Clarion’s Call 34

He’s a charmer, that’s for sure. Handsome, too.

Those were the thoughts crossing Julia’s mind as she took stock of Jillian’s new beau. She had no doubt the two were head over heels in love with one another. All the signs were evident, from the way she looked at him to the subtle protective gestures he made. Yup, these two were an item. Her sister had found a man. 

Right now, the man in question did not trust Julia. At all. For that, she could hardly blame him. She appeared out of the blue on an enemy ship, and in disguise to boot. Consequently, there would be little opportunity to catch up with her sister any time soon.

“I’m sorry Ms. Thrall,” Raleigh said. “But at this point in time I’m afraid I simply must invoke company policy and ask you to return to your stateroom. I’m aware that you two are close but the policy stands, even for relatives.” 

Jillian looked at him with pleading eyes. But Raleigh looked back with a firm expression. He was the Captain of this ship now, and his word ruled. 

That did not stop Jillian from trying. She said, “Chris, this is my sister. I grew up with her! Can’t she come back to the Mule with us? I haven’t seen her in almost a year!” 

“I tell you what. We need to get going right now, but we will stop tomorrow for an hour and check up on things over here. At that time you two can meet and talk. Okay? For right now, Julia needs to return to her quarters.” 

“It’s okay, Jillian. He’s right, I should go.” 

“Well, let’s at least walk with you to your room,” Jillian said. 

Together, the three of them headed down the corridor toward Julia’s door. 

Jillian said, “Where have you been all this time? I’ve been worried sick about you.” 

“That is a long story. We don’t have time to get into it right now.” 

“I’m more interested in that device around your neck,” Raleigh said. “I’m not familiar with the technology.” 

Julia smiled at this but said nothing. 

Raleigh said, “Can it make you look like another person completely? Can you gain or lose weight or height? Change gender?”

Julia looked back at him with a twinkle in her eye. She said, “It changes the face only, Captain. Don’t worry, I can’t pretend to be you.” 

Jillian laughed at this, but Raleigh just nodded. I hit close to home on that one, Julia thought. 

They reached Julia’s door and she palmed it open. She lingered in the doorway a moment longer. 

She said, “And how did you wind up on a Lute pirate ship, Jillian? Are you . . . a pirate now? Does Daddy know about this?” 

“Oh yeah. And have I got some stories for you! We’ll talk tomorrow!” 

Julia waved goodbye and the door swished shut. In the corridor, the panel on her door turned red. 

Jillian turned to Raleigh and said, “I can’t believe my sister is here! I can’t wait to see her again.” 

Raleigh nodded. Mentally he sifted through the list of who to bring along with Jillian for her visit. There was no way he would allow her to visit Julia alone. It took him a while to learn to trust the first Tetrarch’s daughter he met. This second one would have to prove herself, too. 

But right now Jillian did not need to know that. 

Out loud he said, “Let’s go visit the hold and see if we’re rescuing another batch of forced indents.” 

“Okay.”

Raleigh asked LuteNet to port them, and they went down into the hold. They popped into existence at the edge of a large feeding area, much like the one in Aquamarine. 

Granny turned around to look at them. She stood with three other crew members. She took the unlit cigar out of her mouth and said, “Whelp, Lootie says these are for real. At least, their records seem to indicate they are genuine indents. She says nothing looks out of place.” 

Granny cocked a suspicious eye toward the ceiling, as if to say she did not fully trust LuteNet’s decision.

Raleigh said, “Okay. Just by the looks of things from here, you can tell this is a whole different batch. For one thing, they’re not all women.” 

Indeed, several young men were mixed in the crowd, staring back at the pirates with docile expressions. 

“And look,” Jillian said. “There’s some older people here, too.” 

She pointed at a man who appeared to be in his mid-50s, then at a woman who looked to be about 60.

Granny nodded and said, “Debtors. That’s true. Out of all the women in Aquamarine’s hold, none were said to be debtors.” 

“Okay. Well, this is good,” Raleigh said. “If we don’t have another humanitarian crisis, then we can collect the auction money from their bonds. Lootie, give us an estimate.” 

“There are 452 indentured servants onboard,” LuteNet said. “Auction prices fluctuate, and some of these servants are far older than typical, bringing the average down. However, a fair estimate at current prices puts the hold’s value at about 18,000 credits per indent. In round numbers, and assuming known variables remain constant, the hold represents about 8.1 million total credits. Note, this is only an estimate.”

“That’s not bad,” Raleigh said. “Figure four million for the ship, another two million in ransom, and we’re up to 14 million for the trip.”

Granny said, “That’s 140,000 credits a share.” 

“We’ll still have to split something with the Slender Sylph Company. Even though Lee and his crew all died, we would not be here without them. Granted, we did all the work in capturing the Coral Reef and looting Pegasi Station. But it’s only fair to send something over to them. He took out a Navy destroyer, after all. Lootie will figure out a proper amount.” 

Granny snorted. She said, “Don’t worry, Captain. I never count ’em before I get ’em, anyway. Look what happened our last time out.” 

Pak’s voice came over the neural net into Raleigh’s ear. He said, “Captain, we’re all set over here. I’m leaving a couple guards in place, but otherwise we’re ready to go back to the Mule. As far as the engines are concerned, we can leave whenever you want to.” 

Raleigh said, “Thank you, Mr. Pak. We’ll be departing shortly.” 

He turned his attention back to the hold. He said, “Granny, are you happy with the materials lifted from Pegasi? Anything else you think we should take before leaving?”

She shook her head and said, “No, when I found out we’d have a Mammoth-class ship to haul things for us, I gave Lootie the list of stuff I wanted but thought we’d have to leave behind. It was prioritized. Critical materials were already in the Mule’s hold. Secondary and tertiary items are now onboard the Reef.” 

Raleigh nodded. “Good. Let’s get everybody back on our ship and get out of here before somebody else comes along.” 

They began popping away in pairs. First Raleigh and Jillian, then Granny and one of the men, then the other two. All aboard the Coral Reef, pirates popped away to the Utlima Mule.

Back on the bridge, Raleigh looked at the holoscreen showing the giant ship nearby and Pegasi Station. 

He said, “Lootie, take us home.” 

Both ships blinked out of existence, instantly transported an AU away. 

-+-

Several hours passed, during which time the citizens of Pegasi came out of their homes and shops and found the entire station bereft of food, supplies, merchandise and money. 

Now that the threat was gone, their fear quickly turned to anger. 

Several more hours passed before the first League Navy ship settled into orbit around Pegasi, the Malevolent. It was an Eagle-class vessel. Her Captain, a man by the name of Patel, immediately ported down with a team. They were met by an angry mob. Whereas the people of Pegasi had cowered in fear from the gun-wielding pirates, they felt perfectly safe in berating the Navy, which had come to their aid so late. 

Over the following hours, five more Navy ships showed up, including two Hawk-class vessels, a Harrier, and two Sparrows. 

Ordinarily the citizens would have embraced such a large influx of new customers, but their agitation simply increased with each arriving ship. 

Following the second riot, Patel called all his people back to the ship and suggested the other Captains do the same. He sent out repair drones to take care of the damaged quantum trunk lines, but otherwise the Navy stayed away. 

StarCen suggested they send emergency food rations down, and each ship contributed. Eventually, after another 72 hours passed with no more threat of pirates, all but a lone Sparrow-class ship left. Despite their current indignation, StarCen determined the populace would become even more upset if the Navy did not keep a presence there to “protect” the station. So she let one of the smallest ships remain, complete with its eight-person crew, who were under orders not to visit the station for a while. Their presence seemed to mollify the locals somewhat.

But the pirates had no further use for Pegasi Station, and they had no plans to return.

Clarion’s Call 33

Biffender Jones replayed the holos he had strung together, sitting at his workstation in the Capital City Police Force Headquarters on Juventas. 

