Operation Starfold 3

Captain Christopher Raleigh stood on the bridge of the Ultima Mule and looked at the man known as Smithers on the main holo.

Smithers was likely an alias, Raleigh thought, since the man worked in Republican Naval Intelligence. His face was probably fake, too. No one looked that forgettable. He just seemed . . . average. He could blend in anywhere, and be gone before you knew it.

“Thanks for answering my call, Captain. We have still not heard back from our friends.”

Raleigh nodded. He knew that Smithers would speak in vague generalities, just in case. Raleigh had been instructed to do the same before they began this mission. Even with the vastness of the quantum communications network, there were few guarantees that everything remained completely private, despite all the safeguards.

Raleigh said, “So, you’re going to continue as planned?”

Smithers nodded. The Republican attack on Sporades would occur even if Sergeant Gina Wilcox and the resistance agent known as Angel, who only a few knew was actually Julia Thrall, Tetrarch Thrall’s oldest daughter, did not or could not open a line of communication. They had been sent in to soften the target before the Republican Navy got there.

The move was not without precedence. Julia had taken out the Tetrarch on Juventas before the Republic attacked there.

She was considered, in many ways and by many people in the Republican naval and intelligence hierarchy, to be one of their greatest assets behind enemy lines.

But the plan was to attack anyway, even if they did not hear from her.

Smithers said, “That’s right. Everything remains on schedule. You might want to stick around just in case, but otherwise we can pick your friends up afterwards.”

If they’re still alive, Raleigh thought. That part went unspoken.

Out loud he said, “We’ll probably stay for the show. Lots of folks here want to know something, one way or the other.”

“I understand, Captain. And I can’t say I blame them. Well, I hope to talk to you again after we’re done.”

“Right.”

The image of Smither’s plain face winked out.

Raleigh looked to his right, where a smaller holo showed the engine room. Kim and Pak looked back at him, staring up at the camera.

“You can stop broadcasting to the whole ship now, guys.”

Kim grinned at him. He said, “There’s no privacy on the Mule, Captain. You know this.”

“Well, tell everyone to meet in the cafeteria. We’ll talk about our next move.”

Pak said, “You just did, Captain. Everyone’s listening in, remember?”

“Right.”

-+-

In the cafeteria the crew sat waiting for him. Raleigh walked in with his wife, Jillian. Behind them trailed Granny, then Biff Jones. These three were family members with Gina and Julia, so he had conferred with them privately before addressing everyone else.

But the message was the same. They were sticking around to pick up their loved ones, if at all possible.

Conversation died down as the Captain stepped up to the front of the room. He looked at everybody, nodded, and started speaking.

“So, we have no idea what’s going on, on Sporades. For whatever reason, Julia and Gina have not been able to get word out.”

Everyone shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

“I don’t think that’s too surprising. There’s only a couple of known ways to communicate without interference, and if they ran into trouble doing that, it would mean no word. We’re operating under the presumption they’re okay.

“The Republic is attacking Sporades. Soon. They haven’t said when, exactly. But I’m certain it’s within days. Maybe hours. We’re going to stick around for the attack and see what happens. We’ll stay out of the fighting. At least, I intend to. But, once the Republicans have Sporades, we’ll drop in and find our people. We’re only an hour or so out, as you all know.

“Any questions?”

Pak raised a hand. Raleigh nodded at him.

“What happens if the Republicans lose?”

Granny’s face dropped at that thought. Biff and Julia did not look happy, either.

“Let’s take it one step at a time,” Raleigh said. “This battle that’s coming is out of our hands. We can’t really influence it one way or the other. It’ll be over in seconds and it will involve a lot of sun power, which we can’t fight against.

“Once it’s over, we’ll figure out what to do. But I promise you this . . .”

He glanced around the room, looking everyone in the eye.

“We are not going to leave them behind.”

-+-

“Admiral, I have brought the fleet to a halt for final preparations. We are 100 AUs out from Sporades.”

“Thank you, PLAIR.”

Admiral Frederick Severs looked at the star map on the holo in his quarters and gathered his thoughts. He would follow the tradition of giving his officers a final word of encouragement before the engagement.

“Do we have any word if our efforts at subterfuge and sabotage have been successful?”

“Tetrarch Thrall has moved several ships from Sporades to Euripides in the mistaken belief we will attack there first. But our agents behind the lines have failed to make contact on Sporades, so no word whether they were successful in their mission to eliminate Tetrarch Billings or not.”

“Mm. Well, hopefully it won’t matter. The depletion of their fleet is the important thing. What do you calculate our odds of success are, PLAIR?”

“With current information, I give us a 90 percent chance of success or higher. We have far superior numbers, and the Condors give us a virtually unlimited amount of solar ordnance versus their limited number of torpedoes.”

Severs nodded. He thought the same, but he was glad to hear the AI say it.

“Very well. Let me address my leadership, and we’ll move against Sporades.”

Severs took a deep breath and thought for a moment. He let it out slowly, and then he felt ready.

He turned toward the holo and PLAIR broadcast his image to every ship in the fleet.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Captains and Commodores of the Diego Fleet, welcome. This is our final briefing before the attack on Sporades . . .”

 

Operation Starfold 2

Julia woke up with a start, gasping for air. She could still feel the aftershock of the train hitting her virtual body.

Gina Wilcox smiled at her and said, “Ouch. That looked like it hurt.”

“Did you follow along?”

“A little bit. I saw you got made, then had to exit by suicide. You know, I think our games are a lot more fun than you all’s.”

Julia nodded and said, “Probably. You don’t have a government office trying to influence the way you think about everything in the Republic. They tend to have a say in all the League’s creative outlets.”

“Yeah. I’ve looked at your entertainment options. Can’t say I’m impressed. I know we have some doozies, like ‘Lucky Lou,’ but at least a government censorship and information office isn’t trying to manipulate our thoughts via entertainment.”

Julia nodded again. She said, “Well, anyway, they were trying to fix my signal in the real world, so keep an eye out for company.”

Wilcox turned her head, noticing something in the distance. She said, “Speaking of which . . . we’ve got a flotilla of surveillance drones headed to the AWD. Looks like they were able to narrow you down to this part of the city.”

