Solar Storm 20

Vicki Fenner looked at herself critically in the mirror. Dye took out the streak of white down the middle of her hair. She had never bothered with coloration before, ignoring all the comments about how she looked like the wife of Frankenstein’s monster and other snide remarks.

Fenner knew that underlying all the cutting comments ran a current of fear. When she walked into an interrogation chamber, the sight of her white-streaked hair sparked deep and profound fear in subjects. That was power she gleefully harnessed.

But now the tides had changed on Juventas. Now, the Diego Fleet was in orbit and they had wiped out almost all League assets.

They also took away StarCen.

Fenner had never realized before just how dependent they were on the AI. It handled so much of her daily life, she hardly ever thought to question what would happen without it. Now she knew.

Suddenly, her world had changed. This was now, for all proverbial intents and practical purposes, a Republican planet. StarCen was nowhere to be found and PLAIR was everywhere. Well, not quite everywhere. But, wherever there was AI, there was PLAIR instead of StarCen.

Fenner and others loyal to the League had one slight advantage in that most of the sensors StarCen left behind were incompatible with PLAIR, at least for the moment. Plus, to cover all or at least most of the planet, it was better to have multiple cores in place. The more people a planet had, the more processing power it required to keep track of them all.

PLAIR would only be receiving one core for now, she suspected. Fleets in both navies supposedly carried a core that could replace damaged ones on friendly planets, or substitute for the old AI in a conquest. So, PLAIR almost certainly already had a core presence here of some kind, she thought.

No doubt the Republic was in the process of rushing additional cores to Juventas now that victory was secured, but it should be a while until PLAIR held the same level of control that StarCen once had over the planet.

Fenner intended to capitalize on that as best she could.

One trick up her sleeve was knowledge of the locations of all the SSI facilities and safe houses in Yorkton. While Fenner suspected the League knew of the official site of SSI Headquarters, and she had no plans to ever return there, she felt fairly confident no spies knew of all the secret places SSI maintained.

Thus her trip to this current location, a three bedroom villa in the suburbs outside Yorkton. SSI kept several assets here, including one male and one female android who walked around on occasion to fool neighbors into thinking the house was occupied.

One of the first things Fenner did upon arriving at the safe house was to kill power to the androids. Right now she did not trust anything electronic.

Then she died her hair and retrieved a set of illegal contact lenses to fool iris scanners. Finally, she set about altering her face. She threw on an artificial nose and chin, and placed cheek inserts inside her mouth to alter her profile.

Stepping back from the mirror she looked at the reflection of a completely different person.

It’s not perfect, she thought to herself, but it should do the trick for now.

Thunk. THUNK! Thunk.

The sound of rails settling on pavement attracted her attention. She grabbed a blaster and peeked out the window.

A green armor-clad female sergeant jumped out of a transport carrying a huge gun.

“Surround the house, you filthy maggots!”

A stream of Republican Marines jumped out of all three crafts.

Fenner bit off a curse.

She ran into the main room and opened up the house’s control center. She entered a code and activated the self-destruct sequence, thankful for the protocol that dictated every facility should have one.

She gathered up a backpack stuffed with equipment, grabbed a couple of guns and a small bag of egg grenades, and darted out the back door into the yard.

“Halt!”

She was just about to jump over the backyard fence when a bolt sailed over her head and burned a hole into the fence.

“That was your warning shot!”

She stopped, hands up, desperately hoping she was far enough away.

She could hear footsteps in the grass behind her as a group of Marines closed in, no doubt pointing their blasters at her back.

In her mind’s eye she watched a counter ticking down to zero. When it reached “1,” she dropped, curling into a ball and covering her ears.

One of the marines said, “What the—”

KWABOOM!

The house exploded, sending the marines flying.

Debris rained down from the air.

Fenner stood and ran through the now toppled fence, and into the next yard, intent on placing as much distance between herself and the Marines as possible.

-+-

Wilcox found herself lying on her back in the middle of the street, looking up at the sky. Her ears were ringing.

She sat up and looked at the destroyed house and let loose a long string of profanity.

Jamieson and Boggs walked up, smiling. Jamieson offered her a hand up.

While she dusted herself off, Boggs said, “Dang, Sarge. Good thing they’re not docking us for cussing anymore. You’d have lost a hundred credits there.”

Jamieson said, “I guess the intelligence about this being an SSI house was on the money.”

Wilcox ignored the two young Marines as she shook her head, trying to clear it.

Over the neural net she heard someone say, “One bogey ran out the back before the explosion. Looks like they escaped into the neighbor’s yard.”

Wilcox said, “Roger that. Pursue. We’ll get airborne and help you find them.”

Solar Storm 19

Harrington House remained one of the most secure locations in the galaxy. It was even more secure than Tetrarch Thrall’s private seaside residence on Clarion. Or, so Chancellor Cole had been told. She had never even been to Clarion.

Unlike Thrall’s private residence, Harrington House was public, at least up to a point. The mansion had been designed with the idea that tours would be conducted on the lower floors and in some of the offices. Upstairs and other parts of the mansion were off limits to the public.

And it was indeed a mansion. Bigger than the White House, from where the idea had been taken, it was a five story monstrosity of a residence and offices, complete with several subbasements.

It served as the home of the Planetary Republic’s Chancellor, as well as providing office space for a large portion of the Executive Branch.

Right now, five years into her six year term, Elsa Cole wished for the privacy of someplace like Thrall’s home. The Republic indeed had several getaways where the Chancellor could retire, away from the hustle and bustle of the capital city if she so desired. But during these trying times, Cole thought, she never really had an opportunity to visit any of them. Who could go on vacation when there was a war to run?

Thank God for her husband Paul, she thought. Paul was the calm voice of sanity in a whirlwind world of politics.

A medical professor—and yes, he would tell anyone who asked, real people still needed medical training despite the proliferation of doc bots—he gave up his career when she was elected Chancellor and moved into Harrington House with her.

He was her unofficial but completely trustworthy counselor. He often sat in on meetings, or listened to her recount what happened at events he was unable to attend. He comforted her when she grieved, especially over the loss of young soldiers who died following her orders. He served as a venting board for the times she unleashed invective she never dared utter at someone in public.

In short, he was her soul mate. He had that rare male quality of actually listening to someone.

That was probably what she liked the most about Dr. Paul Cole, Elsa thought to herself. He listened more than he talked, unlike most politicians.

This morning, one such politician was scheduled to meet her. Hector Fuente waited outside the door of her office. Hector was a representative from Pearl, and he was the leader of the Prim Morals and Societal Restitution Party. Everyone called them the Morals Party, for short.

