Solar Storm 7

Vicki Fenner looked down at the man bound on the gurney. His fingernails were removed, and his body was a bloody mess.

She waited patiently while the agent in charge of interrogations injected him with nanobots. He had been brought to the point of death, but the first aid would keep him alive so they could torture him some more, and hopefully wring more information out of him. And misery. The purpose of SSI interrogations was to inflict maximum misery, as well as extract information.

She waited patiently for the nanobots to go to work. Of course, he would need time for a full recovery but she had no intentions of allowing that. Fenner just wanted him to remain alive a while longer. She got a certain thrill out of hearing grown men beg for mercy.

Fenner looked attractive, although the white streak through her dark hair inevitably led to comparisons with Halloween characters. She knew her nickname was “The Wicked Witch,” or one of a dozen variants.

And that was fine. Her predecessor and mentor, Sidney Fleming, taught her that fear was a useful emotion to stoke in others. It helped control them. And lately, control seemed to be slipping from her grasp.

She could not quite understand what had happened recently, but if she pieced the information she had together, she would say that the Resistance agent known as Angel had reappeared after murdering Tetrarch Lopez. For a while there, she was gone, no doubt lying low somewhere. But lately, time and again SSI agents ended up dead or missing. Important military facilities were sabotaged, too. All intelligence pointed back to the one they called Angel.

Fenner had almost decided Angel did not exist as a single entity, but was instead an amalgamation of Resistance fighters all using the same name. It would be a brilliant ploy to throw SSI off track.

But she stayed the course, following textbook procedures at disrupting organized resistance. Those procedures called for the thorough . . . questioning . . . of all captured suspects.

Unfortunately, whoever set up the Resistance on Juventas did an excellent job. Cells were typically no larger than three people, and no one seemed to know much beyond their cells, making mass roundups difficult.

Today, however, they had someone much higher in the upper echelon in captivity. This was the agent known as Dolphin. And this man, Fenner knew, had likely seen Angel herself. And maybe those in the ELO Tribunal, the Resistance’s leadership council.

Dolphin had an irritating capacity for pain, though, and had so far revealed very little under torture.

They did not have to torture him, though. It was standard procedure, and the agents enjoyed it, so Fenner would never dissuade that. But, with the latest cranial scanning technology, they could go over his memories and glean whatever information he might retain. It just took time to go through the results.

Fenner opened the door to the holding room and walked across the hall. She went inside another room where images sped across a holoscreen taking up one wall. Esther Gavel, her second in command, glanced at her. She was a short, chubby woman wearing her hair in a bun. She stood by a technician in a white lab coat. They watched the images zipping by.

“Any luck?” Fenner said.

Gavel smiled. She said, “Yes, I think we might have our Angel.”

She turned and walked to another holoscreen and it flickered through a few images, then stopped with a woman’s face frozen in view.

“He calls this one ‘Angel,’ and it’s relatively fresh in his memory. They were very vague in their conversation in an abandoned subway line a couple weeks ago. But they discussed certain assignments that seemed to involved targeting SSI.”

Fenner stared at the attractive face and smiled.

She said, “Excellent. StarCen, please identify this person.”

Silence.

“StarCen? StarCen, please respond.”

“Uh, Director, you might want to see this.”

The technician waved his hand and the image of the attractive young woman disappeared. It was replaced by an overhead shot of the Administration Building. Or rather, what used to be the Administration Building. Smoke drifted up from the rubble.

The scene shifted again to other buildings and military installations around the planet, all blown away.

Fenner said, “What’s going on?”

Gavel said, “I think we’re under attack.”

The holo shifted to a camera inside the Yorkton spaceport. Passengers ran screaming while guard bots fought with . . .

“Are those space marines?” Fenner said. “Republic troops wear green, right?”

“I believe so, ma’am. Yes, look at that sergeant. She is definitely Republican.”

They watched as a short-haired female sergeant with a cigar in her mouth threw grenades at guard bots and yelled at marines behind her to follow.

“That explains why StarCen is not responding. She’s busy right now.”

Gavel said, “They probably took out her cores, too. It may be a while before we hear from StarCen again.”

Fenner froze in realization. Gavel was almost certainly right about that.

Fenner said, “That means we can’t teleport out of here. Or anywhere else, for that matter.”

She looked at Gavel and the technician. Both stared back at her, wide-eyed.

“Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do. First, kill every prisoner in this facility and dispose of the bodies in the incinerator. Then blow up all our equipment here. Can I trust you to oversee that, Gavel?”

Gavel nodded and said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“Second, everyone present needs to disperse and lie low. I will contact you all in the future once things settle down. Cooper’s fleet might be able to handle this mess, I don’t know.”

“No, ma’am. I don’t think so,” Gavel said. “They wouldn’t be landing marines unless they were confident they had control of the sky.”

“Okay. Okay, you’re probably right about that.”

Fenner bit off a few curse words. She had to hold it together. Her world seemed to be falling apart.

“Right. So, stay low. Whatever happens, do not get caught. Do not get . . . rounded up. I’m sure they’ll come after SSI once they solidify their control over the surface.”

The holo switched back to the image before, the one from Dolphin’s memory showing the attractive young lady. Fenner stared at it, committing the face to memory.

She frowned and said, “Just when we were closing in on her, too.”

Fenner left the room and searched for the exit. She had never walked out of the facility before, and did not know where the door was.

Behind her she heard a group agents going from room to room, shooting prisoners in the head.

Solar Storm 6

Weapon lockers opened on the side of the walls in the 31st Platoon’s common room on the Ronald Reagan. Everyone systematically retrieved blasters and grenade belts and returned to formation in the middle of the room. Standard procedure was to leave safeties on and not touch the triggers. Egg grenades remained in their webbing. There would be no accidental discharges or explosions in space.

The men and women of the 31st League Marine Platoon stood in formation after retrieving their weapons, dressed in light olive-green armor. No one said a word. They remained at attention, holding their weapons pointed up.

The entire procedure took but a few minutes, they had practiced it several times. Sergeant Wilcox nodded, her eyes narrowed, watching her people go through all the proper motions. She slowly put the unlit stogie back in her mouth as the last of the Marines grabbed their weapons and assumed their place in formation.

The holoscreens in the room lit up, showing Juventas from orbit. Everyone could see the planet below, mostly blue waters and white clouds with streaks of brown and green marking land mass.

In the distance sunlight flared, and the screen flashed red. A casualty list scrolled by quickly, listing several names of ships. Wilcox’s cigar drooped as the she saw the Gerald Ford had been lost.

“A lot of Marines just died,” Gruman said beside her, quietly. “Sailors, too, by the looks of it. I wonder what happened.”

Wilcox sensed a stirring of uneasiness as everyone watched the holos. She felt it, too. That sense of powerlessness, helplessness. She felt useless up here in space, trapped on a troop transport.

She did not let the feelings affect her voice.

“Awright, you maggots. Hold it together. Let the flyboys do their thing and then they’ll send us down there to finish the job.”

Everyone bucked up under her calm tone. They continued watching the screens, waiting for the signal to go down to the surface.

An overhead shot of a city came next, showing a skyscraper from above. The words, “Yorkton Administration Building” floated beneath. It disappeared in a flash of light, the surrounding buildings reduced to rubble in a wide circle around it.

A few cheers went up. There would be no tears shed for League bureaucrats today.

