Halcyon’s Heirs 38

Unseen by Tetrarch Thrall, Raquel’s electronic essence flitted through the wiring of the house, leaving his office.

She streamed out of the lighting in her own room, a cascade of silver pixels quickly forming into her body.

She often lingered near Thrall in her electronic form, listening and watching. Part of it had to do with her affection for him, and the fact she liked to be near him. Part of it was a desire to fight boredom. But part of it also was a desire to learn things she was not supposed to know.

This was certainly one of those times. Thrall would not be taking her with him on his trip to Epsilon. Of that, she was certain.

She thought back to the last man she had a relationship with, Roddy Rodriguez. Would Roddy have . . . grown tired of her? Was she getting old?

She looked in the mirror. No. She did not think she looked old.

“Is he just getting bored with me?” she said out loud.

There was, of course, no one to talk it over with. She had no friends, no one in whom she could confide.

All she had was Julius. And if he left her, she would have no one else.

He knocked at her door, making her jump. She recovered quickly and opened it for him.

He smiled at her with that handsome face of his, the one with aged eyes that knew power and authority so well. The face she had fallen in love with when he rescued her from Raton Five.

He said, “I’m going to Epsilon. Something’s come up with Munk there and I’m taking a ship out tonight.”

“Oh. I haven’t seen Edgar in forever. I’ll pack!”

“No, stay here. I don’t want you traveling. It’s still dangerous. I won’t be gone long.”

The look of hurt and betrayal on her face stopped him. He put a hand on her cheek.

“Don’t take it so hard, darling. I’ll be back soon. Okay?”

She nodded, not meeting his eyes. He turned and walked down the hall to his room. She knew he would pack and teleport away soon.

When the door slid shut, she said, “Starcen, what ship is the Tetrarch taking to go to Epsilon?”

She thought she would have clearance for the answer. Sure enough, StarCen responded immediately.

“Tetrarch Thrall is taking the SLS Intrepid to Epsilon. It departs in about three hours.”

What she would not have clearance for, would be to teleport up there. Transit to Naval ships was heavily regulated. She thought about how long it took to get down to the surface undetected from the last Navy ship she was on. No, hitching a ride on the Intrepid would be difficult, especially with so little time left to sneak onboard.

Out loud she said, “What other ships are headed to Epsilon Prime soon?”

StarCen listed four leaving within a day, including one taking off later tonight, the Riptide. That ship was on a long circuitous route between League planets.

“Book me passage on the Riptide, please. First Class.”

It would be easiest if StarCen simply ported her up to the ship. Julius had given her access to an account. She would use it for this. There was the matter of her biocollar. Indents typically did not travel alone. Maybe she could wear a scarf. Or perhaps she would follow someone up to the ship and act like she belonged to them for a while.

“Very well, Ms. Kirkland. You are scheduled to depart in less than five hours.”

“Perfect.”

Julius Thrall would have company on Epsilon, she thought, looking into the mirror with a smile. He’ll just never know it.

-+-

The SLS Sagittarius popped into existence in orbit around Juventas. One of twelve Naval supply ships making regular runs between Epsilon and the four capital planets, the Sagittarius carried food, parts, energy packs, replacement uniforms, and sundry other items needed by the Navy and its massive support network.

Captain Joyce Thompson, a woman of medium height and American Indian ancestry, breathed a sigh of relief when she found the area void of Republican warships. StarCen had sent her here as fast as possible, taking extra long jumps the whole way. They made it before the fireworks started, she thought.

StarCen said, “Captain Briggs of the Extol is calling, Captain Thompson.”

“Put it through.”

She received a voice-only call over her neural connection.

Briggs said, “We are glad to see you, Captain!”

“Yes. I’ve got something you can use. Let StarCen know which ships you’d like the solar torpedoes in, and she’ll send them over.”

“Excellent. We have been waiting quite anxiously for these. I wish there were more than three.”

“It’ll have to be enough, for now.”

Briggs said, “We have increased system surveillance, too, thanks to a prior incident, and we noticed an additional ship appeared half an AU away at the same time you came into orbit. Do you know anything about that?”

Thompson grinned.

She said, “A little. I know it’s the Tetrarch’s pet project, and it’s designed to help out when the bogeys get here. Just ignore it for now, I’m told it will remain farther out until things get hot.”

“I see. Well, if the Tetrarch thinks that’s best, then we’ll just ignore it.”

Thompson nodded, although Briggs couldn’t see her.

She said, “I’m going to unload everything and depart within the hour, Captain. I don’t want to be here for the light show.”

“Understood, Captain. Have a good trip and many thanks for this delivery.”

StarCen proceeded to unload the Sagittarius’s cargo and, true to her word, Thompson departed soon after.

Less than an hour later, the Diego Fleet arrived.

 

Author’s Note: This concludes the free version of Book IV. The final two chapters in the book comprise the short story “Goldus Interruptus,” and are available in the Amazon version or on Patreon.

Halcyon’s Heirs 37

Julius Thrall sat at his desk at home. Besides Raquel, the isolated estate had no other humans in at least an 18 kilometer radius. Any attempt to approach the mansion, by land, sea or air would be duly noted by the new security upgrades he had ordered. All the bots had also been upgraded with the ugly improved models that were more impervious to explosions.

Millions of credits had been spent to provide Thrall with this remote, secure compound. As far as he was concerned, it was worth every proverbial penny. Not that he had paid for any of it with his own funds. Rank hath its privileges, and he held the highest rank of them all. Millions of taxpayers in the Clarion quadrant had contributed.

Despite the opulence and luxuriousness of his private residence, Thrall felt . . . dissatisfied. The Republic had a profoundly effective new type of ship, the Condor-class. Although the first one suffered some difficulties at Seychar, it was no doubt repaired by now and leading a fleet of other ships somewhere. They would likely try to wrest away a capital planet, one of the four. It would mark a devastating blow in the war, and tip the scales solidly to PLAIR’s side for the first time.

StarCen was convinced the Diego Fleet was heading to Juventas, and Thrall agreed. Juventas made the most sense. He had diverted half of Cooper’s fleet to Kwan’s in their failed attempt to take Gotha Mu. An attempt, he grumbled to himself, that would have worked if the Republic’s war engineers had not developed that dreadful star weapon.

They would have to revise the rules of warfare when this was over, he thought. It is difficult to do when the cat is out of the bag, but there was precedence. The nations outlawed gas warfare after World War I. The AI systems prohibited nuclear torpedoes, too.

He grimaced at the thought. Sun bombs were a brilliant workaround to the nuclear prohibitions. He wished he had thought of it first.

Now he desperately hoped their answer to the weapon, the solar torpedoes, would make it to Juventas on time. If the Republic got there first, or if the Diego Fleet attacked elsewhere . . . but no, such things were not worth fretting over.

Thrall could only influence those things over which he had control. He had no control over where the Diego Fleet would show up. He could only take the best steps he could with the knowledge he had at the moment. Anything else was beyond him, and he would refuse to lose sleep over it.

He found himself missing Elven. The Naval Attaché had been exceptionally proficient, even more so than the previous one. He had indeed been attracted to her, and he knew there had been some mutual feelings there due to some comments he overheard.

But when Raquel returned she squashed any budding relationship they might develop. Thrall had sent Elven off with a promotion to Commander. And there certainly were plenty of vacancies needing to be filled with all the losses at Seychar.

Mandy Elven was of better use to the League serving as XO on a ship somewhere instead of providing him eye candy here at the estate. Raquel took care of that role, and more. And StarCen acted as his virtual receptionist.

