Tetrarch’s Dilemma 14

Several days had passed since their encounter with the enemy at Thalia. Raleigh stopped several jumps out to check on things. The Mule had the Aquamarine in tandem drive still, although the bare hull was in bad shape after taking out so many League Navy ships.

The Republican Navy showed up at Thalia and ported aboard the surviving League crewmembers on Bronze Iguana. They also took the crew of the Iguana, with plans to prosecute them for smuggling.

They would have taken the Iguana, too, but the door to the engine room was sealed shut. When the last sailor left at 19:00 local time for chow, with plans to return the following morning with tools and equipment to tackle the door, LuteNet ported the ship away.

The Navy lodged a protest with PLAIR, but the AI set the brass straight. The Ultima Mule Company had a legitimate claim on the Bronze Iguana, and was taking the ship.

With the remote control unit, the Iguana became essentially a drone. Rather than sending her to Lute as Raleigh originally intended, LuteNet diverted course and sent her to Halcyon instead. It followed a day and a half behind the Mule.

The Mule now floated in orbit around Halcyon, for the second time. Raleigh stood on the bridge with most of his top people surrounding him.

The planet looked peaceful, Raleigh thought. But then, all planets do from above.

It was not going to remain lightly populated for long. The only question was, which side got to keep it as people immigrated? If he could help it, Lute was about to link up with a second planet. And this libertarian-minded frontier world would shrug off ownership by both of the two large rival systems of government in the galaxy.

He thought, what would they call themselves once the two united? The Federation? No, that’s been used. The Confederacy? Hm. Too much baggage with that one. United Planets? Nothing really sounded right that he could imagine. It was a question for the politicians to decide.

But first, before everything got started, he wanted to set a perimeter and watch his back.

You don’t survive long in this business without being at least a little paranoid, he thought.

Out loud Raleigh said, “Kim, Pak. Establish a grid. Let’s make sure this isn’t some kind of elaborate ambush.”

The engineers nodded, even though he could not see them down in the engine room. They had LuteNet port drones throughout the solar system.

Raleigh said, “Everybody be on the lookout for trouble. LuteNet, I want you to take us out of there the first indication something is out of order.”

“Will do, Captain.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

He led Granny, Skylar, Dillon and Jillian to the disembarkation zone.

Moments later, on top of the Administration Building in Winthrop, a sensor appeared a few centimeters in the air, the size and shape of a soup can.

It dropped with a slight Clink!and LuteNet began taking her first readings from the surface of Halcyon.

Staring at it, Governor Seldom stood in a small group of people that included members of her cabinet, Taggert, and Kilmeade.

On either side of the roof, armed police working her security detail stood, trying not to appear hostile. Taggert had also taken the liberty of placing several snipers in windows of the surrounding buildings, much like they had done when the crew of the Excelsior first came to Winthrop. He had given them strict orders no one was to shoot unless something threatening happened.

But the Excelsior’s people showed up without an AI, and LuteNet was used to intruding on planets to which she had not been invited. Unbeknownst to all present, she dropped sensors on all the tall buildings in Winthrop, and down into some alleys and storm sewers as well.

She quickly identified all the snipers and maintained a watchful eye on them, ready to teleport them away should they try and fire on her people.

This entire process took two seconds. Satisfied all was well, she ported down Raleigh and Jillian, Granny, then Skylar and Dillon over the following three seconds, taking care they all arrived unharmed.

Raleigh smiled at the crowd and the woman in the center of it.

He said, “Governor Seldom, I presume?”

“Captain Raleigh.”

She reached forward and shook his hand.

Raleigh said, “This is my wife, Jillian. This is Gertrude Wilcox, Dillon and Skylar Dvorak. They are all crewmembers of the Mule. Ms. Wilcox is our Quartermaster.”

Seldom smiled and nodded at them. When she saw Jillian, she did a double take and her jaw dropped.

She said, “Jillian Thrall? What are you doing here? I recognize you from the holo.”

Jillian’s face reddened. She raised her eyebrows and said, “I got married. It’s Jillian Raleigh, now.”

“Wow! How did that happen?”

“It’s a long story. A lot of people have changed sides in this war, though. All of us here, except for Chris, used to be with the League.”

Dillon and Skylar nodded.

Granny said, “Not me. I’m a Republican. Born and raised.” She smiled proudly and stood a little straighter.

“Well, almost all of us, then,” Jillian said. “Anyway, war changes things, you know?”

“Wow. Well, I am honored . . . I’m flabbergasted that you’re here,” Seldom said. “Your celebrity status in the League is phenomenal. You’ll have to tell me all about how you changed sides over dinner.”

-+-

Dinner on Halcyon was a delight, especially after eating on a spaceship for weeks on end.

The entire delegation took over a restaurant called Mama Sicily’s, on the ground floor of a store two blocks from the Administration Building.

The young couple running the place went out of their way to provide the very best home cooked meals for the Governor and her party. The Mule’s crew were suitably impressed, sipping wine and eating caponata, fried rice balls, and a variety of pasta dishes.

“I’m gaining two kilos just by looking at this food,” Granny said, munching down her second cannoli.

Taggert and Kilmeade found themselves sitting near the center of the table, next to the Governor and across from Raleigh and Jillian.

Raleigh said, “We have a ship under Lootie’s remote control coming in tomorrow sometime. I’m going to have her leave it parked in orbit for now.”

Seldom said, “Why?”

Raleigh shrugged. He said, “Who knows, you might want to get somebody off planet at some point. You need a spaceship, Governor. It’s not right that you don’t have any at all in orbit.”

She shrugged and said, “We’re not going anywhere.”

“Just humor me,” Raleigh said. “We might be able to do something in terms of defensive measures with it.”

“Okay. Park a ship up there. If we need it, we’ll . . . How are we going to get up there? We’ve got the Excelsior’s old transport, I guess.”

“I’ll have to check the timeline, but soon . . . I’d say in a few days . . . a group of ships from Lute will arrive. They will have one of LuteNet’s spare cores. After the signing ceremony and everything is official, a group of technicians will install the core here in Winthrop. That’s assuming they can get the electrical connections to work. It may take them a while.

“Anyway, once that’s done you will have teleportation abilities. They’ll also try and configure a receiving station for your orbital com and tune you into the quantum matrix again.”

A cheer went up across the table from those who heard the Captain’s words.

Raleigh smiled and held up a hand. He said, “That’s if they can make everything work. I’m not sure how much effort it’s going to take to cobble everything together.”

Seldom smiled and said, “We’ve gone three years without a connection to the outside galaxy. I’m sure we can go however much longer if needed.”

Raleigh nodded and said, “Also, some of my guys are going to try and cobble together some additional planetary defenses for you. If the League comes back and stirs up trouble, we want to give them what for.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“We’ve got some weaponry we hope to salvage off a couple Eagles and a Hawk.”

“How did you get that?”

“Oh, the Captain’s real good at downing Navy ships,” Kilmeade said. Then she smiled to let the Captain know she meant nothing by it.

“Yeah, sorry about the Excelsior,” Raleigh said. “We, uh, did not really do much at the end. I think it was pretty much gone by the time we got here.”

“Don’t worry about her,” Taggert spoke up. “She killed the Captain.”

He nodded for emphasis as the Mule’s crew looked at him.