The holo switched to various military installations around the planet, and the Marines watched them disappear in flashes of sunlight, one by one. They watched as military bases, seaports and other strategic installations were all hit.

“They’re taking out anything that StarCen could use against us,” Gruman said.

Wilcox nodded. She said, “They’ll take out her cores if they can find them, too. No cores, no StarCen. At least not on this planet.”

At last the destruction below came to an end. The overhead shot switched again, this time showing a large building from above. The words floating under it read, “Yorkton Spaceport.”

Lt. Colonel Peng’s voice came from the air. He said, “Thirty-first Platoon, your objective is to secure the spaceport along with the 32nd. Lt. Meyers will be in charge. Intelligence indicates most of your resistance will be guard bots. The second floor is deserted, so that’s where we’re sending you. Prepare to disembark.”

A thrill rippled through the group, and they braced themselves, mentally and physically.

PLAIR’s voice came from the ceiling next. She said, “Decontamination process activating. Wartime standards in effect.”

The common rooms served double duty as disembarkation zones for the troop transports, and everyone stayed still while rays zapped micro-organisms away, and scanners ensured no foreign biomatter hitched a ride to the surface. It would not be as thorough of a cleansing as normal, but it would probably be okay. Everything had been sterilized before they came onboard back at Diego.

And if a few stray micro-organisms made it down to the surface, well that was another sad result of the war. Right now, the Marines did not particularly care a lot about the environment of the planet they were invading.

At last the moment came for disembarkation. PLAIR expended considerable additional processing power, porting thousands of troops safely to the surface over the next several seconds. Wilcox watched as her people popped away. Then she blinked. When she opened her eyes, they all stood in formation inside a large building, standing in a long hallway.

Two black-haired, brown-eyed young men smiled at her, although they looked surprised to be standing nearest to the First Sergeant. She noted the names on their chests: Jamieson and Boggs. They were 18 or 19 years old, she knew. The oldest Marine in her platoon was 22, if you did not count the non-coms.

Wilcox herself was in her late 30s, and old enough to be their mother.

Before she could say anything, a command bell sounded in her inner ear, and a holosheet appeared in front of her face. She raised her voice so everyone could hear.

“Awright, listen up maggots! We have a final away order.”

Everyone turned and focused on her. She read the missive to herself then looked up.

“The general prohibition on curse words remains in effect.”

A loud groan went out from the group.

“Parliament’s making us a freaking social experiment,” Gruman said beside her. “And in war, no less.”

Wilcox ignored his comment and continued in her loud voice.

“PLAIR will be monitoring your speech during your time on duty, even on this foreign planet. You will be docked five credits per curse word.”

Grumbling swirled through the platoon.

“We’re the Republic,” Gruman said, grousing with the others. “We’re supposed to be the good guys. What the . . . furry heck are they thinking trying to control us like this for? I mean, we’re Marines, for crying out loud.”

Continuing, Wilcox said, “The same list of acceptable words will be exempted, including everyone’s favorite for yours truly, namely ‘bitch.’”

Jamieson said, “That is bitched up!”

Boggs said, “Those mother-bitchers!”

Wilcox said, “Quit yer bitchin’! Let’s go meet up with the 32nd.”

Jamieson looked at Boggs as they started to move out. He said, “How come it sounds better when she does it?”

Boggs said, “I think it’s the internal rhymes. It’s known as ‘assonance.’”

“You’re an assonance.”

“Careful.”

They quickly met up with the 32nd, transported further down the hallway. An officer made his way toward Wilcox. She read the name on his chest: Meyers, and saluted him. He looked to be about 18, although she could not tell for sure.

He said, “Top floor’s deserted, Sergeant. Stairs are over there. What do you say we see how well guarded they are?”

“You heard the man! Boggs! Jamieson! Take five more and secure the stairs!”

“Yes, Sergeant!”

“Yes, Sergeant! XO! We need XO over here!”

A woman ran up with a big “XO” holo floating on her chest. The two pointed at the stairwell, and she slapped sticky bombs on the door, activated neural switches, then she retreated several meters.

“Fire!”

KABLOOM!

A gaping hole stood where the door to the stairwell had been. Jamieson and Boggs charged in, guns ready, and fanned out. The stairwell was deserted.

The contingent went down to the ground floor, and the XO Marine repeated her procedure on the door to the main hallway. This time, everyone retreated up a flight of stairs before she set off the explosives.

When this door blew open, it was met by blaster fire. Three bots outside shot blindly through the smoke.

“Fall back!”

Marines scrambled up the other flight of stairs back to the second floor as the League guard bots streamed into the stairwell and started climbing up.

Boggs stood on the top step, shooting down into them. The first one he hit in the head collapsed. The next two were newer models, though, with rectangular tops. They returned fire at him.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah!

A bolt grazed his shoulder, bouncing off the armor, before Jamieson pulled him back out of the way. They ran through the doorway back to the second floor corridor with the rest of the platoon.

Jamieson yelled, “Bogies coming through!”

Marines took cover if they could find it, surrounding the blown doorway in a semicircle. The bots advanced from the top of the stairs through the door, firing and taking fire. Nothing seemed to stop them. A hail of bolts sailed past them and into them.

Wilcox yelled, “Grenades! Light them sonsabitches up!”

In response, a dozen egg grenades flew through the air at the bots.

KABABABLUMPF!

When the smoke cleared, the bots were disabled, although one still appeared to be operable. Its blaster was destroyed and its legs were blown off, but its torso slowly swiveled, looking at all of them.

Wilcox stood over it and shot it repeatedly in the head.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

“Come on you filthy pile of bolts! Die!”

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

At last the lights behind its eyes flickered and dimmed, and it stopped moving.

Solar Storm 5

The internal alarm went off for Biff and he stirred, pulling back the sheets.

Julia grabbed his arm and murmured sleepily, “You’re staying home today, babe.”

“Can’t. Got to get to work.”

“No, seriously. You’re staying home. Call in sick or do whatever you have to do, but you’re not leaving the apartment today.”

He climbed out of bed and looked down at her, now fully awake. She sat up too and stared back.

“Does this have anything to do with your father?”

Privately, Julia felt grateful he phrased the question carefully. It had taken a considerable amount of cajoling to convince him to speak in vague terms rather than discuss things openly. Biff felt most comfortable speaking his mind in the privacy of his own home and Julia had to break him of the habit, especially on topics concerning her.

She said, “Yes.”

“So . . . something is going to happen today . . . and I can’t go to work?”

“Yes.”

He sighed, running his fingers through his hair.

He said, “This is not something I’m going to talk you out of, is it?”

“No.”

She smiled coyly at him and said, “But if you come back to bed, I’ll make it worth your while.”

-+-

At 9:08 am local time, Admiral Cooper popped into his office from the mountain chalet he used as living quarters. He was late, having started the day late. Ordinarily, he showed up for work at 08:00, but he had been in a conference call with his Captains late last night and had slept in, which was highly unusual for him. Not one of the servants had deigned to wake him. They were far too intimidated to do so.

So he slept in, ignoring his internal alarm. Then he faced a series of issues at the chalet after breakfast.

The detail guarding his mountaintop retreat consisted of Navy personnel now, after the SSI proved incompetent against terrorists. However, terrorists were either afraid of the Naval presence or biding their time. There had not been so much as a peep from Resistance fighters ever since the mortar attack.

Military grade sensors blanketed the area now, and everyone could see all the wildlife moving through the area, down to the size of bees. But, no people ever showed up to threaten the Admiral.

