Condor Rising 27

Biff met his sergeant, William Jefferies, who had shown up on the scene along with dozens of other officers.

The spaceport was a mess, with blaster damage and blood everywhere. Expensive guardbots lay in pieces, and several civilians had suffered injuries in the shootout. All teleportation to and from ships in orbit ground to a halt, with travel at a standstill while the Capital City Police Force tried to sort things out.

They moved swiftly and efficiently. Officers cordoned off the main areas of attack, identified witnesses and began interrogations.

But within the hour, SSI showed up in force and moved to take over the investigation. When StarCen alerted Jefferies that a group of armored agents had entered the building and were marching down the corridor toward them, he quickly deduced what was happening.

He gave orders to remove the body of ‘Andi Jones,’ and directed all witnesses be taken elsewhere, including Biff. When the agents arrived, the area had been swept clean except for the holographic yellow crime scene tape.

As the crowd of police and people moved further down the corridor, Biff nodded toward the propped open door to the stairwell.

“Hey Sarge, I bet the second floor is deserted.”

Jefferies diverted everyone into the stairwell and unblocked the door so it would close.

The group of officers and civilians walked up the steps and out into the empty and spacious second floor corridor.

Jefferies said, “Okay, SSI has control of the spaceport now. We would like to continue getting statements from each one of you, then you’ll be free to go about your business. I apologize for the inconvenience. Just help us figure out what happened, and we’ll go from there.”

Everyone spread out, officers interrogating witnesses in small clumps throughout the wide, abandoned corridor.

Jefferies took Jones farther away so they could speak without being overheard. They sidled up to the windowed side and looked out over the city.

Jefferies said, “So, let’s pick up where we left off. I want to make sure I understand. You were saying the lady you initially thought was her was not, but you followed Andi to Petra Roe?”

“It gets tricky, Sarge. I do need to sit down and write up a full report. The long and the short of it is, I had to take an unauthorized ship to get back here. There was just no way around it. Meanwhile, Andi hitched a ride on a private vessel traveling from Petra Roe to Juventas. I think she passed herself off as someone else, in transit.”

“What was her plan? Why come back?”

Biff shrugged. “I don’t know. Sow chaos and confusion? Shoot up the spaceport? Take out another VIP? Whatever it was, it looks like I got here just in time. Just in time . . . to see her killed.”

Jefferies looked at him with respect. He said, “Man, that is something. I know you loved her. It must be incredibly difficult to see her shot down like that right in front of your eyes.”

“I’m just . . . numb right now. I’m in total shock. I mean, I chased her all those weeks but I just . . . I don’t feel anything right now.”

“It’ll hit you later, buddy.”

Jefferies clasped him on the shoulder.

He said, “Hey, if there’s anything I can do . . .”

“Actually, yeah, there is something you can do. Those SSI bastards are going to dissect her body six ways to Sunday. She was the wife of a police officer, I don’t care what crimes she committed. If there’s any way you could have her cremated before they get their hands on her, I would greatly appreciate it.”

“Absolutely, buddy. Don’t worry about it. This is still my case, and they have not asserted jurisdiction or anything yet. I’ll take care of it, they’ll never touch her.”

-+-

Several hours later everyone was finally allowed to leave. Williams set up officers to direct the witnesses toward an emergency exit on the first floor, an egress point controlled by SSPF instead of SSI. That way, everyone was allowed to depart unmolested by the secret police.

A stream of people exited and headed down a street running alongside the giant spaceport building. Biff found himself walking beside Julia, still wearing her current disguise. She turned to him and smiled.

Well aware they were now under observation by StarCen, she said, “I’m Catarina Mulligan, by the way.”

He took her hand and shook it.

“Biffender Jones.”

“Please to meet you. I don’t really know a lot of people here.”

They walked for a few more moments in silence. Up ahead, a skybus landed at a terminal on the side of the street.

Biff said, “Well . . . I can certainly show you around.”

He thought for a moment and said, “Would you like to go out for dinner? Maybe we can talk about Yorkton and Juventas over food and drinks.”

“Sure. I’d like that.”

The smiled at him again, this time with a mischievous glint in her eyes.

She said, “You’re not married, are you?”

He looked down at the ring on his left hand.

“My wife . . . recently died. So, no. I am not married.”

“Good, because I don’t date married men. I would love to go out for dinner. And, uh, maybe afterwards you can help me pick out a hotel? I’m afraid I don’t have anyplace to stay.”

Biff shrugged. He said, “Feel free to crash at my place until you get settled in.”

“Why, thank you, Biffender. That’s really sweet of you.”

“Call me Biff.”

They stood in line and boarded the skybus together, smiling.

Condor Rising 26

The door to the Mule’s disembarkation zone swished open and everyone from the bridge walked in to meet the new arrival.

Granny took her cigar out and said, “Well howdy, Shakespeare!”

Dillon’s face fell as all the people walked into the room looking at him.

He said, “Oh. You saw that?”

“The whole performance, Sonny.”

“So, uh, where am I?”

Raleigh said, “You’re aboard the Ultima Mule, a private warship. I’m Captain Christopher Raleigh.”

Dillon’s face lit up.

“A private . . . Oh, pirates? Cool! Wait, which side are you on?”

“The Republic’s,” Raleigh said.

“Right, right. No way the League would hire pirates.”

He smiled back at everyone during the awkward silence.

“I mean, no offense or anything, but . . . well, you know how those Navy people are. All rigid and structured and everything. ‘We’re Navy, so stay out of our tight-laced, blue-uniformed, pinched-butt way, citizen!’”

He imitated a parade march, walking in a little circle. Everyone stared at him silently for a moment.

Raleigh said, “Who are you?”

Dillon stopped marching mid-step. He said, “My code name’s ‘Shark.’ That’s what they call me in the Resistance.”

Granny guffawed. Maxwell smiled.

Granny said, “Do they like ironic names over there? Like calling short fellas ‘Tallboy’ or something?”

“No. I’ve killed my fair share of SSI agents. It’s an appropriate code name, believe me.”

Raleigh said, “What’s your real name?”

“Oh. Well, I guess it’s okay to share it with pirates fighting the League. I’m Dillon Dvorak.”

Granny said, “How many SSI have you killed?”

Granny no longer smiled. She took the cigar out of her mouth and showed genuine interest.

“I’ve lost track. Got to be close to a hundred by now. Yesterday I almost got Admiral Cooper. My mortar was off by one second.”

“He’s not SSI.”