He added, “Blew her head off.”

“That’s another long story,” Kilmeade said, blushing slightly.

“To long stories,” Granny said, raising her glass.

Everyone around the table raised their glasses for the toast and took a sip.

Seldom said, “To Halcyon, and Lute.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 13

“I don’t particularly like this idea.”

Julia sat with Biff in their apartment, on their old sofa.

Everything had been cleaned up since the blast that took out the Administration Building in the initial assault. Broken items had been tossed out, and the whole place cleaned thoroughly. Their apartment looked as if nothing had happened.

The same could not be said for other places, and damage to buildings became more apparent the closer one came to the site. Beyond the rubble, scorch marks from the heat of the sun blast left even more damage. Marines still guarded a large circle around the site, discouraging onlookers.

Julia sat apart from her husband on the sofa, by several centimeters. He held his head in his hands, elbows propped on his knees, staring at the rug.

There was no good time to discuss it, really, and so Julia had brought it up the minute she got home.

She said, “I know, sweetie. But it’s got to be done. Hey at least we’re talking about it up front this time instead of me sneaking off world without telling you. That’s progress, right?”

She smiled hopefully at him. He sighed.

“I don’t have a job.”

She nodded sympathetically. All the police on the force were let go after the Republic took over, asked to hand in their badges and firearms. They were told they could reapply at some point in the future, but no one knew when that would happen. Right now Republican Marines were in charge of law enforcement.

“My wife is one of the Tetrarch’s daughters in disguise,” he said in a flat monotone.

She lifted a disapproving eyebrow at this, but with StarCen completely gone it was probably safe to say something like that out loud in the privacy of their own home. Still, it was not a good practice. But she held off correcting him. Biff looked morose, staring down at the floor.

“And I can’t really do anything. I can’t help you. I can’t be a cop. I’m useless, Andi. Useless.”

He had slipped back into calling her by the name he first knew her. He must really be down, Julia thought.

“Well, look. Maybe you can come with me. Or at least, part of the way.”

He looked up, giving her his full attention, a spark of hope flashing in his eyes.

She said, “From what I understand, the Republicans do not have a way to get to Sporades. But, the pirates we rode back here with, my sister’s crew, they have done that sort of thing before. I mentioned it to Gina Wilcox. It turns out her mom is Granny!”

“So, you’re going to get a ride on the Ultima Mule?”

“Maybe. At least, that’s an idea. Naval Intelligence is considering it. Look, you could come along with us. I’ll include you in our party. You can accompany the pirates while they try to sneak us in. We can be together up until I have to port down.”

Biff’s brightened. He smiled.

He said, “I like that idea. It beats sitting around here doing nothing while you’re gone.”

-+-

Basil walked into the control room in the huge underground complex owned by Thespar. It was time once again to start another shift.

He read somewhere a pilot on old earth said something along the lines of flying was hours of boredom with a few seconds of terror sprinkled in. Monitoring the modifications made to StarCen’s core felt much the same. Outside of their small, careful changes, there was little to do but sit and monitor to make sure they remained undetected.

Panch looked at him when the door swished open and swallowed a mouthful of food before nodding a greeting.

Basil smiled back. The older man had a penchant for bending the rules. Maybe all hackers do, he thought.

Basil sat down in his seat and checked the code for Lexi, making sure the alterations to StarCen’s records remained undetected and intact. He breathed a silent sigh of relief at the digits floating on the holoscreen. Everything remained the same for another day. So long as that held true, Lexi was safe. For now.

The door swished open and both men turned to see El striding in. She stopped and put her fists on her hips.

“We have a Code One request from Angel.”

Basil did not really know who Angel was, but he knew she was important. He also knew better than to ask questions. He did know what a Code One request from a field agent meant. It was the highest priority and usually meant it would get bumped to the top of their work queue.

“What does she want now?” Panch said, feigning irritation. In reality, he was more than happy to help Angel with whatever she needed.

“Activation of one of her other identities. She’s heading for Sporades.”

A slow, evil smile spread across Panch’s face.

He said, “So . . . she’s going to take out Billings next?”

El grinned back at him. She said, “If I had to guess, I’d say his quadrant will be visited by the Diego Fleet in the near future. They’ve either allied with her, or she’s giving them a hand without telling them. She didn’t say in her message. But yes, one way or another, Billings is probably next.”

Panch rubbed his hands together, his smile growing wider.

He said, “Not a problem. I’ve got Angel’s account. Let me know which persona she wants to use and I can make it look like she’s been on Sporades all along.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 12

Wilcox’s leg shook as she nervously bounced her knee up and down.

She sat on a park bench, along with Meyers and Peng and someone she did not know, a gentleman dressed in an expensive blue business suit. He refused to give his real name. Or at least, she presumed “Smithers” was not his real name. At least he did not use “Smith.” That was really old. And lame.

Mr. Smithers was Republican Naval Intelligence. Wilcox decided not to crack the old joke about Naval Intelligence being an oxymoron. That was also kind of lame, especially these days. And certainly not true. Besides, Smithers looked like he did not have a sense of humor.

He stood six foot one, or about 185 centimeters, with thick light brown hair cut in a flattop. He had no nonsense, bright blue eyes and a sharp, angular face. The man looked like he could bite into metal and spit out nails.

So Wilcox left him alone, saying as little as possible. She did not even spy on his neural implant like she did with Meyers and Peng. Naval Intelligence probably had special safeguards on theirs, she thought.

All told, Wilcox felt wholly out of place in the company of these men. She did not even know Meyers very well, and he was her squadron’s Lieutenant. Being with him and Peng for so long felt uncomfortable enough, but then they brought in Smithers and her unease cranked up several more notches.

Smithers was a spook, no doubt about it. He probably had a rank. He was probably an officer. It was probably classified, same as his real name. She could probably figure out his real name by snooping around in electronics somewhere . . .

But, she thought, Mama didn’t raise no fool. Naval Intelligence was best left alone. Avoided, if at all possible. They were worse than Naval Police, the Republic’s version of the League’s NCIS.

They had not told her what this was all about. Meyers said Colonel Peng wanted to talk with her. Peng ported down that morning and indicated Naval Intelligence wished to set up a meeting with Angel. Since Wilcox was the only person in the Navy who knew how to contact her directly, he requested she set up a time and place.

Wilcox reached out to her friend, and Angel suggested a public meeting in a city park. So, here they were.

No one spoke as the four of them sat uncomfortably on a long bench in one of Yorkton’s municipal parks. They looked in different directions, too. Wilcox watched a young mother pushing her little boy in a swing several meters away.

Finally, after several minutes of silence, Smithers spoke.

“Are we sure she’s coming?”

The two officers glanced at the Sergeant.

Wilcox lifted her eyebrows.

“She said she’d be here.”

Privately, Wilcox scanned the surroundings once more, looking for Angel’s telltale trace from her camo unit. She knew what to look for, and could easily tell whether the Resistance operative was in the area or not.

At last, she breathed a sigh of relief when she spotted the unit’s signature.

“She’s headed this way. About a hundred meters out, past the swing set.”

All three men stared in that general direction, but they could not see anything. Smithers gave the Sergeant a speculative look.

When Julia came within 20 meters, Wilcox stood. After a slight pause, the three men stood also.