Cole sighed, partly in exhaustion even at this early hour of the morning and partly in annoyance. How she wished the Republic would have adopted the United State’s two party system. But somehow, that structure only seemed to have worked effectively back there. One American party or the other would absorb fractious groups and remain in power over the years. Sometimes their position on issues would swap back and forth over time. For political historians, few countries were more interesting.

But, the Planetary Republic opted for the much more common multi-party system. Cole’s party had long been a powerhouse in the Republic. She was the leader of the Planetary Libertarian Party. The basic tenants her party espoused included minimalist government within clearly identified roles, low taxes, and basically ensuring government stayed out of the way in people’s lives.

The PLP remained very popular, and usually drew a majority of votes during elections. But they were often forced to pull together a ruling coalition in Parliament. In the last election, before the war, the Morals Party drew enough votes that the PLP had to include them in their coalition.

And they’ve been a pain in my side ever since, Elsa thought to herself.

She declined to speak such negative statements out loud, especially here in a public space. That could wait until tonight, in her bedroom, when she would unload all of it on poor Paul who would listen in silence for minutes, hours if need be. Then he would offer some small word of advice or encouragement, and they would drift off to sleep.

But sleep remained hours away, and Fuente was the first irritant in a long day ahead.

The doorman opened the entrance to the Ruby Room and Fuente walked in. Cole stood up from her desk and came around to shake his hand. There were formalities to keep.

The Ruby Room was the formal office for the Chancellor of the Planetary Republic. Here bills were signed, and if she needed to address the citizens by holo she usually did so seated here at her desk. It was also the ideal place to meet dignitaries and politicians.

Everybody would be careful what they said here, because PLAIR officially monitored conversations. Things said were on the record. This would be an uncomfortable quasi-public meeting, and they both knew it.

“How are you, Hector? So good to see you.”

Politicians and their lies, Cole thought ruefully as she shook the man’s hand.

“Elsa.”

She noted he did not return the lie. Very well, it would be a rough morning. But what morning had not been rough since this war started?

She directed him to the leather chairs in one corner of the office where they could talk without a desk between them. He sat down with her and came right to business.

“I understand you rescinded the penalties for cursing in the military.”

Cole nodded, expecting this.

“Admiral Severs felt it harmed morale while in the process of taking over a League quadrant. I agree with him.”

Fuente sat ramrod straight in his chair.

He’s got his back up, Elsa thought. And, he knows he’s in the right.

“This measure passed in Parliament, Madame Chancellor. It is not your right, or his, to rescind it.”

Cole responded, ready for the attack, and verbally parried.

She said, “I understand the good intentions behind the measure. We do want to instill moral fiber in our young, especially those serving the Republic in times of war. However, in the heat of battle it seems grossly unfair to penalize those people we are asking to put their lives on the line for us.

“Imagine getting shot, Representative Fuente, and letting loose a curse word. Now you are not only injured, you have to forfeit part of your pay.

“I have agreed with the Admiral’s request. This is the man who is there, who is in the field, and he is the one telling me the troops who are fighting and dying for us do not like it. It is hindering their ability to fight.”

And when the public hears about that, Cole thought, they’ll back me on this.

Fuente snorted, openly doubting the statement. Cole ignored him and continued.

“I am authorizing the Admiral to suspend the measure under the War Powers Act, which gives me broad discretion in such matters. You may take it up in Parliament during our next session, but I will assert my authority in this matter, especially when it comes at the behest of our Fleet Admiral.”

Fuente said, “Your Fleet Admiral, Chancellor. We all know you personally promoted Severs to the rank. It’s no surprise you two would work together to undermine the will of Parliament.”

Cole nodded. She said, “That is true, he is my Admiral. He was, and is, the best man for the job at the moment.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly in an effort to lower her blood pressure.

She said, “We decided at the very formation of this Republic that only one person at a time should run wars, Mr. Fuente. The people elected me to fill that role.

“I decided that just like other well-intentioned laws in the past—America’s experiment with Prohibition comes to mind—this one was causing far more trouble than it was worth. Maybe after the war we’ll see about reinstating it. But for now, military personnel will not be financially penalized for cursing.”

Fuente glared at her, but refused to say much else. The fact anything stated in this room would be public record probably caused him to guard his words, and for that Cole felt grateful.

When he left she thought, One down and several more to go.

Solar Storm 18

Cheers erupted in Thespar’s underground city as news of the Republic’s victory spread. The mood had turned positively ebullient, Lexi thought. She walked alongside a railing in the upper atrium with El. They could hear shouts of joy and applause all throughout the facility here. People rushed back and forth, eagerly talking about the events in person in order to not risk their conversations on the neural net.

“It’s great news,” El said. “And it is a pretty big deal. The Republic basically took a quarter of the League’s major planets away in one fell swoop.”

“I guess that is pretty big,” Lexi said.

They continued walking, circling the giant open space on the level of the atrium El had chosen.

El said, “After all this time, the Republic finally managed to take a capital planet! They have been so evenly matched. Well, that’s not true. We, the League, were more powerful to start. But the Republic . . . PLAIR . . . they’re smart. And now they’ve played catch up on weapons and ships. This new solar weapon of theirs was a game changer. And they finally made their move. They brought a solar storm to Juventas, and the League paid the price.”

She walked on for a moment smiling. Lexi hurried to match her pace.

El said, “Best of all, Juventas is prime for rebellion. The Resistance has some of its strongest elements in place there.”

“Really?” That statement intrigued the younger girl. “Do you think they’ll get help from . . . from us? It’s difficult to put into pronouns, I guess, since we’re still technically on the League’s side. I think. Or, we’re not but we’re still part of League. Hm.”

El laughed. She said, “Don’t get all twisted up. We’re part of the Resistance, and for the moment at least, bad news for the League in this war is good news for us. I’m sure our people on Juventas will help out the Republican forces there. It’s too soon to say what we’ll do for them, or how. But I’m sure others are thinking about the best way to do that right this very moment. As for us here on Epsilon . . . ah, we’re here.”

She stopped at one of the many doors facing the atrium and palmed it open. She let Lexi enter the room first.

A woman in a dark dress suit came up and stuck out her hand. Lexi took it and shook, noting diamond bangles on her wrist, and bright red fingernail polish. The woman was of medium height with dark hair, light skin, and she looked to be in her mid-40s, like El.

The woman said, “You don’t need to know my name. Think of me as your outfitter. So, if you wish to address me, you may call me ‘Madame Outfitter.’ That is an appropriate pseudonym, I think.”

“Um . . . okay.”

