Clarion’s Call 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeter shifted his legs in the seat, uneasily. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evans turned from the holoscreen window and sighed.

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

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

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

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

“My directive,” Evans said, “stands.”

Clarion’s Call 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrall grunted. He knew this part. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarion’s Call 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raquel tripped the evacuation alarm. 

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

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

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

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

Clarion’s Call 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sat up and toweled off his face. 

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

Condor Rising Cover Reveal

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

Clarion’s Call 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeter smiled at Raquel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raquel glanced up at the lights and nodded, thoughtfully. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarion’s Call 11

Jeter glanced up and down the corridor. He had not seen Jillian Thrall since coming aboard. Quiet inquiries had led to the discovery she was holed up in the Admiral’s cabin. 

Privately, this bit of information infuriated him. He had to share barracks with ensigns while she got to relax in privacy, that most precious and rare commodity aboard a Navy vessel. 

He had waited patiently now for three days. And during those three days he had seen neither hide nor hair of Jillian. Evidently, she was not planning on coming out of her luxurious accommodations. Or was she confined there? More discreet inquiries led him nowhere. The men he bunked with had no idea. All they knew was that the VIP had been rescued and was returning home. That was good enough for them.

Frustrated, Jeter made the decision to try and see Jillian privately. Technically he was probably not supposed to be in this corridor, which included the Captain’s cabin and a couple other exclusive doorways. Nonetheless, such matters of decorum had rarely dissuaded the infiltrator in the past. And they were not about to now, either. 

He tried his palm on the reader. It flashed red. This did not surprise him. He swiped a finger through the doorbell hologram and waited patiently. 

A minute passed and he swiped the doorbell icon again. Could she be out? If she was out, confronting her would be much easier . . . 

Lieutenant Steele walked around the corner and into the corridor. She tilted her head, surprised to see him standing at the door.

“What are you doing here, Mr. Jeter?” 

“I’m trying to see Ms. Thrall. I was hoping to inquire as to her well-being since I had not seen her at mess or anywhere else since helping her escape.” 

Lying came easy to Jeter, and he had this one prepared in advance just in case he was caught. He gave the Lieutenant a relaxed smile, and presented himself as if he had every right to be in this part of the ship. 

Steele’s irises contracted as her eyes squinted slightly. 

She said, “I will give Ms. Thrall your regards. She will not be seeing anybody. Move along please, this corridor is reserved for Naval officers only.” 

Her tone, while courteous, made it clear she would suffer no argument. 

He kept smiling and nodded in acquiescence. As he walked down the corridor, his smile disappeared. 

There had to be a way, he thought, some way to get close to that girl.

As he walked down the hall, deliberately maintaining a leisurely pace under the watchful eyes of the Lieutenant, the weight of Raquel’s electronic trap jostled inside his pocket.

-+-

Steele watched the spy walk down the corridor and turn the corner, returning to the hall reserved for junior officers’ quarters. 

Why would the infiltrator on the pirate ship want to see the Tetrarch’s daughter? She was flummoxed. It made no sense. Did Jillian Thrall want to see him? Was that it? Had she summoned him somehow? 

No, surely not. 

“StarCen?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Has Ms. Thrall tried to communicate with anybody, onboard this ship or otherwise?”

“No ma’am, she has not.” 

“Has she been out of this cabin since coming from sickbay?”

“No, ma’am.” 

“Has she had any contact with Agent Jeter?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Hm.”

She shrugged, then palmed the door and it opened. Today, she resolved to glean more information from the Tetrarch’s daughter. That, she knew, was easier said than done. The girl proved surprisingly useless in transmitting actionable intelligence.

Jillian glanced up from the pages of a book in her mind’s eye as Steele walked in. She frowned and dismissed the book with a wave, but did not get up from her seat. 

Jillian sat in a sumptuous leather recliner, one of four surrounding an elegant marble-topped coffee table. The Admiral’s quarters appeared even nicer than the Captain’s. Rank has its privileges after all, Steele thought. 

It still rankled her that this young civilian would warrant so much consideration, but the feelings had been tempered somewhat over time. Jillian had not left the cabin, and appeared bored and morose. Despite accessing some entertainment options, mostly romance novels from what Steele could tell, she had little to do. 

