Solar Storm 29

Slowly, over the next several hours Wilcox learned more about the changes her body underwent.

Peng left to attend to other things, leaving her alone with Admiral Custen, who was also a physician she discovered.

When they had a moment alone, he began trying to describe what happened to her.

Custen said, “Essentially, your cellular structure underwent a photovoltaic metamorphosis.”

“Explain it to me in English, Doc. Without all the medical mumbo-jumbo.”

Custen took a deep breath and started again.

“Okay. Let me start at the beginning. The Gemini Project was a secret effort by the League to transform people into quasi-electronic entities. They were obsessed with creating subjects who could do things ordinary people cannot. Primarily they were interested in autonomous teleportation.

“We don’t know a whole lot about their successes, but we do have some intelligence about their failures. And there were a lot of failures.

“A few years back, word got out somehow and SSI had to abandon research on the major planets. They retreated to minor ones, Raton Five in particular. Finally, from what we understand, they started seeing some successes. They transformed people so they could teleport themselves, or turn themselves into a digital state somehow.”

“The Intangibles,” Wilcox said. “I’ve heard of them.”

“Right! About the time the war started, something happened on Raton Five. We’re still not certain about all the details. Suffice it to say the facility was destroyed and only a handful of subjects survived. They scattered to the four winds, so to speak. A few have shown up on our radar. A couple of them made it to Lute, for instance, and became pirates. SSI and the League Navy got caught up in the war and they have not resumed research so far as we know.”

Wilcox said, “Okay. Now, what does that have to do with me?”

“That warehouse your team entered was used for Gemini Project experiments before everything was moved to Raton Five. The bot set off an explosion designed to release all the cellular transformative energies stored at that site. Think of it like a battery explosion.

“Your body absorbed a blast of considerable strength at just the right distance to survive. Any closer or further away, and you’d be dead. Call it Providence, or whatever you like, but you happened to be at the perfect distance to absorb the energy and survive.”

Wilcox paused to think, letting everything Custen said sink in.

She said, “Alright. How am I alive? You said many patients subjected to this . . . radiation or whatever it is . . . died? How come I’m not dead? Why would the distance matter?”

“We’re not sure. We think whoever programmed the bots probably thought the explosion would kill anyone in the area. If they knew you were still alive, they’d probably be as surprised as we are.”

“Has it . . . has this energy changed me?”

Wilcox held out her hand and looked at it. Her skin looked and felt the same. She felt really good at the moment, in fact.

Custen said, “Your cellular structure has definitely been altered. You are holding a considerable amount of raw energy in your body, much more so than the typical human. That’s what our instruments are picking up, anyway.”

“Okay. So . . . what’s that mean? I can teleport myself like the Intangibles now?”

Custen shrugged. He said, “We don’t know. We’re hoping you can tell us more.”

He smiled in his best bedside manner and said, “You’ll be staying on the Barton while we run some tests. Don’t worry, we have an excellent gym and you can stay in shape. Of course, you’ll have access to the quantum matrix and all its entertainment options. Think of this as a vacation.”

Wilcox groaned. She said, “I’ve got people down there who need me. I have to get back to my platoon.”

“The 31st has been shifted over to guard duty. Mop up activities are mostly over, anyway. Colonel Peng is in agreement with this decision.”

He made the last statement to forestall her appealing to her CO. He could see the rebellious glint in her eye.

Wilcox sighed, resigned to her fate.

She said, “Fine. What would you like to experiment on first?”

-+-

Days passed and the entire medical staff onboard the fleet’s hospital ship had to admit they were stumped. They spent considerable time consulting with experts across various fields back on Diego, but no one had anything conclusive to offer. Sergeant Wilcox seemed to be in perfect health.

In fact, some of her charts looked better than when she signed up. Her vitals appeared peak and her health appeared to be about as good as it possibly could be.

She appeared to be fine mentally, too. For all intents and practical purposes she seemed to actually be in better shape than she was before the explosion. No one could figure out why.

She also could not seem to do anything extraordinary, either. If she was an Intangible, she had nothing to show for it. Several medical personnel tried to test her and see if she could teleport or shift into a digital state. She could not.

A considerable debate formed among the military scientists and Navy medical personnel as to what exactly had happened. They had little to go on, since SSI’s research remained classified, and the few surviving subjects had long since dispersed. No one really knew where to start looking. Certainly no one had ever been subjected to similar explosions under controlled circumstances.

The consensus among members of the group was they needed more time to study the sergeant, and hopefully glean much more data.

After two weeks and no changes in Wicox’s bio readings, Peng was ready to put her back into active duty.

“We really need more like two months, or even two years, to study her properly,” Custen said in the conference call in which the sergeant’s fate was discussed.

“I understand,” Peng said. “And I suppose in some way or other she will be studied her entire life. But, there is a war going on and I need every able-bodied man and woman I can get. Unless there are serious objections besides the need for more research, I am going to put her back into her platoon.”

No one could come up with a persuasive enough argument, and so the following morning, 15 days after the incident that sent her to the hospital ship, Sergeant Wilcox returned to the surface of Juventas and the company of her troops.

“What are you maggots looking at?”

Her first words were addressed to the duty rotation outside the area that used to be the Yorkton Administration Building. The destroyed city blocks were cordoned off from civilians, and the Marines kept a patrol there to prevent anyone from going into the area.

“We haven’t figured that out yet, Sarge,” Jamieson said with a smile.

“Insubordinate bastards. Get back to work.”

And with that, life for those serving in the 31st returned to normal.

Solar Storm 28

Julia watched the Marines stream into the building and fan out, taking defensive positions against the bot headed their way.

She breathed a little easier after her close call with their drone, the one the sergeant called a “puppy.” She had been moving when its sensors scanned her, and it evidently caught a whiff of her bio signs. She froze, letting her camouflage unit go to work. Fortunately, the Marines regarded the initial reading as a fluke.

She retreated now, out of the line of fire between the bot and the Marines, fighting off her personal disappointment that Fenner was nowhere to be seen.

Deep down, Julia desperately hoped for an opportunity to kill the missing SSI director. Instead, it looked as if she would simply get a front row seat of a shootout between Space Marines and a late model guard bot.

She backed up carefully to put plenty of distance between herself and the others in the large open area.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah!

KABLUMPF! KABLOOM!