As if thinking about her could summon her, a high-pitched voice came down from the ceiling.

“Tetrarch Thrall, you have a call incoming from Marshal Metger on Epsilon.”

“Good. Put him through.”

Metger’s hologram appeared, seated in front of Thrall.

“I’ve been waiting to hear from you, Marshal. What can you tell me about my daughter?”

“Sorry. It has taken me this long to get off Lute and find a ship home from Petra Roe.

“So, as for your daughter, Jillian. She’s married. To a pirate captain, if that matters. Either way, even declared incompetent by the courts, he is her next of kin now and he has no intention of giving up custody.”

Thrall showed very little outward emotion. His nostrils flared, little else. Metger did not notice.

Thrall said, “StarCen, confirm.”

“Marshal Metger is correct, Tetrarch Thrall. I am seeing a marriage certificate for Jillian Thrall with Christopher Raleigh. The ceremony was performed on Lute and PLAIR has recorded it in her public records.”

“Sorry I couldn’t get word to you sooner,” Metger said. “But you know how it goes. I had a lot of trouble on Lute. We’re probably going to have to do something about them, once this war is over. In fact, my office will be contacting you in regards to a fine they had to pay in order to get me off the planet.”

“I see. Have them take it up with my office in Clarion. Thank you for your efforts, Marshal.”

“Absolutely. If we can be of service in the future, you know how to find us.”

The call ended and Metger’s hologram blinked away.

When Thrall was alone once more, he let the anger surge. His face grew red and he pounded the desk.

“That girl! Marrying a . . . a pirate!”

The audacity of it all, he thought. Never mind this was a brilliant ploy . . . perhaps the only feasible move to defeat his legal efforts to bring her home. It was checkmate, at least as far as the courts and working through the AIs were concerned.

He might try a military move again, or subterfuge with SSI, although both efforts would probably prove useless. And right now, with the war going the way it was, he did not have a lot of resources to spare for a rebellious daughter hiding out in a distant outpost.

He calmed down, taking deep breaths and letting them out slowly. The outburst of anger, such as it was, only lasted a minute. Thrall held his emotions in check, even in private.

Starcen said, “Tetrarch Thrall, you have another call from Epsilon. This is from SSI Director Munk.”

“Put him through.”

Edgar Munk’s hologram appeared, his smiling face and gray hair making him look more like a distinguished diplomat than a spymaster.

“Julius! How are you?”

He was one of the few people in the galaxy who could get away with calling Thrall by his first name.

Thrall grunted, noncommittally.

Munk continued, ignoring the pissed off look on Thrall’s face.

“We’ve had some recent drama, nothing you need to concern yourself with. It turns out some college kids held some quaint notions of rebellion. The reason I’m calling you is, I have decided to continue some of our experiments with the biocollars on these students.”

He stepped back and let a holoscreen open between them. Thrall looked at a dozen young people, all wearing underwear and nothing else. They stood relaxed, with biocollars around their necks.

“Our last batch from Fomalhaut went very well, before they were intercepted by pirates. The difference with these are, we have kids from prominent families this time. High wealth and education. It’s a different social strata than a small outpost, you know?”

Thrall’s eyes settled on one girl to the right. She was . . . beautiful. He could see the intelligence behind her eyes, even with the biocollar controlling things.

“Tell me about the blonde,” he said.

Munk looked for the one he referred to, and smiled. He said, “Ah. Caroline. Yes, she’s not a natural blonde, I’m afraid. Still, quite attractive.”

Munk knew Thrall’s tastes, and was not surprised the Tetrarch would ask about her.

He said, “We are doing some more tests, and we will have to make some modifications to the public record . . .”

“I will come there. I need to make a trip to Epsilon anyway.”

“Very well. I’ll have her ready for you.”

Thrall sat back in his chair, the connection broken. Yes, this was just the ticket, he thought. Somebody new.

It was not that he had lost his affection for Raquel. He just . . . craved someone else. Someone fresh.

“StarCen.”

“Yes, Tetrarch Thrall?”

“Arrange passage for me on the next flight to Epsilon. Preferably Naval.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 36

Ong and Vargas found a hotel near the stagecoach station and checked in. They were not dressed in their Navy uniforms. Ong had cautioned Vargas that they would be quickly arrested if they were identified, just as the crew had been. He agreed, and dutifully packed his uniform along with hers in their luggage before they leaving Wallisville.

Vargas worried that spies might indicate they were coming in on the stage. Maybe it would be better to get off at a village before Winthrop and ride in on horses? He had thrown that idea out before departing. Ong said they would probably be okay. If the Governor wanted to arrest them, Ong reasoned, she had plenty of time to send someone while they were in Wallisville. The fact she did not indicated they had likely been overlooked.

Vargas half expected the police to be waiting for them when they got off the stage, but they checked into the hotel without any problems. He gave a fake name when signing in, just to be safe. Fortunately there was no AI keeping an eye on things. A person could pretend to be whoever they wanted out here, he thought. Such freedom!

That night at supper they struck up a conversation with the couple at the table next to them about the crew of the Excelsior. It was still relatively fresh news, and being new arrivals their inquiries did not seem out of place.  They discovered the crew was still being held in the Administration Building.

After retiring to their room, they discussed how to reach the Captain and everyone else. As usual, Ong was the one to come up with an idea.

She said, “Let’s get jobs there.”

The following morning they approached a kiosk in the Administration Building. This one was manned by a real person rather than an android. Ong said she was from Dennison, her husband had recently passed away, and she came to Winthrop looking for work. Vargas presented himself as a disgruntled miner, unable to find a decent claim near Wallisville. He was giving up on hunting for gold for a while. Somehow, he did not find that story very plausible. Personally, he very much wished to continue hunting for gold. But, the lady behind the desk bought both their stories.

They were offered janitorial positions on the spot. If bots had been sent with the settlers to Halcyon, they were either inoperable or being used in far more important roles than menial labor. Consequently, there was a chronic shortage of maids, janitors, street sweepers, and other people for such labor-intensive jobs.

Vargas found himself working in the basement, but before lunch Ong made her way up to the holding floor and scoped things out. She found a long hall with many cell doors. Four cells were occupied. There were, of course, no electronics in the building. The doors were locked by keys. That was all she needed to know.

The couple spent another three days discussing what to do. There were only twelve crew left besides Vargas and Ong. The twelve were all dressed in Navy blue and stood out like sore thumbs. Even if they were to escape, they would immediately attract attention.

Curiously, there were no guards stationed in the hallway. She discovered there used to be, when the crew was first detained, but now a guard merely checked in on the prisoners a few times a day. No one stood in the hall all the time. Evidently they had other things to do.

Meanwhile, Ong took pains to not be seen by the crew in case they accidentally gave her away. She carefully cleaned the hall’s floor but stayed clear of the doors if someone came to open them. She noted when the crew had meals, and when the cafeteria staff came back to pick up dishes and silverware.

Besides the uniform problem, a bigger one revolved around the fact they had nowhere to go. Where would they bring the Captain and the crew if they did spring them from jail? Bringing them back to the hotel was out of the question.

This time Vargas came up with the solution. In talking with one of the other janitors, he discovered the man to be a League loyalist. This guy, whose name was Kev Stanton, vehemently railed against the Governor during their lunch breaks.

Vargas decided to take a risk and he let Stanton in on their plans. He confided that he was part of the Excelsior’s crew, and he was here to help spring Captain Benson and the others. Vargas did not mention Ong, in case something should happen to him. He did not want to risk her, especially since he had not had the chance to run this idea by her.

