Condor Rising 35

“At some point,” Biff said, “we’ll get married again.”

Julia smiled, turning her head on the pillow so he could see it on her face.

“Good morning, love. Careful what you say.”

She had a playful tone, but they both knew what she meant.

He leaned over and kissed her, despite their mutual morning breath.

When they broke apart he said, “Cops have certain privileges.”

“Mm. Except when cops have travelled off world and have been involved in one of the biggest murder cases ever.”

He paused to consider it. Then he said, “Okay. You might have a point. Want some breakfast?”

“I’d love some breakfast.”

He got out of bed and padded into the kitchen area of the small apartment. Julia sat back and thought about their dilemma.

So far as anyone knew, Biff had met someone new and she had moved in with him. He had taken a few additional days off since the shooting, going into HQ only to answer questions. The rest of the time they had spent together.

True to his word, Sergeant Jefferies had the body of “Andi Jones” quickly cremated, and quietly let Biff have the ashes. Biff thanked him, and promptly poured them into the Thallick River which cut through the middle of Yorkton. There was nothing left to recover of the SSI agent known as Natasha Krizinksi.

Today marked the first time Biff would be going back to work since he left to go find her. He would be given desk duty for the foreseeable future. One of the benefits of this assignment included being home every night. Despite that, she felt certain the department would be watching him closely, at least for the foreseeable future.

Maybe StarCen did not monitor police in the privacy of their homes. When she married him the first time, he had no idea of her identity, and they did not have to play any games. But now . . .

Could he keep his mouth shut about her real identity? And if he slipped, like this morning, would it matter? Would StarCen ignore it, or would somebody else be listening?

Time would tell. For now, Julia would be on her guard and hope and pray that Biff could adapt. Already he had called her Andi twice, but that would be understandable. She read somewhere that men often mixed up the names of their wives and girlfriends. So long as he did not call her “Julia” they were probably safe as far as name mistakes go.

She remained curious about the eavesdropping, and wondered if there might be a way to determine who was currently under additional surveillance on the police force. For now, though, they would have to play it safe regardless.

“You want breakfast in bed or at the table?” Biff called from the kitchen.

“Table. You know I hate crumbs in bed.”

Fortunately, she thought, StarCen had been programmed to ignore similarities between her personalities. Julia and Andi hated crumbs in bed, too.

“You’re doing it again,” Biff said as she walked into the kitchen where he had placed two plates piled high with pancakes on the table.

“Doing what?”

“Pulling on your earlobe.”

She smiled sweetly, sitting down at the table in front of her plate.

She said, “Everybody has their little quirks, Officer.”

After breakfast, Biff put his uniform on and left for work. Julia walked out of the flat and took the skybus to a different part of town. She wandered around on the street for a while, taking in the sights, and eventually found her way to a seedier, run down neighborhood.

After walking a few more blocks she felt confident there were no sensors anywhere nearby. She jumped over a metal barricade blocking the entrance to an abandoned subway and made her way down into the darkness.

Julia found a sensor at the bottom of the stairs. It looked relatively new, but someone had broken it recently. She headed down the tracks past other broken sensors and turned into a service tunnel.

She opened an old-fashioned door set on hinges and walked into a room holding four chairs and a table. Elephant, Lynx, and Owl smiled at her when she came in.

Elephant said, “Hello, Angel.”

Julia smiled back at them and said, “Miss me?”

Owl said, “We lost Shark getting you back.”

Julia said, “Shark is in good hands. He’ll continue the fight elsewhere.”

“What are our plans now?” Lynx said.

Julia smiled again and sat back in her chair. She said, “I think it’s time to stir things up a little more on Juventas.”

“We’ve stirred things up pretty good while you were gone,” Elephant said. “Lion took out a Vice Admiral and the Director of SSI in one blow.”

Julia’s eyebrows shot up. She said, “Samson maneuver?”

All three nodded back. Julia’s lips quirked down at the news. Lion had been a good asset for the Resistance.

Elephant said, “And Shark almost took out Cooper. Missed him by a second, apparently. Since then I don’t think the Admiral has set foot outside.”

“Who took over at SSI? The Wicked Witch?”

Everyone nodded again. Owl said, “She’s still getting her feet wet. But she’ll be just as bad as Fleming was, if not worse.”

Julia said, “Okay. I’m willing to leave Admiral Cooper alone for now so long as he doesn’t start forcing indents or commit other egregious acts. Let him stew in paranoia for a while. But Vicki Fenner moves to the top of the list. Get with Weasel and find out what you can about addresses, schedules, anything else that will help us.”

The three nodded. Elephant said, “Anybody you have in mind for this?”

“Are Dolphin and Peregrine still in the vicinity?”

“Yes. Although, we haven’t seen or heard from Peregrine in a while, I believe she is still available. We can contact Dolphin easily.”

Julia pursed her lips, her mind racing with possibilities.

She said, “Very well. Get in contact with those two and let’s wage a little war on SSI.”

Condor Rising 34

Phoom!

“The anti-Wu field has been activated, Captain. We’ll bring the net back in now.”

Raleigh said, “Thank you, Mr. Kim.”

“They’re in bad shape,” Granny said, chomping down on a fresh cigar.

Raleigh nodded, standing with Jillian on his right and Maxwell on his left. Dillon sat in the pilot’s seat, staring in awe at the holoscreen image floating before them.

The Excelsior’s outline no longer gave the sleek appearance of a warship. Instead the hull showed extensive damage, with jagged chunks of metal and ripped plates jutting out. Not a single square meter remained unmarred from what they could see. The ship looked like a sick mishmash of melted and twisted parts that used to form a vessel.

Raleigh said, “Was the suppression grid adequate, Lootie, or do they have their Wu Drives shielded like everybody else?”

“It appears our efforts met with success. Their engine room is already damaged. Apparently the shielding is cracked. That and the other damage they have already incurred means they will not be leaving, Captain.”

“Good. Demand their surrender again.”

“I have done so. StarCen tells me Captain Benson refuses.”

“Does she understand she doesn’t have much choice?”

“I do not know her cognitive reasoning, Captain.”

They watched as a transport shot out from the warship’s flight deck. It angled downward and headed for the planet’s surface below.

Dillon said, “We’ve got drones, right? Should we send the drones after them?”

Raleigh shook his head. He said, “That’s not the way we do business. Let them go. Lootie, was that all of them?”

“StarCen indicates one officer remains onboard, and he is still unwilling to surrender the ship.”

“What? Unbelievable. Okay, what are our options?”

“I am sensing considerable internal damage, Captain. It would appear life support is probably broken as well. You could wait him out.”

“Hm. The rest of his crew just left. If there’s only one person using up the air, he could last quite a while.”

“That is correct, Captain.”

“And in the meantime, the League could show up looking for them. And if that happens, the chances of us obtaining the bounty goes way down.”

“That is correct, Captain.”

“Alright. Anybody got any other ideas?”

“Let’s blast him apart,” Granny said.

“How hard is it to destroy an Eagle-class without shields, Lootie?”

“It is not impossible, Captain. However, the fastest and most efficient means of destruction remains placing a bomb onboard.”

“Like them bastards tried to do with us,” Granny said.

“What kind of defenses could they muster against a boarding party, Lootie? It doesn’t look like their guns are operable.”

“That is correct, Captain. It should be possible to enter their flight deck without resistance.”