“The subterfuge is for both of our benefits, dear. Now, I know you have probably seen spy holos where the new recruit is trained for months or years and learns all about spycraft and all that sort of thing. But, in our case we don’t have near enough time to give you adequate training. What we can do, what I can do for you, is provide you with gadgets. And hopefully these gadgets will help keep you alive out there.”

She smiled a disarming smile in response to the shocked look on Lexi’s face. Then she turned and walked deeper into the apartment.

“Follow me, dear.”

Madame Outfitter palmed open a door on the opposite side of the room. Lexi and El followed, and it opened into a much larger space, this one filled with racks and shelves and tables full of weapons and equipment.

“Alright, dear. Let’s go to work. First up, the nurse will give you a cranial scan to store your memories up to this point. Then she’ll administer a shot of nanobots we will use to wipe your memory in the event of capture. We call them ‘tabula rasa’ nanobots, because they’ll wipe your mind clean, like a blank slate.”

Lexi climbed onto the examining table, and laid down on her back at the nurse’s instructions. The nurse then pulled a cranial scanner into position, its hoop fitting around Lexi’s head.

“I didn’t know we could scan memories,” Lexi said.

“It’s the latest thing,” Madam Outfitter said. “A lot of our stuff is so new, no one else has it. Unfortunately, the League does have this item in inventory. In particular, SSI has it. I’m told this is what was used to ferret out the secrets about the Condor-class from Republican Shipworks. Some unfortunate employee of theirs had it stolen from his mind.”

Lexi shuddered as the machine started up.

“Not to worry, dear. We are simply going to store these here. All your memories. This is a secure facility!”

“Oh. So, why do you need them?”

“To restore your personality should the nanobots be necessary.”

“Oh. Wow. You can do that? That really works?”

Madame Outfitter shrugged and smiled. “I don’t know. We’ve never tried it before, and nobody wants to volunteer to be a guinea pig.”

“Well, that doesn’t inspire confidence.”

The other ladies in the room chuckled at this. The nurse said, “Hopefully it won’t come to that, but we want to go ahead and grab your memories just in case. Just stay relaxed now. This will take a while. We’re going all the way back to childhood.”

El said, “Maybe there’s something in the past you want to forget? A bad boyfriend?”

Everyone laughed again.

Madame Outfitter said, “In all seriousness, it’s not that advanced yet. We don’t really understand a whole lot about memory. All this is doing is capturing everything. But some things are not remembered properly, and they change over time. So, this is just a snapshot of everything you remember at this current moment. If we have to use it, we’ll dump it back in. Sorry, we probably won’t experiment on taking some things out, so you’re going to retain that awful first kiss or the time some creep tried to grope you.”

“That’s fine,” Lexi said. “Given the choice, I’d rather have all my memories than none.”

Several hours later, the procedure wrapped up. The nurse then administered a shot of special nanobots into Lexi’s bloodstream.

“Let me fire them up,” she said, “and I’ll show you the neural connection to use if you need to activate them. Remember, all your memory will go away upon activation. You’ll be a blank slate. You probably won’t even remember how to speak, or how to read.”

“That bad?”

“Yes. Total amnesia. At least, we think so. Again, no one has been willing to try it out for us. But, our people in this field are very good. So, we’re fairly certain it will work if you need to use it.”

“Alright,” Madame Outfitter said, “now that we’re done with that, let’s get you some gadgets!”

Solar Storm 17

Thrall stood in a control room next to Munk and one of his scientists. They watched a holo showing the interior of Caroline’s cell. The young blonde girl walked in circles, arms firmly crossed over her breasts and staring down at the floor, clearly agitated.

The scientist, wearing a proverbial white lab coat, said, “I don’t understand it. This has not happened with any of the other subjects. In fact, I can’t remember hearing about it happening with any indentured servant. Ever.”

Thrall and Munk exchanged a glance. They had not filled in the SSI scientist with all the details surrounding the encounter between Raquel and Caroline. Thrall indicated that knowledge should be on a “need to know basis,” and Munk agreed with him. Consequently, the scientist had been left in the dark surrounding the “how” and “why” regarding the sudden malfunction of Caroline’s biocollar.

Thrall had StarCen port both himself and Caroline back to Facility 16 after Raquel left. A very confused and upset Caroline was reinterred in her cell, and Thrall and Munk tried to figure out what happened before calling in the scientist to check things over. The scientist confirmed Caroline was in complete control of her mental faculties once more.

“Regardless of whether it has happened before or not, I think it’s obvious her collar malfunctioned somehow, and holds no more . . . influence over her,” Munk said.

“Yeah but how?” the scientist said. “It makes no sense. Biocollars don’t just malfunction like that. I’m telling you, I’ve never seen this before. I’ve never heard of it happening before, either.”

“Never mind that. Thank you for your time on this matter. I remind you StarCen will be monitoring your speech, and you are not to mention this to anyone.”

The scientist nodded, his face paling a bit. Clearly he wanted to discuss it more, with somebody. Anybody. And the implied threat had been delivered about what would happen if he did discuss it.

He excused himself from the room. As the door swished shut behind him, the two older men stared back at the holo as Caroline paced the floor of her holding area. They watched her in silence for a long while.

“I’ll have her eliminated,” Munk finally said.

“No. Don’t bother. Give your people enough time and maybe they can figure out a way to reactivate the biocollar or something.”

“We’ll have to put a new one on her if we want to try again.”

“Maybe do that. But don’t take her out just yet.”

Munk smiled at the Tetrarch and said, “You’re getting soft in your old age, Julius.”

“Maybe,” Thrall said, returning the smile. “Or maybe I’m still interested in this one.”

“Hm.” Munk raised his eyebrows doubtfully. “And Raquel?”

“Raquel will behave and come home, eventually. Let her vent for now. I strongly suspect she has not been entirely faithful, herself.”

This was rather dangerous ground. Munk had accompanied Thrall to Raton Five some time ago, and was with him when he took Raquel out of the facility in which she had undergone experiments along with others.

Munk knew that Raquel had likely been the one responsible for Raton Five’s destruction, and the deaths of several people in that remote facility.

But Thrall had taken a fancy to her. She was his type, and he kept her as a mistress and . . . almost a full partner in some ways.

Their personalities matched, in many respects. And both grew restless, boring easily with routine. Munk suspected Thrall had grown bored with Raquel after she returned from her last outing, thus leading to the current predicament with Caroline.

Before Munk could think of an appropriate response, StarCen’s high-pitched voice came down from the ceiling.

“Tetrarch Thrall, the Diego Fleet just attacked Juventas. Admiral Cooper is gone, along with all my cores and nodes on the planet. I have had to cede the entire quadrant to PLAIR for now. What’s left of the Sixth Fleet has been evacuated.”