“No, but the guards I took out were. Got five, plus a gunship and pilot using the same mortar.”

Granny stared up at the ceiling.

“Any way to verify what he’s saying, Lootie?”

LuteNet said, “PLAIR’s spies on Juventas are reporting there was a disturbance at the Admiral’s mountain chalet yesterday, but there is a planet-wide blackout on news so we have few details. StarCen does have Dillon Dvorak listed as a known terrorist. Such a designation would ordinarily preclude him from travel to the Republic. I am willing to grant him an exception based on circumstances and his testimony. His biometric readings do not currently indicate any deception.”

“Is that LuteNet? Wow! I have heard so much about you. Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am.”

“As am I, Dillon Dvorak.”

Raleigh cleared his throat and said, “Our friend gave you a pocket computer. Hand it over, please.”

“Right! True to its name, I have it in my pocket here. Somewhere.”

Dillon opened up the chest armor and patted his pockets until he found it. He handed the device to the Captain.

Raleigh said, “Is this the one we’re looking for, Lootie?”

“Yes, Captain. I am notifying PLAIR we have it in our possession.”

A second passed, then LuteNet said, “Rather than returning it, in light of our current location she indicates she wishes it to be destroyed immediately and for me to verify its destruction. Afterward she will make the agreed upon deposit in the company’s account on Petra Roe.”

“Very well. Quartermaster, supervise its destruction.”

Granny grinned, the unlit cigar in her mouth tilting up.

“With pleasure, Captain.”

She took the pocket computer from Raleigh and left the room.

Dillon became aware of an extraordinarily beautiful woman with pure white hair and soft glowing skin staring at him. He turned slowly, and his eyes drank in the sight of her.

“Who are you?” he said, awe creeping into his voice.

She smiled and said, “Skylar Hawkens.” She extended her hand.

Dillon received a small static electricity shock when he touched her fingers. He jumped in surprise.

Skylar said, “Sorry. That happens a lot. I’m . . . an Intangible.”

“Really? Oh, man, that is so cool!”

Skylar blushed lightly, the red lighting up her face. She said, “You think so? It freaks most people out.”

“I’ve never met one before. I’ve heard you all can travel and teleport and such on your own. Is that true?”

She flickered out of existence, then tapped on the shoulder. He turned around wide-eyed.

“Whoa!”

Maxwell and Jillian smiled at each other.

He said, “I’m Elijah Maxwell, the ship’s First Officer. Talk to me if you need anything, LuteNet knows where we are at all times. Don’t bother the Captain with anything, okay? Come straight to me instead.”

“Yes, sir. Or do you guys say, ‘aye aye’ instead?”

“There’s not a lot of formality on a pirate ship. Stay polite and stay out of the way, and you’ll do fine. Skylar, why don’t you show him the ropes. Help him find a bunk. We’re short on crew this trip, Dillon, on account of we had to get ready and go at the last minute, so we actually have some room for a change.”

Maxwell walked out, leaving Dillon alone with Skylar and Jillian.

Jillian said, “I’m Jillian Thrall. I’m sort of new, too. This is only my third voyage.”

“Oh, hi. Uh . . . what do you do?”

“I’m the Captain’s girlfriend!”

“Ah. I see.”

Jillian said her goodbyes and walked out, leaving Skylar and Dillon alone.

A thought struck Dillon. He said, “Is she related to Tetrarch Thrall?”

Skylar nodded and said, “His daughter.”

Dillon’s face fell. “Oh . . . wow! I just shook hands with the Tetrarch’s daughter?”

Skylar smiled and said, “Don’t look so surprised. The woman who sent you up here was his other daughter, her older sister.”

She laughed at Dillon’s expression of sheer incredulity.

“Come on, Shark. Let’s find you an open bunk and I’ll show you around.”

Condor Rising 25

“Captain, I am prepared to bring us back into the solar system.”

“Okay, Lootie. Have you got a place picked out for us?”

“I believe so, Captain. I have factored in all the locations we could hide near Juventas and I have found one that should be suitable for at least several minutes before discovery, which will hopefully be long enough to retrieve the pocket computer Julia Jones is attempting to secure for us.”

Raleigh locked eyes with Jillian.

He said, “Don’t you mean Julia Thrall, Lootie?”

“No, Captain. She was married legally to Biffender Jones, even if under a false name. I have accepted the contract and have recommended the same to PLAIR. As far as we are concerned, she and Officer Jones are legally wed.”

Jillian chuckled. She said, “Let’s hope Dad doesn’t find out.”

“Indeed,” LuteNet said. “PLAIR believes that if she indicates they are married within her public records, spies from the League would uncover it and figure out where she is. Therefore, we have both agreed to honor the contract, but not register it in the records until after the war ends.”

“That’s good thinking,” Jillian said. “Thank you. And extend my thanks to PLAIR as well.”

“I already have, Jillian Thrall.”

“Alright,” Raleigh said. “Back to business. Get us in there, and let’s see what our sensor is picking up.”

Stars shifted in the bridge’s holoscreen as LuteNet ported them back toward Juventas, several hundred million kilometers away.

They stopped suddenly and a scorched, red and black landscape stretched out before them. Rocks and lava and smoldering steam pits simmered in the heat below.

Above, the sun flared brightly, looming larger and much closer than usual. LuteNet dimmed the screen considerably to protect everyone’s eyesight.

Raleigh said, “Where are we, Lootie?”

“We are 100 meters above the surface of Heliades, the first planet in the Juventas system. This world shares similar characteristics to Mercury, in Old Earth’s solar system. Radiation from the sun and the mass of the planet should provide us some protection from the League Navy’s sensor grid, at least momentarily.”

Raleigh nodded in satisfaction.

He said, “You did well, Lootie.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

-+-

Dillon heard sounds out in the corridor, but no one else bothered to check his room again. After a while he cautiously climbed down from the equipment above the door.

He held the cylinder out at arm’s length, staring at it long and hard.

“Alas, poor Yorick!”

He burst out laughing. Then he cleared his throat and started again.

“Alas, poor Yorick! A fellow of infinite jest. I knew him, Horatio. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your tambourines of justice?”

Dillon chuckled again and grinned at his reflection on the metal cylinder. It made his nose appear larger and he preened in front of it for a moment.

-+-

“What in tarnation is that idiot blubbering about?” Granny said, chomping on her cigar.

“I don’t know,” Raleigh said. “Lootie, who is that and what’s he doing with our sensor?”

“I believe he is trying to quote from Hamlet, Captain. He does not have all the words right. The lines are quite garbled.”