Steele sat in the recliner opposite Jillian. The Lieutenant could imagine rising through the ranks and becoming an Admiral herself one day. Then she could be the one entertaining guests in a large cabin like this, perhaps sipping snifters of brandy with other Admirals or inviting the Captain in to tell him how they were going to approach the next engagement with the enemy. Perhaps she might even—

“Who was ringing my doorbell?”

Steele blinked at the interruption to her daydream and refocused on the extraordinarily attractive civilian currently occupying her—the Admiral’s—quarters. 

“That was Mr. Jeter. He evidently wanted to share a few words with you.”

“Oh.” 

With one disdainful word, Jillian summarily dismissed the notion of seeing the man. 

Well, Steele thought, it would appear the desire to meet and discuss things was not mutual. She did not know if that was good or bad. She made a mental note to have StarCen keep a closer eye on Mr. Jeter. 

“Now, Jillian . . .”

Jillian glanced up and her eyes frosted. 

“. . . Ms. Thrall . . .”

Jillian’s eyes relaxed. They both knew she was not about to let anyone forget her family name. 

“. . . Today I would like to discuss more about your experiences on Lute.” 

Jillian had delayed the debriefing for a while, explaining her desire to simply rest the first day out of sickbay. Finally, on the second day, she agreed to begin. But her description of the events surrounding the taking of the Aquamarine proved completely useless. She had seen nothing of it, spending the entire voyage to that point in first class. 

This was true. Steele confirmed Jillian’s movements before and during the battle with StarCen, who maintained control of the ship until Captain Hernandez officially relinquished it. 

Jillian described boarding at Clarion, and gave excruciating details about Aquamarine’s food, the service, the entertainment, the other passengers . . . but nothing of military value as to the pirates and their tactics. 

Steele had smothered her irritation, dictating her summary for the report anyway. Her superiors could review the holorecord StarCen made of the conversation if they wanted to, but they would find it all colorless and bland. 

Perhaps today she could gain some valuable information . . . 

“Please begin, Ms. Thrall.”

Jillian leaned back in her chair and stared up at the ceiling for a moment to collect her thoughts. 

She said, “Well, my first experience of Lute was with the food. Aboard the Ultima Mule I was offered something called poshbird. I discovered this particular dish, native to Lute and one of their primary exports, is known as ‘chicken of the stars.’ I thought that was kind of funny. But it really does taste a lot like chicken.”

. . . Or maybe not. The girl’s fascination with food and clothing and other useless things was maddening. How many details about the current fashions on a backwater pirate planet was she going to provide for Naval Intelligence?

“Ms. Thrall, let’s skip ahead to your decision to join the pirates. Describe to me how that came about, please.” 

“Well, obviously I could not let myself be ransomed by those people.” 

“Why not?”

Steele leaned in closer. Now maybe they were finally getting somewhere. 

Jillian said, “Such a thing might change the outcome of the war. Or at least, cause some major trouble. I know that LuteNet would have demanded at least a million credits for my safe return. I don’t know what Daddy would have done. Maybe send in a fleet to attack Lute? And you know that the Republic would have responded, since Lute is a close ally. Besides, Lute is very heavily armed with warships, and who knows how many the Republic could have brought in on short notice? It would have been a huge battle. How many people would have died just trying to get me back? 

“No, the better thing was to exploit their rules and apply for membership. Especially in light of the fact that Daddy was shipping hundreds of illegally forced indents on Aquamarine.” 

Jillian raised her eyebrows and smiled softly at the Lieutenant. 

Steele’s face dropped. The spoiled brat was not quite as dumb as she thought.

Clarion’s Call 10

Aboard the Ultima Mule Raleigh stood on the bridge, hands on his hips. He and Granny watched on the holoscreen as Anthony Kim and Michael Pak directed their men working around the tandem drives. 

He opened a neural network connection and said, “Status, Mr. Kim?”

“I’m sorry, Captain. It’s taking longer than we expected. One more hour should do it, though. Then we’ll be able to port anywhere we want to. Just be aware we still can’t maneuver once we get there without porting again, since we don’t have any standard drives.” 