Julia stepped out of camouflage and seemed to materialize in front of them.

Wilcox noted Smith’s eye’s narrowing slightly. She thought, he’s probably trying to figure out how to steal the technology.

Then she smothered the thought. It was not nice to think ill of someone on your own side. Even if it was probably true.

Smithers stepped forward with his hand out.

“Agent Angel? My name is Smithers, RNI. I’m very glad to meet you.”

Julia looked down at his hand, then met his eye.

“I’m sure you’ll appreciate why I don’t want to make physical contact, Mr. Smithers.”

Smithers grinned at the comment. He said, “This is not the holos, ma’am. I don’t have a tracing dye to smear on your hands or anything.”

“Nonetheless, I’m taking a risk just meeting you. I’d prefer to minimize the possibility for things to go wrong, if at all possible.”

Smithers withdrew his hand and pocketed it, keeping the grin on his angular face.

“Understood. Look, we’re all on the same side, and I wanted to thank you personally for your efforts in capturing Vicki Fenner.”

Julia nodded. She and Wilcox had joined forces in taking out the former Juventas SSI Director. One of the last active enemy operatives on this planet, Fenner had gone deep into hiding and actively set about murdering Marines who wandered from their groups. She got away with it far too long, too.

Angel and Wilcox teamed up to take her out, the Sergeant acting as bait and Julia serving as her backup. When Fenner attacked, they worked together to overpower her. Currently, the former director remained in sedation locked up in a brig somewhere in orbit.

“It was your Sergeant here who deserves most of the credit for that, Mr. Smithers.”

Julia nodded toward Wilcox.

“Regardless, your help was invaluable.”

He paused, smile frozen. Julia looked him over and reached a conclusion.

“So, because we work well as a team, that’s why you asked for a meeting? You want something. RNI does not just meet with people to thank them. You’d like me to help you with something.”

Smithers shrugged. If her guess perturbed him, he did not show it.

He said, “Again, we’re all on the same side, Angel. You have done a most excellent job preparing Juventas in its flip to our side. If you are willing, we would like to send you to the next League world we plan on taking.”

Julia raised a speculative eyebrow at this comment.

Wilcox’s face dropped. That was unexpected, she thought. Huh. Send a Resistance agent into another League planet to see if she could recreate her success there. How about that?

Smithers’s angular grin broke out again, creasing his face.

“And since you and the Sergeant here make such a good team, we’d like to send you both in.”

Wilcox’s jaw dropped.

“WHAT?”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 11

For several seconds, the population of Juventas held its collective breath.

The League Navy had returned, in force, in an effort to take out the Diego Fleet.

Amateur astronomers and others eagerly scanned the skies looking for the telltale flashes from chunks of sun, teleported by Condor-class warships and one time torpedoes alike.

Within seconds it was over.

The Republic did not guard information as zealously as the League. Wartime restrictions on information were in place, but in general the Republic prided itself as an open society.

And so, Admiral Severs announced to the planet that the Third Fleet, or at least the portion that showed up to fight, had been soundly defeated and StarCen pulled the survivors away.

He did not indicate enemy numbers, nor did he mention losses or damages on the Republican side. This was just in case someone loyal to the League found a way to communicate. Spies could be anywhere, after all. The saying, “Loose lips sink ships,” still held true.

Marine First Sergeant Gina Wilcox sighed. One might think it was a sigh of relief, that they would not be engaged in a horrific ground battle with League forces. But it was not that.

She did feel relief that their side won, that fewer Republican ships were lost, although she had no idea of casualties. Obviously, more League ships were taken out since they retreated. That’s usually the way it works, she thought.

Mostly, she sighed because now there would be little to do.

Other than guard duty.

The population had settled down considerably. Already somewhat predisposed toward liberty, the people of Juventas had a strong and vibrant resistance network. Once the remaining SSI personnel were rounded up along with a few diehard League loyalists who wanted to stir up trouble, problems with the populace evaporated.

Surely there were spies. Maybe even a saboteur skulking about somewhere. But they were smart enough to keep their heads down right now.

And Wilcox was bored.

She amused herself by exploring her capabilities in her down time. She could detect sensors and other electronic devices from at least a block away. Perhaps farther, although the number of devices increased with greater range resulting in a jumble of signals difficult to differentiate.

But the most exciting development, and one she kept to herself, was the fact she could eavesdrop on neural net connections.

It came to her one night in the barracks when she could not sleep. Her mind wandered, and she began pulling in a holo called “Lucky Lou.”

It was famous for being bad, the sort of entertainment designed to appeal to teen-aged boys. It told the story of a young woman named Lou who had her choice of three boyfriends one summer on the beach.

The actors had horrible lines.

“Oh, Dirk! Are you really that glad to see me? Are you? Are you really?”

“Why, yes I am, Lou. You know it! I’ll prove it to you.”

Wilcox caught that bit of awful dialogue and frowned. She was not playing “Lucky Lou,” so where did it come from?

And by the way, wasn’t Lou a man’s name? She tried to remember. She thought the female lead was Louise, Lou for short.

Suddenly she was in the holo. There was “Lou,” a breathless young thing, tanned and wearing a red bikini top. And there was Dirk, a massive muscle-bound lifeguard on a Diego beach somewhere. Wearing, of course, tight red swim trunks.

“I’ll always be looking for someone to love me, Dirk!”

“I’ll be here, Lou. Waiting for you.”

Good gosh, it’s terrible, Wilcox thought. Who writes this stuff? Wait. I’m not playing this holo. Then . . . who is?

She rooted around, looking with her enhanced electronic senses until she came across a name imprinted in the circuits: “PRM PFC Boggs, Morton.”

The next morning she could not pass up the opportunity to embarrass Boggs during roll call.

“Awright maggots! Today we’re going to do some actual work instead of laying around in our bunks watching ‘Lucky Lou!’”

She said this staring straight at Boggs, who grew beet red.

It backfired on her, though. Jamieson said, “Lucky Lou? That’s my favorite!”

Someone else said, “Yeah! You know the holo’s tagline don’t you?”

All the Marines said together, “‘When Lou gets lucky, you do too!’”

She cut short this celebration of awful fiction with an acerbic statement.

“You’re all being replaced with bots.”

That caught their attention.

“Say what, Sarge?”

“Diego factories have been working overtime, and this new round of supply ships brought in thousands of them. Evidently higher ups feel confident the mechanicals can take over simple guard duty. And they don’t watch ‘Lucky Lou’ over and over like you lousy reprobates.”

She nodded as Lt. Meyers walked in, followed by a new model guard bot.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Meyers said, “meet your new partner. This is a Verberger Model X99, the latest in Republican battle bot design.”

Somebody in the back of the group whistled.

Jamieson said, “Don’t it look pretty? I almost want to take it out for dinner.”

“That’s about the only way you’d ever get a date,” Boggs said.

“Awright, pipe down!” Wilcox said, cutting short the laughter.

“Right,” Meyers said. “Blaster resistant skin, same material as our armor. A new head, designed to hold up against explosions, rectangular. Of course, if it’s a big enough explosion that won’t matter, but the techies are saying it should withstand an egg grenade at close range.”