Everyone on the bridge stared back at a close up of Dillon’s face as he brought the cylinder to his mouth. He picked his teeth for a moment in the reflection. They watched his lips spread across the screen as he continued to speak.

“Your flashes of merriment were wont to set the table a’roarin! Not one now to mock your own grinnin’ hey? Quite chapfallen, amiright? Now get thee to a nunnery and tell milady, this be a wild goose chase. Make her laugh at that, Yorick! Boil and trouble, make her laugh at that floating dagger! Kill all the lawyers! Print the legend!”

“Who isthis nut, Lootie?”

“I believe Ms. Jones wishes us to take him with us, Captain. She is currently being interrogated by police. This young man has the pocket computer on his person, and the sensor indicates eight police officers searching nearby rooms. Presumably, they are looking for him. Judging by the scorch marks on his armor, he has recently been in a firefight. Logic indicates Ms. Jones left him with the sensor and the computer in hopes we would extract him.”

“Hm. Okay. Well, since no one is shooting at us at the moment, if we need to we can send him back, right?”

“That is correct, Captain.”

“If he’s in trouble,” Granny said, “he ain’t gonna want to go back.”

-+-

Dillon sat the cylinder down on the floor and bent at the waist looking down at it.

“Yorick, lend me your ears! To be, or not to be. That is the question!”

He bowed at the cylinder, then bowed to his right and bowed to his left.

“The crowd goes wild! Haaaaaaaaa! Haaaaaaaaa!It’s a standing ovation, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve never seen anything like it. Oh, here come the flowers!”

He straightened and retrieved an imaginary bouquet.

“I just want to thank the Academy, God, and most of all, my mother!”

The door swished open.

“What’s all the noise in here?”

“Oh—”

Dillon popped out of existence before the officer walked all the way in. He looked around and saw nothing, shrugged, and walked out again.

Somebody out in the hall said, “We’ve already checked that room!”

“Okay, okay! Thought I heard something, that’s all.”

The sensor, still lying on the floor from where Dillon left it, popped away too, leaving the room truly empty.

Condor Rising 24

Biff and Julia left the door jammed open and ran down the corridor toward the sound of blaster fire. One sailed over their heads as they drew near to the action.

“Over here,” Biff said, and he pulled Julia out from the middle of the corridor. They hurried past frightened passengers crouched on the floor and hiding behind chairs, trash bins, and kiosks.

When they reached the wall they kept moving, slowly and more carefully now that they were close.

They came up to a woman crouched behind a blaster-proof barricade, aiming at someone dressed in armor advancing down the corridor. He took several shots to the chest, cursing as each one hit. He kept firing back, but he couldn’t reach her, the barricade blocking his aim.

He continued advancing, trying to get close enough for a clear shot. Biff held Julia against the wall with one arm, out of the way of green bolts flying by as the armored gunman crept closer to the woman.

“That’s her,” Julia said. “Natasha Krizinksi!”

At the sound of her name, Natasha turned to stare at them. The gunman took the opportunity to run the last few meters to her position.

She turned around just in time and shot him pointblank in the face. He raised an arm to block the blast, but part of his helmet took a direct hit and stunned him. His visor flew off as he went down to the floor.

The guardbots tromped forward, their guns aimed at Natasha.

Dillon stirred on the floor, pulling himself to his feet as the last of his broken visor dropped away.

StarCen’s high-pitched voice came from overhead.

“Dillon Dvorak, known terrorist! Officers, arrest him!”

As one, all the guardbots shifted their guns from Natasha to Dillon.

“Aw, man!”

He dropped the blaster and held his hands up, frowning. Natasha smiled triumphantly and lowered her weapon.

Julia looked at Biff and said, “This is not right.”

She moved toward Natasha before Biff could stop her, whipping off her necklace in one smooth motion.

Natasha turned around to see a strange woman approaching.

Julia slapped her palm with the framer charm up against Natasha’s chest, right on her collarbone, and mentally activated the device. A digital horizontal line moved up, crossing Natasha’s neck and face to the top of her head.

“What . . . what is this? What’s going on?”

Julia pulled the charm off the other woman’s chest and stepped back.

Biff’s mouth dropped open.

Lights began flashing red again and a klaxon sounded.

StarCen said, “Andi Jones, known terrorist and suspected Tetrarch assassin! Apprehend with prejudice!”

The guardbots shifted aim once more, back toward Natasha.

Julia waved at Dillon. She said, “Get over here!”

He ran for the wall and out of the way of the bots’ blasters.

Natasha’s face, now looking like Andi’s, turned red in rage at all the guns aimed at her.

“What’s going on? My name is—”

“Shoot her!”

When the bots heard Biff, a registered police officer, shout this order they obeyed.

A torrent of green bolts slammed into Natasha’s chest, throwing her back.

Julia ran for the body, now behind the blasterproof desk and out of sight from the bots. She quickly searched around, feeling in pockets and loose spots on the clothes. Finally she checked behind the dead woman’s belt. There, tucked carefully behind the buckle, she found the small flat computer.

Julia grabbed it and nodded at Biff. He nodded back and stood, hands up, and walked slowly toward the police presence. The other officers gathered by the bots now, their own guns aimed toward the kiosk.

Biff said, “Hi guys. Officer Biffender Jones, badge number . . .”

“Oh, hey Biff!”

He recognized two or three of the other officers. Everyone lowered their weapons when they realized he was one of their own.

One of the women said, “What are you doing here?”

“Well, it’s a long story. You all know I took some time off to go searching for my wife . . .”

Overhead lights stopped flashing red, and the tension eased. People stood and crawled out from their hiding places.

Julia looked at Dillon and said, “Come on. We’ve got to get you out of here.”

She hurried back toward the stairwell entrance. Dillon followed.

The door had been jammed open, and she pulled on it to make the crack wider. Dillon helped her, and they slipped through then ran up the stairs.

“Why are we going up?” Dillon said, panting.

“Trust me.”

They reached the hall, nearly identical to the one below, and she headed for a nearby disembarkation room. When they came inside, she approached a cylinder sitting end-up on the floor.

“Hello? Hello? Can you guys see me?”

Julia waved the pocket computer in front of the sensor.

“What’s that thing?” Dillon said.

“That is your ticket out of here.”

Out in the hall they heard voices.

“Ma’am? Sir? You’re not supposed to be up here . . .”

Julia said, “Look, I’ll go stall them. You take this,” she gave Dillon the pocket computer, “and get up to the spaceship. You’ll be safe there.”