“Understood.” 

Granny said, “I don’t understand how we’re going to get her, Captain. We can’t just show up in orbit around Clarion and demand her back.”

Raleigh acknowledged her with a smile. 

He opened a neural network connection once more and said, “Mr. Pak, would you care to explain to Granny your bold idea?”

Pak turned from the other tandem drive and faced them through the holovision. 

“We think StarCen is way too busy on Clarion and elsewhere to keep an eye on every square centimeter in her solar systems. So, we proposed to Lootie that we show up on the edge of the system and park in orbit around one of their outermost objects. We should be able to evade detection for quite some time, if all goes well.”

“Okay,” Granny said. “Then what? You still can’t do anything that far out. That’s too far away to teleport down to the surface.” 

Pak smiled and tapped the elephant-size tandem drive he and his men were working on. 

“That’s where this puppy comes in. Normal teleportation distances are one AU or so. Lootie has stretched that out, but at the outer periphery of the Clarion system, it will still take two ports to get people on and off world.”

“People?” Granny said, shock edging the tone of her voice. “You’re going to port people in and out from the edge of their solar system?”

“That’s the idea, yes ma’am. First, Lootie is going to port this here spare tandem drive halfway in. Then she’s going to drop a sensor near our target on Clarion so she can see what she’s doing. Then she’ll port a volunteer, probably the Captain, to the surface of Clarion where he’ll retrieve his girlfr— uh, Ms. Thrall.” 

Granny turned to Raleigh and narrowed her eyes. 

She said, “Are you sure this is not suicide?”

Raleigh said, “The biggest problem at those distances are the accuracy of the proximity calculations. The first jump will be in the middle of space. I’ll be wearing a spacesuit. Lootie will pick a spot free of debris. It won’t matter if she’s off by a centimeter or two because it’ll be out in the middle of nowhere. 

“The second jump she’ll drop me off in the water. Or above the water, where I’ll fall safely into it. Show us the picture of the Thrall family home, Lootie.” 

The holoscreen changed to display an enormous four-story house sitting near the ocean. 

“By that time her sensor should be fully synced with local conditions. Jillian and I should be able to port back easily enough.”

“Well, shucks,” Granny said. “Why do you even need to go at all? Let’s just pull her out of there.”

Raleigh shook his head. He said, “She’s got to wear a spacesuit for the way back. It’ll take two jumps. I’m going to bring her one and make sure she gets in it safely.”

“And then you’re both porting back?”

He nodded and said, “Two jumps. One from her house, the other from the halfway point.” 

“You know how they say, ‘That sounds so crazy it just might work?’”

He smiled and nodded.

She said, “Well, this is just crazy. There is a reason AIs don’t make long distance jumps with people to planetary surfaces.” 

“It’ll work. Have a little faith, Granny.” 

She snorted. “And what happens if they spot us orbiting around that distant rock? It’s not out of the question, you know. One of their battleships could pop in and blow us to Kingdom Come.” 

“If that happens, Lootie takes us away before they open fire.” 

“You say ‘us.’ What if you’re not onboard when that happens?”

“You’ll just have to find a way to come back and get me, Granny. You’ll be in charge while I’m gone.”

Clarion’s Call 9

Jeter was assigned a bunk in the junior officers’ quarters, a cramped place with 15 slender mattresses on shelving that folded in the wall during the day for added space. Twelve were claimed, but ships this size usually kept a handful of extra sleeping berths just in case. 

He had no luggage, and few concerns. After willingly surrendering his firearm and a handful of remaining egg grenades, he insisted on keeping the trap holding Raquel Kirkland. When questioned by the ensign assigned to him, he said the device, about the size and shape of a deck of cards, was a classified intelligence-gathering contraption that he needed to personally deliver to his superiors. 

The ensign bought the story and let him keep it. 

Two days passed while Jeter acclimated himself to the ship’s routines. He would not be able to escape StarCen’s observations, but he could keep Raquel away from the crew. Finally, knowing that she had to eat and drink, he decided to ask StarCen some questions to see how troublesome revealing her presence would prove to be. 