“What should we do? Can we run for it?”

“That would attract attention. I say we stay put. We’ll take out the drones if we have to, but if they see a bunch of people milling around, we’re not going to stick out. You should probably destroy the neural link, though. I think that’s what they’re zeroing in on.”

Julia detached the external neural link hanging below her right ear. It was designed to allow access to the gaming world and other connections without being implanted inside her.

She quickly placed it in an incinerator box and pressed the button on top. The unit beeped, then hissed as it destroyed the link.

She said, “You know, in the old days they used to call temporary communication devices ‘burner phones.’ These days we actually burn them.”

Wilcox said, “You’ve been spending too much time in historical games. Here, place the incinerator in this lead-lined suitcase. Hopefully the drones won’t pick that up on a heat signature. And then we should go out in the courtyard to mingle. They’ll be overhead in a few minutes.”

-+-

Armando Morales, Director of SSI Sporades, frowned at the aerial footage from one of the drones showing on the wall holo in his office. Sitting down, his thin and relatively short frame seemed almost swallowed by the large and luxurious leather executive chair.

The drone flew above the Abandoned Warehouse District, and he looked at its feed with a troubled expression on his face.

“The AWD, again,” he muttered, watching the readouts carefully.

Scanners identified faces and neural implants, showing dialogue boxes above people’s heads. Most of these were indigents. A few showed up flashing, warrants out for their arrest. Scans looked for illegal weapons, mainly blasters or grenades that might have been stolen from the police. Or the previous ten agents who went into the AWD just the other day.

“All dead,” he sighed. Including Dante Crown, the famously tech-averse agent who had been his best. Crown led the team into this very district, against . . . what? Indigents? A priest? Or something much more threatening?

“Obviously, we have a problem.”

When the gaming reconnaissance unit discovered an attempt to approach the “Fount of Knowledge” in New York 1985 from a node on Sporades, he knew that the AWD did not contain just a bunch of homeless people cared for by a do-gooder priest.

No, Republican agents were on Sporades and they were attempting to warn their Navy about Operation Starfold.

Well, to be honest, Morales did not know for certain the spies were trying to communicate info in regards to Starfold. But, what else could it be? Why would they go the entire war, three plus years now, and not make contact? Why now, when Thespar’s Sporades facilities had developed Starfold?

No, Morales did not believe in coincidences. The pirate ship that showed up for five seconds just a few days ago dropped off infiltrators. They in turn discovered the secret of Starfold, and now they were attempting to get the word out.

The explanation of Republican agents also answered the question of how a group of indigents and one priest took out a team of ten SSI agents.

Heck, Morales thought, the priest and the homeless people probably didn’t have anything to do with it.

To top it off, the Beacon had a reporter there, recording everything. How in the world did that happen?

Morales did not know, but he confiscated the recording and forbad the Beacon from publicizing the incident. The last thing he needed was everyone on the planet to know about Dante Crown’s failure.

The drones were overhead, now, scanning the largest concentration of people in the area. He saw nothing of note, and there was no sign of the neural net unit used to access the game.

Not that he was surprised. Morales was now thoroughly convinced he was dealing with Republican spies, not some amateur resistance fighters.

He also felt like he did not have many options left.

One course of action was to lead an even larger force into the AWD and raze the place, buildings and all.

But that was not realistic for two reasons. First and foremost, it would be tantamount to admitting failure, and the elimination of Dante Crown’s strike force was a huge failure. He had managed to keep it secret so far, since SSI was not in the habit of sharing much, anyway. But, in the echelons of power on Sporades, Morales was not as secure in Billings’s administration as he wished. Billings had a reputation of being a softie, and he disapproved of some of the more effective SSI suppression techniques.

If Billings or Morales’s enemies in the administration found out he lost ten armed SSI agents with nothing to show for it, Morales would lose face with the Tetrarch. Sending in an even bigger force and destroying everything would raise a lot of eyebrows in the administration.

Another reason, and Morales was loathe to admit it, was the Catholic Church would raise a huge stink, since the AWD properties were mostly managed by the local parish.

One would think, at least insofar as Morales was concerned, that the Church would be weak in this day and age of galactic exploration and colonization. But, no. It seemed stronger than ever, even in the League where organized religion of any kind was officially frowned upon.

He could still recall an argument with a freedom-loving professor he had while a student at Epsilon University.

The professor was describing how the history of the Church corresponded with the benefit of the human race since its conception down through the ages.

Morales had snorted at the suggestion, and spouted Marx’s old axiom that “religion is the opiate of the masses.”

The professor nodded, stared him in the eye and responded, “And atheism is the opiate of socialists.”

Everyone in the class laughed. At Morales, not the professor.

The response burned in his memory and still angered him decades later.

The fact that he could not go and destroy the AWD, shutting down or seizing the Church’s property, made his blood boil.

He knew what would happen if he tried. The Catholic Church was very strong in this quadrant. The Cardinal of Rostin would make a personal complaint to the Tetrarch, and Billings would pull Morales back like a dog on a collar.

He stared down at the view of the AWD from above and steamed in frustration.

The best I can do, he thought, is take out a few homeless people every night on the sly. Whittle their numbers down.

“Actually,” he said out loud, “that’s not a bad idea.”

His blood pressure eased as he calmed down. Silently, he began planning out some additional mayhem for the AWD.

Operation Starfold 1

Julia popped into existence inside the gaming environment called New York, 1985. She appeared in Grand Central Station and walked out with a crowd of other newcomers signing in.

In this hedonistic virtual environment, League subjects could engage in activities otherwise prohibited in real life. Of course, the government made sure they suffered consequences for it.

As the saying goes, Julia thought, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The League made sure of that.

She watched people who immediately bought and took drugs after leaving the entry area get mugged. Some of them were stabbed, painfully bled out and forcibly ejected from the game right away.

Others, soliciting prostitutes, were occasionally beat up by angry pimps for not showing proper levels of respect or other perceived slights.

But not always . . . Some managed to indulge in bacchanalia without immediate ill effects. Julia knew that the game’s designers, under the direction of a government office, were engaging in a sort of reverse intermittent reinforcement.

