Condor Rising 15

StarCen called the spot “Rendezvous Alpha.” The location was technically inside the Republic, but it was truly an out-of-the-way spot in the Galaxy, light years from any sun or other celestial body of significance. It was also a spot two weeks travel time from Seychar.

Here Admiral Kwan’s fleet waited in formation, using their standard drives to keep from drifting apart. His fleet had been fully replenished, its losses in other battles replaced, and 60 ships in good order and fully crewed passed the time performing maintenance routines, battle simulations, and sailors playing in Off World, watching movies or reading during their down times.

At long last, the first ships from the Sixth Fleet popped into existence near this isolated point in space. StarCen brought them in five at a time, placing them apart from the previous groups by a safe margin. Most of the new Hawks and Eagles arriving, Kwan knew, were filled to capacity with Marines. They would be needed for taking the surface of Seychar, where additional fighting was expected.

As the numbers swelled, the ships under Fleet Admiral Kwan’s command grew from 60 to 75, and eventually 90 ships. A final Sparrow popped into place in the very back of the formation. Kwan watched the holofeed of the new arrivals from the deck of his flagship, the Reliant.

He said, “StarCen, how many total do we have now?”

“You have 91, sir.”

“I thought we were supposed to have 92.”

“One ship is running late, the Excelsior. They were waiting on final parts and supplies but are en route now. I will bring them along. You may depart for Seychar without them. I have calculated your chances of success are not by diminished by their absence in the first wave. One less ship affects the outcome by a negligible margin.”

Kwan grinned at his Captain, a man in his early 40s by the name of Nichols. He stood medium height, black hair cut militarily short.

“I guess the ‘Lucky Lady’ remains lucky.”

Nichols said, “I don’t know if missing out on the action counts, Admiral.”

“Anytime you can miss out on getting shot at is lucky.”

Kwan’s eyes twinkled as he added, “Knowing Captain Benson’s luck, she’ll show up just in time to save the day or something.”

The others on the bridge chuckled. Benson and her ship were already legends in the Navy. She was late to the Battle of Nocturnus, and helped change the outcome. Perhaps she could pull a similar stunt this time, although no one really expected the 15-ship squadron waiting for them to be much trouble.

Kwan stood straighter and said, “Very well. StarCen, alert the other Captains and take us to Seychar.”

“Yes, sir.”

The Reliant and the four closest ships, all Eagle-class vessels, popped out of existence. A second later, another five disappeared. Twenty seconds later, Rendezvous Alpha was devoid of any and all ships, with nothing but empty space remaining for light years in all directions.

An hour later, the Excelsior popped into existence.

Captain May Benson stood on the bridge of the Eagle-class ship, freshly repaired and fully operable, with a rested crew ready for their next battle. No Marines were onboard, they had all taken other ships leaving earlier. They also were way down on drones, having lost the others to combat or repairs.

Benson’s straight brunette hair was long enough to cover the back of her neck, nothing more. She had recently celebrated her 41st birthday after they took on supplies and parts at Juventas before heading this way. This marked the 28th year of her commitment to the Navy, she noted. At age 13 she had applied for and was accepted into the Naval Academy on Epsilon.

She ranked in the bottom first quartile of her graduating class, but if war showed anything it revealed class rank mattered little in the heat of battle. Several who graduated above her were already dead.

Supplies on Juventas had been depleted with an entire fleet in orbit. As well, rumors indicated there was unrest among the populace. The Tetrarch had been assassinated, and it was rumored the Navy had something to do with that. That may have some validity, she reflected, since Admiral Cooper was now in charge of the quadrant and serving as the de facto Tetrarch in Lopez’s place. The Navy owned Juventas, under the old “You break it, you buy it” principle.

With all the supply depots planet-side depleted, logisticians scrambled to find food and parts for the many ships above, especially those peeling off to support Admiral Kwan for Operation Golden Return.

As luck would have it, her ship, last to arrive and thus last in the queue, had the dregs of the food supplies. Finally, somebody found a large shipment of soy wafers earmarked for prison consumption. The Navy diverted these and sent them up to the Excelsior so her crew would have something to eat during their weeks in space.

Nobody was happy about that. Soy wafers were tasteless, and a far cry from the fresh meat and vegetables, or at least the cryo-preserved versions closely mimicking fresh food, they were used to.

But Benson brokered no discontent. She accepted the food supplies without complaint and left orbit as soon as StarCen could send them on their way. En route, the crew gave her a birthday cake made entirely from soy wafers. She smiled at the memory. After everybody had a good laugh she sent out an order that they all had to eat at least one slice. The laughter dried up after that, she remembered with a smile.

Now they were at Rendezvous Alpha. The holovision showed nothing but the empty vacuum of space all around them.

“Late to the party as usual, Captain,” her XO said, a large man of Chinese descent by the name of Chung, who kept his head shaved bald so that hair would not be an issue for him. One less thing to worry about, he would tell anyone who asked.

“Well, we’ve been late before and everything worked out. StarCen, bring us to the action, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The Excelsior disappeared, leaving Rendezvous Alpha void of anything once more.

Condor Rising 14

Natasha ported down from the Parasol to Petra Roe first, even though she was not in First Class.

Rather than playing the role of hussy, intent on ruining the cohesiveness of a crew, Natasha pretended to be a tourist. She remained intentionally vague about her past, but coming from Lute this was not at all unusual. She had a ready smile and won over the crew and other passengers, steering most conversation away from herself and toward them.

“Most people love to talk about themselves,” one of her instructors informed the class during training on human psychology. “In fact, it’s usually their number one topic of conversation.”

Most of the skills in espionage and working as a field agent involved listening to people. The best way to listen was to get people to talk about themselves. That was usually easy.

The dining area on the small ship was shared by all, and Natasha got to know, and listen, to almost everybody onboard. The most interesting passengers aboard the Parasol were Mr. and Mrs. Donald Sanford. They were wealthy industrialists running a weapons company, and the war had made them richer than ever before.

Unfortunately they had been caught by pirates when the ship they were on, the Coral Reef, made an ill-timed stop at Pegasi Station. The pirates demanded an astonishing one million credit ransom for the Sanford’s safe return. Even more astonishing, their company could pay for it and did so.

Natasha discussed their time with the pirates extensively, interested in gleaning anything she could about the enemy. Unfortunately, the Sanfords had little to offer her in the way of new information. They were allowed to stay in their luxury suite in the Coral Reef, which remained in orbit around Lute, during negotiations. They actually saw very little of Lute, except from space. They also saw little of the pirates during their stay. Natasha realized they would have very little actionable intelligence to offer when they returned.

Now they were anxious to get back home. Thespar, the name of their company, happened to have a private ship that would be waiting for them at Petra Roe. It was bringing a cargo of four-meter gun tubes to Juventas. The company contacted the captain and asked him to divert temporarily to Petra Roe to pick up the couple. From there, they would continue to Juventas and the Sanfords planned to book passage on another ship and finally reach Epsilon, their original destination.

Natasha decided the Sanfords were good to know. She wondered briefly if having an affair with Donald was a good idea, but quickly dismissed it. He and his wife Tina were inseparable, and seemed to operate as a single entity in many ways. Affairs, her instructors had taught her, were almost always discovered. Something that intimate was next to impossible to keep secret forever, and those closest to the target either found out, or the target became guilty and shared it with their beloved.

So, an affair with a married man was a weapon to be used against him and his family. Natasha decided having the corporate heads of one of the League’s most important companies remain in love and working well together was definitely for the better in terms of the war effort. So, she made no efforts at seducing Don Sanford.

