Solar Storm 10

“I don’t understand,” Jillian said.

She looked over Raleigh’s shoulder at a long column of numbers in a holosheet floating above his desk.

“What don’t you understand?”

He tore his eyes off the figures and focused on his young wife.

“Why you gave that guy so much money. I mean, I don’t know a whole lot about money, but he got a lot. And for so little.”

“Was it little? He got us in a League banking drone after we intercepted an interplanetary gold transfer. That’s a major accomplishment.”

“Yeah, but you could have gotten in there without him. I mean he didn’t do much. He shot it continuously until its power died. Then he just bored through a lock. You could have done that without him.”

Raleigh flicked his wrist and the holosheet disappeared. He patted his leg and she took a seat in his lap, smiling and throwing her arms around his neck.

He said, “When I was a kid, my dad owned a bot dealership on Cyclades. In the Republic back in those days, and even today to a certain extent, service bots were sold and maintained through a vast network of dealerships. Sort of like cars used to be sold back on Old Earth.

“So, Dad, he owned the rights to sell Verberger Bots. Are you familiar with them?”

Jillian shook her head.

“Verberger Corp. was one of the first big manufacturers of humanoid robots in the Republic. They perfected the design. We’ve always had robots, mostly simple things, even back in the 20th century. But these were very humanoid. They could handle things just like a human, they looked very human, and so forth. The only noticeable parts decidedly not human were their eyes. Those looked . . . spooky. You could tell you were dealing with a robot when you saw the eyes.

“When I was a kid, they hadn’t gotten around to calling them ‘androids’ yet. Nowadays, we differentiate. A bot looks mechanical. An android looks far more human. But when I was a kid all we had were bots. And Verberger was the biggest company making them, at least for the Planetary Republic.

“So, Dad had this dealership and we did fairly well. He sold bots to everyone on Cyclades. And he was really into the business community. He was a member of the Chamber of Commerce and the Lions Club. I learned a lot from him. I went to work for him, right out of school. He took me to meetings, to social outings. I soaked up everything I could about being a businessman, and how to run a successful business. I owe a lot of my success from the lessons he taught me, both directly and indirectly.”

“That’s nice,” Jillian said. “I’m glad one of us had a good relationship with their father.”

“Yeah. So, anyway, one thing he taught me was you always support those in your local network. In your community. For instance, there was a restaurant near the dealership. The owner of the restaurant was a member of the Chamber, and she was in the Lions Club. Whenever Dad went out to eat, or brought clients and customers out to eat, he would try to steer everybody to this restaurant.

“One time I complained. I said, ‘Dad, not this place again.’ But he said, ‘Notice all their servers are Verbergers. The cooks are too. The owner buys all her bots from me, and in return this is where I eat out.’

“And that was just one example. Everybody in his personal network did business with him, and he tried to do business with them, too. They all supported one another. You see?”

Jillian nodded. She said, “I’m beginning to. It was a case of, ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’”

“Yeah, sort of. It was bigger than that, but yeah. So, here we are on Lute and it’s a similar situation. Now, granted, this is not a bot dealership. It’s a pirate company. But, we rely on the services of others in Port Ryan especially. They, in turn, rely on us. They rely on us to spread the wealth around, if nothing more.

“So, could we have gotten into the bank drone without bringing in outside help? Probably. I bet Pak and Kim could have dreamed something up, or figured out a similar approach as Mr. Fairfield. But, he’s part of our network, our community. And in the future we may need him again. So, yes it was a bit expensive, but in the long run it will even out. And even if it doesn’t, it was still the right thing to do.”

“Because it’s good for business?”

He nodded and smiled. “Right. You catch on quick, Beautiful.”

She giggled and bent down to kiss him.

-+-

Herschel Stuttgart gulped nervously as he looked over his shoulder. Everyone seemed out to get him. He stopped in front of a window and surveyed the scene behind him. A man down the street looked his way. Stuttgart nervously turned and walked across the street, then quickly headed in the opposite direction.

How would an assassin strike? Would he take out Stuttgart in the open like this? Would it be a she?

Stuttgart eyed an attractive woman walking toward him on the sidewalk. She caught him looking, then frowned at the expression on his face. The little man appeared to be ogling her. She wrinkled her nose in disgust and cut across the street to get away from him.

At last Stuttgart reached the Gore’s communications center. He took a last look around behind him before going through the door. Inside, he found the place blessedly empty, with only Heidi behind the counter.

“I need to arrange another private meeting with LuteNet,” he told her.

A few minutes later he found himself once again in the private cubical with a connection to StarCen.

“I need your help!”

“What can I do for you, Petra Roe State Department Employee Stuttgart?”

“They’re . . . they’re suspicious. My boss, the ambassador. He is questioning everyone who knew about the bank transfer. There’s only six or seven of us in the office who knew anything about it.”

LuteNet took a second to parse the data and consider it. For an AI system, this was a considerable length of time.

She said, “There is a high probability other people outside of Lute knew about the shipment. It would be logical for the ambassador to conclude the information came off planet.”

“Yeah, but Huntington . . . he’s not exactly known for being logical, you know?”

“What would you have me do, Petra Roe State Department Employee Stuttgart?”

“I don’t know! Set up . . . set up an alternative narrative for him to buy into or something. Find a way to take the heat off me and others in the embassy. If you can do this, I will try to funnel additional information your way, and to the company you sold my information to.”

LuteNet took another second.

“Very well, Petra Roe State Department Employee Stuttgart. I will arrange a plausible story for you, an ‘alternative narrative’ as you put it. This will provide you with cover. The company’s assets will need to be expended in order for this to work, and they will expect future compensation by way of additional information when it becomes available to you.

“Are we agreed?”

“Yes. Yes! Just get the ambassador off my back. I’ll send more info in the future, as a I get it.”

“Very well, Petra Roe State Department Employee Stuttgart. I will make arrangements with the Ultima Mule Company immediately.”

Solar Storm 9

Jillian woke up and stretched, her arms and legs tangled with Christopher Raleigh, her husband.

Her husband! The thought still thrilled her. They were together all the time now, and she no longer had to scheme about ways to be near him.

Married life was everything she imagined it to be, and more. Chris treated her as an equal. He spent a lot of time showing her how he managed the Ultima Mule Company, and he considered her as having equivalent status. She was now, in effect, the co-leader of a pirate company.

After doing some research and consulting with LuteNet she found that, indeed, married couples were considered to be the same legal entity on Lute. Two really did become one! It was a dual property system, so whatever she owned was his and whatever he owned was hers.

Of course, she had nothing. Any assets she might try and lay claim to were stuck in League territory, where a judge had ruled her functionally incompetent. Even if she had access to something back home, they would have practically insurmountable legal issues trying to get it, and likely be tied up in court for years.

But that did not matter. She had Chris! He was wonderful to her, treating her like a princess, always showering love and affection on her.

His eyes fluttered open as she watched. When he smiled at her, her heart raced.

He said, “Good morning, Beautiful.”

And so another day started, in what she considered a fairy tale life.

They could have breakfast in bed, brought in by the serving bot. But Chris liked to eat with the crew, or at least whoever was present in the cafeteria.

After a quick shower and change of clothes, they took the elevator up and walked over to the serving line. Not many people were present this morning. Their lone prisoner, Niles Sergio, sat barely awake at a table by himself, slurping coffee. A dozen crewmembers ate at other tables scattered about.

Jillian and Chris returned from the serving line with bagels and omelets. A moment later the elevator dinged and Skylar walked out, followed by Dillon, who looked as sleepy as Sergio. They headed for the serving line before joining the other couple at their table.

“How’s our cargo going?” Skylar asked, setting her plate down.

“The power ran out last night,” Raleigh said, consulting his inner screen and the data on it. “We’ll port up to the Mule later this morning and get to work.”