A newcomer who escaped “punishment” for his or her actions the first couple of times they indulged, would face profound disappointment when they finally met due consequences. Subsequent trips to the digital playground would prove ever more difficult to score pleasurable experiences.

Julia had read the whitepaper on the plan, outlined by some very smart professors at Epsilon U. Rather than rewarding bad behavior, the game turned the tables and made them psychologically frustrating. It was a most excellent government conspiracy in an effort to control the online behavior of billions of people.

However, despite the efforts to tamp down the pleasures of acting bad, the company that owned the gaming worlds, in this case Sergio Productions, needed to make a credit or two in order to keep the virtual doors open. So, she also knew they often toned down the “penalties” for engaging in bad behavior. There were still rewards to be found amid all the negative feedback.

Also, a player might get killed by a mugger, or drug dealer, or pimp, but nothing would happen in the real world. And nine times out of ten, they would come back online chasing that ever more elusive high. Sergio Productions used the law of diminishing returns for profit while the government tried to leverage it for social engineering. The two were at odds, but so far the government had not balked at the arrangement.

Julia ignored the sketchy people as well as tourists. She made her way to Times Square, walking about 800 meters through the purportedly faithful rendition of the grimy squalor of late 20th century New York City.

She stepped down into the Times Square-42nd Street Subway Station and Port Authority Bus Terminal complex.

Several people milled about on the platform, and she waited patiently for a while. A subway car stopped and some exited while others boarded.

Convinced the coast was clear, she opened an unlocked door leading to a service corridor along the back wall. She pulled it shut behind her and breathed a sigh of relief. Then she turned and faced the featureless hallway before her.

She dutifully slapped the wall, looking for a glitch in the game that would let her step inside the building blocks of the virtual world. She found it on her third try this time, and stepped into a dead space of monochromatic orange columns and tight passageways. Ahead, she knew the “Font of Knowledge,” or whatever the programmers called it, would let her communicate with people in other gaming instances, even in Republican territory.

“Stop right there. Hands up!”

She turned and an officer wearing the blue uniform of NYPD aimed his sidearm at her. Three more men stepped out from behind the orange geometrical columns comprising the virtual skeleton of the building.

Julia was surprised to see they were aiming ancient revolvers at her. Surely the NYPD used semi-automatics by 1985, she thought. Hm. Evidently not.

A fifth man stepped out of hiding, this one wearing the plain gray suit of an undercover detective.

He flashed a badge at her and smiled.

“Going somewhere, sister? Maybe for a talk by an isolated water fountain or something?”

The first cop crept closer. He took one hand off his pistol and grabbed a pair of handcuffs from his belt.

He said, “Now just turn around. Slowly.”

Julia waited until he came within range and thwacked his gun hand away.

Bang!

She grabbed the cop and pulled him close as the others opened fire.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

The officer’s body jerked as slugs from the other cops hit him. She reached over and grabbed the pistol in the dead man’s hand while dropping his body to return fire.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Three cops fell down holding their chests.

NPCs, Julia thought, always die easy in this game. Probably a nod toward people who enjoyed committing murder and mayhem online.

She ran to the glitch and jumped back into the corridor. Then she ran to the door, still holding the officer’s revolver.

How many shots do I have left? Three. Stupid game.

Back in the glitch, the detective made a very anachronistic motion, touching under his ear.

He said, “Suspect is on the move. Heading to the subway platform.”

On the platform, she jumped out into the crowd and a few people looked her way.

Someone said, “Gun!”

Several people screamed and rushed for the exits.

Six more NYPD officers rushed in, aiming their sidearms at her. She saw two more in suits.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

The screams intensified as the officers opened fire.

A slug tore into her shoulder, and she felt the pain register in real life, although she was not shedding blood back there. The neural connections were intense, though.

Instead of aiming at the uniforms, she squeezed off a round at one of the detectives, figuring he was more likely a real person instead of an NPC.

Bang!

His head blossomed red, and he went down. Julia felt a fleeting moment of satisfaction as she moved onto the subway platform, now void of people.

At the back of her mind, she wondered how accurate the game portrayed old-fashioned ballistics. That shot was over 20 meters, and from what she knew about ancient weapons, pistols were not extraordinarily accurate at longer range.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Two of the next bullets got her, accuracy algorithms helping the other side this time. She felt one go into her thigh, shattering bone. Another plunked into her stomach. She heard the third whiz by her ear harmlessly.

She went down on her knees and noticed all the blood for the first time. Her own virtual blood. She was covered in red, and it dripped down onto the platform.

One of the detectives ran up, this one from the glitch and the service entrance. He made a downward motion with his hand at the NPC officers.

He said, “We want her alive for interrogation. Don’t let her exit the game just yet. We’re zeroing in on her location IRL.”

Julia stood up in a sudden burst of renewed energy and shot him point blank in the face.

Bang!

His body fell backward as he exited the game.

She looked down the tracks and saw a train coming, the light approaching rapidly along with the unmistakable sounds of the subway. This one did not slow down. It was not going to stop.

“Freeze!”

More NPC officers flooded the area, all aiming guns at her. She saw two of them carrying a net, others with rope. They still intended to capture her alive, evidently.

“Time to go,” she said.

As the train rushed into the station, she jumped out on the tracks, right in front of it.

Her virtual body thumped into metal.

She felt intense pain from the impact, then exited the game.

Operation Starfold Is Next

Book VII of the Pirates of the Milky Way is Operation Starfold. Chapter One will be released tomorrow on this site and Royal Road. To read ahead, click over to Patreon.

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 38

Tetrarch Billings listened to Baron Roth’s presentation through the lunch hour. He waved off his one o’clock meeting so he could continue grilling Roth about the new weapon Thespar was developing. By all accounts, all the trials had been successful, and a full scale model in orbit was next.

But Roth was one step ahead of him. They had a prototype ready to be assembled by the Fourth Fleet’s service bots. As one of the primary weapons developers for the League, Roth already had all the pieces in play. All he really needed was Billings’s blessing.

