Halcyon’s Heirs 6

“We can’t hover over water every night,” Captain May Benson said to the remainder of her crew in the Excelsior’s transport. “We’ll run out of power.”

Ensign Kilmeade nodded, picking up drink cartons from everyone for the recycle bin now that breakfast was over.

The holoscreen covering the front of the craft showed blue water stretching out to the horizon.

Curly tossed his carton away and moved to the pilot’s seat, his large frame gliding gracefully in the confined space. He looked over his shoulder at her and said, “You want me to gain some altitude and go back, ma’am? If we fly high enough we should be out of range of musket balls. Maybe we can look around some.”

Benson nodded, and moved to join him in the front of the craft.

She said, “That’s a good idea. Let’s go high and look for settlements. Obviously the people here survived being abandoned the last few years. Let’s see if they found a place to gang together or something.”

Curly nodded and grabbed the stick, flipping a switch to take them out of hover mode. The transport made a U-turn in the sky and headed back toward land.

The shore loomed in the holovision as they rushed for it, and Curly pulled back on the stick to gain altitude. By the time the scenery turned from blue waves to green and brown land, they flew one kilometer high or about 3,280 feet.

“They’re going to have a hard time hitting us at this height with those antiquated weapons, Captain. Especially if we keep moving.”

Benson said, “Good. It’s not too high, either, we can still make out details.”

She experimented with the outdoor camera controls, and the view on the holoscreen shifted down at an angle. She waved a hand at the controls floating above a panel, and the view magnified, bringing a grove of trees into sharp focus.

“That’s good,” Benson said, pulling the view out again. “We’ll maintain a wide angle until we see something interesting.”

“Which way should I go, Captain?” Curly said. “Strike out in a random direction?”

“Follow the river inland. People always need a source of fresh water.”

“Yes, ma’am. Do you think they worry about flooding?”

“They might. There are mountains nearby. Maybe they built the main structures higher up, but stayed close enough for shipping or . . . I don’t know. Water wheels maybe?”

He nodded and angled the craft toward the river, then followed it high above. Benson looked back and noticed everyone glued to the holoscreen.

She said, “Say something if you see anything. Like some jerk with a rifle sneaking through the bushes.”

Everybody chuckled or at least grinned at that statement, including Curly. He self-consciously touched his shoulder, still healing from the gunshot wound despite the nanobots injection.

They soon approached the mountains and Curly nosed the craft up higher to maintain altitude. Water tumbled down in a stunning view. Benson adjusted the camera to take it all in. She heard gasps of wonder behind her.

“This might explain why they did not build closer to the coast, if there is a town along here. The river would probably be useless to them on this side.”

Kilmeade said, “Why is that, ma’am?

Benson nodded at the giant waterfall. She said, “They haven’t been here long enough to develop an infrastructure to take advantage of the falls. And they’re not using the oceans for travel yet, at least not here. No, if they have a settlement that takes advantage of the river, it’s going to be on the other side of the falls. Probably the mountains, too.”

Curly adjusted course and they passed between two peaks the river cut through. Benson nervously angled the camera to sweep the area, making sure no snipers were waiting for them, but they saw nothing threatening. Vegetation looked considerably thinner up in the mountains, offering fewer places for a lone rifleman to hide, she thought.

Then they were through and the mountains degraded into foothills as the river snaked further inland.

Kilmeade said, “Ma’am . . . over there,” and pointed at the horizon.

Benson magnified it and they could make out buildings in the distance.

“What do you think, Curly?” Benson said.

“I think . . . I think it looks like something out of Old Hollywood.”

“Give us some more altitude. Let’s observe them at a distance for a while. Hopefully nobody is looking up right this minute.”

Curly nodded and raised the craft another kilometer up in the sky as they flew closer to the settlement. Benson adjusted the camera and magnification. Soon they were almost on top of the town, looking down at it from an angle. People walked around in dirt streets or on wooden sidewalks, going from shop to shop. At one of end town stood a church, complete with steeple and bell tower. Signs above some of the shops indicated storefronts. There could make out a city hall and a stone building that apparently served as a jail.

On either side of the main street, houses were in place, comprising the residential district. They were laid out in a grid pattern, extending three or four blocks before dwindling on the outskirts of town.

“The only thing different from an old movie set,” Ensign Kilmeade said, “is their clothes are modern. That ruins the effect.”

Curly said, “That’s kind of impressive construction, though, considering they don’t have any modern technology to speak of.”

Benson nodded. She said, “I wonder if they were able to make use of things from the colony ships, or if this is entirely made with local resources?”

“Maybe somebody set up a saw mill,” Curly said. “Then it would be easy to develop lumber and start building. Well, they’d need a blacksmith to make nails, I guess.”

“They certainly would have the knowledge. And with enough people they either found somebody with the skills necessary, or at least someone willing to learn.”

Everyone watched in silence for a while longer as the people below went about their day. Benson noted a communal corral filled with horses and connected to what must be stables. There were garden plots in the backyards of most all the houses, and other signs that modern food, transportation, and technology were in limited supply.

Kilmeade said, “I think that little boy sees us, Captain.”

She pointed at someone in the middle of the street looking up, seemingly staring at the camera.

“That’s some good eyes, if so,” Benson said. “We’re what . . . two klicks up?”

Curly nodded. He said, “I think the sun has crested the peaks. It’s probably hitting us just right.”

A crowd formed near the boy as he danced excitedly in the street, pointing up.

Benson said, “Well, it looks like we’ve been discovered.”

Curly said, “What should we do, Captain? I can fly away at speed if you want. Or maybe just go straight up several more klicks, then we should disappear from view even with the sun on us.”

“No. I think it’s time we introduced ourselves. Our power supply won’t last forever. But this time, we go in armed and ready for anything.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 5

The first thing Metger discovered Sergio proved useful for included palming open the elevators.

Both men filed in while the Marshal casually kept his gun aimed at Sergio’s middle.

“Where might she be?” Metger said. “I don’t have all day to look for her.”

“I don’t know. I didn’t even know the Tetrarch’s daughter was here.”

Metger sighed and swiped his finger through a random number floating on the panel.

He said, “Let’s try Floor 63.”

The door slid shut and the capsule went up.

-+-

“Intruder is on the move. Taking elevator to Level 63.”

“How’s he getting the elevator to work?” Raleigh said. But the alarm system’s voice did not respond back.

“Maybe’s he’s got a hostage. We really need LuteNet to decide for us who gets access to places,” Maxwell said.

“It’s bad enough she controls every aspect of the ship. I like the idea of autonomy in the building, at least somewhat.”

“How’s that working out right now, Cap?”

Raleigh frowned at Maxwell in response.

He said, “Can we beat this guy down to 63?”

“We can try.”

Both men filed into the elevator pod waiting for them. The door closed and it headed down.

-+-

The bell chimed and Metger popped his head out the elevator door, looking both ways. He cautiously stepped out into the corridor. Doorways stretched off in both directions, all palm panels glowing red.

He glared back at Niles who awkwardly walked out of the elevator with him.

Metger said, “What is this place? What are all these rooms? Who needs all this space?”

“I dunno, man. I’m just a hostage being held for ransom. Nobody tells me anything.”

Another elevator dinged and two men jumped out with guns. They saw Metger and started firing. He returned fire. A hail of energy bolts sailed down the hallway in both directions.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

Metger held his ground, having reached the hall first. The men jumped back into the elevator, out of his line of fire.