Skylar nodded and said, “Great! Let me know when, and we’ll go. I guess Jethro Fairfield knows what he’s doing after all.”

“That has got to be a fake name,” Dillon said, looking a bit more awake. “No one names their child ‘Jethro.’”

“It’s possibly fake,” Raleigh said with a smile. “LuteNet lets people start new lives out here. Regardless, you have to judge a man by his results, not his name.”

Dillon grunted in acknowledgment and went back to eating his omelet.

Jethro Fairfield was an independent contractor hired by the Ultima Mule Company for the purpose of breaking into a League banking drone. The company had captured the drone in a daring raid near Petra Roe after discovering its approach options to the neutral planet. They purchased the information from a disgruntled Petra Roe embassy employee.

They towed the stripped down Aquamarine into position and the Mammoth-class ship swallowed the smaller bank drone, helping to eliminate part of its armed escort in the process. Raleigh released the survivors in a way that caused the remaining destroyer to pause rather than chase after them while they ported the Aquamarine and its prize away.

The plan worked brilliantly, and they now hopefully had millions in gold and credit tokens in orbit around Lute. Except . . . they had no way of getting to it. The bank drone’s defenses remained active, even cut off from StarCen while trapped inside the larger ship.

So, Raleigh solicited help from an expert in breaking into secure physical systems. Such a person could be found on Lute, where services like this were often needed. That person was Jethro Fairfield.

Jillian decided he was an odd little man. He stood short, at five foot one or 155 centimeters. He had a bald top, ringed by long brown hair to his shoulders, and a heavily wrinkled face making him look older than his actual mid-50s.

Despite his looks, and his name, the man had a reputation for skillfully breaking into ship vaults and other items pirates sometimes brought back to Lute. He was a safe cracker, the best in the business. Perhaps the best in the Milky Way.

Presented with the challenge of breaking into a bank drone, he readily accepted. In negotiating his fee, Raleigh eventually agreed to give him a ten percent cut of whatever they found inside. This was, Raleigh confided to Jillian, not the Captain’s preference. He would have preferred offering Fairfield a flat fee. But the old criminal reckoned the drone was loaded and would not back down from his demand for a percentage cut.

Ultimately, Raleigh agreed he had little choice. If anyone could break into a bank drone, Jethro Fairfield was the person for the job. So, Jillian watched as the two men shook hands and requested LuteNet to record the agreement. Then Jethro went to work.

First, he said, the drone’s power core should be depleted. The problem was, the power core was designed to last a long, long time, conserving energy whenever possible. Even then, it would keep some backup in reserve.

To help speed the process, Jethro requested a cannon be moved inside the Aquamarine and programmed to fire repeatedly at the drone, nonstop.

This required a considerable amount of energy, but Jethro assured them it was needed, so Raleigh made the arrangements.

With the constant bombardment, the drone kept its shields up and its power running down. At last, the time had come when it had no more shields to offer resistance.

After breakfast, everyone went back to their rooms to make preparations, then took the elevators to the roof. There, LuteNet ported them to the Port Ryan Administration Building where they entered the debarkation zone and went through the sterilization process before porting up to the Ultima Mule.

Skylar and Dillon accompanied Raleigh and Jillian as they walked onto the bridge. Maxwell turned and smiled at them when the elevator dinged open. Standing beside the tall First Officer, the expert safe cracker Jethro Fairfield appeared especially short.

He did not, however, seem to notice that everyone else on the bridge was taller, even Granny. Instead, he immediately got down to business.

“You have the equipment I requested, Captain?”

Raleigh nodded and flicked his hand at the holoscreen. It shifted to show a service bot holding a giant tool over its shoulder. The bot was just inside the hollow Aquamarine.

Raleigh said, “One standard Verberger space service bot, with an industrial-strength drill. Diamond tip bit. We are good to go.”

“Very good. Have the bot moved into position underneath the drone.”

“You heard him, Lootie. Move the bot.”

The bot’s jetpacks fired up and everyone watched as it drifted inside the cavernous inner shell of the Aquamarine.

The interior space was wide open, with all the floors and walls ripped out. Lights scattered about the edges provided illumination but could not quite reach the middle, so everything remained dimly lit.

Floating near the center, the bank drone looked forlorn and lifeless. The bot flew steadily toward it.

Soon it moved into position underneath the drone’s belly, and everyone on the Mule had a perfect picture of the bot, the giant drill, and the drone.

Fairfield said, “Begin drilling in the location I indicated, LuteNet.”

The bot pulled a line out from its waist and attached it via magnet to the hull so it would not drift away. Then it took the giant drill and began working on the entry latch.

Fairfield sat down in a chair and glanced at Raleigh.

He said, “Now we wait. This will take a while.”

The tension eased on the bridge and everyone found something else to do.

Dillon walked over to Fairfield, brimming with curiosity.

“You know we have an Intangible here,” he said, pointing to Skylar. “She could pop in there and look around.”

Fairfield shook his head. He said, “The drone is designed to never be opened. Well, hardly ever. All gold and tokens are ported in and out. StarCen knows what’s inside, and has a sensor in there as well. We don’t. So, we have to go the physical route and take everything out by hand.

“Now, we could teleport someone inside, or they could teleport themselves if they’re an Intangible. But again, we don’t know how everything is positioned in there. It becomes dangerous. Then if you do get somebody safely in, they would have to take out hopefully tons of gold with them. We’re talking a lot of gold and credit tokens. Even weightless, it would take port after port after port to get it all out.

“No, it’s better to break in through their service entrance and let bots do all the work. It takes longer up front, but my way is better. Give it time. Even the best lock on the most secure door will eventually succumb to a diamond bit, if you know where to drill.”

About an hour later, the drill worked its way through the lock. The bot twisted the handle on the hatch, pulled, and the service entrance popped open at last.

Inside the airless, lightless ship, the bot shone its light around, letting the view be transmitted back to the Mule. It pulled itself through a narrow corridor, then turned to open the door into the first of the four cargo holds.

Taking up the entire interior, a large square cube of gold bricks free floated in the space available. The bricks were bound together in webbing, but enough of the gold reflected back in the bot’s light to make everything look brilliant on the holoscreen.

Someone whistled at the sight.

“How much are we looking at, Lootie?”

Raleigh’s voice sounded quiet when he asked the question.

LuteNet said, “This is a pallet of 18,000 kilobars. Each kilobar is 32.5 troy ounces. The current exchange rate on Diego is 47.12 credits per troy ounce. Each bar is equivalent to 1,531.40 credits. This collection is therefore worth 27 million, 565 thousand, 200 credits before exchange fees.”

Stunned silence.

Finally, Granny said, “Boys . . . we’s rich!”

Raleigh said, “That’s a bigger haul than you estimated, Lootie.”

“It may be bigger still, Captain. We have not uncovered the expected credit tokens yet.”

Everyone held their collective breath as the bot backed out of the storage hold and made its way further down the corridor. Three more compartments were investigated, each with different materials. By the time it finished looking, they found over 10 million more credits in tokens and gold coins.

Raleigh immediately had 3.8 million wired into Jethro Fairfield’s account. He smiled his thanks and asked LuteNet to port Fairfield back down to the surface.

Solar Storm 8

Chancellor Elsa Cole’s hologram stood before Severs, showing her petite strawberry blonde frame in remarkable clarity despite the distance.

This marked the Admiral’s first direct report to the Chancellor since the conclusion of the battle. He remained in the Admiral’s Quarters on the Thomas Paine. She stood in her office back on Diego.

He wrapped up the oral report and came to his closing comments.