Billings leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment. He was heavier than his statue in the Plaza of the Tetrarchs suggested. Older, too, and not as good looking. But when one commissions a monument to oneself, one makes it look better than reality, he would say.

This could change the war, he thought. Maybe. He was not in charge of the war, the Navy, or much else in larger galactic events. He was in charge of his planet filled with islands. Some were large. Most were small. But Sporades was an island planet, and it was under his command along with the rest of the planets in this quadrant.

That meant the Thespar weapons development facility on Sporades was under his command, even though the war effort was coordinated by Tetrarch Thrall.

That is to say, he thought, Lead Tetrarch Thrall.

That still rankled Billings, although he was careful to keep his irritation quiet.

He sighed. Out loud he said, “I suppose I should tell him. He’ll take it over, anyway.”

He was already in his conference room, and he thought for a moment about the overly attractive assistant who had become such a thorn in everybody’s side when dealing with Thrall. She would probably not allow a meeting to occur for weeks, and intercept any written communications. She really was an impediment. But, there was no way to politely broach the subject with Thrall, so Billings did not.

Instead, he schemed of a way to bypass her. And, he already hit upon a solution and confirmed with StarCen earlier that it would work. He put the plan in motion.

“StarCen, open a direct holocall into Tetrarch Thrall’s office for me, please.”

“Will do, Tetrarch Billings. One moment while I establish the connection.”

Billings smiled. This would mark the first time he tried just calling direct. He wondered if Thrall would take any steps to prevent it from happening again.

If so, Billings thought, I’ll find another way to reach him. But lines of communication must remain open.

After all, this is war.

A moment later, the hologram of Thrall appeared, sitting in his office many light years away. The beautiful blonde assistant sat in his lap, kissing him affectionately. They broke apart when Billings’s hologram appeared in Thrall’s office, staring at them across the desk

The girl got up, blushing, and quickly scooted out of the picture. Thrall wiped his lips and his nostrils flared as he stared at Billings.

“This is unexpected, Mick.”

Billings nodded, pretending he did not see anything.

He said, “I have some news that couldn’t wait for an appointment, Julius.”

He flicked a wrist to open a shared holo, and an image of black metal bars stretched out in a pattern while floating in space appeared.

Billings said, “The weapons designers here have a name for it. They call it Starfold.”

-+-

A line of four gunmetal gray, round-headed bots marched into the AWD. They headed straight toward the large outer courtyard housing about a hundred indigents.

They tromped through an alley and stopped on the periphery of the crowd milling around makeshift tents and tarps covering the ground.

One of them said, in a loud electronic voice, “This is a raid!”

When the old woman sitting on the ground in front of the bot did not move fast enough, it aimed its blaster down and shot her.

People in the courtyard panicked. Everyone surged for the alley at the far side. The four bots opened fire, aiming indiscriminately.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah!

Father Verrick looked up from the other end of the courtyard. He ran toward the bots, waving his hands.

“Stop! Stop! We have a permit! We are lawfully—”

Thoop!

One of the bots shot him and he stumbled back, his forward momentum lost. Then he fell down.

Up in their room, Julia and Gina heard the commotion outside.

Julia said, “What’s going on?”

Wilcox closed her eyes and concentrated.

She said, “Bots. Four of them. Wait a minute . . . SSI controls these, not the police. They’re shooting up the big outer courtyard. Hold on, I’m going to take control of one of them.”

“You do that. I’ll go down and see if I can help.”

Julia switched on her camo unit and disappeared. The door seemed to open by itself and she rushed out.

Back in the courtyard one of the bots stopped shooting into the crowd and turned its gun on the other three, aiming for their heads.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

The first two were taken completely by surprise. The third bot tried to shoot back, but it was too late.

The rogue bot scanned the area, but the threats had been neutralized. It carefully turned the gun to its own head and pulled the trigger.

Thoopah!

Julia ran through the people stampeding for the exits. She looked at the disabled bots and all the bodies scattered around them.

She noticed one of somebody dressed in black with a white collar around his neck.

“Father Verrick!”

Julia ran toward him, turning off the camo unit. She gently turned him over on his back. He had a hole in his chest. But he was breathing.

“I have nanobots,” she said, pulling out a pneumatic syringe from her backpack.

“No . . . the others . . .”

“Just hold on, Father.”

She injected him.

“Give that . . . to others . . .”

“If they’re alive,” Julia said, “I’ll see what I can do. But we need to get you stabilized.”

-+-

In SSI Sporades Headquarters, Director Armando Morales frowned at the blank feeds on the holo.

He said, “What happened?”

“One of the bots went nuts, boss,” a technician said. “Shot the others up then turned the gun on itself.”

“Yes, I saw that,” Morales snapped. “What happened, exactly? Why did it do that?”

The technician shrugged, but if he had any ideas he did not want to voice them.

“I told you technology is not to be trusted, Director.”

Morales glared at the man standing next to him, Dante Crown.

Dante looked suave, especially compared to the director. He was shorter by a couple centimeters, but he had an assured air. He exuded confidence. His thick black hair and light brown skin indicated mixed ancestry with African dominance.

He was also known as the resident Luddite, an oddity in this age of high tech wizardry.

“You used technology when you tipped us off about the two strange ladies going back to the AWD,” Morales said.

Crown shrugged. He said, “It was a directional mic, hardly high tech. I don’t trust all this new-fangled stuff, and this is a key reason why. You never can tell when it will go south on you at a critical moment.”

Morales took a deep breath, calming himself. It would do no good to bite the head off of his best agent in front of others. Or even in private. Even if that agent had some peculiar ideas about technology and how to use it. Or avoid using it.

If Dante had lived at the dawn of the 20thcentury, he would have been riding horses instead of driving cars, well after the freeways were built.

Morales said, “Obviously something is going on in the AWD. At least we shot that pesky priest who runs the homeless shelter there. With him out of the way, maybe we can shut that place down and eradicate all those indigents.”

Crown nodded thoughtfully.

He said, “Yes, but Director . . . next time send in people instead of bots.”

The destruction of the four bots seemed to justify Crown’s anti-tech beliefs, Morales thought. At least this time.

“Don’t get smug, Agent Crown.”

“Yes, sir. When would you like me to lead the next assault?”