But Kev Stanton really was a League loyalist. He enthusiastically agreed to help. He knew where the janitor outfits were stored in the basement, and they had a lot of overalls that could cover the Navy uniforms. He also knew about a vacant warehouse his cousin owned. Together, he and Vargas came up with a plan. Ong decided it sounded feasible when Vargas told her about it.

The next day, almost two weeks after they learned about Benson’s capture, Ong opened the door to the Captain’s cell with a stolen key. Benson’s eyes grew wide at the sight of her. Kilmeade audibly gasped. Ong put a finger to her lips and tossed brown overalls to the women.

“Put these on and I’ll be back in a minute.”

She repeated the procedure in the other rooms. All twelve crewmembers met in the hall a short while later. They met Vargas at the stairwell, everyone dressed in brown overalls. He took the lead going downstairs while Ong followed at the rear. Together, all 14 crewmembers went to the basement, passing a handful of other people going up without comment.

From the basement they took a back exit with stair leading up and walked across the street, this time led by Stanton. From there, they entered another building’s basement. Stanton led them up the stairs inside the building, then they walked through a mostly empty lobby to the other side where everybody exited to another street shielded from view of the Administration Building. No one looking out a window would see them.

Here, Stanton’s cousin waited for them with a covered wagon that had benches inside. It seated twenty. Everybody filed in and the two-horse team slowly clopped down the street toward the warehouse district, keeping the crew safely out of sight as it made its way through the streets.

Kilmeade sat by the Captain.

She said, “What are we going to do now, ma’am?”

“There’s not much we can do, I’m afraid. They have our blasters and our transport. It might be best to lie low until the Navy gets here.”

They clopped on in silence for a while. In the seat behind them, Curly leaned forward.

He said, “Begging your pardon ma’am, but there is something we can do.”

“What’s that, Curly?”

He gave her a wicked grin.

“Guerilla warfare.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 35

Vargas hopped down off his horse and tied the reins to the saddle horn. He let the roan graze, confident he could retrieve her later. There would be little to spook her out here, and she would come back when he whistled.

Several cubes of sugar he carried in his pocket tended to do the trick. He had trained her to come when he whistled by giving her sugar every time. He had no prior experience with horses at all, but this worked. He had read somewhere that most all animals could be trained through their stomachs. Feed them something as a reward and you could convince them to do anything. It certainly seemed to work with this horse, he thought. She loved sugar.

The horse taken care of, Vargas ignored the big blue sky and stunning mountain scenery. He turned his attention to the ground. Most of the land near Wallisville had been staked, thus his ride several kilometers out of town. This chunk of land had not been staked. He checked at City Hall to make sure. He did not want to accidentally stumble upon someone else’s property and get shot. When he was certain this was unclaimed land, he paid the fee and staked it himself, hammering in markers every few meters.

There was so much gold lying on the ground! He had easily found a kilogram in chunks just by walking around and picking them up. A kilogram, or 2.2 pounds of gold! He had never had so much wealth in all his life.

Unfortunately, that seemed to be the low-hanging fruit. In an obvious example of the law of diminishing returns, he found fewer chunks with each visit. He spent two hours searching the ground for more chunks this morning before finally finding one. They were coming fewer and farther between now, he thought.

He held the nugget up in the sky, letting the sunlight catch the unpolished yellow metal. It was heavy for its size. He tried to figure up its value on the spot.

Gold was still measured in troy ounces, or in units of about 31 grams. The official rate of exchange on Epsilon was 40 credits per troy ounce. Or at least, that is what it was when the war began. Nobody on Halcyon knew the current rate. Vargas did not know, either. He had been too busy with other things to check on the price of gold during battle. But here on Halcyon, they stayed with the 40 credits exchange rate.

Vargas hefted the chunk, tossing it up in the air and catching it. He estimated this one to be about . . . two troy ounces, or 60 grams and then some. On the up side, he should get 100 credits for this piece. If his estimate was off, then it would be closer to 80 credits.

“Either way, not bad for a day’s work,” he said.

He whistled and the horse trotted up. Vargas reached into his pocket for sugar cubes and rewarded her, then he climbed on and headed back for town.

He rode to the house he and Ong shared. This was the one confiscated by the Navy that stood near City Hall. It did not have a stable for the horse, like most of the other small houses nearby. Most people used the community stable and corral on the edge of town, paying for the service. But, the house did have a hitching post out front and he tied the horse there, unwilling to let her roam free inside the city limits.

He walked in, tossing the gold chunk from hand to hand with a smile for Ong, who sat in the living room on a chair reading the paper.

She looked up from the Times-Picayne and said, “They arrested the Captain.”

Ong and Vargas discussed the situation for most of the afternoon. He read the newspaper story Ed Watson breathlessly reported on the front page. The Captain and all the crew were arrested immediately upon their arrival in Winthrop, and were still being detained.

Ultimately, they felt they had little choice. Duty required they try and do something for the Captain and the rest of the crew. Vargas gathered up all the gold he had collected and traipsed over to the General Store to have it assayed and converted to credit tokens.

The clerk, who also served as the assayer, weighed his chunks and determined Vargas had 38.2 troy ounces of gold, or 1.18 kilograms. Considering the weight of dirt still on the chunks and a fee for the assaying service, he offered 1,440 credits.

Vargas accepted the offer. Really, he had little choice. This was the only place in town that offered credit tokens for gold. And, the fellow seemed honest. He probably had to be, Vargas reasoned, or he would be run out of town on a rail.

Next they had to figure out how to get to Winthrop. They could ride together on Vargas’s horse, which was not an appealing thought since the trip was over 600 kilometers. They could buy Ong a horse of her own, but she had avoided getting on one and had no desire to sit in the saddle that long.

So Vargas went to the stables and sold his horse, earning another 50 credits for the couple. Then they bought tickets for the stagecoach, which was leaving in the morning.

Whereas the crew travelled to Winthrop in ease and luxury, arriving about six hours after leaving Wallisville, it took Vargas and Ong eleven days to traverse the same distance. The most they made in a day, Vargas figured, was 100 kilometers. Sometimes they would stop for the night while the sun was still high in the sky, if they were already in a town. Consequently, for several days they travelled less than 100 kilometers.

In addition, the road was not a straight shot. They had to go up and down winding mountain paths on occasion, and follow sometimes circuitous routes. One time they diverted several kilometers when the bridge over a river was out.

Finally, at long last, they came to Winthrop. Here, the streets were paved and the buildings were tall. It was by all measures a bustling metropolis, although one steeped in late 19th century technology.

The stagecoach stopped near a building under construction. They got out and took their bags, which the driver tossed down to them. He grinned and pointed at the wooden structure going up nearby.

“That’s our new train station. It’s going to put me out of business.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 34

His name was Pancho José Epsilon-Rivera. But one of the first things he said to Basil was, “Just call me Panch.”

Rivera was in in his early 50s and had gray hair clipped short. His naturally brown  skin looked a bit darker, despite living underground, thanks to daily walks in the atrium’s park.

He was the computer scientist assigned to train Basil. Basil spent the first few days shadowing him as he worked on StarCen’s core.

Rivera said, “So . . . how to describe what we do? This is the core.”

He waved at the giant gray biomass in the center of the room. They stood on a suspended walkway looking down at it.

“Back in olden times, computer chips were printed on silicon. There was the matter of conductivity, as you know, and succeeding generations of chips had tighter clusters and greater numbers of circuits, and so forth and so on.