Metger motioned to one of the doors.

“Open that.”

Niles dutifully placed his palm on the panel, casting a nervous glance back toward the elevators, and the door slid open. Metger backed his way through the door, keeping his gun aimed down the hall.

When the door slid shut he relaxed a bit and turned around to look at the room.

Niles said, “Uh, Mr. Marshal Metger, sir . . . I think we’re trapped.”

Metger found himself in a small room lined with shelves filled with boxes.

They heard someone knock at the door.

Out in the hall, Raleigh said, “You, uh, want to come out of the storage closet?”

Metger shouted, “Bring me Jillian Thrall, and nobody will get hurt!”

Raleigh exchanged a glance with Maxwell. Both men furrowed their brows.

Raleigh said, “Can I ask why? What do you want her for?”

“I’m with the Marshal’s Service, tasked with retrieving Ms. Thrall and returning her home.”

Out in the hallway, Maxwell’s eyes grew big. He whispered, “The Marshal’s Service?”

Raleigh yelled back, “The Marshal’s Service has no authority here. We don’t recognize your organization!”

Metger said, “The Marshal’s Service is recognized by both systems, and all their affiliates. Last I checked, Lute was affiliated with PLAIR. Ask her and see what she says!”

Raleigh glanced up at the ceiling and said, “Is that right, Lootie?”

“Indeed, Captain. Under wartime operating guidelines, I am bound to respect the authority of the Marshal’s Service and the organization’s prior agreements with PLAIR.”

“What is the deal with him fetching away Jillian? How does he have authorization for that?”

“I am conferring with PLAIR, who is attempting to obtain information from StarCen. Please give her a moment, as both systems are very busy at the moment.”

Metger yelled through the door again. He said, “Well? Checked with your local AI yet?”

“She’s working on it! Give us a moment!”

LuteNet said, “PLAIR indicates that Jillian Thrall’s father has had her declared incompetent.”

“What?” Raleigh could not keep the shock out of his voice.

“A court on Clarion has so decreed, bestowing him full rights of guardianship. Under that authority, he has requested the Marshals’ assistance in returning her to his custody.”

“That’s bogus, Lootie! He’s the Tetrarch for the Clarion quadrant, the supreme ruler. What judge is not going to rule in his favor? If he asks a judge to have his daughter declared incompetent, of course the judge is going to say she’s incompetent.”

“Be that as it may, he is on sound legal footing to bring her back, by force if necessary.”

Metger shouted through the door again.

“Come on! You’ve had time to check my credentials!”

“I’ve checked them!” Raleigh shouted back.

“Well? Can we come out and talk this over?”

“You can come out if you feel like getting shot. I’m not letting you take her anywhere, I don’t give a rip what some judge on Clarion said!”

“That’s unfortunate. You know I have one of your hostages in here with me. Be a shame if something were to happen to him!”

Maxwell and Raleigh exchanged a glance again. Maxwell yelled into the door this time.

“Who do you got?”

“Niles Sergio!”

Both men burst out laughing. Metger frowned at this, listening through the door.

Maxwell said, “We don’t care about him. Feel free to shoot him if you want!”

Metger turned to frown at Niles. He held up his hands and said, “I’m worth a lot of money! Sergio Productions is loaded. My stepmother is holding up the ransom.”

Metger snorted and turned back to the door.

He shouted, “I’m coming out! Don’t shoot, I’m under full authority of the Marshal’s Service!”

He motioned for Niles to come closer. The door slid open and he pushed Niles out, aiming his blaster at the other man’s back.

Halcyon’s Heirs 4

Metger jumped easily across the gaping hole into the building, carrying the duffel bag with him. He landed in some kind of apartment. Fortunately for whoever lived there, the room was empty when Metger blew open the hole with his rocket launcher. He strolled over broken glass and furniture, black leather boots crunching debris, and palmed open the door to the corridor.

A man looked out from another doorway further down the hall. His eyes grew big when he saw Metger. The Marshal drew a pistol out of the bag and shot, just as the man jerked his head back and the door swished shut.

Thoop!

Metger quickly walked down to the doorway. He looked at the palm pad, now red, and aimed his gun at the doorway.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

The lock burst open, leaving a jagged black hole in the door. Metger’s fingerless gloves gripped the hole and he pushed the door open with powerful shoulders.

The man inside raised his hands and backed up.

“Hey man, take it easy . . .”

Metger aimed the gun at him and said, “Where is Jillian Thrall?”

-+-

Raleigh and Maxwell watched as Metger shot open the door on level 44 via the holoscreen in Raleigh’s office.

He said, “Who is that guy?”

Maxwell said, “Dunno. And who are those guys on the street?”

The holoscreen shifted over to a view outside Mule Tower’s front doors. A dozen men and women wearing black body armor were all shooting at the same spot on the front door, trying to blow it open.

Raleigh activated the neural implant below his ear and said, “Escobar, get a team together quickly and engage that party down on the street. Shoot to kill, but don’t pursue if they run away.”

He looked over at Maxwell and smiled. He said, “Let’s go give Big Man down there a visit, shall we?”

He stood up and palmed open an armory panel. The door slid back revealing racks of loaded guns and egg grenades.

Maxwell came over and took out a rifle.

Raleigh said, “Grab some spares. We might need them.”

-+-

Niles Sergio decided he was having a bad day. Most all his days had been bad, actually, ever since the Coral Reef diverted course to stop and check on Pegasi Station. There, the luxury liner was captured by pirates and towed by tandem drive to the planet Lute.

Niles watched as other passengers of note were allowed to go home as soon as their ransom money hit the pirates’ account on Petra Roe. The other really rich couple onboard, the Sanfords, went home almost immediately. He did not know what happened to the attractive Catarina Mulligan, but he had not seen her since the pirates took over.

As for himself, he was stranded. That had become increasingly obvious. The pirates knew he was worth billions. They had likely asked his family for millions. And his family had turned them down. Of that, Niles was certain. His stepmother would be content to save the money and let him stay on Lute perpetually.

Niles had never felt more helpless in all his life. All of his money, all the accounts he could normally tap to buy his way out of whatever trouble he happened to get himself into, were out of reach.

He had tried to reason with the old woman who called herself the Quartermaster. If he could just access one of his accounts, just one, the pirates were welcome to every credit he had.

The problem was, in order to access them he had to be in League territory. Such a transfer could only be made through the StarCen, the League’s AI. And the pirates were not about to let him back into League territory. He had tried convincing them otherwise.

If he could only take a ship over to Petra Roe, and from there go back to a League planet, he could make the transfer. The Quartermaster said no.

If he could go to Petra Roe, perhaps under armed escort by some of the pirates, he could arrange a transfer from there. The Quartermaster said no.

He offered to pay double whatever amount they were trying to extort from his family, if only they let him go. The Quartermaster said no.

So he was stuck in orbit around Lute, in his opulent stateroom. The people onboard dwindled down as time progressed, more and more of them finding passage back home or elsewhere.

Then one day the old woman showed up and told him the ship had been sold, and he would have to leave. She escorted him down to the surface, where he arrived in Port Ryan’s Administration Building. He tried saying something to the Custom’s official there, but the lady only laughed when Granny cracked a joke about prisoners being seen and not heard.