He pointed at the shiny gunmetal gray head. It was featureless, Wilcox thought. No eyes, ears, or even a representation of a mouth. It stretched about half again as tall as a cube, with rounded edges. Presumably the rounded edges helped deflect explosions.

Jamieson said, “How’s it turns its head, Lieutenant? Or does it? Where are its eyes and such?”

“Sensors inside the head give it a 360 degree view. Far superior than comparable League bots at the moment.”

“How do you kill it?” Boggs said.

The Lieutenant smiled. He had everyone’s attention as they waited for the answer.

He said, “Great question. The answer is, same as the others. Bomb the heck out of it. It’s not foolproof, but our guys and gals have come up with a very slick design here. We think it will be impervious to most of what is thrown at it. It should be very hard to take down.

“The Verberger X99 is your friend and battle buddy!”

Wilcox found herself concentrating on the bot’s circuits while Meyers spoke. They seemed easy enough to figure out. She ran through various subroutines until she found the one she wanted. She concentrated and adjusted some things . . .

The bot snapped its heels together and saluted smartly with its right hand.

This bought some exclamations of surprise from the Marines. Then applause.

Lt. Meyers beamed at the machine.

Under his breath he said, “I didn’t know it was going to do that.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 10

This is it, Ricci thought.

Despite the issues with missed supply ships. Despite losing Hawks and even Eagles to privateers on the minor planets in this quadrant. Despite now fighting to gain back an entire fourth of the League, this is it.

This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, she thought grimly. They were now one AU out from Juventas, pausing to catch their breath, so to speak. The next port would bring them within range of the Diego Fleet.

And it’s all going to be over in a matter of seconds, she thought. It will be decided one way or the other.

She stood on the bridge of the Resolute along with the other officers on deck. For a moment, she and Captain Volkov shared a glance.

Ricci nodded.

Volkov turned to face the main holo.

She said, “StarCen, engage.”

At that moment, the battle was out of Ricci’s hands. She only hoped all her planning and forethought would not be in vain.

The Third Fleet popped into position around Juventas, evenly spaced, immediately launching 24 solar torpedoes which popped into place the moment they appeared.

PLAIR had been expecting the attack, though, and teleported all her ships away from danger in microseconds. All 24 torpedoes flashed harmlessly in Juventas’s sky.

The six Condors in the Diego Fleet, now further away and out of orbit but still nearby, teleported 31 chunks of sun in a delayed grid pattern around the globe. They did not appear simultaneously, but were staggered in such a way to show up near ships teleporting into new positions, trying to get away from other fireballs.

This technique was new, and surprised StarCen to the extent that it destroyed two ships, severely damaged six and lightly damaged two more. She pulled the Third Fleet further out to exit the grid pattern.

PLAIR launched 31 more fireballs again in the next second, trying to reach out to the ships now further away. StarCen ported them to new random locations in time and launched 14 more torpedoes, porting them into position beside Republican ships.

Again, the effort proved insufficient as PLAIR pulled all targets away in time.

Then PLAIR ported her own torpedoes, surprising StarCen who was not quite fast enough to move three more ships. All were severely damaged but relatively intact. She quickly pulled the broken vessels out of the solar system and away from the conflict.

Again this time something new occurred. Near the ships StarCen had pulled away, PLAIR’s torpedoes did not go off. In the microseconds that followed, StarCen realized PLAIR was refusing to commit to activating solar material if the torpedoes were not going to successfully damage a ship. The torpedoes would be reused, so to speak.

The innovation was duly noted, and StarCen moved all her Hawks and support ships out of the solar system, leaving only her Eagles. She reprogramed the subroutine for torpedoes and copied the technique. One would appear near a Republican ship, and if the ship ported away in time the torpedo would not go off. Instead, it was ported to another enemy vessel.

For the next three seconds this deadly dance continued with no fireworks.

Then the Republicans sprang a trap. Ships in the Diego Fleet appeared in the system’s asteroid belt, three AUs out. When the League torpedoes appeared nearby, the ships popped away just as the anti-teleportation grid carefully hidden among the asteroids activated.

In the confined space of the torpedo shells, which were quickly built and already very expensive, no one thought to shield the Wu Drives. Why bother? The torpedoes were expected to be one time use items.

When the fields activated, all remaining League torpedoes were suddenly rendered inert, floating uselessly among the asteroids.

Now with upper hand on available weaponry, the Diego Fleet attacked the Third Fleet in earnest, with 31 chunks of sun coming from the Condors, and Republican torpedoes following League Eagles relentlessly. Two more in the Third Fleet were destroyed the first second, followed by three the next second.

StarCen devoted considerable processing power in the following second, weighing the results of the battle so far. She factored in the losses to pirates in the outer planets, and the losses in the earlier rounds against Juventas and came to a speedy conclusion.

She withdrew all her forces from Juventas.

Back on the Thomas Paine, Severs glanced at the clock on the holo.

“Hm, 14 seconds. That must be a new record.”

-+-

“They used an old technique and a new technique, Tetrarch Thrall.”

Ricci’s hologram stood before Thrall in his conference room on Epsilon. His nostrils flared as he listened to her report on the defeat at Juventas.

“No one expected an anti-teleportation grid to be used on the torpedoes. This was not part of their design specs, although I’m sure shielding will have to be included from now on.”

Driving up their already prohibitive cost, Thrall thought. He said nothing, letting his Admiral continue.

“Also, they have torpedoes now, supplementing the capabilities of their Condors. But StarCen explained they programmed the torpedoes to not explode if she could port away the ships on time. So, they were not a one time use. Well, they were a one time use but they could remain unused if they weren’t going to blow anything up.”

Another “Why didn’t we think of that first?” moment, Thrall thought. He fumed at the thought of all the exploded torpedoes that did nothing, PLAIR pulling her ships away in time and all that money spent on all those weapons burning up in space.

Ricci continued.

She said, “I apologize I was unable to accomplish our objectives, Tetrarch Thrall. If you wish to relieve me of duty, I will board the next zodiac ship we meet.”

He waved a hand in a dismissive gesture and said, “That won’t be necessary, Admiral. There is nothing you can do within the few seconds a battle takes place. If StarCen cannot counter their AI, we are virtually helpless in those situations.”

This was true, and Ricci knew it. Everybody knew it. Still, those at the top bore responsibility for failure. “Share your success. Shoulder your mistakes.” It was a key principle taught at the Academy.

Ricci breathed a quiet sigh of relief that Thrall remained reasonable despite the circumstances, at least so far as her command. Because despite her willingness to “shoulder her mistakes,” in reality a different Admiral would have had no greater or lesser chance of success once the AIs began to battle.

“Hold your fleet at your current location, Admiral. I will consult with StarCen and the other Tetrarchs as we mull our next move.”

Ricci saluted and said, “Yes, sir.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 9

They are coming.

That thought formed early in Admiral Severs’s mind as he scanned Naval Intelligence reports from the outer quadrant. The pirates had sent in accounts of their encounters before retreating, and all three solar systems were occupied by League ships again. Except for maybe Thalia. All sides had left the scene of battle there, apparently.

Severs did not mind the lack of assets there. He had no Marines or Navy personnel on any of those planets, and no ships in the systems. Everything was concentrated back here on Juventas. So far, the plan worked better than he had dared hope it would.