“We now have control of Juventas, Chancellor. The question is, of course, can we keep it? PLAIR indicates StarCen will work very hard at taking it back out of our column. Since Juventas is a capital planet, PLAIR is claiming the other major systems in this quadrant as well, although we have no Naval presence in those three systems as of yet.”

“That will have to change, of course. If nothing else, we will cut those worlds off from the quantum communications matrix. Obviously, you don’t want your neighbors serving as spies and relaying information back to the League.

“We have two more Condors coming off the line as we speak, Admiral, and they will be joining you within a fortnight. With five Condors, you should be able to hold the quadrant, even against their new solar torpedoes.”

Severs nodded. Cole looked at his hologram, in her office back in Harrington House on Diego.

She said, “You are not responsible for the deception that lost most of that squadron, Admiral. It was over in a second, far too fast for any human to react. I regret the loss of life, but this is war, after all.”

He nodded again and said, “It is war, and the other side fights dirty.”

“That was the only way Thrall could inflict some casualties on us. And he took the opportunity.”

She did not say it, but the unspoken thought hung in the air. PLAIR might have suggested a similar tactic were their roles reversed. Severs frowned. He dismissed the topic from his mind and moved on.

He said, “Speaking of war, Chancellor, I took the liberty of waiving the curse word penalty during combat. I’m going to keep it waived during the occupation as well.”

Cole blinked in surprise and she raised her eyebrows.

She said, “That provision was passed by Parliament.”

“I understand. Politics and all. But I could not in good conscience dock my sailors and Marines for cursing while they are putting their lives in jeopardy for the sake of the Republic.  I’ll be happy to address Parliament in person regarding this issue, once I return.”

Cole smiled at him. She said, “You’re a bold man, Fred. That’s one of the reasons I made you my Fleet Admiral. I’ll cover for you now when they find out. So long as you keep winning, they won’t have any grounds to recall you, and you’ll pretty much have free reign to do what you want so long as you don’t start torturing prisoners or executing children. Just don’t become a petty tyrant, and don’t let power go to your head.

“But if things turn south, they will look for anything and everything to pin on you. Including this.”

“I’m willing to take my chances. With all due respect, Madam Chancellor, it’s a stupid rule. We should not be monitoring speech and trying to shape it, especially in the armed forces. Especially in combat. When life or death is on the line, no one should care what a Marine or sailor says. Particularly those in Parliament.”

Elsa Cole smiled warmly at him as he finished speaking.

She said, “After this is over, Fred, you should consider a life in politics. Our party could use more men like you, people who are willing to take a stand over their principles. All too often politicians are wishy-washy, changing their tunes with the direction of the wind. I imagine you will hold your stances no matter what.”

Privately, Severs felt honored at the compliment. A seed was planted, but it was one he did not have the time or inclination to examine right now.

“One thing at a time, Madam Chancellor. First, let’s win this war.”

-+-

Biff and Julia stayed home, watching the holoscreen in their flat. Image after image of destruction flashed by. They stayed on the couch, watching in amazement at the devastation and the massive shift in power.

The newsbots were nowhere to be seen, with the elimination of StarCen. Ordinarily, these artificial men and women served the old role of news channel anchors. But with no AI, there were no virtual talking heads to inform the public.

Eventually a real human found his way onto the airwaves. He was breathless, and stammered a lot, but he informed the audience that the Republic had attacked and was now in control of Juventas. The League Navy was gone, and all ground forces had either been eliminated or had surrendered.

Like millions of others on Juventas, Biff and Julia watched as the Republic quickly moved to solidify their control of the planet. Marines occupied ports and centers of power. In areas where cameras were unavailable, the lone human on the air was left to breathlessly speculate.

Right now a camera panned over the top of downtown Yorkton, where a giant hole remained filled with rubble from the Administration Building.

“I am getting reports that large amounts of cargo are being ported down to certain locations in Yorkton. It would be this reporter’s opinion that they are installing AI cores to replace StarCen. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll be saying, ‘Hey, PLAIR!’ instead of, ‘Hey, StarCen!’”

Biff cooked them lunch while the holo stayed on. Julia moved over to the table and joined him when it was ready.

She said, “Goulash! My favorite.”

He smiled and said, “Good thing we had groceries delivered yesterday. I bet there’s shortages for a while. I wonder how good PLAIR is at managing planets and their resources?”

She shrugged as she sat down and spooned some food in her mouth.

After she ate some more, she looked at him with a twinkle in her eye.

She said, “Managing resources is easy. It’s people who are the hard part.”

Solar Storm 7

Vicki Fenner looked down at the man bound on the gurney. His fingernails were removed, and his body was a bloody mess.

She waited patiently while the agent in charge of interrogations injected him with nanobots. He had been brought to the point of death, but the first aid would keep him alive so they could torture him some more, and hopefully wring more information out of him. And misery. The purpose of SSI interrogations was to inflict maximum misery, as well as extract information.

She waited patiently for the nanobots to go to work. Of course, he would need time for a full recovery but she had no intentions of allowing that. Fenner just wanted him to remain alive a while longer. She got a certain thrill out of hearing grown men beg for mercy.

Fenner looked attractive, although the white streak through her dark hair inevitably led to comparisons with Halloween characters. She knew her nickname was “The Wicked Witch,” or one of a dozen variants.

And that was fine. Her predecessor and mentor, Sidney Fleming, taught her that fear was a useful emotion to stoke in others. It helped control them. And lately, control seemed to be slipping from her grasp.

She could not quite understand what had happened recently, but if she pieced the information she had together, she would say that the Resistance agent known as Angel had reappeared after murdering Tetrarch Lopez. For a while there, she was gone, no doubt lying low somewhere. But lately, time and again SSI agents ended up dead or missing. Important military facilities were sabotaged, too. All intelligence pointed back to the one they called Angel.

Fenner had almost decided Angel did not exist as a single entity, but was instead an amalgamation of Resistance fighters all using the same name. It would be a brilliant ploy to throw SSI off track.

But she stayed the course, following textbook procedures at disrupting organized resistance. Those procedures called for the thorough . . . questioning . . . of all captured suspects.

Unfortunately, whoever set up the Resistance on Juventas did an excellent job. Cells were typically no larger than three people, and no one seemed to know much beyond their cells, making mass roundups difficult.

Today, however, they had someone much higher in the upper echelon in captivity. This was the agent known as Dolphin. And this man, Fenner knew, had likely seen Angel herself. And maybe those in the ELO Tribunal, the Resistance’s leadership council.

Dolphin had an irritating capacity for pain, though, and had so far revealed very little under torture.

They did not have to torture him, though. It was standard procedure, and the agents enjoyed it, so Fenner would never dissuade that. But, with the latest cranial scanning technology, they could go over his memories and glean whatever information he might retain. It just took time to go through the results.

Fenner opened the door to the holding room and walked across the hall. She went inside another room where images sped across a holoscreen taking up one wall. Esther Gavel, her second in command, glanced at her. She was a short, chubby woman wearing her hair in a bun. She stood by a technician in a white lab coat. They watched the images zipping by.

“Any luck?” Fenner said.

Gavel smiled. She said, “Yes, I think we might have our Angel.”

She turned and walked to another holoscreen and it flickered through a few images, then stopped with a woman’s face frozen in view.

“He calls this one ‘Angel,’ and it’s relatively fresh in his memory. They were very vague in their conversation in an abandoned subway line a couple weeks ago. But they discussed certain assignments that seemed to involved targeting SSI.”

Fenner stared at the attractive face and smiled.

She said, “Excellent. StarCen, please identify this person.”

Silence.

“StarCen? StarCen, please respond.”

“Uh, Director, you might want to see this.”

The technician waved his hand and the image of the attractive young woman disappeared. It was replaced by an overhead shot of the Administration Building. Or rather, what used to be the Administration Building. Smoke drifted up from the rubble.

