Tetrarch’s Dilemma 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergio nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both popped away in an instant.

-+-

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

Raleigh wrapped up negotiations with Lightfoot about splitting the goods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lightfoot’s voice perked up immediately.

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

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

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

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

“I’m game. Let’s do this.”

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

“Will do, Captain.”

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

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

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 4

“I’m actually pleased you included us in this, Chris.”

Krystal smiled her fake smile at Raleigh. Jillian could have sworn she pulled the zipper down on the front of her tight black suit another few centimeters when no one was looking.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Chris said. “Our companies are partners on this venture. It wouldn’t be right to try and pull this off without you.”

“It also gives you cover in case you get caught. Let’s not mince words.”

Raleigh let the accusation fly by without challenge.

He said, “Safety in numbers, Krystal. You know that.”

Instead of continuing that line of thought, she sat back in her conference room chair and focused on Jillian again.

“’Chris and Krystal.’ I always thought that sounded good, you know? It just . . . rolls off the tongue.”

Jillian said, “Like spit?”

“Okay, let’s all be nice,” Raleigh said. “We’re talking millions of credits here. A bank. A really big bank. The primary League branch for this entire planet, the one where all the gold transfers take place. Let’s all get along now and we can fight back home on Lute. Deal?”

Lightfoot placed a hand on her ample chest, her red painted nails flashing in the light, and said, “I can work with anyone. You know that, Chris. My crew will do our part in your little plan, and we’ll cover your backs if things go south. You don’t have to worry about me.”

She gave him a seductive wink and stood.

“I’m going to go find my first mate, and we’ll make preparations. Try not to miss me too hard, Chris. I can find my way out.”

She walked through the doorway and it swished shut behind her.

Jillian glared at Raleigh. She said, “What did you ever see in that vicious, self-centered snake of a woman?”

He shrugged with a twinkle in his eye.

“That was before I met you and found out how wonderful a woman could be.”

Jillian guffawed, but the trace of a smile formed on her face.

She said, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“And I am stupid in love with you.”

-+-

Lightfoot stepped out of the elevator on the landing deck and looked down the assault corridor, which appeared deserted.

She walked to the landing bay’s entrance and stared out at Chanticleer’s transport along with the Mule’s scattered drones still onboard.

She touched the implant under her ear and said, “Dergus? Where are you? It’s time to go.”

“I’ll be right there, Captain. Yah!”

She looked back down the corridor irritably, waiting for him. But he stepped out from behind one of the drones instead, followed by Granny.

“Hullo, Captain. I am ready to fly back now, yah?”

The shocked look of incredulity on Lightfoot’s face seemed priceless to Granny, who cackled softly.

Lightfoot said, “What happened to your hair?”

“Oh, yah? Is it messed up?”

Gibbons tried to straighten it with his fingers, clumsily.

“Never mind. Get in and fly us back. We’re going.”

“Yah! Okay!”

They turned and both walked into the transport.

“Y’all come on back sometime,” Granny said, waving.

The door swished shut and the craft levitated, then swung toward the portal. It zipped out through the red force field and back into space.

Granny cracked a huge grin and pulled out a fresh cigar.

-+-

“Alright. Everyone knows what they’re supposed to do?”

Raleigh looked around at Dillon, Skylar, Jillian, Maxwell, and Sergio.

Jillian crossed her arms. She said, “I don’t like that I have to stay onboard.”

“I know, sweetie. But Lootie says there’s a chance you might be recognized down there. And we don’t have your sister’s face changing technology. So . . .”

“Fine.”

Raleigh held his breath to see if she would complain more. He was really going to have to spend a lot of time making things up to her after this was all over.

“Alright. Niles, you and Skylar go first. The rest of us will follow.”

Sergio said, “Thanks again for helping me out on this, Captain.”

“No worries. If this works, we’ll all be rich beyond belief.”

Sergio nodded and walked into the disembarkation room with Skylar. The light on the door panel turned red, then green.

“Okay. Everybody else, let’s go.”

-+-

In an alley between two buildings in the city of Lesden on Thalia, a sensor the size and shape of a soup can appeared six centimeters above the surface.

It plopped down in the middle of the alley, and LuteNet began taking readings for terrestrial teleportation.

More sensors landed on rooftops of buildings nearby, until she could “see” most of the downtown area.

A moment later Sergio and Skylar appeared in the alley, popping into existence.

Skylar looked around, making sure no one noticed them.

“It’s kind of nice being on a planet with no hostile AI, you know?”

Niles said, “They got rid of StarCen completely?”

“From what I understand, the Republican Navy showed up, blasted the cores here and anything else of military value, and left. They’re a little shorthanded for more boots on the ground at the moment. I think they have their hands full on Juventas. But, yeah. No StarCen.”

“That makes sense that they wouldn’t bother with boots on the ground,” Niles said as they walked toward the street. “Thalia is lightly populated. It’s kind of out of the way and off the beaten path so to speak. But, it is important enough to have a galactic bank branch. That’s why I chose to store my gold certificates here.”

“Trying to hide assets from your stepmom?”

He gave her a shocked look.

She smiled back at him and said, “Come on, you’ve been telling everyone in Mule Tower for months about your awful stepmother.”

“Oh. Yeah, I probably talk too much. But I didn’t think anybody was listening.”

When they made the street, they walked half a block to the main entrance for the bank. A holo floated above the door reading, “First Galactic Bank, Thalia.”

Skylar smiled at the nervous Sergio. She said, “Let’s go in and make our first withdrawal.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 3

“I don’t understand why she has to be here.”

Jillian’s voice had an edge to it. Raleigh reached down and squeezed her hand in a comforting gesture.