The bot opened fire, and the Marines immediately lobbed egg grenades at it. They did not even need to be ordered to do so by the sergeant. They were obviously well-versed in dealing with this model.

The bot’s blaster blew up and it lost part of a leg, going down to the floor. But it was still alive, eyes glowing out of its rectangular, explosive-resistant head.

Julia heard a whirring noise start up behind her. She turned and gasped as two more bots stepped out of their own electronic camouflage field. The sergeant and her people were still focused on the downed bot, and still recovering their senses from the grenades going off.

Julia turned to the Marines and shouted, “Look out! It’s a trap!”

She dived and rolled out of the way just as the bots began firing on the Marines, knocking several off their feet with the blasts.

The Marines returned fire, and lobbed a couple more grenades.

Julia hunkered down in a ball on the floor, covering her eyes and ears.

I need to get out of here, she thought.

She jumped up and ran in a wide circle around the field of fire between the new bots and the Marines, then headed for the door. She rushed out, running past the Marines outside, and headed back up the hill.

Near the top she paused and looked back the way she had come.

“That was a disaster,” she muttered to herself out loud.

-+-

Grenades, followed by multiple blasts to the head. That was the standard operating procedure when dealing with these new bots.

The problem was . . . they were low on grenades.

We shouldn’t have thrown them all at the first one, Wilcox thought.

But they had. Somehow the drone had missed these two. And who shouted that warning?

No time to think about it now, she thought, firing carefully at the rectangular head of one of the bots. Their last two grenades had damaged one, but both were still in commission. One of them had an operable weapon and returned fire, knocking down marines as it shot.

Their armor absorbed the blasts, but it would only be a matter of time before the infernal machine got lucky and seriously injured somebody.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

“You need some help, Sarge?”

Lt. Meyers’s voice came over her com on the neural net. He was outside, watching their visual feeds.

“You might send some more grenades in,” Wilcox said. “I dunno where these two were hiding, but the puppy missed them. Hope there’s not any more.”

“Roger that. More XO coming your way.”

Two additional Marines ran into the building, carrying webbed bags full of egg grenades, dodging blast bolts from the enemy bot.

The additional ordnance was well received. A couple of the Marines paused to load their grenade launchers. The rest just grabbed and threw them.

KABABABLUMPF!

Everybody coughed at the smoke the multiple explosions left behind in the enclosed space.

No one noticed the first bot had crawled to the energy storage units in the back of the room.

Wilcox turned her head and saw the crippled bot reaching for a lever. On pure instinct she yelled an order, as if a sixth sense told her what was about to happen.

“Everybody out! This place is gonna blow!”

Trained to follow orders immediately in the heat of combat, all the Marines turned and ran for the door.

But Wilcox raced for the bot, going full speed. At the last minute she leaped and tackled it just as the lever came down.

A blinding flash of light filled her vision before she lost consciousness.

-+-

Wilcox opened her eyes again and squinted, letting her irises constrict, adjusting to the light.

A droid doc’s face came into her field of vision, glancing down at her with warm and empathetic eyes.

He said, “How are you feeling?”

“Where am I?”

“You are onboard the Clara Barton, Sergeant. Rest easy, the lead physician and your CO have been notified of your return to consciousness. They should be here soon.”

She sighed and said, “Great.”

It was toneless, without inflection, and the droid could not discern any meaning from it. Was she being sarcastic or did she truly think it would be great to see the officers? The droid doc could not tell, so he left her alone and returned to a corner of the room, standing by if he should be needed.

Wilcox patted herself, to see if she was all there. She experimented, wiggling her fingers and toes. Everything seemed to be working . . .

The door swished open and a human doctor walked in followed by Lt. Col. Peng. Wilcox struggled to sit up so she could face them properly.

The doctor put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t bother, Sergeant. You can just stay put, for now. I’m Rear Admiral Jon Custen, in charge of the Medical Corps for the fleet. I’ve said it to Marines before, but I really, really mean it in your case. You are lucky to be alive.”

Peng said, “It was a bold thing, trying to stop the explosion, Sergeant. Above and beyond. I’ve put you in for a medal.”

Wilcox grunted noncommittally. She said, “How . . . Why am I still here?”

Custen and Peng exchanged glances.

Peng nodded and Custen cleared his throat.

He said, “It appears the facility your platoon was investigating served as an experimental warehouse for SSI. They were testing human subjects there before they had to shut down and move their operations to a more remote location.”

Wilcox’s blood ran cold, and a lump formed in her throat.

She said, “What . . . what were the experiments?”

Both men looked down at her with sympathetic expressions.

Custen said, “Have you ever heard of the Gemini Project?”

Solar Storm 27

Julia scanned the building on Yorkton’s periphery and grimaced. She watched as the Republican Marine platoon landed via transports in a circle around the isolated structure, and silently breathed a sigh of relief.

She had no access to an AI, just like most of the rest of the population on Juventas. StarCen’s presence was gone, thanks to surgical strikes by the Diego Fleet and follow up efforts by their Marines.

Supposedly, cores for PLAIR had been installed on the planet but she either remained offline or unavailable for civilian use at this time. Maybe both.

Julia had been able to meet with Elephant one more time. He informed her of reports concerning rogue SSI agents, ones the Marines had not captured yet. The most troubling part of his report: the Wicked Witch lived. She was still out there somewhere.

The trick was trying to find someone without an AI to tell you where she was or where she might be. Fortunately, Elephant knew something about where the Marines might be headed. They were systematically performing mop up operations, and that meant every SSI facility would be targeted. The ELO Tribunal happened to know where a number of those sites were.

Together, Elephant and Angel looked at what they knew had been taken out by the Marines so far. What remained were secondary minor targets. At least, they were minor as far as anyone knew. And what they knew, Elephant assured her, the Marines would know. So, that left five or six remaining locations in and around Yorkton.

“Now, let’s think like an SSI agent on the run,” Elephant had said. “What would you do, if you knew the Marines were checking out all your facilities?”

“I’d pick a good one to set up an ambush and take out as many Marines as I could.”

The old man nodded and smiled at her. He said, “See? We don’t need an AI. We can go through the same processes as she could.”

“Yeah,” Julia said. “But it takes longer.”