“Now. Assemble a team. Make sure everyone is fully armed.”

Morales looked at the blank holo on the far wall and frowned.

He said, “I don’t want anybody walking out of the AWD alive.”

 

This concludes the free version of Tetrarch’s Dilemma. The final two chapters comprise the short story, Assault on AWD. It is available in the Amazon version and on Patreon.

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 37

The following morning after a brief discussion, the women decided they should let Father Verrick know something. Neither one knew exactly how much to tell him, though.

After breakfast had been served, they found themselves in his office.

“My door is always open,” he said as they settled into chairs in front of his desk. “What can I do for you?”

“It’s about a couple who disappeared last night, over in the small courtyard on the edge of the property.”

“Oh, the Bensons. Yes, I didn’t see them this morning. They have a daughter who is Captain of a Navy warship. They’ll talk your ears off about her if you give them a chance. You say they’re missing?”

Julia and Gina shared a glance.

Wilcox turned back to the priest and decided to be blunt.

She said, “They won’t be coming back. Some goons took them away using police bots and killed them in a warehouse nearby.”

Father Verrick looked stunned. He did not reply for a moment.

Finally he said, “How do you know this?”

“We followed them,” Julia said, “but we couldn’t stop them. Well, maybe we could have if we moved fast enough right after they were abducted. And I feel terrible about that. But we were curious as to what the bots wanted with two old people. So, we followed them. And . . . we saw them get killed in some kind of experiment inside a warehouse near here.”

Verrick processed the information a bit longer.

Then he said, “You say police bots? Are you sure?”

Both women nodded.

Wilcox said, “You were right. Somebody is abducting indigents.”

“I see. We can’t really call the police about this, can we? Not if they’re using police resources to do this. Hm.”

“Maybe we can help patrol at night, now that we know what’s happening,” Wilcox said.

“That’s a good idea,” Verrick said, slowly.

The priest looked troubled. He said, “I’ll try to bring in those on the periphery, like the people sleeping in that courtyard. Have them move closer to the others. Maybe if we cluster the people together more, it will help. Thank you, ladies. You’ve given me a lot to think about. And pray about.”

The women nodded and stood to go.

As they walked away from Father Verrick’s office, Julia said, “I think it’s time we went exploring. Can you recognize any of the implant signatures on those guys?”

Wilcox nodded and said, “Absolutely. I’ll never forget them.”

“I wonder if they’d be around the police headquarters, or the Administration Building?”

“Or SSI,” Wilcox said. “I hate those bastards.”

Julia said, “Let’s make our way into the city and poke around.”

-+-

It took some time to get to the center of Rostin. They found a bus stop outside the AWD, and calculated how many kilometers away the Central Administration District was from their current location.

Wilcox subtly indicated the sensors onboard the terrestrial bus that pulled up, and with that knowledge in mind, Julia decided they should walk. Rostin was not that large a city, after all, and it was only about a four kilometer trek. They could be there in under an hour.

The buildings steadily grew nicer, and taller, the closer they came to the Administration District, At last they found the Central Administration Building, an ornate skyscraper standing in the center of other government structures.

A pathway with green space on either side, and a large fountain circled all the way around it. It reminded them of a moat.

The ladies found a food cart, tended by a late model droid, and ordered an early lunch along with something cold to drink after their long walk. Then they took a seat on a public bench beside the fountain/moat.

“How’s the talking environment?” Julia said before taking a large bite out of her sandwich.

“Not good,” Wilcox said.

Julia nodded. This was code. Too many sensors were about for them to enjoy private conversation. So the “talking environment” was no good. But, she expected as much this close to the seat of government.

“See anything interesting?”

Wilcox nodded. She said, “I just want to sit here a while.”

“Okay.”

They continued eating, then polished off the cold drinks. Wilcox sat in silence, occasionally closing her eyes.

The day passed. Wilcox sat in silence, mostly with her eyes closed. She looked asleep, although Julia noticed uneven breathing.

After two hours, Julia got up and walked around the circle surrounding the Central Administration Building. The entire area was open to the public with the strip of green space providing something of a park, or at least a park-like atmosphere. The moat/fountain offered water, which seemed to cool the area off. Long concrete benches offered people places to sit, and several were taking advantage of the opportunity. Mothers strolled with infants while other people just wandered around.

After a while she made the complete circuit and came back to Wilcox, who had not moved.

Resigned to boredom, and silence, Julia sat down next to her and watched people go by for another hour or so.

Finally, about the time Julia was wondering if it would be worth it to purchase more food from the vendor bot’s cart, Wilcox’s eyes opened.

She said, “Let’s go.”

She stood and began walking back toward the AWD. Julia had to hurry to catch up.

Half an hour later they reached the outer edges of the district. Wilcox stretched her senses out, looking for AI monitors. Finding none, she began speaking to Julia in a low whisper.

“Baron Roth is our guy’s name. He’s an executive with Thespar. I was able to listen in on a conversation he had with Tetrarch Billings.”

Julia’s eyes grew wide.

“What did they talk about? Did he mention the old couple from last night?”

Wilcox nodded and said, “In a way. That was evidently a trial run of a new weapon Thespar is developing. Billings gave Roth the green light to commence trials in space on a much larger scale. They’re using the latest technologies combined with some of the things they’ve been learning in the war. I’m afraid this weapon is going to really hurt our flyboys.”

“What . . . what’s it do? I mean, the old man and woman, they just stepped across a line and disappeared in a flash. It’s like they walked into the sun or something. But . . . how’s that work in space?”

“I’m not sure. But from what I gathered from their conversation, they plan to set it up where the ships are going. Like a bear trap or something. When the ships cross that line, they’ll be . . . obliterated.”

“But how’s it work? I don’t see how it would be effective.”

“I dunno. But you saw what it did to Mr. and Mrs. Benson. Or, at least you were there. Now, imagine that on a giant scale . . . in space.”

They walked in silence for a moment.

Julia said, “We’ve got to get word back to the others.”

“We can’t communicate until we’re ready to go.”

“I know. But this might be worth leaving early for.”

“That’s not part of our mission.”

“I know. I know.”

