Digital Assassin 40


LuteNet’s feminine voice sounded in the air above them, and a holographic circle appeared horizontally near the elevator door, a meter in diameter.

“Terrestrial teleportation incoming. Please stand clear.”

“Lootie’s back!” Kim said.

Raleigh popped into the middle of the circle. He rushed over to the others, but his eyes remained on Jillian.

“Are you alright?”

She nodded. Her heart soared at his obvious concern.

Finally he noticed the others. He said, “Anybody hurt?”

Pak said, “Roddy’s indent shot him in the foot.”

“Alright. You need to get to the medical ward, Roddy. But before you do, Lootie’s going to try something. Explain to them what you told me, Lootie.”

“Will do, Captain. Raquel Kirkland’s records were modified about three years ago.” 

Jillian said, “That’s around the time I had my false identity created.” 

LuteNet said, “That is correct, Jillian Thrall. I have not yet been able to determine if the same parties are responsible. I have been able to ascertain after her records were altered, StarCen’s subroutine for indentured servants lost track of her.”

“Sometime in there,” Raleigh said, joining in, “it seems pretty obvious she was taken to Raton Five and used in the Gemini Project.” 

Skylar nodded. She had come to the same conclusion. 

Jillian said, “Then what happened?” 

LuteNet said, “I am unable to ascertain exactly what occurred after that, Jillian Thrall. Ms. Kirkland has evidently been evading StarCen somehow throughout the war. However, when she killed Captain Hernandez she said StarCen sent her regards. So, it remains a mystery. 

“Nonetheless, I have now placed her back under the proper subroutine for indentured servants. I have control of her biocollar and am providing appropriate hormonal and psychotropic measures.”

This impressed everybody, except Raleigh who knew about it already. 

Skylar said, “So, when she wakes up . . . what happens?”

“When she wakes up, she will be properly bonded to Mr. Diego-Rodriguez.” 

Raleigh smiled and said, “You finally get your girlfriend, Roddy.” 

Roddy’s ears grew red. He said, “But . . . the subroutine wasn’t working before? What happened to her all that time? Where has she been and what has she been doing?”

LuteNet said, “You will have to ask her, Mr. Diego-Rodriguez. She is waking up now.” 

Everybody looked down at the silver-clad woman on the floor. Skylar casually aimed her blaster at Raquel before remembering how hard it was to properly shoot her. Shrugging, she holstered the weapon. But she kept her hands ready for action as the indent stood up. Skylar, at least, could still land a punch on her.

Raquel ignored everyone else and looked straight at Roddy. 

“Hello, Master.” 

“Don’t call me that.” 

“Very well. What would you have me call you?”

“Roddy.”

“Hello, Roddy. How may I serve you?”

The redness in Roddy’s ears spread to his face. Pak and Kim both smirked. He deliberately ignored them along with everyone else.

He said, “Show me the time left on your collar.” 

Raquel touched her biocollar and holographic numbers appeared in front of her face. They read, “5 years, 3 months, 22 days, 18 hours, 9 minutes, 47 seconds.” 

They all watched the seconds tick down. 

“Put it away.” 

Raquel made a motion and the numbers disappeared. 

“Show it again.” 

She put her hand back on the collar and the numbers reappeared. They read, “5 years, 3 months, 22 days, 18 hours, 9 minutes, 47 seconds.”

Roddy said, “Why does it do that, Lootie? The numbers start over again every time she shows them.”

“I do not know for certain, Mr. Diego-Rodriguez.”

“Hazard a guess.” 

“I would speculate it had something to do with the experiment performed on her that imparted her capabilities. We might be looking at the exact moment her collar indicated she had left when the experiment in question was performed.” 

“Is that true, Raquel? Is this the amount of time you had left on your service when . . . whatever happened to you occurred and you gained your . . . powers?”

“I think so, Roddy. I’m not sure. My memories of those events are fuzzy.”

Roddy sighed in exasperation. He looked up at the ceiling and said, “LuteNet, does this thing still work on her?”

He held up the portable trap, about the size and shape of a deck of cards.

“Yes, Mr. Diego-Rodriguez. Her digital abilities remain unchanged. The trap designed by Mr. Pak and Mr. Kim is still functionally capable of absorbing and holding her.”

He turned back to Raquel. 

He said, “I want you to digitize yourself and go in here.” 

She nodded without hesitation and began pixilating. He pressed the button on top and the front edge of the rectangular unit glowed bright crimson. The pixels streamed inside, sucked in like a vacuum. He released the button, and the edge pulsed in soft red light. 

Kim said, “It’ll flash like that to indicate she’s inside.”

Roddy nodded, and put the unit in his pocket. He turned to walk to the elevator and almost fell when he put weight on his injured foot. He gasped in pain. 

Kim and Pak rushed to either side and lifted him up, throwing his arms around their shoulders. Together they headed for the elevator. 

Pak said, “How’s it feel to literally have a girlfriend in your pocket?”

Roddy said, “Shut up,” gritting his teeth in pain. “Just get me to sickbay. Level 88.” 

When the door to the elevator closed and they were gone, Jillian looked at Skylar. She said, “I’ve heard very few people survived the Gemini experiments.”