After looking over the targets remaining that they knew of, they decided this building would be ideal to set up an ambush. It was known officially as SSI Juventas Facility 26, and was supposedly abandoned. At one point it had reportedly hosted a variety of medical experiments on humans, led by a company called Gemini Exponentials. Somehow word had leaked out about that, and SSI ended up taking a lot of heat for it.

Evidently, some of the news outlets on Epsilon were more independent-minded than the government cared for, and a big exposé ran in one of the papers.

Julia knew that SSI had not stopped their human experiments. They simply moved them to isolated outposts, like Raton Five. Conditions on that planet were barely tolerable for human life, and work there could remain undisturbed from outside inquiries. That led to the Gemini Project, shrouded in mystery and leaving only a handful of survivors. Meanwhile facilities like this one, under scrutiny by the local populations, were abandoned.

Julia stood in an open field about 100 meters from the entrance to the building, her camouflage unit activated. The Marines did not notice her.

She watched as a young officer directed an assault unit led by a large female sergeant with very short hair.

The sergeant nodded and began barking out orders to the dozen people with her. They approached the building’s doorway, guns ready. A Marine with an XO hologram on her chest ran for the door and placed sticky bombs on it.

Now is the time, Julia thought.

She began running for the door, where all the Marines focused their attention.

When the sticky bombs exploded, she ran past the outer ring of personnel. They did not hear her footsteps as she zipped around them.

By the time debris settled from the blown door, she entered it behind the team going in, right behind the short-haired sergeant.

-+-

Wilcox moved toward the blown door with Jamieson, Boggs, and three others. She knew the basic layout of the building, having studied the floor plans beforehand. In her mind’s eye, she could see the navigational map showing their location and an image of the ground floor.

Intelligence indicated this building was supposed to be empty. Since it was an SSI property they had to check it out, though. Their orders were to either take anything of value or render inoperable equipment too big to move. The enemy’s resources were to be neutralized.

Wilcox felt fairly comfortable with the assignment. These were secondary and tertiary targets, after all. Other than the one bogey who got away from the SSI safe house, they had not had a lot of excitement lately.

She was happy to have something to do. She knew many Marines around the globe were simply guarding locations, staring down civilians upset about the change in government or rebuilding facilities destroyed by the Navy in the initial attack.

This was the point where Marines became “boots on the ground” so vital to holding new territory. Wilcox normally enjoyed this part almost as little as she enjoyed sitting on a troop transport for weeks on end. At least checking out these final targets of interest gave her platoon something to do besides guard duty, so she enthusiastically directed her group toward the building.

They fanned out in front of the door, facing a giant open area, dimly lit.

“Boggs, toss the puppy in.”

“Sure thing, Sarge.”

Boggs unstrapped a drone the size of a shoebox from his back and threw it into the doorway. It landed on the floor inside, and sprouted four spider legs. It instantly lit up in a ball of light and began scanning the area.

Boggs and Wilcox followed a camera feed transmitted back to their minds via the neural net.

Boggs said, “No life forms. Wait. What was that?”

“I saw it, too,” Wilcox said. “It’s gone now.”

“Was it a glitch?”

“I’m not sure. Just keep an eye out. Send the puppy in deeper.”

The little drone scurried forward, its feet making metallic clicks on the floor.

“I’m fairly certain there’s no human life, Sarge. I’m not seeing any bio readings, except for that one flash in the pan back there.”

“What about explosives? After that house in the suburbs went up, I’m a little gun shy.”

Boggs did not respond right away, distracted by the readings sent back from the drone.

Finally he said, “I’m getting some weird feedback from the far end of the room, Sarge. It doesn’t look explosive, but there’s energy of some kind being held in containers. It’s just odd.”

“Let me look at it.”

Wilcox shifted her mind’s eye to the drone’s readout.

She said, “What is this? Some kind of storage facility? It looks like giant batteries of some kind, storing power.”

“Hold up, Sarge. I’m seeing movement.”

She watched with Boggs as something shifted near the far corner of the wall.

Boggs said, “Security bot. Newer model, hard to kill.”

“Okay,” Wilcox said. “That’s what we’ve got to deal with, people. Get the drone out, Boggs, and let’s go inside to engage.”

Before Boggs could send the command to make the drone retreat, the bot raised its firearm and fired.

Thoop!

The feed went blank.

Solar Storm 26

The council chamber in Mule Tower was full, with over 100 crewmembers in stadium-style seating.

Raleigh stood at the podium up front. On the dais with him sat Granny, Max, and Jillian.

He said, “Welcome, everybody, to our monthly meeting. And it has been a particularly good month.”

A light round of applause went up in the chamber. News of the haul from the banking drone had spread.

“So, those of you who missed out on the Petra Roe heist will probably be interested in our next venture.”

A ripple of excitement stirred through the room.

“As you may have heard, the Republicans took Juventas recently.”

Raleigh paused as the holo in front of the chamber lit up, showing a graphical representation of the Juventas solar system.

“There are three other planets in the quadrant controlled by Juventas: Palisades, Aegea, and Thalia. Minor historical note: Thalia is also the name of an asteroid circling Old Earth.”

Granny cackled at this, behind him.

She said, “There’s only so many Ancient Greek names to go around. They had to recycle them.”

“Right. So, the Republicans have put out a call for assistance with those three planets. They’d like us to maintain a presence and patrol the area. There won’t be much to plunder, I’m afraid. At least, they are not expecting much, and have implied we should tamper down our expectations. They do not want us messing with the planets themselves, by the way.

“However, there may be some stray ships trying to get in and out. If I’m reading between the lines correctly, the Diego Fleet is expecting the League Navy to attack again soon, and try to wrest away Juventas. So, they are unwilling to spare many official ships to mess with the minor planets in that quadrant.”

A hand shot up in the crowd.

“Yes, Kim?”

“And they’re willing to pay for this?”

“Now that they have Seychar back in the Republic’s column of assets, they are able to afford hiring some private warships. We’ve been offered half a million to show up in one of the neighboring systems and intercept any hostiles. A quarter million per incident, if we encounter a League Navy ship and destroy or disable it. Best of all, any civilian ship flying under League papers we get to keep. Cargo and passengers.”

This stirred considerable interest.

“What’s out there?” Kim said. “Are there a lot of civilian ships still flying around those planets?”

Raleigh shrugged. “Dunno. I’m sure some of them beat a hasty retreat when the Diego Fleet showed up at Juventas. On the other hand, there may well be individuals still wanting to leave, and there may be smugglers willing to ship people and products in or out for the right price.