Jillian said, “You can’t just let that man die, Chris. She said there’s one man left onboard. If you blow them up, he’ll die!”

Raleigh looked at her and sighed. He said, “He’s not leaving me with a lot of choices, darling.”

“I have an idea,” Pak said from the engine room.

-+-

On the Excelsior’s flight deck, the lights flickered as Chung palmed open panel after panel.

“The XO of the ship requires the XO panel to be opened. ‘Explosive Ordinance.’ ‘Executive Officer.’ Ever notice how they’re both referred to as XO, StarCen?”

“The Captain of the privateer requests your surrender, XO Chung.”

“The answer is still no. Now, the standard procedure is a boarding party, correct?”

“Yes, XO Chung. I am sensing a smaller ship leaving their flight deck now.”

“Ha! I knew it.”

He pulled out two egg grenades from the storage compartment, and two neural switches. Then he turned and hurried toward the red glowing portal.

He placed one grenade on the floor to the right of the portal, the other to the left. Then he quickly attached neural switches to the grenades.

“We are going to take them out right when they try to come inside, StarCen!”

“That is unwise, XO Chung. The ship is already damaged. Such an explosion will prove even more detrimental.”

“Yeah, but it’ll be worth it to kill some pirates.”

Chung approached the doorway to the corridor and turned in the flickering light back toward the portal. He focused on the two switches over the neural network and waited.

“XO Chung, causing egregious damage to a naval vessel is not allowed as per—”

“Shut up, StarCen.”

He could see the ship approaching now, through the hazy red force field. It turned, its nose pointing inward. A final burst from its engine would bring it inside.

“XO Chung, I am sensing no—”

The nose of the craft poked through the red force field. Chung activated the neural switches on the two grenades.

KARUMPH! KARUMPH!

Both went off almost simultaneously, obliterating the smaller craft along with a chunk of the deck, the portal, and the force field.

Chung smiled in triumph. His expression changed when oxygen quickly rushed out the giant hole. Transports and spare parts and scrap metal flew out the jagged opening. Chung tumbled above the tarmac and out into space with all the other flotsam.

-+-

Everyone on the Mule’s bridge watched as the drone eased over to the stricken vessel. Pak’s suggestion was to resurrect the idea of sending over a bomb on a drone, like they tried when the Excelsior was parked at Pegasi. This time, she was not going to teleport away at the last moment.

It was safer than sending in a team to plant a bomb, Pak insisted. Who knew what damaged equipment could be floating inside around the flight deck? Who knew how psychotic the last living crewmember they left behind could be?

As the nose of the drone entered the red force field of the portal, they received an answer to the last question.

Everyone blinked as the camera snuffed out. The holoscreen shifted to an external view of the Excelsior. A huge debris cloud blew out of the landing deck portal.

“What happened, Lootie? Did our bomb go off prematurely?”

“No, Captain. It would appear somebody booby trapped their flight deck.”

His face dropped.

Maxwell said, “Good thing we sent a drone over and not a transport full of people.”

Raleigh nodded. Maxwell would likely have been on that transport, leading the team.

Granny said, “I guess they figured the ship was toast anyways.”

They watched as the Excelsior spun downward from the expulsion of air.

“Lootie, I take it her orbit is deteriorating?”

“Yes, Captain. And the ship is no longer manned. I am sensing no life aboard.”

“Anything we can do to speed things up her destruction?”

“I will fire at the appropriate spots.”

LuteNet moved the Mule closer to the stricken destroyer and began shooting her forward guns at selected points. More pieces of the ship blew off with each strike, and it tumbled further out of orbit. The Mule followed and continued shooting.

LuteNet said, “The ship is now entering the planet’s atmosphere, Captain. It will burn up within minutes.”

They watched on the holoscreen as the crippled vessel dropped lower and bumped into Halcyon’s top layer of atmosphere. The Excelsior sped down rapidly now, heat from friction making her glow. More and more pieces peeled off and burned away.

The ship became a bright red dot sluicing through the sky. LuteNet magnified the image, showing it go down, down, down.

What was left of the ship hit the planet’s ocean hundreds of kilometers from shore, sending up a geyser of water.

“Captain, I have verified that PLAIR has deposited one million credits in the company’s account on Petra Roe.”

“Good. Okay, Lootie. Get us out of here before the cavalry shows up. Let’s go home.”

The Ultima Mule ported away.

Condor Rising 33

Ultima Mule popped into existence in orbit around Halcyon. Everyone onboard looked at the nearest holoscreen and watched her sun cresting the edge of the planet.

“It’s beautiful,” Jillian said on the bridge with Raleigh.

He grunted in a non-committed tone, his mind on other things besides the scenery.

Raleigh said, “Tell us more about this planet, Lootie. Seems kind of useless.”

“Halcyon was discovered to be life bearing approximately four years ago. The League claimed it and had begun initial efforts at colonization when hostilities commenced. Since then they have not revisited the planet.”

Jillian said, “Really? That seems harsh. Why haven’t they at least dropped in with a supply boat or something?”

“For one thing, Jillian Thrall, the planet is too close to the disputed Seychar system. Odds are strong that StarCen calculated there was too high a risk to send vessels this way. Therefore, the planet has remained in a state of bureaucratic limbo.”

“And we think the damaged League ship from Seychar will show up here?” Jillian said.

“It’s probably a case of ‘any port in a storm.’ Right Lootie?”

“That is correct, Captain. I predict a 75 percent chance of the ship arriving soon.”

“Alright. Prepare us accordingly and let us know the second she shows up.”

“Will do, Captain.”

-+-

The lights flashed red and StarCen’s voice sounded repeatedly throughout the corridors.

“Prepare to abandon ship. Evacuate to the flight deck. Prepare to abandon ship . . .”

The elevator door opened and Benson rushed out with Chung. They went straight for the tarmac.

The lights flickered on the flight deck, showing the structural damage. Both officers glanced toward the portal, still covered in a red glowing force field. Stars flickered hazily with every jump.

“Thank God the portal is intact,” Benson said. “StarCen, is the ship in danger of breaking apart?”

“It will become uninhabitable within hours, Captain Benson. Life support is critically damaged. Air is not being recirculated. Outer parts of the hull are unstable and exposed to space. An immediate evacuation is necessary.”

A handful of people stood on the tarmac in front of one of the transports. Chung and Benson joined them. Then a handful of others came from the elevator.

StarCen said, “Captain Benson, all remaining Navy personnel onboard are on the flight deck and accounted for.”

Benson stared at the small crowd of sailors around her.

“So few. Are you sure there are no more living? Are there any injured? Is anyone immobile who can’t make their way to an elevator?”

“No, Captain Benson. Anyone who can make it is present.”

Benson stared at the people around her. These were her people, under her care and authority. She felt she had let them all down.

StarCen said, “The Excelsior will be in orbit around Halcyon in eleven seconds. Ten. Nine. Eight . . .”

“Everybody get on board. Curly, you can pilot this thing. Do it.”

A large bald man nodded, walked up the ramp and sat down in the pilot’s chair. Others filed in behind him.

“Your ship is now in orbit around Halcyon. Warning. A private warship is also in orbit. You have been spotted. The ship has moved into position nearby.”

“Pirates,” Chung said.

“Go!”

Benson pointed to the ramp for the last few people. They rushed onboard to buckle into the seats.

The last young woman about to board threw her hands up. She turned around to go back. Chung stopped her with an arm across her chest.