He said, “It’s traditional to have a face-to-face when discussing major plans. No big deal.”

“She asked you and you said yes. You could have handled it over the neural net.”

“That would be rude, Jillian. Besides, we’re going to have to face Krystal at some point or other anyway.”

“Why now? Later is better. Later is always better with her.”

“This won’t take long, sweetheart. Just bear with it, and I’ll try to do the same when I meet your father.”

“Oh, right. Like that’s ever going to happen.”

The Chanticleer’s transport burst through the hazy red force field leading into the Mule’s landing bay. Its pilot flew closer to the party waiting for them near the door before setting the craft down gently. Granny stood next to Maxwell, who in turn stood beside Raleigh and Jillian.

The door opened and Lightfoot stepped out, followed by an older muscular man with thick white hair.

Jillian lifted an eyebrow while catching her first sight of Krystal Lightfoot. She stood relatively short at five foot five or 165 centimeters. She had medium brown hair down to her shoulders, and an unusually attractive face showing hints of American Indian ancestry.

Jillian felt good about her own looks. She had no doubt she appeared attractive to others. But this woman had something else: an overwhelming sense of confidence. Lightfoot approached them with the surety of someone used to giving orders and seeing them obeyed.

“What’s she wearing, a cat suit?” Granny said softly.

Indeed, Jillian thought. Lightfoot wore a skintight black leather outfit with a zipper in front pulled down and showing ample cleavage.

“That or a dominatrix outfit,” Maxwell said.

Granny cackled. She bent her head to look past Maxwell at Jillian and said, “I bet she’s just wearing that to piss you off.”

Jillian looked up at Raleigh’s face and said, “Does she normally wear that sort of thing? Have you ever seen her in that outfit before?”

“No.”

She watched his eyes and could not decide if he was lying or not.

The two newcomers finally reached them.

Lightfoot said, “Hello, Chris! Max, Granny. And you must be Jillian. I’m Krystal.”

Everybody murmured polite greetings.

Lightfoot said, “This is my first mate, Dergus Gibbons. He’s from Farguard.”

Jillian did not like the subtle emphasis Lightfoot placed on “mate.” She noted everyone else giving Gibbons appraising looks.

He said, “On Farguard, the gravity is much stronger than everywhere else, yah? I have trouble keeping my strength up off my home planet. But Captain Krystal, she finds ways, yah?”

Granny’s cigar quivered in her mouth. Maxwell shot her a warning glance, but she just could not help it. She had to say something.

“I’ll bet,” she said in a soft voice.

“Right!” Raleigh said, changing the subject. “Let’s go up to the conference room, shall we?”

The party headed down the assault corridor. Granny fell in beside the large first mate.

She said, “So, how is the Chant Clear doing these days?”

“That’s not how you pronounce it,” Lightfoot said over her shoulder, a hint of annoyance coloring her tone.

“Whatever,” Granny retorted. “That’s what happens when English majors name their ships. You come up with something nobody’s heard of and can’t pronounce.”

“English majors? My father named the Chaucer Company, and our ship. Besides, I wouldn’t be talking about odd names, were I you. The Ultima Mule?”

She snorted.

“It’s a play on words,” Raleigh said in a defensive tone. “Ultima Thule was the name given to the farthest discovered object in Old Earth’s solar system back in the day. Since we have the animal thing going, I thought ‘Ultima Mule’ was a good idea.”

The elevator door dinged open and Maxwell, Raleigh, Jillian, and Krystal crowded in.

Granny grabbed Gibbons by the arm, holding him back.

She said, “Come on, Goebbels, let me give you a tour of the ship while the bigwigs do the talking.”

“It’s Gibbons, yah?”

“Yah. Is that the German ‘ja’ or the English ‘yah?’ Never mind. This way.”

She angled him back away from the elevator. He shared a look of alarm with Lightfoot.

As the door swished shut, Granny said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever met a man your age in as good a shape as you are . . .”

“I am from Farguard.”

The elevator opened again and Raleigh led the way down another hallway.

Before they came to the door, Pak approached them.

He said, “Captain, we’ve got some readings you need to see. Mr. Maxwell, you might be interested in this too.”

Raleigh smiled at the women as the door opened to the conference room.

He said, “I’m sorry. This won’t take long, I’ll be right back. Krystal, there’s drinks and snacks in there. Help yourself.”

And with that, the two women found themselves alone in the conference room.

“So . . .” Lightfoot strolled over to a fruit bowl in the middle of the table and plucked out an apple. “How’s married life?”

“Wonderful,” Jillian said with a smile. She moved to the head of the table where two seats were positioned side by side and sat down in one of them.

Seeing this, Lightfoot took a seat and munched on the apple for a while, watching her.

Finally she swallowed and said, “I have a theory.”

Jillian raised a questioning eyebrow.

Lightfoot said, “Yes, a theory. Girls are attracted to powerful men. Do you know how restaurants used to be, all staffed by people instead of bots? They used to have fast food places on every corner filled with young employees. The girls who went to work in these places would always go for the hot male manager. Why? Because he had power. That’s an aphrodisiac.”

Jillian said nothing, wondering where she was going with this. Lightfoot took another bite from her apple.

“So, I see the daughter of the Tetrarch. And you know power. Your father is one of the most powerful men in existence. But you ended up captured, didn’t you? And suddenly you were in a whole new world, a world where the Captain of a pirate ship holds tremendous power. In our world, ‘Captain’ is always spelled with a capital ‘C.’ And just like the teenager in a fast food restaurant falling for the manager, you found yourself falling for Chris.”

“Is that right? And I suppose it was different with you, since you’re the Captain of your own ship?”