“At some point, the laws of physics dictated we would run out of space on chips. We could only make the prints so fine. Processor speeds ran into some limits, too. Thus entered biocomputing. It was revolutionary. Much faster. Molecular-level circuits, computers at the speed of thought. Fun stuff.

“Fast forward again and you get to quantum computing. Change a binary digit here from zero to one, and its corresponding digit on the other side of the galaxy changes as well. Instantaneous communications. Amazing processor speed, too.

“Finally, throw in the advances in artificial intelligence, and you end up with StarCen. Our job at Thespar, in this branch of the company anyway, is to keep her maintained at optimal performance.

“So, underlying all this biomass, all the circuits and relays and transistors and molecular processors . . . making everything work . . . is a lot of code.

“Code has been with us a long, long time. You can trace it back to punch cards on IBM census counting machines from the 1930s. That was crude code. The code that controls StarCen is very complex.

“But when you burrow down deep enough, get past the user interface and the command modules, and everything else . . . in its rawest form the code controlling StarCen is just like anything else. A bunch of zeroes and ones.”

Basil nodded. He thought he could see where the older man was going with this.

Basil said, “So, when you want to modify that code, you make minor adjustments at the most basic level?”

“Precisely,” Rivera said, seemingly happy that Basil got it. “At the molecular binary level, small changes are virtually imperceptible to anyone using the normal administrative interface. Even if they do go deep diving, finding those slight changes are virtually impossible if they don’t know what they’re looking for.”

“Really? Virtually impossible? How are you so sure?”

“Let’s put it this way. So far, we’ve never been caught. And we’ve been doing this since before the war started. Granted, we’re very, very careful. But it’s still really hard to see changes this small, in the grand scheme of things.”

They walked inside the spacious control room. Rivera brought him over to a huge holoscreen above his personal workstation. A series of numbers floated above the desk, arranged in a diagram.

“Now, if you’ll notice the ‘map’ . . . everything in StarCen’s conscious is diagrammed out for us here. If we want to adjust things so that she does not alert police of someone’s presence, for instance, we have to make a series of careful numerical manipulations . . . here.”

-+-

“We have considered your request to serve as an outside agent, and I think we’re ready to approve it.”

Lexi’s heart soared when she heard El say this. The feeling reminded her of when she was little and her father threw her up a little ways into the air and caught her. It was a thrilling sensation.

El said, “However, it comes with a catch. If you are caught, we cannot allow you to reveal anything about what we do here. So, we will be injecting you with a special kind of nanobot before you go out each time.”

Lexi nodded, her elation subsiding a bit.

She said, “It’s going to kill me, isn’t it?”

“No. We’re not barbaric like the Tetrarchy is. These nanobots will be attuned to your mental state. They will wipe your memory. You’ll slide into something resembling a vegetative state, unable to remember anything. Total amnesia.”

“That sounds barbaric. I think I’d rather you just kill me.”

“Actually, there’s a method to our madness. We’re hoping if it came to that, the authorities waste precious time trying to recover your memories. Any kind of time and effort we can make them lose is a good thing.”

“How do I know you guys won’t activate it the minute I step out of here?”

El said, “You’ve got to trust somebody, Lexi. You certainly can’t trust the League. We’re your best bet.”

She smiled at the younger woman and made a beckoning motion.

“Let’s go see if the computer nerds have fixed StarCen so she won’t rat you out when you go back outside.”

-+-

“I don’t understand,” Lexi said. “You’re telling me you can alter StarCen to the point she won’t alert the authorities of my presence? Why can’t we erase the records of all our friends who were rounded up by SSI? Let’s get them out of jail!”

Rivera shook his head. He said, “We can adjust things, but there are limitations. Anything we do that gets noticed could destroy everything we’ve been working on. We can’t make massive changes and hope to get away with it.

“Let me tell you a story. Toward the end of the Second World War, an increasing number of German bombs dropped on London were duds. They were filled with inert material instead of gunpowder, or not filled at all. Some of them had notes. ‘Don’t worry, English. We are with you. Polish workers.’ Other said things like, ‘This is all we can do for now. Jewish slave labor is a bad idea.’

“You see, these workers could not make every bomb defective. They would have been caught, punished, and replaced. But, they could affect a certain percentage. The ones that did not explode saved lives and property. It was what they could do, and get away with, and still remain in place to make a difference.”

“Okay. That’s a nice analogy and all, but these are my friends. One boy was there only because I invited him!”

Rivera smiled, sadly. He said, “I’ll tell you another story from World War II. The British had cracked the Nazi’s Enigma code, thanks to Turing and others. Churchill received word of a town in England that was going to be bombed. He faced a dilemma. He could alert the town and evacuate the residents before the bombing and save everybody. But if he did that, the Germans would know their code had been cracked.

“Or, he could do nothing. The bombing would occur. People would die. But, he could continue to read the German’s secret communications and help defeat them.

“He chose the latter. It was tough, but it was the right call. He and the allies were able to defeat National Socialism in part because the Enigma code was an open book.

“We are in a similar situation here. We can modify StarCen and her records as you suggest. But if we made such a large change, it would draw notice. And at that point, SSI would realize that StarCen was compromised. All of our people whose records we have modified would be at risk. Everything we are doing would be compromised. We’re not going to allow that to happen.”

Lexi turned away. When she spoke again, bitterness tinged her voice.

“I was just a stupid airhead, living in fantasy land. I can’t believe how naive I was. I just wish I could fix my mistakes, that’s all.”

El put a hand on her shoulder. She said, “You may not be able to fix all your mistakes. But, we are going to give you a chance to do something. To strike a blow.”

Lexi nodded. Her eyes flashed and she clenched her teeth.

She said, “I would like that very much.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 33

The four men with the Governor pulled out pistols. They looked crude, with flintlock firing mechanisms, and they were no doubt muzzle-loaded. But Benson had no doubt they were deadly, especially at this close range.

“Captain . . .”

Curly pointed to her right. She saw a sniper come out from cover on another rooftop, aiming a rifle at them. Those she knew from experience were deadly, even at a distance.

Kilmeade said, “Ma’am . . .”

She pointed at another building, where three more snipers aimed at them. Looking around, Benson could see several more.

“You have us at a disadvantage,” Benson said, turning to address the Governor.

Seldom smiled, but did not show her teeth.

She said, “Please hold your hands up and do not reach for any weapons. My people will take you downstairs to a holding center.”

All the sailors looked at Benson, waiting for her lead. She glanced again at the rifles and pistols aimed at her people.

She frowned, but said, “Follow their orders.”

Slowly, her crew raised their hands.

-+-

The rooms looked secure. Each had four bunks, a toilet and a sink.

“Jail cells,” Kilmeade said when she walked into the one assigned to her and Benson.

Benson nodded, turning to watch as the hinged door was shut behind them, and locked.

“Why didn’t you fight, Captain? Some of us could have made it back into the transport, which is bulletproof.”

Benson looked at the younger woman and noted the fire behind her eyes. She nodded, agreeing with the ensign’s statement. The transport was indeed bulletproof.

“How many would have died scrambling back inside?”

“Some of us were armed. Curly had a blaster.”

“He would have been shot immediately. Say you took out the four men with pistols, and the Governor even. They had snipers all around us. If any in our crew would have survived, it would have been very few. We’ve lost too many, Ensign Kilmeade. I don’t want to throw the lives of my remaining people away if I don’t have to.”