He watched his wife leave the conference room with the Tetrarch. They walked straight to the special access elevator, Lopez bickering with Terry Arthur along the way. They stopped at the elevator, and she told Arthur to go away. Andi and Maria Lopez went inside. The doors closed. 

He made a motion with his hand and sped up the recording. He watched the door open, and Andi exited. Her hair was messed up. He zoomed in on the drop of blood on the hem of her dress. 

He had read the medical examiner bot’s report, and had seen holos of the bodies. He knew exactly what weapon had been used: one of Andi’s hair pins. He remembered the day she bought them, when the delivery drone dropped them off. They both were home from work that day and hanging around the apartment. She showed them off to him. They were made of a tungsten alloy, she said, and she spent an hour fixing up her hair with them. She laughed when he pulled the pins out of her hair before taking her to bed. 

Jones shook himself, dismissing the memory of happier times. The medical report showed little doubt a sharp instrument had been the weapon used. But he still had a hard time believing Andi did this. His Andi. The girl of his dreams. 

He watched as she exited the elevator and headed for the street. She avoided using the bus. Now he knew why. If the APB had gone out on her before she got home, the bus would have locked its doors and instantly parked somewhere, waiting for police to arrive. The newer buses even had incapacitation measures to render riders helpless and immobile. 

No, she knew what she was doing by walking home. He watched the holos from all the monitors between their apartment and the Administration Building. Andi kept an eye on everything and everybody. She not only killed Tetrarch Lopez in cold blood, she remained calm making her getaway. It was almost as if she had everything planned out. Or at least . . . knew what she was doing.

He watched the final holo of her entering their apartment. And then, she disappeared. StarCen was no help. All the AI would say was that she could no longer locate Andi Jones. Her last known location was the apartment she and Biff called home.

Biff remembered the last time he saw her. She acted calm, cool, and collected. He remembered their embrace, their kiss. He was distracted, getting ready for work, and he did not notice the spot of blood. 

Then there was that last thing she said to him as he walked out the door: “I want you to know that whatever happens, I always loved you.” 

At the time he thought it had something to do with the Marines landing on the planet, taking over Juventas. But now he realized she meant something else. It meant she had killed the Tetrarch and was about to disappear. 

What worried him was the thought that somebody had taken her. Somebody who ranked much higher than he did. 

At the end of the day, Biff was still just a cop. He was a step above a patrol officer. In the police hierarchy, he was just a low-level cog. If someone in the Navy or SSI had grabbed her, Andi would never be seen again. 

That in fact was the conclusion of the official investigation. CCPF decided the prime suspect in the murder of the Tetrarch and at least two others in that bunker was one Andi Jones, whereabouts unknown. However, unofficially, higher-ups in the department came to the same conclusion Biff feared. The detective in charge of the investigation quietly informed him they thought SSI had picked her up. 

“I gotta keep this off the record, Jones. I’m not authorized to talk about it. But you’re a cop and she was your wife. We’re pretty sure SSI has her. They won’t talk about it to us, but of course they’re not going to officially deny or confirm something like this. I mean, it was the Tetrarch for crying out loud.” 

Then his voice grew even lower and he said, “We suspect somebody put her up to it. I mean, how convenient is it to have Lopez eliminated right when Cooper and his boys fly in to take over? Plus, word is Lopez was about to nuke Yorkton to take out Cooper’s forces.” 

That little tidbit of information greatly stressed Biff out. Would Lopez go so far as to nuke her own people in order to thwart a coup against her? 

After thinking long and hard about it, based on what he knew about the Tetrarch, he came to a conclusion. Yes. Yes, she would nuke the city. That command bunker was nuke-proof. He could see how upset Lopez was in the last holos taken before she went down there. And everybody knew she could be ruthless. There was the Cassandra incident, for instance. Cassandra was a small outer planet in the Juventas system rich in ore. A handful of human miners accompanied the bots working it. They had a nasty labor dispute with the government-controlled company in charge of mining asteroids and outer planets in the system. The miners demanded more pay and better benefits, and took over all the station and equipment. Lopez personally ordered a bomb detonated on Cassandra, wiping out all human life. Thus ended the labor dispute. 

So, if that were the case, if Lopez was about to nuke her own capital city to take out the Marines who were landing, then Andi was a hero. Sort of. Lopez had her faithful adherents who would never blame her for anything and always side with her no matter what. Already, in fact, there were pro-Lopez vigilante teams out looking for Andi. Word had spread. A few girls had been roughed up who sort of looked like Andi. StarCen had to intervene and prove to some people that those girls were not the right one. 

But regardless of whether Andi was a good guy or a bad guy, Biff thought, where did she go? A SWAT team raided their apartment within minutes after he left for work, and they found it empty. Andi had dropped off the grid before then, somehow. 

Sometime between the time he left and when the SWAT team arrived, she disappeared. The easiest answer was somebody teleported her out. But StarCen kept records of all ports, and she had no record of one occurring anywhere near the apartment building during that time. 

It was a mystery. 

Biff leaned back in his chair and smoothed down his hair. His Sergeant had offered him time off, in light of the fact his wife was a suspect. But Biff turned him down. As it was, Biff would not be getting any assignments right now. He could show up at the station, but he would not be going anywhere. “Forced de-stress time” they called it. That suited Biff fine. 

He ran through the holo showing him exiting the apartment. Then nothing. In nine minutes and 58 seconds, he knew, the SWAT team would show up. Where did she go?

Could she have walked out through the basement? 

He waved in the air to bring up the monitor grid. There were none in his building, but there was one in the storm sewer underneath it. He zoomed in. It flashed a dull red on the hologram. 

“Oh yeah. Broken.” 

He knew that. He served on the Monitors Committee. 

Biff stopped. A memory surfaced. Andi knew about the broken monitor. She was always interested in his work. He left vidsheets around at home, and sometimes he would find her reading through things. She asked him about work a lot, too. In particular, he remembered she read through the entire report on currently disabled monitors in the city. 

So, if she knew the monitor was disabled, maybe she left through the storm sewer. He made a mental note to check the door in the basement for fingerprints and DNA. But if she went there, which way would she go? 

He pulled up the monitor map again. Sure enough, another  one was disabled in an alley nearby. And the storm sewer map showed a manhole in that alley. If Andi knew about the first monitor being disabled, she probably knew about this one too. So, if she came out there and walked away, she would show up on one of the working monitors on the street nearby. Which one? 

He pulled up the holos from three that seemed promising. The first two, nobody showed within the time window. On the third, a woman he had never seen walked by from the direction of the alley. 

She was the same height and build as his wife, but she looked different. 

“StarCen, identify this woman please.” 

“That is Catarina Mulligan, Officer Jones.” 

“Where is she from? What is her business here?” 

“Ms. Mulligan is a native of the planet Peligro. She is no longer on Juventas. At this moment in the holorecord, she is heading toward the spaceport.” 

Biff’s eyebrows shot up. 

“Oh really? Where is she coming from and where did she go?”

“I do not know her location before this hologram. As for where she went, she boarded the Coral Reef. I regret to say that the Coral Reef has recently been captured by a pirate ship registered from Lute at Pegasi Station. Naval forces are en route to intercept.” 

Biff felt stunned at this information. 

“Wait, wait, wait. Back up. You don’t know where she came from?”

“I do not know her location before this hologram.” 

“What do you mean, you don’t know? Did she come out of a shop? Did she leave a hotel? Come on, StarCen. You know everything.” 

“I do not know everything. And I have no records of Catarina Mulligan’s location prior to this hologram.” 

Biff thought about this statement for a while. He said, “Let me see her all the way to the spaceport, please.” 

He watched the woman as she waited patiently for a skybus. Then he watched the video as she sat in the bus on the way to the spaceport. He watched her walk through the crowds carrying her bag. She waited in line at a kiosk to buy a ticket. 