Then the local AI ported him over to Mule Tower. Granny gave him a room on Level 44 and said he had the run of the place. Food would be served on the top floor.

Over the following week he explored most of the levels. There were gyms, indoor pools, recreation areas. Most of the rooms were locked, and the second to top floor was inaccessible to him. The lobby on the ground floor was ornate, and empty. The doors to the outside were locked. The elevator would not go to the roof, either, so he could not jump off or try to hail a skycab up there.

In short, he was trapped in this building. He could not leave.

Today started like many others. After breakfast, he retreated to his room and immersed himself in neural entertainment. Then the explosion happened. He poked his head out the door to see what was going on, and he was captured by a tall lunatic with a terrible haircut.

“Where is Jillian Thrall?”

Niles sputtered, shocked, and amazed that someone was pointing a gun at him. Despite their boorish Neanderthal behavior, and refusal to listen to reason about letting him go, no pirate had ever pointed a gun at him before.

“I . . . I . . . who is that? Thrall? You mean Tetrarch Thrall? His daughter?”

The man moved the gun into Sergio’s face.

“Yes. Where is she?”

“I don’t know. I . . . they don’t tell me anything! I didn’t know a Thrall family member was being held here, too!”

“What do mean, ‘being held?’ Aren’t you a pirate?”

“No! I’m being held for ransom. My ship, the Coral Reef, was captured. All the passengers are . . . were ransomed.”

“The Coral Reef? That was weeks ago.”

“I know. Look, I’m Niles Sergio. My family runs Sergio Productions. If you’re here to rescue a Thrall family member, take me with you! I’m sure we can arrange some kind of reward.”

The big man scoffed at this statement, but he pulled the gun down out of Niles’s face.

“Come on. Maybe I can use you for leverage some other way.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 3

The elevator door opened in the top floor cafeteria of Mule Tower and Dillon Dvorak stepped out, half asleep.

He stumbled toward the serving line, passing a table with Granny Wilcox, chewing her food slowly, Jillian Thrall and Skylar Hawkens.

Jillian and Skylar were engaged in animated conversation. Skylar turned and smiled brightly at Dillon as he passed their table.

“Morning, Dillon!”

“Hgzrph.”

He continued on to the line, squinting to find his way.

“Looks like Sharkspeare ain’t a morning person,” Granny observed.

A few moments later, Dillon returned, taking up a spot at their table. He placed the tray down, filled with biscuits, gravy and sausage, then sat down himself. He picked up a cup of coffee and took a long sip, ignoring the women smiling at him.

“Teenagers these days,” Granny said. “Nobody likes to get up before noon.”

Dillon grunted noncommittally, and continued sipping on his coffee. A few minutes later, he started on his food.

“After you wake up, Dillon,” Jillian said, “you can join us and try to hit Granny in the gym.”

“That’s right,” Granny said. “It’s a sparring session. You can fight all of us.”

Dillon’s eyebrows shot up and he seemed to wake up a little. He wolfed down the food as Granny cackled.

-+-

“Hulgph!”

“Well, that’s a different sound than you made at breakfast, Sonny,” Granny said.

Dillon opened his eyes to see the old woman peering down at him, her face upside down in his field of vision.

He said, “How did you do that?”

“You came at me like a big lummox. I just shifted your weight and used it against you.”

The two younger women smiled down at him, too.

“Don’t feel bad,” Skylar said. “She’s been flipping us for months.”

Dillon groaned and pulled himself to his feet.

Granny said, “I like having a man to beat up on. I can show you gals some new tricks.”

Dillon cupped his chin and pushed until his neck popped. He said, “Just don’t knee me in the groin or anything.”

Granny cackled in delight. She said, “That’s for the Krav Maga lessons!”

A distant Thoom!sounded throughout the building.

“Did you hear that?” Jillian said.

The lights flashed red and a klaxon sounded. A male voice came from speakers in the ceiling.

“Intruder alert. Mule Tower is under attack. Intruder alert, Floor 44.”

-+-

Captain Christopher Raleigh sat in his office with his First Officer, Elijah Maxwell. They rested in leather-backed chairs at a large wooden desk made from trees native to Lute.

Raleigh said, “Alright, we just sold off Coral Reef. That helps our accounts considerably.”

Maxwell said, “How about ransoms on the passenger?”

“We’ve gotten them all in except for young Sergio. His family refused to pay up.”

“Did you try negotiating?”

“Lootie tells me they’re unwilling to send even a thousand credits to get him home. They don’t want him.”

Maxwell snorted. “That’s pretty cold for family.”

Raleigh nodded and said, “Temporarily I have him down in our guest quarters, since the ship is now sold. Not sure what to do with him, so we’ll just keep him there for a while.

“On a brighter note, Lootie tells me shares have been deposited from our last outing, compliments of the Republic bean counters and PLAIR. We netted an easy six million credits.”

Maxwell’s face broke into a wide grin. He said, “There was nothing easy about it, Captain. We almost got blown out of the sky sneaking into the Juventas system. I don’t think we’ll be able to try that again anytime soon.”

Raleigh shrugged. He said, “We managed alright. If we have to do it again, we’ll figure it out again.”

“So, 60,000 a share,” Maxwell said.

Raleigh nodded. “I gave Biff Jones and Julia 50,000 each before they left. That’s their respective shares in retrieving the pocket computer.”

Maxwell grinned again. He said, “Paid off a cop, did you?”

“Ha. I don’t think he thought of it that way at the time. But, seeing as how they did all the work, they probably should have gotten more.”

Maxwell shrugged and said, “They’re always welcome to make their way back to Lute if they’re looking for dishonest employment.”

“Privateering is honest, Max. It’s just the other side doesn’t see it that way.”

Thoom!

Both men looked at each other and said, “What was that?”

“Intruder alert. Mule Tower is under attack. Intruder alert, Floor 44.”

-+-

Marshal Metger looked down at the crowd of janissaries he had hired with assistance from the Petra Roe Embassy. They were dressed in black blaster armor and wore visors to prevent the local AI from identifying them. Twelve of them swarmed toward the front door of the building. He watched everything from the safety of a skycab’s back seat.

Privately he felt grateful human cabbies still existed on this world. They made his plans much easier, since they could be hijacked. Android cabbies or autocabs were much more difficult to commandeer. But with humans, a simple request to help a Marshal out often sufficed. If not, an appropriate threat usually did the trick.

This particular cabbie had proven to be reluctant to help, and suffered accordingly. The blood over his ear was drying, finally, from where Metger had clocked him. It left a messy stain on the front seat.

The crowd of hired hands in the street below ran into resistance immediately. Metger sensed the doors were not opening for them, and watched as they planted bombs. They backed away, then bright light flashed followed by the thunder of explosions.

But the doors held. He could see when the smoke cleared the janissaries were no closer to entering the building than before. They fired into the entrance with their weapons, but the doors held.

He nodded. This was expected. The ground team was just meant to be a distraction, after all.

“Back away from the side of the building a few meters,” he said to the cabbie. The man nodded and they floated away.

“Your AI is completely unhelpful, by the way. Somebody needs to program some respect for law enforcement into her.”

The cabbie nodded agreeably. Metger suspected the man did not want to get punched again, and would agree to anything he said at the moment.

“So, I don’t know what floor my target is on since the AI won’t tell me. But, I figure if I take a few hostages, kill a few people, then maybe she’ll show up.”