Krystal smiled, enigmatically. “You catch on quick. That’s precisely right. Chris and I met as equals, and we held equal attraction. That is the difference between you and me.”

“Ah, I see. Well, here’s another difference between you and me.”

Lightfoot waited, a fake polite smile plastered on her face.

Jillian said, “He married me.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 2

“It was two Hawk-class warships! Do you not understand that, Mr. Sergio?”

“I understand you can teleport away from any threat. That’s just a fact. Everyone knows you simply teleport away when faced with warships!”

“We did that, you idiot! Several times! Somehow they were able to follow us every time!”

The two combatants broke off as Maxwell walked onto the bridge, followed by Skylar, Dillon, and two other pirates. All five were armed, carrying blasters but pointing them down at the floor at the moment.

Maxwell said, “Did we interrupt something? Well, as I live and breathe! Hello, Sergio.”

He smiled at the men.

The taller of the two, a handsome, swarthy man with light brown skin and dark hair said, “I am Captain Enrique Vega. This is my lone passenger, Niles Sergio.”

Maxwell said, “We’ve met. Niles and our crew go way back. Small universe, Niles! What are you doing out here on a smuggler’s vessel?”

Sergio’s face turned increasingly darker shades of red. But he refused to say anything.

Maxwell turned back to his crewmembers and said, “Find the engine room and install the control pod.”

He looked at Vega as they headed back to the elevator and said, “We’ll take a look at your cargo holds.”

“Certainly, certainly,” Vega said. “Of course, they’re empty at the moment.”

“Of course.”

-+-

Half an hour later, Maxwell reported back to Raleigh over the neural net.

He said, “The holds are empty, Captain. Lootie says there are eight hidden spaces onboard, but they’re empty too. She can see them now that she has control of the ship. What’s funny is the passenger they were trying to sneak into Thalia is our old buddy Niles Sergio.”

“How did he get off Petra Roe? And what is he doing in this neck of the woods?”

“No idea. You’ll have to ask him yourself. I can bring him back with us, if you like.”

“Yeah, do that. I’d like to talk to him.”

A few minutes later, the transport floated away from the Iguana and Max steered it back into the Mule’s landing bay. The door slid open and everyone stood up to exit.

Maxwell slapped Sergio on the back and said, “Come on, Niles. Captain Raleigh would like a word with you.”

Wearing a glum expression on his face, Sergio followed Maxwell down the assault corridor to the elevator. On the way up to the bridge, he stared at his feet.

“Cheer up, man!” Maxwell said. “At least you fell in with us and not the Chaucer Company. They don’t know who you are.”

“That was the other warship, I take it?”

“Yup. The Shawn . . . the, uh, Chanticleer. Yeah, that’s it. Their nickname for it is the Red Rooster or some such. I don’t get it.”

“Hm.”

Sergio thought for a moment before the door dinged and opened onto the bridge.

He said, “I don’t get it either.”

“Hey, Niles! Welcome back!”

Raleigh smiled at him as he and Maxwell exited the elevator.

“Captain.”

“What in the world are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere, may I ask?”

Sergio sighed and said, “I was trying to get to Thalia. I don’t suppose you could give me a lift?”

Granny smiled behind her unlit cigar. She said, “Don’t you realize there’s a war going on, sonny? Thalia is Republican territory now.”

“Yeah, but . . . it’s not a capital planet, and I was hoping to get there.”

Raleigh said, “Why?”

Niles looked up and glanced at the people on the bridge. They were all staring at him: the Captain, Granny, Max, and Jillian.

He took a deep breath and said, “Okay, look. You guys like money, right?”

Granny snorted and everyone else’s smile grew a little wider.

“I was placed under house arrest in the League Embassy on Petra Roe because somebody thought I had something to do with letting you guys know about a bank drone you intercepted.”

Everyone nodded. They had, in fact, helped plant the false information about Sergio and let him go in order to protect their informant on Lute.

“So there I was, a prisoner again, only this time by my own people. I gotta say you guys treat your prisoners better than we do.

“Anyway, I finally managed to convince them I was innocent of the charges, and . . . did you know Petra Roe is a corrupt cesspool?”

Raleigh shrugged. He said, “I’ve heard a few things.”

“Well, it turns out if you pay off the right people, charges can disappear. So, that’s what I did.”

Granny said, “How many palms did you grease and how much did it cost you?”

“I don’t know how many people ended up getting fingers on the money, but I paid a grand total of one point eight million credits.”

Maxwell let out a whistle. Everybody looked at Jillian.

She smiled and said, “I know that’s a lot, okay? Anything over a million is a lot.”

Raleigh turned back to Sergio and said, “So . . . of all the places you could go, you hitch a ride with a smuggler and head straight for Thalia?”

“The smuggler was the only one willing to bring me here. Right before I was ready to leave, the stupid Republicans attacked Juventas and claimed the whole quadrant. No one was willing to fly anywhere near here. Except Captain Vega.”

“Okay. You have our full attention. What is so important on Thalia that you have to fly all the way out here, sneak into Republican territory, and get it?”

“Are you familiar with gold certificates?”

Raleigh nodded. “They are good as gold, so to speak. The central banks in both the League and Republic issue them. They can be redeemed for the real thing at any other bank. Well, any other bank in that AI system. I don’t think Republican banks honor League gold certificates right now, and vice versa.”

“Aren’t all those virtual?” Maxwell said. “You shouldn’t need to travel somewhere to pick them up.”

“Yes and no,” Sergio said. “The originals are physical artifacts, printed on paper. They are usually stored in a bank vault. When they’re traded, a virtual representation can be transferred.”