Dozens of questions raced through Thrall’s mind. The news was stunning, but he forced himself to think. He tried to sort his questions into their order of importance.

“How many ships are left?”

“Sixteen.”

He grimaced at the low number.

“Have the other three planets in the quadrant been taken?”

“Not yet, but the likelihood of their imminent loss is high. I am writing them off as of now.”

“Are there additional resources on those planets, or anywhere in the area, that we can bring to bear against the Diego Fleet?”

“No. They brought three Condors. One of our solar torpedoes took out one of their Condors. Your secret weapon, the Tilson, took out an additional thirteen, but only dealt minor damage to another Condor. Despite the losses we inflicted, they remain an overwhelming force at the moment.”

Thrall stopped to think. Finally, he looked back at Munk.

“I’m going to be staying here on Epsilon for a while, Edgar. Perhaps a long while. This changes the dynamics of the war, at least for the moment.”

Munk nodded and said, “We’ll do whatever we can for you, Julius. Let us know what you need.”

Thrall stared at the holo showing the visibly upset Caroline, still pacing her cell.

“Keep her here, and don’t harm her. No one is to touch her, in any way.”

Munk nodded, acknowledging Thrall’s order.

Thrall said, “StarCen, take me to the Epsilon Administration Building.”

He left the control room and walked out to the large open area. A holographic yellow circle appeared around him and he popped away.

Munk watched him go from the security holo, then returned his attention to the bleach blonde, now completely operating on her own will with the inactive biocollar.

“Well,” he said to himself toward the now departed Thrall, “we can’t always get what we want, can we Julius? The same holds true whether we’re talking about women or war.”

Solar Storm 16

Thrall and Caroline popped into the living room of the Presidential Suite. He looked around while Caroline stared straight ahead. She was still dressed in underwear and a t-shirt, her collar and nothing else.

Before Thrall could think, or move, or do anything, the door to his bedroom opened, and Raquel walked out, still in her travel dress.

She said, “Surprise!”

Then her face dropped when she saw Caroline.

“What is this? Who is this, Julius? Are you cheating on me?”

Her shock was feigned, of course. She had this part all planned out. Thrall did not know that, though.

She thought the look on his face, as the saying goes, was priceless. He stared at her with his mouth slightly opened, aghast.

“Raquel! I . . . I was not expecting you. Did you fly all this way? I thought you were still on Clarion.”

“I couldn’t bear to have my sweetheart go away without me. I thought I’d show up and surprise you and keep you company.”

She walked up to him in a seductive manner, swaying her hips. She stopped and glared at Caroline.

Her voice turned to ice. She said, “But I guess you’re not so lonely after all.”

Thrall said, “Caroline is an experiment . . .”

Raquel’s fake smile dropped, and her voice lowered an octave.

She said, “I was too.”

She turned her attention to Caroline. The girl was younger, although not by much. She was more attractive, in Raquel’s split second judgment, although that was a subjective opinion. She looked at Caroline’s roots and noted how dark they were.

“A fake blonde,” she said.

“Raquel . . . do not harm her.”

“Harm her?”

Raquel’s eyes drifted down to the gunmetal gray gadget attached around Caroline’s neck.

“I won’t harm her. But I know a thing or two about biocollars. Let’s see how this experiment plays out without it, shall we?”

She reached her hand for Caroline’s neck and it pixilated as she touched the collar.

ZZZZTTT!

“No!”

Thrall rushed to catch Caroline as she fell backwards, knocked out by the surge. He gently set her down on the ground, on her back.

“What did you do, Raquel?”

Caroline’s eyes flickered open. She sat up on her elbows and looked around.

She looked down and realized suddenly how underdressed she was. She crossed her legs and arms.

“Where am I? Where is this place? What’s going on?”

Panic spread through her questions, her voice rising with each question.

“Caroline . . .”

Thrall reached out a comforting hand. Caroline turned and stared at a man she did not recognize. She screamed.

Thrall yanked his hand back.

Caroline screamed again, scrambling her legs to push her back across the floor.

Raquel smiled, mischievously. She said, “The collar’s been deactivated, Julius dear. Have fun with your new . . . noncompliant toy.”

While Thrall focused on trying to calm down Caroline, Raquel pixelated, floated up to the ceiling and into a light fixture.

-+-

Raquel flitted through the wires of the city in no particular direction. Her heart ached, even in electronic form.

She had always felt closest to Julius. He had plucked her away from Raton Five and was the first person to ever treat her nice. And she loved him for it.

She knew his heart did not feel the same way toward her. She tried to cover that up with missions, going away and doing things he needed her to do with her powers. But the fact remained there was an emotional imbalance between them.

She knew he had been with others. She had, too. Or at least, one other. With Roddy she had found herself . . . conflicted. On the one hand, Roddy treated her nicely. In many ways, he treated her nicer than Julius ever did. He seemed to genuinely love her, and that was something the great Tetrarch Thrall had never given her. And so, she had given part of her heart to Roddy. And part of her had died with him.

She had returned to Juilus and she thought maybe this time things would be different. She would be the best partner he ever had. They would live in the secluded mansion by the sea, and she would make him happy.

Only . . . men like Julius Thrall were never happy for long, were they? The first opportunity to bed another indentured servant saw him leaving for Epsilon at the drop of a hat.

Raquel’s electronic essence flitted along wires under the streets of Epsilon, turning, twisting.

Her heart ached.

Time passed, and she thought some more. She thought Roddy would never do this. Or maybe he would. All men are pigs, after all. All men are selfish bastards. But Roddy . . . Roddy had been sweet. He would never have treated her this way. He would never act as if she was . . . disposable.

The heartache left abruptly, replaced by anger.

Julius Thrall and his precious Tetrarchy! How would he feel if all his power, his prestige, his privilege . . . how would he feel if it were stripped away from him? Would he come begging for her then?

A street lamp blew out, sending people on the sidewalk below screaming.

Raquel streamed out of the light in a cascade of pixels, forming quickly below into her physical form. She walked down the street deep in thought, ignoring the people staring at her.

A question formed in her mind. How can I find the Resistance?

She looked up and found a sensor mounted on the next light pole.

She said, “StarCen? Where is SSI Facility 16?”

“I am sorry, Raquel Kirkland. I cannot reveal that information to you.”

“Okay. Where is Edgar Munk?”

“I am sorry, Raquel Kirkland. I cannot reveal that information to you, either.”

“Hm. Can you tell me where SSI headquarters is?”

“Certainly. I will show you on your internal map of the city.”

The map in her mind’s eye sprang up, showing a flashing red light.