She turned and looked at the cylinder on the floor. She said, “Take him with you, okay? Port him up too. He needs to leave.”

She stepped back and watched.

Dillon stood, awkwardly holding the pocket computer.

“Uh, I’m not going anywhere?”

Out in the hall voices grew closer.

Someone said, “Search every room and find them!”

Julia said, “They’re probably busy. Stay with the cylinder. They will take you up as soon as they can. Do not lose that pocket computer. I’ll go stall them out there.”

Julia ran out to the corridor leaving Dillon to stare down at the cylinder.

She said, “Oh thank God you’re here! There’s a gunfight downstairs! I ran up here to get away.”

An officer saw her, and relaxed, though he kept his hand on the butt of his gun.

He said, “It’s okay ma’am, the shooter has been neutralized. I’m afraid you and your friend are not authorized to be up here, however.”

“Friend? Oh somebody must have run up here with me. I came alone . . .”

“Yes, ma’am. We’re going to need to search this room, nonetheless.”

“Oh, but . . .”

The officer ignored her further attempts at stalling and opened the disembarkation zone.

“Hm. Nobody here. We’re still going to have to search this entire level.”

“I understand, Officer. I am so sorry I panicked and ran this way. I was so scared with all the shooting going on.”

“Perfectly alright, ma’am. One of our bots will escort you back downstairs.”

The door swished shut.

Dillon, perched on the contamination unit mounted on top of the door breathed a silent sigh of relief.

He pulled the cylinder out of his pocket and looked at its featureless gleaming metal.

“Any day now,” he said. “If they reactivate StarCen on this floor, I’m screwed.”

Condor Rising 23

Screams came like a wave down the spaceport corridor, and riding the wave was a lone gunman dressed in SSI armor, holding his blaster pointed up at the ceiling.

As he raced toward the Sanfords and Natasha, everyone who saw him yelled and dove for cover. He continued running, ignoring the mass chaos the sight of his gun and armor brought.

Behind her, Natasha heard the heavy thunking footsteps of a guardbot, who pulled out its own blaster.

The bot said, “Halt!”

Donald Sanford pulled her by the arm toward a row of lounge chairs that offered cover. Already several people crouched there.

“Come on. That’s one of the models from our company. It’s designed to handle situations like this.”

Thoop!

The guard bot shot the running man in the center, knocking him down.

From the floor, Dillon aimed carefully at the bot’s head.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah!

One of the bolts struck the neck area, fritzing its head out. The bot collapsed.

Natasha snorted in disgust. Donald Sanford’s eyes grew wide.

He said, “I’ve . . . I’ve never seen one under fire before. I didn’t know . . .”

Dillon stood and looked around, the visor covering his face. He locked eyes with Natasha. She jumped from the chairs and ran for the fallen bot.

Thoop! Thoop!

She zigged, then zagged, avoiding the shots, reaching down for the blaster. She grabbed it and tumbled forward, coming up in a shooting stance.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

A green bolt deflected off Dillon’s armored shoulder. Another bolt sailed past him and struck down a running passenger farther down the corridor. The man yelled as he fell to the floor. Donald and Tina Sanford stared at her in shock.

Dillon kept trying to get a clear shot, but Natasha kept firing as she moved back to the inner wall, near the lounge chairs.

Dillon angled over to cover, too, trading blasts all the way. Natasha started aiming for his head.

They paused a moment, both hidden from the other’s line of sight.

Dillon heard a commotion behind him and he glanced over his shoulder at a phalanx of police and guardbots advancing down the corridor, guns aimed at him.

He carefully placed the gun down on the desk he crouched behind and turned to face them. His voice came out amplified from the helmet.

“Officers! This way! Tom Bolton, SSI. I need your assistance in apprehending this fugitive!”

Everyone in the group hesitated, quickly trying to determine if he was a threat or not.

The officer in charge said, “StarCen, identify this man.”

“I am sorry, Officer Ricardo. I cannot.”

Ricardo’s face fell. “He must be SSI, boys and girls. Lower your weapons.”

The bots and officers all pointed their blasters down.

Dillon said, “Everyone stay where you are or seek cover. The fugitive is armed and dangerous!”

Worried expressions crossed the human faces. Ricardo made a motion with his head toward the passenger seating area.

“Come on, people. That’s what the bots are for. Guardbots, advance and assist SSI in apprehending the fugitive.”

The officers moved to cover while the bots nodded, their round red eyes and metallic faces expressionless. They continued down the corridor to Dillon’s position.

Behind a row of chairs, Natasha bit back a curse. How did this happen? Who was that? I’m SSI, she thought.

Tina Sanford grabbed her arm desperately.

She said, “What’s going on? Who is that man, Natasha? Why is he shooting at you? Where did you learn to shoot? Make them stop! Donald, tell the police who you are and make this stop!”

“Shut up, bitch.”

Tina gaped at her in shock.

Natasha put the Sanfords out of her mind. The only thing they might be good for now would be to serve as hostages. First, she had to figure out how to get around the dozen or so bots and that lunatic wearing armor.

-+-

In a flash, the ship disappeared. LuteNet ported the Ultima Mule 150 million kilometers away, to another empty point in the solar system.

A few seconds passed in nervous silence.

Jillian looked at Raleigh and said, “Do you think they’ll find us again?”

As if in answer an anti-teleportation grid appeared around them and activated.

Phoom!

The warships popped into existence again and shot at their aft.

ThupThupThupThup!

LuteNet ported them away again.

“No fair using our techniques against us!” Granny said, frowning.

Maxwell smiled and said, “Good thing our Wu Drives are shielded now, or that would have worked.”

“I suspect every warship’s Wu Drives are shielded now,” Raleigh said. “But they had to at least try it on us, on the off chance we were notshielded.”

The League vessels appeared again.

ThupThupThupThupThupThup!

The Mule winked away from the threat once more.

“StarCen’s on the lookout for us!” Granny said.

“That is correct, Quartermaster Wilcox. Presently she has 28 ships in this system. Twenty are spread out to give her wider coverage, just as I feared. Four are still in orbit around Juventas, while these four are out hunting us.”

The four warships appeared again, and immediately fired into the Mule’s rear.

ThupThupThup!

They popped away again.

“We can’t keep this up, Lootie,” Raleigh said. “How many more hits like that can we take?”

“Not many, Captain, before our shields begin to falter.”

“Then think up a solution. Find someplace nearby the League ships can’t find us!”