Kilmeade’s shoulders slumped, and a little of the fire went out behind her eyes.

Benson smiled at her, crow’s feet crinkling in the older woman’s face.

“Cheer up, Kilmeade. We should still be able to influence this place. Maybe we can’t take it over as easily as I thought. But give us some time.”

“And if they kill us? Execute us for some reason? Or just leave us locked up forever?”

Benson shrugged. She said, “Eventually, the Navy will send a ship. Patience. We will get things straightened out soon enough.”

Our roles have reversed, Benson thought. She was holding back when I wanted to take this place over.

She smiled at the thought then sat down on a bunk, desperately wishing for access to the quantum matrix.

-+-

Later that day, somebody brought food. The ladies could not see, but they heard the guard in the hall outside the door. There would be no opportunity to jump the woman who dropped off two trays for them. Nor would there be an opportunity to go for the guard, either.

Benson thanked the woman for the food. She smiled and said someone would return and retrieve their trays in an hour.

Kilmeade looked at the wooden bowls and spoons with displeasure, but both ladies agreed the soup was good. Some kind of bean? And chunks of meat they could not identify, but Benson thought it must be a local fish.

“Probably from that big lake,” she said. “I bet they source a lot of protein out of it.”

Another couple of hours passed and they heard a knock at the door. They heard keys rattle and it opened. Seldom stuck her head inside.

“Come with me.”

Benson and Kilmeade followed her out in the hall. The four guards accompanied the Governor again, and as they walked two went before them and two brought up the rear. No one held guns out, but Benson noted they carried their pistols in leather holsters.

They came to a set of stairs and headed down three floors, then walked out into a much larger corridor.

They walked past a receptionist, a young woman who looked to be of Hispanic descent if Benson guessed correctly. The receptionist stared openly at her and Kilmeade, clearly astonished to see the blue Navy uniforms.

Seldom pushed open a large polished wooden door. Three of the guards stayed outside and one accompanied the women into the office.

Benson found herself in a large airy space, with thick carpets and gleaming wooden walls. A huge desk dominated the side opposite the door, and a large window covered most of one wall. There was more than enough room for a leather couch, several seats, and an elegant marble-topped coffee table.

“Have a seat,” Seldom said.

Kilmeade followed Benson’s lead and they both sat down on the sofa.

Seldom took one of the chairs. The guard positioned himself in a corner of the room. He remained standing and crossed his arms, watching. And listening, Benson thought. She filed away the observation for later.

Seldom said, “I thought it would be courteous to inform you why I am having you detained.”

Benson smiled and lifted her eyebrows. She relaxed, sinking back in the sofa. Kilmeade remained hunched forward, eyes glued to the Governor.

Seldom said, “I know that several days ago you moved to take over the town of Wallisville, our outermost settlement. Tell me about that.”

Benson said, “It’s a lawless outpost. People running wild. I lost almost half my crew in ambushes and firefights. I declared the Navy in control under ad coelom.”

Seldom nodded. She said, “Our judiciary has looked into it. We believe your grounds for the declaration are shaky at best. I’m no lawyer, but from the way our counselors explained it to me, ad coelomusually refers to virgin territory. Wallisville was under an existing form of governmental entity.”

Benson smiled, with a glint, just a glint, of irritation and disdain in her eyes.

Keeping her voice neutral, she said, “Obviously I disagree.”

Seldom nodded again, as if expecting nothing less.

She said, “My advisors surmised, and I agreed with them, that you would try something similar here in Winthrop. When you left to come this way, word was sent via our telegraph network and we made preparations.”

She stared back at the Captain, ignoring the dangerous look in Benson’s eyes which seemed to be growing stronger by the moment.

Seldom stood and walked to the window. She looked out at the neighboring buildings and, in the distance, at the smokestacks still billowing thick black clouds.

“You see, Captain, we have formed a government for our planet. In the absence of the League, which has abandoned us, we formed our own. We had access to an entire Wikipedia’s worth of knowledge, even without StarCen here to guide us. And after looking at all the many forms of government we could use, we chose the one best suited for a small, recently colonized planet with no connections to the outside galaxy.”

She turned from the window and locked eyes with Benson.

She said, “We formed a simple constitutional republic. Oh, it’s not as fancy as one of the classical ones from Old Earth. We’re small, and we didn’t need much. But, we have representatives from each town, and several here in Winthrop. We have a judiciary, such as it is. Right now, that’s comprised of three judges. And, we have an executive branch. Me. I won our first election.”

Benson said nothing. She quirked her brows up slightly, in a sort of amused acknowledgment.

“As the duly elected Governor of this planet, I could not allow you to assert a faulty claim of ad coelomon us. Thus, I took the steps necessary to protect our homeland. And that is why you are being detained.”

“I see,” Benson said. “And when the Navy arrives to pick us up, which I assure you they most certainly will, what will you do then?”

Seldom smiled at her, but with a trace of sadness in her eyes.

She said, “You expect there to be a large force, assembling, perhaps with Marines, leading to my arrest? You think I’ll face a tribunal and the iron heel of the Navy will crush our fledgling republic?

“I don’t think it’ll happen. We have earned the right to govern ourselves, Captain. The League abandoned us and we did what we had to do.

“We will remain an independent planet, much like Petra Roe or even Lute. Self-governing, with no need of outside interference from either major system. That’s the way we want it, and we’ll do fine.”

Seldom smiled again, but this time without any sadness.

She said, “Our fledgling republic will thrive, Captain. Without the League. And certainly without the Navy.”

Benson’s face reddened. All the anger and righteous indignation she had kept under the surface bubbled up.

She said, “You think the League will simply allow you to become a . . . a republic? Where the leaders are decided by elections? You think we will simply stand by and allow you to decide for yourselves who is in charge?

“I have spent the last three years of my life fighting the Planetary Republic. People who are close to me, members of my own crew, gave their lives fighting the Republic! I lost my ship to those bastards! There is no way the Navy will allow this . . . this travesty to continue. This is a political abomination!”

Seldom said, “I realize that if a fleet were to appear in orbit, and send down a bunch of Marines, we could very well fall, at least for now. Your people would kill us, and overcome us, and butcher the most outspoken.”

Seldom turned away, and looked out the window again.

She said, “But you can never completely take away the taste of freedom once it’s been savored. We have lived . . . we are living it.”

Seldom took a deep breath, held, it, then let it out slowly.

She said, “And we will never, willingly, yield to the tyranny of the Tetrarchy. Never again. Halcyon will always remain free, Captain. Even if you occupy us for a hundred years. We’ve tasted freedom. And we’re not going back.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 32

The transport flew relatively low, about 100 meters up. Everyone inside watched the ground going by in the holoscreen up front. They followed the road.

After consulting with the Captain, Curly kept their speed at a reasonable 100 kilometers per hour. This would allow them to enjoy the scenery, and it might actually conserve some energy, he decided.

That led to a discussion about whether increased speed would more rapidly draw down the little craft’s power supply. Curly said it would, although Nguyen felt it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. They argued the matter for a while after Nguyen moved up front to express his views.

“Energy use is energy use. It’s not like an internal combustion engine, where if you speed up, the engine is working harder and thus burning more fuel.”

“No, you’re wrong,” Curly said. “I know for a fact if we attain escape velocity and go up into orbit, we’ll use more energy. There are things like air resistance to factor in.”

And so they argued back and forth, but since no engineers were on board to settle the matter, they eventually agreed to disagree and let it drop.