Consequently, the guard detail grew increasingly bored. He spent some time with a Lieutenant who was nominally in charge, although the chain of command extended much higher.

The Lieutenant assured him the guard detail was up to the job. Cooper was not so sure. Surprising them one day last week, he discovered the five men on duty immersed in online games rather than paying attention to the holoscreens connected to the monitors.

He spent some time thinking about replacing the humans with security bots. Supposedly, that was how Tetrarch Thrall handled security at his private compound. And security bots never grew bored, and never played games online or otherwise.

Then, before he was ready to leave, Captain Briggs informed him the solar torpedoes finally arrived. He spent time discussing their placement with StarCen and other captains. At long last, with everything squared away, he dressed for work and had StarCen port him to his office at the Administration Building.

One thing about being at the top meant that you were never late, he thought. Things start when I get there.

He sat down at his desk when an alarm sounded and StarCen’s high-pitched voice came from the ceiling.

“Enemy ships sighted. Battle is imminent.”

“Show me something on the holo, StarCen!”

Over the next several seconds, he watched the conflict unfold from different viewpoints flashing by.

When it was over he said, “What happened? StarCen, where are my ships?”

“Admiral, I have evacuated what few ships we have left. An additional Naval presence is futile. I am going to deploy the Tetrarch’s initiative at this time.”

Cooper watched, open-mouthed, as the Tilson popped in beside one of the orbiting squadrons and blew up, chunks of solar energy popping in all around her and the other ships. He covered his face from the flash.

Cooper blew out his breath in amazement. An entire squadron gone in the blink of an eye!

He said, “Did we get them . . . did we get them all?”

“It appears their Condor and one Eagle escaped. The others in that squadron are destroyed.”

“That’s great! Let’s blow up the rest of their fleet. What are you waiting for?”

“We had only the one surprise, Admiral. And we have no more solar torpedoes. I am afraid that is all the damage I can do, for now.”

“So . . . so what’s that mean? You don’t have anything in the sky that can take them out?”

“That is correct, Admiral. The nearest additional Naval assets are two weeks out, and even with them I am uncertain I can take on the remaining Condors.”

“What about solar torpedoes? Can’t we get any more?”

“At this time, more are being produced but we do not have any in the area to use. I am sorry, Admiral Cooper. I have no assets to send you. I must preserve what ships are left.”

The blood drained from Cooper’s face.

StarCen said, “I have an incoming message to you from Admiral Frederick Severs of the Planetary Republic, Fleet Diego. He suggests you surrender the planet immediately or suffer annihilation.”

Cooper jumped up, sending his chair crashing down behind him.

“You tell him NO! We will fight to the last tooth and nail—”

A chunk of Juventas’s sun materialized in the middle of the Administration Building.

For surface targets, Republican weapons experts decided much smaller chunks of the sun were needed. Tests had shown that just a relatively small piece of the solar core was sufficient to take out a large building.

The reasoning was, if anything was left standing another piece could quickly be ported down. If an entire town needed leveling, it might take longer than a second, the experts concluded. But for one building, in a surgical strike, one small chunk of sun should do the trick.

Or so they thought. There had not been a lot of time to experiment.

The solar energy from the star’s core expanded rapidly, becoming, in effect, a gigantic bomb. The entire Administration Building was obliterated instantly, and other buildings within a four block radius were flattened from the blast.

Several blocks away, Biffender Jones stood over the stove in their tiny flat, dressed in underwear and cooking pancakes. The windows blew out and the entire apartment shook in the blast wave.

He stood up, crawling off the floor and stared at the mess in the living room. Glass and furniture lay jumbled everywhere.

Julia walked out of the bedroom and they locked eyes.

He said, “Is this what I was supposed to stay home for?”

“I think so.”

Solar Storm 4

The Diego Fleet popped into existence one half AU from Juventas. At that point, considerable power from both AIs was diverted to the battle, and processing delays were noticed throughout the colonized portions of the galaxy in both systems. Time for the AIs seemed to slow as decisions were made within milliseconds.

Thanks to recent incursions by the Ultima Mule, StarCen was prepared for invasion with a network of sensors in the outer solar system. She had a two second heads-up before the Diego Fleet stopped porting, giving her ample time to prepare. Thus, the Republicans came in without the element of surprise.

PLAIR arranged the squadrons equidistant from Juventas, with the three Condors forming a sort of distant triangle around the planet. At the moment the fleet stopped, the Condors ported 15 chunks of sun into what remained of Cooper’s Sixth Fleet in orbit.

But StarCen ported all 30 ships away immediately, and the solar energy exploded harmlessly in the skies above Juventas.

The ships reappeared a second later, in position around the six squadrons, attempting to engage in a more traditional battle. Fireballs from the Condors disrupted this move, relentlessly appearing wherever the League ships showed up.

StarCen, having previously considered the problem of solar weaponization, moved her ships into a defensive algorithm. They ported in a seemingly random manner, staying within one half AU of Juventas, but not leaving. On occasion, one would show up behind a Republican ship and release a volley from her guns before porting away again to some random spot in space. StarCen calculated this measure would disrupt the Diego Fleet and frustrate military efforts against Juventas.

PLAIR examined the technique and broke the problem down into manageable components. She now had 90 ships in the Juventas system, six squadrons of 15 ships each, giving her plenty of sensors in the area. She quickly devised a grid system of all the space within one half AU around the planet, and observed the enemy ships as they ported.

At that point, she detected StarCen’s mistake. The ships followed a pattern. In the following second, 15 fireballs appeared where PLAIR predicted a ship would materialize. She correctly guessed nine locations. Nine League ships evaporated.

StarCen immediately realized her error and changed the distribution pattern to a completely random one. Two more ships were lost, purely by luck. However, the odds became increasingly slim that PLAIR would correctly guess which sections of the giant grid the remaining 19 ships would appear at any given second.

PLAIR shifted tactics, porting in sun near her squadrons. These were not close enough to damage her own ships, but in places that would eviscerate any enemy showing up to try and engage. This resulted in one more League ship taken out in the second before StarCen could adjust.

At this point, StarCen was finally able to use one of her solar torpedoes. Having arrived about an hour earlier, she had distributed them among the three Eagle-class ships left in the Sixth Fleet. Unfortunately, one of the Eagles had already been lost, which meant StarCen now had only two torpedoes left.

From the Extol’s hold, she teleported its torpedo next to the Patrick Henry. In all the processing power PLAIR engaged in, the addition of a foreign object appearing next to one of her Condors did not attract her attention quickly enough. With a few milliseconds to spare, she realized the threat, but at that point it was too late.

The torpedo teleported five chunks of solar energy to its location, and the Patrick Henry exploded, along with two support ships nearby.

In the next second, StarCen ported her last remaining torpedo next to the Marion Francis. But this time, PLAIR knew what to do, and the Swamp Fox and her supply ships disappeared milliseconds before the torpedo exploded.

At this point, PLAIR decided that if StarCen would use a random pattern for the porting of her remaining ships, PLAIR would use a random pattern of sunbursts. The 15 fireballs appeared in the grid randomly, and over the next three seconds successfully damaged one ship and destroyed another, bringing the Sixth Fleet down to 16 vessels.

StarCen decided she had enough, with almost half her forces gone. She evacuated the remainder of the Sixth Fleet’s ships, sending them out of the solar system. The entire battle from start to finish lasted 17 seconds.