He said, “Get onboard. Do not go back.”

“I can’t! I can’t do this! Don’t you understand? I just can’t!”

She struggled to get away from him. He tightened his arm around her middle and picked her up to carry her back to the transport. She squirmed and screamed, completely out of control.

Chung lost his grip and she fell to the floor. She crouched up, preparing to make a run for it. He reached down and thumped her behind the ear, knocking her out. She collapsed flat on the tarmac.

He reached down and picked her up in both arms. He brought her into the transport, placed her in a chair and strapped her in.

Chung looked out the doorway again and noticed the Captain standing there. He went back out to join her.

StarCen said, “Captain Benson, the privateer demands your immediate surrender. What should I tell him?”

Benson locked eyes with Chung. She said, “Well. I guess our luck has run out.”

Chung said nothing. He waited for her decision.

She said, “The ship cannot be forfeited so long as a League sailor remains onboard and conscious.”

She made it a statement instead of a question. Both knew the answer.

StarCen said, “That is correct, Captain Benson.”

She looked back up at Chung and smiled.

“Get onboard, XO. Get my surviving people down to the surface. StarCen will send a rescue vessel shortly.”

“What about you, ma’am?”

“There is no way I am giving up this ship to the enemy. Now, go.”

She pointed at the doorway. Everybody inside watched as Chung nodded.

Benson turned back toward the elevator. Chung swung around and thumped her on the back of the head behind her ear. She collapsed to the floor.

He reached down and picked her up, just as he had done with the other crewmember. He brought her onboard the transport and strapped her in.

To the ensign in the chair next to her, he said, “When she comes to, tell her I still would.”

“You still would?”

He nodded. “She’ll know what it means.”

He went back to the door and pointed at the pilot.

“Take off, Curly! Head to the planet’s surface and wait for rescue.”

“Aye, aye, sir!”

Chung headed for the elevator while Curly flipped a switch. The ramp pulled in and the door to the transport closed. It rose a meter above the tarmac, and Curly pushed forward on the control stick. The transport rushed through the portal, and he pointed it down toward the surface.

Condor Rising 32

Skylar stood in line with Jillian as they waited for their food. They moved forward as a robot handed out plates to everyone in line.

“Still missing your sister?” Skylar said.

“Yeah. I mean, it was such a shock to see her again. And now, just like that she’s gone. I think it wouldn’t be so bad if she were somewhere I could get to, but I can’t really go to any League planet, you know?”

“War sucks.”

Jillian nodded. She could not argue with that sentiment.

She said, “So, you’re spending a lot of time with our new recruit.”

“Yeah. Dillon is . . . different.”

“I’ll say. Does he always talk to himself? I passed him in the corridor earlier and he was mumbling away about something.”

“Pretty much. Yesterday he was looking at me and pretending he was a narrator in a movie. He was saying, ‘Hear she comes . . . the most beautiful woman in the galaxy . . . She’s looking at the boy. He gives her his best James Dean impression. She smiles. She’s amused. She doesn’t know his heart started beating faster when she entered the room.’”

“Aw. That’s sweet.”

“I know, right? He doesn’t treat me like every other guy I’ve ever known. For the first time in my life I’ve found somebody who isn’t completely put off by my abilities. He just thinks they’re ‘cool.’ It doesn’t freak him out.”

“And it doesn’t bother you he’s younger?”

Skylar shrugged. She said, “He’s not that much younger.”

They each took a plate of food from the serving bot. Jillian held hers up and sniffed.

“Mmm. Roast beef and carrots.”

Together they walked into the mess to find a table. They found an open one and sat down with their trays.

Jillian said, “So, have you dated a lot? You haven’t, have you?”

Skylar shook her head. “No. After Raton Five and all the experiments, Samuel and I just focused on getting away. Then we made it to Lute and we joined the company, and that’s pretty much been my life.”

Skylar smiled but her face looked grim. She said, “I’ve killed more men than I’ve ever kissed in life. Far more.”

Jillian’s fork paused half way to her mouth.

She said, “Huh. That’s a disturbing thought. So, in all this time you’ve never dated? Nobody in the company ever caught your eye?”

“Well, sure, there were guys who interested me. And if they’d asked I would have gone out with them. But they never asked. The whole Intangible thing pretty much kept guys out of the picture. That, and the fact Samuel would have killed anyone who mistreated me.”

Both women smiled.

Jillian said, “You would have killed anyone who mistreated you. You didn’t need Samuel to do it for you.”

“Yeah, and everybody knew it, too. That didn’t help my dating life, either. Now I’ve got a young whippersnapper who is too foolish to know better than be afraid of me.”

“Well, I say never look a gift horse in the mouth. You’re still young. Date him. Live a little. Find out what it’s like to enjoy a little romance in your life for a change.”

Skylar gave her a mock salute. She said, “Yes, ma’am!”

-+-

“Captain, PLAIR has requested we divert course to Halcyon. Apparently the Fifth Fleet attacked the Seychar system, and her forces devastated them. However, there is one surviving ship, and PLAIR predicts with a high degree of confidence that the damaged vessel will head toward Halcyon.”

Raleigh said, “Sounds like a wild goose chase, Lootie.”

“That’s from Shakespeare!” Dillon said, with a grin.

Raleigh gave him a flat stare, at the same time wondering what he was doing up here on the bridge. Granny frowned at him, too.

LuteNet said, “PLAIR will make it worth your time, Captain. She believes this might be the Excelsior. It was an Eagle-class destroyer that showed up late at Gotha Mu.”

“Hm. Yeah that sounds like Excelsior. Always lucky like that. Does the one million credit bounty still stand for her capture or destruction?”

“It does, Captain. PLAIR tells me she will compensate the company at least a quarter million credits for this diversion, even if the ship is not Excelsior.”

“Alright. Change our course and divert us to Halcyon. Any planetary forces present that you know of?”

“No, Captain. Halcyon is a frontier planet, and StarCen has mostly ignored it since the start of hostilities.”

“A frontier planet?” Dillon said. “Awesome. Do they have, like, cowboys and horses and stuff?”

“Remind me again why you’re up here?” Raleigh said.

“Oh, yeah. So, I’ve been going through the flight training modules. I’m your new pilot!”

Granny smirked. She said, “We don’t need a pilot.”

Dillon said, “Well, hey, it’s true your AI drives this thing. But there are times when a pilot is useful. And if I’m going to be part of your crew, I need a job, don’t I?”

“You can scrub floors,” Granny said.

Dillon tilted his head with a perplexed look. He said, “Don’t you have bots for that?”

“We do,” Raleigh said, coming to a decision. “If Lootie checks out your progress on the training modules and certifies you as ready to fly, I’m willing to let you fill that role. You may as well learn how to operate the transport while you’re at it. Many times, that takes a human.

“Okay, that’s settled. I’m headed for lunch.”

He turned and walked to the elevator.

Dillon gave Granny a wide grin.

She said, “Hmph! You’d be more useful mopping the floors.”

Condor Rising 31

Captain Benson finished the last of her supper and smiled as Chung regaled her with stories of the crew.

He said, “They have a game where they toss credit tokens against the wall. The one who comes closest to the wall without touching gets to keep the tokens.”

“Isn’t that gambling?” she said.

“Ha! They will swear up and down to anyone catching them in the act that it’s not gambling. If pressed, they might say it’s a contest, or simply a game of skill. But they’ll say, ‘No ma’am, it is not gambling, absolutely not.’”