At long last the Parasol reached orbit around Petra Roe, and Natasha passed through Customs. She looked around for the information kiosk and headed that way.

An attractive female android sat permanently attached to the chair at the kiosk. She smiled when Natasha approached.

“May I help you?”

“Yes, I need to book passage on a ship to Epsilon, please.”

A holosign appeared to the droid’s right, listing departing ships.

“Okay. The next ship heading from PR to Epsilon Prime is the Riptide. It departs in six days. Would you like information on local hotels?”

“Six days? I need to get to a League system as soon as possible. It doesn’t have to be Epsilon. When is the next ship departing for the League?”

“The Delta Diamond is scheduled to leave for Morvana in less than 48 hours. That is the soonest a ship is heading for League territory.”

Frustration bubbled up in Natasha’s chest, and she struggled not to curse at the droid. It could take it, of course, and had no feelings to hurt. Some planets had civility laws that would result in fines for public temper tantrums, though, and the agent had no desire to draw attention to herself.

“Natasha!”

She looked up and saw Tina and Donald Sanford heading her way from the disembarkation zone. Natasha hid her irritation and flashed the middle-aged couple a winning smile.

“Hi Tina. Hi Don.”

Donald said, “We thought you were just going to flit away without saying goodbye!”

Everybody laughed, including Natasha.

She said, “Well, I guess I got so anxious about getting home to Epsilon that I ran here as fast as I could to catch the next ship out.”

“Oh, when is the next ship out?” Tina said.

“Almost a week for the next one to Epsilon. Two days for one that’s even going to a League planet.”

Natasha let some of her irritation seep into her tone as she said this.

“Well . . .” Donald said. He glanced at his wife and raised his eyebrows. Tina nodded at his unspoken question.

He said, “If you want to get back to the League as soon as possible, why don’t you hitch a ride on our company ship? It’s in orbit right now and the Captain informed us he’ll be leaving within the hour. We’re just going to stretch our legs a bit out in the sunshine before porting back up.”

“Aww! You would do that for me?”

Both of the Sanfords smiled at her and nodded.

“That is so sweet! Where is the ship going?”

“Juventas,” Tina said. “You will be able to easily catch a ride to Epsilon from there.”

“Well, if it’s not too much trouble . . .”

Donald said, “No trouble at all. I’ll call the Captain and have him get a room ready for you.”

-+-

LuteNet stretched the port locations out on the Ultima Mule and made up some time, but even so she arrived in orbit around Petra Roe about three hours after Parasol.

After some debate, Raleigh let Biff port down by himself. Both men felt the Thrall sisters should stay onboard, although neither woman cared for that decision.

Granny tried to mollify them.

“If trash needs to be taken out, or some other dirty job needs to be done, I’m all for lettin’ the men do it!”

Raleigh gave Biff a sensor so Lute could see things, and two 10,000 credit tokens in case he needed money.

Biff felt decidedly uncomfortable carrying more than a year’s worth of his own salary in his pocket, but he took the money and the sensor, and ported down to the planet’s embarkation/disembarkation zone. The same lady in Customs greeted him as the last time.

“Welcome back, Mr. Jones.”

She let him into the outer hallway without further comment. He wandered down to an information kiosk manned by an attractive female droid.

She smiled at him and said, “May I help you?”

He held out his thumb and forefinger and the holo of his badge appeared between them, a yellow rectangle with a silver star in the middle. He held out his other hand palm up, and a holo of Natasha Krizinski hovered above it.

“I’m Officer Biffender Jones of the Capital City Police Force on Juventas. I’m looking for this woman and I wonder if you could tell me anything.”

The droid looked at both holos and nodded. She had been programmed to be compliant with law enforcement, no matter what jurisdiction or territory. PR always sought to maintain the highest level of diplomatic relations with everyone.

“Ms. Krizinksi arrived this morning from Lute aboard the PRS Parasol. She has since left, about two hours ago. She boarded the Osprey, a private cargo ship owned by Thespar Enterprises. It is en route to Juventas as we speak.”

“I see. And when is the next ship headed to Juventas?”

The hologram of departures appeared to the droid’s right.

She said, “The Phosphorous is scheduled to arrive here in 13 days time, and head out two days later for Juventas. Would you like to arrange passage?”

“No, thank you.”

He left the kiosk and walked a ways further down the hallway, out of range of the droid.

He said, “Did you guys hear that?”

Raleigh responded. He said, “We did. Get back up here, Biff. We’re going to Juventas.”

Condor Rising 13

Admiral Cooper belted out orders over the neural net. Too many things were happening at once. Half his fleet was leaving to join Kwan, along with the Marines aboard those ships. Supplies needed for the massive numbers of vessels had stripped Juventas’s warehouses clean. His Vice Admiral in charge of logistics was struggling to make sure supply chains remained operable. Somewhere on the other side of the continent, terrorists had destroyed key supply depots and several ground-based transportation chokepoints.

In the middle of all this, Vice Admiral Kennedy had been assassinated somehow. Cooper was still not clear on all the details. All he knew was a terrorist bomb got him while he was visiting an SSI facility.

The gray hair above his ears, the source of his nickname in the Navy, “Silver Wings,” was taking over a wider swath. Before long, if this pressure keeps up, the gray would claim all his hair, he thought.

And now he had to find time, in the middle of all these preparations for the opening salvo in what could be the decisive battle in the war, to speak with the civilian interim head of SSI.

“Come in!”

He did not mean to snap, he thought. That probably sounded vicious.

Resolving to maintain a more moderate tone, he stood from his desk and offered a hand to the woman entering his office.

Vicki Fenner entered and he realized here was someone else with silver in their hair, despite her relatively youthful mid-30s. Fenner had a streak of silver right down the middle, reminiscent of an old horror film character or somebody dressing up for Halloween.

In fact, Cooper knew, many of his Marines called Fenner “the Witch of Clarion.” He could see now how she got that nickname.

“Director Fenner, how do you do. I apologize for not being able to see you before this. We’ve been busy with the war, as you may well imagine. My condolences on the loss of your boss.”

Fenner nodded in appreciation. She carried herself with authority, Cooper thought. She seemed very self-assured, unsurprisingly, since she was head of SSI for Juventas even if only as an interim director.

Fenner said, “Likewise the loss of your Vice Admiral. You’ll be happy to know we have taken reprisals against the Resistance for their deaths.”

The color in Cooper’s face drained a little. He did not want to know what SSI was doing to the local population. He could imagine it was . . . gruesome. And likely far out of proportion to the two or three lives lost in the blast. SSI’s head was taken out, after all. They would be out to teach a lesson to the Resistance, no doubt. And since when did the Resistance become so troublesome it started being capitalized in reports?

Enough small talk, Cooper decided. He said, “What can I do for you, Director Fenner?”

“Since Vice Admiral Kennedy’s assassination leaves us without a liaison with the Navy, I want to make sure that our civil obedience measures meet with your approval.”

“I am going to be unable to provide you with another liaison at the moment, if that’s what you are asking me. The Sixth Fleet is involved in matters of galaxy-wide importance. We are at a critical juncture in the war right now. SSI is normally in charge of population control. You have free reign to continue. I have far too much on my plate at the moment than having to worry about terrorists and malcontents. You deal with it as you may.”

“As you wish, sir.”

Fenner bowed her head respectfully, and made a hasty exit. Let the Admiral get back to his war, she thought. I’ve got my own to fight.