He found a moment to himself in the junior officers’ quarters, pulled out the trap and set it on the mattress. 

“StarCen, what do you know about Raquel Kirkland?”

“Ms. Kirkland is an indentured servant involved in Gemini Exponentials’ series of teleportation experiments on Raton Five. After blending in with a group headed to Epsilon Prime from Clarion aboard the Aquamarine, she was captured by pirates aboard Ultima Mule. Most recently she was retrieved by you with the portable electronic radiation absorber used to contain her.” 

So, he thought, StarCen knows. 

“I want her bond, StarCen. I retrieved her from her previous bondholder who is now dead, and it rightfully belongs to me.” 

“Very well, Mr. Jeter. It has been so noted in the records. Since her previous bondholder is deceased and was killed in a wartime act of piracy, no exchange of money is necessary to transfer her bond.” 

Jeter smiled. He picked up the device and left, making his way to the ship’s mess. There he sneaked a couple sandwiches out along with a bottle of flavored water, then returned to the room. 

Making sure they were alone again, he pressed the button on the trap. A stream of pixels sprayed out, quickly forming into the attractive blonde. 

She glared at him. 

He handed her the food and drink. 

She threw back the bottle and chugged it down, then shoved a sandwich in her mouth, never taking her eyes off him. 

When she finished, she started on the second sandwich, eating slower this time. 

Between bites she said, “Where are we?”

“We’re onboard the Polaris, a League Navy ship.” 

Her eyes widened. 

“Where’s Roddy?”

“Roddy and everybody else aboard that tub are dead. Well, except for the Princess. Seems her daddy threw a fit and demanded the Navy bring her back home. So, we are headed for Clarion.”

“I see.” 

She looked around the room, chewing her food. She glanced up at the lights in the ceiling.

“Nah, ah-ah . . .”

Jeter waved the trap at her. 

Her shoulders slumped a little, but she never changed her expression. She quickly finished the second sandwich. 

She wiped the crumbs from her lips with her tongue, taking every last bit of nourishment she could. 

Raquel looked at him again and said, “What now?”

“I’m your bondholder now,” he said, reaching out and touching her cheek. 

He rubbed her skin with his thumb. 

“I know you were giving Roddy something. It’s time you gave that to your new owner.” 

Her cheek pixilated and his hand slipped through her face. 

“Now cut that out! Stay solid.” 

He reached for her again, this time for her middle, intending to pull her close. But his hand went right through her waist. 

“Stop it. You need to submit to your bondholder’s request. I’m your bondholder now, so submit!” 

He swung his hand up to slap her on the face, but he whiffed through her cheeks again. She gave him a disdainful stare and began pixilating, floating up to the lights above. 

He said, “Oh no you don’t!” 

Jeter grabbed the trap and pressed the button on top. A red ray came out. The silver pixels swarmed into the device, like dust sucked into a vacuum cleaner. 

He looked at the container, its edge pulsing red now, and said, “You better behave or I’ll let you starve in there.” 

He shoved it in his pocket with a frustrated snarl.

Clarion’s Call 8

Jillian slowly returned to consciousness. She found herself lying on her back atop a sickbay gurney, her head propped up at an angle and resting on a sterile pillow. 

She glanced around the room nervously, and tried to regain her bearings. A droid doc stood in the corner, inactive, his head angled down. He had a different face than the one on the Mule. This one had short gray hair and had been designed to appear older, like a friendly stereotypical family doctor one might have seen in ancient movies or television shows from Old Earth.  

To her right stood a woman, fit and trim, medium height and build. She wore a crisp blue Star League Navy uniform with long sleeves and starched trousers tucked into shiny black boots. Her brunette hair was pulled back in a bun and she wore a traditional two-pointed cap on her head. She stood at ease, hands behind her back, facing Jillian. 

Jillian disliked her at first sight. The crisp uniform, the casual demeanor of someone completely in their element, combined with the unspoken yet clearly evident implication that Jillian was merely a guest visiting her domain . . . all contributed to Jillian’s negative impression. 