She smiled as she downed the last bite on her plate. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes was a welcome respite from the bland fare they normally had for meals. And that, she thought, was sad to say. But true.

Chung wiped his lips with a napkin and sat back, his own plate nearly clean.

He said, “Any word from StarCen if we’re going to be late to the party?”

Benson nodded and said, “We made up some time by not hanging around at the rendezvous point. She’s extending our jumps a bit, and that helps. Finally, the fleet is pausing for an hour while she positions everybody. If we don’t hang around there, we should show up pretty close to when the action starts.”

“Good, good. I’ll pass the word and get everybody ready for the morning.”

He stood up to go, although it seemed to Benson he moved toward the door somewhat reluctantly. She smiled and stood up, too. She had sensed Chung’s affections before. They would, however, both remain professional.

Well, mostly professional.

She said, “You know if I wasn’t married to the Navy, Chung, I’d ask you to marry me.”

He broke into a wide grin.

“If you ever proposed, ma’am, I’d say yes.”

With that, he walked out the door and it swished shut behind him.

She sighed, wondering if he knew how close to the mark her comments were. Chung once told her in confidence his first name, Jun, meant “truthful.” How she hated having to dance around the truth with him. Her comment about marriage, although delivered in jest, was true. If it were not for their roles in the Navy, she would have been very much interested in a relationship with Jun Chung. He was the kind of man she admired. Honest, earnest, a good head on his shoulders. She liked his looks, too. Tall, dark, and handsome.

But right now, they had a ship to run, a battle to fight and a war to win. All romantic notions must perforce be suppressed.

Maybe someday, she thought. Maybe someday, after this war is over . . . Maybe she’d stop in a café somewhere on Epsilon Prime and there, at a table, Chung would be sitting alone and nursing a cappuccino. She would see him, walk over and join him. They could interact as real people instead of Captain and XO of the SLS Excelsior.

They could have a life.

Maybe.

Someday.

But not today.

She climbed into bed and called it a night early so she could be fresh for whatever lay in store in the morning.

-+-

“Battle stations. Battle stations. Battle stations.”

StarCen’s high-pitched, emotionless voice sounded throughout the ship. The clock floating at the front of the bridge signaled 05:59, and the Excelsior quickly approached Seychar, gaining distance with every second. They had caught up overnight, and StarCen would bring them through the final point without pausing.

“Listen up, everybody,” Benson said, her words bouncing out of the ship’s public address system. “We’re showing up a little late as usual . . .”

She paused as everyone on the bridge laughed.

“But not that late. StarCen tells me we’re less than a minute behind the others. So when we show up, it’ll be in the thick of battle.

“Now, if predictions for what lies ahead bear out, there won’t be much of a battle. Supposedly the Republicans only have a dozen or so ships in this system. But, you know how the best laid plans of mice and men go. So, I want you all to be ready for anything.

“Keep an eye on the clock. We’re almost there. That is all.”

Everyone on the bridge watched the jump clock as it ticked down, and the icon of the Excelsior on the holographic space map as it crawled closer to Seychar and Gotha Mu.

Finally, the clock reached zero, and they stopped. The ships remaining drones shot out the landing deck portal.

Before them on the holoscreen, Gotha Mu floated in all its celestial glory. Around it, a debris field the likes of which no one had ever seen floated in messy disarray.

Chung said, “Holy cow . . . what happened?”

A wave of metal parts and chunks of ships floated near them, bumping into their shields, along with other things tumbling through space.

Benson said, “Is that . . . is that a body?

-+-

Severs stood in dim light on the Paine’s bridge, silent. Captain Strand maintained authority on the ship, and Severs would not interfere. There was little for the Commodore to do at the moment.

Strand, meanwhile, shouted at his engineers. The holoscreen showed the five Wu Drives, swarming with technicians.

“Get us back online, Smith!”

The lead engineer looked into the camera and said, “Captain, the Wu Drives appear mostly intact. It’s our power core that’s suffering. This is the first time the weapon has been used extensively. It’s never been shot this many times in a row, even in trial runs. It takes a lot of power to teleport the sun. Or, pieces of one anyway. And we just did it repeatedly.”

“Okay, fine. How much time?”

“We’re operating on reserves at the moment. We’ll have to open up the core and take a look at. I can’t give you an estimate at the moment, sir. If I had to guess, the core will need replacing. We may have to rethink power supplies on the Condors if we’re going to be using this weapon a lot.”

“Sir!”

Strand and Severs both looked at the ensign manning the system map. She pointed to a flashing light circling Gotha Mu.

“A new League ship has appeared, sir!”

Strand focused back on the engineer. “Smith, can you get us one more fireball?”

Smith said, “Yes, sir, I think I can. It will likely deplete our reserves, though. Completely. We may even do more damage to the core, I can’t say without looking. But if you’re prepared to sit in the dark and maybe go without gravity . . .”

“Do it. Let’s take this last one out.”

The Commodore said nothing. Technically, he could intervene and suggest the other ships around Seychar jump over to engage the latecomer. But . . .

A lone ship could still damage half a dozen sent against it. And, this was the first real test of their new weapon, in combat. If it would have problems taking out a fleet, they needed to know. Better to find out now than later. So, he felt it was a good idea to stretch the ship out and see how far they could push her.

Severs nodded when Strand raised his eyebrows at him, the question and answer passing unspoken between them.

The lights dimmed again . . .

-+-

“How did this . . . StarCen, what happened?”

“I am still processing the data, Captain Benson. I believe I can state with certainty the Republic has a new type of weapon.”

“What did they do, set off a bunch of nuclear bombs?”

“No, Captain Benson. This is not nuclear . . .”

Chung said, “Something’s coming in—”

A flash of bright white light burst onto the holoscreen and time seemed to stop. Raw energy from the heart of Seychar’s sun exploded near the ship, sending a massive amount of fire rushing toward Excelsior. All of her drones incinerated instantly.

Within microseconds, the energy washed over the ship’s shields, obliterating them, bursting against her outer hull, perforating, burning and ripping through the metal . . .

StarCen popped Excelsior away as the rest of the star’s energy rushed into the empty space where the ship had been.

WahhWahhWahhWahh!

Benson said, “Damage report!”

Chung said, “Outer hull breach!”

“Where?”

“Everywhere! The entire skin of the ship has been burned away.”

“Casualties?”

“Too many to count at the moment. Corridors are sealed. We’ve got no shields, Captain. And we’re losing pieces of the ship with every jump!”

“StarCen! Stop porting us!”

The stars stopped moving in the main holoscreen.

“Status report! StarCen, what’s our status?”

StarCen said, “Captain your hull is critically damaged. You are losing too much oxygen. I am going to bring you to the nearest planet where you will evacuate all survivors and await rescue.”

The stars began shifting again.

Benson looked over at Chung, eyes wide with shock and horror.

Chung took a deep, shuddering breath.

He said, “I guess we weren’t so lucky this time, Captain.”

Benson shook her head. She said, “No, you’re wrong. We were the lucky ones. At least we managed to port away before total destruction. The others . . . the others weren’t so lucky.”

Condor Rising 30

[Author’s Note: Condor Rising 29 is a bonus chapter available in the Amazon version or on Patreon.]