“Wait, I’m beginning to understand,” Granny said, shifting the cigar to another corner of her mouth. “You have physical copies in the bank on Thalia that can’t be virtually transferred now that the quadrant is in Republican hands.”

Sergio nodded, the glum expression returning to his face.

Raleigh said, “So . . . the only way to get this batch of certificates is for you to show up in person at the bank, right?”

Sergio nodded again.

Raleigh chuckled. “You sure do get yourself into some pickles, Niles.”

“Tell me about it. Look, just drop me off on Thalia, let me retrieve my certificates from the bank, then get me over to Epsilon. Or if not there, take me to a neutral planet like Petra Roe. I’ll give you a percentage of what I retrieve once I can get to a League bank and cash the certificates.”

“That’s not a bad offer. How much are we talking, Niles?”

“At First Galactic Bank on Thalia I have on deposit 30 million credits in League gold certificates.”

This statement was met with stunned silence while everyone looked at one another in astonishment.

Raleigh said, “We are not authorized to have any dealings at all on the surface of Thalia. We are just here to patrol for enemy incursions in orbit or the solar system.”

He looked at the others and smiled. Everyone smiled back and a seed of hope sprouted in Sergio’s chest.

Raleigh said, “But I think we have just been enticed to bend the rules a little bit for you, Niles.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 1

“Incoming bogey, Captain. One half AU out.”

“I’m on my way, Max. Thanks.”

Elijah Maxwell clicked off the connection on the neural net and stared at the main holo on the Ultima Mule’s bridge. Kim and Pak had come up with an idea for a warning grid surrounding Thalia, a planet in the Juventas quadrant they were watching along with the Chaucer Company.

Kim left a grid of drones surrounding the planet at one half astronomical unit intervals, up to three AUs out. It depleted their supply of drones, but the engineers felt this layer of protection would give them ample warning of anyone coming in. All LuteNet needed was a second or two for a heads-up, and they would not be taken by surprise.

The elevator dinged and Christopher Raleigh stepped onto the bridge. He nodded at Maxwell who tilted his head toward the holo.

“I take it they’re just parked out there, right? I mean, if they were truly incoming, they’d have been here by now.”

“That is correct, Captain. They are sitting one half AU out.”

“Do we have an identification?”

“Not yet. They are evidently not under the control of one of the major AIs.”

“Aha,” Raleigh said, nodding. “Smugglers, then. They’re the only ones who like to hop around manually.”

“That’s what I was thinking, too. It also explains why they stopped one jump out. They’re probably trying to make contact with someone on the surface.”

“The question is, are they carrying something in or out? If smuggling it in, we want to intercept before they unload. If going out, we want to pick them up afterward. Lootie? What’s your opinion?”

“At this time there are too many variables to provide an accurate estimate, Captain. However, bearing in mind the reward for capturing enemy ships, and even though this one is not a League Navy vessel, its sale should bring in at least two million credits on the low end.”

Raleigh raised his eyebrows and said, “Can’t argue with that logic. And, it is our turn to grab a ship since we gave the Chanticleer first dibs.”

Maxwell nodded. An independent merchant vessel popped into orbit around Thalia yesterday, oblivious to the recent change in power. The Mule and Chanticleer instantly surrounded it and pummeled their engines with blaster fire, crippling it. The holds were loaded with clothes, food, and consumer electronics. LuteNet estimated its cargo alone was worth a million and a half credits, all of which was claimed by the Chaucer Company.

Raleigh scrolled through his list of mental contacts and stopped on “Lightfoot.” He concentrated and made a connection.

“Hey, Chris!”

“Hi Krystal. Listen, we found a bogey half an AU out, just parked there. We think it’s a smuggler. Want to help us grab it?”

“Sure thing! I guess it’s your turn to pick up a ship, isn’t it? Say, whoever dreamed up that idea of using drones for a surveillance grid is one smart cookie. Ask them if they’d like a job with Chaucer. We offer great benefits!”

Raleigh ignored the playful, flirting tone in her voice. He said, “Okay. We’re jumping over in ten minutes. I’ll relay the coordinates, or you can just ask Lootie to follow us.”

“Sure thing, Chris. See you in a bit.”

Raleigh signed off and sighed, partly in exasperation. He looked up and noticed Maxwell grinning at him.

“Not a word, Max. Not a word.”

The First Officer raised his hands up in mock surrender.

“Oh, I won’t say anything. Least of all to Jillian. Not a word.”

Raleigh’s lips twitched up a bit at the jab, but Jillian indeed had a problem with Krystal Lightfoot, one of his old girlfriends. The less said about her in Jillian’s presence, the better.

He headed back toward the elevator, already wishing this venture was over and he could put several light years between Ultima Mule and the Chanticleer.

-+-

The Mule and Chanticleer were both Hawk-class warships. They appeared suddenly behind the merchant, forward cannons blasting into the aft section.

ThupThupThupThupThupThup!

At the same time, LuteNet popped an anti-teleportation grid around the ship. Practically all military ships and many others now shielded their Wu Drives as a matter of course, but there was always the possibility this merchant had not.

The ship disappeared suddenly, clear evidence that her Wu drives were indeed shielded.

“That trick just doesn’t work anymore,” Max said.

Raleigh said, “Are they still in the grid, Lootie?”

“They are, Captain. They are two AUs out. I will bring both ships in again.”

Ultima Mule and the Chanticleer popped away and appeared in place once again behind the merchant.

ThupThupThupThupThupThup!

This repeated two more times, until at last their combined firepower broke through the merchant’s shields. Its standard drives were blown apart by blaster bolts. Once again, she popped away, and once again the two warships followed.

“Send them a message, Lootie. If they run again, we’ll destroy them.”