Skylar nodded.

“How did you escape?”

“My brother and I didn’t know why Gemini shut down all of a sudden. But things just sort of fell apart. Several ships left Raton Five all at once, in an evacuation of personnel. They were going to leave everybody else there. My brother and I boarded one of the ships. We weren’t authorized, but we managed to get onboard, you know, with our teleportation thing. Then nobody could catch us once we were there. After a couple days the crew gave up. The ship headed to Italia, and over time we eventually made it here.”

She paused for a moment, and wiped a tear away as she thought about Samuel. 

Then she shrugged and said, “I don’t know what happened to the others. As far as I know, there weren’t any on the ship we took. Some may have left on different ships, I’m not sure. I heard there was a catastrophic explosion at the research facility later. It wiped everything out.”

“Do you remember any indents being there? Or at least, people dressed like indents?”

Skylar’s eyebrows rose. They were white, just like her hair. 

She said, “I do remember a handful of people in silver outfits and collars. I didn’t pay much attention to them at the time. We were . . . distracted. The experiments were very painful.” 

Raleigh sighed and the women looked at him. 

He said, “Well, for the moment that is one problem solved. Now for some new ones. We’re meeting with Lee Po later today to decide about heading back out. Something came up and he asked to meet with us and discuss joining forces with the Slender Sylph Company to handle it.” 

Jillian looked confused. She said, “Wasn’t Li Po a great Chinese poet?”

“Yes. But in this case, it’s a play on names. He spells it L-E-E. I’m sure it’s not his real name, either. 

“I’ll be calling a meeting tonight after the officers and I meet with him. You should be there. If we decide to join him, this would be your first voyage as a bona fide pirate.”

Jillian’s heart soared. At last she would get some decent alone time with Chris!

She smiled at Skylar, grinning ear to ear.

Skylar said, “Don’t get too excited. We’ll probably have to bunk with Granny. And she snores. Loudly.”

Digital Assassin 39


Pak made a motion with his hand and his personal holoscreen popped up over the table showing a schematic of the building.

He said, “Kirkland has tripped our sensor. She’s in the basement. Now she’s on the ground floor. Level Two. Level Three. She’s checking out everything. Level Seven. Level Eight. Get ready, guys, she going to be here in a minute!”

Everyone stood up, their food forgotten. Pak and Kim pulled out their pocket radiation absorbers. So did Roddy.

Kim said, “Everybody got a trap? Dang it, I told you guys to keep these things handy!”

The others scattered, leaving the three with handheld traps around the table. Jillian watched them run to the kitchen. She decided to tough it out with the men who had weapons.

Everyone turned to the schematic floating above the table. A tiny light darted around each floor of the hologram model before going up.

Pak said, “Ninety-nine, one hundred . . . What’s she looking for?”

Kim said, “Probably wants to take out the Captain. Good thing he’s not here right now.”

“Oh really?” Jillian said. She could not help but ask, “Where is he?”

“Meeting with the Governor about all those indents. Or, fake indents, whatever.” 

Aha, that would make sense, she thought. She would have to meet this Governor Zhang at some point. Chris remained unsure whether he was willing to have her presence in his company be broadcast back over to the League. He told her they likely already knew about it anyway, since Port Ryan was riddled with spies from both sides. So far, he had been unwilling to present her publicly. That did not bother her so long as she could continue meeting with Chris in private every night . . .

Pak said, “One-nineteen, one-twenty . . . Everybody get ready!” 

A sprinkle of silver pixels came out of the elevator’s palm panel, turning quickly into a cloud that formed into the shape of a woman. 

Raquel appeared in her sliver unitard, carrying a dirty old satchel over her shoulder. 

She smiled at them and said, “Well, hello boys. And bitch. Did you all bring the proverbial knife to a gunfight?” 

She reached into the satchel and pulled out a blaster. 

Pak’s eyes grew wide. He said, “Oh . . . shoot . . .”

Raquel smiled and said, “Gladly!”

Thoop! Thoopah!

Everyone hit the floor and scrambled for cover. The bolts missed, although the shoulder of Pak’s t-shirt got scorched. He quickly slapped out the embers before the cotton caught on fire. 

The klaxon sounded again. An electronic voice said, “Shots fired, Level 121. Shots fired, Level 121.” 

Raquel shot up at the ceiling in irritation, but the lights continued flashing red. The door to the kitchen opened and the waiter bot stepped out. It stopped mid-step, uncertain, and stared at her. Its irises widened.

Thoop!

The bolt hit its middle and threw the bot crashing into the door of the kitchen. It fell over on its back, ruined.

Raquel scanned the mostly empty dining room, ignoring its wide bay windows and the excellent view of Port Ryan’s skyline and the distant ocean. 

She held the gun out and moved closer to the scattered chairs where everyone had been seated. 

“Come out, come out wherever you are!” 

She turned and saw a boot sticking out from behind one of the chairs. 

Thoop!

“Arg!” 

The boot, now scorched, pulled back. 

“Is that you, Rodrigo? It sounded like your scream. You know, I was distracted when I tried to take you out the first time. I won’t be making that mistake again. Wouldn’t want to do an unsatisfactory job for my owner, now would I?”