They walked faster, with purpose now.

Half a kilometer away, on the rooftop of a nearby building, an SSI agent with a directional microphone frowned at the discussion he had just picked up. He had been aiming his device toward the AWD, at the property owned by the Church, but he did not expect to pick up this sort of conversation.

This would require a report. Since he did not use a neural implant, it would have to wait until he met his superior in person . . .

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 36

Amazingly, at least to Gina Wilcox, they did not have to chase the bots very far. The machines cleared the property owned by the Church, but stayed in the Abandoned Warehouse District. Other entities evidently set up shop in the area, including somebody with access to police bots.

She waited outside a large structure the bots entered with their human cargo, feeling frustrated and irritated that she did not have a camo unit like Julia. Instead she spied through Julia’s neural implant, listening and watching everything the other woman heard and saw. It felt less than satisfactory to Wilcox, but at least it was something.

“There does not appear to be much in the way of security,” Julia whispered over her neural net while looking around on the inside. “Just the armed police bots. That’s enough out here, I guess. I mean, after all it’s the AbandonedWarehouse District. Are you sensing any monitors?”

“No. The place has no external electronics, except for the bots. They can transfer data back to HQ if they need to. I am sensing three people inside with neural implants, though. Be careful.”

“Okay.”

Begrudgingly, the Sergeant thought, their toolsets did compliment one another. Maybe it was a better idea that she stayed outside after all. She returned her attention to Julia’s feed, watching through her eyes.

Julia crept down a hall to a doorway where she heard voices. Somebody was talking while the elderly couple returned to consciousness and started making loud noises.

She found a closed door. The voices came from behind it.

In her head, Gina whispered, “The bots are in there. The people with implants are in another room.”

Julia looked and spied an open door further down the hall. She walked to it and peeked her head around the corner. She stared into a control booth, with a thick window showing an open area with doors on either side. The elderly couple and the police bots could be seen through the window.

Three men stood in the booth staring at occupants of the larger room.

One of the men said, “We’ve made all the final calculations and considerations. This should work.”

“I’m a little nervous about being here, Baron. Are you sure about this?”

“Yes, we’ve experimented. We can stand here and not be affected, the barrier will protect us. However, you’ll want to wear sunglasses. These are welder-level dark and should do the trick. Or you can look away when it happens, but that would kind of defeat the point, wouldn’t it?”

Baron smiled while handing out thick, dark sunglasses.

The elderly couple stood up. The man shook his fist at them down on the floor of the large room. His voice came into the control booth through a speaker.

“You’ve got no right, waking up good people like that and dragging them away!”

The three men smiled as the old woman grabbed her husband’s arm and tried to hide behind him. She tried to cower from both the police bots and the men behind the window.

“You’re free to go, old timer,” the man called Baron said, activating a floating holo switch that looked like a microphone. “Just walk over to the other side of the room, to that door over there on the far wall, and you can head back home.”

The couple turned and spied the door several meters away. Then they noticed that between them and the exit, a large black apparatus lay sprawled out on the floor.

“What is that thing?” the old man said.

“Nothing, don’t worry about that. Just . . . step right over it. Now, go on. Get going.”

Still the couple hesitated.

Baron flicked the mic switch again and said, “Police bots, herd these people toward the door.”

The bots advanced forward a step, with a metallic thunk! They raised their stun guns in a threatening gesture.

The older couple dutifully retreated from them, and began heading for the far door.

A few steps later they came to the thick, black flat metal beams stretching across the floor. The men at the door tensed in expectation.

Wilcox felt a premonition. She said, “Don’t look, Julia! Turn your face! Your eyelids are transparent.”

Julia turned just as the couple stepped across the contraption. A blinding flash of light lit up the room.

She turned back and . . . the man and woman were gone.

“You were right, Baron,” one of the control booth men said, a tone of wonder in his voice as he removed his sunglasses. “This barrier did the trick. We were within a few meters and suffered no ill effects! My face feels sunburned, though.”

Baron said, “The teleportation occurs instantaneously. If you are shielded enough, you are not effected. The wall and window are made from special materials.”

“How did the bots do?” the other man said.

Julia stretched her neck for a better look into the room. The bots were a smoldering pile of ruins on the floor.

Baron said, “Oh well. Rostin PD will have to get us a couple more bots. Better them than us, am I right boys?”

The sound of the men laughing faded as Julia quietly made her way back down the hall, heading for the exit.

Gina’s voice felt small in her ear.

The Sergeant said, “What in the world happened to those people, Julia?”

Julia shook her head, partly in frustration and partly in anger.

She said, “I think they walked into the sun.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 35

The women immediately settled into a routine with Father Verrick. He seemed to deliberately avoid asking them many questions about their past or much else about anything. Julia supposed he did not want to make them lie, because they surely would have if asked.

He also did not seem overly surprised at their need for a place to stay. He offered them a room in one of the many interconnected buildings comprising this part of the AWD.

As for the vast network of structures and alleyways and courtyards, he explained that all the surrounding buildings were owned by the Church, and had been for some time. In years past they had been used for profitable endeavors, namely renting them out to shipping companies for storing stuff coming or going off world. But things slowed precariously after Billings took over as Tetrarch. His administration changed several local regulations on interplanetary shipments.

Now with the war, the entire district suffered an even more drastic decline. The Church retrofitted its space to house the city’s growing indigent population. Much to everybody’s surprise, that population exploded. Even with the spacious real estate the local parish held, they were splitting at the seams with more people streaming in all the time.

Nonetheless, Father Verrick still had a handful of choice accommodations available for volunteers, and Gina and Julia were happy to have a place to stay far from the prying eyes of StarCen.

Julia immediately inquired as to the possibility of finding work in the Administration Building. This had been her modus operandi on Juventas while getting close to Tetrarch Lopez.

Father Verrick knew little about the inner workings of the Administration Building, but he doubted they were hiring right now.

“The Billings Administration went on something like a lockdown once the war started. They are more insular now than they ever were,” he said.

So, Gina and Julia helped run food lines during mealtimes and found other ways to make themselves useful to Father Verrick. For his part, the priest greatly appreciated the help.