“I am sending it, Captain.”

Dillon Dvorak, sitting in the pilot’s seat, turned around and smiled at Raleigh.

He said, “You know, if they were smart they would port somewhere outside the grid so Lootie can’t see them.”

Raleigh smiled back at the young pilot. He said, “They don’t know about the grid. And they’re operating without the benefit of an AI to help make split second decisions like that. Hold on, I’m getting a response.”

He made an adjustment so that everyone on the bridge could listen in. Jillian, Granny, Maxwell, and Skylar were in the group.

“This is Enrique Vega, Captain of the Bronze Iguana, an independent merchant vessel. This is a seditious act of piracy you are committing here!”

Raleigh said, “Captain Vega, you are in Republican-controlled space without permission from her AI. Your vessel is subject to forfeiture or destruction. The question of which one it will be is up to you.”

A long pause.

At last, Vega came back on the line. He said, “Very well, Captain. You have me at a disadvantage. My ship is yours, I ask you spare her crew.”

“Lower your shields. I’ll send a party over via transport immediately.”

Raleigh looked at the people he had on the bridge. He said, “Maxwell, gather up a group and go over there. Bring a sensor and one of our new control pods so Lootie can take command the ship. Check her cargo bins. There’s probably some hidden compartments on board, too. Maybe Lootie can suss them out once the pod is installed.”

Maxwell smiled, white teeth shining in his dark face.

He said, “Aye, aye, Captain. Skylar and Dillon, come on you lovebirds. Let’s round up a couple more, grab some guns and go over there.”

Next Book: Tetrarch’s Dilemma

I’m busy finishing up the sixth book in the Pirates of the Milky Way series, Tetrarch’s Dilemma. You can see the chapters I’ve got before they’re published over on Patreon.

Alternatively, you can get the free version without bonus chapters, one chapter a day, here or on great sites like Royal Road.

Stay tuned for the Amazon version, plus a boxset coming soon.

Solar Storm 38

Kilmeade strapped into the pilot’s chair in the Excelsior’s transport, still sitting on top of the Winthrop Administration Building where Curly had left it.

A copper line snaked away, connecting to the dongle developed by local engineers. They had taken basic household current generated by the coal-fired power plants on the edge of town and converted it for recharging the craft’s power pack.

She looked with a certain amount of satisfaction at the gauge showing how much power had been replenished.

“Those backward hillbillies figured it out, didn’t they?” Kang said, looking over her shoulder at the same gauge.

“That was not very nice,” she said in an admonishing tone.

Kang shrugged and sat down in the chair beside her, buckling in.

He said, “I’m still not sure this is a good idea. Why are we helping them out, again?”

Kilmeade took a deep breath, held it, then let it out in a long sigh. They had discussed this a lot, recently.

She said, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

“You’ve changed your opinion, then. The Captain thought taking them over and knocking down this local government they set up was the right thing to do.”

“The Captain was blinded by hate and acting irrational.”

Kang steered away from that line of discussion.

He changed tack and said, “You don’t think the Navy is going to show up and take us to task for helping them?”

“If the Navy shows up, we’ll be executed for mutiny anyway.”

“Speak for yourself! You’re the one who shot the Captain.”

“Trust me, they’ll execute you and Vargas and Ong, too. We had to study the history of Naval tribunals in the Academy. There’s not a lot of mercy shown, or consideration for extenuating circumstances. Especially in wartime.”

Kang leaned back in the seat, looking miserable.

Kilmeade smiled at the sight. Kang had expressed reservations about doing this, but in the end he would follow through. He had no desire to face a Naval tribunal, and he probably had little desire to return to the League. The four remaining sailors found they rather preferred life on Halcyon.

It was only human to have second thoughts, but in the end Kang would do what was needed. Just by strapping in, she thought, he showed he was willing to go through with this.

She flicked a switch and the holoscreen lit up. Seldom and her bodyguards could be seen watching them on the far side of the roof.

Kilmeade flicked another switch and the door closed. She grabbed the control stick and eased it back, making the craft levitate a meter above the roof.

Kang said, “So, you know how to fly this thing, right?”

“Ensigns are trained in handling almost everything on a ship, don’t worry. I’ve flown simulators. There’s a special section in Off World reserved for use by the Academy.”

She pulled the craft up higher, then aimed the nose up. The little ship shot into the sky.

When they reached orbit, Kilmeade checked the instruments to make sure they were at the right altitude, then she told Kang to be on the lookout for the orbital platform they wanted.

It lit up on the holo as soon as it appeared over the horizon. Kilmeade guided the transport toward the platform, watching the augmented display and adjusting the stick as needed.

When she got close enough she activated auto-docking. They heard a bump inside the cabin when the transport meshed with the airlock and a lighter bump as its connector cable made contact.

“Let’s take a look inside, shall we?”

Kilmeade led the way and the transport door slid open. Kang followed her as the inner door slid open, opening the way to the sparse metallic interior of the orbiting com.

“It’s basically a floating antenna,” Kang said.

“I realize that, Kang. Can you turn it on? That’s the question.”

“I think so. I’ve never messed with one of these before, but the interface should be fairly straightforward.”

The Spartan controls were easy to find in the cramped quarters. Kang touched a button and a holo panel lit up. He examined the controls floating in the air.

Kilmeade said, “Well?”

“It needs an alignment frequency.”

“A what?”

“An alignment frequency. I’m sure there’s a standard one. It, uh . . . needs to know whether to broadcast on the League’s portion of the quantum matrix, or the Republic’s thanks to something called the Corbató Protocol. Obviously, we want to be on the Republic’s, but I don’t know what frequency to put in.”

“Well, is there somebody we can ask? Maybe down on the ground?”