The cheers going up in the Diego Fleet were tempered by the realization that the Patrick Henry and two Sparrows were lost. Even though the numbers were disparate in comparison to the League’s, it was unlike the overwhelming victory at Seychar and Gotha Mu.

Worse for morale, Severs thought, the Condors could no longer be seen as invulnerable. A solar weapon was just as devastating on them as it was with any other ship unfortunate to share space with part of a sun.

“Move us into orbit around Juventas, PLAIR,” he said.

The Diego Fleet popped into position, her remaining ships taking the place of the recently evacuated Sixth Fleet.

But the battle was not quite over, as far as StarCen was concerned. From an isolated spot in the solar system, she moved one last ship into orbit along with the Diego Fleet. This one had tagged along with the Sagittarius and had been left in its location earlier.

The Republican ships were clustered in orbit by squadron. StarCen chose a squadron containing one of the remaining Condors, the Marion Francis. It floated near three Eagles, six Hawks, four Sparrows, and one troop transport, the Gerald Ford.

Had this been a final solar torpedo, the Diego Fleet would have escaped serious harm. But what appeared in orbit near the other ships was a Sparrow-class with Republican markings. In fact the ship, the Tilson, had been captured earlier in the war.

The sudden reappearance of the Tilson caused PLAIR to pause as she processed the information. But the same technology used in the solar torpedoes lay hidden inside Tilson, and five sunbursts ported in to her new location.

In the milliseconds after, PLAIR tried to port the squadron away. She successfully pulled the Swamp Rat out, and one Eagle escaped with major damages. But the other ships were suddenly obliterated.

Severs watched the flash of yellow over the planet’s horizon on the Paine’s main holoscreen.

“PLAIR, what just happened?”

“A decoy ship appeared in orbit, Admiral. It was another solar torpedo. It took out thirteen of our ships.”

Thirteen?” Severs said. “Was that Strand’s squadron?”

“Yes, Admiral. The Marion Francis has suffered minor damage. It was farthest from the blast and I managed to port it away in time. I also saved the Liberty, although it has significant damage and some loss of life.”

Severs felt stunned. He said, “How did this happen?”

“The Tilson was captured intact by the League in a minor engagement two years ago. It was parked in space nearby, but I did not have time to identify it when we engaged. When it appeared in orbit, its onboard system initiated a reconnect sequence with me. This cost critical milliseconds as I considered the implications.”

Her tone sounded dispassionate. Had PLAIR been human, Severs thought, surely she would have been as devastated emotionally as he felt. But she recounted the events in a matter-of-fact tone with no inflection whatsoever. And no self-recrimination for her mistakes, either.

He took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly to try and slow his pounding heart.

He said, “Don’t that let that happen again, PLAIR.”

Solar Storm 3

“Awright you filthy disgusting maggots! We are arriving at the lovely and delightful body of excrement known to the League as Juventas starting at oh six hundred in the morning, Standard Diego Time.

“I want every one of you sniveling no good crybabies to be ready to port down and kick some ass! The flyboys are going to soften them up down there after they eliminate the sonsabitches in orbit. But as always it’s the duty of the God-fearin’, Republic-lovin’ Marine Corps to clean up their messes on the planet’s surface.

“Now get a good night sleep, you lazy insufferable good for nothin’ babies! You all been fartin’ around this month playin’ your games and kissy kissin’ and loafin’ around. Tomorrow we go to work! Is that understood?”

One hundred young men and women shouted back at the top of their lungs, “YES, SERGEANT!”

Sergeant Gina Wilcox nodded at her platoon and slowly stuck a stubby unlit cigar in her mouth, scowling at them a final time. She was a big woman, taller than many men, and incredibly fit. She shaved her light brown hair short, like a man, although she gave no indication of being a lesbian. Her Marines were somewhat afraid of her, and no one had the guts to ask about her sexual orientation, or anything else of a personal nature.

They stood in the platoon’s common area, which was large enough to hold all of them at the same time, although just barely. From there, doorways led to bunks and showers. There was little room for privacy in the PRS Ronald Reagan, one of six troop transports in the Diego Fleet.

The door to the common room swished open and Tine Gruman, one of her Staff Sergeants, shouted, “Officer on deck!”

Everyone snapped to attention even more so than they had been while their First Sergeant was yelling at them.

Wilcox turned and saluted smartly at Lt. Colonel Wendell Peng.

Peng’s eyes drifted down to the unlit stogie in the Sergeant’s mouth.

“Is that tobacco, Sergeant?”

His tone of voice held a note of incredulity.

“No, sir,” Wilcox said, removing it from her mouth. “This is a leaf similar to tobacco from the planet Pearl. And I’m not smoking it, sir.”

The Colonel nodded, but his frown indicated disapproval. He said, “I just wanted to check in on all our platoons and see how ready we are for tomorrow.”

“The 31st Platoon is as ready as we’ll ever be, sir!”

Behind her, 100 men and woman yelled, “OORAH!”

“Very good, very good. Alright, we’ll be ready to port down once the Navy does their thing.”

Peng turned back to the door.

On his way out he looked over his shoulder and said, “And get rid of that cigar, Sergeant.”

“Yes, sir!”

The door swished shut and everyone held their collective breaths. Wilcox turned around and placed the cigar back in her mouth.

“You heard the man. Get a good night’s sleep and be ready to go in the morning. Platoon dismissed.”

The tension eased and everyone moved at once, some heading for bunks, others for showers.

Gruman ambled over to Wilcox and said with a smile, “I don’t think they grow a tobacco substitute on Pearl, First Sergeant.”

Wilcox grunted. Gruman was an amiable fellow with blue eyes. She might have found him attractive if he were not ten centimeters shorter than she was.

She said, “He’s too busy with the war to look it up. I can always tell him they’re working on it. I think I read somewhere they actually are working on it. And this really is from Pearl.”

“Where’d you pick up that habit, anyway?”

She smiled, the cigar tilting up in her mouth.

“From my mother. She’s a pirate on Lute, you know.”

Gruman’s eyes widened in surprise. He had not known. But, the legend of Sergeant Wilcox would certainly grow now that he did.

-+-

Admiral Severs stepped onto the bridge of the Thomas Paine and went through the associated rituals involving high ranking officers. The tall, black man had turned 44 recently, and he knew he was young to make Fleet Admiral. But this was war, and he had met with considerable success thanks to the Thomas Paine. The Chancellor herself had promoted him.

He had chosen to make the Paine his flagship, even though it was no longer the newest ship in the fleet. That honor belonged to one of the other Condors, the Patrick Henry or the Marion Francis, although Severs did not know which one was newer. They both came off the line about the same time.

It was certainly true that Republican Shipworks engineers put in all the things they learned from the Paine’s maiden voyage into the newer ships. The power cores in the Condors were greatly expanded, and updated algorithms were integrated to mitigate overuse when repeatedly teleporting pieces of the nearest star into battle.

The Paine herself had been completely overhauled when they replaced her power core, although admittedly that had been a rush job. But the boys and girls of Republican Shipworks had been rushing things for the duration of the war, he thought.

Now the tide was finally changing in the Republic’s favor. If they could wrest a capital planet from the League, things would surely be looking up.

From the bridge of the Paine he would make an announcement to the commanding officers of all the ships in the fleet, and cover the battle plans a final time.