Out in the hallway she said, “StarCen, take me to my office.”

Fenner popped away, and appeared inside her spacious suite at SSI’s Juventas Headquarters.

She sighed at the sight of the holoportrait of Sidney Fleming, her recently deceased boss. He had recruited her personally, years ago, and shepherded her rise through the organization. When his former second-in-command was discovered to be a traitor, he personally executed him and promoted Vicki to his position on the spot.

She smiled at that, recalling how she had planted the fake diplomatic pouch at the man’s apartment, then arranged a raid when he was out of town. The poor fellow never had a chance.

She suspected that Fleming knew the whole thing was a setup, too. But he never said anything, and she did not, either. She had won her promotion, and he let her have it.

Now the man she admired and respected was gone. But, like she said to Cooper, he and the Vice Admiral were avenged. Fenner started with everyone retained at the holding facility, executing them one by one. She did not care if the persons were simply brought in for questioning or were known members of the Resistance. Regardless, they were shot in the head and disposed of. Then she quite literally emptied the prisons SSI had across the globe in much the same way. Some of the district commanders balked, claiming that some were needed alive for intelligence purposes. After the first three hundred or so executions, she relented and let the districts decide for themselves who to kill. But, the cleansing continued.

When the dust settled, 511 executions occurred in retaliation for the bombing that took out Director Fleming, Vice Admiral Kennedy and one other SSI agent.

That was about right, Fenner thought. The Resistance would perhaps think twice before trying a stunt like that again.

A skycab flew by the fake window.

That was close, she thought. Too close.

Another one passed even closer, and hit the first one. Both went tumbling down to the ground.

“Boss, did you see that?”

The call came in on the neural net from her number two, Esther Gavel, who had taken over the position she previously held.

“Yeah, I did. What’s up with that? Those were skycabbies, too. Not drones.”

She peered down at the street below in the holoscreen that served as an office window. Both vehicles littered the street, a two piles of carbon fiber wreckage.

“StarCen, don’t you control aerial traffic? How did this happen?”

“I am not sure, Director Fenner. I am investigating right now.”

“Were there any people involved, or were the cabs empty?”

“One person was onboard one of the cabs, SSI Agent Wainwright.”

“What? Esther, did you hear that? StarCen says Bill Wainwright was in that crash.”

“I’m going to send some people down to take a look, Boss. I’m going too.”

“I’ll join you.”

Fenner took a couple steps back from the window to make sure there was plenty of space around her.

She said, “StarCen, take me down to the street.”

She popped away, and appeared on the sidewalk, a holographic circle fading away. Around her various members of SSI also popped in, circles appearing first and followed by the people.

In the middle of the street, two mangled skycabs lay in pieces, with fiberglass and plastic parts scattered about. In the middle of the wreckage, the bloody body of a man slumped over one of the seats.

Several agents recognized Wainwright and approached the wreck. Gavel, a short plump woman in her 40s wearing her hair in a bun, sidled up next to Fenner as the two women watched.

She said, “Boss, what do you think happened here? StarCen doesn’t make mistakes on traffic control.”

“Something’s not right,” Fenner said.

The hair on the back of her neck stood up.

“Everybody get away! Get away from the wreck!”

KABLOOM!

Five more bodies flew in the air, along with parts from the skycabs, as the bomb hidden inside Wainwright exploded. Fenner and Gavel threw their arms up to cover their faces. StarCen immediately ported them to safety in the Director’s office.

They raced to the window and stared down at the smoke rising from the street.

Gavel looked at the Director with wide eyes. She said, “That’s the second bomb in a row you’ve survived, huh, Boss?”

Fenner nodded, absently, watching the mess down below.

She said, “I’m starting to seriously get pissed off now.”

Condor Rising 12

The following morning Natasha checked out of her hotel and entered the Petra Roe embassy in Port Ryan where she introduced herself to the android receptionist at the front desk. Within minutes, a human met her and took her to an inner waiting room, where Ambassador Huntington himself came out to shake her hand.

Huntington did not ask her name or engage in other pleasantries, but led her immediately inside his office. The door swished shut behind them.

“I’m afraid travel to the League is rather difficult and circuitous at the moment,” he said. “You will have to take one of our ships to PR and catch another ride from there.”

Natasha nodded, expecting this. She said, “Last time I was on Petra Roe, I did not see any listings at the spaceport for Lute.”

He smiled and said, “That’s true. We don’t have many ships flying under the PR flag, but one happens to be in orbit at this moment. The Parasol is departing within the hour.”

“Very well. What do I need to do to board her?”

“We’ll send you off through the disembarkation zone at the Admin Building. Everything will be on the up and up. I trust you’re carrying no contraband of any sort? Not that LuteNet cares much, but you will be subject to a scan.”

“No. I have some equipment I’m carrying, but nothing illegal in the League or the Republic.”

“Good, good. We will call a skycab for you and send you right over. The ship will depart before lunch.”

Later, the scan picked up her pocket computer tucked away behind her belt and under her belly button, but it caused no alarm just as Huntington predicted. Inside the disembarkation chamber, she went through the purification routine, then LuteNet teleported her up to the Parasol.

One hour and 12 minutes later, Parasol ported away, her human pilot having fed the onboard computer with the appropriate plots for a path back to Petra Roe.

-+-

At the Free Acres Funeral Home in Port Ryan, a staffer finally made her way out to the coffin that had arrived yesterday. She checked the holosheet on the front and shrugged, then pushed its gurney into another room.

The mortician looked up, the last of a sandwich disappearing in his mouth.

He swallowed and said, “Who do we have here?”

“Latest arrival from Pekindale.”

“Pekindale? Why’d the send the body here? Relatives?”

“I’ve no idea, sir. Says here his name is Collin Todd, from Diego. Tourist maybe?”

The mortician’s brows furrowed. He said, “We just did an Agnes Todd the other day. I’m pretty sure her son was named Collin.”

He palmed the coffin and the lid open. The staffer stepped backward involuntarily, making a face. The mortician swiped through the holosheet, scanning the info.

He said, “Hm. Mountain accident. His . . . girlfriend? Fiancée? I believe I remember her at the mother’s funeral too. She signed off on the transfer back to here.”

“Well, where is she?” the staffer said. “You’d think she’d have shown up by now to make the arrangements.”

“Yes, that is odd. Lootie?”

LuteNet’s rich contralto came from the ceiling. She said, “Yes, Mr. Masters?”

“Where is Natasha Krizinski? Her fiancé’s body is here at the morgue and she has not stopped by to make arrangements for the funeral.”

“I am sorry, Mr. Masters. Ms. Krizinski has left the planet.”

“What? When did this happen?”

“Earlier this morning, about two hours ago. She is on the Parasol, heading to Petra Roe.”

Masters and his assistant stared at one another.

He said, “Lootie, I’ve got a body with no next of kin. Can you find any other family members in the League that we can contact? Maybe his place of work or something?”

“Will do, Mr. Masters. Mr. Todd was employed at Republican Shipworks. I will contact PLAIR and have her find the appropriate person.”

Masters palmed the coffin shut and reactivated the preservation mode. Instantly, the temperature inside cooled considerably.

“I’ll keep this one on ice until you tell me what to do, Lootie.”

-+-

Raleigh sat in a large leather office chair behind his desk in Mule Tower. Jillian sat in his lap, arms wrapped around his neck. The chair easily handled both of them. Raleigh was not getting much work done this afternoon, but he hardly seemed to mind. Having Jillian in his arms felt a lot more fun than work, anyway.