Raquel smiled. She said, “Thank you, StarCen.”

Solar Storm 15

Like so many secret SSI facilities in the League, this one was nestled in a warehouse district. Thrall did not know the exact location, he just knew he was somewhere on Epsilon.

After porting down to the surface once the Intrepid made orbit, he contacted Munk who immediately had StarCen port Thrall here to this facility. Such were the vagaries of travel by terrestrial teleportation, Thrall had no idea where, exactly, he was at the moment.

But he did not care.

Munk stood waiting for him and Thrall stepped forward after popping in, hand outstretched.

“Edgar, how are you?”

Munk smiled and shook his hand.

“I’m doing well, Julius. I trust your trip went okay?”

“Long and boring. Someday I hope StarCen develops interstellar teleportation, so I can take one step and jump from Clarion to Epsilon and back.”

“That . . . would take a lot of power.”

“I know. The logistics would be tough, too. Until then, we’ll have to rely on spaceships, I guess. So . . . the girl?”

Munk nodded and gestured with his head.

He said, “This way. I think you’re going to like her.”

The two men walked across an open area and headed toward a doorway on the other side of the room.

Munk said, “Our people have perfected the modifications to the biocollar’s subroutine. We’ve gone beyond simply altering the records for the indentured servant system. We have much more control over their personalities now. More so than we have over real indentured servants, or those who went through the system in the traditional manner. What we have now are . . . very compliant subjects.”

“Essentially,” Thrall said, “you broke the free will safeguards set up by the AIs.”

“We did. I’m told it was an elaborate hack, and it took our programmers quite some time to figure it out. It was not at all like the faking of records with the batch from Fomalhaut. That involved just creating new indents without going through a proper contract.

“In this case, we made upper class students who had joined the Resistance into . . . well, slaves for lack of a better term. They are totally compliant. And I mean totally. They will do anything you ask them to, even to the point of committing suicide.”

Thrall’s eyebrows shot up.

Munk nodded. He said, “We’ve tried it. It works.”

Thrall said, “That overrides everything, then. Every safeguard.”

“Precisely. They will do anything and everything, with no regard for their own safety and well-being. They are the perfect slaves, and this is an excellent punishment for members of the Resistance, if I do say so myself.”

They arrived at the door and Munk palmed it open. It led to a hallway with more doors lining both sides. Munk walked to the first one on the left and palmed it open, too.

Inside, they found a white room with a single bed, a stainless steel toilet and sink, and a beautiful blonde girl wearing a t-shirt, underwear, and a gunmetal gray biocollar around her neck.

She stood and faced the men, smiling.

Munk said, “Julius, meet Caroline. She has not been touched. I reserved her just for you, as requested.”

Thrall smiled back at the young girl.

He said, “Hello, Caroline.”

“Hello. How may I serve you?”

-+-

Aboard the Riptide, Raquel Kirkland stayed in her cabin for most of the voyage. She ventured out a couple times, wandering around and exploring the first class deck. To the other passengers and crew, she appeared to be an eccentric millionaire who did not wish to be disturbed while traveling.

While uncommon, such passengers were not unheard of. In days gone past, holo stars sometimes traveled that way, among the planets. These days such celebrity incognito voyages were less common, especially with artificial movie stars who were indistinguishable from real people in films and holos.

Still, her reclusive nature led to speculation that perhaps she was an old school star of some sort. She never ventured out without a scarf wrapped tightly around her neck, and she liked to wear big white sunglasses all the time.

So, of course she had to be somebody rich and famous, willing to dress so quirkily like that and not caring what everybody else thought.

In reality, rather than stay in her room, Raquel spent most of her time in the ship’s electrical system. She explored every nook and cranny that way, and spied on the passengers and crew. She knew who was sleeping with whom, and had picked up several other delightful secrets along the way.

But now at last the Riptide neared its destination, and the onboard maps showed the ship to be within minutes of Epsilon Prime.

Raquel had her bags waiting outside the door to her cabin, and a bot came to pick them up. She followed it to the disembarkation zone, where her first class status would allow her to port down to the surface ahead of other passengers.

An hour later she had passed through customs, and stood in a large open area in the main spaceport on Epsilon’s surface.

She looked up at the ceiling and removed her sunglasses.

“StarCen, where is Tetrarch Thrall?”

“Tetrarch Thrall is in SSI Facility 16.”

“Ah. A black site, no doubt. And where is Tetrarch Thrall staying?”

“Tetrarch Thrall has booked the Presidential Suite at the Epsilonian.”

That made sense, Raquel thought. The Epsilonian was the nicest and grandest resort on the planet.

“Would you like me to port you there?”

“No thank you. I’ll make my way there myself.”

She walked to the nearest ladies’ room. Inside the privacy of a stall, she pixilated and floated up to the lights in the ceiling.

After darting around the city an hour, she found the Epsilonian, and then the Presidential Suite. She floated in out of a light fixture, and asked StarCen to have her luggage sent over.

Then she plopped down on the bed and selected a movie to watch while she waited for Thrall.

Solar Storm 14

“Why didn’t we hear about this sooner?”

“The telegraph line is down, ma’am. Evidently it’s out between here and Elliot, the first station.”

“This is terrible. How long will it take to build another bridge?”

“This one took a month, ma’am. The crew can hurry, but . . . you don’t want to hurry bridges too much, you know? The engineer in charge has the plans, though. We can reconstruct it. He’ll likely want to set new supports since the old ones suffered burns and explosions.”

Governor Seldom felt the anger surge in her chest, along with another acidic emotion . . . helplessness.

She tamped down the feelings and looked up at the railroad consultant standing in her office.

“Very well. Do what you can to expedite things. I will authorize a security detail for the railroad, though. I don’t want this happening again. Those sailors from the Excelsior are almost certainly the ones behind this. I’m going to offer a reward for their capture. Maybe we’ll get some help rooting them out.”

“Yes, ma’am. The railroad appreciates any assistance your office can offer in this matter.”

With that, the man turned and left pulling shut the door behind him.

Seldom sighed and steepled her fingers in front of her face.

She said, “Oh, Captain Benson. What are we going to do about you, girl?”

-+-

“And then it was like . . . Boom! And she tumbled down!”

The sailors around the campfire laughed as Vargas retold the story of blowing the bridge, with much animation and embellishment.

Vargas still had plenty of credits from picking up gold nuggets outside of Wallisville. He had gone into Elliot recently and bought enough food to last them a while. No one in the small party had ever eaten food cooked over a campfire, but they quickly figured it out.