The four warships appeared again, aiming at the standard drives behind the ship.

ThupThupThupThup!

The Mule popped away. Then LuteNet ported her three more times.

“Where’d you bring us, Lootie?”

“We are now four AU’s away from Juventas, and outside the reach of their surveillance grid.”

“Okay. Can you still use your sensor?”

“No. I am sorry, Captain, but with a miniature sensor the ship must be within at least one AU in order to gain readings.”

Raleigh turned to the others on the bridge.

He said, “Well, this doesn’t help anything.”

“How can we do anything for them if we can’t see what’s going on?” Jillian said.

Granny said, “We can’t.”

Condor Rising 22

On the second floor of the Yorkton spaceport terminal, in a deserted embarkation/disembarkation zone, a remote AI scanner the size and shape of a soup can popped into existence half a meter in the air and dropped to the floor.

It landed on a flat edge, and thus did not roll away. It silently collected data for a moment and sent it back to LuteNet via the Ultima Mule, gathering information about the current planetary motion of Juventas and other pertinent details she needed.

A few seconds passed, then Officer Biffender Jones and Julia Thrall appeared, five centimeters above the floor.

Their feet hit the surface simultaneously. They had bent their knees before departing, in expectation of the short drop. Julia waved her arms in circles to maintain balance.

Biff smiled at her as they both straightened. He said, “Beats having the bottom of your foot materialize in the tile.”

Julia smiled back. She wore her Catarina Mulligan face, having changed it just before porting. She still wore her framer, disguised as a charm on a necklace around her neck. She no longer needed to wear it once the change was made, but having it around her neck helped her keep track of it while traveling.

She said, “Let’s go find the target.”

The door opened for them as they walked out into a spacious but deserted corridor.

“This is the second floor,” Biff said. “All Republican ship boarding and departures used to occur up here, before the war. Needless to say, it’s been locked up for the last three years.”

He pointed the way to a stairwell, the doorway clearly marked against a far wall. As they approached, they realized the palm panel at the door glowed red.

Biff put his hand on the panel and said, “Officer Jones, Biffender. SSPF badge number 3-4-9-2. Requesting access.”

The panel turned green and the door slid open.

Biff waved Julia through, then followed. They quickly went down the stairwell and walked out into another corridor, identical to the one above. But this one had people walking about. Nobody looked at them too closely, hurrying to departure zones or the building’s exit.

“How are we going to find her?” Julia said.

“I’m a cop, remember? StarCen, I need to locate Natasha Krizinksi.”

StarCen said, “Natasha Krizinksi is in the spaceport, Officer Jones. She is to your right, about 200 meters away in the main corridor.”

Biff and Julia turned and broke into a jog, passing startled passengers along the way.

-+-

Raleigh, Jillian, Skylar, Granny, and Maxwell watched the holoscreen on the bridge of the Ultima Mule as Julia and Biff walked out of the disembarkation room.

“Are you still able to track them, Lootie?”

LuteNet’s voice came from the ceiling. She said, “Yes, Captain. As long as they stay in or near the spaceport, I can tell what is going on with this sensor.”

“Any chance StarCen will pick up on your sensor?”

“I do not think so, Captain. However, there is a risk the Ultima Mule will be detected. Ever since our last venture into a League solar system, and bearing in mind that we are considerably closer to a populated planet this time, there is an estimated 50 percent chance we will be noticed.”

Everyone shifted uneasily. Right now, the Mule was parked in a wide open empty spot, less than one astronomical unit away from Juventas. Ordinarily, such a long distance terrestrial port of humans would be discouraged by the AIs, but LuteNet felt confident if she had a sensor in the desired location she could get Biff and Julia within a safe margin. The math was certainly more complex, with a large planetary body in motion and their ship not parked in its orbit, but with a sensor she felt confident in the chances of success. So, Biff and Julia placed their trust in LuteNet.

They had said their goodbyes moments earlier. Jillian and Julia shed a few tears. Raleigh took Biff aside and gave him some more credit tokens.

He said, “These are worth 10,000 each, so that’s 100,000 credits. You might need it.”

“I can’t take this, Captain.”

“It’s not charity. It’s to help in the mission. Get that pocket computer back to us. And if you do, you can consider it your share of our payout. You and Julia’s.”

Biff said, “I feel kinda funny helping the enemy like this. But Andi . . . Julia . . . has convinced me. I mean, if Tetrarch Thrall’s own daughters are opposed to the League, and if half of what she told me is true about what we’re doing to our own people . . . I guess I’m on the Republican side of this mess.”

Raleigh shook his hand, then Biff and Julia walked inside to prepare for the long distance port while everybody else moved up to the bridge.

Now, they watched the empty room through the scanner.

“I should be down there with them,” Skylar said.

Jillian said, “Me too.”

“Neither one of you gals would last very long,” Granny said. “StarCen would see you and treat you like a chicken snake in the henhouse. But those two belong down there, even with Ms. Thrall in disguise.”

The women nodded, reluctantly.

Jillian said, “I know. But I feel so helpless stuck up here while they do all the dangerous work.”

The holoscreen switched views suddenly to the ship’s exterior. Four Eagle-class destroyers materialized behind them, forward guns aiming at their aft.

LuteNet said, “Captain, we have been discovered.”

All four ships opened fire at once.

ThupThupThupThup!

Condor Rising 21

Natasha stepped out of the disembarkation zone carrying her only bag. She waited patiently for the Sanfords to come out, having decided to remain in character, or undercover, until after everyone had parted their separate ways.

Nonetheless, she scanned the open airy corridor with nervous expectation. The information kiosk was a good quarter kilometer walk from here, if the holosigns were correct.

Donald and Tina walked out and everyone smiled.

Natasha said, “Thank you both so much for letting me come along. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am.”

“Think nothing of it, dear!” Tina said.

Donald nodded in agreement. He said, “You’re welcome on our ships any time. Just ask the Captain and mention our name. He’ll check with corporate HQ and let you onboard.”

“Aww, that’s so sweet. Thanks again.”

That actually might be very useful someday, Natasha thought to herself.

Together, the three of them joined the stream of humanity moving down the corridor.

“So, are you going to stick around here on Juventas?” Tina said.

“No, I’m catching the first flight I can to Epsilon. Hopefully one is leaving within the hour. Or, a few hours at latest.”

Donald said, “Well, since Juventas is a capital planet, I don’t think you’ll—”

Thoop! Thoop!

“Was that blaster fire?”

In the distance they heard screaming. The lights changed from bright white to flashing red and an alarm sounded.