They were in for about a six hour flight to Winthrop. The mood of the crew seemed mixed. Some were for staying, like Kilmeade. Others looked forward to going somewhere more civilized. No one had any idea how advanced the city of Winthrop could be, but surely it was better than Wallisville. Or, so they told themselves.

For her part, Benson stayed out of the conversations. She yearned for access to the quantum matrix, where she could enjoy movies, games, and immersive holos. She had no idea she would miss it so much. In her heart of hearts, she hoped that Winthrop had a connection. Surely they had a connection! If they did, she could jump back on and free up hours of boredom.

But, she already knew they did not. If they did, they would have neural net connectors and would not be developing their own telegraph systems. And also, Carver had told her they did not have a connection installed before the war started. No one had communicated off world in three years.

Still, she thought, she could dream. And wish. And hope.

She drifted off to sleep as the little craft sailed through the sky above the road.

When they flew over the town of Dennison, their passage was noted by a horseman two kilometers out. He watched as the craft passed overhead and kept going, heading to Winthrop. He turned his horse around and galloped back into town. Like Wallisville, the streets were dusty and unpaved. He stopped at a new building on the periphery. It had a fresh sign that read, “Telegraph Office.”

He walked inside and the clerk looked up from his desk, smiling to see a customer.

“I need to send a message to Winthrop, ASAP. Straight to Seldom. Two words. ‘They’re coming.’”

-+-

The sun was on the downhill side of the day when the road below them widened, and became a solid gravel path that looked like it was cared for and well attended. Traffic picked up, too. The sailors could see wagons, coaches, and carriages as well as single riders and even the stray pedestrian. Everyone looked up as the transport flew by, some waving at them.

In the holoscreen at the front of the ship, they finally caught their first glimpse of the city of Winthrop.

And it is a city, Benson thought. A sprawling, dirty, quickly built and still growing city, set on the shores of a large inland lake that provided water, and no doubt fishing for the residents. Maybe transportation, too.

In the distance she saw . . . smoke.

“Is something on fire?” she said.

Thick columns of black smoke drifted into the sky.

Curly said, “I’m not sure. We can go take a look.”

He turned the nose of the craft toward the smoke. Now they flew over houses, laid out on a grid pattern. There were communities down there, Benson thought, clusters of stores and parks.

To their right, they spotted a series of tall buildings made from stone.

“Do they have electricity?” Nguyen said. “You can’t have skyscrapers without elevators.”

“Those aren’t skyscrapers,” Curly said. “They’re six, eight stories tops.”

“Still . . . I would think they’d need . . . hey, look! A traffic light!”

Curly glanced where Nguyen pointed and angled the transport that way. They floated above a busy intersection at two major thoroughfares. Strung up in the middle were old-fashioned traffic lights, flashing red, green and yellow. The horse riders and carriages obeyed the lights. Everyone down below looked up at them. The lane with the green light stood still rather than moving, everyone staring at the transport.

Kilmeade said, “I guess that answers the question about whether they have electricity or not.”

Curly said, “Yeah, I see the power lines, now. They’re everywhere.”

Benson said, “Let’s go back toward the smoke.”

Curly dutifully pointed the nose of the transport toward the smoke and they skimmed above the rooftops.

Within moments they could see the smoke came from chimneys. Tall, blackened chimneys belched thick, black smoke.

Kilmeade said, “What, are they burning coal or something?”

Nguyen nodded. “Must be. And, there’s not emissions controls on the smokestacks. It’s raw coal smoke.”

“They haven’t had time to develop that,” Curly said. “They’re just burning straight coal for electricity.”

The crew stared at the smoke stacks for a long moment. Nobody smiled.

Benson said, “They’re polluting a raw planet.”

Anger stirred behind the words.

She set it side, tamping it down and keeping it bottled up. This was part of the reason she was here, she thought. These people had too much freedom. Something needed to be done.

“Okay, I’ve seen enough. Curly, turn around and find their Administration Building. Surely we can figure out which one it is from up here.”

Curly nodded and pointed the transport back toward the tall stone buildings.

He said, “I bet it’s downtown. Let’s go look.”

As they approached, they could see a group of men and a woman standing on the rooftop of a thick ten story structure.

Nguyen said, “It looks like those people are waiting for us.”

“There’s space for us to land on the rooftop, Captain. I can take us down there if you like,” Curly said.

Benson said, “Sounds good. We can at least talk and find out where the Admin Building is, if nothing else. Maybe that’s it, and they’re the welcoming committee.”

Curly maneuvered them over the building and gently dropped down, the rails bumping on the rooftop. He opened the door, and everyone stepped out.

Five people watched them, expressionless, arms behind their backs. In their center, a woman of African descent with short hair stood tall and skinny. The others, Benson noted, were male. One was of Asian descent, the rest European.

“I think this is the leader,” she said in a low voice to Kilmeade.

She approached the group while the rest of the crew spread out behind her.

Benson smiled. She said, “I am Captain May Benson, Star League Navy.”

The woman’s back straightened a bit. Benson reckoned her age to be mid-30s.

She said, “I am Selinda Seldom, Governor of Halcyon. I regret to inform you, you are all under arrest.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 31

Thrall sat in the Stockton Administration Building conference room with his arms crossed. He scowled at the holograms of his admirals around the table.

Six Admirals now, he thought. No longer seven.

He had not yet come around to finding a replacement for Kwan, who died at Gotha Mu along with the rest of his fleet and half of Cooper’s.

Thrall sighed, then brought his mind back to the present and matters at hand.

He said, “The war is not going well for us. Our main ship factory is maxed out on capacity, and we are nowhere near replacing the ones lost at Seychar. It’s almost pointless to crank out new ships and crew if they can get blown out of the sky so easily.

“I have been speaking with the Naval liaison at Thespar Industries almost daily. There have been some delays in the development of our own ‘sun bombs.’ Mostly these revolved around the power requirements involved in teleporting a large chunk of solar energies.

“Part of that engineering dilemma explains the reasoning behind the Republic’s new Condor-class. It was designed from the start to handle the enormous amounts of power involved. It’s one of the reasons the ship is so big. Our spies say even with all the Republic’s preparations, the ship’s power core blew when they attacked the Fifth Fleet at Seychar.”

Thrall took a deep breath to control his emotions. He was still deeply upset over the fiasco Operation Golden Return had become. So many ships lost! Every single one. Even Excelsior, the Lucky Lady, which showed up late to the battle. She managed to port away before total destruction, gaining valuable intelligence about the Republic’s new weapon in the process, but the enemy had one of their privateers in position to finish her off at Halcyon.

With an effort, Thrall set aside that memory and swallowed the bile in his throat.

He said, “We are trying to counter the Republic’s weapon without designing our own version of the Condor-class.”

That stirred the Admirals’ interest. He saw them shift in their chairs.

“That would take up more time than we have right now. I informed our weapons development team I wanted something that could be used on existing ships with minimal retrofitting. They gave me two options.”

On the table, another hologram appeared, this one visible to everyone in the conference call. A sleek, tubular device floated in the air. The measurements and other specs scrolled by in text floating in the air. Everyone could see it measured about three times the size of a typical skybus.

“This is a . . . ‘solar torpedo.’ The nerds have a much longer technical term for it, but that’s essentially what it is. Our engineers solved the issue of power by placing the source in the torpedo itself.”

Eyebrows shot up around the table. Thrall nodded at the Admirals.