The scene shifted again to other buildings and military installations around the planet, all blown away.

Fenner said, “What’s going on?”

Gavel said, “I think we’re under attack.”

The holo shifted to a camera inside the Yorkton spaceport. Passengers ran screaming while guard bots fought with . . .

“Are those space marines?” Fenner said. “Republic troops wear green, right?”

“I believe so, ma’am. Yes, look at that sergeant. She is definitely Republican.”

They watched as a short-haired female sergeant with a cigar in her mouth threw grenades at guard bots and yelled at marines behind her to follow.

“That explains why StarCen is not responding. She’s busy right now.”

Gavel said, “They probably took out her cores, too. It may be a while before we hear from StarCen again.”

Fenner froze in realization. Gavel was almost certainly right about that.

Fenner said, “That means we can’t teleport out of here. Or anywhere else, for that matter.”

She looked at Gavel and the technician. Both stared back at her, wide-eyed.

“Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do. First, kill every prisoner in this facility and dispose of the bodies in the incinerator. Then blow up all our equipment here. Can I trust you to oversee that, Gavel?”

Gavel nodded and said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“Second, everyone present needs to disperse and lie low. I will contact you all in the future once things settle down. Cooper’s fleet might be able to handle this mess, I don’t know.”

“No, ma’am. I don’t think so,” Gavel said. “They wouldn’t be landing marines unless they were confident they had control of the sky.”

“Okay. Okay, you’re probably right about that.”

Fenner bit off a few curse words. She had to hold it together. Her world seemed to be falling apart.

“Right. So, stay low. Whatever happens, do not get caught. Do not get . . . rounded up. I’m sure they’ll come after SSI once they solidify their control over the surface.”

The holo switched back to the image before, the one from Dolphin’s memory showing the attractive young lady. Fenner stared at it, committing the face to memory.

She frowned and said, “Just when we were closing in on her, too.”

Fenner left the room and searched for the exit. She had never walked out of the facility before, and did not know where the door was.

Behind her she heard a group agents going from room to room, shooting prisoners in the head.

Solar Storm 6

Weapon lockers opened on the side of the walls in the 31st Platoon’s common room on the Ronald Reagan. Everyone systematically retrieved blasters and grenade belts and returned to formation in the middle of the room. Standard procedure was to leave safeties on and not touch the triggers. Egg grenades remained in their webbing. There would be no accidental discharges or explosions in space.

The men and women of the 31st League Marine Platoon stood in formation after retrieving their weapons, dressed in light olive-green armor. No one said a word. They remained at attention, holding their weapons pointed up.

The entire procedure took but a few minutes, they had practiced it several times. Sergeant Wilcox nodded, her eyes narrowed, watching her people go through all the proper motions. She slowly put the unlit stogie back in her mouth as the last of the Marines grabbed their weapons and assumed their place in formation.

The holoscreens in the room lit up, showing Juventas from orbit. Everyone could see the planet below, mostly blue waters and white clouds with streaks of brown and green marking land mass.

In the distance sunlight flared, and the screen flashed red. A casualty list scrolled by quickly, listing several names of ships. Wilcox’s cigar drooped as the she saw the Gerald Ford had been lost.

“A lot of Marines just died,” Gruman said beside her, quietly. “Sailors, too, by the looks of it. I wonder what happened.”

Wilcox sensed a stirring of uneasiness as everyone watched the holos. She felt it, too. That sense of powerlessness, helplessness. She felt useless up here in space, trapped on a troop transport.

She did not let the feelings affect her voice.

“Awright, you maggots. Hold it together. Let the flyboys do their thing and then they’ll send us down there to finish the job.”

Everyone bucked up under her calm tone. They continued watching the screens, waiting for the signal to go down to the surface.

An overhead shot of a city came next, showing a skyscraper from above. The words, “Yorkton Administration Building” floated beneath. It disappeared in a flash of light, the surrounding buildings reduced to rubble in a wide circle around it.

A few cheers went up. There would be no tears shed for League bureaucrats today.

The holo switched to various military installations around the planet, and the Marines watched them disappear in flashes of sunlight, one by one. They watched as military bases, seaports and other strategic installations were all hit.

“They’re taking out anything that StarCen could use against us,” Gruman said.

Wilcox nodded. She said, “They’ll take out her cores if they can find them, too. No cores, no StarCen. At least not on this planet.”

At last the destruction below came to an end. The overhead shot switched again, this time showing a large building from above. The words floating under it read, “Yorkton Spaceport.”

Lt. Colonel Peng’s voice came from the air. He said, “Thirty-first Platoon, your objective is to secure the spaceport along with the 32nd. Lt. Meyers will be in charge. Intelligence indicates most of your resistance will be guard bots. The second floor is deserted, so that’s where we’re sending you. Prepare to disembark.”

A thrill rippled through the group, and they braced themselves, mentally and physically.

PLAIR’s voice came from the ceiling next. She said, “Decontamination process activating. Wartime standards in effect.”

The common rooms served double duty as disembarkation zones for the troop transports, and everyone stayed still while rays zapped micro-organisms away, and scanners ensured no foreign biomatter hitched a ride to the surface. It would not be as thorough of a cleansing as normal, but it would probably be okay. Everything had been sterilized before they came onboard back at Diego.

And if a few stray micro-organisms made it down to the surface, well that was another sad result of the war. Right now, the Marines did not particularly care a lot about the environment of the planet they were invading.

At last the moment came for disembarkation. PLAIR expended considerable additional processing power, porting thousands of troops safely to the surface over the next several seconds. Wilcox watched as her people popped away. Then she blinked. When she opened her eyes, they all stood in formation inside a large building, standing in a long hallway.

Two black-haired, brown-eyed young men smiled at her, although they looked surprised to be standing nearest to the First Sergeant. She noted the names on their chests: Jamieson and Boggs. They were 18 or 19 years old, she knew. The oldest Marine in her platoon was 22, if you did not count the non-coms.

Wilcox herself was in her late 30s, and old enough to be their mother.

Before she could say anything, a command bell sounded in her inner ear, and a holosheet appeared in front of her face. She raised her voice so everyone could hear.

“Awright, listen up maggots! We have a final away order.”

Everyone turned and focused on her. She read the missive to herself then looked up.

“The general prohibition on curse words remains in effect.”

A loud groan went out from the group.

“Parliament’s making us a freaking social experiment,” Gruman said beside her. “And in war, no less.”

Wilcox ignored his comment and continued in her loud voice.

“PLAIR will be monitoring your speech during your time on duty, even on this foreign planet. You will be docked five credits per curse word.”

Grumbling swirled through the platoon.

“We’re the Republic,” Gruman said, grousing with the others. “We’re supposed to be the good guys. What the . . . furry heck are they thinking trying to control us like this for? I mean, we’re Marines, for crying out loud.”

Continuing, Wilcox said, “The same list of acceptable words will be exempted, including everyone’s favorite for yours truly, namely ‘bitch.’”

Jamieson said, “That is bitched up!”

Boggs said, “Those mother-bitchers!”

Wilcox said, “Quit yer bitchin’! Let’s go meet up with the 32nd.”

Jamieson looked at Boggs as they started to move out. He said, “How come it sounds better when she does it?”

Boggs said, “I think it’s the internal rhymes. It’s known as ‘assonance.’”

“You’re an assonance.”

“Careful.”

They quickly met up with the 32nd, transported further down the hallway. An officer made his way toward Wilcox. She read the name on his chest: Meyers, and saluted him. He looked to be about 18, although she could not tell for sure.

He said, “Top floor’s deserted, Sergeant. Stairs are over there. What do you say we see how well guarded they are?”

“You heard the man! Boggs! Jamieson! Take five more and secure the stairs!”

“Yes, Sergeant!”