LuteNet’s rich contralto filled the air.

“Captain, Governor Zhang requests permission to visit about an urgent matter.”

“Oh? Okay, send him over.”

Jillian frowned, their intimate little moment ruined. She stood up and moved away from the chair.

A holographic circle appeared and LuteNet said, “Terrestrial teleportation incoming. Please stand clear.”

Leonardo Phong Zhang, Governor of Lute, popped into the open area in Raleigh’s large office. He stood tall and skinny, with dark curly hair. He had a worried look on his face.

“Captain Raleigh, Lootie tells me your ship has some additional capabilities that might be useful for a situation that has developed.”

“What kind of situation?”

Zhang touched his temple and a hologram shot out from his forehead. It featured a woman of showing Asian descent. Her head rotated slowly on the center of the table.

“This is Natasha Krizinski, or at least that was the last name she was going by. We believe she’s a League agent of some sort.”

The picture changed to a young man showing a mix of Pacific Islander descent.

“This was Collin Todd, a programmer for Republican Shipworks on Diego, and evidently Ms. Krizinski’s boyfriend. He died yesterday in an apparent mountain climbing accident at Pekindale. Lootie now thinks that Ms. Krizinski killed him after extracting information from him. PLAIR confirms that Todd was very knowledgeable about the latest ships and perhaps some secret weapons programs that are a very big deal.”

The image changed to show Natasha walking through security scans in the Lute disembarkation zone.

“Krizinski left earlier today aboard the Parasol, heading to PR. Lootie noticed a pocket computer here.”

The image froze, and a circle around her belt buckle appeared briefly.

“Both Lootie and PLAIR surmise that Republican Shipworks information is stored on that computer. They would like you and your people to get it back.”

“Why me?”

“Lootie says your ship has been especially equipped to drop off and extract people in hard to reach places. She’s been rather vague about the whole thing, but she’s insistent that the Ultima Mule Company is the right one for the job.”

“Can’t the League intercept her when she reaches Petra Roe?”

“Maybe. But the AIs have run the odds and both of them want you there. Evidently the chances of recovering that computer go up considerably when you and your people are in the picture.”

“Okay,” Raleigh said, cracking a smile. “How much are they offering for us to do this?”

“Chris!” Jillian spoke for the first time, using a tone of admonishment.

Raleigh spread his hands and said, “I’m being asked to risk my ship and crew here. I’d like to know if it’s worth it.”

Zhang nodded, as if this was to be expected. He said, “PLAIR is offering you five million credits. She says she won’t negotiate higher, if you’re interested in asking for more. I agree with her that it is a reasonable sum.”

Raleigh and Jillian shared a glance.

Jillian said, “Is that a lot of money?”

Raleigh nodded. He said, “That’s a lotof money. The information in question must be significant.”

“It’ll probably affect the war in a major way. This fellow was a programmer and on the inside loop of everything they’re doing at the Diego shipyards these days.”

“Why’d they let him out of their sight?”

“His mother died. She lived here in Port Ryan.”

“Hm. Seems fishy.”

Zhang shrugged. He said, “We’re swarming with League spies, I suppose. Most of them work with Petra Roe as it is.”

“Alright,” Raleigh said. He took a deep breath and locked eyes with Jillian once more before looking back at the Governor.

He said, “Let me get a crew together and we’ll leave within the hour.”

Condor Rising 11

[Author’s Note: Chapter 10, Rise of the Resistance Part One is a bonus chapter available in the Amazon version or on Patreon.]

The next morning Todd woke up, bleary eyed, to a smiling Natasha. She ordered an English breakfast with lots of coffee. After he ate and perked up a little she suggested they go rock climbing.

Todd did not feel like rock climbing. His head hurt, and he felt hung over, although he did not recall drinking that much wine.

Besides, he thought, he really needed to check in with work. Privately he wondered how expensive the off-world call would be from Lute. Would it be higher than calling from Diego?

But Natasha could be very persuasive. She pouted, crossed her arms, turned the other way, and refused to speak to him until he finally gave in and got dressed for climbing.

She bounded out the door full of energy. He trudged along, following her up a trail leading away from the resort and up into the craggy peaks.

An hour later, they carefully made their way along a narrow ledge to the spot Natasha had picked out for them to ascend. A spectacular view of the valley spread out below them, with birds floating on airstreams and wisps of clouds floating by in the bright blue sky.

Todd had to agree the sight was outstanding, and the crisp cold air did much to revive him.

Above the ledge, a slate gray wall of craggy rock stretched up horizontally about twelve meters, or 40 feet. The wall was a popular one for tourists as well as locals, because it offered numerous cracks and crannies, requiring no special equipment. It looked like determination and upper body strength alone would get someone to the top.

Todd felt a little nervous about free climbing but Natasha brushed off his concerns.

“Lots of people scale this one,” she said. “It’s relatively easy. And look at it! It’s pockmarked! We don’t need any equipment.”

Todd had to admit the surface of the cliff face had lots of fissures, and ten to twelve meters was not that bad, really, especially with all the handholds. He could see why it was popular for free soloing. Below the ledge, the face of the mountain dropped sharply. It was not quite a cliff, but it looked almost vertical despite the rocky base jutting out far below.

Without further discussion, Natasha grabbed onto the cliff face and started going up. Todd watched her ascend, and when she was safely above him by a meter, he started after her.

Natasha picked her holds carefully, and did not look down. There were indeed several spots to choose from, good positions for hands and feet that were never too far out of reach. She found a particularly good stopping point about half way up, with a relatively thick crag where she could rest her arms for a bit.

Below her, Todd noticed the pause in her ascent.

“You all right?” he called up to her.

“I think,” she gasped, panting and out of breath, “I think I just need to rest.”

“Okay. Hang on, I’ll join you.”

Todd moved slightly to her right so he could pull up alongside her. He climbed up closer.

Natasha looked down and over her shoulder, watching him ascend. When he drew near, she tensed. As his head came level with her legs, she pushed out slightly from the ledge and brought her foot down hard into Todd’s face, with all her weight behind it.

Stunned, he fell down the side of the cliff, all sense of grip lost with the blow. Natasha arrested her fall with her arms on the crag. She watched him sail down as his back struck the ledge below. He bounced off, then tumbled down the mountain until his body looked like a little red smudge far below.

Mindful of the fact that she might be watched or recorded, Natasha screamed. Then she carefully but quickly descended to the ledge, and looked down at Todd’s body one more time. She rushed back for the resort, running all the way.

In her training with SSI, one of the assassination instructors told the story of Chester Gillette. An up and coming young factory worker in New York State, Gillette impregnated his girlfriend, a woman by the name of Grace Brown who worked at the same factory. Gillette by that time was moving into higher social circles, and the fact that Grace carried his illegitimate child proved highly inconvenient for his aspirations.

Finally, after much hectoring and cajoling by Grace in regards to marrying her, he took her on trip to a secluded resort and registered under a false name, possibly leading her to believe he wanted to elope. They went out onto the resort’s lake in a rowboat where he evidently bonked her in the head with an oar and let her drown. He tipped over the boat and swam to shore while she went down with his unborn child to the bottom of the lake.

Chester then walked away and checked into another hotel under his real name, acting as if nothing happened. He was quickly caught, found guilty of murder at trial, and sent to the electric chair in 1908. Theodore Dreiser wrote a novel based on the case and it was adapted into several movies, plays, and television shows down through the years. The plot line kept recurring in one way or another, even in real life as other men murdered their pregnant girlfriends in much the same way, only to get caught and executed.