He nodded at Shelly Spencer, the ship’s new Captain. She was a short woman, of mixed ancestry, and rather attractive. Like her predecessor, Emmet Strand, she had a reputation for effectiveness in combat with nine confirmed League ships taken out.

Strand had been promoted to Commodore. Severs let him pick his own ship to lead his squadron. Strand chose the Marion Francis, nicknamed “Swamp Rat” by her crew. Severs smiled at that, thinking Strand had to have chosen her for the nickname, if nothing else.

The fleet stopped porting one AU per second, and floated near one another at an isolated point in space. PLAIR had them in perfect formation. They were precisely ten hours from Juventas.

The main holoscreen in front of the bridge lit up with the faces of the Captains, as well as the six Commodores, including Strand. All told, Admiral Severs spoke directly to 96 officers, although everyone on their respective bridges would no doubt also be listening in on the conversation as well.

Severs looked at the many faces staring back at him on the holoscreen.

He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Captains and Commodores of the Diego Fleet, welcome. This is to be our final briefing before the attack on Juventas in the morning.”

Solar Storm 2

Julia sat up and found herself in the flat she shared with Biff under her Catrina Mulligan identity, the same one she shared with him while pretending to be Andi Jones.

She glanced at her internal clock and noted the time. She would have to leave now to make her next meeting, in the real world, on time.

She picked up a backpack by the door. It was lead-lined, and thus scanner-proof, although that alone would ordinarily alert anyone looking out for such things. Regardless, she did not want the blaster in it and the six egg grenades to cause undue alarm. It also had a visor to hide her face, a pair of gloves, two neural detonators, and some thin carbon string useful for tying up people or things.

Slipping the pack over her shoulders, she went out the door and down the stairs to the basement. The same monitor was there as when she made her escape after killing Tetrarch Lopez, and it was still broken.

She set out underground, walking a fair distance through the storm sewers. She passed four more monitors, all broken.

Julia heard the maintenance bots before she saw them, clanking down the concrete tunnel up ahead. She stopped and stood against the wall, activating her electronic camouflage unit. The wall appeared to continue where she was standing. She remained still while the two maintenance bots passed her. They never noticed her.

Once they were safely in the distance, she switched the unit off and “reappeared” next to the wall. She continued on her way.

At last she reached her destination. A small set of stairs led up to a sealed doorway. This, she knew, led to a network of maintenance shafts and tunnels for the large building overhead.

Inside, in the space of a closet with three passageways branching off on the other walls, stood one of the leaders of the Juventas Resistance, the one known as Elephant.

The old black man was still wiry for his age. He had the look of calm wisdom, never fazed by whatever events swirled around him.

She had no idea how far he had traveled to get here. No doubt it was some circuitous route to try and avoid detection. But face-to-face interaction was the safest for these types of communications.

“Hello, Angel.”

“Elephant.”

They did not know each other’s real names, and that suited them both just fine. The less they knew, they less they could reveal if captured.

Julia said, “I met with a contact in the Republic. He informed me the Diego Fleet is attacking tomorrow.”

Elephant raised an eyebrow. “Mind if I ask how you made contact? Or is that too sensitive to share?”

“I think it’s okay if you know. It’s difficult to crack if SSI finds out. In Off World there’s a game called New York 1985.”

He nodded. “I’ve heard of it.”

“You can’t interact with players in the Republic anymore, since the start of the war. But they have the same games, for the most part.”

“Right. They will play the same games but in different server instances. It prevents communication.”

“Before the war, some programmers hacked into the underlying substructure of the architecture in New York 1985. If you know where it is, you can access a comlink to someone in the same location on another instance. We meet there on a regular basis to exchange information.”

“And this is a secure method of communication?”

“Probably. My contact keeps things very vague just in case there’s a scanner listening for keywords. Anyway, from what he says the Republicans will attack the Sixth Fleet here at Juventas tomorrow.”

“It’s not surprising they would come for the rest of Admiral Cooper’s ships. He loaned Kwan half of them for the attack on Seychar. Cooper’s numbers have not been replenished. I’m not sure StarCen has enough ships anymore to bring him back up to strength.”

Julia said, “That’s not all. My contact also indicates there are plans for a ground assault. He specifically mentioned I should stay away from military sites and the Administration Building and the spaceport.”

“Would they use their secret weapon on civilian targets?”

“I don’t know. I would imagine military installation might get hit with it. Would they take out the Administration Building? If it meant getting rid of Cooper and disrupting the chain of command for the planet, maybe. But I think they’re more likely to take the spaceport and Administration Building by an invasion force. That makes much more sense. Boots on the ground.”

“Boots on the ground,” Elephant said, thoughtfully. “You’re probably right. It’s going to be tough, though, to convince StarCen to relinquish an entire planet, especially a capital. Imagine this . . . A host of space marines grab control of the Administration Building and take Cooper hostage. That’s presuming he doesn’t get to the underground bunker we know about, with its control room.”

Julia winced at the memories. She had personally taken out Tetrarch Lopez in that bunker.

Elephant continued. “Do you honestly think StarCen would give up the planet? She’s got cores here, and other assets. I don’t think she’d willingly surrender anything.

“Now imagine this scenario: PLAIR wipes out the Administration Building, taking out Cooper and everyone else in government there, in one fell blow. Now there’s no one to command, at least at the top. If they strike the military targets, disable her nodes . . . she might not have much choice in the matter as to whether she can include Juventas as one of her own or not.”

They both considered his statements, remaining silent for a moment, thinking.

Finally, he said, “No. If I were a betting man, I’d say your contact’s warning about the Administration Building indicates they are going to wipe it off the face of the planet. I’ll quietly spread word to our assets near there that they should stay home tomorrow.”

They spoke a while longer, sharing information. Finally, Julia turned to go.

Elephant said, “Be careful out there. Things are about to get interesting.”

She flashed a smile and said, “Things are always interesting on Juventas.”

“Yeah, but . . . now we’re coming under a new form of government, presuming your person is right and the Republic takes over tomorrow. I think maybe the roles will be switched. SSI will not submit to the Republic no matter what. If the Diego Fleet successfully takes this planet, SSI will become a thorn in their side. It might be up to us to act as . . . counter terrorists, of a sort.”

“One thing at a time, Elephant,” she said, patting him on the arm. “First, let’s see if the Republic can take out that fleet orbiting overhead as easily as they did at Seychar and Gotha Mu.”

Solar Storm 1

Julia quickly stepped back onto the sidewalk as a taxi raced toward her. The driver slammed on the brakes and yelled curses at her from his open window.

Most of his words were unprintable, but Julia caught “No jaywalking!” and decided that was the gist of his sentiment.

She sighed and followed the crowd on the sidewalk as they filed into Times Square. Scantily dressed prostitutes solicited customers, rubbing up against men as they ogled them. Drug dealers stuck out too, in other ways. They typically stood in one location, wearing overcoats and casting shady glances at everyone.

Here in New York 1985, tourists could revisit the city during that time period. It seemed very realistic. Privately, though, she wondered if things were really this bad back then.

She knew a little of the history. A man named Rudy Giuliani was elected Mayor in the early 1990s, and cleaned the city up. He lowered regulations, increased law enforcement, decreased crime, and generally made the city a much better place for a while. He earned the nickname “America’s Mayor” for his huge success in managing the metropolis.