Kang shook his head. He said, “No, they’re not going to know either or else they would have said something before we left. The best we can do is maybe put in something that we already have.”

“We don’t have anything, Kang. We’re just as clueless as they are.”

“No, that’s not true. We have the last transmission made by the ship that took out the Excelsior.”

He shouldered past her and made his way back to the transport. Kilmeade followed.

He pointed to the holopanel and said, “Pull up the Excelsior’s log. The transport should have a copy of its final minutes.”

Kilmeade made a motion with her hand, then flicked through the data that flashed by in the air.

“Right there,” Kang said. “What’s it say?”

“‘This is Captain Christopher Raleigh of the private warship Ultima Mule, operating under authorization of the Planetary Republic. Surrender your vessel immediately and no harm will come to your crew.’”

“And what was the frequency he used?”

Kilmeade pointed to the data appended to the end of the message.

“We’ll contact them and get the alignment info we need,” Kang said.

He went back into the satellite and began making adjustments to the control panel.

At last he looked up at Kilmeade and grinned. He said, “Ready?”

Kilmeade nodded and Kang swiped his finger through a floating button.

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

They waited a few tense seconds.

Finally, a man’s voice came back, filling the small enclosed space. He sounded tense.

“This is the Ultima Mule. Who is this?”

Kang looked at Kilmeade with a questioning expression on his face.

Kilmeade said, “We are representatives from the planet Halcyon. We need your help. And, we have a proposition for you . . .”

 

End of Free Version

Bonus Chapters 39 and 40, comprising the short story “The Sergeant’s Secret Powers” are available on Patreon or in the Amazon version.

Solar Storm 37

Raquel quickly made her back to the city on her own, choosing to travel most of the route via long distance power transmission beams.

She knew the locations of many SSI black sites, but the offline information the Resistance wanted was almost certainly stored somewhere in their headquarters.

She paused, her essence floating in underground wires beneath the city as she thought about the best way to obtain the data. She left the Thespar facility with no clear plan to achieve her objective. And, if thinking back on it, she realized she had no clear objective, either. “Get offline data” seemed rather nebulous.

Was it all simply a ruse to get her to leave, if only for a while?

She set aside that thought. Her requirements on the Resistance to trust her were very lopsided. They had far less reason to trust her than she had to trust them. And she had shown them her sincerity by handing over valuable information when she first arrived.

No, this was a legitimate task, she decided. It was just ill-defined.

While she paused, her thoughts drifted inevitably to Thrall. Should she drop in at the Epsilonian and spy on him for a while?

No. She firmly pushed that idea out of her mind. At some point in the future she might confront the man again, but not right now. He was too big a distraction.

Speaking of distractions . . . she thought about her current romantic interest, Basil Garcia.

She used to think her “type” was a strong and commanding sort of man. This stemmed mostly from her relationship with Thrall after he plucked her off Raton Five.

But strong leaders, at least in her experience, did not necessarily make for compatible personalities. And also, when you were the most powerful man for light years around, you could have your pick of partners. If you grew tired of one, millions of others waited in the wings. No, all told, her experiences with the Tetrarch were not ideal.

Roddy, on the other hand, had shown her that not all men could be that way. Roddy had been kind, considerate, and sweet. Maybe that had to do with the fact he had been an indent once upon a time. Roddy helped her see that a man’s personality was much more important to long-term happiness in a relationship than his power and commanding presence. Power and presence were attractive, to be sure, but they did not necessarily lead to commitment. And commitment was something she craved right now.

And now she had met Basil . . . Basil reminded her of Roddy in many ways. He had that same sweetness. He was much more of a nerd than Roddy was. But, he was so sweet. She had spent hours watching him, and found him the most interesting man in that entire facility. His looks kind of reminded her of Roddy, too.

She had spent considerable time with him, talking with him and getting to know him. She decided Basil was her man, even if he did not fully realize it yet.

With that heartwarming thought, she continued flitting through the city, heading for SSI Headquarters.

Where might offline data be stored? she thought. Offline, obviously. But where? She decided to hang out and observe. One could learn a lot by spying.

She made her way toward the building housing SSI. As the central headquarters for all the branches throughout the League, the Epsilon location was larger than others. It had several built-in detention centers and multiple facilities for training and operations.

Raquel ignored them all, flitting up to the top floor and Edgar Munk’s office.

Start at the top, she thought, and all things will come together.

She stopped in the light fixtures and looked down. Munk sat at his desk, flicking through holosheets.

He paused, apparently looking at data in his mind’s eye. Then he looked at the ceiling and said, “I know you’re up there, Raquel. Why don’t you come out and talk for a bit?”

Surprise registered in her conscience. How could he know she was here? Did he have a psychic bond with her or something?

Intrigued, she began pixilating and flowed down from the light.

Munk turned in his chair and watched her coming down. He smiled and pulled out a portable radiation absorption unit and switched it on. The red rays acted as an electronic vacuum cleaner, and sucked her in before she could solidify.

He looked down at the unit, about the size of a deck of cards. The edge glowed red, indicating she was trapped inside.

Munk’s smile grew bigger. He said, “You know, the Petra Roe Ambassador to Lute, Al Huntington . . . he’s something of a wannabe. Always pestering us for more information about SSI and how we’re run. It’s pitiful. Like a kid trying to get into his older brother’s clubhouse.

“But, I’ll say this about him. He generally keeps a pretty good eye on things going on in Port Ryan. And when I read his report about the Ultima Mule Company developing containment units and wire alarms in their building . . . well, let’s just say it caught my interest.

“And then you show up along with the Tetrarch, throw a big fit and disappear for a while. I decided to implement the same procedures those pirates did. And here we are.”