“It’s a gamble, and a bit of a shot in the dark. But, we can afford to go on a venture at this point and come back empty handed.”

Granny openly glared at his back with this statement. Everybody facing him noticed it, and smiles went up around the room.

He continued and said, “However, there’s always the possibility we could turn up something lucrative, or at least interesting. I asked Lootie to give us the odds of finding something worthwhile, and she thinks Thalia might be the best choice to have something coming or going that we could intercept.”

Raleigh looked across the crowd and took the measure of the room. He sensed a mood of excitement at the prospects.

“Alright. We’ll take volunteers for a trip to Thalia. Figure a three month minimum excursion. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

-+-

The following day, a fully provisioned Ultima Mule began taking on crew as they ported up in pairs.

Jillian and Skylar ported up first, each carrying a backpack.

As they walked down the hall outside the embarkation/disembarkation area, Skylar said, “I think Dillon and I will take that small bunkroom next to yours and the Captain’s.”

Jillian said, “Oh! Is that allowed? I thought there were all kinds of rules about fraternization and such.”

“We got married yesterday.”

“Get out! You did not! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Skylar shrugged. She said, “It was kind of a spur of the moment thing. But yeah, a lot of it had to do with the separate quarters issue. Three months is a long time, you know?”

“Where did you . . . Did you go to a church or something?”

“No, we went to the Administration Building. Paid the fee, did the paperwork, and had a civilian ceremony on the spot.”

“Are you sure about this, Skylar? I mean, you haven’t really known Dillon for very long.”

“Yeah, I’m sure. I’ve known him long enough. He doesn’t freak out about the glowing skin and the Intangible stuff. He actually finds it attractive. And that goes a long way. I’ve never met anyone this . . . interested in me.”

“I’m so happy for you,” Jillian said, giving her a hug. “I wish you had said something. We could have thrown you a party!”

Skylar shrugged. “We don’t want anything, or for anybody to make a fuss. Dillon’s like me. We’re happy to stay out of the spotlight. I think we’re both somewhat introverted. You and the Captain can go grab the glory while we stay quietly in the background.”

Over the next hour, additional crewmembers ported up to the ship along with their personal luggage. Finally, the Ultima Mule popped away from its orbit around Lute and began the long journey to Thalia.

Solar Storm 25

Thrall sat in a luxurious conference room, even more well-apportioned than the one back on Clarion he usually used. This one had lots of wasted space, especially to one used to the rigors and confinements of Naval life onboard spaceships.

The ceiling went far too high, and was decked in hand-carved relief images showing four solar systems. The walls were equally sumptuous, with rare wood, granite, marble, and liberal overlays of gold leaf.

In the middle, a 20,000 credit conference table dominated the room, surrounded by comfortably overstuffed black leather chairs.

Thrall sat at the head, looking at the holograms of the other two Tetrarchs, Billings and Chu. Their respective assistants sat beside them.

Thrall had no assistant, with Elven long gone and now with the additional absence of Raquel Kirkland. But he called the meeting without one, especially in light of their dire circumstances.

“I don’t need to inform you two of the situation we find ourselves in.”

Billings and Chu nodded. Billings was an overweight man approaching 60. He claimed ancestry from England, although the United Kingdom would be more accurate. His family hailed from somewhere in the far-flung British Empire of old, but Thrall never caught where, exactly. It was one of the Caribbean islands, he thought. Or, maybe it was in the Atlantic.

Chu was of Asian descent, by way of America. She was rail thin, but closer to 50 years old instead of 60. She never spoke much, but she often carried a shrewd and cunning look in her eyes.

Thrall continued. He said, “The Republic took the Juventas quadrant, wiping out most of Cooper’s remaining fleet. In light of this emergency, I am moving to consolidate power here on Epsilon.”

“And by consolidating power, what exactly do you mean?” Billings said.

Thrall glanced at the hologram, a slight glint in his green eyes.

He said, “As you both know, Epsilon has served at the center of the Tetrarchy, a nexus, if you will, for all four systems. Our ‘alphabet agencies’ are headquartered here, as is the Navy, our main universities and our training centers. It also serves as a central hub for manufacturing and administration across the League.

“Everything has worked well with Epsilon serving as the center of a four-spoke wheel of power these last hundred years or so. But now, with the loss of Juventas the whole geographical balance of power has become . . . problematic.”

He waved his hand and a holoscreen appeared in the middle of the table, showing up in all their respective conference rooms simultaneously.

“I am exerting a measure to gather all authority here, on Epsilon. You two will remain in charge of your respective quadrants, but all final decisions of importance will go through me.

“We need to consolidate power in order to better coordinate against the Republican threat. So far, the war has left most of us relatively untouched. With the loss of Juventas, that changes. Now we will have to adjust all aspects of civilian life, as well as military, in order to face this threat.

“The time is coming, and indeed has now come, when all subjects of the League will be expected to contribute their fair share to the war effort.”

The expressions on the other two Tetrarchs’ faces would have been comical in other circumstances. They gave Thrall looks of profound incredulity.

“So . . . you’re saying . . . you are in charge now? Of everything?” Billings said.

“That is correct. You and Tetrarch Chu will remain in place over your respective quadrants, but you will report to me now. I am moving to Epsilon, at least until this present crisis passes.”

The holographic avatars representing Billings and Chu exchanged a glance across the cosmos. This was a naked power grab. In other times, they would have resisted. If Lopez was here, she would be leading the charge.

As it was, both Tetrarchs knew the fleets in orbit around their own capital planets would be all too happy to flood their Administration Buildings with Marines and replace them with an Admiral at the drop of a hat. So, neither one said anything in disagreement.

Instead, Chu said, “It would appear you are in charge now, Tetrarch Thrall.”

That was a tacit agreement to his power move.

Thrall nodded, a trace of satisfaction flashing in his green eyes.

Billings took a deep breath. He could not be quite as outwardly acquiescent as Chu.

He said, “I hope we can discuss this further once the war is over.”

“Of course, Tetrarch Billings, of course. When we get to that point we will decide what to do.”

And perhaps I will have found your replacement by then, Thrall thought.

The meeting wrapped up shortly afterward and Thrall left the table, heading for the door. Outside in the hallway he met the most attractive young blonde woman he had ever seen.