Gillette’s mistake, Natasha’s instructor informed the class, was in trying to pretend as if nothing happened.

“If you’re going to kill somebody close to you in a staged accident, you must go through the proper motions of someone who just witnessed their beloved meet an untimely end. Otherwise, if you try to carry on as normal, you’ll end up just like Chester Gillette.”

She remembered the lesson as she tearfully reported the accident back at the lodge. A search party was immediately sent out.

She remained at the main lodge crying, drinking a cup of hot cocoa while the manager tried to comfort her. The local police showed up and took a statement while Collin’s body was recovered off the mountain.

By that evening everything was over. The police closed the case as a tragic accident. Natasha made arrangements to transfer Todd’s body back to a funeral home in Port Ryan, the same one that handled his mother.

She booked a skycab and flew back to Port Ryan that night. Aware that as she neared the city surveillance by LuteNet might increase, she maintained a dour expression while watching old movies in her mind’s eye. She avoided titles featuring murderous plotlines.

From her hotel room she made a call on the neural net to the Petra Roe Embassy, reaching the robot receptionist.

“Yes, I’d like to schedule an appointment for tomorrow morning, please.”

“Who would you like to see?”

“Ector Avirillo please. I’d like to discuss passage to Petra Roe.”

“Certainly. And what time should Ector be expecting you?”

“Nine a.m., please.”

“He will see you then.”

Although Ector Avirillo was listed as serving on the official embassy staff, no one by that name actually existed. Invoking the name was an SSI extraction code.

The code phrase properly delivered, Natasha settled in for one last movie before calling it a night.

Condor Rising 9

Natasha opened the door and waved Juan inside, impatiently. He carried a laundry basket. Once in the room, she closed the door and motioned for him to follow her into the bedroom.

Juan could not help but appreciate the lithe SSI agent’s figure. Suddenly, he thought, this assignment seemed a lot less boring.

But in the bedroom, on the bed, he realized her asset outclassed him. Not only did the man have information the agent needed, he was a better looking guy. Juan’s face fell, and he found himself hating the lucky dog.

Seemingly oblivious to Juan’s scheming on how he could get Collin Todd out of the picture, Natasha moved the pillows away so that Collin lay fully prone on the bed.

She said, “Set up the cranial scanner here and let’s get to work.”

Juan nodded, turning to business at the tone of her voice. This was not a time for trifles. They had a job to do.

He set the laundry basket down and retrieved the portable cranial scanner. It had a radius about the width of an old-fashioned basketball hoop. Plastic encircled it, rising up from a flat base. Everything on the outside was plastic too, all eggshell-white.

Juan set up the scanner on the bed and pulled it over Collin’s head while Natasha lifted his neck up a bit. Then Juan retrieved a small pocket computer about the size of a business card from his shirt pocket and connected it to the cranial scanner.

The pocket computer turned on and a holoscreen appeared above it, floating in the air. A virtual keyboard appeared, although most commands could be given by voice. It could even be hooked up mentally, too, although Juan was not sure he trusted the neural net for the large amount of sensitive data they would be transmitting.

Simple is good, Juan thought. Even though the QWERTY keyboard dated back to the 19th century, he could still control this decidedly modern piece of equipment by using one, or at least a virtual representation of one floating in the air nearby. And the lack of voice commands, hopefully, would not raise suspicions of the local AI.

He began by performing a standard brainchip search. This was the traditional role of cranial scanners, a method employed by customs and security branches across the galaxy.

“You won’t find anything,” Natasha said. “He has to go through one of these every day when leaving work.”

“Just, uh . . . testing the calibration on the unit,” Juan said.

In fact, he had no idea the man was subjected to scans regularly. But, it really was a standard procedure. Moving on, he switched the unit over to memory scan mode.

He said, “This is the latest model from R&D. We should be able to snag all memories that are fresh, going back several months. After that, it won’t be as synchronous. The older the memories, the more fragmented they become.”

Natasha watched the holoscreen as images streamed into it. Some of the more recent ones showed her in flagrante. Her ears reddened a little since Juan was watching, but really she had no compunctions or concerns about anybody in the League seeing his memories with her. What she had done, she had done for the League. Living, loving, lying, killing . . . all was for SSI and the war effort. Winning the war was all that mattered. The ends justified the means, no matter how messy the means were.

Juan Comal cleared his throat nervously as a particularly graphic scene flashed by.

He said, “The computer will organize them. We can sort by time and place. We’ll be wanting to see everything from his work, of course.”

She nodded but said nothing. What was done was done, and she had little to hide. She reflected back to something she had read somewhere. It was an ancient Hebrew proverb: The adulteress licks her lips and says, “I have done nothing wrong.”

As proverbs typically go, it had several layers of meanings. From the adulteress’s point of view, there was nothing at all wrong with adultery. Otherwise, why would she do it? That was the surface level, though. It was the layers underneath that bothered her at times like this. Sure, the adulteress thought there was nothing wrong, but how did the man’s wife feel about it? And of course she would think there was nothing wrong with adultery, but of course it was wrong . . .

She set aside her ruminations as pictures of Todd’s workspace started flooding the holo. Todd was not married anyway, she thought to herself.

“Here we go,” Comal said.

Schematics of the Condor-class ship flashed by. A visit by workers on the completed vessel seemed especially promising.

“Oh, that’s excellent,” Natasha said as they watched corridors blur by and what looked like a tour of the bridge.

Several minutes passed as more and more images flowed into the pocket computer’s memory.

Natasha said, “Wait. Go back. Can you pause it or something? I want to see that again.”

Juan nodded and adjusted the keyboard, then made a twirling hand motion over the holo. The images scrolled backwards for several moments.

“There. Stop. What is that?”

“Wait, I’ll go back several more minutes. It looks he’s watching a proof of concept recording.”

They went to the beginning of the presentation Collin had watched several months ago. Letters floated in the air before him.

“Top Secret. Condor Weapons Project.”

Juan played the memory in real time and they watched the holo just as Collin had seen it back then.

Natasha’s blood ran cold. Next to her, Juan said, “Oh . . . Wow . . .”

Natasha said, “No wonder he clammed up on me.”

She directed Juan to continue the scan, retrieving all possible memories from her asset. The entire process took them well into the evening.

Comal finished around midnight. He packed the cranial scanner back in the laundry basket.

Natasha held her hand out for the pocket computer. He gave it over, reluctantly.

“I can get this info back to SSI, you know,” he said.

She shook her head. She said, “He’s my asset and his information is my responsibility. I’ll get it to the League.”

“Alright. Just . . . be careful.”

She smiled at him. Juan Comal was a junior employee stuck in an almost useless cover job on a backwater planet. And he had the gall to tell a senior field agent to be careful! But it never paid to insult the help or lower level employees, so she bit her tongue and did not relay the litany of sharp rebukes she could have spouted off.

All she said was, “Of course.”

Condor Rising 8

“Is everyone clear on their roles in Operation Golden Return?”

Julius Thrall addressed the holograms of his seven Fleet Admirals, sitting in chairs around the table in the Stockton Administration Building. Off to one side, and out of range of the holo-transmitters, his naval attaché Mandy Elven sat in on the meeting. She remained silent, though, as any words she spoke would be picked up by the others.