The online simulation, part of the mega game Off World, showed the city before Giuliani took over. New York 1985 had constant crime, rampant drugs, open prostitution, daily muggings, and the lowest forms of human depravity on display in filthy grimy streets with thick, choking pollution. Trash blew in the wind, fumes filled the air, and the unwashed masses milled about in it all, hurting and killing one another.

Surely it wasn’t this bad, Julia thought.

Visitors could engage with the prostitutes, of course. They could also buy illegal drugs. Julia had not tried them, but she knew players could choose from cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, and a host of other substances. She also knew the effects, while purely in the player’s head, had the same negative consequences as the real life versions, unlike modern versions.

Supposedly, the simulated old-style drugs were allowed by the League here so that players could experience those negative consequences. The thinking was, if people experimented with ill social behavior in a virtual environment, and suffer, it would help convince them to behave in real life. Rumor had it the negative effects were exaggerated.

Privately, Julia wondered about that as well. Modern drugs could be tailored to a user’s body so that side effects were minimal. Few people partook in basic drugs these days. At least, as far as she knew. She had to admit she was not much of an expert in drug use, illicit or otherwise.

She watched as a tourist sucked on a crack pipe, getting high. He stumbled away from the dealer, clearly enjoying the effects of the drug.

A street bum approached him from behind, drew a switchblade and knifed him in the back. He took the tourist’s wallet before the body blinked out of sight, the player forcibly exiting the game.

One thing was for certain, Julia thought. New York 1985 was a wretched place. It reeked, and the NPCs were horrible. The subtle message in the game was that the Republic was a lot like this caricature of a society presented to players . . .

That, Julia thought, was certainly a lie, if not a misrepresentation of the facts.

The League was not perfect either. She wondered if the Republic had a version of society that modeled the League. Maybe it would be called something like Moscow 1949? East Berlin 1972?

She looked around at the tourists, the people who were obviously not NPCs. A handful of college boys were hooking up with streetwalkers while some girls were buying drugs out in the open. The NYPD cops, what few were present as NPCs, looked on with bored expressions but did nothing to put a stop to the lawlessness.

Besides the bacchanalian activities, sightseers enjoyed the scenery. It was supposed to be a faithful recreation of the way the city looked in 1985. The Twin Towers were popular, as were the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Statue of Liberty. You could even watch a baseball game. The Yankees and the Red Sox played every night, and the Yankees always won.

But Julia was not here for the hookers, the drugs, or the sights. She kept walking, heading for the subway station.

Supposedly, she had read somewhere, the subway system underwent extensive changes in 1988. This version of New York, true to its name, did not have those changes.

It mattered little to Julia, and it probably mattered to few other than history buffs who no doubt obsessed over the accuracy of minutia in the simulation.

The place Julia wanted to go, she thought as she descended the steps, was not in existence in 1985 anyway.

On the busy platform as a subway car pulled in and unloaded passengers, she tried the handle of a service entrance against the back wall. As expected, it was unlocked. She quickly went inside and locked it behind her, in case anyone saw her and tried to follow.

She breathed a sigh of relief. The hard part was over.

The changes made to StarCen should, in theory, ignore Julia, even in her current identity as Catarina Mulligan while in Off World.

However, Julia was not one who enjoyed taking chances. The location within this virtual reality should be safe, even if StarCen was monitoring her with malicious intent.

She walked down a hallway and found a long stretch of featureless gray walls. She slapped the wall on the left with the palm of her hand.

When nothing happened she took another step and slapped it again. On her fifth try, the wall faded and she stepped into another corridor that branched off where the wall had been. This one showed the bare building blocks of the virtual world, orange columns and straight lines extending outward in a large featureless gray space. She was now in the “skeleton” of the Times Square-42nd Street Subway Station and Port Authority Bus Terminal complex.

Several meters in she spied a fountain, sitting incongruously within the digital substructure.

She smiled, approaching it.

“Cute. I get it. ‘Font of Knowledge.’ Who says programmers don’t have a sense of humor?”

A man’s voice came from the fountain. It sounded slightly artificial, as if digitized and transmitted over a long distance. Julia decided it had to be some kind of text reader, and not a real person’s voice.

“We have important news for events coming soon to your planet.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’m all ears.”

“There will be a change soon. Tomorrow would not be a good day to be in the Administration Building, the Spaceport, or other major installations. All ports and military sites are best to avoid as well.”

“I see. What about major population centers? Will they be susceptible to change?”

“Not if it can be helped. However, residences of certain people, those living in the mountains, for instance, may find themselves under new management.”

Julia frowned, trying to work though the vague statements. She thought she understood.

She said, “The whole planet will see a change in management.”

“That is the plan,” the fountain said. “Yes.”

“And the Sixth Fleet in orbit? Or, what’s left of the Sixth Fleet?”

“They will be ameliorated.”

“Hm. That’s an interesting way of putting it. Okay. Anything else?”

“No. Just stay away from the buildings tomorrow. After the change in management, we would be very interested in meeting you.”

Julia smiled at this, her lips curling up.

She said, “We’ll see.”

She turned and walked away, then logged out of the game.

[Author’s Note: Welcome to Book 5! Just a heads up, I am nearing a decision point on whether or not put the series into Kindle Unlimited, which pays authors by pages read. We’ll see how this month goes in terms of sales in wide distribution and on Patreon.]

Halcyon’s Heirs 38

Unseen by Tetrarch Thrall, Raquel’s electronic essence flitted through the wiring of the house, leaving his office.

She streamed out of the lighting in her own room, a cascade of silver pixels quickly forming into her body.

She often lingered near Thrall in her electronic form, listening and watching. Part of it had to do with her affection for him, and the fact she liked to be near him. Part of it was a desire to fight boredom. But part of it also was a desire to learn things she was not supposed to know.

This was certainly one of those times. Thrall would not be taking her with him on his trip to Epsilon. Of that, she was certain.

She thought back to the last man she had a relationship with, Roddy Rodriguez. Would Roddy have . . . grown tired of her? Was she getting old?

She looked in the mirror. No. She did not think she looked old.

“Is he just getting bored with me?” she said out loud.

There was, of course, no one to talk it over with. She had no friends, no one in whom she could confide.

All she had was Julius. And if he left her, she would have no one else.

He knocked at her door, making her jump. She recovered quickly and opened it for him.

He smiled at her with that handsome face of his, the one with aged eyes that knew power and authority so well. The face she had fallen in love with when he rescued her from Raton Five.

He said, “I’m going to Epsilon. Something’s come up with Munk there and I’m taking a ship out tonight.”

“Oh. I haven’t seen Edgar in forever. I’ll pack!”

“No, stay here. I don’t want you traveling. It’s still dangerous. I won’t be gone long.”

The look of hurt and betrayal on her face stopped him. He put a hand on her cheek.

“Don’t take it so hard, darling. I’ll be back soon. Okay?”

She nodded, not meeting his eyes. He turned and walked down the hall to his room. She knew he would pack and teleport away soon.

When the door slid shut, she said, “Starcen, what ship is the Tetrarch taking to go to Epsilon?”

She thought she would have clearance for the answer. Sure enough, StarCen responded immediately.

“Tetrarch Thrall is taking the SLS Intrepid to Epsilon. It departs in about three hours.”

What she would not have clearance for, would be to teleport up there. Transit to Naval ships was heavily regulated. She thought about how long it took to get down to the surface undetected from the last Navy ship she was on. No, hitching a ride on the Intrepid would be difficult, especially with so little time left to sneak onboard.