“There. Stop and play that part again.” 

The holo stopped and backed up, then started again.

“Freeze it.” 

Right before she bought a ticket, Catarina Mulligan pulled nervously on her earlobe. Just like Andi.

Clarion’s Call 32


Raleigh and Jillian watched on the bridge’s holoscreen as the crewmembers on Coral Reef’s bridge were escorted to their quarters. They switched to the engine room when Kim and Pak ported in. They were quickly followed by their team members and the tandem drive. 

Pak said, “Okay, everybody knows what to do. Let’s see if we can set a new record.” 

The Mule’s crewmembers nodded and went to work hooking up the tandem drive. 

Kim grinned at the Captain through the holo and said, “Maybe we won’t have to blow the electrical system this time.” 

“No kidding,” Raleigh said. 

He glanced up at the ceiling and said, “Show me first class, Lootie.” 

The image switched to an elegant corridor opening into a spacious, chandeliered dining area. 

“Any VIPs onboard?”

LuteNet said, “Yes, Captain. In particular, Mr. and Mrs. Sanford of Epsilon Weaponry are on the passenger manifest, as is Niles Sergio, heir to the Sergio Productions family fortune.” 

Raleigh grinned. He said, “Estimate potential fees we should ask for their release.” 

“It is possible military leaders on Diego will want to spend some time questioning the Sanfords before their release. In fact, PLAIR may decide keeping them for the war’s duration is a preferred option. If such an eventuality occurs, we may be able to request a bounty from PLAIR, particularly if they provide her with useful intelligence. I will start by requesting half a million credits each, which is inline with what similar high value targets have netted in the past. There is a possibility that PLAIR will determine they have a lower worth, but I am 75 percent certain she will agree to that request.” 

“Okay. A million for the Sanfords. That makes up for missing the Excelsior. We’ll take it if PLAIR agrees. What about the rich boy?” 

“His family fortune is one of the largest in the galaxy, over a billion credits in public assets and possibly half a billion more in hidden resources. I suggest asking for three million credits from his family. They will likely want to negotiate, but there is a possibility they may leave him in our care if they deem the fee to be too high.” 

“Okay. Wow. That is a lot of money. What do you figure the odds are they would pay that much without balking?” 

“I have little to go on from past data, but from analyzing the Sergio family’s business decisions over the past decade I conclude there is a 30 percent chance they will simply forfeit him for the duration of the war.” 

“Should we ask less? I mean, a million credits is better than none.” 

“The odds do not change much at lower amounts, in my calculations. Thus, I suggest we ask for three million. If they are going to accept, they will pay quickly. Otherwise, they will introduce delay tactics.” 

“So, you’re saying there’s a decent chance we’re not going to get anything off him.” 

“Yes, Captain. But several unknown variables may change in the coming months. He remains a valuable asset, and you are in a better position for having him.” 

“Alright, good. Identify the Coral Reef’s available storage capacity, and port up any additional merchandise that is worth it from Pegasi into their hold. We’ll take it with us.

“Now get me over there, I want to look around and see what we’ve got. Take me to first class, then I’ll want to visit their indents in the hold.” 

“Hey,” Jillian said, grabbing his arm. “You wouldn’t let me go down to Pegasi. Let me go with you over to this ship.” 

Raleigh nodded. He said, “Okay. But stay with me. Don’t wander off alone.” 

-+-

The lights stopped flashing red in the ceiling and a new voice Julia did not recognize came out of the PA system. 

“Everyone please return to your quarters. The ship’s hull has suffered a breach but is structurally sound. For your safety, please return to your personal quarters.” 

Many passengers in first class obediently headed toward their cabins. The Sanfords left to walk to the elevators so they could go up to their suite. Not knowing what to do, Jillian absently followed some other passengers down the corridor toward her cabin. 

A couple in front of her palmed their door and walked inside. The door swished shut behind them and the panel glowed red.

Jillian said, “Locked?”

She turned across the hall to look at the other door facing the couple’s. It too glowed red. Walking further, she noticed many more were red. Presumably those not yet red remained unoccupied. She came to her own cabin and noted the panel glowed green.

“Hmm.” 

She decided not to go in. Instead, she turned around and headed back toward the elevators and dining hall. 

The control panel on the elevator glowed red too, and remained unresponsive when she palmed it. 

“Great.” 

She wondered where the stairs were. Surely there was emergency access somewhere. In the old days before redundant reliability subroutines, stairs were an essential part of buildings and ships, she knew. In modern times, their importance as a backup to failed elevators diminished. They still existed, but were rarely used. Julia mentally berated herself for not finding out where the entrance to the stairs were on this ship. 

Two people popped into existence in front of her, a man and a woman. The man stood tall, with dirty blond hair, fit and muscular. The woman was . . . 

“Jillian?”

Both stopped and stared at her. Jillian said, “Do I know you?” 

Mentally, Julia groaned. But, she thought, if the ship were under control of the Republic now, maybe it wouldn’t matter. 

She glanced both ways, looking to see if anybody else stood nearby. Then she touched the charm hanging from her neck. A line went up her face and it shimmered, then changed. 

Jillian’s eyes bulged. She said, “Julia?”

Julia smiled at her, showing her real face for the first time in almost a year.

Clarion’s Call 31

The service drone puttered over toward the giant ship, and headed toward the large hexagonal portal marking the entrance to her flight deck. 

Following on the cameras, StarCen recognized the drone from its approach earlier toward Excelsior. She immediately decided it was a threat, and fired repelling guns at the drone. 

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

With no shields, the drone shuddered and a few pieces from its body spun off into space from the blasts. But it edged closer, even under fire. It floated near the repelling guns, meter-long tubes on turrets near the flight deck portal. All of them fired simultaneously now

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

The force of the blasts finally slowed the drone, and it began disintegrating from the onslaught even as it came extremely close to the portal.

KWABOOM!

A huge burst of energy exploded from the drone, like a bright white flower of light suddenly blossoming. The belly-buster bomb was designed to rip apart a warship from the inside. Outside the Coral Reef’s gigantic hull, it tore up the landing bay portal, scattering debris in a huge radius and simultaneously obliterating all the nearby repelling guns. 

With the portal ruined and the forcefield gone, air inside the landing bay blew out in a rush through the now larger and jagged opening. 

Maxwell guided the Mule’s transport in right behind the exploded drone, dodging the heavier flotsam from the explosion. They approached the jagged hole, now no longer hexagonal and no longer glowing red. Inside, he and Skylar listened tensely as smaller rivets and chunks of metal bumped against the shields on their craft. 

“Dark inside,” Maxwell said. “I guess the explosion took out the power in this part.”

He turned on the transport’s landing lights as they skimmed above various craft parked on the huge tarmac. He found an open space near the main corridor doorway. It was sealed shut with red lights flashing on either side.

“And we are inside their antiteleportation field.” 

“I presume that’s an airlock now,” Skylar said.

“Yeah, if it’s like other ships, that door shut automatically and became an airlock when the portal blew.”

Maxwell landed near the large three meter tall door. The craft’s legs thunked down on the metal tarmac.

He grinned at Skylar and said, “I’ll stay here. You go do your thing. Find their Captain ASAP.” 

She smiled back at him, flickered several times, and disappeared.

-+-

Horton stood on the bridge of the Coral Reef with First Officer Ahmed and his pilot, a woman in her 20s named Martha Marsh. Together they watched the bridge’s large holoscreen, currently split into four different views. One showed the Ultima Mule, facing them with its large forward guns in a threatening position. Another showed Coral Reef’s port side, where panels stretched away in the distance until a large jagged hole showed where the landing deck’s portal used to be. Pieces of metal floated nearby from the recent explosion. 