Wahhhh! Wahhhh! Wahhhh!

StarCen’s high-pitched voice came out of the air above them.

“There is a gunman at the spaceport entrance. Gunman at the spaceport entrance.”

-+-

Dillon bounded up the steps of the old subway and stopped to catch his breath. He found an old bag in one of the tunnels, and stored the other blasters there. The stolen armor he wore was relatively light, but nonetheless added a layer of bulkiness that hindered movement.

The visor was cracked, and any enhanced optics or augmented reality it might have offered the original owner was broken. Dillon hoped it would still block StarCen’s face and iris scanners.

He glanced over at the distant spaceport building, a sprawling complex with no skyscrapers nearby. The entrance was about five kilometers away.

Dillon sighed and said, “Well, gotta get going. I wonder if I could get on a bus in this outfit? Nah, that’s not safe.”

He began jogging, passing intersections and making his way down the street. Soon the neighborhood grew nicer. He saw a young man exit a flat and jump onto a skyboard, a flat platform with handlebars designed to float above sidewalks and streets.

The young man palmed the power panel and the machine fired up, its bottom side glowing. It immediately rose half a meter up in the air.

On impulse, Dillon diverted course. He kept running. When he came closer and just before the young man entered the stream of traffic, Dillon shoved him off the board.

“Hey!”

“Stand back, citizen! Official business!”

The young man looked up in alarm at the armored figure taking over his skyboard. Dillon jumped on and it sank in the air a few centimeters. He gunned the throttle and zipped out into traffic.

“I did not say ‘Police business.’ That’s a crime, impersonating an officer.”

A horn honked angrily as he cut off a terrestrial cabbie at the next intersection. Dillon waved at the driver as he sped by, ignoring the man’s rude gestures.

“Of course, killing police officers is an even bigger crime . . .”

He sped down the street as fast as the skyboard would go, zipping around cars and over pedestrians, flying ever nearer to the spaceport.

“But I’ve never actually killed a cop, you know. SSI agents, you bet. Coppers, nope.”

He ran through a light at the next intersection just as a giant truck trundled through. He pulled the handlebar up and pressed down with his feet, twisting to one side so the skyboard turned sideways. He slipped under the truck, righted the board, and kept going.

“Almost clipped my head on that one. No, wait . . . almost lost my head on that one. That’s better. Hey, I was headedthat way when . . . no, no. Aw, forget it.”

The entrance to the spaceport loomed ahead now. He could see the main gate, manned by guardbots. A line of people waited outside to go through security scanners before entering the largest building.

Dillon pushed down on the handlebar and brought the skyboard to its maximum height of three meters. He sailed over the heads of everybody in line. The guardbots below followed his progress, their necks craning up.

“Official business!” he yelled down. “Coming through!”

“Halt!”

He ignored them and arced the board back down to its usual half-meter height as he raced toward the huge double doors leading inside.

The guardbots drew their weapons and fired.

Thoop! Thoop!

The blasts hit him square in the back and he lost control of the skyboard just as the double doors opened. He tumbled to the ground while the board spun out of control, spinning through the doors and crashing in the spaceport. Somewhere inside, a woman screamed.

Dillon sat up, facing the way he came.

“I’m okay! I can’t believe it. Say, this armor is really good!”

Thoop! Thoop!

Two more bolts hit him in the chest, knocking him back down.

He pulled out a blaster, sat up again and fired back at the bots. They hit him three more times, but the armor deflected the blasts. He aimed carefully and shot at their heads, knocking them down. Now people everywhere, inside and outside the spaceport, screamed and dove for cover. Dillon got back on his feet, turned and ran inside.

He found a line at the information kiosk, Everyone turned around and stared at him wide-eyed, with his armor and cracked visor. He adjusted the bag carrying the other blasters on his back and pointed the gun in his hand up at the ceiling.

“Everybody move!”

Thoop!

He squeezed off a shot into the air. The crowd scattered in panic.

He walked up to the droid behind the booth and said, “Where is Natasha Krizinksi?”

Condor Rising 20

“I’m only 18. I wonder if I’ll live to see 19?”

Dillon muttered this softly to himself as he opened the door carefully, stuck his head out and peeked down the service corridor.

Behind him, members of the ELO Tribunal wordlessly filed out a back door on the other side of the room. Dillon suspected there were multiple secret passageways throughout this large underground complex. They would likely get away without any difficulties. Monitors were practically nonexistent down here, and bioscanners on combat suits did not work well through all the ground, metal, and concrete.

The old man called Elephant stopped on his way out and looked across the room at him. Dillon glanced back at him and decided he looked like an actor from those ancient movies he liked to watch. An old and wise black man, with years of experience and a calm voice. Such actors were very popular at one time, and despite Hollywood’s obsession with youth and beauty, the wise old man was a common motif in many movies.

Elephant nodded at him and imparted his wisdom. He said, “Make it to the spaceport.”

“Well, I guess that passes for wisdom.”

The old man blinked, unsure what Dillon meant. He shrugged and took out a blaster from inside his coat. He gently tossed it toward Dillon.

Dillon caught it and nodded back. “First, I’ll give y’all a distraction,” he said.

Elephant nodded with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Okay. But don’t be late for Angel.”

Then he was gone, following the others.

Dillon peeked out the door again.

Thoop!

He heard a scream, and one of the guards disguised as a bum fell backward at the intersection, smoke rising from his chest.

A group of five armed men wearing blaster armor rounded the corner and headed down the corridor. They spotted Dillon’s head sticking out the doorway.

“Halt!”

Dillon pulled the blaster up and squeezed off several shots.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah! Thoop!

They spread out and fired back, peppering the corridor with green streaks of energy.

Thoop!Thoop!Thoop!Thoop!Thoop!

Dillon ducked back inside the room.

“Forget 19,” he said to himself. “Twenty would be nice. I mean, that’s two decades, right? Please, God. Let me live at least two decades. That’s all I ask. It’s not much, is it? I mean, the war will be over by then, right? I hope so, God. Make that happen, will ya? In two years, not decades. Well, you know what I mean. I mean, you’re God, right?”

When Dillon looked out the doorway again, he ducked low so his head would not be in the same place. The armored men had advanced several meters. They were now halfway down the corridor.

“Thank you Naval supply depot,” Dillon said, reaching into a pocket and taking out one of the last few mini-claymore mines the Resistance had captured some time back.