“Yes, they put power cores and Wu drives inside the torpedoes. So, an Eagle can simply carry the torpedoes in their cargo bays. When they get to the battle, StarCen will port the torpedoes into a cluster of enemy ships, and it will pull in the sun. Directing the energy straight to the Wu drives rather than teleporting it from the heart of the sun to another location in space solves a variety of vexing technical issues. Or so I am told. The math is simpler if the sun is brought to the Wu drive itself, evidently.”

“Brilliant.”

Thrall looked to see who made the comment. It was Cooper.

Thrall nodded and said, “Yes, they say it solves a number of issues. It’s not without a price though. The torpedoes are very expensive, and they’re only good for one use. The solar energy they pull in will take them out along with all the nearby ships. Manufacturing them will be costly and time consuming. But, in the short term they will be less costly, and less time consuming, than designing our own Condor-class ships. The torpedoes will allow us to counter the Condors immediately.”

“How many do we have?” Cooper said.

“Three, at the moment. I know that’s not many. Thespar is producing more as we speak. I hope to have three more by this time next week.”

Admiral Ricci spoke up. She said, “Tetrarch Thrall, you mentioned two options under development. What is the second one?”

Thrall smiled mysteriously. He said, “The second option I am not prepared to discuss, just yet. Let me say that when the Republic goes on the offensive, we’ll have a nasty surprise waiting for them.”

“And, where do we think the Republic will go next?” Cooper said.

Thrall gave him a flat stare. Cooper knew the answer to the question already, just as Thrall and the others knew. But Cooper wanted everything out in the open. Thrall obliged him.

Thrall said, “StarCen predicts the Republic will move on Juventas. Your fleet is halved. Your resources are in disarray, your population is in open revolt. You are low hanging fruit, Admiral. The Republic will try and grab a capital planet next, and you are the one they will strike.”

Cooper’s face looked grim. He said, “How soon can you get those torpedoes here?”

“I’ve already sent the first three your way, along with my little surprise. I think you’ll be fine, Admiral. With these new weapons we should hold Juventas in the League column, for now.”

“Begging your pardon, Tetrarch Thrall, but I hope you’re right. If the Diego Fleet is headed our way . . . we’ll need all the help we can get.”

“In this radical new method of warfare, Admiral, the number of ships you have no longer matters as much. What matters is the amount of sun you can bring into the battle for your side.”

“I understand that, sir. But right now we don’t have any way to bring in the sun, until those torpedoes get here.”

“And as I said, I am getting them to you. In the meantime, I suggest you work on containing your population. I’m not liking what I’m reading in the SSI reports over there.”

The blood drained from Cooper’s face. He said, “The Resistance is strong, no doubt. But we are supporting SSI in every way possible to maintain control.”

Thrall nodded. “I’m sure. But if StarCen is correct, you will shortly be facing threats from without as well as from within. StarCen has calculated survival maneuvers for our ships if the Republicans get there before then. If that happens, your internal problems will only get worse. At that point we will discuss more severe population control measures.”

Admiral Cooper looked like he had bitten a lemon. The survival maneuvers essentially involved running away. If the Republicans showed up before he got the torpedoes, his fleet would be evacuated, leaving Juventas abandoned. The population measures . . . he felt uncertain what Thrall meant by that. But he could hazard a guess.

“Very well,” he said, in a resigned tone. “I hope we get the new weapons as soon as possible.”

“As do I, Admiral. As do I.”

Halcyon’s Heirs 30

That night, the telegraph crew marched into town looking for a place to sleep. They had a mule team carrying supplies and food, so they brought plenty to eat with them. They just needed a place to lie down.

The entire town came out to meet them, alerted to their arrival by Charlie who ran through the streets screaming at everybody that they were here.

Benson decided to put them up in the church, recently vacated by the Navy. The telegraph guys had heard the Navy was there, word having spread to the next town down the road. They shook hands with the sailors, thanking them for their service. They all were curious to meet someone who had been off world recently, and asked a lot of questions about what was going on in the League and how the war was going.

Benson interviewed the foreman personally, learning in turn all she could from him. They had been stringing up wire for several weeks, starting out of Winthrop and connecting all the towns and villages along the road. Another group followed behind them several days out, erecting offices and carrying the equipment to power the lines. They were also installing telegraph keys in each location. The settlements would essentially serve as relays all the way to Winthrop.

The idea was, people would pay a few credits to send messages down the line, where they would be transcribed and delivered to the proper recipients. Apparently a group of investors back in Winthrop bankrolled the whole thing, looking to cash in on instant communication services.

When she heard about the investors, Benson concluded once again it was time to leave Wallisville and head for Winthrop.

“But . . . I thought we were going to stay!”

Kilmeade protested when Benson confided her thoughts with the ensign and Curly the next day.

“It’s been bothering me,” Benson said. “These people . . . they’re too free. There is no central authority out here. I thought by killing the worst of the rebellious ones, Darcy and his ilk, I could make a difference. But . . . the whole planet thinks like Darcy.

“Everyone here feels like the League abandoned them. And they did. The League hasn’t come back—won’t come back—until the war is over. And even then it may take a while to send ships here. We’re practically next door to Seychar. And after what happened at Gotha Mu, I don’t know if the Navy is going to be interested in heading this way for a while, even in the event of peace.”

“Begging your pardon, ma’am,” Curly said. “But it’s not our responsibility to make sure these people remain loyal subjects to the League.”

“Of course it is, Curly. The Navy is the military arm of the League. We enforce the rules, and fight the enemy wherever they show up in the galaxy. Keeping abandoned settlers in line is completely within our operating parameters.”

She glanced at Kilmeade, who stared back looking just as unhappy as Curly.

Benson said to her, “You’re the only other person besides me, possibly on this entire planet, to have gone through the Naval Academy. Tell me you don’t see this.”

“Maybe in the textbooks, Captain,” Kilmeade said. “Maybe in the textbooks we would be faced with the hypothetical of a rebellious planet. But this is real life. These people have been abandoned. They haven’t even had a supply boat show up from Epsilon in three years. Of course they’re going to become . . . independent minded. They don’t need the League because the League is not here for them. They’re making do without. And there’s nothing really wrong with that.”

Benson sighed and looked out the window at the unpaved streets and wooden sidewalks that comprised Wallisville.

She said, “It’s like ‘Lord of the Flies’ out there.”

Kilmeade said, “Ma’am, it’s nothing like ‘Lord of the Flies.’ I did read that one.”

Benson stood up and said, “We’re going to go to Winthrop, take complete control, and make things right. We’ll have this planet in the best shape we possibly can for when the League returns after the war.”

-+-

Another day passed before they were ready to leave. One sailor was still recovering from gunshot wounds, a woman named Carol Ong. Benson realized Ong was the woman who had freaked out during evacuation of the Excelsior. She had been the first person Chung knocked out that day.

Thinking of Chung brought up a pang of remorse. She had not allowed herself time for reflection, and had put him out of her mind as she adjusted to this primitive planet.

But now she started thinking about things he had said, the way he dressed when not in uniform, and the way he had looked at her. By the time they were ready to go, she was in a foul mood as depression seeped into her, like sour milk slowly filling up a water glass.

The transport had been loaded, and Benson decided to leave Ong and one other behind. Those two could look after the town and serve as her eyes and ears at this farthest outpost while she went to take over Winthrop.

After consulting with Curly and Kilmeade, she decided to let Vargas stay behind with Ong. Vargas had emptied an entire powerpack on two snipers up in the mountains, and seemed a little careless at times, but Curly vouched for him.