The pirates accepted a lucrative offer to “guard” the outer quadrants. No one expected them to fare well against the military efforts that would be brought against them.

It was unknown if they would even be attacked. But the Third Fleet evidently decided to try and take back the three minor planets first on their way to Juventas. They were probably afraid of getting hit from behind if they bypassed the outer systems, Severs thought. He might have tried a similar maneuver.

So, Ricci split up her forces and sent four ships to each of the three systems. They appeared ready to take out Republican vessels and reclaim the skies for the minor planets.

What they found instead were privateers. And to Severs’s surprise, and no doubt Ricci’s, the pirates performed remarkably well under the circumstances.

Severs was old school Navy. He believed in law and order, and like many officers he held privateers in contempt. They were nothing but scoundrels, vagabonds and thieves.

Still, they had warships and were not afraid to use them. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, he thought.

Who could blame the pirates for preferring to pick on relatively defenseless merchant ships? So long as those were League merchants, Severs had no problems with that. But the Navy needed them to tangle with League warships this time. They dangled enough gold to entice them.

Still, no one expected the pirates to actually be successful.

He glanced over the report one more time. Three Hawks. Two Eagles! And one Eagle severely damaged. How in the world did they get that many? And, not a single pirate ship was lost.

He delved deeper into the report. Evidently the AI controlling Lute was pretty good. She threw some maneuvers at StarCen that the older AI had never seen before at Palisades, which took out both the Hawks sent there. StarCen evidently held her Eagles back, not considering the pirates much of a threat at first. By the time the Eagles went over to engage, LuteNet pulled the privateers out of the system.

At Aegea a short while later, StarCen did not make the same mistake. She sent in all four of her ships to meet three pirates orbiting the planet. They quickly managed to score several unlikely direct hits, though, ganging up on one of the Eagles and damaging it. Before the other Eagle and the Hawks could move in to help, their AI again pulled her ships out of the system.

Finally, at Thalia the pirates took out two Eagles and one Hawk. This time StarCen retreated, removing her last ship before they could destroy it, too.

“PLAIR, I want to know more about what happened at Thalia.”

A virtual holoscreen appeared on the table in front of him, showing the Dauntless and Courageous, two Eagle-class warships, in orbit above Thalia along with two Hawks.

The Aquamarine appeared suddenly, her massive hull invading the space around the Eagles. One was sliced almost perfectly down the middle near the mammoth’s aft. The other lost a third to the giant ship, closer to its bow.

Both chunks scattered, instantly powerless and broken. Severs watched as pieces of metal, machinery, and human bodies drifted away.

“Incredible,” he murmured. “They never knew what hit them.”

He watched, this time from the Ultima Mule’s recordings, as it chased one of the Hawks across the solar system.

“Hm. They must have deployed drones to set up a surveillance grid. Smart. Time well spent.”

He watched as the ships crisscrossed space, the pirate taking potshots at the League warship with each jump. Then the other League Hawk joined in, popping in behind the pirate and shooting.

Severs nodded and said, “Standard procedure.”

He watched in amazement as the procession occurred one last time. The pirate appeared behind the enemy and opened fire. The other Hawk appeared behind the pirate and fired. Then the Aquamarine appeared, with disastrous results for the last League ship.

At this point, StarCen had enough and took her fourth ship out of the system. It popped away and did not reappear.

“It’s outside thinking, isn’t it PLAIR?”

“What do you mean, Admiral?”

“When an organization gets too insular . . . staring at their belly buttons long enough . . . they become resistant to outside ideas and get ripe for disruption.

“We have been teaching galactic warfare for how long? We’ve developed certain techniques involving warfare. But there’s room for new ideas, ideas we haven’t bothered to go looking for because we’re . . . insular. Ideas like taking a giant hull and using it as a weapon.

“These pirates are able to teach us a thing or two, aren’t they?”

PLAIR spent a few microseconds deciding if this was a rhetorical question or not. She decided it was indeed rhetorical, and did not bother answering.

Instead she said, “Admiral, the new ships from Diego are arriving momentarily.”

“Good! Put it on the holo.”

The employees at Republican Shipworks had cranked out not two this time, but three new Condors. And, best of all, the engineers had continued improving on the power core. These new models could produce not five, but seven fireballs every second, teleporting chunks from the nearest sun in quick succession.

The new ships included the Paul Revere, nicknamed “Midnight Rider,” of course. Also the Thomas Jefferson, AKA “Tommy,” and the Alexander Hamilton whose crewmembers dubbed her “Big Ham” for unknown reasons. The Captain probably unwisely took the top three nicknames and put them up for a vote. The worse ones invariably won when that happened, Severs thought.

The three Condors popped into orbit suddenly, along with several support and supply ships and a troop carrier with fresh Marines.

Republican Shipworks had also supplied the Navy with their own version of solar torpedoes, which were designated for the Eagles and their large holds. PLAIR promptly dispersed via teleportation a total of 36 torpedoes throughout the fleet.

Severs smiled at his reinforcements when they showed on the holo. He would now be able to throw 31 solar chunks every second. Plus, he could give the League back some of their own medicine with the torpedoes.

They are coming, he thought again.

Then he smiled as another thought replaced the first.

Bring it.

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 8

Admiral Ricci could not believe the reports coming in. Each minor planet in the Juventas quadrant had been guarded by private warships. These were amateurs. They were not supposed to be anywhere near the level of a trained military. Certainly they were not supposed to be close to the Star League Navy’s level of expertise.

And yet . . . Two Hawks were lost at Palisades. The two pirate ships there somehow coordinated perfectly to bring both ships down. They could not take the Eagles and left shortly after, but the loss of two Hawks was a devastating blow to the Navy.

One Eagle was severely damaged at Aegea before the pirates watching that system withdrew. At least no ships were completely lost there.

But, worst of all, three warships were lost entirely at Thalia. One Hawk-class and . . . two Eagles? How was that even possible?

Alison Volkov, Captain of the Resolute, interrupted the Admiral’s ruminations by running a finger through the doorbell holo on the door outside Ricci’s quarters.

“Enter.”

Volkov walked in and nodded at her. The two women shared many things in common and got along very well with one another, despite their differences in rank.

Volkov looked to Ricci as a mentor, and Ricci, 15 years older, took the role willingly. They approached something similar to a mother-daughter relationship, although not quite. More like older, experienced Admiral and younger Captain relationship, Ricci thought. Although . . . looser on the formalities than usual.

“I have the latest report on Thalia, sent in by StarCen along with supplemental material relayed by Captain Thrakkar,” Volkov said.

She made a motion with her hand and a holosheet appeared in the air in front of her. She twisted it around so the Admiral could see it.

“Give me the skinny version,” Ricci said.

“Basically, the pirates used the hull of a Mammoth-class ship to decimate our Eagles, Admiral.”

Ricci’s head sank slowly into her hands. The day just kept getting worse. Pirates did this? Privateers? They did not even have a formal navy at Lute. Just a bunch of thieves in stolen warships.

“Okay,” she said with a sigh. “Give me the full version.”

“Well, do you remember when the Aquamarine got captured a while back?”

“Yes. It was kind of a big deal. They disabled her Wu Drive. That was what led to all our ships getting shielded engine compartments. Also, we can do that too now. Provided, of course, the other ship is unshielded, which none of them are anymore. Word spread fasts, especially in wartime.”