On their second night, they agreed it was time to start scouting the premises. Julia activated her camouflage unit and winked out of sight. Gina silently got up and followed her out the door of their room, spreading out her senses, alert for anything electronic that might pose a threat.

They immediately noticed that the mission did not sleep after dark. A number of clandestine transactions took place in the shadows. Drug dealers peddled their wares, and the indigents found credit tokens to pay for hits of various substances. Alcohol was available as well, along with other black market goods.

“The AWD has a dark underbelly,” Wilcox muttered as they crept along an alleyway, disrupting a drug deal.

From her place beside the Sergeant, invisible, Julia agreed.

She said, “That libertarian priest would say, if you get your food for free, it frees up money for other things.”

“Would he say that? I know he’s got a lot of political ideas, but he’s the one feeding them, after all.”

“I don’t know. But it sounds like something he’d say.”

“I wonder if he even knows all this is going on under his nose. I mean, he’s pretty young. He hasn’t been beaten down by the reality of his fellow man yet. He’s too idealistic.”

Julia agreed. “He needs to at least secure the premises so bad apples can’t get in to ply their trade. Heads up, I’m going to go take that guy out.”

Wilcox felt her leave and approach the drug dealer they interrupted. He still stared dagger eyes at the Sergeant, upset she interfered with his transaction.

Julia crept up on him and kneed him in the groin.

“Urk!”

He collapsed to the ground.

Julia bent down and whispered in his ear, “Get out of here! Don’t ever come back to the AWD!”

His eyes grew wide and he whipped his head around, looking for the source of the voice. But Wilcox stood several meters away in the gloom, and Julia’s camo unit prevented him from seeing her.

He painfully pulled himself to his feet and stumbled away, looking for an exit in the maze of alleyways between buildings.

“My good deed for the night,” Julia said, sidling up next to Wilcox again.

Gina nodded, then turned her head sharply as she felt something.

Julia said, “What is it?”

“Bots are approaching. That direction.”

She pointed.

Julia said, “Let’s go take a look.”

Two buildings over they came to another open area, a courtyard of sorts between warehouses. Only a handful of tents were up here, and a couple of police bots were in the process of tearing one down. Mechanical hands simply gripped the cloth and pulled. The elderly woman and man inside screamed as the structure collapsed, and they tried to run away.

The bots shocked them with stun guns, and they fell down to the ground.

The other tents were either empty, which Julia doubted, or the occupants were likely cowering in fear.

The two bots reached down and each grabbed a person, slinging them over their shoulders in a fireman’s carry. Then they marched toward an alley leading away from the area.

“I hate League bots,” Wilcox whispered. “Let’s go get those bastards and get the humans back.”

“Wait,” Julia said, placing a hand on the bigger woman’s arm. “Let’s follow them and find out what they’re up to. I’ll go on ahead, you catch up.”

Reluctantly, the Sergeant nodded. She felt Julia move away, jogging to catch up with the bots. Wilcox followed, slower and at a distance.

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 34

Father Verrick led Julia and Gina through a veritable maze of corridors, rooms, and alleys as he brought them to his office, talking all the way. They introduced themselves with pseudonyms, with only a hint of guilt. Julia said she was Jane Bremmer, and Gina indicated her name was Ginny Collier. The Sergeant desperately hoped she would not forget either one of the fake names.

As for himself, Father Verrick started by telling them something of his ministry in the “Abandoned Warehouse District,” or AWD for short.

Although the Catholic Church had long ago abandoned celibacy requirements for priests, Father Verrick was young and had not yet spent time pursuing a wife. He had been tasked by the Archbishop of Sporades with handling the indigent population in the AWD . . . and then seemingly forgotten. He had little money, and less help, and seemingly an ever-growing population relying on him alone for spiritual and physical nourishment.

Gina looked around at the occasional shanty they passed and asked a question on the top of her mind.

“So, they can’t just take a collar? I thought that was what the indent program was for, a sort of last resort for indigents.”

Father Verrick sighed, as if he had explained this to other people several times before.

He said, “The indentured servitude program is fine for able-bodied people. But these are cripples, the mentally unstable, and the elderly. Nobody wants an indent that can’t walk or pick up heavy loads. Nobody wants an indent that will likely die in the coming weeks. No, these are the true dregs of society. The ones who cannot work. The ones nobody wants. They have no families, and nowhere else to go.”

Julia, too, had never seen anything like this. She felt even more disturbed, having spent her childhood in the home of a Tetrarch, within the ultimate privilege of a ruling family.

She said, “Surely there’s a government program that could tend to their needs.”

“There used to be, before the Welfare Wars,” Father Verrick said. “The government would provide food and shelter for indigents. But, like most government programs it was subject to abuse. Nothing really works, especially at the government level, when there is no accountability. So, the people still suffered. Before, they suffered under the auspices of a supposedly benevolent government. Now, they just suffer.”

“‘Supposedly benevolent?’”

Julia did not really like the sound of that, although she was opposed to many of the things for which her father stood, and the government he represented.

Father Verrick nodded. “Governments don’t care about people, Ms. Bremmer. Certain individuals working within them might, but governments are just cold bureaucracies. They care not whether people suffer or thrive. They are merely impersonal structures imposing order.

“Now, when people outside government insist those in control ‘do something,’ that is when you get programs for the poor. It makes people feel better knowing that their government is ‘doing something’ for those in need.

“It matters not to them if the program does more harm than good. It matters not that the program inevitably leads to corruption and negligence. All that matters is that people feel good the government program is there.

“But as we have seen, that cannot last forever. Ultimately, the house of cards falls apart and we have an incident like the Welfare Wars, and everything has to be recalibrated. Now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, back to the way it was for millennia in societies past. Now, it is up to charities to care for the truly indigent.”

“Catholic charities?” Julia said.

Neither of the women were Catholic. They shared a glance.

Father Verrick nodded again. He said, “We are one of many, but this small effort is not nearly enough. I cannot singlehandedly feed and care for all these people every day.”

They rounded a corner and he stopped, reaching down to an elderly woman who held her hands up as soon as she heard his voice. The woman looked old, and Julia decided she must be blind. Her wrinkled face tilted toward the young priest and she broke into a smile as they hugged.