She moved closer to his chair. 

She said, “Come on. It’s hide and go seek. And I’m it!” 

A flicker of white to her right surprised her. Skylar appeared and pointed a blaster at her. 

She said, “You want to play, bitch? How about picking on somebody armed?”

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

Raquel turned and ducked, but two of the bolts went through her side and leg. Both areas pixilated as the blasts sailed through harmlessly. 

She laughed gently, and stood back up straight. 

“You surprised me! I forgot for a moment that blaster rays can’t hurt me. I bet they can hurt you, though.” 

She raised her gun and fired back at Skylar

Thoop!

Skylar flickered away just in time. 

Raquel turned, holding the gun out. 

She said, “What’s the matter? You scared, little girl?”

Skylar flickered into existence behind her and shoved her in the small of the back. Raquel fell down on her stomach. Skylar jumped on top of her and balled her fist. It flickered quickly as she swung it down at Raquel’s face.

Raquel struggled to get the gun out from under her, but Skylar’s weight on her back prevented that. Skylar struck her again and again and again.

Jillian ran over and grabbed a plate off the table. She handed it to Skylar. The plate flickered quickly, like her fist, and Skylar hit the side of Raquel’s head, breaking it. 

Raquel slumped, knocked out. Skylar stood, turned her over and retrieved the pistol. 

Kim and Pak came out of their hiding places. 

Skylar looked around and said, “Everybody okay?”

Roddy groaned and came to his feet, painfully. He limped forward, dragging the foot that had been shot.

He said, “Nothing a few more days in sickbay won’t take care of.”

Digital Assassin 38


Jillian stepped out of her shower and dried off. She wrapped the towel around herself and sat down in front of a mirror to apply some makeup and brush her hair.

Even with Lootie down, or mostly down, she was still able to order needful things like underwear and makeup, which were sent to the tower by delivery drones. Raleigh made sure she had plenty of uniforms. He said there were several hundred t-shirts and other related items in the building. Just about everything the pirates usually needed was stored here.

Out of the selection he gave her, she chose the smaller sizes. He seemed to like it when she wore form-revealing tops. If at all possible, she wanted to keep his attention focused on her. 

That had proven rather difficult over the past couple days, with all the many chores and tasks he had to handle now that the Mule was back home. Still, he had stopped by her room and shared supper with her two nights in a row. She thought that was promising. 

They still had not kissed, although Jillian had continued tossing off indicators that any pass he wished to make would be more than welcome. Unfortunately, he really was very busy and could only stay for an hour or so to eat before rushing off to handle other pressing matters. 

Today she hoped maybe things would settle down enough and they could finally spend some quality time together. And by quality time, she meant romantic moments. Thus she diligently applied makeup, including lipstick, in the hope that her efforts to steer them to this desired event might at last come to fruition. 

She hung up the towel and put on her clothes, gently pulling on the t-shirt so it didn’t mess up her face. 

She had slept in and missed breakfast. Now it was almost lunchtime. She palmed the door to her little room and it opened up. She stepped out in the hall and headed for the elevator. 

Jillian was on the 51st floor, a part of the skyscraper reserved for crew’s quarters. The Aquamarine’s crew and passengers were housed on lower floors. Chris, as she had come to call Captain Raleigh, had informed her over dinner that ordinarily he liked to keep passengers and crew onboard a captured ship until payment demands were met. However, since the Aquamarine’s main electrical system was shot, he allowed them to travel down to Port Ryan and move into Mule Tower. Teleportation was still on the fritz while LuteNet’s core was being restored, so everybody had been ferried down via transports.

The poor girls who had been forced into serving as indents were evacuated from Aquamarine the same way, she discovered. But they were put up in local Red Cross shelters. That suited Chris just fine. He donated their remaining food supplies on the ship to assist the charities taking care of the women.

The elevator dinged. She walked in and touched the floating hologram of number 121. The doors closed and it headed up to the “mess.” Anywhere else and it would be called a restaurant, she thought. All crewmembers were welcome to eat in the mess at any time. Meals were deducted from their accounts. 

Chris set her up with an account as a new crewmember. It did not have anything in it, yet. He said the balance would be adjusted after the payout from her first voyage. He was not sure when that would happen, though. Part of her very much looked forward to that next voyage, when hopefully he would have plenty of time to devote to her. 

She looked longingly at the number 120 floating beside 121. That entire floor, she knew, was his. Someday soon, she hoped, she would get the opportunity to visit it. Maybe even someday, it could be hers. Or, half of it anyway. How did laws on Lute govern property owned by husbands and wives? She resolved to look that up at the next opportunity. 

The rest of her day would be spent in weapons training, combat training, and other things pirates needed to know. But for right now, she needed to eat.

The door dinged open, and the floating number nearby read “121.” She walked out of the elevator and into the mess. Some people were already there. She recognized Kim, Pak, and Roddy. They were sitting at a large table with a handful of others. 

Everybody waved at her and she walked over. All the men remained very polite to her at mealtimes. Nobody put any moves on her, nor said a word out of line. She presumed this was because everybody knew of the mutual interest she shared with the Captain, and in that she was not far off. People had noticed the time he spent with her on the way back home, how he shepherded her through the onboarding process in joining the company, and the fact he spent suppertime with her every night. 