She had gloriously long, wavy blonde hair stretching down below her waist. Ample breasts and a ridiculously thin waistline above shapely hips were all outlined provocatively yet without a hint of salaciousness in the business dress she wore.

Her face was very sharp and attractive. Some women had what used to be called “it,” a hard to define quality that marked extraordinarily seductive faces. She had “it,” Thrall thought, in spades.

Her eyebrows were dark blonde, one of the signs the luscious color quality of her hair was not fake. She even had blue eyes.

Thrall felt bedazzled. His eyes locked onto hers, and never left.

When she smiled at him, her face lit up and became even more attractive. She looked warm and inviting, and ever so interested in him.

“Tetrarch Thrall? I’m Kendra Lewis. StarCen says I am to be your assistant so long as you stay on Epsilon.”

He shook her hand, noticing the red painted nails.

Thrall thought back to something Edgar Munk had mentioned in one of their discussions about women. Munk was the closest thing Thrall had to a friend, and they discussed many things men liked to talk about.

Munk had a theory about painted nails. Women who were not in physically demanding jobs and who wanted to look attractive painted their nails. Women who wanted to look particularly attractive to men, painted their toenails.

Thrall glanced down and noted Kendra wore open black high heels. Her toenails peeked through. They were painted the same shade as her fingernails.

Munk also had a theory about why women wore high heels, but Thrall shoved that lustful thought out of his mind.

Out loud he said, “StarCen, confirm.”

“Ms. Kendra Lewis is an ideal candidate for serving as your assistant, Tetrarch Thrall.”

He glanced at the incredibly attractive young woman again. She looked stunning. Perhaps one in a million young women appeared this outstanding.

He said, “You are not Navy?”

“No, sir. I regret the Attaché Service is unable to provide you with someone at this time. However, I do have considerable experience in many related fields. Please try me out, sir. If I fail to meet your expectations, you can always request a replacement.”

He looked at her marvelous blue eyes and drank in her entire figure though his peripheral vision.

“I am sure you will do quite well, Ms. Lewis. Accompany me to my suite at the Epsilonian. We can get to know one another better there.”

“Of course, sir!”

The young woman flushed, and seemed excited.

That’s to be expected, Thrall thought. After all, I am the Lead Tetrarch.

Together they made their way to an open area so StarCen could port them away.

Solar Storm 24

The solitary gunshot from the police guarding the Governor’s Mansion took out another one of her crew.

Down to four, Benson thought, plus me. Vargas had stayed behind to care for the two who survived their wounds at the campsite, and gather up anything they could use. He would move out with the wounded tonight before anybody else found their hideout.

That left Benson with Curly, Kilmeade, and two more, now that they had lost another.

But the police paid a price. By her count, there were four down outside.

She saw lights come on in the mansion, upstairs and downstairs. She walked fearlessly toward the front door, carrying two rifles over her shoulder.

Curly hurried to catch up with her.

He said, “Careful, ma’am. There may still be gunmen about.”

“That witch, the Governor, has killed the last of my crew. You have a blaster. Take out that door.”

Curly nodded and aimed toward the heavy wooden double doors marking the entrance.

Thoop! Thoopah!

The doors burst open in a fireball as the blasts hit. The others ran up to their location just as Benson started for the door.

Curly said, “Ma’am, you can’t just go up there! They might have—”

BLAM!

Somebody fell down to her right, thrown back by a Minni ball striking them in the chest.

Everybody else dove to the ground.

Three plus me, Benson thought, staring at the dead sailor beside her.

Kilmeade lifted her head up carefully and squinted into the gloom.

“There’s some kind of counter inside the room. Looks like a gunman behind the counter. At least, that’s where the flash came from.”

Benson said, “Do you see the counter, Curly?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Take it out with the blaster.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m running low on juice.”

“Do it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

Green energy bolts sailed into the mansion’s interior, striking home on the booth. They burst into the wood, lighting it up.

BLAM!. . . BLAM!. . . BLAM!

“How many loaded guns do they have in there?” Kilmeade said to the sailor on the ground next to her.

When she received no reply, she turned to look, only to see a gusher of blood and brains pouring out of a hole on top of their head.

Kilmeade grimaced. Softly she said, “Man down over here, ma’am.”

“Great,” Benson said. “It’s just the three of us, then. We’re gonna charge the door.”

She reached behind her back and pulled out one of her two rifles. She stood up before the other two could say anything and shot into the doorway, aiming at the burning counter.

BLAM!

She ran for the entrance.

Kilmeade and Curly scrambled up to follow her in.

Inside, a slow fire licked away at the wooden booth. An older policeman was on the floor behind it. Benson’s bullet had shattered his face, leaving the lower half covered in blood.

Curly said, “Good shot, Captain.”

“Never trade your luck for skill,” she said smiling. She swapped out the empty gun for her other one.

Curly smiled back. That was something she used to say on the Excelsior after particularly close calls.

He said, “If I had to guess, ma’am, I’d say he was guarding that doorway.”

“Right. Let’s go.”

She charged through the door, rifle ready to shoot at anything that moved. They hurried down to a hall and came to a stairwell, Benson leading the way.

“Must be the entrance to their private quarters. Come on.”

Benson ran up the stairs, Curly and Kilmeade close behind.

She threw open the door at the top.

BLAM!

She pulled out of the way as a slug sailed past, thunking into the wall behind her.

Benson aimed carefully but quickly at the figure in the hall. She squeezed the trigger and the flintlock struck.

BLAM!

The man in the hall jumped back in a doorway just in time.

“Curly, take your blaster and take him out. I’ll reload.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

For such a large man, Curly could move quietly when he wanted. He crept quickly down the hall toward the doorway, blaster held out in front.

He came within a couple meters of the door when the man stuck his arm out, a pistol aimed at Curly’s chest.

Kerpow!

Thoop! Thoop!

Curly collapsed to the floor, his punctured lung deflating. He crouched with his arms holding himself up.

The man stuck another pistol out the door. This time he hazarded a glance, saw Curly in a kneeling position. He aimed carefully and squeezed the trigger.

Kerpow!

Curly crumpled in a heap, blood flowing from his head.

Benson ripped off a few choice curse words as she shoved the gun’s ramrod down the barrel, reloading it.

“Let’s go, Kilmeade, before that bastard can reload.”

Without waiting for the ensign’s reply, she stormed down the hall, holding a rifle in either hand.