They left two blasters for Vargas and Ong. Afterward, everybody shook Ong’s hand. She was on a bed in the courthouse, under doctor’s orders not to move until the nanobots had a chance to fix her up. Benson realized she had been up on a roof, hiding behind a store façade when one of Darcy’s men shot her. Benson had actually seen the shot, and had taken care of the shooter herself.

Satisfied that all was in order, Benson followed the others to the transport. Looking around, she realized how many she had lost since coming to Wallisville. On another edge of town, east of the church, the cemetery held several new graves.

A few people came out to see them go, including Mr. Carver who would now resume his role as Mayor. Ms. Galavez was there along with other members of the MWBSG. Benson noted a Cheshire Cat grin on Ms. Galavaz’s face.

I guess she’s finally getting her way, Benson thought.

Without any further ceremony or comment, Benson climbed aboard the transport with her crew. Curly closed the door, and the ship levitated into the air. He turned it, nose facing Winthrop, and they shot away.

Halcyon’s Heirs 29

Three days had passed since the Great Wallisville Shootout. That was what the town’s newspaper called it. The Wallisville Times-Picayune was run by a fellow named Edward Epsilon-Watson. He put it out once a week on four pages, using an old paper printer and a pocket computer he brought with him when he emigrated to Halcyon. The paper came by stagecoach from Winthrop. Watson zealously guarded the powerpack everything ran on, turning the components on only long enough to run off some copies each week. Even so, he had a stockpile of cartridges so he could continue printing the newspaper for years this way.

Details of the crew’s victory over the miners blanketed the front page of this week’s edition. Benson read through the stories with a grim smile. The Wallisville Times-Picayune was a one-man outfit, and it showed in the writing. The articles followed the same breathless style, and though they were unattributed, with no bylines, everyone knew Ed wrote every word.

The remainder of the paper covered legal claims, the sites of various gold stakes, and miscellaneous town news. This week the news included word of impending nuptials involving a miner and one of Wallisville’s newest residents, a young lady who arrived by stagecoach three weeks ago to take a position as teacher in the little one-room schoolhouse.

A complete schedule listing the upcoming activities of the Methodist Women’s Bible Study Group was included on page 3, with a notification that anyone interested in more details should contact Ms. Betty Galavaz directly. This page had some advertising, which presumably went to help pay for the paper imported from Winthrop. The local general store had an ad, as did the barber and the undertaker.

The undertaker’s ad read, “You plug ’em, we plant ’em!” This, evidently, was a nod to an ancient American newspaper cartoon strip set in the Wild West, but the Captain did not catch the reference and could not see the humor in it, even after Mayor Carver tried to explain it to her.

The back page was devoted to classified ads and personal notices, which anybody could buy for three credits each.

Benson at first ignored the newspaper, finding it a quaint throwback to simpler times, nothing more. However, walking around town she noticed practically everyone was reading it the day it came out. She saw the little four page newspaper (it was really one big sheet of paper, folded in half and printed on both sides) everywhere she went, people reading away. Ed Watson’s words were consumed by all.

So, she bought a copy for herself and read about her crew’s exploits. Ed had mentioned the move by Benson to essentially take over the town, and he reported Mayor Carver’s guarded opinions on the matter. Most of the others he interviewed expressed enthusiasm that some vestige of civilization had at last arrived in the form of the League Navy. Or at least, surviving crew from a ship in the League Navy.

She made a mental note to meet with Watson about the paper. His ability to spread information and shape opinions was dangerous. Like a gun, it could be used both ways, either for or against her. She wanted to make sure Watson’s weapon, the press, would be used for her.

After being shot by Bill Darcy, Benson made it a point to be seen on the streets of Wallisville often. In fact, she took a walk around the entire town twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. She thought the extra visibility would help in governing the people. She was exercising her authority over them, and she wanted to be visible.

Also, it showed she was unafraid. She would not be a reclusive ruler, hiding in an office and refusing to go outside for fear of getting shot again. She held her head high as a Captain in the Navy should, and met the eyes of all who approached her.

She also carried a blaster on her side every time she stepped outside. The unspoken message it sent was clear, too. “Don’t mess with the Navy. If you do, you’ll die.”

The fact that the crew had used up most of their guns’ energy packs in “The Great Wallisville Shootout,” was something not mentioned to the townsfolk. Let them continue to consider the crew invulnerable, she told Curly and the rest of her people. But, don’t waste limited resources. She had no desire to get into any more shootouts.

Quietly, Benson directed her crew to gather the primitive muzzle-loading rifles belonging to Darcy’s men and store them in the house they occupied, City Hall, and the jail. They also collected gunpowder and Minni balls. When the day came that they ran out of energy packs for their guns, the Captain wanted to be prepared with whatever weaponry this world had to offer.

By the third day, today, people seemed less nervous when she approached. She took this as a good sign, walking down the wooden sidewalks. The Times-Picayune was old news, now, and she noticed a copy fluttering in the wind down the unpaved street.

Charlie Struthers ran into town, trampling over the old paper. He diverted course when he saw the Captain and headed straight toward her.

Benson kept a corner of her heart reserved for Charlie, who had been the first to spot their transport, and had been shot by a ricocheted bullet from Darcy’s men. She was particularly glad they had been able to save the young boy.

“Ms. Benson! Cap’n Benson! The graph line men is comin’!”

“Slow down, Charlie,” she said with a laugh. “Who’s coming?”

“The graph line men! They’s putting up the line not ten klicks outta town!”

In due course, Benson figured out that Charlie meant “telegraph line.” Carver nodded when she mentioned it to him later that day.

He said, “We heard somebody in Winthrop developed a working telegraph. It’s a pretty good idea for simple technology. If you can fashion copper wire, you can put it up on poles for klicks and klicks. Less complex than a telephone. It’s dirt simple. Just wind up a crank and send pulses of electricity down the line. Morse Code. Easier to handle than voice, though I suspect that’s comin’ next. They’ve been trying to connect the outlying towns and villages, stitching us all together with a line back to the big city. This should speed up communications quite a bit.”

“Next thing you know,” Benson said, “They’ll put tracks down and send a train out here.”

Carver nodded. He said, “Steam engines are fairly simple. They’ll need a good ironworks to develop the tracks, and a source of gravel to help lay down the bed. And of course a steam shovel to clear everything. It’ll take time, but give us a few years and we’ll be doing good. We’ll have all the best of the 19th century!”

“Or, you could just wait for the war to end and get the current technology that everyone else has.”

Carver grinned. “We get bored waitin’, ma’am.”

Benson walked to the edge of town and squinted, shielding her face from the sun with the palm of her hand. Kilometers away, she could make out movement as the telegraph crew worked on planting poles in the ground beside the road. They looked like tiny dots, but they would be here soon. Then the town would have a direct line of communication back to Winthrop, without modern neural nets or access to the quantum matrix. Or even modern energy packs. They would have long distance electronic communication they developed on their own.

She thought, it would be a simple means of communication. Primitive, but effective. Old Earth had been covered with telegraph lines in the 19th century. They progressed into phone lines, then Internet lines as time marched on. Would this world follow the same lines of development? Everyone knew the technology already, there would be no need to re-invent the wheel. All you needed were a few people who were smart enough to know how to make the wheel.

Once they had electricity down and their manufacturing processes perfected, there would be no stopping them. They could exploit the planet’s natural resources and live quite comfortably all by themselves, cut off from the rest of the galaxy.

She frowned.

“These people are too independent,” she said to herself out loud.

“If they don’t need the League now, they’re not going to want us when we return after the war.”

And that, she thought, would surely lead to trouble.