Dillon had not been in on that raid, but he was a proud recipient of the loot. Somebody else in Yorkton had fashioned plungers with five-second timers for them so they could serve as makeshift grenades.

He squeezed the plunger, reached his arm out the door and tossed it toward the men.

Thoop! Thoop!

They shot at his arm, and missed fortunately.

“Look out!”

KABLOOM!

As soon as the mini claymore went off, Dillon jumped out the door shooting. Three bodies were down, one man was on his knees holding his head and another stood dazed in the back.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

He shot the two on their feet first. The blasts knocked them back, but the armor protected them somewhat.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah! Thoop!

He advanced quickly, shooting again and again, aiming for their heads. He found his marks as he came closer to the bodies.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

Click!

Dillon looked down at the blaster, then back at the bodies.

“Well, I hope you guys are dead, because I am out.”

Nobody responded. Smoke rose from the bodies, especially the helmets and cracked visors. Blood pooled in the dim light on the floor, slickening the concrete around the bodies.

Dillon tucked the empty blaster into the back of his belt and bent down at the closest body.

“Can I borrow this? SSI standard issue, am I right?”

He carefully tucked the agent’s gun into the front of his belt.

“You don’t have any . . . I don’t know . . . egg grenades or anything useful like that? Don’t lie to me, I’ll kill ya. Oh, right. Never mind.”

A quick scan of the front of the body showed nothing.

“Shucks. Well, five more guns are good. They call me ‘Gun Bane.’ No, that doesn’t sound right. ‘Troll Bane’ sounds cool, but you guys aren’t really trolls. ‘SSI Bane? No.”

Quickly, he picked up the rest of the guns, and made his way toward the subway entrance. He would have to hurry to make it to the spaceport.

“How am I going to get into the spaceport with weapons?”

He stopped and looked back at the armor-clad bodies.

Minutes later, dressed in stolen armor and a cracked visor, Dillon kept muttering to himself as he ran down the corridors.

“Agent Bane? Bad Guy Bane? Terror of SSI? . . . Guess I’ll stick with ‘Shark.’”

Condor Rising 19

Dillon ducked into an abandoned subway entrance in Yorkton’s impoverished East Side district. The monitors on the street were all disabled, and permanently so. If the CCPF bothered repairing one, it was taken out again with the hour. The Resistance made sure of that.

In fact, Dillon felt very safe walking around East Side without a visor or other means of biomarker obfuscation. StarCen no doubt knew he was in the general area, but he doubted she could pinpoint his location with any accuracy.

“So close,” he muttered to himself as walked down the wide empty stairwell. “So close, and yet so far. I coulda been more famous than Lion. I coulda been a contender!”

Lion was the code name for a famous leader of the Resistance who came up with a plan to remove Vice Admiral Kennedy. That it worked was a testament to the plan’s brilliant simplicity. All it had cost was considerable torture and, of course, Lion’s own life.

Someday, if they were successful, schools, parks and streets would be named after Lion. Whatever his real name was. Dillon had no idea.

“Wonder if I’ll live long enough to ever find out?”

He palmed an artfully disguised pad to the right of the barricade blocking the entrance into the subway. The hidden doorway opened, leading to a separate tunnel angling down.

Dillon decided to stop talking to himself as he headed down the passageway. StarCen may have little to no presence down here, but other people would be monitoring his progress and listening in on anything he had to say. He approached a guard, disguised a bum lying in a pile of trash. The man nodded at him in recognition and let him pass.

Dillon had a long way to go, at least half a kilometer through twisting tunnels, down subterranean flights of stairs, jumping across old maglev lines. It felt longer, with all the twists and turns. Dillon had never measured it, but the confined nature of the trip made it feel longer than half a kilometer.

At last he stood before a non-descript doorway in a service tunnel off the abandoned subway line. The door was old-fashioned. It had hinges and actually swung inward. He knocked three times and he heard the deadbolt slide back.

Opening the door, he entered the small room and faced the ELO Tribunal: two men and a woman all seated at a table and facing him. He did not know their real names. He was fairly certain they did not know his, either.

“Hello, Shark.”

This came from the woman, an older lady who looked like she could be someone’s grandmother. She was of North European stock. She was known as Owl. The two men to either side of her nodded at him, too. One was black, and old like the woman. He was called Elephant. The other man was the youngest. He looked to be of Hispanic ancestry and in his mid-30s. This was Lynx. Together these three formed the ELO Tribunal: Elephant, Lynx, Owl.

“Nice job,” Lynx said.

Dillon shrugged. His disappointment came through in his tone of voice.

He said, “One second. If I had fired one second earlier I would have taken out Cooper.”

Owl, the old woman, smiled. She said, “You scared him. That’s good. Even more important, you dealt another blow against SSI. I doubt Admiral Cooper will allow them to continue their guard detail on his chalet. We think he’s beginning to consider them somewhat . . . incompetent. You’ve helped to further damage their reputation with him.”

“And,” the elderly man, Elephant, said, “you took out five SSI agents, secured four more blasters and destroyed one of their gunships. Good job, Shark.”

The other two nodded in agreement, offering silent praise.

Dillon crossed his arms and looked down at his feet. He said, “I just wish I could have gotten Cooper. I mean, I want to be . . .”

He stopped himself. He was about to say the word famous, but that would not have been an appropriate sentiment to express to the ELO Tribunal, the three people in charge of the Resistance on Juventas.

“ . . . I just want to be effective. Angel took out Tetrarch Lopez. Lion took out Admiral Kennedy andSSI Director Fleming. I had a shot at Admiral Cooper and missed.”

“Well, if you’re worried about making a name for yourself,” Lynx said, “you’ve already done it. Don’t let ambition set you up for a fall. You’ve been trained well, and we admire what you’ve done. You didn’t get greedy after you took down that gunship. A lesser man might have tried to scavenge something off that wreck . . . and been shot down when help arrived moments later. Instead, you grabbed the guns you could and left, adding precious weapons to our arsenal and saving yourself in the process.

“Honestly, it would have been great to have taken out Admiral Cooper, but your one man operation went about as good as it possibly could, all things considered.”

The other two nodded, agreeing with their youngest member.

“Speaking of Angel,” Owl said, “We have received word that she will resurface soon.”

Dillon glanced up, his self-flagellation momentarily forgotten. He had several questions he wanted to ask. Where did she go? How do they know? What would she do now?

Instead he said, “How does that pertain to me?”

Owl said, “We think she’s going to need your help.”

She made a motion in the air above the table and a hologram of a beautiful young woman appeared, with evidence of Asian ancestry.