The man in the room stepped out once more, his rifle reloaded. Benson squeezed the triggers of both guns, running full tilt. The shots went wide. One missed, sailing down the hall. The other grazed the man’s head, whipping him around and knocking him out cold.

Benson stopped at the doorway, panting. Kilmeade ran up behind her with a blaster. She stopped to pick up Curly’s.

Benson looked through the open door and said, “This room’s empty. Must by the guardroom. That means the next one over is the witch’s.”

She walked over to the next door and held out a hand.

“Give me Curly’s blaster.”

Kilmeade handed it over.

The Captain aimed it at the doorknob.

Thoop! Click! Click!

“Out of power. I got the door open, though.”

“Your luck’s holding out, ma’am,” Kilmeade said with a smile.

Benson nodded. She said, “Cover me.”

She kicked the broken door in and jumped back, letting Kilmeade sweep the room with the blaster.

In the middle of the area, huddled together, a large dark skinned man stood with Governor Seldom holding onto him. In his other arm he held a little two-year-old girl.

The little girl screamed.

“Shh! It’s alright, Lilah.”

“No,” Benson said, walking into the room with Kilmeade. “It’s not alright. It’s not alright at all.”

“You need to leave,” Seldom said.

“Ha! I told you, when I first came here Governor. I am taking over this planet in the name of the Navy. I claim authority under ad coelom. Your people have killed almost all my crew. My first act as the new Governor of Halcyon is to order your execution.”

Ignoring Lilah, who was now crying uncontrollably, Benson turned to Kilmeade and said, “Shoot her.”

“What? Right now?”

“I said shoot her! That’s an order, Ensign.”

“She hasn’t had a trial, Captain! You can’t just shoot her in front of her husband and child!”

“She has shot all my crew, right in front of me! Her life is forfeit! I will not wait any longer! Either you shoot her right now or give me the gun and I will do it!”

Lilah buried her face in her father’s shoulder, sobbing. He stepped in front of the Governor and said, “You’re going to have to kill me first.”

“So be it!” Benson snapped. “Kill them both. Do it now!”

“I am not going to shoot two people in front of their little girl.”

“Give me the gun, Ensign.”

“No.”

“What? Give me the gun. That is a direct order from your Captain.”

Kilmeade stared at her. Benson stared back with her hand out, waiting. Fire sirens wailed in the distance.

Kilmeade said, “You’re really going to do it, aren’t you? You’re going to shoot both of them in cold blood right in front of their little girl.”

“Shut up and give me the gun, Ensign. I’m not asking again. I’ve lost too many people to delay this any longer.”

She turned to face Kilmeade, her face radiating anger and heat.

“Now. Give. Me. The gun!”

Ensign lifted the blaster to her face and pulled the trigger.

Thoop!

Captain May Benson’s body fell to the floor, her head blown off at close range.

Solar Storm 23

Taggert had the night shift, helping guard the Governor’s Mansion. He paced the floor in the room adjacent to the Seldoms’ bedroom. At three in the morning he still had not heard back from the task force that followed the former janitor out of town.

Their orders were simple. Follow the suspect, engage the crew of the Excelsior if found. He should have heard back from them by now.

He regretted, as almost everybody on this new, raw planet, the lack of technology they had left behind. What he would give right now for old style radios . . .

The neural net and the quantum matrix were the most missed by everybody. Supposedly there was a satellite in orbit that had an antenna that could connect with the quantum matrix. Taggert only knew about it because Seldom had a briefing, and he happened to be in the room at the time.

But it was hopelessly out of reach. And even if they could get up there to turn it on, there was no infrastructure down here to use the connection. So, they remained cut off from the rest of the galaxy.

Taggert stood five foot eleven, or 180 centimeters. He was not the tallest cop on the force, but he was not the shortest, either. He had dark brown hair and eyes like the majority of people in the galaxy, and olive skin that tanned easily when he spent time outside.

He preferred a flat top haircut. In his early 40s, he had not started balding yet, but he expected it to come for him. Both grandfathers and his father had grown bald late in life.

Since arriving at Halcyon with the other colonists three years ago, he had spent little time outside. Administrative police work, then the guard duty involving the Governor, kept him inside most of the time.

Right now he wished he were outside with the task force. Wherever they were.

He stopped pacing and looked at the clock on the wall. It read 3:14.

“Something’s wrong.”

He opened the door and walked across the hall to knock on the guardroom adjoining Lilah Seldom’s bedroom.

“Little Lilah” as the press called her, was two years old. She was a native of Halcyon, the Governor and her husband’s first child, and a little cutie. Everybody adored her.

Annie Gold answered the door, still in uniform and still alert despite the hour. A middle-aged woman with a light complexion with short salt and pepper hair, Annie had the look of several years in law enforcement. This was experience which indeed she had. After retiring from the Capital Police Force on Juventas, she immigrated to Halcyon.

She had never married, had no family to worry about, and looked at helping settle a new planet as an adventure. She would be happy to tell anyone who listened that the adventure was not what she imagined, what with being cut off from the rest of the galaxy and forced to use 19th century technology and all.

But she had a persistently positive attitude, and a matronly air that made her a perfect bodyguard for Lilah, and so Taggert had assigned her to the detail guarding the child.

Taggert said, “I’m going to check with the guys downstairs. We should have heard back by now.”

“Maybe they did come back already and the guys downstairs forgot to come up and tell you,” Gold said, smiling.

“No. They have standing orders to notify me immediately. Keep an eye on both bedrooms, will you? If something happens, God forbid, move Lilah into the room with her parents and bar the door.”

“Sure thing, Boss. Surely you don’t expect trouble?”

“I dunno. But we should have heard by now . . .”

He trailed off in troubled thought, and left her with the door open. He made his way for the stairs, taking them down to the ground floor where the overnight guard detail served, patrolling the area.

The stairs led to a hallway which opened to a large room. Here the dividing line between what the public could access and what was reserved for the Governor and her family was clearly demarcated with signage and a guard station.

Marco Iglesias looked at him from the desk. He was an older officer, like Gold. A retiree from a smaller town on Juventas, he and his wife decided to immigrate in hopes of obtaining a large tract of land.

Taggert knew Iglesias ended up brushing off his police skills when the war started and he and his wife realized farming would be considerably more difficult with horse-drawn plows rather than harvest bots.