Admiral Cooper nodded, the silver wings of hair above his ears dipping up and down. He said, “I hate to give up my Marines, but I’m willing to loan some to Admiral Kwan on the condition I get them back.”

Admiral Kwan smiled. He traced his dominant ancestry to Singapore. Like the others, he was in his 50s. Early 50s, in his case.

Kwan said, “I suspect we’ll need more Marines to help take a Republican planet than you need to keep a League one.”

A light round of chuckles rippled around the table.

“The important thing,” Thrall said, “is to combine the power of the fleets at the beginning. As you all know, we need to bring an overwhelming force to Seychar. Let’s go over the plan one more time.”

Above the table, a presentation began as holographics swirled in the air. All would be seeing the same thing above their respective tables, thanks to the quantum-computing matrix, where communication throughout the galaxy occurred in real time.

Thrall said, “We plan to bring in Admiral Kwan’s Fifth Fleet to the Seychar system, for a total of 60 ships. Admiral Cooper will temporarily grant Kwan command of all his Eagles, and most of his Hawks, for an additional boost of 32 destroyers.

“Presently, the Republic keeps one squadron based at Seychar, consisting of 15 ships. The majority include a combination of Eagles and Hawks, with a Sparrow or two for parts and other support.

“Needless to say, StarCen is confident of our chances of success.”

More chuckles rolled around the room. The numbers looked very good, with 92 ships against 15.

“We believe the Republic’s fleet stationed at Diego will depart for Seychar almost immediately after we attack. That is their standard battle plan, to arrive in force about two weeks later. But during that time, we will be reinforcing Kwan with Admiral Ricci’s Third Fleet.”

Ricci, an older brown-haired woman who had managed to avoid going gray so far, nodded as the others looked at her.

“And that’s when the real battle commences,” Thrall said. “The Diego fleet by itself is larger than any one of ours.”

This was true, Elven thought. Republican fleets were comprised of squadrons with 15 ships each instead of 20-ship divisions like the League. So the squadrons were smaller, but each fleet was composed of six squadrons for a total of 90 ships. Granted, the size and quality of the squadrons varied. They were not always filled with Eagles and Hawks. Still, despite less capable ships, the Republic had proven maddeningly effective against the League throughout the war. Their Sparrows had proven deadly in several encounters as well.

“Even so,” Thrall continued, “with two and a half of our fleets against the Diego Fleet, StarCen calculates we will have the advantage and will win the battle.”

Silence ensued as Thrall looked each Fleet Admiral in the eye.

He took a deep breath and said, “We have never managed to draw their entire forces out in this long conflict. We have superior ships, superior numbers, and yet the Republic has bled us time and again, mainly with hit and run tactics. In fact, we are now down throughout the Navy, and our number of ships are on par with theirs for the first time.”

Several Admirals shifted uncomfortably in their chairs.

“This is why Fifth and Sixth Fleets are fully staffed and operational. And this is one of the grand strategic reasons for placing Admiral Cooper around Juventas in the first place. Because now, for the first time ever, we are going to draw the heart and soul of the Republic’s Navy into the Seychar system, and we are going to decisively win the day.”

The Admirals stared back at him silently. Elven thought Thrall was at his most intense, at this moment. He seemed so alive and filled with purpose. This was the side of the Tetrarch she liked the most. The leadership, resolve, and determination he displayed at times like this made her heart flutter. Every person in that room would willingly follow him into battle and die for him and the League.

Thrall sat back and the intensity in his eyes lessened. He said, “I realize this will result in massive losses on our side as well as theirs. But, at the end of the day, StarCen calculates we will be victorious. And once the Diego Fleet is wiped out, that is when Admiral Sullivan’s First Fleet moves.”

The graphics on the holo showed First Fleet ships showing up around a lightly defended Diego.

Thrall said, “This is our bold gambit to end the war, ladies and gentlemen. First, we take Seychar and eliminate their home fleet. Then we attack the heart of the Republic, Diego itself. Capture Diego . . . win the war.”

Everyone nodded silently. It was a good plan. Even better, their AI had determined it had a solid chance of success. Each Fleet Admiral silently committed to doing their part.

“Very well,” Thrall said, standing up to adjourn the meeting. “Execute Operation Golden Return. Admiral Cooper, have your ships meet Admiral Kwan’s at the rendezvous point. From their, Admiral Kwan, move on Seychar.”

Cooper and Kwan recited the ancient, time-honored Naval term for assent.

“Aye aye, sir!”

Condor Rising 7

Natasha stood beside Collin and squeezed his arm gently, consoling him during his mother’s funeral. They were inside the funeral home’s chapel in Port Ryan, and a pastor said a few words. A couple of his mother’s neighbors showed up, along with a dozen members of her Sunday School class. All had expressed condolences to Todd and shared fond thoughts and memories with him.

When the pastor finished speaking, everyone followed the funeral home’s pallbearer bots out to the cemetery. They watched as the bots set the coffin on a pulley system above a freshly dug grave. The pastor said some final words, and the coffin was lowered into the ground.

Collin approached and dropped a handful of dirt on the casket, followed by Natasha and everyone else. The crowd dispersed, with his mother’s friends giving him a final hug goodbye.

Natasha had no such sentimental feelings, and frankly found this display of grief slightly irritating. But she kept such thoughts to herself. Right now, the important thing to do was keep her asset mollified.

Fortunately, Collin Todd was a typical male and thus easily manipulated. All men were susceptible to money or sex, sometimes both. Todd was no exception. She had plenty of each to offer, thanks to her own good looks and SSI’s funding.

The sort of valuable asset Collin Todd had proven to be took years of cultivating. Fortunately, SSI targeted him before the war began, before all the restrictions that went along with warfare were put in place. They knew he would not be allowed to communicate openly, and travel would be heavily restricted. But, one thing almost guaranteed to green light travel was a death in the immediate family . . .

Natasha only hoped the information he had stored in his head would be worth it.

He told her a little bit about what prompted him to call in the code word. The phrasing that resulted in his mother’s death, the inquiry about his childhood friend, was the prompt that led SSI to hand down an execution order. Natasha had lied to him when arranging the code back in their days on Italia. Because, she reasoned, who would call in their own mother’s murder, willingly? So she lied and said they would simply arrange a family emergency so he could leave work and come visit.

Deep down, she suspected, he knew that she had lied to him. Fortunately, Collin Todd was a man, one easily manipulated. Right now, he willingly suspended his suspicions about the truth in return for intimacy with his handler. And Agent Krizinski complied in order to keep her asset complacent. Men were easy to control, she thought.

Now that the funeral was over, it was time to fully extract the information Collin Todd brought all this way. She suggested they get away from the city and visit a resort she knew about, several hundred kilometers inland and far away from the local AI’s lax monitoring.

Todd felt he really needed to book passage home and get back to work, but Natasha could be extremely persuasive. Ultimately, he agreed and they booked a drone flight to the resort.

-+-

Later that day, Ambassador Huntington personally signed off on a private courier delivery to Pekindale Resort from the Petra Roe Embassy. The package included a new cranial scanner.

Although somewhat contemptuous of the local AI, PR’s embassy staff nonetheless respected LuteNet. The cranial scanner had shipped to them from Petra Roe via normal channels, and passed through customs so as not arouse suspicion. This particular model, however, was far more advanced than typical ones. That fact was not mentioned to Customs.

A low-level SSI agent worked at the resort, and the Ambassador addressed the package to him. Huntington personally watched as the courier drone lifted off from the roof of the embassy and headed out of the city toward the resort.