 

Every sailor and every Marine was wide awake by 04:00. Breakfast was served on all the ships at 04:15, robotic chefs preparing reconstituted eggs and cryo-preserved sausages along with copious amounts of coffee. By 05:00 everybody was ready, waiting at battle stations even though combat was still an hour away. Finally, the League ships stopped teleporting five AU’s out.

In his private suite, Meena removed Admiral Kwan’s plate and brought it to the kitchen as he headed for the door. She returned and kissed him on the lips before he walked out.

“Tonight,” he said, I’ll take you down to Seychar. I’m sure there’s a governor’s mansion or some other suitable residence worth confiscating. We’ll enjoy a night under the stars instead of in the midst of them.”

She smiled sweetly up at him and said not a word as he left.

On the bridge, Kwan called into the ships and addressed all personnel, every man and woman under his command.

“Ladies and gentlemen, where we are about to go is where this war started. This is where it all began. Seychar rightfully belongs to the League, but we never paid much attention to it. Too many other things distracted us. Then they found gold. An entire planet of gold ore. It’s a small planet, mind you. But it’s still a planet practically made of gold. And the Republic sought to wrest it from our grasp.

“They won. At the end of the day, three years ago, they won the battle. They had a solitary ship still in the sky while we had none, and that counts as a win. And those Republican bastards have been mining that planet ever since. The gold they’ve dug up has financed their side of the war, and they have made more and more ships, and they have attacked us again and again, and they just won’t quit.

“But now it all ends. In less than an hour, we . . . the League Navy . . . the Fifth Fleet with combined elements from the Sixth Fleet . . . we are going to make this right. We are going to take back what is rightfully ours and put a stop to this conflict. We are going to remove the biggest source of gold from the Republic, and then we’re going to move on Diego itself.

“It started here. Now, we’re here to end it!”

Everyone on the bridge of the Reliant erupted into a roar. The holoscreen switched to the bridges of other ships, StarCen showing the Admiral everyone within the sound of his voice cheering him.

Once the hubbub died down, Kwan called for a Captains-only conference. From there he outlined the battle plan again. Their Eagles would be going in first against the 15 Republican ships expected to meet them in the Seychar system.

“StarCen is diverting significant resources to this next jump. Instead of coming in batches of five every second, she’s going to bring us all in at once. She is now positioning us in the optimal configuration for what we expect are eight ships orbiting Gotha Mu. We will appear and surround them, then move swiftly to take them all out.

“Are there any questions?”

The Captains remained silent.

“Then, ladies and gentlemen, I will speak with you again tonight from the surface of Seychar.”

Smiles lit up the holoscreens as all the Captains signed off.

Admiral Kwan looked up at the ship’s clock, the numbers floating near her pilot. The time read, “05:58”

He said, “Captain . . . prepare for departure.”

A total of 91 ships appeared suddenly around Gotha Mu. They popped into formation, perfectly surrounding the center of the planet. Immediately, the Eagle-class ships near the front adjusted their positions to aim at the Republican warships in orbit.

-+-

On the Thomas Paine, an alarm sounded and the lights flashed red. Commodore Severs and Captain Strand were both on deck. They turned to the main holoscreen, showing the view from one of their destroyers. Stars were blocked out by ship after ship. So many vessels filled the screen, few stars could be seen between them.

PLAIR said, “As expected, Commodore, the Fifth Fleet is here with support from the Sixth.”

“Very good. Evacuate all our ships from orbit around Gotha Mu.”

Before the League vessels could begin firing, all eight Republican destroyers surrounding Gotha Mu popped away, reappearing near Seychar.

-+-

On the Reliant, Admiral Kwan nodded, as if expecting the move. The ship they were closing in on, an Eagle-class like the Reliant, had suddenly disappeared.

He said, “They have withdrawn to the populated planet. This one is ours. Prepare to advance.”

“Sir . . .”

Kwan and Captain Nichols both turned to a young ensign manning one of the holoscreens. He pointed to a grid of the solar system floating in front of him. Seychar featured over a dozen flashing red lights. Gotha Mu had 91 flashing green. Between the two, he pointed to a solitary flashing red icon.

The ensign said, “They have one ship halfway between here and there.”

Kwan walked over for a better look.

He said, “StarCen, identify this ship.”

“I am unable to, Admiral Kwan.”

Kwan and Nichols exchanged a glance.

Kwan said, “Is this their new class, StarCen?”

“I believe so, Admiral Kwan. I do not recognize anything from this distance.”

Nichols said, “Perhaps we should take steps to eliminate this ‘lone ranger’ first, sir? We can pop over and get a closer look.”

“Maybe. But what can it do at this distance? We see no drones. It’s too far away to shoot at us. If it stays out of the way, it’s not a problem.”

-+-

On the bridge of the Thomas Paine, Severs said, “Fire when ready, Captain. Let’s unleash a little hell on them.”

“Aye, aye, sir. You heard him, boys and girls. Fire the star gun and take them out.”

Deep within the engine room of the Thomas Paine, her five Wu Drives began humming. Ordinarily, a ship needed only one Wu Drive, but the advances of war made Republican engineers realize the benefits of having more than one. Right now, all five concentrated in mutual effort, pulling a huge swath of energy from deep within the nearest star.

Each machine teleported out a chunk of Seychar’s sun, the increased power plant on the ship working to grab part of the star from one of its deeper points, at the edge of its core and radiative zone.

The immense energy required to port pieces of the star’s heart sapped the entire ship. Sailors in the Paine looked up as lights dimmed overhead. They felt themselves grow lighter as the ship’s artificial gravity weakened.

Then it was over. Five separate chunks, each 100 cubic meters of raw sun suddenly popped into existence in the middle of the League fleet.

Uncontained from the enormous gravity well from which they had been snatched, the balls of starlight expanded instantly, with devastating effect.

From the main holoscreen of the Paine, the crew watched as a lone camera on Gotha Mu’s surface showed the sky above erupting into light.

Sun, raw natural energy, expanded and wiped out the ships around them.

On the bridge of the Thomas Paine, Severs nodded in satisfaction.

“Do it again,” he said. “Take them all out.”

Condor Rising 28

Captain Strand looked over his shoulder as Commodore Severs walked out of the elevator pod and onto the bridge.

Somebody shouted out, “Commodore on deck!”

Everyone stood to attention.

“As you were, as you were,” Severs said. The tall man smiled at Strand, white teeth shining bright in his dark face as he came over to where the Captain stood.

Together they turned and watched a side holoscreen showing the view of Gotha Mu from one of the Republic ships parked in orbit. Both men stood with their hands behind their backs, watching the planet slowly rotate.

“Hard to believe a war started over that lifeless chunk of rock,” Strand said.

Severs smiled again. Strand was still in his 30s, he thought. Not for long, though. He’d hit 40 in a few months.

“A trillion credits at least, Captain Strand,” Severs said. “That’s what PLAIR estimates is available in the ore on that lifeless rock, if it were all recovered. Feasible mining will yield less, but still . . . for that much gold, yes, people are willing to kill.”

Strand nodded and stole a glance at his pilot and XO, both in front of the main holoscreen.

“The hardest part is waiting,” the young Captain said. “Waiting for the League to show up.”

“About that,” Severs said, his smile broadening into a wide grin. “I just received word from Diego. Our spies on Juventas were finally able to sneak a report out. It seems Admiral Cooper gave up half the ships in the Sixth Fleet recently, including most of his Marines and Eagle-class destroyers.”