“Yes, Sergeant! XO! We need XO over here!”

A woman ran up with a big “XO” holo floating on her chest. The two pointed at the stairwell, and she slapped sticky bombs on the door, activated neural switches, then she retreated several meters.

“Fire!”

KABLOOM!

A gaping hole stood where the door to the stairwell had been. Jamieson and Boggs charged in, guns ready, and fanned out. The stairwell was deserted.

The contingent went down to the ground floor, and the XO Marine repeated her procedure on the door to the main hallway. This time, everyone retreated up a flight of stairs before she set off the explosives.

When this door blew open, it was met by blaster fire. Three bots outside shot blindly through the smoke.

“Fall back!”

Marines scrambled up the other flight of stairs back to the second floor as the League guard bots streamed into the stairwell and started climbing up.

Boggs stood on the top step, shooting down into them. The first one he hit in the head collapsed. The next two were newer models, though, with rectangular tops. They returned fire at him.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah!

A bolt grazed his shoulder, bouncing off the armor, before Jamieson pulled him back out of the way. They ran through the doorway back to the second floor corridor with the rest of the platoon.

Jamieson yelled, “Bogies coming through!”

Marines took cover if they could find it, surrounding the blown doorway in a semicircle. The bots advanced from the top of the stairs through the door, firing and taking fire. Nothing seemed to stop them. A hail of bolts sailed past them and into them.

Wilcox yelled, “Grenades! Light them sonsabitches up!”

In response, a dozen egg grenades flew through the air at the bots.

KABABABLUMPF!

When the smoke cleared, the bots were disabled, although one still appeared to be operable. Its blaster was destroyed and its legs were blown off, but its torso slowly swiveled, looking at all of them.

Wilcox stood over it and shot it repeatedly in the head.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

“Come on you filthy pile of bolts! Die!”

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

At last the lights behind its eyes flickered and dimmed, and it stopped moving.

Solar Storm 5

The internal alarm went off for Biff and he stirred, pulling back the sheets.

Julia grabbed his arm and murmured sleepily, “You’re staying home today, babe.”

“Can’t. Got to get to work.”

“No, seriously. You’re staying home. Call in sick or do whatever you have to do, but you’re not leaving the apartment today.”

He climbed out of bed and looked down at her, now fully awake. She sat up too and stared back.

“Does this have anything to do with your father?”

Privately, Julia felt grateful he phrased the question carefully. It had taken a considerable amount of cajoling to convince him to speak in vague terms rather than discuss things openly. Biff felt most comfortable speaking his mind in the privacy of his own home and Julia had to break him of the habit, especially on topics concerning her.

She said, “Yes.”

“So . . . something is going to happen today . . . and I can’t go to work?”

“Yes.”

He sighed, running his fingers through his hair.

He said, “This is not something I’m going to talk you out of, is it?”

“No.”

She smiled coyly at him and said, “But if you come back to bed, I’ll make it worth your while.”

-+-

At 9:08 am local time, Admiral Cooper popped into his office from the mountain chalet he used as living quarters. He was late, having started the day late. Ordinarily, he showed up for work at 08:00, but he had been in a conference call with his Captains late last night and had slept in, which was highly unusual for him. Not one of the servants had deigned to wake him. They were far too intimidated to do so.

So he slept in, ignoring his internal alarm. Then he faced a series of issues at the chalet after breakfast.

The detail guarding his mountaintop retreat consisted of Navy personnel now, after the SSI proved incompetent against terrorists. However, terrorists were either afraid of the Naval presence or biding their time. There had not been so much as a peep from Resistance fighters ever since the mortar attack.

Military grade sensors blanketed the area now, and everyone could see all the wildlife moving through the area, down to the size of bees. But, no people ever showed up to threaten the Admiral.

Consequently, the guard detail grew increasingly bored. He spent some time with a Lieutenant who was nominally in charge, although the chain of command extended much higher.

The Lieutenant assured him the guard detail was up to the job. Cooper was not so sure. Surprising them one day last week, he discovered the five men on duty immersed in online games rather than paying attention to the holoscreens connected to the monitors.

He spent some time thinking about replacing the humans with security bots. Supposedly, that was how Tetrarch Thrall handled security at his private compound. And security bots never grew bored, and never played games online or otherwise.

Then, before he was ready to leave, Captain Briggs informed him the solar torpedoes finally arrived. He spent time discussing their placement with StarCen and other captains. At long last, with everything squared away, he dressed for work and had StarCen port him to his office at the Administration Building.

One thing about being at the top meant that you were never late, he thought. Things start when I get there.

He sat down at his desk when an alarm sounded and StarCen’s high-pitched voice came from the ceiling.

“Enemy ships sighted. Battle is imminent.”

“Show me something on the holo, StarCen!”

Over the next several seconds, he watched the conflict unfold from different viewpoints flashing by.

When it was over he said, “What happened? StarCen, where are my ships?”

“Admiral, I have evacuated what few ships we have left. An additional Naval presence is futile. I am going to deploy the Tetrarch’s initiative at this time.”

Cooper watched, open-mouthed, as the Tilson popped in beside one of the orbiting squadrons and blew up, chunks of solar energy popping in all around her and the other ships. He covered his face from the flash.

Cooper blew out his breath in amazement. An entire squadron gone in the blink of an eye!

He said, “Did we get them . . . did we get them all?”

“It appears their Condor and one Eagle escaped. The others in that squadron are destroyed.”

“That’s great! Let’s blow up the rest of their fleet. What are you waiting for?”

“We had only the one surprise, Admiral. And we have no more solar torpedoes. I am afraid that is all the damage I can do, for now.”

“So . . . so what’s that mean? You don’t have anything in the sky that can take them out?”

“That is correct, Admiral. The nearest additional Naval assets are two weeks out, and even with them I am uncertain I can take on the remaining Condors.”

“What about solar torpedoes? Can’t we get any more?”

“At this time, more are being produced but we do not have any in the area to use. I am sorry, Admiral Cooper. I have no assets to send you. I must preserve what ships are left.”

The blood drained from Cooper’s face.

StarCen said, “I have an incoming message to you from Admiral Frederick Severs of the Planetary Republic, Fleet Diego. He suggests you surrender the planet immediately or suffer annihilation.”

Cooper jumped up, sending his chair crashing down behind him.

“You tell him NO! We will fight to the last tooth and nail—”

A chunk of Juventas’s sun materialized in the middle of the Administration Building.

For surface targets, Republican weapons experts decided much smaller chunks of the sun were needed. Tests had shown that just a relatively small piece of the solar core was sufficient to take out a large building.

The reasoning was, if anything was left standing another piece could quickly be ported down. If an entire town needed leveling, it might take longer than a second, the experts concluded. But for one building, in a surgical strike, one small chunk of sun should do the trick.

Or so they thought. There had not been a lot of time to experiment.

The solar energy from the star’s core expanded rapidly, becoming, in effect, a gigantic bomb. The entire Administration Building was obliterated instantly, and other buildings within a four block radius were flattened from the blast.

Several blocks away, Biffender Jones stood over the stove in their tiny flat, dressed in underwear and cooking pancakes. The windows blew out and the entire apartment shook in the blast wave.

He stood up, crawling off the floor and stared at the mess in the living room. Glass and furniture lay jumbled everywhere.

Julia walked out of the bedroom and they locked eyes.

He said, “Is this what I was supposed to stay home for?”

“I think so.”

Solar Storm 4

The Diego Fleet popped into existence one half AU from Juventas. At that point, considerable power from both AIs was diverted to the battle, and processing delays were noticed throughout the colonized portions of the galaxy in both systems. Time for the AIs seemed to slow as decisions were made within milliseconds.