“Right. Well, for some reason the pirates never sold the Aquamarine off. Instead, they stripped her and kept the hull. She’s a giant empty shell of a ship.”

“Now with a working Wu Drive, evidently.”

“Right. Or at least a tandem drive. Because they towed it with them all the way to Thalia.”

“Don’t tell me. When our people weren’t looking, they teleported this giant ship right into the Eagles.”

Volkov nodded. She said, “The funny thing is, they did it to Thrakkar earlier. The exact same thing, only they were waiting for him a few jumps out from Petra Roe. He was leading the guard detail for a bank drone when they popped into place. The drone was in the middle and trapped, while his two tail ships got cut in half by the hull.”

“Did he not get a chance to attack then, either?”

“There were survivors, and the pirates left him with a Hobson’s choice.”

“Oh, good grief.”

Ricci paused to think for a moment.

Slowly, she said, “StarCen? What are the odds Captain Thrakkar met the same pirates, using the same technique twice in a row?”

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

“It is not inconceivable, Admiral. Captain Thrakkar is above suspicion, and holds particular animus against these pirates for besting him twice in a row now.”

“Okay, okay. But let’s keep a careful eye on him.”

“Will do, Admiral Ricci.”

Ricci stared at Volkov with a look of consternation.

She said, “Who would ever have thought to use a Mammoth-class hull as a weapon?”

-+-

“Whose bright idea was it to use a disabled Mammoth as a weapon?”

“An even better question is, why didn’t our side think of doing that?”

Billings and Chu asked the questions to Thrall, who sat expressionless at the conference table in Epsilon. Only flaring nostrils betrayed his mounting irritation at the reports from the Third Fleet.

He said, “No one thought to use a Mammoth-class ship as a weapon because it is hideously expensive to create such a gigantic vessel and only use it to bash others.”

Billings shrugged, his hologram in the conference room on Epsilon perfectly mimicking the motion via the quantum matrix.

He said, “It’s a really good idea, though. I mean, with the size of that thing it instantly devastates the shields and the hulls of other ships. How many has it taken out so far?”

Dully, Thrall said, “Two Sparrows, two Eagles, one Hawk, and . . . a bank drone, evidently. We never found the bank drone.”

“And what’s the name of the pirate company that is using this splendid new weapon?” Chu asked, quietly.

Thrall’s nostrils flared again. He thought she knew the answer, but was quietly baiting him in the safest way possible.

He cursed her political skills.

They probably both knew it was the same company that absconded with his daughter, who was onboard the Aquamarine when it was captured. The same company whose Captain she married to spite him and prevent the Marshal Service from retrieving her despite the courts on Clarion having declared her incompetent.

The very same company that now destroyed three of his ships at Thalia with a stupid trick.

Never mind the trick actually worked, it was still deception. It rankled him, but he did not show it. The fact his trick with the Tilson amounted to the same thing never crossed his mind.

Thrall said, “No matter. And with solar torpedoes, the problem is moot. One torpedo will take out the Aquamarine the next time we see her. They were able to surprise us from a defensive position, but obviously that won’t work a second time.”

“Just like your surprise at Juventas won’t work again.”

That veiled jab came from Billings this time. He, in contrast, had considered the equivalency of the Tilson and the Aquamarine. Since the comparison was a good one, it was hardly disputable.

Thrall decided to affirm it instead.

He nodded and said, “Just so, Tetrarch Billings. Many offensive measures only work once in war.”

He flicked his wrist and brought up a shared holoscreen. Everyone looked at the icons of warships converging on a representation of the Juventas system.

“At this point, we will change our plans accordingly, and worry about mopping up the minor planets after our engagement at Juventas. That is beginning as we speak.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 7

“StarCen, port us away!”

“Will do, Captain Thrakkar. Taking your ship one half AU from Thalia.”

The devastation of wrecked warships surrounded by the empty hull of a Mammoth on the holo disappeared, replaced by distant stars and the vast emptiness of space.

“It’s that pirate! StarCen, what is the status of the other ships?”

“Dauntless and Courageous are total losses. Valiant and Vantage remain intact.”

“Good.”

He made a new connection.

“Serrano.”

“Thrakkar.”

Privately, he felt a surge of relief to hear the other Captain’s voice. At least he would not have to face this alone. Veronica Serrano had a strong reputation as fearless in the face of the enemy. A surge of hope filled him, despite the loss of the Commodore and both Eagle-class ships.

“What was that, Thrakkar?” Serrano said. “Is that what you faced with the bank drone?”

“Yes, I’m almost certain. StarCen, can you get us visuals?”

“I will transport some of your drones over, Captain Thrakkar.”

A moment later, the devastation showed up on the holos of both ships. Floating in orbit, a giant hull rotated slowly, surrounded by pieces of wreckage. Two large chunks of the Eagle-class warships floated away in the distance, shedding scraps along the way. Presumably the other halves were inside the monstrosity.

Serrano said, “Yes, that appears to be the Aquamarine. She was taken by pirates some time ago, and used in your banking incident. The question is, what is she doing here at Thalia?”

“Obviously the Republicans hired pirates to watch the minor planets,” Thrakkar said. “We walked into their trap. StarCen, see if you can find the Ultima Mule in this system.”

“I will look, Captain Thrakkar. All my external components here have been destroyed by the enemy. I am limited to your ship and Captain Serrano’s at the moment.”

“Do what you can, but try to find them before—”

The Mule appeared behind the Valiant and unleashed a flurry of bolts with her big forward guns.

Thup! Thup! Thup!

StarCen popped the Valiant away, jumping half an AU across the solar system.

Thrakkar spat out a curse. Everyone on his bridge tensed.

“How did he find us so fast?”

The Mule popped in behind Valiant again.

Thup! Thup! Thup!

The Valiant ported away.

“StarCen, how is he able to see us?”

“I am uncertain, Captain Thrakkar. It appears the pirates may have a surveillance grid in this system.”

Thup! Thup! Thup!

Again, the Valiant jumped to another part of the solar system.

“You’ve got to do something, StarCen!”

“I have a plan, Captain Thrakkar.”

Ultima Mule popped into place behind Valiant once again.

Thup! Thup! Thup!

Valiant popped away, but this time Vantage appeared behind the Mule

ThupThup! ThupThup!

Thrakkar smiled as the process repeated itself twice more. The Valiant appeared somewhere, followed by the Mule, followed by the Vantage.

At last, the Mule broke off, unwilling to engage in a battle of attrition.

Thrakkar said, “Status?”

“Shields are holding Captain,” one of his men said near a side holo. “But I would hate to have to keep doing that.”

Thrakkar nodded, a modicum of confidence returning to him.

Serrano hailed him, still holding her last position.

She said, “Where is that—”

But the Captain of the Vantage never finished her question.

Thrakkar’s head jerked up as he scanned the neural net in his head. Serrano’s contact info showed, but he could not reestablish a connection.

“StarCen? What happened?”

StarCen did not respond immediately. Instead, the Valiant jumped several times. Ten seconds later she stopped. Thrakkar looked at the main holo and saw nothing but stars. He glanced at the navigation panel and realized they were outside the solar system.