Nobody would ever say the pirates in the Ultima Mule Company were dumb. They would not be doing anything to get between their Captain and his woman. Even if said woman was not officially his, yet.

She headed for the table. A robot waiter arrived with a tray full of food. Apparently the men had already ordered.

Before she got there, the lights blinked red and a klaxon sounded. 

Wah-WAHHH! Wah-WAHHH! Wah-WAHHH!

A male voice in the air said, “Electronic intruder alert! Electronic intruder alert!”

Digital Assassin 36


An old light strip along a back alley in Port Ryan’s Mendicant District sputtered and fizzled. The alley looked dirty, with piles of trash stacked up along the walls. A gentle breeze blew through, sending scraps of paper flying.

A stream of silver pixels sprayed out of the light strip, like a digital water fountain. The pixels misted and coalesced into an attractive blonde indent, wearing the standard silver unitard and metal biocollar.

Raquel glanced up and down the alley, the first time in three days she had been able to fully coalesce. She chose this area to become visible because it looked deserted.

She glanced down at her right hand, at the pistol the other Intangible woman had dropped. She was surprised at the white-haired girl’s capabilities. Somehow, the jab to her jaw connected, despite Raquel’s pixilation. That might be a problem were they to meet again, Raquel thought. Apparently there were more survivors of the Gemini Project than she realized, and at least one was likely here on this planet somewhere.

She pulled out the top of her unitard and stuffed the pistol down her front. It made an imprint and looked very obvious. She pulled the gun back out again. If only she had a purse or a bag or something. She looked down on the pavement at the trash piled up and spied some old rags. Next to it was a cloth satchel of some sort, and it did not appear too dirty. 

She walked over and bent down to retrieve it. 

“Hey! What’re you doin’?”

A tramp’s face popped out from the garbage. She realized, pulling on the satchel, that it was wrapped around his shoulder. 

He looked unshaven and desperately needed a bath. She could not tell how much of the smell came from him, and how much came from the trash nearby. 

A large medi-bracelet around his wrist appeared when he dragged his hands up out of the garbage piled on him. Unlike the attractive (and expensive) bracelets the wealthy sometimes wore, this one looked purely functional. Probably stolen from a hospital, she reckoned.

Raquel straightened and frowned. She said, “Freaking addict.” 

Thoopah!

A smoldering chunk of neck was all that remained of the tramp’s face.

Raquel reached down and pulled the satchel off the now headless shoulders. Looking inside she found a couple packages of soy wafers. Thankfully, they were still sealed and she didn’t have to worry about food safety. She ripped them open and wolfed them down. 

She emptied the remainder of the satchel’s contents over the corpse, put the blaster inside, then put the strap over her own shoulder. She made her way to the closest end of the alley.

Walking down the street she looked for police monitors. Surprisingly, this city seemed to have very few of them. It was quite different than a typical StarCen planet, she thought, where the police monitored everything. Out here, it seemed, one could almost walk around without fear of surveillance, which seemed odd to someone growing up in the Star League.

She finally found a lone monitor, suspended above a light pole. She loitered in the area, making sure she would be seen. She was curious what would happen. After several minutes of standing around, looking in windows and walking up and down the sidewalk, she gave up. If the police were monitoring, they were evidently not in a hurry to try and apprehend her. It seemed the AI system on this planet might not be paying attention, either. 

She walked a few blocks and made her way into a nicer part of the city. At last she found a restaurant, a small place serving sandwiches and coffee. She went in and headed straight for the restroom. There she pixilated and floated up to the lights in the ceiling. She quickly made her way through the wiring to back of the place, and dropped down to the floor in the kitchen where a robot chef prepared food. 

Its electronic irises widened in surprise. When it spoke, the sound came through the speaker on its face, a horizontal slit below round red eyes. 

“You are not authorized for this area. Please leave immediately.”

She reached up to its head, her hand pixelating, and she shorted it out. The robot clattered to the floor. She walked over to its prep table and snatched up the sandwich it had been making for a customer. 

She had no money, and no means to acquire any in this digital economy. Hiding out with the other indents proved to be an easy way to make it, since they were fed on a regular basis. But out here on her own would necessitate additional thefts like this if she were to survive.

Raquel finished the sandwich and grabbed a second one the chef had prepared. Suddenly craving flesh and blood company (preferably the kind that did not smell like trash or urine), she walked out to the seating area where a handful of people were gathered. 

She sat down at an empty table and ignored the robot waitress, who had not yet noticed her. 

In a corner, a holovision showed the news, with an earnest (but probably artificial) anchorwoman who seemed to stare Raquel in the eyes while she talked. 

“. . . and the victims of what is now known as the ‘Fomalhaut Massacre’ are in good hands at Port Ryan’s Red Cross shelter.”

An image of Raleigh floated in the air over the woman’s shoulder. 

“In other news, Captain Christopher Raleigh of the Ultima Mule indicates that the other guests from their recent acquisition, the Aquamarine, a Mammoth-class luxury liner, are in good spirits at Mule Tower where they will remain confined until negotiations for their release are concluded . . .”