“It’s get better each time you tell it,” Kilmeade said with a smile, chewing down a sausage link. They had discovered sausages kept a while without refrigeration, and were not half bad after heating them in a cast iron skillet over an open flame.

“The ensign was the true hero in this story. I salute you, Ensign Kilmeade, for your acrobatic prowess in scaling the heights of that wooden monstrosity and planting the explosives that took her down!”

A round of applause went up from the sailors.

Kilmeade smiled and said, “It was teamwork. We all did a good job.”

Benson leaned back and took a sip of tea. Tea was another commodity recently purchased with Vargas’s and Ong’s credits. She looked around at her crew, or what was left of her crew, and smiled as they wrapped up supper. Now that Curly had rejoined them, he brought their numbers back up to 14.

Most of her crew had been lost in battle. Then, more had died fighting miners in and around Wallisville. Now she was down to 14, including herself. She had 14 people to change and influence this world for the League.

This world, Halcyon, had tasted independence. The minute the League left, distracted by the war, the colonists formed their own government. Did they do the right thing and appoint a leader for the League to govern? No. They formed a representative democracy, electing leaders. And in remote places, like Wallisville, they pretty much governed themselves, preferring to be left alone.

It was too much, and Benson felt determined to do something about it. If it were not for the fact that Seldom was prepared for her, immediately arresting Benson and her crew when they finally made it to Winthrop, Benson might have been able to set things right on this planet immediately. But at least Vargas and Ong were able to spring them from jail. Now Benson led the fight from the sidelines instead of directly at the center of power in Winthrop.

If only she could rally other loyalists like Kev Stanton to their cause. Benson dreamed of a widespread rebellion where those who loved the League would rise up and overthrow this abomination of representative government.

Could the people just not see all the flaws in a constitutional republic? What happens when someone bad gets elected? Did they ever stop and think about that before writing a constitution?

People are too stupid to govern themselves, Benson thought. They need leaders, leaders who are trained and appointed. Sailors did not vote in the Navy for their leaders. Officers went to the Academy and learned how to lead, then were placed in charge of starships. There were no elections. The people born and bred to rule took care of things.

That was how government was supposed to work. Not this . . . freedom to choose leaders foolishness.

Her mind drifted back to the conversation as Curly was talking, recounting his tale of cutting the telegraph wires.

“It’s a vulnerability. I mean they have klicks and klicks of wire. They can’t guard it all. I just waited until nobody was coming in either direction, climbed up and cut it. It’s a good thing they don’t have AI sensors, or satellites or anything. This is like the Old West, we can camp out here in the wilderness and go completely undetected. We can also sneak around and blow things up.”

“It’s great!” Vargas said. “This should really slow their progress.”

“It’s not enough.”

All conversation stopped as everyone focused on the Captain.

She looked up in surprise, seeing all faces turned toward her. Evidently she had said that out loud.

“It’s not enough,” she repeated. “We can slow down their progress, but they still have the wrong type of government in place. These people are empowered . . . they feel empowered. And if they can decide who their leaders are now, do you think they’ll just roll over when the League finishes fighting and returns?

“What do you think will happen when the First Fleet, or any of the other fleets show up? And what do you think the Admiral of that fleet is going to say to us about how we comported ourselves while we were here?

“We are here now, and we need to be doing more. We need to end this . . . this experiment in self-governance before it has a chance to take hold.”

An uncomfortable silence settled around the campfire and nobody said anything for a moment.

Finally, Kilmeade cleared her throat. She said, “How do you propose doing that, ma’am?”

Benson raised an eyebrow while staring thoughtfully at the fire. She said, “We need to start by going back into Winthrop and killing Governor Seldom.”

Solar Storm 13

Curly waved at the family driving a covered wagon toward Winthrop. They waved back, enthusiastically. The father and mother sat on the wooden driver’s bench with two children standing behind them.

Curly guided his horse to the right and passed them, smiling at everybody and waving.

They all wore something on their heads. The father and his son wore wide-brimmed hats, while the mother and daughter wore bonnets. In the back of the wagon, Curly thought he saw produce. Bushels of grain, some bags of other stuff. They were probably making a day of it, bringing in a load of food from an outlying farm and selling it in the city, either to a wholesaler for the grocery stores or some kind of farmer’s market.

“I swear,” he said out loud to himself after passing them, “it feels like I stepped back in time or something.”

But of course, he had not stepped back in time. He was on Halcyon, a frontier planet cut off from the rest of the galaxy due to the war. His ship, the Excelsior, was destroyed by the Republic’s new star weapon and came here as a last ditch maneuver before disintegrating in the atmosphere when pirates attacked.

Every now and then Curly would see some technological doodad left over from when the colonists first arrived, and it would spoil the effect of being back in time.

For right now, though, things certainly looked and felt primitive.

He glanced up at the telegraph wire running along poles planted beside the road. The line, he knew, stretched all the way to Wallisville, some 600 kilometers away. It connected all the towns on the road out of Winthrop, the only road that mattered.

There were surely other roads leading out of Winthrop, but none led to settlements of any size . . . yet. The colonists had only been here three years or so, since the start of the war. They hadn’t had time to grow their population much, and of course no new colonists had arrived since the League abandoned them.

Curly was now several klicks out of Winthrop, and traffic finally became lighter. Closer to town, there was much more activity. But the covered wagon with the annoyingly cheerful family was the last vehicle, horse, or pedestrian he had seen in a while.

Ahead, the road looked empty. Curly turned in his saddle and watched the wagon slowly crest a hill then dip down out of sight.

“Well, here’s as good as any place. Whoa, horsie.”

He reined the animal to a stop and dismounted. The horse looked at him with a glimmer of curiosity in its eye. Curly ignored it and opened up the saddlebags.

Inside, he pulled out a portable ladder, a single pole folded every half meter, with branching rungs. Curly placed it on the ground and quickly unfolded it, locking each segment into place until the ladder was fully stretched out.

He picked it up off the road and angled the top on the nearest telegraph pole. Then he grabbed a pair of wire cutters out of the saddlebag and carefully climbed the ladder. He reached up and cut the lower line, then climbed one more step and cut the upper line, too. The wires snapped back under tension, making a sound like a spring as they sailed away and hit the ground.

Curly breathed a little easier. He had been worried the lines might whip him when they snapped. He went back down to the ground and quickly folded up the ladder, trying to hurry before anybody came down the road and saw him. When he had it loaded back on the horse, he ran over to the fallen lines and made several additional cuts. He grabbed the pieces of wire and took them with him.

“They won’t be able to make a simple repair,” he reasoned to himself. “They’ll need a longer stretch of wire.”