Out loud she said, “What other ships are headed to Epsilon Prime soon?”

StarCen listed four leaving within a day, including one taking off later tonight, the Riptide. That ship was on a long circuitous route between League planets.

“Book me passage on the Riptide, please. First Class.”

It would be easiest if StarCen simply ported her up to the ship. Julius had given her access to an account. She would use it for this. There was the matter of her biocollar. Indents typically did not travel alone. Maybe she could wear a scarf. Or perhaps she would follow someone up to the ship and act like she belonged to them for a while.

“Very well, Ms. Kirkland. You are scheduled to depart in less than five hours.”

“Perfect.”

Julius Thrall would have company on Epsilon, she thought, looking into the mirror with a smile. He’ll just never know it.

-+-

The SLS Sagittarius popped into existence in orbit around Juventas. One of twelve Naval supply ships making regular runs between Epsilon and the four capital planets, the Sagittarius carried food, parts, energy packs, replacement uniforms, and sundry other items needed by the Navy and its massive support network.

Captain Joyce Thompson, a woman of medium height and American Indian ancestry, breathed a sigh of relief when she found the area void of Republican warships. StarCen had sent her here as fast as possible, taking extra long jumps the whole way. They made it before the fireworks started, she thought.

StarCen said, “Captain Briggs of the Extol is calling, Captain Thompson.”

“Put it through.”

She received a voice-only call over her neural connection.

Briggs said, “We are glad to see you, Captain!”

“Yes. I’ve got something you can use. Let StarCen know which ships you’d like the solar torpedoes in, and she’ll send them over.”

“Excellent. We have been waiting quite anxiously for these. I wish there were more than three.”

“It’ll have to be enough, for now.”

Briggs said, “We have increased system surveillance, too, thanks to a prior incident, and we noticed an additional ship appeared half an AU away at the same time you came into orbit. Do you know anything about that?”

Thompson grinned.

She said, “A little. I know it’s the Tetrarch’s pet project, and it’s designed to help out when the bogeys get here. Just ignore it for now, I’m told it will remain farther out until things get hot.”

“I see. Well, if the Tetrarch thinks that’s best, then we’ll just ignore it.”

Thompson nodded, although Briggs couldn’t see her.

She said, “I’m going to unload everything and depart within the hour, Captain. I don’t want to be here for the light show.”

“Understood, Captain. Have a good trip and many thanks for this delivery.”

StarCen proceeded to unload the Sagittarius’s cargo and, true to her word, Thompson departed soon after.

Less than an hour later, the Diego Fleet arrived.

 

Author’s Note: This concludes the free version of Book IV. The final two chapters in the book comprise the short story “Goldus Interruptus,” and are available in the Amazon version or on Patreon.

Halcyon’s Heirs 37

Julius Thrall sat at his desk at home. Besides Raquel, the isolated estate had no other humans in at least an 18 kilometer radius. Any attempt to approach the mansion, by land, sea or air would be duly noted by the new security upgrades he had ordered. All the bots had also been upgraded with the ugly improved models that were more impervious to explosions.

Millions of credits had been spent to provide Thrall with this remote, secure compound. As far as he was concerned, it was worth every proverbial penny. Not that he had paid for any of it with his own funds. Rank hath its privileges, and he held the highest rank of them all. Millions of taxpayers in the Clarion quadrant had contributed.

Despite the opulence and luxuriousness of his private residence, Thrall felt . . . dissatisfied. The Republic had a profoundly effective new type of ship, the Condor-class. Although the first one suffered some difficulties at Seychar, it was no doubt repaired by now and leading a fleet of other ships somewhere. They would likely try to wrest away a capital planet, one of the four. It would mark a devastating blow in the war, and tip the scales solidly to PLAIR’s side for the first time.

StarCen was convinced the Diego Fleet was heading to Juventas, and Thrall agreed. Juventas made the most sense. He had diverted half of Cooper’s fleet to Kwan’s in their failed attempt to take Gotha Mu. An attempt, he grumbled to himself, that would have worked if the Republic’s war engineers had not developed that dreadful star weapon.

They would have to revise the rules of warfare when this was over, he thought. It is difficult to do when the cat is out of the bag, but there was precedence. The nations outlawed gas warfare after World War I. The AI systems prohibited nuclear torpedoes, too.

He grimaced at the thought. Sun bombs were a brilliant workaround to the nuclear prohibitions. He wished he had thought of it first.

Now he desperately hoped their answer to the weapon, the solar torpedoes, would make it to Juventas on time. If the Republic got there first, or if the Diego Fleet attacked elsewhere . . . but no, such things were not worth fretting over.

Thrall could only influence those things over which he had control. He had no control over where the Diego Fleet would show up. He could only take the best steps he could with the knowledge he had at the moment. Anything else was beyond him, and he would refuse to lose sleep over it.

He found himself missing Elven. The Naval Attaché had been exceptionally proficient, even more so than the previous one. He had indeed been attracted to her, and he knew there had been some mutual feelings there due to some comments he overheard.

But when Raquel returned she squashed any budding relationship they might develop. Thrall had sent Elven off with a promotion to Commander. And there certainly were plenty of vacancies needing to be filled with all the losses at Seychar.

Mandy Elven was of better use to the League serving as XO on a ship somewhere instead of providing him eye candy here at the estate. Raquel took care of that role, and more. And StarCen acted as his virtual receptionist.

As if thinking about her could summon her, a high-pitched voice came down from the ceiling.

“Tetrarch Thrall, you have a call incoming from Marshal Metger on Epsilon.”

“Good. Put him through.”

Metger’s hologram appeared, seated in front of Thrall.

“I’ve been waiting to hear from you, Marshal. What can you tell me about my daughter?”

“Sorry. It has taken me this long to get off Lute and find a ship home from Petra Roe.

“So, as for your daughter, Jillian. She’s married. To a pirate captain, if that matters. Either way, even declared incompetent by the courts, he is her next of kin now and he has no intention of giving up custody.”

Thrall showed very little outward emotion. His nostrils flared, little else. Metger did not notice.

Thrall said, “StarCen, confirm.”

“Marshal Metger is correct, Tetrarch Thrall. I am seeing a marriage certificate for Jillian Thrall with Christopher Raleigh. The ceremony was performed on Lute and PLAIR has recorded it in her public records.”

“Sorry I couldn’t get word to you sooner,” Metger said. “But you know how it goes. I had a lot of trouble on Lute. We’re probably going to have to do something about them, once this war is over. In fact, my office will be contacting you in regards to a fine they had to pay in order to get me off the planet.”

“I see. Have them take it up with my office in Clarion. Thank you for your efforts, Marshal.”

“Absolutely. If we can be of service in the future, you know how to find us.”

The call ended and Metger’s hologram blinked away.

When Thrall was alone once more, he let the anger surge. His face grew red and he pounded the desk.

“That girl! Marrying a . . . a pirate!”

The audacity of it all, he thought. Never mind this was a brilliant ploy . . . perhaps the only feasible move to defeat his legal efforts to bring her home. It was checkmate, at least as far as the courts and working through the AIs were concerned.

He might try a military move again, or subterfuge with SSI, although both efforts would probably prove useless. And right now, with the war going the way it was, he did not have a lot of resources to spare for a rebellious daughter hiding out in a distant outpost.