Raquel said to herself, “Mule Tower?”

She thought, those pirates own a building in this city? 

She took a last bite of the sandwich, picked up her satchel and walked back into the kitchen. The serving bot was back there now, bent over the robot chef. 

It looked up when Raquel entered and said, “You are not authorized— GZZZT!

Raquel reached over and shorted it out. The robot clattered down on top of the chef.  Out of sight from both electronic and human eyes, Raquel dissolved, her silver pixels rising up like vapor into the lights on the ceiling.

Digital Assassin 34


“First order of business: new members.”

Raleigh looked around at the council chamber, with men and women seated stadium-style around him. A handful of telepresence holograms were scattered throughout the crowd from people attending elsewhere on the planet.

The entire company consisted of 104 members, although the Mule had room for a maximum of 25 crew. It worked out, though, because not everybody wished to sail on every outing. Plus, some of the crew earned wages planetside, taking care of Mule Tower and the company’s varied financial interests. All told, for any given voyage, Raleigh typically had a pool of 40 or so he could choose from when asking for volunteers.

“Jillian Thrall comes to us as a prospective member. Some of you might have heard of her father.” 

Chuckles rippled around the room. 

“The floor is open for comments before we take a vote.” 

Granny raised her hand out in the audience. Raleigh pointed to her. 

She stood up and said, “Does Ms. Thrall know what she’s getting into?”

“I have spoken with her at length about it. She has read our history, and spent most of the voyage home considering it. Yes, she is fully aware of all the complications and considerations.” 

He looked around and for a long moment nobody else raised a hand. 

Finally, Jeter lifted his. Raleigh pointed at him and said, “Avery Jeter has the floor.” 

Jeter stood and said, “I just want everybody to remember, we’re missing out on a potentially huge ransom by taking her on. The Thrall family has some serious assets.” 

This, Jillian thought, would be the main sticking point. She swallowed nervously, from her seat behind Raleigh. 

For his part, the Captain expected this objection, too. He was delighted at its source, though. 

Smiling he said, “Funny you should bring that up, Jeter. As I recall, your family is very well-to-do also.” 

Jeter’s ears turned beet red as laughter spread around the room. He finally nodded at everybody and shrugged as if to say, “What can I do?” and sat down.

Raleigh said, “Again, I have spent a lot of time interrogating Ms. Thrall.”

Granny said, “I’ll bet you have.” 

The entire room erupted in raucous laughter this time. It was the Captain’s turn to grow red in the face. But he smiled along with everybody else. 

When they finally settled down, he said, “I am convinced, and Lootie was too, that Ms. Thrall is not joining us out of monetary convenience. She is genuine in her desire to fight against the Star League, and joining us offers her just such an opportunity. Now, let’s take the vote. All in favor raise your right hand.” 

About 70 hands went up. Privately, Raleigh felt relieved. He had already decided to “hire” Jillian as a “consultant” or some other convenient title if the company members voted against her. He was happy that he would not have to resort to such measures to keep her around. 

“All opposed?”

This time fewer than 20 raised their hands. The remainder chose not to vote. Raleigh noted both Jeter and Escobar voted against her. 

“Okay. Let’s welcome our newest crew member, Jillian Thrall.” 

A smattering of applause went around the room. He turned and smiled at her. She smiled back.

He returned to face the crew and said, “Next order of business, Michael Pak will give us an update on LuteNet and what the police have found out so far about our sniper.” 

Raleigh sat down next to Jillian while Pak approached the podium. 

Pak said, “Basically, our government in their infinite wisdom discovered the basement of the Admin Building with a couple guard bots is insufficient protection for Lootie.” 

Some guffaws and snorts of derision flowed around the room. No one present thought much of governments to begin with.

“So a couple egg grenades, and that was that. The good news is, she is spread out globally, and things were backed up. But the core is going to have to be rebuilt. That means it’ll be a while before our AI system is operating at a hundred percent again.” 

Granny raised her hand. 

“Yes, Quartermaster?”

“Is that going to delay our next voyage?”

Pak turned to the Captain. Raleigh stood and said, “Probably. I’m not sure how comfortable I feel going back out there without her. We’ll know more in a few days.” 

Some grumbles of discontent bubbled up in the crowd. Granny frowned, but she sat down. 

Pak continued. He said, “We have very few details on the sniper. Skylar’s headshot ruined facial ID. The police are waiting on more of LuteNet’s capacity to return before they run the other biomarkers on him.”

“So we got nothing?” Maxwell said. 

The murmurs in the crowd grew louder.

“At the moment, nothing. There is one more thing, though.”

The crowd quieted down.

“The digital assassin, the woman called Raquel Kirkland, escaped during the sniper attack. Tony and I both saw it happen.” 

Kim nodded as everybody looked at him. Then Pak continued.

“As you know, this is the same woman who killed Samuel and the Captain of the Aquamarine, and she almost took out Roddy. We are worried that she is going to attack again. Now, it’s kind of hard to prepare for her appearance without Lootie’s help. But, Tony and I have rigged up a detector on our electric grid in this building. We thought of some things the AI might not have considered. Lootie couldn’t ‘see’ her in the Aquamarine, but we think we fixed that. If she shows up, her presence in the grid will sound an alarm and the routine will allow us to track her. 