His act of sabotage complete, Curly mounted his horse again, turned around, and headed back in the direction he came. He tried not to go too fast so he would not overtake the family in their wagon.

-+-

Benson could scarcely believe the colonists were already building a railroad. But from her hidden position up in the hills outside Winthrop, the evidence was literally right before her eyes. Surveyors had plotted a route all the way to Dennison, or so they heard. Below, she could see the freshly laid rails stretching out straight and level.

They extended over a new bridge, the wood latticework neatly filling the gap between two ridges, providing a level track for future trains.

Beside her, Kang took his binoculars down and said, “They finished the first few tunnels, and this is the first large bridge. Once they get out of these hills, the way will be smoother, flatter. They’ll go faster and complete the rails quicker now. They won’t have to worry about grades so much until they get to the mountains.”

Kang was of Asian descent, but he looked like he had some European blood in him. He was good looking, Benson thought, but far too young for her. And that led her to think of Chung and his smiling face.

She set it aside, determined not to wallow in memory or misery.

Out loud she said, “It makes sense that a lack of geographical barriers would help.”

Kang nodded. He said, “Yes, ma’am. The rail bed has to be flat. It can’t have steep inclines or sharp turns. They’ll be using a very primitive steam engine, and will thus be limited somewhat. Still, it’s going to advance their transportation capabilities significantly.”

Benson smiled grimly. She said, “We’ll just have to slow their advancement a bit, then.”

She took the binoculars and peered down at the bridge. In the middle of the latticework, like some kind of circus performer, she could see Kilmeade crawling around, placing the last of the small bombs they had stolen.

The railroad had foolishly left everything unguarded, including the explosives they used for construction of the line and to make tunnels. Kilmeade and her team had stolen the explosives two nights ago, but Benson waited until the bridge was complete and the construction crew moved on.

She watched as Kilmeade climbed up to the rails, and walked along the tracks. She made her way back to two other sailors, and together they retreated farther up the ridge.

Benson moved her binoculars back to the bridge and waited, holding her breath.

KABLOOM!

The latticework lit up in fire and smoke. Benson watched in satisfaction as the entire bridge collapsed, the fresh iron railing falling down with the wood.

Solar Storm 12

Tension filled the air in the Petra Roe Embassy boardroom like a thick, foul fog. The focus of all the tension, the locus of the miasma, radiated from Ambassador Huntington.

He stood at the head of a long table, glaring at lesser employees comprising the core of his administrative staff. He pulled one curled mustache tip out and let it snap back in place, repeatedly.

Four chairs down, Stuttgart swallowed nervously.

Stuttgart assiduously eschewed drugs, even caffeine. But he knew, along with most of the others in the room, that the Ambassador had a drug problem. The man did not even try and hide the bracelet on his wrist anymore.

Despite his personal preferences, at the moment Stuttgart might have been tempted to try a drug of some kind, himself. Maybe a sedative, or something for his nerves.

Oh well, he thought. I’ll just have to remain calm while lying.

Huntington finally broke the silence and said, “Everyone in this room knew details about the bank shipment that was stolen.”

Blood raced to the Ambassador’s face as he glared at each person in turn. Stuttgart met his eyes, trying not to look guilty.

The entire planet of Petra Roe felt ashamed that a huge amount of League gold was snatched right out of their solar system. The fact that PR tilted toward the League in this current conflict, despite their nominal neutrality, made the event even more embarrassing. PR officials found themselves in the awkward position of trying to explain to the League what happened when they themselves barely understood all that had occurred.

“Did anyone else know?”

All eyes turned to Lulu Vandiver, the nominal second in charge at the embassy. She sat directly to Huntington’s right.

Realizing she had the room’s attention, she shrugged in a self-deprecating manner.

“I’m just curious who else might have tipped the pirates off.”

She left the rest unsaid, Stuttgart thought. She could have continued with, “Because surely it couldn’t have been anyone in this room.”

Huntington said, “Why would anyone outside of Lute tell a pirate company . . . on Lute . . . about this?”

He pulled out a mustache curl in an irritable gesture, and let it pop back in place.

Stuttgart cleared his throat. He said, “I might have some information about that, sir.”

Everyone’s attention shifted to him.

Well, here it is, he thought. The moment of truth. Or rather, deception.

Stuttgart flicked his wrist and a holosheet appeared in the air.

He said, “I did some research, and I found that a certain percentage of the money on that drone came from Sergio Productions.”

That part was true, he thought. Sergio Productions had recently made a large deposit, and it could be inferred that a few million in gold could be traced back to the company.

Huntington shrugged. He said, “So?”

Vandiver cut in, trying to hog the spotlight from Stuttgart. For once, Stuttgart did not mind.

She said helpfully, “Sergio Productions is one of the wealthiest entertainment conglomerates in the galaxy, sir.”

“I know that,” Huntington snapped. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Stuttgart cleared his throat again, pulling the attention back.

He said, “Well, sir, it appears the scion of the family, Niles Sergio, was captured a while back by the same company that took the gold.”

This statement was met with shocked silence. Stuttgart held the Ambassador’s eyes steadily.

Finally, Huntington blinked and said, “Go on.”

“Well, here’s where it gets interesting, sir. They have held Niles Sergio a long time. Longer than any other passenger from the Coral Reef. But, almost immediately after the pirates broke into the drone . . . they released him.”

Huntington’s face dropped. He said, “That was his ransom.”

“We can’t say that for sure, sir,” Stuttgart said, holding up a hand in caution. “But, it certainly looks suspicious.”

“I’ll say! LuteNet, where is Niles Sergio?”

LuteNet’s rich contralto came down from the ceiling. She said, “I am sorry, Ambassador Huntington. Niles Sergio ported off planet less than an hour ago. Right now he is on his way to Petra Roe. His ship has been in transit for 32 minutes.”

“He got away! We’ll have to intercept him on PR. Vandiver! Prepare a dispatch, top secret. We’ve got to stop him!”

-+-

Niles Sergio sat at the bar in First Class, the center of attention. He was on his third whiskey, and felt pretty good. His tales had drawn a small crowd, and the attractive young woman to his left seemed to be hanging on his every word.

Since Sergio had not had attention from any woman in a very long time, he took this as a good sign, and devoted most of his narrative toward her despite having others listening in.

“So, there I was on the Coral Reef. The pirates had taken over! They ran everywhere with their blasters out, shooting and yelling and ripping the jewelry right off of women.”

“Oh, my!” the young woman said, covering her mouth.

Sergio nodded, then tossed back the last of his drink.

“Yep. Thuggish brutes, all of them. But I stood up to them! I was held captive for months, but I never gave them anything! I helped a Marshal who came and tried to rescue me, before some mumbo-jumbo legal loophole got in the way.”