He calmed down, taking deep breaths and letting them out slowly. The outburst of anger, such as it was, only lasted a minute. Thrall held his emotions in check, even in private.

Starcen said, “Tetrarch Thrall, you have another call from Epsilon. This is from SSI Director Munk.”

“Put him through.”

Edgar Munk’s hologram appeared, his smiling face and gray hair making him look more like a distinguished diplomat than a spymaster.

“Julius! How are you?”

He was one of the few people in the galaxy who could get away with calling Thrall by his first name.

Thrall grunted, noncommittally.

Munk continued, ignoring the pissed off look on Thrall’s face.

“We’ve had some recent drama, nothing you need to concern yourself with. It turns out some college kids held some quaint notions of rebellion. The reason I’m calling you is, I have decided to continue some of our experiments with the biocollars on these students.”

He stepped back and let a holoscreen open between them. Thrall looked at a dozen young people, all wearing underwear and nothing else. They stood relaxed, with biocollars around their necks.

“Our last batch from Fomalhaut went very well, before they were intercepted by pirates. The difference with these are, we have kids from prominent families this time. High wealth and education. It’s a different social strata than a small outpost, you know?”

Thrall’s eyes settled on one girl to the right. She was . . . beautiful. He could see the intelligence behind her eyes, even with the biocollar controlling things.

“Tell me about the blonde,” he said.

Munk looked for the one he referred to, and smiled. He said, “Ah. Caroline. Yes, she’s not a natural blonde, I’m afraid. Still, quite attractive.”

Munk knew Thrall’s tastes, and was not surprised the Tetrarch would ask about her.

He said, “We are doing some more tests, and we will have to make some modifications to the public record . . .”

“I will come there. I need to make a trip to Epsilon anyway.”

“Very well. I’ll have her ready for you.”

Thrall sat back in his chair, the connection broken. Yes, this was just the ticket, he thought. Somebody new.

It was not that he had lost his affection for Raquel. He just . . . craved someone else. Someone fresh.

“StarCen.”

“Yes, Tetrarch Thrall?”

“Arrange passage for me on the next flight to Epsilon. Preferably Naval.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 36

Ong and Vargas found a hotel near the stagecoach station and checked in. They were not dressed in their Navy uniforms. Ong had cautioned Vargas that they would be quickly arrested if they were identified, just as the crew had been. He agreed, and dutifully packed his uniform along with hers in their luggage before they leaving Wallisville.

Vargas worried that spies might indicate they were coming in on the stage. Maybe it would be better to get off at a village before Winthrop and ride in on horses? He had thrown that idea out before departing. Ong said they would probably be okay. If the Governor wanted to arrest them, Ong reasoned, she had plenty of time to send someone while they were in Wallisville. The fact she did not indicated they had likely been overlooked.

Vargas half expected the police to be waiting for them when they got off the stage, but they checked into the hotel without any problems. He gave a fake name when signing in, just to be safe. Fortunately there was no AI keeping an eye on things. A person could pretend to be whoever they wanted out here, he thought. Such freedom!

That night at supper they struck up a conversation with the couple at the table next to them about the crew of the Excelsior. It was still relatively fresh news, and being new arrivals their inquiries did not seem out of place.  They discovered the crew was still being held in the Administration Building.

After retiring to their room, they discussed how to reach the Captain and everyone else. As usual, Ong was the one to come up with an idea.

She said, “Let’s get jobs there.”

The following morning they approached a kiosk in the Administration Building. This one was manned by a real person rather than an android. Ong said she was from Dennison, her husband had recently passed away, and she came to Winthrop looking for work. Vargas presented himself as a disgruntled miner, unable to find a decent claim near Wallisville. He was giving up on hunting for gold for a while. Somehow, he did not find that story very plausible. Personally, he very much wished to continue hunting for gold. But, the lady behind the desk bought both their stories.

They were offered janitorial positions on the spot. If bots had been sent with the settlers to Halcyon, they were either inoperable or being used in far more important roles than menial labor. Consequently, there was a chronic shortage of maids, janitors, street sweepers, and other people for such labor-intensive jobs.

Vargas found himself working in the basement, but before lunch Ong made her way up to the holding floor and scoped things out. She found a long hall with many cell doors. Four cells were occupied. There were, of course, no electronics in the building. The doors were locked by keys. That was all she needed to know.

The couple spent another three days discussing what to do. There were only twelve crew left besides Vargas and Ong. The twelve were all dressed in Navy blue and stood out like sore thumbs. Even if they were to escape, they would immediately attract attention.

Curiously, there were no guards stationed in the hallway. She discovered there used to be, when the crew was first detained, but now a guard merely checked in on the prisoners a few times a day. No one stood in the hall all the time. Evidently they had other things to do.

Meanwhile, Ong took pains to not be seen by the crew in case they accidentally gave her away. She carefully cleaned the hall’s floor but stayed clear of the doors if someone came to open them. She noted when the crew had meals, and when the cafeteria staff came back to pick up dishes and silverware.

Besides the uniform problem, a bigger one revolved around the fact they had nowhere to go. Where would they bring the Captain and the crew if they did spring them from jail? Bringing them back to the hotel was out of the question.

This time Vargas came up with the solution. In talking with one of the other janitors, he discovered the man to be a League loyalist. This guy, whose name was Kev Stanton, vehemently railed against the Governor during their lunch breaks.

Vargas decided to take a risk and he let Stanton in on their plans. He confided that he was part of the Excelsior’s crew, and he was here to help spring Captain Benson and the others. Vargas did not mention Ong, in case something should happen to him. He did not want to risk her, especially since he had not had the chance to run this idea by her.

But Kev Stanton really was a League loyalist. He enthusiastically agreed to help. He knew where the janitor outfits were stored in the basement, and they had a lot of overalls that could cover the Navy uniforms. He also knew about a vacant warehouse his cousin owned. Together, he and Vargas came up with a plan. Ong decided it sounded feasible when Vargas told her about it.

The next day, almost two weeks after they learned about Benson’s capture, Ong opened the door to the Captain’s cell with a stolen key. Benson’s eyes grew wide at the sight of her. Kilmeade audibly gasped. Ong put a finger to her lips and tossed brown overalls to the women.

“Put these on and I’ll be back in a minute.”

She repeated the procedure in the other rooms. All twelve crewmembers met in the hall a short while later. They met Vargas at the stairwell, everyone dressed in brown overalls. He took the lead going downstairs while Ong followed at the rear. Together, all 14 crewmembers went to the basement, passing a handful of other people going up without comment.

From the basement they took a back exit with stair leading up and walked across the street, this time led by Stanton. From there, they entered another building’s basement. Stanton led them up the stairs inside the building, then they walked through a mostly empty lobby to the other side where everybody exited to another street shielded from view of the Administration Building. No one looking out a window would see them.

Here, Stanton’s cousin waited for them with a covered wagon that had benches inside. It seated twenty. Everybody filed in and the two-horse team slowly clopped down the street toward the warehouse district, keeping the crew safely out of sight as it made its way through the streets.

Kilmeade sat by the Captain.

She said, “What are we going to do now, ma’am?”

“There’s not much we can do, I’m afraid. They have our blasters and our transport. It might be best to lie low until the Navy gets here.”

They clopped on in silence for a while. In the seat behind them, Curly leaned forward.

He said, “Begging your pardon ma’am, but there is something we can do.”

“What’s that, Curly?”

He gave her a wicked grin.

“Guerilla warfare.”