“There you are, Ms. Tomei. Are you doing good today?”

“Bless you, Father Verrick. Bless you.”

“Bless you, Ms. Tomei. And I hope to see you at mass on Sunday.”

She nodded and smiled again. He patted her on the shoulder and continued walking.

Julia still had trouble grappling with the emotional breadth of the problem. She looked back at the old woman sitting on the ground outside the shack as they walked away.

She said, “Charity is good. Maybe the government could fund charities instead of frittering all the money away.”

“Ha! If the government funded the Church, it would want a say in Church matters. Absolutely not. We do not need money from the government, and besides, the government is not going to give us any. No, what we really need is for the government to leave us alone. I am constantly fighting off eviction bots and the like, as you saw earlier.”

“But you said yourself, you need help. You can’t do it alone.”

“We get volunteers, much like you two. And, there is an ecumenical movement afoot. I have received word that the Baptists and Methodists are interested in teaming up with us. It seems we are the largest, in terms of numbers of souls fed every day. But, the Baptists and the Methodists have more money they can allocate for things like this.

“So, rest assured, one way or another these people’s needs will be met. Without the government, thank you very much. Churches and charities will do what we have always done, down through the ages.”

He stopped walking and faced the two women, his face changing so abruptly it startled them.

“There’s other issues surrounding the government. I can’t prove it, but I think they are stealing people away, out of the AWD. Why, I don’t know. But . . . it can’t be good.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 33

When the doors closed, Julia activated the Framer hanging from her neck. She smiled at the Sergeant as her face changed into a new one.

Wilcox raised an eyebrow. She said. “That’s impressive. Your hair and eye color changed, too.”

Julia nodded. She now looked completely different. Still attractive, but with a different face.

“Classified technology,” she said.

Wilcox stared at the pendant, trying to figure out the circuitry.

She raised her eyebrow and gave up. She said, “It’s too complex. Maybe when we have some downtime I can examine it better.”

Julia nodded and waited patiently while LuteNet scanned them for foreign biomatter. The holo on the far wall showed the ship’s icon progressing toward Sporades. Numbers counted down the AUs, and the seconds left until they arrived.

Julia reached into her pack and pulled out a visor, with a headband attached. She handed it to Gina.

“Just in case.”

Wilcox nodded and pulled it on. Julia pulled out another one and covered her own face, too.

At last, the floating numbers approached zero. The women crouched, ready for the port. They popped out of the Mule.

They showed up next to LuteNet’s sensor, appearing suddenly in an empty warehouse. They watched as the sensor popped away in the following second, its presence no longer needed on the planet’s surface.

Up above, the Aquamarine was splitting apart and taking out solar torpedoes. But on the planet’s surface, in the warehouse, they were oblivious to what occurred in space.

Julia said, “Let’s go. Keep an eye out, or whatever, for sensors. We want to avoid them if we can, for as long as we can.”

Gina nodded and mentally stretched out her senses, looking for the telltale signs of electronic monitoring.

Finding nothing, she nodded at Julia and together they walked across an empty floor toward a distant door.

“Looks old fashioned. Hope it’s not locked,” Gina said.

Julia tried the latch. She turned it, and the door opened to the outside, letting the sun shine in. Before them, hundreds of people were stretched out or standing around. Many were huddled under makeshift shelters and tarps to stay out of the sun.

Several dozen turned to look at them with weary eyes.

Wilcox said, “Wow. A shanty town.”

“Yeah how about that. And nobody has an implant in all this lot?”

The Sergeant looked around, her senses extended. She pointed to an old man who smiled at them with no teeth.

“He has an older model. It’s not activated.”

Julia nodded again. She said, “Okay, then. Well, it looks like the exit is on the other side of this courtyard. Watch your step. Keep your visor on, just in case.”

They were in some sort of courtyard, walled off from the outside. But a set of double doors on the opposite side promised an exit. Carefully, the two women made their way between shacks, shelters, and sleeping bodies lying prone on the ground.

Halfway across, Gina tapped Julia on the shoulder.

She said, “Heads up. Guard bots approaching.”

The double doors burst open and two bots appeared, older models with round heads.

One of them had a loud voice, obviously magnified from its mouth speaker.

It said, “This site is condemned. Vacate the premises! Vacate the premises!”

Hundreds of eyes turned toward the bots, watching them with a sense of alarm. Julia and Gina froze, but nobody seemed in a rush to follow the bots’ orders.

Julia slowly reached for her lead-lined backpack, where she had a blaster stowed.

Before she could pull out a weapon, a man ran out of another door to the courtyard.

The women blinked, giving the man a double take. He had a priest’s collar around his neck.

He said, “Stop! Stop! This is not an illegal settlement! I have the paperwork right here!”

He ran up to the bots, who pointed their guns at him as he halted right in front of them, panting and out of breath. He flicked his wrist and a holosheet appeared, floating in the air. He twisted it around and let the bots read it.

One of the bots said, “This is not in our online records, Father Verrick.”

“I’m aware it may not be in there, yet,” the young priest said. “But I assure you this is an indigent care facility operating under the auspices of the local parish. This holo has the signature of the appropriate municipal administrators. Everything is up to date.”

The bots looked at the holo again and recorded the information.

One of them said, “We’ll check in with HQ. If there’s a problem, we’ll be back.”

They holstered their weapons and turned for the doors. Father Verrick seemed to deflate in relief as they walked out the courtyard.

When the doors closed, he turned and looked out over the shantytown. The two women wearing visors stood out like sore thumbs.

His brows furrowed and he said, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

Gina and Julia exchanged glances, although neither could see the other’s face.

Wilcox shrugged. She said, “You can’t lie to a priest.”

“Sure you can,” Julia said. “Or at least, you can leave some of the truth out.”

She lifted her visor up. Wilcox followed suit. Together they approached the priest.

Julia said, “Hi there. We’re here to help.”

“Help?” the priest said, a look of confusion on his face.

“Yeah. You know. Volunteer?”

“Well . . .”

Father Verrick looked out at the sea of people in the courtyard.

He said, “I could surely use some help.”