“Also, now that we’ve come home and we’ve been able to access all our equipment at the shop here, we’ve been able to develop this handy thing.” 

He took out a small black device about the size of a deck of cards. One edge was shiny and Pak pointed it at the crowd. 

He said, “This is a radiation trap. It’s almost as powerful as the big one we used to capture her on the Aquamarine, only small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. We’ve got a dozen of these with more on the way. If there’s a chance you might see her, or if you feel the need to have one, take one. Here, Roddy, you can have the first one.” 

Roddy stood and met Pak halfway, thanking him. 

Granny said, “Hey, Roddy. Did you ever get your money back for what you paid for that gal?”

Everybody laughed as Roddy pocketed the radiation absorber and returned to his seat. He took it well, though, and chuckled along with them.

Pak relinquished the podium to Raleigh.

The Captain said, “Alright. Catholic Charities, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army have teamed up and are handling the forced indents for us. Hasselbeck’s has the equipment to remove their biocollars, and they’ve taken off three or four dozen so far. It appears the women’s memories have been wiped. They’ve lost the last few months. They are very confused, to say the least. Planetary Republic representatives are running with the story about how they were wrongly placed into indentured service and already they’ve ginned up some decent anti-League propaganda out of this, so that’s good. Outrage over forced indentured service is brewing.

“Now we’ll hear a report from our Quartermaster on what to expect about ransom demands for the first class passengers, the crew, and salvage fees for the Aquamarine.”

Granny came to the podium and said, “Well, boys and girls, we ain’t quite as rich as we thought we’d be . . .”

Digital Assassin 33


Earlier

Albert Ignatius Huntington twirled his mustache on the right side of his face. He had a reputation as something of a dandy. His impeccable suits were imported from Italia, a League planet where the best tailors in either system provided exceptional clothing at a steep price. Huntington always looked good, no matter what the occasion. On his left wrist he wore a stylish bracelet. It was featureless and appeared to be fashioned from stainless steel.

The war had so far proven quite profitable for Petra Roe. An otherwise insignificant planet with a middling population of less than a billion people, the running joke among its citizens was to refer to their home as “PR,” which traditionally stood for “public relations.” 

Petra Roe remained officially neutral, allied with neither AI. Thus its banking and markets were ideally situated to take advantage of the war, now that the two major systems stopped communicating with one another except over basic necessities. Many assets still needed to trade hands between the systems, and PR proved to be an ideal middleman for these transactions. It also served as a conduit for other nominally neutral planets to shuttle money and materials. This list of planets included Lute. 

Nonetheless, despite Petra Roe’s official stance, its leaders read the tealeaves and their consensus indicated that eventual victory by the Star League appeared inevitable. The League had superior resources, was closest to Old Earth, and (at least in the minds of many in the upper echelons of PR’s leadership), maintained the superior form of government. 

A common sentiment among many on PR was that people should not be too free. The freedom to choose their own leaders was a dangerous liberty. The founders of PR modeled their government after the Star League, where leaders were assigned rather than elected. Consequently they felt considerably superior to the Republic, where governmental representatives were decided through elections. 

Perhaps, some argued, this preference led PR leadership to misread their predictions about the war? Perhaps they secretly hoped Star League would emerge victorious and therefore aligned their actions accordingly? 

But these arguments were usually made in private, outside the leadership’s earshot. Fortunately for those making the arguments, Petra Roe had no AI system of its own, and government eavesdropping was therefore less common than it might otherwise would have been. 

The Ambassador had felt entirely gobsmacked when the Tetrarch’s daughter rebuffed him and left the Port of Entry room with the Captain of a pirate ship. This was unheard of, he thought. Could it be a case of Stockholm Syndrome, where the captive empathized with the captor? 

Mentally he shrugged while pulling on one of the curls of his mustache. When he let go, it snapped back into position. His instructions regarding the return of Jillian Thrall were unambiguous. If she did not return, or could not, she was to be eliminated. 

He rubbed the neural network implant under his ear twice, sending the signal for his forces to execute the plan of action he had outlined in the event something went wrong.

All artificial intelligence systems had safeguards against cyber attacks. Over the years, competing systems tried different variants on one another in order to gain a competitive edge. In time, a digital stalemate ensued, and the systems operated under a tacit agreement where they would not attempt to harm one another. 

While these rules were bent somewhat during times of war, such as now, most cyber attacks remained futile. But the spymasters of Petra Roe had determined LuteNet might be vulnerable to a direct, physical attack. 

In the basement of the Administration Building, two men stepped out of a stairwell and began walking down a corridor. The way ended at a set of locked double doors where two guard bots stood. Their black metal faces were bland and featureless, with round red eyes above horizontal slits for mouths. 

The one on the right raised its hand and said, “Halt. This is a restricted area. You are not allowed on this level.” 

The men looked at one another. One of them nodded. The other reached into a pocket and pulled out a grenade, the size and shape of an egg. He clicked the plunger on top and lobbed it underhand toward the guard bots. Both men turned, hunched down and covered their heads. 

KABLOOM!