StarCen said, “I am sorry, Captain Thrakkar, but the pirates used Aquamarine to take out the Vantage. At this time it is too risky for your ship to remain in the vicinity.”

-+-

“Last bogey is retreating, Captain. Looks like they had enough.”

“Thanks, Max.”

Raleigh looked at the main holo on the bridge and beheld a huge debris field. The hull of the Aquamarine certainly contributed to a large part of that. LuteNet returned her to orbit around the planet after taking out the Vantage. Bits and pieces floated everywhere, some already beginning their long downward spiral to the planet below.

It looked messy. If the hull was worth anything before, it surely was no longer worth much now after being used to destroy five League warships over time.

Quickly the Captain made his decisions, settling on a course of action.

“Lootie, if the anti-porting measures are down on the disabled ships, let’s put the survivors in the Iguana.”

“Will do, Captain. The anti-teleportation measures on the Aquamarine are inactive, and likely inoperable at this point, although the lining on the hull helps block communications. I will let you know if additional assistance is needed for any survivors in the pieces inside that craft.”

He nodded. Then another thought struck him.

He said, “Are there any other items on their ships? Any weapons we could salvage?”

LuteNet paused for a second, scanning all three wrecks.

“The Eagle-class ships have solar torpedoes, four apiece within the portions inside the Aquamarine.”

“Okay. Let’s hold onto those for now. If those can do what I think they can, we want to keep them.”

Seconds later LuteNet said, “All survivors are onboard the Bronze Iguana, Captain. It is crowded, but tolerable. I will port additional food and supplies salvaged from the wrecks over to them also.”

“Good. Let me know if there is enough food to last them until the League gets here.”

“There is, Captain.”

“Now, this new remote pod that grants you control of a ship. We have it installed on the Iguana. Can it be overrun or disabled? Is it safe to leave them parked here in orbit for a few days, or are they going to abscond with the ship?”

“There is always the possibility of escape, Captain. However, if I send one of your people over to the engine room, they could weld the door shut from the inside, increasing the chances of a positive outcome.”

“Okay, let’s do that. Kim, Pak? One of you go over to the Iguana and seal the door so they can’t retake the ship.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Alright, people,” Raleigh said, the stress of battle finally leaching out of him. “Once we get that door sealed, I believe our work here is done. We’ll leave the Iguana in orbit and let the Diego Fleet deal with the POWs. Then Lootie can fly the Iguana home for us.”

Maxwell said, “What happens if the Diego Fleet takes the crew of the Iguana? We won’t get any ransoms.”

Raleigh shrugged. He said, “We got enough, Max. I doubt any of the crew are VIPs anyway. If they come home with the ship, we’ll see about extracting some revenue from them. If not, no big deal.”

“You’ve gotten . . . blasé, Captain.”

“Have I? Max, we are richer than any of us ever dreamed of. We just got away with robbing a planet’s central bank. We got every ounce of gold out of that place they had. Besides, that ship is worth more than all its people combined.”

Maxwell smiled. He said, “Just don’t let Granny find out you’re willing to consider passing up additional income.”

A light lit up on Maxwell’s control holo. He turned to it and said, “Captain, we’re getting a call in on the ship’s hailing frequency.”

“That’s odd. There aren’t any ships around to hail us. Put it through.”

Max waved his hand over the controls and a man’s voice filled the bridge.

“Hello. Hello, Ultima Mule? Do you read me?”

“This is the Ultima Mule,” Raleigh said. “Who is this?”

A pause. Then, a woman’s voice: “We are representatives from the planet Halcyon. We need your help. And, we have a proposition for you . . .”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 6

“I think we’re going to cause an economic collapse on Thalia,” Maxwell said, his eyes round and drinking in the sight of tons of gold in the hold. Next to it, several 100 liter sacks of credit tokens were piled high.

“How we doing, Lootie?” Raleigh said, standing next to him.

“I have the last of the safe deposit box contents ported up to the Chanticleer now, Captain. I am retrieving my sensors from within the vaults.”

“Good. Give me an estimate on the haul, for both us and the Chaucer Company.”

“Your ship has 61.9 million credits in gold and tokens. The Chanticleer’s take is a bit more difficult to estimate due to the fluctuating prices of gemstones, antique coins, and other such items that may fetch higher or lower prices at auction. I estimate their take to be somewhere between 30.4 million on the low end and perhaps as high as 49.2 million on the high end.”

Maxwell whistled. He said, “That’s not bad, especially for doing nothing.”

“Don’t go spreading that sentiment, Max. They’re our partners at the moment, and they deserve a cut.”

“We weren’t really supposed to do this, were we?” Maxwell said. “I think I remember something about being explicitly told by the Republicans not to mess with anything on the surface.”

Raleigh shrugged. He said, “We had a passenger who had business with the bank. And, uh, after he was finished we robbed it.”

“We basically stole 100 million credits from their main galactic branch, the national bank for the whole planet. We’re gonna bankrupt Thalia.”

The door to the hold swished open and Granny walked in. She caught the tail end of Maxwell’s statement and cackled.

“It was like taking candy from a baby! Easiest heist I’ve ever been on. No AI, no firefight, no sneaking around hostile sensors or anti-teleportation fields. Let’s go find some more minor planets to rob!”

“Max is developing a conscience,” Raleigh said. “Besides, I don’t know if our holds can fit much more. Gold takes up space.”

Granny said, “We can always find room for gold! Stack it in the halls, put it in the bunkrooms!”

Raleigh’s neural net lit up as Kim contacted him.

“Bogeys incoming, Captain!”

-+-

Kim and Pak’s sensor grid gave LuteNet enough of a warning that she was able to port the Mule, Chanticleer, the Iguana and Aquamarine an AU away before the League Navy arrived.

“What are we looking at, Lootie?” Raleigh said as walked onto the bridge. Dillon looked up from his seat and smiled nervously as Granny and Maxwell followed the Captain out of the elevator pod.

“Two Eagles and two Hawks from the Third Fleet, Captain.”

Raleigh opened a neural net connection with Lightfoot.

“What do you think, Krystal?”

“I think we need to engage. For one thing, we don’t need the money. We’re going home.”

“Aw, come on. Those aren’t bad odds.”

“Are you crazy, Chris? Wait, don’t answer that. We are looking at two Eagle-class warships, backed up by two Hawks.”

“We’ve got four ships, too.”

“We’ve got two Hawks, a smuggler’s ship and the shell of a Mammoth-class you towed here for no apparent reason. That’s not the same. They have Eagles! Two of them.”

“We kind of thought we might see some bogeys, actually. That’s why I brought the Aquamarine along.”

“No. Nope. I’m done talking to you. Have fun with your new bride. Lootie! Takes us home.”

Lightfoot broke the connection and the Chanticleer popped away.

“Chickens,” Granny said. “You better not give her a cut of this, either.”

“It’s an extra million just for engaging them. I admit we’ve already got a lot, but this is the reason we’re here, after all.”

“Still, she’s got a point. The odds suck, especially without their rooster ship.”

“I think we’ll be alright. Plus we’ve got the element of surprise.”

Raleigh opened a connection with Kim again.

He said, “Put the plan in action, Kim.”

“Aye, aye, Captain!”