Metger reached into a duffel bag beside him on the back seat and pulled out a portable rocket launcher.

“Open the canopy.”

The cabbie complied, and the red-tinted force field surrounding the top of the cab switched off. The temperature dropped as wind blew around them, ruffling the Marshal’s pageboy haircut.

Metger said, “The thing about towers is, they’re heavily fortified at the street level and on the roof. But nobody thinks about an assault from the side.”

He aimed the rocket launcher carefully toward one of the windows at eye level and squeezed the trigger. The missile shot out, exploding in the side of the building. Dust and debris rained down to the street below. A gaping hole yawned open from the wall.

He said, “Now, maneuver us next to my new doorway, and I’ll jump out here. Thanks for the ride.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 2

Edgar Munk leaned back in his leather office chair and sighed. The problem with a tetrarchy, he thought, was the vast distance and area it covered. Star League controlled 16 major planets—17 if you counted Epsilon Prime—and a host of less significant ones.

It was too much. Even with the most sophisticated artificial intelligence system ever developed, StarCen, it was still too much. He simply could not keep tabs on everybody.

It was hard enough monitoring social media, electronic communications, and eavesdropping on human speech. The multiple, multiple hours of data generated at all times of the day and night on all the planets covered by StarCen was impossible for humans to sort through all by themselves. Countless quantum-computing cycles were devoted to parsing the info, submitting it to algorithms, looking for signs of sedition and betrayal.

And then there was the other human intelligence that was gathered. SSI was modeled after the Ministerium für Staatssicherheitin the old Soviet-controlled East Germany. The organization had been better known as “Stasi.”

Stasi was organized before advanced computing, and combined the very worst elements of Nazi Germany and Russian-style communism. It used human intelligence as its primary tool of terror and control. Neighbors snitched on neighbors, family members on family members, everyone quick to point out the secrets of those closest to them before they themselves were fingered.

SSI developed tactics based on this grand predecessor. Any agent worth his or her salt studied the great intelligence agencies of the past including the KGB, the Stasi, and the Gestapo. These agencies were lauded by modern SSI, and any techniques that could be learned from their forefathers were considered sacrosanct by most agents.

But now, Munk decided, now they were just too big to keep tabs on everything. He had trouble monitoring his own people. Just the other month, his man at SSI Juventas ordered Tetrarch Thrall’s youngest daughter to be taken out, contravening all rules and decorum. Munk personally got on the line and apologized to Julius Thrall when he found out. The order had been rendered without Munk’s knowledge.

Thrall had been gracious in the call. Martin Evans was already gone by that time. The local police had ruled it a death by natural causes, but Munk knew that Raquel Kirkland could have taken him out. It fit her modus operandito cause heart attacks. She could have easily sneaked into his apartment via the wiring and enacted Thrall’s retribution.

In fact, if Edgar were a betting man, he would have placed all his money on that scenario hitting close to the truth. He knew from reports that one of Martin’s men tried and failed to bring Raquel in at the same time the Navy brought back Thrall’s daughter from a pirate ship. Raquel disappeared, and Martin Evans showed up dead. One did not have to be the proverbial rocket scientist to put two and two together.

The only thing Thrall wanted from him on that call was an assurance that Munk did not know anything about the whereabouts of his daughter. Evidently she disappeared again, shortly after coming home. How she could have vanished from one of the most heavily guarded and isolated sites on Clarion was a mystery to both men.

Munk assured the Tetrarch he had thoroughly reviewed the files, and his daughter was not retrieved by SSI during that rogue operation. In fact, SSI was a little confused about how their men were taken out. Not one member of the team survived.

Thrall graciously let bygones be bygone, although he hinted that Evans’s replacement would likely live longer if he or she did not share their predecessor’s animosity. Munk assured him an appropriately neutral party would be appointed to run SSI Clarion.

He breathed a bit easier after the call terminated. If there was one man Edgar Munk respected, even feared a bit, it was Julius Thrall. The Tetrarch would not hesitate to eliminate the head of SSI Epsilon if he thought he needed to, just as he no doubt eliminated the head of SSI Clarion when Evans crossed the line.

Munk also had no doubts that Raquel Kirkland was with Thrall again. Munk had been there when Thrall took her out of Raton Five, and he had seen how well they hit it off on the flight back home. Even though Munk trained Raquel and officially she was classified as an SSI asset, he knew where her heart was.

He took a deep sigh and returned to the problem at hand. The League was too big to control adequately. Seventeen major planets, and a bunch of minor ones. Billions upon billions of people.

Dividing things up into a tetrarchy had been a stroke of genius. Four planets were infinitely easier to manage. Epsilon could be at the center of things, a headquarters for organizations serving all quadrants.

But even so, even with a tetrarchy, managing state security for the League was proving a gargantuan task.

And here now, back on Epsilon Prime, he had university professors espousing such notions as constitutional representative democracy! The thought of such seditious teaching taking place at his alma mater was almost inconceivable to Munk.

He glanced down at the report Fernando had filed, and the request to terminate that the agent made at the very end. It was marked in code, “801.”

It would have to be termination, Munk thought. Dr. Milford had tenure, and he could not be fired for anything he said during lectures, no matter how politically incorrect. Eliminating sedition like this would involve cutting out the cancer completely.

Munk sighed again, deep and long this time. Then he said, “StarCen?”

The AI’s high-pitched voice came down from the ceiling.

She said, “Yes, Director Munk?”

“Inform Agent Fernando I approve his 801 request.”

“Yes, Director Munk.”

-+-

Fernando sat on a university park bench eating a hotdog from a food cart vendor. He wore a baseball cap, a style unchanged in centuries, and watched Dr. Milford at a safe distance. He also kept a mental eye on his neural connection to SSI HQ. He had filed his report and uploaded the holo an hour ago, almost as soon as class let out. No doubt his superiors kicked it upstairs since he included an 801 request.

Sometimes those requests generated additional investigations. Sometimes they resulted in an outside agent brought in to fulfill the directive. But sometimes, and this Fernando fervently hoped would be the case this time, sometimes the 801 request was approved on the spot.

The professor was oblivious to all the machinations and discussions concerning his fate, and followed his daily routine of eating a sack lunch in the park and feeding popcorn to the local variety of pigeons.

Fernando knew Milford’s routine, often following him to the park and back to his flat in the evenings. He watched the professor throw the last of his popcorn out while sitting at a bench about ten meters away. The older man smiled at the pigeons, happy to watch them scramble for kernels as they hit the ground.

A text message popped up in his mind’s eye: “801 approved.”

They saw it my way, Fernando thought with a smile.

He reached a hand up to the bill of his cap and activated a microswitch. A crosshair lined up in his inner eye, following his line of sight. He stared at the professor’s face and activated the neural connection linked to the tiny weapon in his cap.

A beam of energy shot from the hidden gun, following the agent’s crosshairs. It hit the professor’s forehead, silent and invisible. Fernando concentrated on the same spot for ten seconds, twenty.

The professor wiped sweat from his head. He stood up suddenly and swayed, apparently dizzy. Fernando kept staring at his forehead, maintaining the crosshairs’ location. The beam continued aiming at Milford’s face.

He collapsed, falling to the ground in a heap.

A woman nearby pushing a baby stroller stopped and looked at him.

“Are you alright? Sir, are you okay?”

She bent down to check on him, pressing the implant under her ear to dial 9-1-1.