Thanks to recent incursions by the Ultima Mule, StarCen was prepared for invasion with a network of sensors in the outer solar system. She had a two second heads-up before the Diego Fleet stopped porting, giving her ample time to prepare. Thus, the Republicans came in without the element of surprise.

PLAIR arranged the squadrons equidistant from Juventas, with the three Condors forming a sort of distant triangle around the planet. At the moment the fleet stopped, the Condors ported 15 chunks of sun into what remained of Cooper’s Sixth Fleet in orbit.

But StarCen ported all 30 ships away immediately, and the solar energy exploded harmlessly in the skies above Juventas.

The ships reappeared a second later, in position around the six squadrons, attempting to engage in a more traditional battle. Fireballs from the Condors disrupted this move, relentlessly appearing wherever the League ships showed up.

StarCen, having previously considered the problem of solar weaponization, moved her ships into a defensive algorithm. They ported in a seemingly random manner, staying within one half AU of Juventas, but not leaving. On occasion, one would show up behind a Republican ship and release a volley from her guns before porting away again to some random spot in space. StarCen calculated this measure would disrupt the Diego Fleet and frustrate military efforts against Juventas.

PLAIR examined the technique and broke the problem down into manageable components. She now had 90 ships in the Juventas system, six squadrons of 15 ships each, giving her plenty of sensors in the area. She quickly devised a grid system of all the space within one half AU around the planet, and observed the enemy ships as they ported.

At that point, she detected StarCen’s mistake. The ships followed a pattern. In the following second, 15 fireballs appeared where PLAIR predicted a ship would materialize. She correctly guessed nine locations. Nine League ships evaporated.

StarCen immediately realized her error and changed the distribution pattern to a completely random one. Two more ships were lost, purely by luck. However, the odds became increasingly slim that PLAIR would correctly guess which sections of the giant grid the remaining 19 ships would appear at any given second.

PLAIR shifted tactics, porting in sun near her squadrons. These were not close enough to damage her own ships, but in places that would eviscerate any enemy showing up to try and engage. This resulted in one more League ship taken out in the second before StarCen could adjust.

At this point, StarCen was finally able to use one of her solar torpedoes. Having arrived about an hour earlier, she had distributed them among the three Eagle-class ships left in the Sixth Fleet. Unfortunately, one of the Eagles had already been lost, which meant StarCen now had only two torpedoes left.

From the Extol’s hold, she teleported its torpedo next to the Patrick Henry. In all the processing power PLAIR engaged in, the addition of a foreign object appearing next to one of her Condors did not attract her attention quickly enough. With a few milliseconds to spare, she realized the threat, but at that point it was too late.

The torpedo teleported five chunks of solar energy to its location, and the Patrick Henry exploded, along with two support ships nearby.

In the next second, StarCen ported her last remaining torpedo next to the Marion Francis. But this time, PLAIR knew what to do, and the Swamp Fox and her supply ships disappeared milliseconds before the torpedo exploded.

At this point, PLAIR decided that if StarCen would use a random pattern for the porting of her remaining ships, PLAIR would use a random pattern of sunbursts. The 15 fireballs appeared in the grid randomly, and over the next three seconds successfully damaged one ship and destroyed another, bringing the Sixth Fleet down to 16 vessels.

StarCen decided she had enough, with almost half her forces gone. She evacuated the remainder of the Sixth Fleet’s ships, sending them out of the solar system. The entire battle from start to finish lasted 17 seconds.

The cheers going up in the Diego Fleet were tempered by the realization that the Patrick Henry and two Sparrows were lost. Even though the numbers were disparate in comparison to the League’s, it was unlike the overwhelming victory at Seychar and Gotha Mu.

Worse for morale, Severs thought, the Condors could no longer be seen as invulnerable. A solar weapon was just as devastating on them as it was with any other ship unfortunate to share space with part of a sun.

“Move us into orbit around Juventas, PLAIR,” he said.

The Diego Fleet popped into position, her remaining ships taking the place of the recently evacuated Sixth Fleet.

But the battle was not quite over, as far as StarCen was concerned. From an isolated spot in the solar system, she moved one last ship into orbit along with the Diego Fleet. This one had tagged along with the Sagittarius and had been left in its location earlier.

The Republican ships were clustered in orbit by squadron. StarCen chose a squadron containing one of the remaining Condors, the Marion Francis. It floated near three Eagles, six Hawks, four Sparrows, and one troop transport, the Gerald Ford.

Had this been a final solar torpedo, the Diego Fleet would have escaped serious harm. But what appeared in orbit near the other ships was a Sparrow-class with Republican markings. In fact the ship, the Tilson, had been captured earlier in the war.

The sudden reappearance of the Tilson caused PLAIR to pause as she processed the information. But the same technology used in the solar torpedoes lay hidden inside Tilson, and five sunbursts ported in to her new location.

In the milliseconds after, PLAIR tried to port the squadron away. She successfully pulled the Swamp Rat out, and one Eagle escaped with major damages. But the other ships were suddenly obliterated.

Severs watched the flash of yellow over the planet’s horizon on the Paine’s main holoscreen.

“PLAIR, what just happened?”

“A decoy ship appeared in orbit, Admiral. It was another solar torpedo. It took out thirteen of our ships.”

Thirteen?” Severs said. “Was that Strand’s squadron?”

“Yes, Admiral. The Marion Francis has suffered minor damage. It was farthest from the blast and I managed to port it away in time. I also saved the Liberty, although it has significant damage and some loss of life.”

Severs felt stunned. He said, “How did this happen?”

“The Tilson was captured intact by the League in a minor engagement two years ago. It was parked in space nearby, but I did not have time to identify it when we engaged. When it appeared in orbit, its onboard system initiated a reconnect sequence with me. This cost critical milliseconds as I considered the implications.”

Her tone sounded dispassionate. Had PLAIR been human, Severs thought, surely she would have been as devastated emotionally as he felt. But she recounted the events in a matter-of-fact tone with no inflection whatsoever. And no self-recrimination for her mistakes, either.

He took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly to try and slow his pounding heart.

He said, “Don’t that let that happen again, PLAIR.”

Solar Storm 3

“Awright you filthy disgusting maggots! We are arriving at the lovely and delightful body of excrement known to the League as Juventas starting at oh six hundred in the morning, Standard Diego Time.

“I want every one of you sniveling no good crybabies to be ready to port down and kick some ass! The flyboys are going to soften them up down there after they eliminate the sonsabitches in orbit. But as always it’s the duty of the God-fearin’, Republic-lovin’ Marine Corps to clean up their messes on the planet’s surface.

“Now get a good night sleep, you lazy insufferable good for nothin’ babies! You all been fartin’ around this month playin’ your games and kissy kissin’ and loafin’ around. Tomorrow we go to work! Is that understood?”

One hundred young men and women shouted back at the top of their lungs, “YES, SERGEANT!”

Sergeant Gina Wilcox nodded at her platoon and slowly stuck a stubby unlit cigar in her mouth, scowling at them a final time. She was a big woman, taller than many men, and incredibly fit. She shaved her light brown hair short, like a man, although she gave no indication of being a lesbian. Her Marines were somewhat afraid of her, and no one had the guts to ask about her sexual orientation, or anything else of a personal nature.

They stood in the platoon’s common area, which was large enough to hold all of them at the same time, although just barely. From there, doorways led to bunks and showers. There was little room for privacy in the PRS Ronald Reagan, one of six troop transports in the Diego Fleet.

The door to the common room swished open and Tine Gruman, one of her Staff Sergeants, shouted, “Officer on deck!”

Everyone snapped to attention even more so than they had been while their First Sergeant was yelling at them.

Wilcox turned and saluted smartly at Lt. Colonel Wendell Peng.

Peng’s eyes drifted down to the unlit stogie in the Sergeant’s mouth.