A klaxon sounded while sprinkler systems in the ceiling sprayed fire retardant. The men turned and rushed into the now open doorway, stepping over smoking robot parts. 

Inside, they stopped at a balcony above a giant well stretching almost the entire width of the building. A large cylinder the size of a house stood in the middle, lights pulsating across its synthetic biological skin in a rainbow of colors. 

“It’s the AI’s core,” one of them said. “Blow it up.” 

The grenade lobber nodded and pulled out another egg-shaped bomb. He activated it and tossed it at the giant cylinder. They turned and ran out the door as it exploded.

Digital Assassin 32


Maxwell, Jeter, and Escobar met the others down on the street while Roddy lifted off from the building’s roof and headed back up to the Mule.

Maxwell handed Raleigh a rifle. He said, “Safest thing is to get off the street right now, Captain. We should fly home.”

Raleigh nodded. A sky bus landed nearby. Its doors opened and several people streamed out. Most of them took the massive white steps up to the Administrative Building.

Raleigh said, “Why don’t we take a bus?”

Maxwell smiled and they headed toward it.

Jeter jogged over and put his hand out to stop the people queued up to enter as the last person exited. Everybody stared down at his blaster, which he carried slightly angled to the ground but ready to bring up quickly if needed. 

Jeter said, “This bus is taken.”

When the Captain and the others climbed onboard he turned and followed them. The door closed behind him leaving the queue of people watching as the bus rose up in the air. 

Inside, the driver’s eyes grew wide at the sight of all the guns. He was an older, heavy-set man who spent most of his days as a human backup to the automated subroutine flying the bus. 

Raleigh said, “We need you to make a detour from your usual route. Take us directly to Mule Tower.” 

The driver spread his hands and said, “The stops are all automated.” 

Maxwell said, “Come on, man! We know LuteNet is down and you have to do some actual work. Not to mention the manual override.” 

Caught in his attempted deception, the driver closed the door behind Jeter and lifted up into the air again. He banked sharply and headed to the edge of the city where a lone skyscraper stood apart from the others. 

The crewmembers found seats. Jillian smiled apologetically at the half dozen other passengers. They stared back with varied expressions ranging from bewilderment to outrage. 

Then she glanced out the windows for a good look at Port Ryan. 

To the east, blue ocean stretched out to the horizon. Some distance away she could see surface ships and she realized the city served as a traditional port as well as one for space travel. 

As they gained altitude she could see everything was laid out on a carefully planned grid. The Administration Building took up an entire block. Everything looked clean, and pedestrian and terrestrial traffic seemed to flow easily on the streets below. Many aircraft streamed around the city, too. 

They passed over another district and the lighting changed. Flashing signs of red and other bright colors caught her eye. 

She said, “Are those casinos?”

Raleigh said, “Yup. Plenty of places for a sailor to lose his money here.” 

They flew by another building with a holographic image of a giant, scantily clad woman sitting on the roof. Letters floated above her head saying, “Tower of Power Pleasure Palace.” 

Smaller letters below read, “Humans, Robots, & VR.” 

“Are there a lot of prostitutes? Or do they mostly use alternatives like the sign says?”

Raleigh said, “I dunno. Never been inside. You’ll have to ask Maxwell or one of the other guys.” 

He winked to show he was kidding. Maxwell did not hear the jab, sitting further back in the bus and in the middle of a conversation with Escobar and Jeter. He loomed over the other two, even sitting down. Escobar, with brown skin and a muscular build, was taller than Jeter but still far shorter than the giant. 

Jillian said, “It’s a good thing they can’t use indents as prostitutes. Or, do those rules not apply here?”

“The rules apply. In general, humanitarian regulations established by the two main AIs are followed by ours as well. Contracts in one system are honored by the others. So, no. We’re not barbarians using indents as prostitutes.” 

She was worried she had offended him, but his gentle smile let her know she had not. 

Jillian returned her attention to the scenery. She could see they were heading toward a skyscraper on the edge of the city. 

The driver looked in his mirror and said, “You want to be dropped off on the rooftop or the street?”

Raleigh said, “Rooftop, please.”

The driver nodded and they gained more altitude. 

“So, how does this work?” Jillian said. “Your company owns a building and a warship?”

“Yes. Our investors back the funding for both. In return for that and outfitting the ship on runs, we supply them with a healthy share of the profits.”

This last statement Maxwell did hear. He said, “Except for this trip!”

Raleigh raised an eyebrow in acknowledgment. “This trip being an exception,” he said. “I don’t think anybody will profit much from the ship we brought in, except for the 800 victims we saved.” 

Maxwell grinned, conceding the point.

The bus slowed to a stop, hovering over the rooftop of Mule Tower. Jillian noticed a holographic image rotating above the building, depicting a skull inside an old-fashioned spacesuit helmet.  

She said, “Is that your mascot or something?”

Raleigh said, “Yeah. That’s Roger Mule. He’s our version of the Jolly Roger.” 

The bus settled on the rooftop and the driver opened the door. The pirates and Jillian made their way to the exit. 

On his way out, Raleigh thanked the driver and apologized for the forced detour. The driver nodded but did not reply. 