Fernando stood, confident that the professor was not okay. The energy beam hidden within his cap had caused a cerebral hemorrhage, and nothing short of immediate medical attention would save him.

As he walked away he heard the young mother speaking frantically over her neural connection.

“Yes, I’m in the park, and this man just collapsed. He fell over on the ground. Yes, I’ll stay on the line. Can you see my optics? Yes. Yes.”

Fernando smiled as he left the area.

Rather than a college education, Fernando had spent his formative years under the tutelage of SSI instructors, learning how to infiltrate subversive groups and kill their leaders quietly. He remembered something his assassination instructor had mentioned when discussing professors.

The elimination of high-level targets was always a concern, and professors fell into that group. If they could be discredited, or run out of the institution, that would usually suffice. Anything to remove them from an influential position. But if they were safe from political threats, as tenured professors often were, other steps had to be taken.

What had the instructor said? Fernando quoted him from memory.

“If he has tenure, he meets the Reaper.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 1

Johan Milford stood at the lecture dais wearing a comfortable polo and blue jeans. Blue jeans, that ancient style of clothing, was currently in vogue on Epsilon, and Dr. Milford was a very popular, and hip, professor.

Milford was proud to boast ancestral blood from four continents on Old Earth: North America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. He had nice blended look, featuring light brown skin, dark brown hair and eyes.

He stood five foot nine, or 175 centimeters, with bushy brown hair and a bushy brown beard. He carried too much weight from lack of exercise, good food, and copious amounts of beer consumed on the weekends.

In short, he was a very typical university professor, looking every bit the part. He stepped out from the podium and waved a hand around the lecture hall, filled with undergraduate students hanging on his every word.

Most professors preferred teaching small and intimate gatherings of graduate students, and the lighter grading load such classes entailed. But if Dr. Milford held such a preference, he kept it well hidden. He remained one of the most popular professors at Epsilon University, consistently scoring high on social media surveys. Students loved him, and his classes always filled to capacity.

Today he taught the 400 or so undergraduates in a stadium-style classroom for his Philosophy 101 class. Most in the class were 16-year-old freshmen, although a few older students were mixed in, particularly those who were unable to attend when they were freshmen themselves.

Unlike other lecturers at the university, Milford worked at making his time on stage entertaining. He danced around, gesturing wildly, varying the cadence of his voice. He included amusing anecdotes and used all the techniques of compelling oratory. Holos of his lectures were very popular, even among non-academics, and had racked up millions of views.

Several students were in fact recording him right now, their neural implants storing optical and aural sensory input as they watched him on the stage. Most recorded his lectures for their personal benefit, ostensibly so they could re-watch them before tests. In actuality, parties and personal relationships interfered with studying time for many of them, and the holos were never seen again.

A handful sold their recordings to companies looking to capitalize on the professor’s fame. This practice was officially frowned upon by Epsilon University and was grounds for dismissal if caught. However, it proved too lucrative for some to resist.

One student recorded the lecture for an entirely different purpose. He was registered as a sophomore under the name Ben Fernando. Fernando was an agent for State Security and Intelligence.

SSI had kept tabs on Dr. Milford for years. In fact, SSI monitored almost everyone at Epsilon University, students as well as professors. The hard sciences were watched for developments that could be appropriated by the state, or that might be used against the state. The soft sciences and humanities were monitored for political adherence, although less stringently. Everyone knew liberal arts and the like were mostly useless from a practical standpoint.

However, the war changed things and SSI slowly began to realize the true meaning of a liberal education. Liberal arts and social sciences taught students how to think. And if students learned to think outside established orthodoxy, that could be a problem.

Director Munk himself realized the error in their lax coverage of the humanities late in the war. He had since performed due diligence, including learning about the history of university education.

The liberal arts always rebelled against orthodoxy, it seemed. There may be times when professors adhered to the status quo, but invariably their politics shifted to the opposite side of the spectrum from which they were governed.

Therefore, capitalist societies produced professors who championed socialism. Socialist societies produced professors championing freedom and capitalism. The pattern held true for centuries.

Since the Star League was an authoritarian tetrarchy, it only stood to reason that her universities would produce freedom loving capitalistic professors. So, Munk increased surveillance on the humanities, and Fernando found himself signing up for various classes in liberal arts.

Fernando had to admit, Milford was a very good speaker. He found himself entertained, and often spent time afterward thinking about what the professor said. If it were not for the fact Fernando was an SSI agent, loyal to the state in every way, he might have been influenced to think the wrong way sometimes.

Philosophy was a broad topic, and Milford spent much time going over the classics. But the way he presented philosophical movements, ideas, and opinions always left his students with the notion that more freedom was better for individuals than what authoritarian governments typically allowed; that people flourished when government largely left them alone; that the right to be left alone was to be cherished and sought out whenever possible.

In short, Fernando increasingly grew to realize that Milford was extraordinarily dangerous and spreading seditious rumors and half-truths to his students. He grew increasingly alarmed as the semester advanced, and his reports back to SSI HQ became more strident in tone.

Today Milford expounded upon the philosophies underlying the American Revolution, and Fernando remained particularly alert. These ideas were poison to the League, especially in their ongoing war against the Republic. The Republic was in fact founded on the same ideals.

The Republic even thumbed its nose at the League by naming their most powerful spacecraft after American founding fathers.

So Fernando paid close attention, sitting front and center in the auditorium for a good view, and recorded it all on his neural implant.

Milton paused dramatically and said, “Somebody once said a democracy is like two wolves and a sheep voting what to have for dinner.”

Everyone in the room chuckled. All these students, Fernando thought, had been taught from an early age the evils of capitalism and democracy by state-approved schools and teachers. The notion had been pounded into them relentlessly.

Milton continued and said, “Somebody else said a representativedemocracy is where the sheep has a gun.”

A girl in the back of the room, “Oh, no!”

A few turned around and looked at her. She clapped a hand over her mouth and her ears grew red.

Milton nodded sagely. He said, “Of course, it doesn’t have to a literal gun, although in the case of the United States it certainly was with the Second Amendment to the Constitution. But the weapon in question is really the electoral process. You see, in a representative democracy, the people’s weapons are elections. If the people don’t like who is serving them in government, they can have a revolution at the ballot box and vote the scoundrels out of office.

“This is why representative democracies are the most stable and longest lasting of all governments. Their ‘revolutions’ occur every four years or so. The people in charge change, while the underlying framework within their constitution carries on.”

Fernando heard some mutterings, a couple of “Hmm’s” and “Aha’s.” He looked at the students sitting near him and noticed some eyebrows raised.

Milton had made an excellent point, and his ideas were shaking the carefully entrenched attitudes toward government these students had been indoctrinated in almost since birth.

Milton had also, Fernando decided, signed his own death warrant.

Condor Rising 39

Severs sighed, resigned to yet another meeting with top brass and diplomats. This part of leadership, he decided, was worse than waiting out in space for enemy ships to show up.

He stopped in the hallway and glanced at a giant holoscreen showing the Republican Shipworks orbiting platform, with several vessels in various stages of completion or repair.

After all that waiting, Severs thought, when the League Navy finally decided to show up they were destroyed in less than two minutes. It would have taken less than one minute except for the latecomer who showed up after the initial assault. Apparently, StarCen managed to port that one away before it was totally destroyed, because nothing was left of it save for a few chunks of scrap metal.