“Is that tobacco, Sergeant?”

His tone of voice held a note of incredulity.

“No, sir,” Wilcox said, removing it from her mouth. “This is a leaf similar to tobacco from the planet Pearl. And I’m not smoking it, sir.”

The Colonel nodded, but his frown indicated disapproval. He said, “I just wanted to check in on all our platoons and see how ready we are for tomorrow.”

“The 31st Platoon is as ready as we’ll ever be, sir!”

Behind her, 100 men and woman yelled, “OORAH!”

“Very good, very good. Alright, we’ll be ready to port down once the Navy does their thing.”

Peng turned back to the door.

On his way out he looked over his shoulder and said, “And get rid of that cigar, Sergeant.”

“Yes, sir!”

The door swished shut and everyone held their collective breaths. Wilcox turned around and placed the cigar back in her mouth.

“You heard the man. Get a good night’s sleep and be ready to go in the morning. Platoon dismissed.”

The tension eased and everyone moved at once, some heading for bunks, others for showers.

Gruman ambled over to Wilcox and said with a smile, “I don’t think they grow a tobacco substitute on Pearl, First Sergeant.”

Wilcox grunted. Gruman was an amiable fellow with blue eyes. She might have found him attractive if he were not ten centimeters shorter than she was.

She said, “He’s too busy with the war to look it up. I can always tell him they’re working on it. I think I read somewhere they actually are working on it. And this really is from Pearl.”

“Where’d you pick up that habit, anyway?”

She smiled, the cigar tilting up in her mouth.

“From my mother. She’s a pirate on Lute, you know.”

Gruman’s eyes widened in surprise. He had not known. But, the legend of Sergeant Wilcox would certainly grow now that he did.

-+-

Admiral Severs stepped onto the bridge of the Thomas Paine and went through the associated rituals involving high ranking officers. The tall, black man had turned 44 recently, and he knew he was young to make Fleet Admiral. But this was war, and he had met with considerable success thanks to the Thomas Paine. The Chancellor herself had promoted him.

He had chosen to make the Paine his flagship, even though it was no longer the newest ship in the fleet. That honor belonged to one of the other Condors, the Patrick Henry or the Marion Francis, although Severs did not know which one was newer. They both came off the line about the same time.

It was certainly true that Republican Shipworks engineers put in all the things they learned from the Paine’s maiden voyage into the newer ships. The power cores in the Condors were greatly expanded, and updated algorithms were integrated to mitigate overuse when repeatedly teleporting pieces of the nearest star into battle.

The Paine herself had been completely overhauled when they replaced her power core, although admittedly that had been a rush job. But the boys and girls of Republican Shipworks had been rushing things for the duration of the war, he thought.

Now the tide was finally changing in the Republic’s favor. If they could wrest a capital planet from the League, things would surely be looking up.

From the bridge of the Paine he would make an announcement to the commanding officers of all the ships in the fleet, and cover the battle plans a final time.

He nodded at Shelly Spencer, the ship’s new Captain. She was a short woman, of mixed ancestry, and rather attractive. Like her predecessor, Emmet Strand, she had a reputation for effectiveness in combat with nine confirmed League ships taken out.

Strand had been promoted to Commodore. Severs let him pick his own ship to lead his squadron. Strand chose the Marion Francis, nicknamed “Swamp Rat” by her crew. Severs smiled at that, thinking Strand had to have chosen her for the nickname, if nothing else.

The fleet stopped porting one AU per second, and floated near one another at an isolated point in space. PLAIR had them in perfect formation. They were precisely ten hours from Juventas.

The main holoscreen in front of the bridge lit up with the faces of the Captains, as well as the six Commodores, including Strand. All told, Admiral Severs spoke directly to 96 officers, although everyone on their respective bridges would no doubt also be listening in on the conversation as well.

Severs looked at the many faces staring back at him on the holoscreen.

He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Captains and Commodores of the Diego Fleet, welcome. This is to be our final briefing before the attack on Juventas in the morning.”

Solar Storm 2

Julia sat up and found herself in the flat she shared with Biff under her Catrina Mulligan identity, the same one she shared with him while pretending to be Andi Jones.

She glanced at her internal clock and noted the time. She would have to leave now to make her next meeting, in the real world, on time.

She picked up a backpack by the door. It was lead-lined, and thus scanner-proof, although that alone would ordinarily alert anyone looking out for such things. Regardless, she did not want the blaster in it and the six egg grenades to cause undue alarm. It also had a visor to hide her face, a pair of gloves, two neural detonators, and some thin carbon string useful for tying up people or things.

Slipping the pack over her shoulders, she went out the door and down the stairs to the basement. The same monitor was there as when she made her escape after killing Tetrarch Lopez, and it was still broken.

She set out underground, walking a fair distance through the storm sewers. She passed four more monitors, all broken.

Julia heard the maintenance bots before she saw them, clanking down the concrete tunnel up ahead. She stopped and stood against the wall, activating her electronic camouflage unit. The wall appeared to continue where she was standing. She remained still while the two maintenance bots passed her. They never noticed her.

Once they were safely in the distance, she switched the unit off and “reappeared” next to the wall. She continued on her way.

At last she reached her destination. A small set of stairs led up to a sealed doorway. This, she knew, led to a network of maintenance shafts and tunnels for the large building overhead.

Inside, in the space of a closet with three passageways branching off on the other walls, stood one of the leaders of the Juventas Resistance, the one known as Elephant.

The old black man was still wiry for his age. He had the look of calm wisdom, never fazed by whatever events swirled around him.

She had no idea how far he had traveled to get here. No doubt it was some circuitous route to try and avoid detection. But face-to-face interaction was the safest for these types of communications.

“Hello, Angel.”

“Elephant.”

They did not know each other’s real names, and that suited them both just fine. The less they knew, they less they could reveal if captured.

Julia said, “I met with a contact in the Republic. He informed me the Diego Fleet is attacking tomorrow.”

Elephant raised an eyebrow. “Mind if I ask how you made contact? Or is that too sensitive to share?”

“I think it’s okay if you know. It’s difficult to crack if SSI finds out. In Off World there’s a game called New York 1985.”

He nodded. “I’ve heard of it.”

“You can’t interact with players in the Republic anymore, since the start of the war. But they have the same games, for the most part.”

“Right. They will play the same games but in different server instances. It prevents communication.”

“Before the war, some programmers hacked into the underlying substructure of the architecture in New York 1985. If you know where it is, you can access a comlink to someone in the same location on another instance. We meet there on a regular basis to exchange information.”

“And this is a secure method of communication?”

“Probably. My contact keeps things very vague just in case there’s a scanner listening for keywords. Anyway, from what he says the Republicans will attack the Sixth Fleet here at Juventas tomorrow.”

“It’s not surprising they would come for the rest of Admiral Cooper’s ships. He loaned Kwan half of them for the attack on Seychar. Cooper’s numbers have not been replenished. I’m not sure StarCen has enough ships anymore to bring him back up to strength.”

Julia said, “That’s not all. My contact also indicates there are plans for a ground assault. He specifically mentioned I should stay away from military sites and the Administration Building and the spaceport.”

“Would they use their secret weapon on civilian targets?”

“I don’t know. I would imagine military installation might get hit with it. Would they take out the Administration Building? If it meant getting rid of Cooper and disrupting the chain of command for the planet, maybe. But I think they’re more likely to take the spaceport and Administration Building by an invasion force. That makes much more sense. Boots on the ground.”

“Boots on the ground,” Elephant said, thoughtfully. “You’re probably right. It’s going to be tough, though, to convince StarCen to relinquish an entire planet, especially a capital. Imagine this . . . A host of space marines grab control of the Administration Building and take Cooper hostage. That’s presuming he doesn’t get to the underground bunker we know about, with its control room.”