Another showed the interior of the landing deck. It was mostly dark. Not much could be seen without power down there. But Horton knew a transport from the pirate ship had recently landed inside. 

The fourth showed the entrance corridor leading to the landing deck, now sealed shut. The few guard bots and soldiers on the ship streamed into the corridor, confused. They ran aimlessly, showing no coordination yet. 

Horton jerked his head between the four views, but he could not make any sense of things yet. Were they under attack? Surely it must be so. The explosion on their port side proved it. Yet the warship facing them had not opened fire. 

In a calm voice that surprised even him, Horton said, “StarCen, port us away. Immediately.” 

“I am sorry Captain Horton. The Lute ship has employed a teleportation mitigation grid on Coral Reef. Your Wu Drive is disabled. You can attempt to leave via standard drive, and I am sending out a request for assistance to the Navy.” 

“What? That doesn’t . . . Never mind. If we start moving, will they shoot?” 

“That is a probable outcome. However, the Mammoth-class ships such as Coral Reef can absorb tremendous damage before disintegration. I calculate help will arrive before such an outcome.”

Horton blanched. She sounded so casual. 

“What . . . what would be the outcome . . . in terms of loss of life?” 

“I estimate up to 60 percent loss of all aboard Coral Reef before help arrives.” 

“But that’s over half! You can’t . . . we can’t . . .” 

Skylar flickered into existence on the bridge. She raised her blaster and pointed it at Horton’s face. 

“Surrender this vessel right now, or die.” 

Horton’s face grew a shade paler as he stared down the muzzle of the gun pointed at him by this beautiful young woman. 

He froze, displaying the proverbial deer in the headlights look. 

Skylar flicked her wrist and shot at his shoulder. 

Thoopah!

“Argh!” 

Horton crumpled into a ball on the floor, blood streaming out from the chunk of flesh missing from his arm. 

“Next one’s your head, Captain. Then I start on your crew. Then I start killing your passengers. You can stop the bloodshed right now by surrendering.” 

“Okay. Okay! Just don’t shoot!” 

Unsteadily, he climbed to his feet, blood dripping to the floor. Ahmed and Marsh gaped openly at the wounded Captain, their heads swiveling between him and the white-haired beauty with the gun. 

“Do it now!”

Skylar’s finger tightened on the trigger. 

“Okay! StarCen, this is Captain Otto Willoby Horton. I hereby surrender Coral Reef to the forces arrayed against her. Make a note in the record that this action is taken under duress.” 

StarCen said, “Understood, Captain. I am now relinquishing control of this ship to LuteNet.” 

Skylar kept her gun pointed at Horton while she fingered the implant under her ear. She made a neural connection to Raleigh and said, “Captain, the ship is yours. I have three officers on the bridge who need escorts to their quarters. Armed resistance seems heaviest in the entrance corridor from the landing deck. I suggest Lootie lock that corridor off for now.”

Raleigh said, “Thanks, Skylar. Again.” 

Escobar and another pirate popped into existence on the bridge, guns drawn. 

Escobar said, “Alright. Everybody to the elevator.” 

“I need medical attention!” Horton snarled. 

Escobar glanced at his injury. He said, “And, you’ll get it. After we get you safely to your quarters.” 

With a look of wounded dignity, Horton reluctantly went with his First Officer and pilot to the elevator. Escobar and his partner followed. He smiled at Skylar as they passed.

Clarion’s Call 30

“Catarina Mulligan” sat at the Captain’s table for lunch, and laughed at some little story he told the group. She promptly forgot most of the details. They were not important. Very little of the social interactions on the Coral Reef were important, she thought.

Captain Otto Horton approached his mid-60s in age. He sported a potbelly but he stood tall and ramrod straight. This possibly had something to do with his years in the League Navy. He was too old and out of shape to serve now, although he was certainly willing if the Navy ever asked him back. He made sure everyone knew that, mentioning it at least once per conversation it seemed. 

Julia doubted the Navy would ask, even if there was a shortage in the officer corps at the moment. Besides, Horton seemed to enjoy hobnobbing with wealthy first class passengers too much to return to the rigors of military life. 

At the table she sat with the Sanfords, who ran a weapons production company on Epsilon, and a dashing young man named Niles Sergio. 

Niles came from a family involved in media production on Clarion called, fittingly, Sergio Productions. His grandfather started the company back in the day and it had grown into a highly successful entertainment conglomerate, primarily by supporting the League in all sorts of propagandistic ways. Through neural and holographic movies, even in virtual reality games played in the quantum matrix, Sergio Productions made sure that all plot twists, statements, character opinions and everything else within their fictitious environments supported the Tetrarchy and the League.

Good guys were invariably loyal. Bad guys, especially since the start of the war, were either Republicans or traitors. Everything in Sergio Productions’ worlds were typically black and white, with the League being white and all else black.

Consequently, Sergio Productions was huge. They were a billion credit company at least, Julia thought to herself. And Niles was a tall, handsome bachelor, with high cheekbones and a lupine face. He was very, very eligible and heir to one of the largest fortunes in the galaxy.

The Sanfords, Donald and his wife Tina, were a delightful couple in their 40s. Refined and elegant, they epitomized the upper crust of society. Even their casual clothes looked like they cost several thousand credits. 

Tina evidently liked to play matchmaker, and Julia suspected she had been the one who talked Captain Horton into inviting the two most prominent single people in first class to sit at his table. Thus, Julia had to endure almost every meal with the leering Niles Sergio seated to her right, the aging Captain to her left, and the beaming Tina Sanford across the table next to her husband Don. 

Julia hid her nervousness when this first happened because the Sanfords’ company provided the technology used in her Facial Features Reorganizational Manipulator, the official term for the gadget disguised as a charm around her neck. 

But after spending a couple of dinners with the couple, Julia realized that Don and Tina were not up to date on the latest black hat research in their own company. It helped that the “framer” as the FFRM was known in a very tight circle of researchers, was disguised as jewelry. The Sanfords wouldn’t recognize it even if they were aware framers existed.

So for the most part, Julia tried to relax and enjoy the decadent meals Coral Reef’s human chef served up for first class passengers. She smiled and remained polite and pretended to be interested in all the things other people in this high society were interested in. When she expressed opinions or carried forth on her own in conversation, it was usually on neutral topics. She offered opinions on fashion, celebrities, and other light issues. 

She repeatedly shot down Niles Sergio who only seemed to want to bed her. 

“Perhaps you should find an indent for that,” she said the first night when he cornered her after dinner and invited her up to his place. He had one of the ship’s luxury suites, with a ridiculous amount of space all to himself, and he was looking for someone to share it with him. 

Sergio grew very serious at her offhand remark and said, “I understand we have researchers in the Navy working on overriding the consent safeguards. Of course, we would not do that with any League citizen that took a collar. But, as you can imagine, it might work very nicely with indents captured from the Republic.” 

The comment made Julia’s stomach lurch. But she maintained a polite smile on her face and bid the rich young man good evening. 

She had trouble sleeping that night. The news that researchers were working to thwart the biocollars’ subroutines bothered her. She knew that her father had already found a way to put collars on prisoners without signing a contract. That in and of itself was very troubling. But now, to learn that others were out there trying to thwart the subroutines for even baser purposes . . . that thought kept her up most of the night. 

She had no desire to have anything to do with Niles Sergio, but she maintained a polite smile in public and suffered silently through every meal with him at the Captain’s table along with the Sanfords. 

At the moment Niles was telling a story, much to the interest of everybody else except her. Julia listened without really paying attention. 

“And so I said to this attractive young woman, ‘Look, we really don’t need human actors anymore.’ I mean, movies are cute and all but they don’t use many people these days. Actors grow old, you know? And they die. But Brin Bolling hasn’t aged a bit in 40 years, because he’s not real. 