In the end, after all that waiting, the Thomas Paine took out an entire fleet. Not just any fleet, a fleet buttressed and expanded with half again as many ships as usual, 92 in all. And they were almost all destroyed. All except the last one that StarCen popped away in the nick of time. PLAIR had assured him privateers later finished off the damaged ship.

It was a phenomenal feat, unheard of in the annals of galactic warfare. Severs and Captain Strand and everyone else were feted as heroes back on Diego.

For his part, Severs played down the praise, turning it toward Strand. And Strand heaped praise on Severs in every interview he gave to the media. But the credit for taking out so many ships lay entirely with the new weapon. The press duly noted this in their programs and stories, with varied lurid headlines.

“Star Weapon Devastates Enemy Fleet.”

“Sun Gun Stuns Seychar’s Sons!”

“Harnessing the Sun to Get the Job Done.”

Severs was happy to accept the accolades, but privately he pressed his superiors to be allowed to sail again. The problem with that notion included the fact that Thomas Paine was disabled.

While engineers had perfected the algorithms for teleporting parts of the nearest star into combat, no one had taken into consideration actual combat conditions. In combat, the weapon needed to be used repetitively and in quick succession. So when Strand and his crew began lobbing parts of the sun at the enemy, they ported as many as they could, as quickly as they could.

The resulting power drain melted the Thomas Paine’s core. After the last fireball was sent toward Excelsior, Paine was adrift with nothing but emergency reserves to keep life support operational. The ship had to be towed back to Diego via tandem drive, where engineers with Republican Shipworks swarmed over every inch of the vessel to try and figure out what went wrong.

Their verdict: rapid overuse contributed to the meltdown. Pulling out part of a star took much more energy than typical teleportation. The Thomas Paine used all five Wu Drives in rapid succession to do so, over and over again. This resulted in the entire power core shutting down.

Working overtime, the employees of Republican Shipworks managed to restore the core . . . in two weeks. Severs literally gnashed his teeth at the thought of delay. Their entire planning centered around the Paine being used as a spearhead for a fresh assault on the League. That could not happen now.

Meanwhile, he thought, StarCen’s engineers would be busy developing their own weapon, or devising methods of countering it. The Planetary Republic no longer held the element of surprise.

He could do nothing but wait as workers repaired and outfitted the ship.

Now, today, at last . . . the Paine was ready to go. So was the Diego Fleet. Every spare ship had been called in. The Republic was going to move on the League. Even if the League had their own star gun by now, which everyone doubted, they were down 90 ships. Now was the time to make their move.

And even better, Severs thought as he looked out at the huge holoscreen displaying the orbiting shipyard, they would be bringing two of their newest ships with them: Francis Marion and Patrick Henry. He smiled at the identical Condor-class ships.

“There you are.”

Severs turned at the sound of a voice interrupting his thoughts. Chancellor Elsa Cole walked up, short, petite, and strawberry blonde. The freckles on her face and her easy smile belied her age and the burden of responsibility she carried for the entire Republic during these times of war. But she reached up and patted the larger man’s shoulder affectionately.

She was very personable, he thought, which was how she got elected. She could come across to voters as personable, too. But in private, those interacting with her could tell this was not simply an act to garner votes.

“The Diego Fleet departs in the morning, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’ve been waiting for that, haven’t you? Chomping at the bit.”

“Yes, ma’am. I fear the longer we wait the less advantage we have.”

She nodded, staring at the holoscreen displaying the two new ships ready to sail into battle. A twinkle shined in her eye.

“The Diego Fleet will sail with a new Admiral, you know.”

He turned to her and lifted an eyebrow. “No, I hadn’t heard. What happened to Admiral Caldwell?”

She smiled widely and said, “I’m promoting you to Admiral. You understand the Condor-class and their capabilities. The fleet will have three Condors sailing. I think you’re the best person for the job.”

Severs nodded as the full realization of her words struck home. He had always understood promotions were more rapid in wartime, but this . . . this was the fulfillment of his childhood dream.

His chest swelled while his mind swam with the new responsibilities being placed on his shoulders.

“Thank you, ma’am. I won’ t let you down.”

The petite woman smiled up at him and patted his shoulder again.

“I know you won’t. Go out there and win this war for me, Admiral.”

 

End of Book III

Condor Rising 38

The Parasol popped into orbit around Lute, following her regular yet unpublicized schedule. Cargo was sent down to Port Ryan, including clothing and other imports from across both League planets as well as the Republic’s. Exports were sent back up to the ship’s now empty holds, including agricultural products and tons of cryo-preserved poshbird, the chicken of the stars.

A handful of passengers ported down to the Administration Building, including new embassy staff and those returning from trips home. They passed through Customs without incident, their luggage and even the diplomatic pouches subjected to discreet scans by LuteNet. Customs officials knew several of these people by sight, they traveled between the two planets so often.

Of more interest to the officials were the handful of passengers who came down from the ship. Visitors to Lute were unusual. Typically, the only ones who made it this far either had a good reason to come all this way, or were interested in joining a pirate company. So, each visitor was politely but thoroughly screened.

A particularly large man approached the customs desk after exiting the embarkation/disembarkation zone, carrying a single suitcase on a strap over his shoulder. The agent looked down at her holoscreen at the data on him.

“Name?”

“Miller Metger.”

“Ah. Two last names, I see.”

She smiled up at him to gauge his reaction. She found a large face on a large head atop a very large man. He had thick black hair that was cut evenly, in a pageboy style. It did nothing to enhance his looks.

He looked at her without expression in his dark eyes, and for a moment she wondered if she would need to call for help.

Then he smiled slightly, and appeared marginally less threatening.

He said, “I get that a lot.”

“Enjoy your stay on Lute,” she said.

He nodded back and continued into the building.

Well, if he’s here to join a company, he should make a good pirate, she thought to herself.

Outside the building, Metger blinked in the sunlight and looked up. A young boy ran to him fearlessly.

“Cab, sir? Where do you need to go? Looking for a hotel? Restaurant?”

“Take me to the Petra Roe Embassy.”

“Sure thing! Right this way, sir!”

The boy led him down the steps of the building to the street where autocabs sat parked, waiting to give rides. The boy led him to one and made sure he stayed inside. Then the canopy snapped shut and the vehicle lifted into the sky.

Moments later, it landed on the roof the embassy building. Metger exited the vehicle and approached a receptionist droid underneath a canopied entrance.

He said, “Miller Metger here to see Ambassador Huntington.”

The android nodded as information danced across her holoscreen.

“Step into the elevator capsule, Mr. Metger. It will take you where you want to go.”

He nodded, and entered the waiting pod. When the doors opened again, he found himself walking into an ornate room with walnut paneling and plush carpets. The Ambassador himself stood from his desk and came around to meet him, in clear deference to his status.

Metger did not register anything on his face, but the Ambassador’s efforts pleased him. Proper respect was important.

“Marshal Miller Metger,” the Ambassador said. “I am very pleased to meet you.”

He shook hands with the bigger man warmly. Metger waited for him to say something about his name, or the three identical letters in his name and title, but the Ambassador merely pulled a curled tip of his mustache out and let it spring back, grinning at him all the while.

“I don’t believe I’ve made it out to Lute since the war began,” Metger said, casting his eyes about the spacious office.