Julia winced at the memories. She had personally taken out Tetrarch Lopez in that bunker.

Elephant continued. “Do you honestly think StarCen would give up the planet? She’s got cores here, and other assets. I don’t think she’d willingly surrender anything.

“Now imagine this scenario: PLAIR wipes out the Administration Building, taking out Cooper and everyone else in government there, in one fell blow. Now there’s no one to command, at least at the top. If they strike the military targets, disable her nodes . . . she might not have much choice in the matter as to whether she can include Juventas as one of her own or not.”

They both considered his statements, remaining silent for a moment, thinking.

Finally, he said, “No. If I were a betting man, I’d say your contact’s warning about the Administration Building indicates they are going to wipe it off the face of the planet. I’ll quietly spread word to our assets near there that they should stay home tomorrow.”

They spoke a while longer, sharing information. Finally, Julia turned to go.

Elephant said, “Be careful out there. Things are about to get interesting.”

She flashed a smile and said, “Things are always interesting on Juventas.”

“Yeah, but . . . now we’re coming under a new form of government, presuming your person is right and the Republic takes over tomorrow. I think maybe the roles will be switched. SSI will not submit to the Republic no matter what. If the Diego Fleet successfully takes this planet, SSI will become a thorn in their side. It might be up to us to act as . . . counter terrorists, of a sort.”

“One thing at a time, Elephant,” she said, patting him on the arm. “First, let’s see if the Republic can take out that fleet orbiting overhead as easily as they did at Seychar and Gotha Mu.”

Solar Storm 1

Julia quickly stepped back onto the sidewalk as a taxi raced toward her. The driver slammed on the brakes and yelled curses at her from his open window.

Most of his words were unprintable, but Julia caught “No jaywalking!” and decided that was the gist of his sentiment.

She sighed and followed the crowd on the sidewalk as they filed into Times Square. Scantily dressed prostitutes solicited customers, rubbing up against men as they ogled them. Drug dealers stuck out too, in other ways. They typically stood in one location, wearing overcoats and casting shady glances at everyone.

Here in New York 1985, tourists could revisit the city during that time period. It seemed very realistic. Privately, though, she wondered if things were really this bad back then.

She knew a little of the history. A man named Rudy Giuliani was elected Mayor in the early 1990s, and cleaned the city up. He lowered regulations, increased law enforcement, decreased crime, and generally made the city a much better place for a while. He earned the nickname “America’s Mayor” for his huge success in managing the metropolis.

The online simulation, part of the mega game Off World, showed the city before Giuliani took over. New York 1985 had constant crime, rampant drugs, open prostitution, daily muggings, and the lowest forms of human depravity on display in filthy grimy streets with thick, choking pollution. Trash blew in the wind, fumes filled the air, and the unwashed masses milled about in it all, hurting and killing one another.

Surely it wasn’t this bad, Julia thought.

Visitors could engage with the prostitutes, of course. They could also buy illegal drugs. Julia had not tried them, but she knew players could choose from cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, and a host of other substances. She also knew the effects, while purely in the player’s head, had the same negative consequences as the real life versions, unlike modern versions.

Supposedly, the simulated old-style drugs were allowed by the League here so that players could experience those negative consequences. The thinking was, if people experimented with ill social behavior in a virtual environment, and suffer, it would help convince them to behave in real life. Rumor had it the negative effects were exaggerated.

Privately, Julia wondered about that as well. Modern drugs could be tailored to a user’s body so that side effects were minimal. Few people partook in basic drugs these days. At least, as far as she knew. She had to admit she was not much of an expert in drug use, illicit or otherwise.

She watched as a tourist sucked on a crack pipe, getting high. He stumbled away from the dealer, clearly enjoying the effects of the drug.

A street bum approached him from behind, drew a switchblade and knifed him in the back. He took the tourist’s wallet before the body blinked out of sight, the player forcibly exiting the game.

One thing was for certain, Julia thought. New York 1985 was a wretched place. It reeked, and the NPCs were horrible. The subtle message in the game was that the Republic was a lot like this caricature of a society presented to players . . .

That, Julia thought, was certainly a lie, if not a misrepresentation of the facts.

The League was not perfect either. She wondered if the Republic had a version of society that modeled the League. Maybe it would be called something like Moscow 1949? East Berlin 1972?

She looked around at the tourists, the people who were obviously not NPCs. A handful of college boys were hooking up with streetwalkers while some girls were buying drugs out in the open. The NYPD cops, what few were present as NPCs, looked on with bored expressions but did nothing to put a stop to the lawlessness.

Besides the bacchanalian activities, sightseers enjoyed the scenery. It was supposed to be a faithful recreation of the way the city looked in 1985. The Twin Towers were popular, as were the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Statue of Liberty. You could even watch a baseball game. The Yankees and the Red Sox played every night, and the Yankees always won.

But Julia was not here for the hookers, the drugs, or the sights. She kept walking, heading for the subway station.

Supposedly, she had read somewhere, the subway system underwent extensive changes in 1988. This version of New York, true to its name, did not have those changes.

It mattered little to Julia, and it probably mattered to few other than history buffs who no doubt obsessed over the accuracy of minutia in the simulation.

The place Julia wanted to go, she thought as she descended the steps, was not in existence in 1985 anyway.

On the busy platform as a subway car pulled in and unloaded passengers, she tried the handle of a service entrance against the back wall. As expected, it was unlocked. She quickly went inside and locked it behind her, in case anyone saw her and tried to follow.

She breathed a sigh of relief. The hard part was over.

The changes made to StarCen should, in theory, ignore Julia, even in her current identity as Catarina Mulligan while in Off World.

However, Julia was not one who enjoyed taking chances. The location within this virtual reality should be safe, even if StarCen was monitoring her with malicious intent.

She walked down a hallway and found a long stretch of featureless gray walls. She slapped the wall on the left with the palm of her hand.

When nothing happened she took another step and slapped it again. On her fifth try, the wall faded and she stepped into another corridor that branched off where the wall had been. This one showed the bare building blocks of the virtual world, orange columns and straight lines extending outward in a large featureless gray space. She was now in the “skeleton” of the Times Square-42nd Street Subway Station and Port Authority Bus Terminal complex.

Several meters in she spied a fountain, sitting incongruously within the digital substructure.

She smiled, approaching it.

“Cute. I get it. ‘Font of Knowledge.’ Who says programmers don’t have a sense of humor?”

A man’s voice came from the fountain. It sounded slightly artificial, as if digitized and transmitted over a long distance. Julia decided it had to be some kind of text reader, and not a real person’s voice.

“We have important news for events coming soon to your planet.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’m all ears.”

“There will be a change soon. Tomorrow would not be a good day to be in the Administration Building, the Spaceport, or other major installations. All ports and military sites are best to avoid as well.”

“I see. What about major population centers? Will they be susceptible to change?”

“Not if it can be helped. However, residences of certain people, those living in the mountains, for instance, may find themselves under new management.”

Julia frowned, trying to work though the vague statements. She thought she understood.

She said, “The whole planet will see a change in management.”

“That is the plan,” the fountain said. “Yes.”

“And the Sixth Fleet in orbit? Or, what’s left of the Sixth Fleet?”

“They will be ameliorated.”

“Hm. That’s an interesting way of putting it. Okay. Anything else?”

“No. Just stay away from the buildings tomorrow. After the change in management, we would be very interested in meeting you.”

Julia smiled at this, her lips curling up.

She said, “We’ll see.”

She turned and walked away, then logged out of the game.

[Author’s Note: Welcome to Book 5! Just a heads up, I am nearing a decision point on whether or not put the series into Kindle Unlimited, which pays authors by pages read. We’ll see how this month goes in terms of sales in wide distribution and on Patreon.]