prepare formations for the Diego Fleet. That’s when the real battle begins.”

“That’ll be good,” Nichols said. “We’ve rarely had an opportunity for wide-scale engagement.”

“Yes. Unfortunately, that’s been to their advantage.”

Nichols quirked an eyebrow. The Admiral seemed particularly frank tonight.

Kwan nodded at the Captain’s expression and continued. “For all their inferiority, the Republic has managed to fight exceptionally well. We began this conflict with a numerical superiority in ships. They have bled us with repeated hit and run engagements.”

“Cowards.”

“Indeed. But, they are cowards who live to fight another day. The survival rate of their ships is phenomenal, all things considered.”

“They’ve got mostly Hawks. We still have a numerical advantage with Eagles.”

“Yes. But Hawks are perhaps the most utilitarian class. They are easier and less expensive to manufacture than Eagles, and can be just as devastating in combat especially when fighting together. It is little wonder the Republic has cranked out as many as they can from their factories.”

Meena returned, carrying a tray with coffee cups and a carafe. She set it down on the table between the men and poured the Admiral a cup, then the Captain.

Nichols said, “Thank you.”

Meena smiled shyly at him. She’s beautiful, Nichols thought. I wonder how much Kwan paid for her contract?

When Meena returned to the kitchen Nichols said, “You seem awfully respectful of them, Admiral.”

Kwan nodded and took a thoughtful sip. He said, “Always respect your enemy, Captain. Never underestimate them. I would not be surprised if we see the latest those Diego factories have to offer waiting for us.”

Nichols raised an eyebrow again. This was proving to be an evening full of discoveries and frank discussion.

“Oh really? I haven’t seen any reports.”

“No, you wouldn’t have. Our spies on Diego have had trouble getting comprehensive details out. But, there has been some intelligence on a new class of warship the Republicans have been developing.”

“A new class? That doesn’t sound good.”

Kwan chuckled. He said, “Bear in mind my comments about the Republic’s inclinations toward utility. They crank out Hawks because they’re easier to produce than Eagles. To manufacture something bigger and better than an Eagle would require a longer production timeline, and that is not in the Republic’s nature.”

“Well,” Nichols pointed out, “they do produce Eagles. And some new ones have been manufactured since the start of the war.”

Kwan waved aside the comment with his coffee cup.

He said, “Their primary goal is efficiency. They are a republic, after all. Governed by elected leaders. Focused on capitalism. And capitalism demands efficiency. No, if they have a surprise in store for us, the new class will be utilitarian above all else. If I had to guess, it probably has some shortcuts built into the manufacturing process. A new ship designed to be quickly assembled. Perhaps several of them to try and present a numerical advantage.”

“In that case, they’d have more than a squadron waiting for us.”

“Maybe. Even so, our 92 ships should be able to handle it. But I think the real surprise will be that the Diego Fleet is likely going to be larger than we are expecting. Mind you, what they bring against us might well be cheap and quickly assembled, but I bet they’ll bring in superior numbers. They’re likely to give us a good fight for the money with the Diego Fleet. That’s my prediction for what lies ahead.”

Nichols nodded, thinking about it. He took another sip of coffee. Andre Kwan was a Fleet Admiral, he thought. Someone who sat in on meetings with Tetrarch Thrall himself. So, he was probably right.

Half an hour later, Nichols left the Admiral’s quarters and walked down the corridor to his own spacious cabin. He fell asleep and dreamed about Meena, or at least an indent he could call his own and bring along on long voyages.