Several hours later, a man currently going by the name Juan Comal waited patiently as the drone from Port Ryan landed.

Comal retrieved the container marked for him, and the drone took off again. He went inside, opened the package containing the cranial scanner, and played a movie in his mind’s eye while he waited.

-+-

Pekindale was a beautiful town nestled in the Bountiful Mountains. The main resort was an expensive hideaway for the wealthy, offering gorgeous views and ample privacy.

Natasha led Collin by the hand on a walk through nearby mountain trails, with vivid wildlife and stunning scenery. They discussed longer hikes and maybe some mountain climbing, taking a good look at some nearby slopes. At last they returned to their private cabin, set in an isolated grove a couple hundred meters from the resort’s chalet. Natasha ordered room service.

After dinner, and when Todd felt fully satiated in every way, Natasha at last asked him what information he had to share about Republican Shipworks.

But something had changed in her asset’s mind. Even fully fed and physically satisfied and completely under her spell . . . suspicions swirled inside him. She could tell by the look in his eyes and the way he hedged his words. Collin Todd had lived apart from his mother for many years, but he still loved her deeply. And now he could not help but feel responsible for her death, no matter what his lover told him.

In quiet moments when they were not eating or drinking or doing something else, he began to think maybe the information he held regarding the new Condor-class ships might not be the best thing to share with someone from the League. Even someone like his dream woman, with whom he already shared quite a bit over the years. He had probably shared too much, he thought, in looking back on it.

So, he decided to skimp on the details.

“I don’t know a whole lot about it, Natasha, but we’ve been working on a new class of ship. It’s bigger and more powerful than anything else out there. I thought . . . I thought you should know that it’s launched. It’s probably already in the Seychar system by now, guarding the gold on Gotha Mu.”

“What sort of armament does it have? Is it a big ship?”

“It’s very big, and very expensive. It’s designed to keep flying and survive even with multiple hits. The bridge is in the middle, unlike the Hawks where it’s out front or the Eagles where it’s on top.

“It’s made to be . . . well, ship builders hesitate to use the word ‘indestructible’ after the Titanic. Nothing is truly indestructible, and we’re a superstitious lot. But, it’s made to be very difficult to kill. It can take a brutal beating and still stay in the battle.”

She could sense he was being deliberately vague. These were all generalities, not specifics. He was a programmer, used to dealing in details. Besides, she knew men. And she knew her asset very well. Right now, her asset was trying his best to be evasive without appearing to be evasive.

The woman calling herself Natasha Krizinski had studied men since puberty, when her mother’s boyfriend first molested her. She knew what made men tick, what made them respond. She knew how to please them, how to anger them, and how to kill them. Right now, she knew that her asset was holding back on her.

“What kind of weapons does the Condor have?”

He froze for a moment and looked away. Then he swallowed nervously. This, she knew, was his tell. He was about to lie.

“It’s got some really, really big guns.”

Hm. Must be a lie of omission, she thought.

“That’s all? Nothing special?”

He swallowed again and nodded. “It can take a ton of punishment, and keep handing out destruction with those giant guns. It’s a big deal.”

She decided it must be a partial truth. But still, he was holding back something. Taking out his mother was likely a mistake, she thought. There are few things more powerful than the bond between a mother and son. And SSI had interfered with that bond.

Natasha thought that after all these years on his own, that bond might have weakened some for Collin. But no, she could see it in his eyes. She could see it in the way he swallowed nervously before speaking. He had likely put two and two together and realized that Natasha was probably at least partly responsible for his mother’s death.

“It’s okay,” she said, sliding closer to him and placing a hand on the part of him for which she had the most control. “We’ve got two more days together before you have to go back. I want to drink too much and make love to you all night.”

He smiled and they kissed before she found the wine glasses and asked him to open a bottle. When he ran to the bathroom for a moment, she slipped a sedative into his drink.

Condor Rising 6

Fifteen Republican ships appeared in orbit around Seychar, joining the eight already there. Briefly, with the other seven around Gotha Mu, a total of 30 ships were in the same system. At long last, the earlier 15 guarding Seychar and its rich golden neighbor were going home.

Commodore Severs appeared on the holovisions of the ships. He smiled into the camera and said, “I want to thank each and every one of you for your service. Your squadron is now relieved . . .”

The Captains called in, saluting the Commodore, the sailors aboard the Thomas Paine and others in her squadron.

One by one in quick succession the other ships popped away, leaving Severs’s squadron alone in the Seychar system.

Severs then directed seven of his ships, including three Eagle-class destroyers and four Hawks to orbit around Gotha Mu. He kept three more Eagles around Seychar, along with three Hawks and one Sparrow. Despite their limited numbers, the strength of the squadron was notable. Hawks were deadly, Eagles more so. And the Condor-class, of which Thomas Paine was currently the only one in existence, was the deadliest of them all.

Severs ordered Captain Strand to move the Thomas Paine into a position equidistant between the two planets. Strand gave the order and the Paine popped into place.

The Commodore opened communications channels again, and addressed all the Captains in his squadron.

He said, “We will keep shore leave rotations the previous squadron had in place. Other than that, we will retain positions and wait for the action to begin. Maintain readiness at all times.”

Later that evening, Severs invited Captain Strand to accompany him in the Admiral’s quarters on the Paine. There were in fact four Admiral’s quarters on the spacious ship, and they were all nicer than the Captain’s. Strand had little to complain about, though. His own quarters were by far the most opulent and spacious of any ship he had ever commanded.

Not that Strand had commanded that many ships. A capable officer approaching 40 years old, he had shown himself cool under pressure and claimed nine League ships in prior engagements. He graduated from a Sparrow to a Hawk to an Eagle before taking on the Paine. He felt highly honored to get a chance at captaining the newest and most powerful ship in the galaxy.

Emmet Strand stood at average height, or maybe a bit below average at five foot nine, 175 centimeters. But height had little to do with command, and the sandy haired officer carried himself well, Severs thought. The Republic chose wisely, as far as the Commodore was concerned. Strand was a known killer, who made wise and decisive maneuvers when it counted. He was a proven leader and an excellent choice for Captain. If Severs could not be this wonderful vessel’s Captain, he could not think of anyone better than Emmet Strand for the honor.

When the two officers finished the last of their meal, which included quail wrapped in bacon, or at least the Diego variants closely resembling quail and bacon, Severs stretched back in his chair and asked the serving bot to bring them snifters of brandy.

Swirling the amber liquid, Severs thought the light shining through it caught his dark skin just right. An interesting design from the overhead illumination patterned on his hand as he held the stemware up.

“The hardest thing,” he said, finally taking his attention away from the reflections cast by the liquor, “is keeping everybody ready for action when we may be waiting months for the League to show up.”

Strand nodded and took a sip from his own snifter. He said, “Hopefully they’ll attack early, thinking we’re fresh and unprepared.”

“Or, they could show up toward the end of our tour when we’re bored out of our skulls.”

“Well, as long as they attack sooner or later . . .”

“Oh, I think they will, Captain. PLAIR thinks so, anyway. Whatever intelligence she’s been receiving seems to indicate the same thing. This time, she says, they will try bringing in an ‘overwhelming force.’ Probably an entire fleet, if I had to guess. They’ve got a bone to pick with us over Gotha Mu.”

Strand smiled. He said, “And that’s just what we want. An entire fleet would be excellent.”

“Yes. That’s just what we want,” Severs nodded. “The more ships clustered together, the more we can take out. The unknown is what will happen when those who aren’t wiped out in the first round see and understand what our weapon can do.”