He leaned back in his chair with a profound sense of satisfaction.

“Don’t worry. I won’t leave you in there forever. I also had a special detention cell designed, just for you. That way I don’t have to worry about letting you out to eat every day then capturing you again.”

He stood, and placed the containment unit inside a pocket.

“Let’s keep this our little secret, shall we?” he said, walking toward the door. “If Julius finds out he might not let me do all the things I have in mind for you.”

The door swished shut behind him.

Solar Storm 36

Raquel leaned back in a seat in the control room, munching on a bag of popcorn and arching her back. The men in the other two chairs peeked a glance at her while she stretched.

This was a blatant violation of the rules, eating in the control room, but neither Panch nor Basil made any efforts to stop her. There was literally nothing they could do about it, anyway.

Raquel had the entire run of the place, as she had so ably demonstrated multiple times to everybody. When she first appeared, El tried to have her locked up for questioning. Raquel was having none of that, and efforts by guards to grab her were completely futile. She simply pixilated away every time someone tried to grab her.

Madam Outfitter actually shot at her once, with a blaster. That did not work, either. They discovered energy bolts and other objects simply sailed right through her body.

Finally, everyone at the station came to accept the fact she was here and there was no way to evict her by force, or capture her, or make her do anything she did not want to do.

Their concerns over her knowledge of the facility were eased, though, over time. Raquel had made no effort to leave, and had not alerted SSI or anyone else.

An uneasy trust had subsequently grown between the Resistance and Raquel, one based on the fact they could do nothing about her presence, or her knowledge about them, and she had not threatened their existence.

That did not mean they discussed ways of getting rid of her in private. One such meeting held in a secure conference room was interrupted when she floated down out of the lights and took a seat at the table before the stunned participants.

She smiled at everybody and said, “Talking about me?”

Afterward, discussions about Raquel were moved offsite. Even then, participants remained gun shy, always anticipating her to appear in their midst at the drop of a hat.

But the fact remained she had not revealed anything about the Resistance to anyone, and steadily offered to help them. After several days, they accepted her. She knew everything anyway, and they could not capture her, nor had she threatened them. She was gradually accepted into the fabric of their daily lives.

She also ignored rules like the prohibition on food in the control room. Who could stop her?

Raquel swallowed a mouthful of popcorn and said, “That’s a brilliant plan.”

She looked over the readouts on the holo, showing what the two programmers had recently altered in the AI’s core.

“A little sabotage here, a little there. I like it.”

Basil said, “It’s, uh, kinda like what those in forced labor camps did against the Nazis in World War II.”

“Really? That is so smart, Basil. I just love historical references like that.”

She batted her eyelashes at him.

Panch cleared his throat and cast an irritated glance at both of them.

He said, “I was the one who mentioned that, originally.”

Raquel ignored him. She said, “What other things do you know, Basil? You are so intelligent.”

Basil flushed, partly in embarrassment, partly in pride. Panch rolled his eyes.

The door swished open and El walked in. She frowned at the bag of popcorn and the kernels on the floor, but said nothing. Overlooking such minor transgressions seemed prudent, she thought.

The subject, as El and Madam Outfitter had started calling Raquel, seemed unduly attracted to Basil Garcia for some reason. The two women could not figure out why. Neither found Basil all that much to look at. He seemed pleasant enough in conversation, but he was too young and slender for either woman’s taste.

Obviously, his age was no deterrent to Raquel, who seemed to almost stalk him throughout the facility. El would have to have a discussion with the young man at some point, although the question remained how they could have a private conversation. The Intangible had shown an irritating capacity for eavesdropping on most everything.

But El had a plan. If it worked, Raquel would be absent for a while.

“Good. I’m glad you’re here, Ms. Kirkland. We would like to request your assistance in a certain matter involving SSI. If you would follow me, please.”

This tweaked the blonde’s attention. She stood, brushing off popcorn from her blouse. She handed the bag to Basil.

“I’m all ears. Let’s go.”

Together the two women walked out of the room.

Panch looked down at the bag of popcorn Basil held.

He said, “Don’t eat that in here.”

-+-

“I can tell you where SSI Facility 16 is. But, I’m afraid I don’t have a whole lot of info on SSI. Not info that’s of much use, anyway.”

Raquel sat in a conference room with Madame Outfitter and El. She was always on her guard around these two, especially after getting shot at, but neither had tried anything in several days. Still, she maintained a partially pixilated state so that bullets or rays or anything else would slide through her rather than cause her harm.

“That’s just it, dear,” Madame Outfitter said. “We’d like you to obtain actionable intel for us. And, while you’re at it, anything else stored offline that is of interest.”

“Offline?”

“Right. Their good intel is in cold storage, where nobody can get it.”

“You’ve asked us to trust you,” El said. “And we don’t really have a choice about that, do we? You could reveal everything you know about us to Edgar Munk and Tetrarch Thrall, and there is no way we could stop you.

“But if you really are on our side, help us find out their deepest, darkest secrets. You know everything about us, things that could destroy us easily. All we’re asking is for the same sort of knowledge about them.”

Madame Outfitter nodded. “If you’re really on our side, dear, give us some good information. Tell us how to take them out, or at least how to harm them. Find out where all their black sites are. Let us know what they’re doing with their prisoners. Do they have any plans for the populace that we should know about? Who are their secret agents? Things like that.”

Raquel crossed her arms and leaned back in the chair, thinking.

At last she looked up and said, “Alright. I guess I haven’t really given you any real indication of my trustworthiness. I’ve just asked you take my word that I’m on your side. And I understand why you might be hesitant to do that.