Strand lifted his eyebrows. He looked around the bridge again, and everyone stood completely silent, even though no one looked at them. This conversation would no doubt spread throughout the ship.

“Do we know where they went?” Strand said.

“PLAIR has made an educated guess. The Fifth Fleet is in transit, too. She thinks they’re joining up and coming here, over 90 ships in all, carrying a Marine host of disproportionate size. Large enough to subdue a well-populated planet. And take over the mining of a smaller one.”

“Hm. An overwhelming force. Standard tactic.”

Severs nodded. “Yep. All rushing here to line up against our little squadron.”

He sighed and said, “I suppose we should make our final preparations for their arrival. PLAIR?”

“Yes, Commander?”

“Evacuate all humans from Gotha Mu immediately. All robots and other mechanized equipment should take cover, preferably underground where possible.”

“Yes, Commander.”

The bridge remained quiet once Severs gave the order, all conversation stalled. Strand said nothing, staring back down at Gotha Mu where miners and bots even now were seeking shelter or porting off-planet.

Finally he looked back up at the Commodore with a grim expression. Not an expression of regret, or remorse. But one foretelling the destruction to come.

He said, “A lot of League sailors and Marines are about to die.”

-+-

Andre Kwan, Admiral of the Fifth Fleet, leaned back in his chair and pushed the plate away.

He preferred dining in his private quarters, and had no desire to visit the bridge or anywhere else in his flagship very often. Instead, he preferred remaining in his suite and eating meals prepared by his indent, Meena.

These thoughts ran through Captain Justin Nichols’s mind as he hurried to catch up, downing the last few bites of his own dish.

At least, Nichols, thought, Meena was a decent chef. She had grilled the steak to perfection.

As if summoned mentally, Meena appeared to clear the plates away. Nichols could not help but watch as she stooped to gather everything up. Kwan had her dressed in a simple white satin teddy. It left her legs and arms bare, and clung tight to the rest. That was all she wore, other than the gunmetal grey biocollar around her neck.

Barefoot, Meena padded back to the kitchen area, carrying their dirty dishes.

Kwan noticed Nichols’s eyes following her and smiled.

“Rank hath its privileges, if that’s what you’re thinking, Captain.”

Nichols smiled politely. He thought, the Admiral has a way of cutting to the chase, doesn’t he?

Out loud he said, “It’s certainly true that I could not get away with bringing along someone, either a wife or indent.”

Kwan said, “Technically, I’m not supposed to either. But did you know, no one has ever had the guts to tell me no?”

Now that is a revelation, Nichols thought.

“So,” Kwan continued, pushing his chair back and crossing his legs. “I think it goes without saying that we’ll use our Eagle-class destroyers against the squadron at Seychar. I’ve asked StarCen to port us in formation accordingly. We’ll stop a few AU’s out and give her a chance to organize the fleet and properly prepare our mindset before going in.”

Nichols nodded. They were very close now, just a few hours away. In fact, they were scheduled to attack first thing in the “morning,” at 06:00 Epsilon Standard Time. That last stop would be at 05:00, giving them plenty of time to prepare and coordinate before jumping the last bit.

It was going to be a long day for everybody, Nichols thought. But at the end of the day, he had no doubt that the Seychar system would be firmly in the League’s column. Finally.

Personally, Nichols felt Gotha Mu should have been the focus of the Navy from the beginning. But so many other battles had proven distracting, both to the Tetrarchs and, he privately suspected, to StarCen herself.

Now, at last, they were returning to claim the prize they had been forced to leave behind at the start of this war. The source, in fact, of all the conflict.

Well, one good thing about it, Nichols thought. I’m in the lead on this one.

Kwan said, “Once their guard detail is out of the way, we’ll prepare formations for the Diego Fleet. That’s when the real battle begins.”

“That’ll be good,” Nichols said. “We’ve rarely had an opportunity for wide-scale engagement.”

“Yes. Unfortunately, that’s been to their advantage.”

Nichols quirked an eyebrow. The Admiral seemed particularly frank tonight.

Kwan nodded at the Captain’s expression and continued. “For all their inferiority, the Republic has managed to fight exceptionally well. We began this conflict with a numerical superiority in ships. They have bled us with repeated hit and run engagements.”

“Cowards.”

“Indeed. But, they are cowards who live to fight another day. The survival rate of their ships is phenomenal, all things considered.”

“They’ve got mostly Hawks. We still have a numerical advantage with Eagles.”

“Yes. But Hawks are perhaps the most utilitarian class. They are easier and less expensive to manufacture than Eagles, and can be just as devastating in combat especially when fighting together. It is little wonder the Republic has cranked out as many as they can from their factories.”

Meena returned, carrying a tray with coffee cups and a carafe. She set it down on the table between the men and poured the Admiral a cup, then the Captain.

Nichols said, “Thank you.”

Meena smiled shyly at him. She’s beautiful, Nichols thought. I wonder how much Kwan paid for her contract?

When Meena returned to the kitchen Nichols said, “You seem awfully respectful of them, Admiral.”

Kwan nodded and took a thoughtful sip. He said, “Always respect your enemy, Captain. Never underestimate them. I would not be surprised if we see the latest those Diego factories have to offer waiting for us.”

Nichols raised an eyebrow again. This was proving to be an evening full of discoveries and frank discussion.

“Oh really? I haven’t seen any reports.”

“No, you wouldn’t have. Our spies on Diego have had trouble getting comprehensive details out. But, there has been some intelligence on a new class of warship the Republicans have been developing.”

“A new class? That doesn’t sound good.”

Kwan chuckled. He said, “Bear in mind my comments about the Republic’s inclinations toward utility. They crank out Hawks because they’re easier to produce than Eagles. To manufacture something bigger and better than an Eagle would require a longer production timeline, and that is not in the Republic’s nature.”

“Well,” Nichols pointed out, “they do produce Eagles. And some new ones have been manufactured since the start of the war.”

Kwan waved aside the comment with his coffee cup.

He said, “Their primary goal is efficiency. They are a republic, after all. Governed by elected leaders. Focused on capitalism. And capitalism demands efficiency. No, if they have a surprise in store for us, the new class will be utilitarian above all else. If I had to guess, it probably has some shortcuts built into the manufacturing process. A new ship designed to be quickly assembled. Perhaps several of them to try and present a numerical advantage.”

“In that case, they’d have more than a squadron waiting for us.”

“Maybe. Even so, our 92 ships should be able to handle it. But I think the real surprise will be that the Diego Fleet is likely going to be larger than we are expecting. Mind you, what they bring against us might well be cheap and quickly assembled, but I bet they’ll bring in superior numbers. They’re likely to give us a good fight for the money with the Diego Fleet. That’s my prediction for what lies ahead.”

Nichols nodded, thinking about it. He took another sip of coffee. Andre Kwan was a Fleet Admiral, he thought. Someone who sat in on meetings with Tetrarch Thrall himself. So, he was probably right.

Half an hour later, Nichols left the Admiral’s quarters and walked down the corridor to his own spacious cabin. He fell asleep and dreamed about Meena, or at least an indent he could call his own and bring along on long voyages.

Condor Rising 27

Biff met his sergeant, William Jefferies, who had shown up on the scene along with dozens of other officers.