When asked about his ancestry, Iglesias would smile and simply say, “Undetermined South American descent.” No one out here pressed him on it. On a new planet, Taggert throught, no one really cared much where you or your family came from.

Taggert said, “Heard from the away team?”

Iglesias shook his head. He said, “No, sir. I woulda thought they’d be back by now.”

“Outside patrol hasn’t seen anything?”

“Not the last time they checked in.”

Taggert nodded. Four guards watched over the corners of the mansion grounds, checking in with the guard desk on the hour.

A flash of green came through one of the windows.

Taggert said, “What was that? Do you hear that?”

More flashes. In the distance he could make out sounds of a blaster firing.

Iglesias said, “They don’t have blasters do they? I thought we confiscated them all.”

“We did. Unless they have a stockpile we didn’t know about.”

BLAM!

They heard the first gunshot, jolting them into action. Iglesias reached into a cabinet behind him and pulled out four loaded carbines, two in each hand.

Taggert unholstered his sidearm and said, “I’m going back up. Hold this entry point!”

Iglesias smiled with the look of an old man fully committed to his duty.

He said, “Yes, sir. They won’t get by me if I can help it.”

He propped three of the short rifles up against the counter, and brought the fourth to eye level, covering the door.

Dashing back down the hallway to the stairs, Taggert thought the Navy crew would indeed get by the retired police officer. The mansion had not been designed to withstand blaster fire.

For one thing, it was made out of wood . . .

Solar Storm 22

Chance Taggert gazed down on the street with good old-fashioned, non-electronic binoculars. They had been imported, of course, like almost everything else on Halcyon before the war. But it would not be very long before they could manufacturer similar items right here on this planet. All industrial efforts focused on communication and transportation at the moment, but the day will soon come, he thought to himself, when we will be able make just about anything that’s needed.

He stayed in the shadow of the room so that his silhouette could not be seen from the street, an old sniper trick. Taggert was one of the few immigrants to Halcyon who had studied at the Epsilon Police Academy. He now found himself in charge of Governor Seldom’s security detail.

Right now, her security details consisted of assigned officers from the Winthrop Police Department.

At some point we’ll have to get formal and make it like the old Secret Service, he thought. For the time being, he was at least nominally in charge.

He stared down at the figure below, sitting at a table in a sidewalk café and ostensibly reading a newspaper.

The same man showed up every day, around five in the afternoon. Someone recognized him as a former janitor in the Administration Building, and word eventually came to Taggert about his appearance.

Taggert felt it was his job to follow up on anything suspicious, so he started watching the former janitor. Immediately he realized the man left shortly after the Governor walked home each day.

This naturally alarmed Taggert, and he addressed the situation with Seldom. He thought perhaps the Excelsior crew planned an ambush on her way home to the Governor’s Mansion down the street. He suggested increasing her guard detail and perhaps picking the man up for questioning.

She nixed both ideas. First, they would likely learn little to nothing by arresting the janitor right now. Second, if they increased the guard detail, the Navy would realize they had been spotted.

Instead, Seldom suggested she continue her routine and perhaps Taggert could follow the man. Maybe he would lead Taggert to where the crew was hiding out.

Taggert reluctantly agreed with her. She was the Governor, after all. But he set up a team to do the tail right. Taggert would be staying in the Administration Building, then remaining in charge of Seldom’s night watch at the mansion.

After Governor Seldom left the Administration Building with her guard detail and turned the corner, heading toward her residence, Taggert watched the janitor put the paper on the table and pay his bill. Then he walked off in the opposite direction.

Taggert watched in the binoculars as the first tail picked him up. Together they both headed out of sight.

-+-

Vargas made his way to the downtown public stable and paid up on his stall rental so he could retrieve his horse. He mounted up and rode for the city’s periphery. It was time to go back and report to Captain Benson.

He had watched the Administration Building every day, and he knew the Governor’s routine. She would leave sometime after 5:00, never before. The latest she left was a quarter after six.

Then she would be accompanied by five armed police officers as they walked two blocks to the new Governor’s Mansion. This was a nice looking building, especially in light of the fact it was built entirely with local materials. Or so Vargas had heard. Evidently Seldom made sure no imported wood was used, so all the boards were produced by mills right here in Winthrop.

There, Seldom would spend time with her husband and their two-year-old daughter. In the mornings, she left the mansion at 7:45 sharp, arriving at the Administration Building moments later with another five man guard detail in tow.

Thus went Governor Seldom’s work week.

Vargas now had an idea of when she was at her weakest, and when she was most protected. He would report to Captain Benson his knowledge and let her make a decision as to the best time and place to strike.

Within half an hour, he brought the horse to the city’s edge and proceeded to ride out of town. Construction was still new everywhere. One minute he was surrounded by outlying houses, the next he was enjoying open countryside as the sun dipped lower in the sky.

He followed a trail far from the main road, and began covering considerable ground. He never once looked behind him, although the party trailing him took care to not be seen as he wended his way through the foothills surrounding Winthrop on the other side of the lake.

As the sun slipped below the horizon, he finally made his way to an arroyo where the Excelsior’s crew had made camp.

He waved, moving forward slowly so as not to spook the other horses in the makeshift pen off to one side.

Curly saw him first and waved back, then left the campfire and walked toward him, intending to meet the horse halfway.

A voice boomed through the campsite, bouncing off the rocks. Everybody’s eyes darted to the far end of the shallow depression, where a dozen men on horseback aimed rifles at them.

One of them yelled through an old style non-electronic megaphone, the kind cheerleaders used to use at American football games.

“Crew of the Excelsior! This is the Winthrop Police! Surrender immediately!”

Curly drew a pistol at his side and pulled the trigger without even thinking. Its flint struck and the powder ignited, sending a Minni ball sailing toward the police.

Kerpow!

As one, the twelve men aimed their muskets and fired into the campsite.

BLAMBLAMBLAMBLAM!

Four sailors went down. Two slugs plowed into Vargas’s horse, thunking into its left hindquarter.

The horse tried to run in terror, but did not get very far before stumbling, sending Vargas to the ground.

Benson and Kilmeade were closest to rifles. They each pulled one out of a tent and returned fire.

The police did not flinch, even as musket balls tore into the face and chest of two of their own. They pulled out their pistols and let loose another volley. More sailors went down.