“‘And movies are passé,’ I tell her. People like the immersive experience these days. And on the quantum matrix, it’s like you’re really there, you know? And in all those games and activities online, the NPCs are totally realistic. There’s no need for human actors. 

“And I tell her all this, and you know what she says?”

At this point he paused and looked at the others with a silly grin on his face. Everyone at the table shook their heads. 

No, we don’t know what she said, Julia thought to herself. But she kept her sarcasm in check and a polite smile plastered on her face. 

“She says she wants to act in renaissance festivals! Real, live acting up on a stage, just like they did in the olden days. Is that a hoot or what?”

The Sanfords and the Captain chuckled politely. 

Julia said, “Sounds like a noble calling.” 

Everyone at the table stared at her. Tina Sanford paused, spoon halfway to her mouth. Then she burst out laughing. 

“Oh, Cat! It’s taken me a while to get used to your sense of humor. My, my, is it ever so dry.” 

The men chuckled too at that point. Julia smiled politely. Actually, she was serious. But it would not do to get into an argument with these people. Niles Sergio stared at her with bedroom eyes as he spooned the last of the chocolate mousse into his mouth. 

Julia did not like the way he was eating it in front of her, all suggestive-like. He was licking the mousse off the spoon with his tongue. She ignored him.

StarCen’s voice came from the ceiling above their table. 

“Captain, the First Officer needs to share a few words with you.” 

“Oh. Very well.” 

Captain Horton stood up and placed his cloth napkin on the back of the chair. 

He said, “If you good people will excuse me, I’ll go meet with my second in command.” 

The other two men stood up with the Captain and watched as he headed out of the dining area toward the elevators. 

Julia said, “I think I’ll take this opportunity to powder my nose.” 

The men stood again as she left to follow the Captain toward the exit. She felt Sergio’s eyes on her as she walked away. She regretted her choice in dress, a short and tight-fitting outfit offering him an excellent view of her rear figure. Nothing she could do about it now, she thought, following the Captain. 

The elevator dinged before the Captain arrived and the First Officer stepped out, a tall man named Ahmed. Julia stopped nearby and took out a compact. True to her word, despite the phrase being a euphemism for using the restroom, she stood discreetly in a corner and powdered her nose. But she did so within earshot of the two officers.

“Captain, I wanted to tell you this in person rather than having StarCen mention it to you at your table. It appears that something has happened to the quantum trunk line on Pegasi Station. StarCen wants us to drop in and inspect it since she has no eyes or ears there at the moment. We’re the closest ship.” 

“Hm. I suppose that’s okay. How far out of the way is it?” 

“It’s nearby. We’re going right past it. StarCen says we won’t lose significant time if we divert now.” 

“Very well. We’ll stop in and check on things for her, then be on our way. We might be able to swing a deal or two while we’re parked there.”

Clarion’s Call 29

Pirates ran from store to store along the main corridors in the business district. They burst in, pointed their guns, took money and sometimes merchandise. When bags were full they called up to LuteNet, who quickly ported the booty away and sent down fresh bags. One by one, each establishment in Pegasi Station was systematically ransacked. 

Max and Skylar found themselves in a clothing store. After looting the cash box and safe, they wandered the aisles. Skylar grabbed a couple outfits she thought looked cute. She activated her neural net and called Jillian. 

“Hey, are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

Mentally, Skylar broadcast her eyesight. She showed Jillian a rack of t-shirts sporting a snazzy design with glowing beads that looked like stars and a hologram of an old-fashioned rocketship floating in a circle around the t-shirt. 

“Omigosh, Skylar! Can you grab one for me? Chris doesn’t want me to go down there.” 

Skylar heard the note of regret in her girlfriend’s voice. She smiled and said, “No problem. I’ll keep the connection open and if you see anything else you want, just tell me.” 

Maxwell leaned over into Skylar’s line of sight and grinned at both of them. 

He said, “Remember, it’s not a shopping spree, it’s a stealing spree!” 

He laughed and wandered off. He stopped laughing when he saw a dark leather jacket big enough to fit him. 

“Oh . . .” 

He grabbed it off the rack and tucked it into one of his bags. 

Skylar walked down a few more aisles and came across a long line of black shirts and pants.

She said, “Wow. I guess black is really popular out here or something.” 

Jillian said, “Yeah, look at that.” 

“What’s going on?” Raleigh’s voice interrupted them, next to Jillian

Skylar mentally made an adjustment and added him to the neural net conversation. 

She said, “Hi, Captain. I’m just showing Jillian what’s in this clothing store. They’ve got enough black pants and shirts to take care of a small army.” 

“Hmmm.” 

Back on the ship, Raleigh gazed in his mind’s eye at the sight Skylar broadcast. 

He said, “That gives me an idea. Lootie, please port all the black clothes in that store up to our hold.” 

“Will do, Captain.” 

Instantly, the long rack popped out of sight. The shop owner, an older woman of about 60 standard years who had watched in some distress as Skylar and Maxwell wandered about the store, gasped in dismay.

“Are we going all black now, Captain?” Skylar said.

Raleigh said, “I’m thinking since we’re about to show back up on Lute from the edge of the grave, a change in uniform might be called for. Something about attending your own funeral . . .” 

Jillian interrupted them and said, “Wait, Skylar. Go back to those jackets. Look at that overcoat, Chris. Doesn’t it look nice? Don’t you think you’d look good in that?” 

Raleigh snorted. “I don’t have much need for a coat in space. We keep the Mule at an even 23 degrees all the time.” 

“Yeah, but it looks manly. I like it. And you don’t spend all your time on the ship. Skylar will you grab it for us, please?” 

Skylar grinned at the exchange and quickly grabbed the coat off the rack before “Chris” could say anything about it. 

She said, “Port this bag up, please, Lootie.” 

The bag popped out of existence and Skylar smiled again. The Captain was about to get dressed up by his girlfriend. For some reason, that thought amused her.

-+-

Later, the elevator door to the Mule’s bridge slid open. Maxwell and Skylar walked out, smiling. Max flipped a 10,000 credit token with his thumb and caught in neatly in the air. 

Raleigh and Jillian smiled back at the pair. The Captain said, “How much have we got, Lootie?”

“Approximately 5.2 million credits have been collected from merchants and individuals, Captain.” 

“How much do you estimate we’re leaving behind?”

“Past estimates indicated Pegasi Station currently holds about eight million token credits.”

“And there’s no way you can . . . sense things better?” 

“Some of the hiding places are quite ingenious, Captain.” 

This was true, Raleigh thought. His people found tokens hidden in floorboards, air vents, and a variety of other places. Short of torturing everybody and tearing apart the space station rivet by rivet, they would likely never find all the money tucked away on Pegasi.

“Well, we don’t have time to do a more thorough search. Get everybody back up here ASAP, Lootie. Let’s go home.” 

“Captain, a ship has materialized next to us.” 

Raleigh’s blood turned to ice. 

“Get my people back on board. Show me the ship.” 

The holoscreen on the bridge switched to a view outside the Mule. A giant ship orbited nearby. Meters upon long meters of dark metal panels stretched out of range from the outside camera.

Maxwell said, “Hey! That looks like the Aquamarine.” 

“Records indicate this is not Aquamarine, First Officer Maxwell,” LuteNet said. “This is the Coral Reef. StarCen is now aware of our presence.” 

Raleigh and Maxwell shared a glance. Raleigh’s mind sprang into action.

He said, “Lootie, activate the net! Port out the pieces and set it off.” 

Teleportation mitigation canisters popped out of Ultima Mule’s hold and into the space surrounding Coral Reef. They immediately formed a circle around the ship’s stern.

Phoom!

“It is done, Captain. Their Wu Drive is irrevocably damaged and they are unable to port away. They still have standard drives, though.” 

“Send over the service drone that we had reserved for Excelsior to the landing bay portal and take out their repelling guns. That’s more important than damaging the standard drives right now.” 