The spaceport was a mess, with blaster damage and blood everywhere. Expensive guardbots lay in pieces, and several civilians had suffered injuries in the shootout. All teleportation to and from ships in orbit ground to a halt, with travel at a standstill while the Capital City Police Force tried to sort things out.

They moved swiftly and efficiently. Officers cordoned off the main areas of attack, identified witnesses and began interrogations.

But within the hour, SSI showed up in force and moved to take over the investigation. When StarCen alerted Jefferies that a group of armored agents had entered the building and were marching down the corridor toward them, he quickly deduced what was happening.

He gave orders to remove the body of ‘Andi Jones,’ and directed all witnesses be taken elsewhere, including Biff. When the agents arrived, the area had been swept clean except for the holographic yellow crime scene tape.

As the crowd of police and people moved further down the corridor, Biff nodded toward the propped open door to the stairwell.

“Hey Sarge, I bet the second floor is deserted.”

Jefferies diverted everyone into the stairwell and unblocked the door so it would close.

The group of officers and civilians walked up the steps and out into the empty and spacious second floor corridor.

Jefferies said, “Okay, SSI has control of the spaceport now. We would like to continue getting statements from each one of you, then you’ll be free to go about your business. I apologize for the inconvenience. Just help us figure out what happened, and we’ll go from there.”

Everyone spread out, officers interrogating witnesses in small clumps throughout the wide, abandoned corridor.

Jefferies took Jones farther away so they could speak without being overheard. They sidled up to the windowed side and looked out over the city.

Jefferies said, “So, let’s pick up where we left off. I want to make sure I understand. You were saying the lady you initially thought was her was not, but you followed Andi to Petra Roe?”

“It gets tricky, Sarge. I do need to sit down and write up a full report. The long and the short of it is, I had to take an unauthorized ship to get back here. There was just no way around it. Meanwhile, Andi hitched a ride on a private vessel traveling from Petra Roe to Juventas. I think she passed herself off as someone else, in transit.”

“What was her plan? Why come back?”

Biff shrugged. “I don’t know. Sow chaos and confusion? Shoot up the spaceport? Take out another VIP? Whatever it was, it looks like I got here just in time. Just in time . . . to see her killed.”

Jefferies looked at him with respect. He said, “Man, that is something. I know you loved her. It must be incredibly difficult to see her shot down like that right in front of your eyes.”

“I’m just . . . numb right now. I’m in total shock. I mean, I chased her all those weeks but I just . . . I don’t feel anything right now.”

“It’ll hit you later, buddy.”

Jefferies clasped him on the shoulder.

He said, “Hey, if there’s anything I can do . . .”

“Actually, yeah, there is something you can do. Those SSI bastards are going to dissect her body six ways to Sunday. She was the wife of a police officer, I don’t care what crimes she committed. If there’s any way you could have her cremated before they get their hands on her, I would greatly appreciate it.”

“Absolutely, buddy. Don’t worry about it. This is still my case, and they have not asserted jurisdiction or anything yet. I’ll take care of it, they’ll never touch her.”

-+-

Several hours later everyone was finally allowed to leave. Williams set up officers to direct the witnesses toward an emergency exit on the first floor, an egress point controlled by SSPF instead of SSI. That way, everyone was allowed to depart unmolested by the secret police.

A stream of people exited and headed down a street running alongside the giant spaceport building. Biff found himself walking beside Julia, still wearing her current disguise. She turned to him and smiled.

Well aware they were now under observation by StarCen, she said, “I’m Catarina Mulligan, by the way.”

He took her hand and shook it.

“Biffender Jones.”

“Please to meet you. I don’t really know a lot of people here.”

They walked for a few more moments in silence. Up ahead, a skybus landed at a terminal on the side of the street.

Biff said, “Well . . . I can certainly show you around.”

He thought for a moment and said, “Would you like to go out for dinner? Maybe we can talk about Yorkton and Juventas over food and drinks.”

“Sure. I’d like that.”

The smiled at him again, this time with a mischievous glint in her eyes.

She said, “You’re not married, are you?”

He looked down at the ring on his left hand.

“My wife . . . recently died. So, no. I am not married.”

“Good, because I don’t date married men. I would love to go out for dinner. And, uh, maybe afterwards you can help me pick out a hotel? I’m afraid I don’t have anyplace to stay.”

Biff shrugged. He said, “Feel free to crash at my place until you get settled in.”

“Why, thank you, Biffender. That’s really sweet of you.”

“Call me Biff.”

They stood in line and boarded the skybus together, smiling.

Condor Rising 26

The door to the Mule’s disembarkation zone swished open and everyone from the bridge walked in to meet the new arrival.

Granny took her cigar out and said, “Well howdy, Shakespeare!”

Dillon’s face fell as all the people walked into the room looking at him.

He said, “Oh. You saw that?”

“The whole performance, Sonny.”

“So, uh, where am I?”

Raleigh said, “You’re aboard the Ultima Mule, a private warship. I’m Captain Christopher Raleigh.”

Dillon’s face lit up.

“A private . . . Oh, pirates? Cool! Wait, which side are you on?”

“The Republic’s,” Raleigh said.

“Right, right. No way the League would hire pirates.”

He smiled back at everyone during the awkward silence.

“I mean, no offense or anything, but . . . well, you know how those Navy people are. All rigid and structured and everything. ‘We’re Navy, so stay out of our tight-laced, blue-uniformed, pinched-butt way, citizen!’”

He imitated a parade march, walking in a little circle. Everyone stared at him silently for a moment.

Raleigh said, “Who are you?”

Dillon stopped marching mid-step. He said, “My code name’s ‘Shark.’ That’s what they call me in the Resistance.”

Granny guffawed. Maxwell smiled.

Granny said, “Do they like ironic names over there? Like calling short fellas ‘Tallboy’ or something?”

“No. I’ve killed my fair share of SSI agents. It’s an appropriate code name, believe me.”

Raleigh said, “What’s your real name?”

“Oh. Well, I guess it’s okay to share it with pirates fighting the League. I’m Dillon Dvorak.”

Granny said, “How many SSI have you killed?”

Granny no longer smiled. She took the cigar out of her mouth and showed genuine interest.

“I’ve lost track. Got to be close to a hundred by now. Yesterday I almost got Admiral Cooper. My mortar was off by one second.”

“He’s not SSI.”

“No, but the guards I took out were. Got five, plus a gunship and pilot using the same mortar.”

Granny stared up at the ceiling.

“Any way to verify what he’s saying, Lootie?”

LuteNet said, “PLAIR’s spies on Juventas are reporting there was a disturbance at the Admiral’s mountain chalet yesterday, but there is a planet-wide blackout on news so we have few details. StarCen does have Dillon Dvorak listed as a known terrorist. Such a designation would ordinarily preclude him from travel to the Republic. I am willing to grant him an exception based on circumstances and his testimony. His biometric readings do not currently indicate any deception.”

“Is that LuteNet? Wow! I have heard so much about you. Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am.”

“As am I, Dillon Dvorak.”

Raleigh cleared his throat and said, “Our friend gave you a pocket computer. Hand it over, please.”

“Right! True to its name, I have it in my pocket here. Somewhere.”

Dillon opened up the chest armor and patted his pockets until he found it. He handed the device to the Captain.

Raleigh said, “Is this the one we’re looking for, Lootie?”

“Yes, Captain. I am notifying PLAIR we have it in our possession.”