“Have a seat, Marshal, have a seat. Yes, travel has been restricted, especially with the League. Not too many debtors can find their way here. Or runaways or prisoners.”

Metger sank into a sinfully luxurious sofa and stared back at the effusive Ambassador without expression.

He said, “We’re not always tracking down debtors. In my case, at the moment, I’m looking for the daughter of a certain Tetrarch.”

The Ambassador nodded gleefully. He said, “I am well aware of Ms. Thrall. She has evaded every attempt to reunite her with her father. I am sure that now you are here, this situation will be rectified immediately.”

Metger stared at the well-dressed Ambassador blankly. He considered what the man did not say. Every attempt to kill her had failed, too. The Marshal’s Service had resources no other organization in either major government had. And Metger knew that SSI’s office in Clarion had put out a contract on Jillian Thrall. He also knew the Ambassador here had failed in fulfilling that contract. And, the head of SSI Clarion had paid for the contract with his own life. The Tetrarch was not happy.

Out loud Metger said, “I am tasked with returning Ms. Thrall to her father. Unharmed. I hope I may have the resources of your Embassy in fulfilling my task.”

“Absolutely, Marshal. Absolutely.”

“I understand she is with the Ultima Mule Company. Do they have any enemies? Any rival pirate companies looking to take them down a notch or two?”

Huntington shook his head. He said, “It doesn’t work that way. The companies cooperate more than anything. If they compete it’s to see how many League ships they can take in comparison to the others.”

“I see. That is unfortunate. I will likely need some form of assistance if I am to take on an entire company.”

“I use janissaries. You can hire anybody you need here. Assassins, snipers, you name it.”

“Very good. I’ll also need a blaster. Some egg grenades would be nice, if you have them. And a combat knife.”

“Take the elevator down to our armory. Check out whatever you like. I will make sure the droid there knows you are fully authorized.”

“Great.”

Metger stood, towering over the Ambassador.

He said, “I’ll be in touch when I need additional resources. I’ll have no difficulties taking a Petra Roe ship on the way out? I’ll need to catch a ride up to orbit since the local AI will likely consider this a forced abduction.”

“Absolutely. I’ll have a transport standing by, ready to give you a ride.”

“Very good. I’ll be on my way, then.”

As he walked out of the room, the Ambassador stood up nervously.

He said, “I hope the Marshal’s Service will remember the goodwill and cooperation the people of Petra Roe are always willing to offer.”

Metger gave him a flat stare again for a moment, as if trying to read the underlying message in the Ambassador’s words.

Finally he nodded and headed for the elevator.

When he left, Huntington rubbed his hands together in glee.

“Now those pirates are finally going to meet their match! The Marshal is here!”

Condor Rising 37

Curly steered the Excelsior’s transport down toward Halcyon. They neared the surface, flying along at a height of half a kilometer up, over blue water.

A light went off on the holopanel. Behind him someone said, “What’s that mean?”

“It means we’ve lost contact with StarCen,” Curly said. “The Excelsior has likely been destroyed.”

“Look at that!”

Everyone followed the red fireball streaking past in the opposite direction on the holoscreen. It disappeared in the distance behind them.

“It’s gonna hit the water,” Curly said.

“Any way the XO could have survived that?”

Curly shook his head. He said, “He’s probably already dead.”

Everyone sat in silence as the transport continued on its course.

Several minutes later, Curly pointed at the horizon. He said, “Land ahead. I’ll find a good place to set us down.”

He angled the nose of the craft and began slowing down. At long last, they flew over solid ground.

The beach below quickly gave way to foliage, spreading out like a green carpet to mountains in the distance. Curly circled for a bit and found a small river feeding into the ocean. From there, he flew inland a ways until at last they came to an open area that looked big enough for landing.

“We should be safe from the river overflowing or the tide coming in if we park it here. Also, if it’s out in the open maybe the rescue party can see it easier from space.”

He settled the craft down in the middle of the clearing. The rails bumped lightly on the ground, and the door opened. Everyone filed out the door.

Curly stopped to unbuckle the Captain and lifted her gently out of the seat. The crew milled about, looking at the grass and shrubbery, the blue sky and white clouds and distant birds floating on wind currents.

“This place is completely untouched by humans, isn’t it?” Curly said, gently laying the Captain on the ground.

Benson groaned, regaining consciousness as he put her down. Her hand reached up for the back of her head.

The ensign she had been strapped next to knelt down beside her with a look of concern as she sat up.

Benson said, “What happened, Kilmeade?”

“Ma’am, the XO clocked you on the back of the head. He stayed behind and ordered us to evacuate you.”

Benson’s eyes grew wide as she processed the news.

“He struck his commanding officer?”

Kilmeade nodded. “Yes, ma’am. He did.”

Benson glanced at the sky. She said, “Is the ship still up there?”

“No ma’am. We saw it go down. And contact with StarCen is lost.”

Something died in the Captain’s eyes at these words. She stared ahead, unfocused and lost in thought.

“He did say to tell you one thing, ma’am.”

Her eyes refocused on the ensign.

“What?”

“He said to tell you . . . he still would. Do you know what that means, Captain?”

Benson burst into tears. She cried for two solid minutes. Her surviving crewmembers turned away, awkwardly. Ensign Kilmeade felt awkward, too, but she stayed near her Captain.

At last, Benson wiped away the tears and sniffled.

She said, “Yes. I know what it means.”

She stood up, tears gone. She was still Captain, and they were marooned. Emotions came second to taking care of her crew.

Benson said, “Right. We need to find a source of fresh water. And the transport’s food supplies are not going to last very long. Curly, organize a party to scout the area. Identify plants animals we can harvest. See if there are trees or shrubs we can use for fire. Try to get a feel for the land, we might be here for a while.”

Curly nodded and moved toward the others as a flash of light flickered from the distant mountains.

Kerpow!

The gunshot echoed throughout the area, reaching them after the light.

Curly grunted and fell, blood splattering on his shoulder.

Benson yelled, “Take cover!”

Everyone fell flat to the ground.

Another flash sparked in the distance.

Somebody shouted, “Incoming!”

Benson felt the air above her head twist with the humming of a lead ball as it spun above her head.

Bong!

The slug bounced off the transport.

“Everybody back inside! Move it!”

The crew scrambled up and ran for the door.

Another flash of light

Kerpow!

Dust blew up in a small cloud as the bullet hit the ground, but the crew was back inside.

Curly held his shoulder tight, stemming the blood loss, with a grimace of pain on his face.

“Can you still fly this thing, Curly?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He flicked some switches and the door closed. The holoscreen lit up and everybody saw another flash in the distance.

Bong!

Kilmeade said, “Is this thing bulletproof?”

“Let’s not hang around to find out. Get us airborne, Curly. Now!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Curly pulled back on the throttle with his free hand and the transport shot up in the air. He angled it back toward the water and sped away.

Bong!

A final bullet bounced off its side as a parting shot hit the craft.

Kilmeade looked over at the Captain, fear and worry in her eyes. She said, “Why were they shooting at us, ma’am?”

Benson took a deep breath and sighed. She said, “My guess is the natives are hostile. It’s been years since the League sent a ship to this planet. Maybe they think we’re invading or something.”

Several kilometers out over water, Benson ordered Curly to stop. The transport hovered in place while Kilmeade broke out a medpack. One of the engineers, a man by the name of Nguyen, quickly administered anesthetic. He cut into Curly’s shoulder and efficiently extracted the bullet.