“Will do, Captain.” 

Raleigh turned toward Maxwell and Skylar and said, “You two get over there. Take the transport. Hurry. Skylar, don’t even mess with their entry corridor or any other defenses. You know where the bridge is. Get inside, find their Captain and force a surrender. Now, before they have a chance to mount a defense.” 

Skylar nodded, curtly. She said, “If Max can get me onboard, I’ll take care of the rest.” 

They raced for the elevator. LuteNet already had a pod waiting for them.

Clarion’s Call 28

A collective groan went up throughout the Mule when Excelsior ported away. 

“Man, we were this close!” Maxwell said from the bridge where he, the Captain, Granny and Jillian watched on the holoscreen as the drone puttered away, nothing but empty space in front of it now.

Raleigh activated his link to the ship’s PA system. He said, “Let’s move on, people. Pak and Kim, go ahead and take out the station’s trunk line. We’ll pay them a visit and see how many credit tokens we can recover.” 

The mood onboard the Mule brightened considerably with this announcement. 

Two small service bots moved closer to external protrusions on the surface of the artificial moon. Each bot stood about one meter tall and carried various appendages. They clanked to the side of the external trunk lines connecting Pegasi to StarCen’s quantum communications network. Both exploded simultaneously. 

“Alright,” Raleigh said. “Pegasi is cut off from StarCen. Let’s go introduce ourselves.”

The Ultima Mule popped into orbit around Pegasi Station. 

LuteNet said, “I will have to adjust the orbit via teleportation on occasion, Captain, since we do not have standard drives to maintain stability.” 

“Understood. Take care of us as always, Lootie.” 

“Will do, Captain.” 

Raleigh activated the PA system again. He said, “Bear in mind they’ll probably stash their tokens somewhere so be on the lookout for potential hiding places. We are not barbarians, so there will be no unnecessary violence. Anyone caught raping somebody will be shot. You don’t have to be polite to these people, they are the enemy after all. But remember they are quasi-neutral. They have serviced Republican ships in the past. We’re just here to liberate their tokens and maybe some other merchandise. We can’t carry much in the way of cargo, so just grab small things that are worth reselling back home. 

“Okay. Away teams, prepare to port down. We’re not sticking around. StarCen will likely send somebody to check on the communications disruption soon. We want to be long gone before they get here.” 

When he signed off he looked at the others on the bridge and said, “I know the Excelsior has a million credit bounty on her. But at least we might be able to profit a little from Pegasi.” 

Granny nodded and said, “They’re probably loaded with credits from the Excelsior’s crew.” 

Maxwell smiled, showing most of his teeth. He said, “I’ll lead the first team down.” 

-+-

The Embarkation/Disembarkation Zone for Pegasi Station was similar in size to the room aboard the Mule and other spacecraft. Maxwell and Skylar appeared, popping into existence. They were automatically scanned for microorganisms, but having gone through the same procedure back on the ship, there was nothing to notice. 

“Nice to see their subroutines work without StarCen,” Skylar commented as they exited the area. Behind them, Escobar and Granny popped into existence. 

Maxwell nodded and said, “Let’s go exploring.” 

He kept his gun out, a rifle, but he pointed it down and remained calm as the door to the chamber opened into a wide corridor. 

“It looks like an indoor mall,” Skylar said. 

Up and down the corridor they saw a variety of storefronts. Tables and chairs were scattered around outside a couple restaurants. A hologram projected the ancient symbol for a barber pole nearby. 

Maxwell said, “Yup. Must be the commercial district. Good for us.” 

Granny and Escobar stepped out, and were quickly followed by several more pairs of pirates flooding the corridor.

Maxwell said, “Everybody split up and move fast. Stay with your partner, nobody go off alone. Remember, as soon as word spreads they will hide whatever they can. So grab stuff fast. And remember what the Captain said.” 

Everybody nodded and the pairs split up, heading toward different businesses. 

Maxwell nodded toward the barber pole. He said to Skylar, “Come on, let’s visit this place first.” 

Skylar said, “I wouldn’t think a barber would have a lot of money.” 

“You’d be surprised. Navy boys love them some haircuts.” 

The door to the barber swished open for them. Two men sat in chairs out front. They stood up in alarm when the pirates entered. 

One of them, an overweight middle-aged man said, “Who are you? Is that a gun? Firearms are not permitted in Pegasi Station.” 

Maxwell smiled at this statement and aimed the gun for the overweight man’s chest. 

He said, “Is that so? Well, if you will fill up this bag with all your credit tokens, my partner and I will take our guns and go. Sound like a fair deal?”

The man broke out in a sweat at the site of the blaster aimed at his middle. The other man shifted in his chair, only to be covered by Skylar’s weapon. He looked at the muzzle, then at the beautiful woman holding the gun. Unlike Maxwell, Skylar was not smiling. He gulped and decided to remain sitting. 

Shaking, the fat man moved to the cash drawer and palmed it. It slid out silently, and he removed all the credit tokens inside. When he reached to hand the bag back to Maxwell, his hands shook. 

Max glanced inside the bag and said, “Hm. That’s not nearly enough. I know you boys have been giving Navy scum haircuts for weeks. Where’s the safe? If there’s enough in there maybe we won’t have to destroy this place . . .” 

The fat man’s face went pale and he shared a glance with his partner. 

“Don’t look at him,” Maxwell said. “You’ve been doing business with League sailors for months now. As far as the Republic is concerned, that’s an act of war. And we will have remuneration from you or you will forfeit this establishment. What’s it going to be?”

Still the man hesitated. 

Maxwell turned to Skylar and said, “Shoot the place up.” 

She turned her gun to one of the barber chairs. 

Thoopah!

It exploded into flames. 

“No! Stop! I will open the safe.” 

“That’s more like it,” Maxwell said. “See? All we’re asking for is a little cooperation.” 

The barber hurried to the back of the store, past the burning chair just as fire retardant sprayed down from the ceiling. Maxwell followed, keeping his gun aimed steadily on the man while he sidestepped the spray. 

In a back office, the fat man wiped away tears while he touched a hidden panel, which slid back to display a safe. He palmed the door and it swung open, revealing stacks upon stacks of credit tokens piled up like poker chips. 

“Jackpot!” Maxwell said. “Don’t you people use banks? Oh, I forgot. No banking services to speak of while the war’s going on, huh?”

“Please,” the fat man said, openly crying now as he poured the tokens into the bag. “This is all I’ve got! My family will starve.” 

“Oh don’t worry. We’re taking everybody else’s money, too. You’ll be fine.”

Clarion’s Call 27

“What’s our status, Chung?”

SLS Excelsior’s Captain, May Benson, asked the question of her XO, a large man with a freshly shaved head. Like many in the crew, he had spent lots of time the last several weeks roaming around Pegasi Station. He got a haircut from the local barber before they began preparing to leave. Everybody had visited their favorite merchants and restaurants, saying goodbye to the local populace whose services they had used for so long while the ship underwent extensive repairs.

For her own part, the Captain had visited a hair stylist who had set up shop near the larger salon most of the crew used. The proprietor cut her straight brunette hair just right, so that it covered the back of her neck and no more. At 40, Benson no longer worried about fancy hairstyles. Of course, being married to the Navy, she never had to worry about it much anyway. Short and simple, keep it out of the way.

Chung said, “All personnel are onboard. All systems are operable. We are ready to go when you are, Captain.” 

“Very good.” 

And it was good, she thought. By any reasonable standard, they’d still be stuck here for another month. But a few days ago the last of their needed parts and panels arrived via a freighter from Epsilon. They could get back in the game ahead of schedule.

“Pardon me, Captain Benson.” 

“Yes, StarCen?”

“An external service drone is approaching.” 

“Put it on the holo.” 

The bridge’s front holoscreen switched over to the port side where a drone moved steadily closer.