Escobar was last to step off and the driver closed the door behind him. The craft lifted up into the sky then shot back toward the city center. 

Raleigh motioned to the elevator door some distance away.

He said to Jillian, “Welcome home.”

Digital Assassin 31


The transport rushed down at a reckless angle, its tip glowing from air friction. The ground below came steadily closer by the second. Features in the landscape grew sharper, obscured slightly by white wisps of cirrus.

They burst through a cloud and suddenly the outlines of Port Ryan, Lute’s capital city, came into view.

A voice came over the air.

“Ultima Mule Transport, this is Port Ryan Air Control. Your vehicle is unauthorized for this area. Please return to orbit.”

Maxwell said, “I’ll take this, Roddy. Control, we are responding to an emergency request from personnel in the Administration Building. They are under terrorist attack. Shots are being fired as we speak. We will be landing in Port Ryan and assisting authorities in this matter.”

“An attack on the Admin Building? That’s news to us. We’ll have to check with LuteNet to verify. She hasn’t said anything.” 

“I’ll think you’ll find Lootie has been incapacitated and is offline. I recommend you manually activate a general warning for Port Ryan.” 

“Roger that, Transport. We’ll check into it. Be aware we still consider your incursion unauthorized.” 

“Just don’t shoot us out of the sky, Control. Take up any fines with the Ultima Mule Corporation after the dust settles.” 

Jeter said from his seat in the back, “Would they really fine us over this?”

“Don’t care,” Maxwell said.

The city quickly filled up the transport’s holoscreen. 

Maxwell said, “Roddy, do you know where the Administration Building is?”

Roddy nodded and said, “Yeah, I know what it looks like. But we’re after a sniper, right? Keep an eye out for blaster bolts. That’s where we want to land.” 

Skylar unbuckled and stood, holding onto seats as she walked down to the front. It was like walking downhill since their angle was so sharp.

She said, “There!” and pointed to where green bolts rained down from the rooftop of a building. 

She flickered several times and blinked out of sight. 

From the back, Jeter said, “Why does she flicker so much?”

Roddy aimed for the rooftop of the building and prepared to brake. 

He said, “I think it has to do with how far she’s teleporting. The farther the distance, the greater number of flickers.” 

He pulled back on his control stick and the craft decelerated suddenly. Its angle leveled out and he began a rapid vertical descent to the rooftop. 

Below, Skylar popped into existence behind the sniper. He never saw her. She shot him in the head.

The transport bumped down onto the rooftop and the door swung open. The men inside swarmed out, guns ready. Skylar stood over the dead body, holding her pistol loosely by her side. A breeze caught her pale white hair as she looked back at them.

Maxwell relaxed and pointed his rifle down. 

He said, “Death never looked so good. I’m glad you’re on our side, Skylar.” 

She smiled and said, “Tell Customs I have nothing to declare.” 

She flickered several times, and disappeared. 

Maxwell touched the implant under his ear and brought up a connection with Raleigh. 

“Captain, our bogey is dead, compliments of Ms. Skylar and her unique skillset.” 

Raleigh said, “Great. Give her my thanks.” 

“Oh, she’s gone home already. But I’ll mention it next time I see her.” 

-+-

Raleigh picked himself up off Jillian and stood, cautiously. 

He said, “All clear!” 

He bent down and offered Jillian a hand up. She stood and dusted herself off. 

The lobby was a mess, with small fires of furniture burning, leaving the air full of smoke. Dust and debris covered everything and the formerly smooth floor was now cratered and pockmarked. 

Kim and Pak came out from cover and made their way back to the damaged trap. 

Raleigh met them and said, “Did she get out?”

They both nodded.

“Did you see where she went?”

Pak pointed up to the lights. He said, “She could be anywhere in the city by now. Or still hanging out here. No way of telling.” 

“When we get Lootie back, ask her if there’s a way to secure our building’s electric grid from her.” 

Kim and Pak looked at one another. Kim nodded. Pak said, “We can probably figure that out without her.” 

Raleigh touched his neural implant and said, “Max, send the ship back up to the Mule with a pilot only. We need to be ready to bring the rest of the crew down without teleportation. The rest of you get down here with your guns and give us an armed escort home. If somebody is trying to take us out, I want to be able to fight back.”

“We’re on our way, Captain. Meet you on the street.” 

Raleigh, Jillian, Pak and Kim headed for the door. The engineers grabbed the now useless trap and took it with them. Outside, Jillian frowned at the piles of ashes that used to be her luggage. 

Raleigh said, “You can buy more clothes. But you can’t buy another life.” 

She raised her eyebrows in an expression indicating agreement. The four walked down the steps, keeping a nervous eye on the surrounding rooftops. 

Back inside, police streamed into the lobby again, checking on people and making sure the area was secure. 

The elevator opened and Ambassador Huntington stepped out. He looked around curiously. 

He stopped one of the officers and said, “Were there any casualties?”

She said, “Yes, one of our guys was struck down.” 

“Any civilians?”

She shook her head and said, “It’s something of a miracle that nobody else got hit.” 

He said, “Yes. Yes, that’s very good.” 

The officer continued on her way. When she left, the Ambassador looked out the huge windows up at the rooftops across the street, and frowned.