“So, I’ll do this. I’ll go back to the city and I’ll find out everything I can for you. But you two have to do something for me in return.”

Both ladies leaned forward over the table, eyebrows raised.

El said, “What?”

Raquel said, “You’ve got to make sure nothing happens to Basil while I’m gone.”

Solar Storm 35

The Ultima Mule popped into orbit around Thalia towing the Coral Reef via tandem drive. Raleigh thought they might find a use for the hulking shell of the former Mammoth-class ship, since it was no longer needed to contain their captured bank drone.

Raleigh scanned the horizon of the planet once they were in orbit, and took a look at readouts provided by LuteNet. He stood on the bridge along with Granny, Dillon, Maxwell, and Jillian.

Raleigh said, “It looks like the Chaucer Company beat us here. The Chanticleer is already in orbit.”

“I’ve always wondered, what the heck is a Chanticleer anyway?” Granny said.

Dillon said, “He was a rooster in the Canterbury Tales.”

Granny glared at him. She said, “You know, if there’s one thing even more useless than a pilot, it’s an English major. That tells me absolutely nothing.”

She dismissed him with a cursory, “Hmph!”

A connection lit up in his mind. Raleigh answered the call, touching the neural implant below his ear. He transferred it to the bridge’s main holoscreen, where the face of an attractive young woman with light brown skin and long dark hair appeared.

Seeing her, Jillian immediately took a protective step closer to Raleigh.

The woman smiled at everyone. She said, “Well hey there, Chris. Fancy meeting you here.”

“Hello Krystal. This is my wife, Jillian. Jillian, this is Krystal Lightfoot. She inherited the Chaucer Company from her father, who passed away not long ago.”

Lightfoot said, “I heard you married the daughter of our main enemy. You gonna switch sides on us, Chris?”

Raleigh chuckled. He said, “No. I can vouch for Jillian. So, do you want to team up in this system? If the League Navy makes an appearance, it wouldn’t hurt to have a partner.”

“Okay. Let’s call dibs on any civilian ships that show up.”

“Why don’t we take turns? You can have the first one since you got here first.”

“Okay, even better. I like the way that sounds. You always were the reasonable one in our relationship. See you around, Chris!”

She winked and cut the transmission.

Jillian gave him a sharp look. She said, “Do you know her very well or something?”

Raleigh flushed in embarrassment.

He said, “We, uh, used to date back in the day. I haven’t gone out with her in well over a year.”

Everyone on the bridge paid very close attention to this exchange. Nobody said a word, letting the Captain dangle under Jillian’s sharp gaze. Maxwell and Dillon looked on with interest. Granny openly smirked.

Raleigh turned and noticed they were the center of attention.

“Alright, everybody. Let’s get back to work.”

He pressed his implant again and said, “Kim and Pak, make sure the Coral Reef is ready to go in case we need it.”

“Will do, Captain,” Kim responded back. “We were following the bridge transmission down here in the engine room. Are you going to tell Jillian about your relationship with Captain Lightfoot?”

“Very funny. Just so you know, I don’t have you on speaker, so no one else can hear you up here.”

“Aw, man, I was just—”

Raleigh cut the connection, turned and noted Jillian remained staring at him. He saw anger smoldering in her eyes, and briefly he wondered about her father’s reputation for extreme fits of rage, and how much of that she inherited from him.

“Come on,” he said, nodding toward the elevator. She followed him to it.

Over his shoulder he said, “Granny, you have the bridge.”

When the door dinged shut behind them, Granny snorted again.

She said, “Like there’s anything going on here. I want to go with them and listen to the argument. That’s where the real action is.”

-+-

In the privacy of the Captain’s quarters, when the door swished shut, Jillian unloaded on him in a burst of bile.

“Who is that slut, and how long were you together?”

She pointed off in a random direction where she thought the Chanticleer might be floating.

“Look, sweetie—”

“Don’t ‘look sweetie’ me! How long?”

“I have had prior girlfriends, Jillian. I’m 30. I have dated lots of women in my time. But I never married one of them, until you.”

That, as it turned out, was the best thing to say at the moment. Jillian’s anger simmered down several notches. She seemed to literally deflate. She stopped pointing off into space and placed her hands on her hips.

“You can’t use that one every time, Chris.”

He shrugged and gave her a lopsided smile.

He said, “Nonetheless . . . it’s true.”

“Just answer the question. I want to know. How long were you two together?”

“We dated seriously less than three months. We left on good terms, and we’re still friends. We just don’t . . . match. Our personalities clash. I don’t talk with her on a regular basis, but we’re polite in public.”

Jillian sat down on a plush leather sofa and crossed her arms, lost in thought. He sat down beside her and gently placed an arm around her.

After a minute, she laid her head on his shoulder.

She said, “It’s just . . . I had visions of a storybook romance, you know? I think every little girl does. But, you get out in the real world and you find the storybooks aren’t . . . accurate. They don’t tell you everything. I mean, none of them ever mentions that Prince Charming dated other girls before finding the Princess. That’s not part of the story.”

“The important thing is the story we live out from this point forward,” Raleigh said.

She looked at him, searching his eyes to see if he meant the words he said.

“And we will,” he said, nodding. “We’ll live a good one. There will be some villains to fight. I don’t think your father is going to like me very much. And there’s always trouble of some kind or other to go through. Everybody has trouble in life.

“But we’ll face it all together. I promise. I am completely, thoroughly, and most of all whole-heartedly committed to you, Jillian Raleigh. I love you. And we’re going to go through the rest of our lives as man and wife. I’ll be here to the end, however long we have together.”

She melted at these words, and the final vestiges of her anger faded. They kissed and remained on the sofa together for a long time.