Vargas ran for his wounded horse. It whinnied in pain, pitifully dragging a back leg, blood everywhere. He managed to pull open his saddlebags and rummaged around inside for a moment before bringing out his blaster.

The first shot he made was at the horse’s head, to put it out of its misery.

Thoopah!

He watched 500 kilograms of horseflesh collapse to the ground, giving him a clear shot of the police at the far end of the arroyo.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

Two more cops went down. They desperately rushed to reload their muskets, ramming lead balls home and scrambling with gunpowder.

Vargas screamed at them.

“You want some of this bitch? Come and get it! This is the Navy!”

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

Solar Storm is Released

The fifth book in the Pirates of the Milky Way is out, Solar Storm. An epic battle over a League capital planet, continued resistance on Epsilon, drama on the frontier planet Halcyon, and lots, lots more.

Many thanks to all the support for this ongoing series, both from Patreon members and folks buying the books. I sincerely appreciate it.

Click here for the Amazon version, including the bonus chapters.

Solar Storm 21

Fenner stopped running once she came to a residential street rolling through the neighborhood. She stayed on the sidewalk and looked around while trying to appear casual, alert for the sign of pursuing Marines.

This was an upscale neighborhood. Most areas with single family homes were. The collective mentality of the League encouraged urban communal living arrangements, otherwise known as apartment buildings. Apartments were seen as efficient and an excellent means of sharing space and resources. Single family homes were typically viewed as wasteful. They had the taint of capitalism about them.

However, over time those who had accumulated wealth in the League, usually through currying favor with the Tetrarchs or other highly placed government officials, as well as those working in the upper echelons of government, yearned for more luxurious homes. Places where they could stretch out and enjoy the freedom of elbow room. They were rewarded with things more typical people did not deserve, including nice three bedroom suburban houses on big lots with lush backyards and trees.

The inequitable distribution of wealth and assets was a hallmark of capitalism and the Republic. But wealth and assets were granted to the ruling class in socialist societies like the League. It was given to those born into privilege or who had curried the favor of appropriate people in the ruling class.

It was not a perfect system, Fenner thought, but it made more sense to keep the masses at an equal level, granting favor and fortune to a privileged few rather than letting anyone work their way up. That the masses were kept at an equally low level did not bother her. Such mundane considerations were typically beneath the notice of those in the ruling class, such as herself.

Speaking of fortune, it seemed to smile on Fenner as she watched a woman heading for a car. It was a terrestrial vehicle, indicating a lower position in the League hierarchy, but Fenner was not picky at the moment. She cut across the street and walked straight toward the driveway.

The woman looked up as Fenner approached, her hand on the car’s palm panel.

She said, “Can I help—”

She broke off, unable to continue with Fenner’s slender knife in her ear.

The woman crumpled to the ground, bleeding from the wound. Fenner withdrew the dagger and wiped it clean, then dragged the body into the backseat, laying it down and bending the legs so she could shut the door.

The car activated with biometrics, but fortunately it was ready to go. Fenner climbed into the front seat and took the wheel, backing out of the driveway.

She ignored the automated driving feature and took control herself.

Overhead a Marine transport floated by, its cameras no doubt searching the streets.

An hour later, Fenner was back in the city. So far, she had avoided capture. With StarCen out and with PLAIR limited she had a window in which she could move around unobserved.

She had a decent disguise that should do the trick for now. She had weapons and could kill or disrupt Republican operations, if she knew where to find them. The only thing she needed was someplace to stay, a proper hideout.

With the Marines showing up at the suburban safe house, she no longer felt secure on any SSI property. She did not dare go home to her own apartment, even if it was still standing. She had been given a penthouse in downtown Yorkton, next to the Administration Building. If scenes from the holo were any indication, her building had been destroyed along with others nearby.

She had no family, and certainly no friends. At least, none one she could call upon at this dark hour.

She parked the car on the side of the street, ignoring the cooling body in the back. She sat and thought about the problem for a moment.

“Wait a minute!”

She reached into her backpack and rummaged around, finally finding the pocket computer from the last interrogation in which she participated.

She thought, The man known as Dolphin had to have lived somewhere, right?

A small holo appeared above the pocket computer and she whirred through snippets of his memory until she came to a door with an address on it. She spent several more minutes until finding where he set up the emergency access codes.

She looked at her inner map and realized she was only eight or nine blocks away. She got out and left the car with the body inside.

At the first intersection, she noticed four Republican Marines keeping an eye on things. She ignored them, standing in line and waiting to cross the street. The pedestrian holo flashed and she stayed with the crowd while moving on to the next block.

Soon she came to Dolphin’s apartment building, a modest 12 story structure designed to house the proletariat.

She made her way up the stairs, past the now defunct monitor installed to keep tabs on residents coming and going, and went up to the fifth floor. From there, she found his apartment.

Ordinarily, when SSI took someone in for interrogation their home and belongings were forfeited and a holo would be placed on the door indicating the fact. However, the agency had not yet gotten around to doing that for Dolphin before the Republic invaded.

She bent to the palm panel and activated the access holo, swiping a finger through the appropriate numbers. The door swished open, and she walked in.

A grey tabby ran to her, mewling.

“Well, hello. What’s your name?”

She bent to stroke its back, and the cat purred in appreciation.

“Starved for attention, are we? Probably hungry, too. Let’s see where he kept your food.”

She made a mental note to search Dolphin’s memories for the cat’s name. She opened the pantry and found a box of cat food. She poured some in a bowl left on the floor, and the tabby gobbled it up.

Fenner went into the living room and plopped down on a recliner. She made a hand motion and the wall-holo lit up, tuned to the local news. Everything focused on the Marines and the Republic. She watched it for a while then turned back to her pocket computer with Dolphin’s memories.

He had not struck her as a cat person, in the brief moments they had tortured him. She discovered the cat had belonged to a neighbor, an old lady who passed away recently. Dolphin adopted it when nobody in the lady’s family claimed the cat or seemed to want it.

Its food finished, the cat made its way into the living room and jumped up into Fenner’s lap.

She stroked its back and said, “Hello. My name is Vicki. And I see here that your name is Sheba.”

In response, Sheba purred and turned in circles a few times before settling down in Fenner’s lap.

“Looks like I’m going to be here for a while, Sheba. This little place is my new base of operations.”

Sheba yawned and promptly went to sleep.