“This is Natasha Krizinksi. That’s not her real name, of course, but it’s the one she uses most often while in League-controlled systems. Our sources with the Republic tell us she is scheduled to arrive today at the spaceport on a private ship called the Osprey. She is carrying a pocket computer with vital intelligence League spies have uncovered about a new ship the Republic has developed.”

Elephant cleared his throat and leaned forward in his seat. He said, “Your next assignment is to assist Angel in recovering the pocket computer SSI Agent Krizinksi is carrying. You should get over to the spaceport right away and keep an eye out. Krizinski will be arriving today in the embarkation zone reserved for private vessels.”

Ordinarily, Dillon would be inclined to deflate with news of the assignment. It seemed pedestrian and mundane, especially in light of his recent near miss against the Admiral. But, Angel’s potential reappearance cast the assignment in a different light.

He said, “So, this is important.”

All three members of the ELO Tribunal nodded. Owl said, “Very important. Take all due considerations in showing up at the spaceport in time. Keep an eye out for this SSI agent. And remember, Natasha is extremely dangerous.”

“One of their best,” Elephant said, nodding somberly.

Lynx jumped in. He said, “She’s a highly skilled assassin. Trained in practically everything SSI has to offer. She’s one of their top field agents, unfortunately.”

“Okay,” Dillon said, looking back at the three. “I’ll head to the spaceport right now.”

Outside the doorway, muffled shouts filtered through.

“Stop!”

Thoop! Thoopah!

Condor Rising 18

“We want to try and rouse as little suspicion as possible,” Anthony Kim said to the people standing before him in the Mule’s disembarkation room. “So that means we want to send you two down to the surface in one jump, without spacesuits. That also means we want to drop you off in an appropriate room in the spaceport. Preferably one that’s deserted.”

Biff and Julia nodded, taking in his words. They stood in a small group with Raleigh, Jillian, Granny, and Skylar.

“You’ll probably want the D wing, then,” Biff said. “That’s actually on the second floor. It was reserved for Republican ships before the war. It’s not used much these days.”

Granny said, “But to get them there in one jump, Kimbo, we’ll have to get in closer.”

“That’s right,” Kim said, ignoring her nickname for him. “We can’t do a double jump on people without them wearing spacesuits. And showing up in a spaceport wearing spacesuits will look very suspicious. So, we send them in and we pull them out in one jump.”

“We’re both staying,” Biff said, looking at Julia. She nodded in agreement.

“How long are we thinking it will take for you to find and retrieve that device?” Skylar said. “The longer we have to linger in that solar system, the greater risk of detection, right Tony?”

Kim nodded. “It’s certainly possible there’s more sensor coverage on planetary bodies like asteroids and moons in this system. Plus if they disperse the fleet, or what’s left of the fleet, after we show up, they’ll increase what StarCen can see. They’ll provide her with more eyes in the sky, so to speak.”

“Not my idea of our best plan ever, Kimbo,” Granny said.

Raleigh smiled at her.

“So you’ve said, repeatedly, Granny.” Raleigh turned back to Kim and said, “How close do we think we’ll be arriving after the Thespar vessel?”

“Lootie is a little hazy since she doesn’t know much about the Osprey, but she’s been stretching out our jumps as much as possible. We might get close. If we’re lucky, within half an hour or so.”

Raleigh grimaced. He said, “I wish it were sooner.”

“We’ll find her,” Biff said. “StarCen will help, actually. Worse case, I can put out an APB.”

Raleigh said, “Well, I hope you don’t get in trouble with your department showing back up unexpectedly like this.”

“They’re not paying any attention,” Biff said. “I don’t expect any trouble, in that regard.”

“Alright,” Raleigh said. “Let’s meet back here within half an hour of arrival and we’ll go over the final plans.”

As the group dispersed, Jillian stayed with Julia. Biff seemed to want Julia for himself, if his body language was an accurate indicator, but Jillian ignored his signals. After a while he gave up and left them alone. The two sisters walked down the corridor alone.

Jillian said, “I just really hate the idea of you going back to Juventas, Julia. When am I going to see you again?”

“Don’t worry about me,” Julia said. “I’ve got some programming tricks up my sleeve with StarCen. You’re the one to worry about if anyone is going to worry. I’m not sure ‘pirate’ is what you’d call a safe occupation.”

Jillian smiled. She said, “With Chris and the Mule and all the crew, I feel like I’m finally doing something with my life, you know? I know you arranged for me to take the holo to a contact, and that spy stuff was thrilling. But I’m not sure I’m made out to be a spy. Not like you are, anyway.”

“Well, to be effective as a spy, there’s a lot of prep work and months and months of boring stuff before anything exciting happens.”

“Like getting married?”

They both laughed. Julia said, “Biff has his uses. Since he’s a cop, I had access to everything he knew. That proved very useful when push came to shove. He’s useful in other ways, too. You know, I enjoyed married life for those brief months we shared a flat in Yorkton.”

“Do you love him?”

“Yes. Absolutely.”

“But you left him.”

“This war . . . stopping it . . . stopping Dad . . . that’s bigger and more important than anything else, Jillian. It’s more important than a marriage to somebody Biff thought was somebody else. It’s bigger than my love for him.”

She stopped walking and stared into Jillian’s eyes.

Julia said “Does that make sense?”

“Yes. But you still love him, right?”

“Yes.”

“And does he love you, even though he now knows that you are not Andi Jones but in fact the Tetrarch’s daughter and part of one of the most powerful families in the galaxy?”

“Yes. I think so. I mean, he certainly acts like it. We’ve done a lot of talking the last few weeks, and he seems like he’s come to grips with it. I mean . . . there are times he wants me to wear my old face, you know? But I think he understands that no matter what I look like on the outside, I’m still the same person on the inside. The face he fell in love with belongs in our past. But he seems to be in love with me now . . . the same person, only with a different face.”

“Hm. I can see how that’d be hard on him. Guys are so focused on looks, you know?”

“I know. But underneath all those muscles, Biff has a heart of gold. And I do believe he loves me. The real me, not the face of Andi Jones.”

“Nice pseudonym, by the way, invoking Mom that way.”

“I know, right? I miss her. I thought I was honoring her by taking her name.”

“Let’s just hope nobody puts two and two together.”

Julia shook her head. “They won’t. Not as long as the alterations made to StarCen’s core hold up.”

“You’re confident in what those programmers did?”

Julia smiled, grimly. She said, “Yes, I’m very confident. I’m staking my life on it.”