“What is that?” Kilmeade said. “A musket ball?”

“It looks like a Minnie ball,” Nguyen said. “See how it’s shaped? It’s a step above a simple round ball. This kind is more accurate. If I had to guess, it came from a flintlock or something. They were using muzzleloaders. Really old technology.”

“Effective, though,” Curly said, his mind still working despite the pain. “A few inches over and it would have caught me in the neck.”

Nguyen said, “Stay still, Curly. Let’s get the nanobots in your system so they can repair you.”

Curly nodded and watched as Kilmeade pulled a pneumatic syringe out.

Benson said, “Let’s open the armory doors. Everyone retrieve a weapon. We’ll wait until nightfall to land again and establish a perimeter. I don’t want to be taken by surprise from snipers again, no matter how primitive their weapons.”

Kilmeade said, “Why were they shooting at us, ma’am?”

Benson shook her head and said, “I don’t know.”

She reached out and took a gun someone handed her, nodding her thanks.

She said, “But it was a foolish decision.”

Condor Rising 36

The holographic circle appeared in the courtyard outside Thrall Manor, and Julian Thrall popped into existence.

He walked in silence to the house, head bent down and eyes unfocused.

He passed the new and improved guardbots the Navy had sent. These recent models from Thespar Industries had armored heads. They were square, with sloping sides that connected to the shoulders. They had no neck, and personally Thrall thought they looked like monstrosities. But Thespar engineers had assured him this new model could not be taken down by small explosions to the head like the previous ones.

Thrall ignored the two at either side of the door to the gym, which swished open for him as he approached.

Inside, all had been cleaned and repaired from the recent attacks on the house. It still irritated him that SSI had managed to infiltrate his home so easily and attack his daughter. And, Jillian had somehow escaped.

At first, he thought she had been captured by SSI. But, with the help of StarCen he finally figured out that Jillian had teleported away. She had teleported without the assistance of StarCen.

This was still something of a mystery to the Tetrarch. He struggled to fill in the gaps of his knowledge. Evidently, an enemy ship had sneaked into their solar system and taken her. That was the only feasible explanation for what happened.

Then word from the Petra Roe ambassador on Lute came back to him. Jillian was seen on that world again. Even more intriguing, the ambassador thought a woman who looked like his other daughter was present as well. Julia had been off his grid for over a year.

He still did not know how the pirates pulled off the stunt, but he knew what to do from the lesson learned by it. First, he had taken steps to once again retrieve Jillian, now that he knew where she was. The Navy and SSI retrieved her last time, it was true. But both organizations were stretched thin at the moment, and he certainly did not trust SSI. So he called in one more favor, this time with a different organization . . .

The other measure involved security. He directed the Navy to increase diligence in all League solar systems, and keep an eye out for enemy ships lurking at the periphery.

Sure enough, another pirate ship . . . the same one? . . . was caught hiding out in the Juventas system. This time they were not so lucky, and were quickly chased off.

But Thrall was not so sure their mission had been a failure. SSI Juventas had suffered some serious setbacks lately. He had difficulties getting much information from them. But Thrall and Edgar Munk went back many years, and maintained a cordial professional relationship. Munk now headed up SSI on Epsilon, and nominally, at least, was head of the entire organization. A personal call to Munk had led to the news that SSI Juventas had truly suffered. Terrorists had taken out their director. Thrall knew something about that since one of his Vice Admirals was killed in the same bombing.

But Munk hinted at something more. Some other lapses occurred that Munk was more vague about. One of his best field agents had disappeared while trying to bring in some valuable intelligence. Munk did not know what the data pertained to, but if he heard anything that would help the Navy, he assured Thrall he would mention it.

Thrall paused at the stairs and wondered if the agent had discovered something about the Republican’s new Condor-class ship and its devastating weapon.

If so, it truly was a pity they did not have that information before Operation Golden Return commenced. The Republicans had been waiting for them. Waiting for them to show up in force so they could wipe them out.

Already, Thespar engineers were working to replicate the weapon. Nobody had ever thought of teleporting the sun before and harnessing its energy as a weapon. Soon, they assured him, soon the League would have a similar weapon. In the meantime, StarCen would teleport away any ship in sign of danger. She had taken measurements when the Excelsior showed up late at Gotha Mu, and the AI knew how fast to respond now.

Speaking of Excelsior, StarCen had informed him the surviving members of her crew were safe on Halcyon. They could wait. As far as Thrall was concerned, they could stay there until the war was over. He put Excelsior out of his mind.

Admiral Cooper was not happy with that decision. Excelsior was part of the Sixth Fleet after all, and he felt like Benson and her people were being abandoned. But Thrall reminded him that not only was there a Republican squadron nearby at Seychar, they had a ship there that outclassed anything the League had in the sky at the moment. No, Benson and her people could wait.

He sighed. Cooper had not balked against the orders, but Thrall saw the look on his hologram’s face. Thrall had no doubt the stubborn Admiral would have willingly sent two dozen ships just to recover the few survivors, never mind all would likely get blown out of the sky just like the expanded Fifth Fleet had.

At the top of the stairs he turned toward his room down the recently repaired hallway, and Raquel poked her head out the door.

She said, “There you are! I thought I heard something.”

He smiled, all the troubles of managing a war temporarily forgotten at the sight of her beautiful face and blonde hair.

She said, “Hard day? Let me give you a back rub.”

He nodded and walked in, sitting down in a leather wingback. She moved behind the chair and started rubbing his shoulders.

“What’s the matter, sweetie? What’s troubling you so much?”

He sighed again and said, “We’re in a bad spot. We’ve lost over 90 ships to this new weapon the Republicans have. If they choose to attack with it—and they will, I’m certain of it—we can’t fight back. Not yet.”

“This is the nuclear torpedo substitute you were talking about? Sun teleportation, wasn’t it?”

He nodded, grateful for her kneading fingers rubbing out the tension in his neck and upper back.

“StarCen can port our people away in time, right?” she said. “Now that we know what they’ve got, we can take steps to prevent it from destroying anything else.”

“It’s not that simple. They can still destroy things before StarCen reacts. Then whatever she ports away is no longer there to defend locations. They can take over entire planets easily, at least until Donald Sanford’s company can come up with a counter-weapon.”

“The pirates got him and his wife recently, didn’t they?”

Thrall nodded. “They were on the Coral Reef. Thespar paid an outrageous ransom to get them back.”

“I’m surprised PLAIR let them go.”

“The Sanfords run the company but they know very little about its inner workings, especially classified projects. That was a deliberate choice they made at the start of the war, and a smart one. So, with no intelligence, they were useless to hold onto. The pirates took the money instead.”

“I see. Well, in their case it’s good to be useless then.”

She finished rubbing his back, walked around the chair and sat down in his lap, throwing her arms around his neck.

“You’ve got to look on the bright side of things, sweetie. The Republicans haven’t attacked. Maybe we’re weaker and maybe we can’t fight off their fancy new weapon just yet, but they have not taken advantage of the situation. Maybe their big old ship with its big old gun was only good for one round right now.”

She kissed him then, to help take his mind off his troubles.

When she finished he looked into her beautiful blue eyes and for a moment all seemed well in his world.

Then his own eyes clouded over with worries and doubts again as reality quickly snatched the moment away.

He said, “There is no bright side in war.”