The officer’s attitude, unspoken yet palpable, grated on Jillian’s nerves. She found it everywhere in the League, but even more so among military types. And these days, military types ran the show. 

When the woman spoke, it was with a mildly condescending tone, too.

“Good morning, Ms. Thrall. Welcome aboard the Star League Ship Polaris. My name is Lieutenant Noreen Epsilon-Steele. I will be conducting your debriefing and accompanying you the rest of the way home.” 

Jillian nodded, accepting this. There would be little reason to protest. She would have zero say as to where the ship went, even if she wished to continue to her original destination before the Aquamarine was captured. There would be no sense protesting a return to Clarion. 

Instead she said, “How long have I been out?”

“You have been asleep for eight hours. We injected you with nanobots to repair your eardrums, and gave you a full physical. We were pleased to discover you were evidently not mistreated during your time away.” 

Jillian raised an eyebrow. While hardly unexpected, the invasion of privacy that a medical examination would have involved felt . . . disturbing. A tendril of irritation curled inside her, threatening to ignite into full-blown anger. A complete physical examination meant they had inspected her for—

“I’m sure you’ll understand, Ms. Thrall, why Captain Fontenau authorized our droid doctor to administer a thorough examination, in light of your recent capture and time with the enemy.”

Jillian said nothing, but the look on her face expressed her displeasure quite well. Her multi-hued eyes reflected anger and righteous indignation. She looked very much like her father right now.

Steele’s back stiffened. She was not about to be intimidated by this girl. Besides, the procedure had been approved by the Captain and he would be the one suffering the consequences from the Tetrarch should this young . . . brat . . . complain to her father.

Steele took a deep breath and said, “Anyway, I wonder if you feel up to beginning the debriefing?” 

“Debriefing?”

“Yes. About your time in enemy territory. We are going to require a thorough debriefing from you. The knowledge you may have gained should prove useful to the Navy.” 

Jillian looked down at her clothes. Her t-shirt, pants and boots were gone. In their place she wore a hospital gown, an outfit that covered little and exposed a lot. It did not inspire confidence, especially in light of the examination she had undergone while she was out.

She said, “I want a bath, some decent clothes, and private quarters. I could also use a bite to eat. Once I have all those, we can talk.” 

Jillian smiled at Steele, but her eyes remained cold. She had plenty of experience with people like the Lieutenant. These individuals held nominal positions of authority, and they thought that meant something. Perhaps it did, in their little spheres of influence. While Jillian had no authority, especially in the Navy, the ties to her father lent her an impalpable yet undeniable prerogative everywhere in the League. 

And Jillian would not be intimidated by this woman, regardless of her rank or position on this ship. She was the Tetrarch’s daughter, and she was much more important in the grand scheme of things than Noreen Epsilon-Steele would ever be.

The lieutenant lowered her eyelids, silently acquiescing to the younger woman’s will. The requests were not outside the bounds of reason, after all.

She said, “I will bring in some clothes. When you are ready, I will escort you to your quarters. We have an Admiral’s cabin onboard you are welcome to use.” 

Jillian allowed herself a small smile of triumph. 

“Thank you. And how many days are we from Clarion?” 

“We are still eight days out. Your father has been notified and is expecting you.” 

Jillian nodded and sunk back on the gurney, crossing her arms and staring at the ceiling. Steele realized she had been wordlessly dismissed. 

Chagrined, she turned and left, intent on finding this spoiled child some clothes. The initial interview had not gone at all the way she expected, and she left the room before that thin little bitch could see the flustered look on her face. 

When the door swished shut behind Steele, Jillian said, “StarCen?”

The high-pitched voice of the League’s AI system said “Yes, Ms. Thrall?”

“What is the status of the crew aboard Ultima Mule?”

“Captain Christopher Raleigh and everyone else who were aboard Ultima Mule are dead according to LuteNet’s biorecords, with the exception of yourself, Raquel Kirkland, and Avery Jeter, all of whom are safely aboard this vessel.” 

Jillian’s face appeared blank. Her breathing remained stable, as did her heart rate. 

She closed her eyes and remained still for a moment.

Then, quietly, she said, “Good.”