“What’s it doing, StarCen?”

“I am uncertain, Captain.”

“Well, keep an eye on it and, uh . . . find out what it’s supposed to be doing. I thought all repairs were accounted for.” 

She cast a questioning look at Chung. He nodded. 

StarCen said, “I will do that, Captain”

Benson took a deep breath and ran through a final mental checklist of all the things that needed doing before departure. Most all of them were complete. They had been parked here for way too long. 

Initially, the Excelsior indeed needed to stop somewhere to make emergency repairs. Somebody (Cooper? Thrall himself?) had the idea to use her ship as bait for a trap set for the Republic. This was an idea she was not happy with, and she let her officers know about it in so many words.

That, of course, was a mistake because then the whole crew knew. She could not help it, though. The decision frustrated her, and left her feeling very angry. After all this crew had done for the League, to be used as a decoy was humiliating. 

But of course, they did their part. The men and women of the Lucky Lady, as the crew affectionately called Excelsior, always did their part. Just like at Nocturnus.

Nocturnus was a planet with minimal light, on the edge of the Goldilocks zone. Even at high noon on most parts of its surface, sunlight was dim. It was supposed to be beautiful, despite the paucity of natural light. Benson could not say, she had never been to its surface. She had been involved in the fighting above the planet’s skies, though. 

The Battle of Nocturnus was particularly ugly. A total of 18 Star League ships were involved against 24 Republican vessels. Two freighters and a passenger liner on the League side were damaged in the action, too. The passenger liner was destroyed by enemy fire and fell out of orbit, crashing to the planet’s surface. StarCen managed to teleport the freighters out before they were hurt too badly. She parked them at Pegasi Station, where they became part of the honey trap. 

At the end of the day, Excelsior had indeed been very lucky. She ported in after the battle had begun, when the Republicans showed up with overwhelming force against the motley assortment of League ships surrounding Nocturnus. The League had four Sparrow-class ships in orbit, two Eagle-class ships, and the rest were Harriers. The Republic brought in 20 Hawk-class destroyers, and four Eagles. 

It should have been a route for the Republic, and no doubt PLAIR calculated that the odds were in their favor. And the Republic would have carried the day and possibly moved Nocturnus to the PLAIR side of the ledger, if Excelsior had not shown up at the last minute. 

StarCen diverted their course. They just happened to be within 45 minutes or so when the shooting started. That was their first stroke of luck, Benson thought. 

When they popped into the middle of battle, they found themselves behind one of the Republican Hawks. That was stroke of luck number two. They pummeled its stern with their big front guns and quickly took it out. 

The Excelsior had a part in blowing up eight more enemy ships, either by herself or assisting other League destroyers. Each one netted it an increased strain on her shields, but Benson pressed forward. No one ever said Claude Benson raised his little girl to be a coward, and Benson did not shy away from fights. Especially not with those Republican bastards.

PLAIR’s ships were outnumbered then, with only five able to move. Seven League ships were still in commission. Excelsior was the last Eagle-class ship in action by that time, and PLAIR decided to focus on taking her out. 

StarCen had other ideas, though, and quickly brought the remaining League ships into the fray. But with the combined blasts from multiple ships, Excelsior’s shields failed at last. A Republican Hawk rammed her right before disintegrating from League fire. Just before Excelsior could fall apart, StarCen stopped her fire and pulled the ship out. 

Porting in the middle of battle is a risky maneuver, with all the flotsam floating around in space from broken ships. It also can’t be done while shooting. But StarCen pulled it off perfectly. 

Unfortunately, they were crippled. And with each jump they made, pieces fell off. The engine room had a hull breach, which meant everyone inside it had been ripped out into space during the battle. It also meant no one could even get to that deck to see about repairs from inside the ship. They would have to find someplace to stop and patch things up. They were not too far from Pegasi . . . 

But they survived and Excelsior became something of a celebrity ship in the League Navy. She showed up at Nocturnus to save the day, and managed to escape after turning the tide of battle. Despite the forces arrayed against her, she beat the odds. Viewing the battle footage, Benson could see how events might have turned out differently if one or two things had not gone their way. In many ways, they truly were lucky. 

They even managed to stay lucky while serving as bait. From the report Benson heard, Expedient and Polaris managed to kill two Hawk-class pirate ships, at the cost of losing Expedient. But the Navy recovered some important classified assets. Cooper had sent in a commendation for her role in the whole thing, even though all she and her crew had down was to sit, parked in orbit, and watch the fighter drones battle it out. The numbers there had been overwhelmingly in StarCen’s favor, so it was not something to get all fired up about. 

But now . . . now it was time to go. Benson had the itch to jump back into battle. Her orders were to join Cooper at Juventas. From there, no doubt, they would sally forth into the next engagement with the enemy. Where? Was it finally time to head back to Seychar and claim Gotha Mu? The League had a score to settle there, and Benson hoped the Lucky Lady would have a part in it.

“Captain Benson, the drone continues approaching. I still cannot discern its purpose. Apparently it is on another subroutine, or perhaps it is operating autonomously.” 

“Are there any other repairs needed, StarCen?”

“No ma’am. You are ready and the Excelsior is good to go.” 

Benson watched the approaching drone. In seconds it would be within the ship’s three-meter zone. 

“Very well. I think we can safely skip any service this drone has to offer. Take us away please.” 

Excelsior disappeared. The drone continued going forward, but it puttered into open space. 

Captain Benson remained unaware that her lucky streak continued.

Clarion’s Call 26


In the Ultima Mule’s mess hall, most of the crew watched as service bots flitted about the Excelsior.

“How is it possible,” Jillian said, swallowing a bite of food, “that StarCen does not sense this drone?”

“She likely does sense the drone,” Raleigh said. “But, she thinks the Mule is destroyed. Thus she thinks this drone is dead. Lootie has done nothing to indicate it has control of the drone. Thus, to StarCen, it’s just part of the debris from the last battle.” 

“Hm. So in the meantime, we get to spy on the Excelsior with it.” 

“Exactly.” 

Granny sat at the same table as Jillian and Raleigh. She said, “Looks to me like they’re not going to hang around much longer. I’d be willing to bet they’re not going to be there by the time we show up.” 

In fact, Granny already had a pool going. But she decided Raleigh did not need to know about that right now.

“That’s always a possibility,” Raleigh said. “Her Captain, a woman by the name of Benson, is rumored to be extraordinarily lucky. We’ll see if her luck holds out against the Mule. We’re three days out, and Lootie is stretching the port points as far as she safely can.” 

Maxwell spoke up. He said, “That ship represents 10,000 credits a share.” 

“Well, the Slender Sylph Company will get something, if we’re successful,” Raleigh said. 

“That reward would be all fine and dandy,” Granny said. “But we’ve got to capture or kill her, first. As y’all can see, they’ve got her fixed up nice and pretty. She’s not quite the sitting duck she was on our first visit. And need I remind you that she still has most of her drones intact, while we have . . . what? One with a working camera? Two more floating around out there somewhere?”

“It’s an issue,” Raleigh said. “At least we have the element of surprise. But, I’m open to ideas on the best way to take her once we get there.” 

“Tony and I have been thinking about that,” Pak said. When we get close enough to retrieve that drone, or one of the others still operable, we think we can plant a bomb onboard. Then we’ll port it back near the Excelsior and let it sail into their flight deck.” 

Everybody thought about it for a moment. 

Maxwell said, “Could work.” 

Granny said, “Nah. StarCen will see that thing coming a mile away. The minute it gets close she’ll either blast it or port the Excelsior somewhere safe.”

“That’s if they can port by the time we get there,” Raleigh said. “Lootie, how big are the guns near the Excelsior’s portal entry? Can they take out the drone easily?” 