-+-

Captain Jatin Thrakkar of the SLS Valiant took a sip of coffee as he stared at the main holo on his bridge. Below, Thalia slowly revolved, the sun peeking over the horizon. To one side, the two Eagles accompanying their squad floated. To the left, another Hawk remained in position.

“There does not appear to be anybody here, ladies and gentlemen.”

Commodore Russell Jenkins spoke to all four Captains over the neural net.

“It would seem that way, sir,” one of them responded. Thrakkar recognized the voice as belonging to Willa Dunn, Captain of the Dauntless, Jenkins’s flagship.

Of course she would be buttering up to the Commodore, Thrakkar thought. If he gets promoted she’ll try and ride his coattails.

Thrakkar said, “I recommend caution, Commodore. The Republicans and their allies are tricky. They have used many deceptive measures in this war, so far.”

“Allies?”

He heard Dunn snort while making the comment.

“All they have are a few pirates,” Jenkins said, as if acknowledging Dunn’s tone. “I’m sorry you had difficulties while on a drone escort with them, but in this case I have to agree with Captain Dunn. The planet appears to be deserted by the Republicans and the enemy is nowhere in sight.”

Thrakkar steamed in anger but held his tongue. He could imagine Dunn smirking right now at his mild rebuke from the Commodore.

WahhWahhWahhWahh!

The alarm sounded as everyone felt a shudder ripple through the hull.

A Mammoth-class ship appeared suddenly, wiping out the Dauntless and her sister. The walls of the giant ship appeared in the middle of both Eagles, slicing the formidable warships in half.

Thrakkar said, “Son of a—”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 5

Sergio met a smiling receptionist, a human and not an android, and gave her his name. Her eyes grew round.

“If I could speak with somebody about certain deposits I have here in the bank, I would be eternally grateful.”

She immediately jumped up from the desk to go find somebody, leaving Niles and Skylar waiting.

Moments later, an older gentleman in a dark business suit emerged from an office, trailing the receptionist. He wore a genial smile and locked eyes with Sergio from across the bank lobby, sticking his hand out when he approached.

“Mr. Sergio! It has been too long. I must say, I am surprised to see you. We didn’t know you were on Thalia when the Republicans attacked.”

Niles shrugged. He said, “Well, you know how it is. We have our ways.”

The comment seemed mysterious, and the bank manager waited for him to divulge more.

Instead, Sergio said, “I have to make a withdrawal today. Times of war and all that. I am here for my gold certificates.”

“Of course, of course. Please, step into my office and I will have you sign the appropriate forms.”

Skylar and Sergio followed him back to his office, where he offered them seats in plush leather chairs sitting in front of his expansive desk.

He sat down, and brought up a holo, smiling apologetically at Sergio.

“We have to do a full biometrical scan, as you well know, in order to access the safe deposit box.”

Sergio nodded.

Skylar said, “Isn’t that hard to do without StarCen?”

The bank manager shrugged. He said, “We keep copies on hand for contingencies, although honestly this is the first time I can remember when we’ve had to go without the AI for any length of time.”

Sergio spent the next several minutes going through an iris scan, a palm reader, and finally a DNA scan.

Satisfied, and apologizing for the security measures, the manager stood and led them to a discreet side door which opened to stairs leading down.

“This is our side entrance to the safes, which are in the basement of course.”

“Safes?” Skylar said. “How many safes does a bank need?”

The manager gave a self-deprecating chuckle. He said, “Madam, we are a galactic bank, and as such we are the largest and most important financial institution on Thalia. We are a central facility and all gold and credit tokens are transferred through us for the whole planet.

“But to answer you question, we have the safe deposit boxes safe, another for credit token distribution, and a third for gold.”

“Impressive that you store physical gold here,” Skylar said in an admiring tone.

The manager’s chest swelled a bit at her praise.

“Indeed. And we are delighted to have customers of Mr. Sergio’s caliber willing to entrust us with safeguarding his belongings. Ah, we’re here.”

The manager placed his entire hand inside a small box in front of a vault door. Skylar recognized it as a more secure scanner, one that would not only scan his prints, but ensure he was alive and not under stress. This helped ensure nobody could use his corpse to gain access, nor threaten his life in order to get inside.

“Sorry to be a bother,” Skylar said. “But while you two are doing that, is there a restroom I can use?”

“Certainly. Go right down the hall, that way.”

Less than a quarter hour later, Sergio departed carrying a briefcase filled with gold certificates. He and Skylar thanked the bank manager, who remained courteous, bordering on obsequiousness, the whole time.

They walked down the sidewalk and back to the alley, cutting between two buildings until they came to the first sensor LuteNet dropped.

Sergio said, “Did you . . . see everything you needed to see?”

Skylar nodded and said, “We’re ready to come back, Lootie.”

Both popped away in an instant.

-+-

The Mule and the Iguana remained in geostationary orbit above Lesden until well after darkness had fallen on the city.

Raleigh wrapped up negotiations with Lightfoot about splitting the goods.

Lightfoot said, “I still say fifty-fifty, Chris.”

“Our guy clued us in, got us in, and helped us locate everything. Technically we don’t owe you anything.”

“Yeah, but you’re not like that, Chris. I know you. You and your sense of right and wrong, of moral obligations. Have I ever told you how weak that makes you look as a pirate?”

Chris smiled, even though Lightfoot could not see him at the moment over the neural net.

He said, “Many times. In fact, that particular difference of opinion helped break us up, remember?”

Lightfoot sighed. “Very well. I know you’re not going to budge, and I am grateful, I really am. I heard what you did for Lee Po’s family and the Slender Sylph Company. You gave them a cut after returning to Lute even though Lee got himself killed along with the rest of his crew before you scored your big hit.

“So, yes, I know we don’t ‘deserve’ anything, and yet you’re still giving us a cut just because you agreed to partner up with us when you got here.”

Raleigh said, “What made you get reasonable all of us sudden?”

“Just tell me how much of a cut you want to give me, Chris.”

“Well, I was thinking . . . there are three vaults. One for gold, one for tokens and one for safe deposit boxes. We’ll take the gold and tokens, and you can loot the boxes.”

Lightfoot’s voice perked up immediately.

She said, “There might be some good stuff in there, Chris. You sure that’s the way you want to cut it?”

“Yeah. I hope there are some nice surprises in there for you, Krystal. But, let’s be polite to all those League people and only have Lootie take coins and jewelry and such. There may be items of sentimental value such as paper wills in there. Let her decide what to take.”

“Aw, you’re such a softie for a thief, bank robber, and pirate.”

“If it’s stealing from the enemy, I don’t think it’s bad. But there’s no point in making them suffer beyond monetary damages. So, are you game?”

“I’m game. Let’s do this.”

“Alright. Lootie, begin with the gold vault. Port everything in it up to the Mule’s hold.”

“Will do, Captain.”

In the bank’s vaults, LuteNet looked in via the sensors Skylar left earlier in the day. While ostensibly visiting the restroom, Skylar ported into all the vaults and left behind sensors so that Lootie could “see” everything. With no StarCen to stop her, there was nothing beyond the physical walls to stop thieves.

LuteNet made a calculation on the bars of gold stacked up on the floor. A second later, the gold disappeared and popped into place in the Mule’s hold.  Then the other contents disappeared in the other vaults. In three seconds, the vaults were bare.