“What do you think they will do, Commodore?”

“I would imagine they would retreat as fast as possible. Nobody is going to want to stick around when the full scope of our abilities becomes apparent.”

“Do you think they’ll try to come up with their own gun, sir?”

“Absolutely. They’ll try to develop their own Condor-class ships, too. Probably already working on it, spies being what they are. I don’t care how safe Republican Shipworks says it is, information always has a way of leaking out.”

“We should press our advantage, then. As soon as we take out whatever comes for us here, we should go on the offensive.”

“I’m with you, Captain. I’m with you. But, we’ll see what orders we get after we engage with this League fleet everybody is expecting to show up here. If this ship can take out an entire fleet . . . we might just end the war early, even without looking for more trouble.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Strand said, and he raised his glass.

Severs smiled and they clinked the snifters together.

Condor Rising 5

Raleigh determined Estes was stuck in orbit until he could find at least one pilot who understood how to program interstellar jumps by hand. Evidently his previous two had quit on him. Raleigh exchanged information with the other Captain and asked Estes to contact him before leaving.

As for Estes’s passenger arriving on the Salamander, he was evidently Julia’s husband while Julia was pretending to be someone else. Somehow the guy tracked her to Lute.

Privately, Raleigh thought that if Julia had played it cool, she could have gotten away from Biff altogether. But, she actually seemed delighted to see the man she had abandoned back on Juventas. That sort of enthusiasm was hard to fake, he thought. She also completely changed her plans.

Raleigh suggested they all retire to a restaurant nearby to rest and catch up on things. Biff gave him a distraught look that suggested he was low on funds, so Raleigh immediately offered to pay for everybody.

Then he asked LuteNet to port them over to another building’s rooftop, the one housing the restaurant in question. This proved to be another big surprise for Biff, who was unused to terrestrial teleportation. He followed the others to an elevator entrance, and they went down to an elegant restaurant offering excellent views of the city from a private dining suite.

“You’re probably suffering from weeks of ship food,” Raleigh said. “Order whatever you want. I’m having a steak, myself.”

Emboldened by his host’s choice, Biff also ordered a steak while trying to ignore the prices on the hologram menu hovering over the table.

Once the robot waitress left with their orders, Biff glanced over at the beautiful woman beside him. The voice sounded like Andi, but her face had changed.

“I still can’t believe I found you. But, you look totally different. What happened?”

Julia said, “This is actually my real face. I’ve lived the last year or so on Juventas wearing a . . . another face. It’s some advanced technology.”

“So, that woman who took a skybus near our place, and then left on the Coral Reef . . . Catarina Mulligan? That was you, right?”

Julia smiled and nodded. She said, “That’s my husband. Good detective skills, Officer.”

Raleigh cleared his throat. Jillian sat on one side of him, Granny on the other. Biff and Julia looked across the table at him.

He said, “Speaking of law enforcement . . . if you are planning on bringing Julia back to Juventas in custody, we might have a problem.”

Biff said, “The 400 kilo gorilla in the room, huh?”

They paused as the waitress bot returned with their first round of appetizers. She was much more utilitarian than the bartender android Biff spoke with back on Petra Roe. Humanoid in appearance, down to five articulated fingers on each hand, she was composed of a metal alloy that gleamed dully. Someone had given her wig and a skirt. Her round red electronic eyes above a speaker slit for her mouth completed the look.

No one said anything while the bot set out plates filled with gourmet French fries and breaded balls of poshbird and dipping sauce.

When she left, Biff turned to Julia and said, “I just want to know if it’s true. Did you really kill Lopez and her guards? How? Why?”

Julia sighed and said, “Tetrarch Lopez was about to send a nuclear missile down on Yorkton. It would have killed almost everybody, including you.”

He stared at her and she did not blink. He nodded slowly. She was telling the truth.

He said, “I know about the nuke. It’s not public knowledge, but the CCPF learned about it and NCIS knows, too. I just . . . I mean, my wife . . . You killed three people with a . . . a hairpin?”

“It’s not like I enjoyed it or anything. But it had to be done. Like I said, millions of lives were literally hanging in the balance at that moment. But if I could have done anything different, I would have. I was actually trying to help Lopez resist my f—the other Tetrarchs. Instead, I’m afraid I played right into their hands.”

When they finished the meal, Raleigh offered Biff a room at Mule Tower. Biff thanked him, as his funds were indeed running low. Julia offered to show him the town, and suggested they could spend some time alone before heading to the tower for the evening.

Granny, Jillian, and Raleigh said their goodbyes to the couple, and LuteNet ported them home.

Back in his office, alone, Raleigh said, “Keep an eye on them Lootie. Do not let Biff Jones assault Julia in anyway without sounding the alarm. Also do not let him try to drag her off the planet by force. He seems okay, and he’s saying all the right words, but he just got here. I don’t fully trust him, yet.”

“Will do, Captain.”

-+-

Melanie walked quickly away from the transport, not even bothering to look back at her former crewmates.

On the elevator down into the Administration Building, she mentally adjusted her mindset. She was changing from a crew hussy to a sophisticated businesswoman. And the first order of business was buying a new set of clothes.

Truth to tell, she thought to herself, she had fun playing the hussy. Smuggling operations were criminal enterprises, officially frowned upon by StarCen. It was her duty as an agent for SSI to undermine and destroy such operations whenever possible.

Maybe she had not fully succeeded in shutting down the Salamander, and in truth a belly buster bomb in its crew quarters would have been the best solution. But she at least disrupted the cohesiveness of the crew. And, that lush of a Captain would likely have a hard time finding qualified pilots on this backwater planet. She had effectively marooned the Salamander for the near future, and walked away proud of her accomplishments.

She spent the next couple of hours trying on outfits in Port Ryan’s shopping district. Later, when she was more suitably attired with several new items including fresh underwear and comfortable shoes, she summoned a skycab and made her way to a hotel where she booked a room under her Republican alias. She paid in credit tokens and dropped off her shopping bags.

She grabbed a quick bite to eat at the hotel restaurant, then took a skycab back to the Administration Building. Extensive work was taking place as she entered, with chunks of the marble floor being replaced. Maybe they were remodeling, she thought.

She discovered this sparsely populated planet did not have its own spaceport, so passengers often ported down directly to the AB. Melanie found a floating sign indicating which ships were arriving soon, then asked for directions to the Embarkation/Disembarkation Zone.

She found herself in a large area with a handful of other people waiting for passengers to show up from the next ship. She stood, impatiently tapping her foot, not bothering with neural entertainment options.

Soon, people began trickling out of Customs. She examined each group carefully, waiting for her asset to arrive.

Finally, Collin Todd walked out. He saw her right away. He looked grief-stricken, and he did not even smile when she ran up and threw her arms around him.

Instead, he burst into tears. He said, “Natasha, if I’d known they were going to take Ma, I never would have agreed to this!”

She shushed him the best way she knew how, by kissing him on the lips and slipping her tongue in. Hopefully, she thought, the local AI did not pick up his comments and make too much of them.

When they came up for air, she said, “I understand it was perfectly natural, Collin. It was just a matter of timing. Come on. Let’s get out of here and relax for a while before we go see her. The funeral home has been waiting for you to arrive before she’s interred.”

Together the SSI agent currently known as Natasha Krizinksi, previously known as Melanie Polansky, and her asset, a programmer for Republican Shipworks named Collin Todd, left the Administration Building and headed to her hotel room.