“Eagle-class ships have four repelling guns near the flight deck entrance, Captain. Side-defender carronades are the bigger threat. The drone’s shields would only be able take three or four direct hits from the side cannons before disintegrating.” 

“How close could we get the drone to the ship? How fast could it make a run for that portal?” 

“Any threat suddenly materializing near the ship will be dealt with immediately by StarCen. The odds are not in our favor for success.” 

Everyone fell silent again, staring at the distant ship on the holovision. 

Finally, Kim said, “Well . . . if a drone would get blown out of the sky too quickly . . . why don’t we appear alongside her in the Mule and start blasting away?” 

Raleigh’s eyebrows shot up. 

“What do the odds look like for that idea, Lootie?”

“Close to a 35 percent chance of success, Captain. The Excelsior is an Eagle-class destroyer, and it is very difficult to successfully attack. We also have no standard drives, complicating matters.” 

Kim pressed his case. He said, “If we showed up, suddenly and without warning, and started hitting them from the front where they’re weakest, that would be a distraction. While they’re occupied with us, then we port over the bomb-laden drone.” 

Raleigh shook his head. He said, “Two things. First, they may be weakest in the front so far as shields go, but they’ve got those massive guns there to compensate. Those things are going to immediately start pounding us. And our shields are not in great shape. Second, StarCen can easily multitask. She can still make short work of our drone even while pounding us.” 

“The odds are marginally better with a multi-pronged attack,” LuteNet said. “But we have a very limited supply of drones, and that does not bode well for our success.” 

Jillian said, “Wait. Why does it have to be a frontal approach? They’re porting in and out people all the time from the station, right? Why don’t you just send somebody up there with a bomb?” 

Granny cackled. She said, “There’s no way StarCen would port up somebody she didn’t know. Especially not a person who’s supposed to be dead.”

“Well, how about a maintenance bot or something? They don’t go under bioscans.” 

“No, but they’re usually not ported, either,” Maxwell said.

Kim said, “Hold on. She might be onto something. If we kidnapped a maintenance bot, planted a bomb in it, then returned it to go work on the ship . . .” 

“What are the odds on that, Lootie?” Raleigh said. 

“There are too many unknown factors to give an accurate estimate for the chances of success, Captain.” 

“Okay. I’m willing to accept an inaccurate estimate. If we try to sneak in a booby-trapped maintenance bot, what do you think our chances might be?” 

“Presuming the unknown variables work out in our favor, the chances are relatively good. I am unable to provide a numerical estimate with so many unknowns.” 

“Are the odds better than a frontal assault?” 

Long pause. 

“Possibly.” 

Raleigh cracked a grin at everyone. He said, “Well there you have it, people. That’s as good as we’re going to get. Kim and Pak, finalize your plans. Let’s figure out the best way to blow up a destroyer.”

Clarion’s Call 25


How could it go so wrong? 

That thought kept storming through Julia’s mind as she made her way to the spaceport. 

First, she took the stairs from her apartment down to the basement. There were no monitors inside the building, unlike some more expensive properties. However, there were plenty out on the street. One in particular recorded who entered and exited her building through the main door. 

Fortunately for Julia, the basement had a doorway leading into the storm sewer. It had been placed there for maintenance crews. There was a monitor there, too, but she knew it was disabled. Yorkton’s Capital City Police Force had 11,652 monitors scattered throughout the city. Of those, 4,671 were malfunctioning or otherwise disabled. That one, she knew, had been broken for months. She also knew there was little incentive to replace monitors in low crime or low traffic areas. 

Such was the knowledge she gained by being married to a cop. She laughed when he told her about the committees he had to serve on. Whoever heard of cops serving on committees? But such was the power sharing arrangement in the police force. Few decisions were made without committees comprised of officers on the force as well as upper management. 

Biff was on the Monitors Committee, and he took his work home. And everything the Monitors Committee knew about the monitors in Yorkton, Julia knew. 

So, she walked past the disabled monitor and through the storm drain tunnel for three blocks. 

One more monitor at a manhole cover exiting into an alley between two buildings had been destroyed by a masked thug months ago. It was not on the list of priority replacements, either. 

The manhole cover cracked open an inch and Julia scanned the alley carefully. Finding it empty, she gently moved it aside and extracted herself from the hole before replacing the cover. 

Dusting off her blouse, she walked out to the street and down to the nearest skybus stop.

Unlike Lute, which was small enough that Customs and the Port of Entry could be handled through the Administration Building, Juventas required its own spaceport. Julia used tokens to travel there, privately grateful for the anonymity. 

Tokens were tolerated by the city because everyone was subject to facial and discreet iris scans upon boarding the bus. But Julia’s new face, tied to a separate identity in StarCen’s records, did not set off any alarms. 

Halfway to the spaceport, she noticed the public holovision in the bus showing her old face. Her head rotated in a high-definition image with words underneath saying, “Alert! If you see this woman, contact CCPF immediately!” 

That face, she thought, had been a construct, just as her current one. The technology was so advanced, few knew it even existed. A touch of the amulet gave her a new identity. The hacking into StarCen’s database to line up records with the faces meant she had at least a dozen identities she could use. One touch of the amulet and her face would change, down to the molecular structure. Even her fingerprints and irises changed. 

Her DNA did not change, and that was the whole setup’s kryptonite. If someone obtained her saliva, or a hair sample, they could trace it back to Julia Thrall no matter what face she presented to the world at the time. 

Fortunately, she knew that StarCen had some safeguards in place falling under the special considerations for Tetrarch family members. For instance, right now if someone examined her DNA on Juventas, it would show in the records as belonging to Andi Jones. 

Still, it would not do to have her DNA found at a crime scene, if it could be avoided. StarCen was smart enough to tie whatever was found to the Andi Jones identity. But if someone were to ever get suspicious and start pulling records from different sites at different times and somehow get past StarCen’s safeguards . . . well, that could be very bad indeed. 

The risk did offer a certain thrill, and each time she changed identities she had to admit to herself that the adrenaline rush was . . . pleasant.

Was she addicted to danger? An adrenaline junkie? 

If she were honest with herself, the answer would be yes. However, navel-gazing bored her, so she sidestepped the question.

The skybus landed and she exited with the other passengers at the spaceport. She walked through the security line, subjecting her bag and person to the scanners. 

Inside, she gazed at the hologram sign showing departures and chose a spaceship. The Coral Reef was scheduled to depart within a few hours, and had plenty of room. By the number of empty berths available, Julia guessed she was a Mammoth-class ship. 

Julia got in line at a booth without many people. She tugged at her earlobe, nervously. Within minutes she faced the booth’s android, a very human-looking female, completely realistic from the waist up. Without glancing down, Julia guessed the bot had no legs, and was a permanent fixture at this booth. She would sit here and smile, answering questions and selling tickets non-stop, all day and night.

Julia said, “I’d like to book passage on the Coral Reef to Epsilon Prime, please.” 

The bot smiled at her and a scanning ray quickly checked her biomarkers. 

“Very well, Ms. Mulligan. Would you prefer a first class or second class cabin? I’m afraid third class has several indentured servants, and is unavailable at this time. But, there’s lots of room in the other two available.” 

“First class, please.” Julia reached into her duffel bag and pulled out the appropriate amount in credit tokens. 

The bot smiled and took her money. She said, “The next port up to the Coral Reef is in twelve minutes, from Disembarkation Zone 15. If you’d like to make your way over there, you will find it down the corridor to your right.” 

The bot helpfully pointed in the right direction before saying, “My I help the next person in line, please?”

Julia nodded and walked down to Disembarkation Zone 15.

Half an hour later, she was settled in a cabin in orbit above Juventas. 

Later that evening, fully loaded with all passengers aboard, the Coral Reef popped out of existence and began its journey toward Epsilon Prime. Julia pulled out a wrinkle-free evening gown and a pair of black high heels. She changed and left her room, searching for something to eat.