A second passed, then LuteNet said, “Rather than returning it, in light of our current location she indicates she wishes it to be destroyed immediately and for me to verify its destruction. Afterward she will make the agreed upon deposit in the company’s account on Petra Roe.”

“Very well. Quartermaster, supervise its destruction.”

Granny grinned, the unlit cigar in her mouth tilting up.

“With pleasure, Captain.”

She took the pocket computer from Raleigh and left the room.

Dillon became aware of an extraordinarily beautiful woman with pure white hair and soft glowing skin staring at him. He turned slowly, and his eyes drank in the sight of her.

“Who are you?” he said, awe creeping into his voice.

She smiled and said, “Skylar Hawkens.” She extended her hand.

Dillon received a small static electricity shock when he touched her fingers. He jumped in surprise.

Skylar said, “Sorry. That happens a lot. I’m . . . an Intangible.”

“Really? Oh, man, that is so cool!”

Skylar blushed lightly, the red lighting up her face. She said, “You think so? It freaks most people out.”

“I’ve never met one before. I’ve heard you all can travel and teleport and such on your own. Is that true?”

She flickered out of existence, then tapped on the shoulder. He turned around wide-eyed.

“Whoa!”

Maxwell and Jillian smiled at each other.

He said, “I’m Elijah Maxwell, the ship’s First Officer. Talk to me if you need anything, LuteNet knows where we are at all times. Don’t bother the Captain with anything, okay? Come straight to me instead.”

“Yes, sir. Or do you guys say, ‘aye aye’ instead?”

“There’s not a lot of formality on a pirate ship. Stay polite and stay out of the way, and you’ll do fine. Skylar, why don’t you show him the ropes. Help him find a bunk. We’re short on crew this trip, Dillon, on account of we had to get ready and go at the last minute, so we actually have some room for a change.”

Maxwell walked out, leaving Dillon alone with Skylar and Jillian.

Jillian said, “I’m Jillian Thrall. I’m sort of new, too. This is only my third voyage.”

“Oh, hi. Uh . . . what do you do?”

“I’m the Captain’s girlfriend!”

“Ah. I see.”

Jillian said her goodbyes and walked out, leaving Skylar and Dillon alone.

A thought struck Dillon. He said, “Is she related to Tetrarch Thrall?”

Skylar nodded and said, “His daughter.”

Dillon’s face fell. “Oh . . . wow! I just shook hands with the Tetrarch’s daughter?”

Skylar smiled and said, “Don’t look so surprised. The woman who sent you up here was his other daughter, her older sister.”

She laughed at Dillon’s expression of sheer incredulity.

“Come on, Shark. Let’s find you an open bunk and I’ll show you around.”

Condor Rising 25

“Captain, I am prepared to bring us back into the solar system.”

“Okay, Lootie. Have you got a place picked out for us?”

“I believe so, Captain. I have factored in all the locations we could hide near Juventas and I have found one that should be suitable for at least several minutes before discovery, which will hopefully be long enough to retrieve the pocket computer Julia Jones is attempting to secure for us.”

Raleigh locked eyes with Jillian.

He said, “Don’t you mean Julia Thrall, Lootie?”

“No, Captain. She was married legally to Biffender Jones, even if under a false name. I have accepted the contract and have recommended the same to PLAIR. As far as we are concerned, she and Officer Jones are legally wed.”

Jillian chuckled. She said, “Let’s hope Dad doesn’t find out.”

“Indeed,” LuteNet said. “PLAIR believes that if she indicates they are married within her public records, spies from the League would uncover it and figure out where she is. Therefore, we have both agreed to honor the contract, but not register it in the records until after the war ends.”

“That’s good thinking,” Jillian said. “Thank you. And extend my thanks to PLAIR as well.”

“I already have, Jillian Thrall.”

“Alright,” Raleigh said. “Back to business. Get us in there, and let’s see what our sensor is picking up.”

Stars shifted in the bridge’s holoscreen as LuteNet ported them back toward Juventas, several hundred million kilometers away.

They stopped suddenly and a scorched, red and black landscape stretched out before them. Rocks and lava and smoldering steam pits simmered in the heat below.

Above, the sun flared brightly, looming larger and much closer than usual. LuteNet dimmed the screen considerably to protect everyone’s eyesight.

Raleigh said, “Where are we, Lootie?”

“We are 100 meters above the surface of Heliades, the first planet in the Juventas system. This world shares similar characteristics to Mercury, in Old Earth’s solar system. Radiation from the sun and the mass of the planet should provide us some protection from the League Navy’s sensor grid, at least momentarily.”

Raleigh nodded in satisfaction.

He said, “You did well, Lootie.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

-+-

Dillon heard sounds out in the corridor, but no one else bothered to check his room again. After a while he cautiously climbed down from the equipment above the door.

He held the cylinder out at arm’s length, staring at it long and hard.

“Alas, poor Yorick!”

He burst out laughing. Then he cleared his throat and started again.

“Alas, poor Yorick! A fellow of infinite jest. I knew him, Horatio. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your tambourines of justice?”

Dillon chuckled again and grinned at his reflection on the metal cylinder. It made his nose appear larger and he preened in front of it for a moment.

-+-

“What in tarnation is that idiot blubbering about?” Granny said, chomping on her cigar.

“I don’t know,” Raleigh said. “Lootie, who is that and what’s he doing with our sensor?”

“I believe he is trying to quote from Hamlet, Captain. He does not have all the words right. The lines are quite garbled.”

Everyone on the bridge stared back at a close up of Dillon’s face as he brought the cylinder to his mouth. He picked his teeth for a moment in the reflection. They watched his lips spread across the screen as he continued to speak.

“Your flashes of merriment were wont to set the table a’roarin! Not one now to mock your own grinnin’ hey? Quite chapfallen, amiright? Now get thee to a nunnery and tell milady, this be a wild goose chase. Make her laugh at that, Yorick! Boil and trouble, make her laugh at that floating dagger! Kill all the lawyers! Print the legend!”

“Who isthis nut, Lootie?”

“I believe Ms. Jones wishes us to take him with us, Captain. She is currently being interrogated by police. This young man has the pocket computer on his person, and the sensor indicates eight police officers searching nearby rooms. Presumably, they are looking for him. Judging by the scorch marks on his armor, he has recently been in a firefight. Logic indicates Ms. Jones left him with the sensor and the computer in hopes we would extract him.”

“Hm. Okay. Well, since no one is shooting at us at the moment, if we need to we can send him back, right?”

“That is correct, Captain.”

“If he’s in trouble,” Granny said, “he ain’t gonna want to go back.”

-+-

Dillon sat the cylinder down on the floor and bent at the waist looking down at it.

“Yorick, lend me your ears! To be, or not to be. That is the question!”

He bowed at the cylinder, then bowed to his right and bowed to his left.

“The crowd goes wild! Haaaaaaaaa! Haaaaaaaaa!It’s a standing ovation, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve never seen anything like it. Oh, here come the flowers!”

He straightened and retrieved an imaginary bouquet.

“I just want to thank the Academy, God, and most of all, my mother!”

The door swished open.

“What’s all the noise in here?”

“Oh—”

Dillon popped out of existence before the officer walked all the way in. He looked around and saw nothing, shrugged, and walked out again.

Somebody out in the hall said, “We’ve already checked that room!”

“Okay, okay! Thought I heard something, that’s all.”

The sensor, still lying on the floor from where Dillon left it, popped away too, leaving the room truly empty.