“A Marshal! You don’t say!”

“Oh, yeah. There was a huge shootout in Mule Tower! I thought we were all going to die. But that Marshal . . . well, let’s just say you don’t mess with the Marshal Service. Even if you’re a pirate!”

Everyone chuckled. The group at the bar seemed to be mostly from Petra Roe, and thus sympathetic to the League.

“Let me tell ya,” Sergio said to the young lady while signaling the bartender for another drink. “It’s been a long hard time in captivity for me. Brutish deprivation, if you know what I mean.”

She smiled back at him and said, “Well, maybe you can at least have a pleasant trip to Petra Roe.”

He sipped from his fresh drink, just as the last one started to make its presence known in his blood stream.

His vision blurred and his words began to slur.

“I hope sho. I hope sho.”

Solar Storm 11

Niles Sergio walked out of the elevator to the cafeteria in a glum mood.

He had lost track of how long he had been held here in Mule Tower. He had no contact with the outside world, other than those brief moments with Marshal Metger. No word from home, other than second hand information that his family (his stepmother, really) was not interested in meeting the pirates’ ransom demands.

The people here treated him okay, as far as being polite and seeing to his needs. He could eat as much as he wanted in the cafeteria, and he had almost the full run of an entire skyscraper.

But few socialized with him. None of the girls would give him the time of day, or even talk with him much.

Perhaps worse of all, news and entertainment on this planet originated almost entirely from the Republic. And in that regard, Sergio recently had a major epiphany.

The entertainment billions of people consumed in the Republic was . . . biased.

Yes, biased. That was the only proper way to consider it, he thought.

In the movies and holos and shows he watched, even in the fiction he read . . . constitutional representative government was a concept actually lauded. Not disdained like it was in the League.

Meanwhile authoritarianism, especially totalitarianism, was denigrated. And hints were constantly dropping that the League was a totalitarian state.

Time and again the point was made across all media that when citizens could choose their leaders, they prospered. Things were always better in a representative democracy. Things were always worse in a dictatorship. This was hammered home in every show. Even in online games.

Niles could hardly believe it when he first noticed. It was while he was watching a series called Nielsen Springs, set in a fictional town on Diego. There, the citizens of Nielsen Springs developed super powers after a comet struck nearby. They went on various madcap adventures, which usually involved fighting bad guys from the League. But every episode ended with a didactic statement affirming the Republic and its values.

Durst Brentwood, one of the heroes of Nielsen Springs, ended an episode Niles watched with a statement while addressing a group of school children. He had just saved them by foiling a plot to kill random citizens via a secret League satellite armed with a killer laser in orbit around Diego.

The statement went like this: “Remember boys and girls, when a government has no checks and balances, when the governed have no say in what their leaders can do, it always leads to abuses of citizen rights . . . just like this!”

The children thanked Durst Brentwood for saving their lives and the episode ended. That is when Niles had his epiphany. The Republic manipulated media just as surely as Sergio Productions and other companies in the League manipulated theirs.

Efforts to shape public opinion were just as strong on the other side!

It seemed obvious now, but Sergio had never stopped to consider the fact. He was so wrapped up in his own worldview, he had never considered that all those people on the other side felt just as strongly their way was right. And that’s all they ever heard, too.

Oh sure, a few vocal minorities spoke out in favor of the League. But the overwhelming sense of rightness concerning a citizen’s voice in government drowned them out across the spectrum.

As for himself, Niles had grown up learning all about the evils of democracy and capitalism. The two were linked with one another just as socialism and authoritarianism were. What about the unequal distribution of wealth? This was a major tenant of League orthodoxy, and had been drilled into him as a child.

He brought that up with an old pirate named Cummins, who was one of the few people willing to spend time with him in conversation.

Cummins revealed, to Sergio’s astonishment, that he had saved up more than a million credits over the course of two dozen voyages.

After dropping that bombshell of a statement, the old salt confessed to having spent much more in his lifetime. It was just that now, with the war, times were good in his line of work and he wanted to save up a nest egg for retirement.

Harking back to his lessons on the evils of capitalism, Sergio had asked Cummins what he thought about Captain Raleigh, who no doubt had squirreled away millions more over the same period of time. Didn’t it bother Cummins that his Captain made more than he did on every voyage? The shares were not divided equally.

Cummins shrugged his shoulders.

“Somebody’s got to be in charge, and leaders always get paid more. I could make more money as a leader. You can move up in this business if you want to. But I seen too many leaders get killed over the years. Plus, leaders have more responsibility than I care to burden myself with. I’m happy being a follower. The Captain can keep his millions. But I’ve got mine. I’ve got onemillion, and that’s good enough for me.”

Then the old man uttered something profound.

He stared hard at Sergio and said, “Comparison with others is a tool of socialism. The League always tries to gin up envy so that you’ll support the authoritarian leaders who claim they’ll even everything out for ya.

“But if you go around comparin’ yourself to others, you’ll never be happy. The only thing we compare ourselves with in the Republic is . . . ourselves. And in comparison to what I had when I first came to Lute, which was nothin’, I’m very rich now. I compare very nicely to what I once was. And that’s the only comparison that counts.”

There was no way Sergio could break through that certitude and convince the old fellow an authoritarian form of government was better. No way at all. And it was all backed up by the news and entertainment the man consumed, too. Cummins watched Nielsen Springs. He would talk about the episodes with Sergio, laughing about how Durst Brentwood bested the League baddies this time.

Now Sergio headed for the food line, intent on lunch. So long as they kept him in this gilded cage, he would at least enjoy his meals.

“There you are!”

Granny stopped him before he made it to the serving line.

“You heard yet, boy? You’re free.”

“What? What do you mean? Did someone pay my ransom?”

“Something like that. I’m not sure of all the details. All I know is, if you make your way up to the roof, Lootie will port you over to the Administration Building. You can catch the next ship to Petra Roe, I’ve already bought your ticket.”

“Oh, wow! This is great! I can access one of my personal accounts back on PR, and I can get home from there! Thank you so much! I need to say goodbye to Cummins. And anybody else I see! Oh, happy day!”

Granny watched Sergio rush about, eagerly shaking hands with everybody in the cafeteria. Then he ran back to the elevator and took it up to the roof.

She cackled as the door closed on his smiling face and said, “Good riddance!”

Then her expression changed to a scowl. She pointed a finger up at the ceiling and said, “You better be right about this, Lootie.”

LuteNet, perceiving Granny to be somewhat volatile and hostile toward artificial intelligence in general, refused to engage and open herself to a possible argument. She remained silent.