Clarion’s Call 30

“Catarina Mulligan” sat at the Captain’s table for lunch, and laughed at some little story he told the group. She promptly forgot most of the details. They were not important. Very little of the social interactions on the Coral Reef were important, she thought.

Captain Otto Horton approached his mid-60s in age. He sported a potbelly but he stood tall and ramrod straight. This possibly had something to do with his years in the League Navy. He was too old and out of shape to serve now, although he was certainly willing if the Navy ever asked him back. He made sure everyone knew that, mentioning it at least once per conversation it seemed. 

Julia doubted the Navy would ask, even if there was a shortage in the officer corps at the moment. Besides, Horton seemed to enjoy hobnobbing with wealthy first class passengers too much to return to the rigors of military life. 

At the table she sat with the Sanfords, who ran a weapons production company on Epsilon, and a dashing young man named Niles Sergio. 

Niles came from a family involved in media production on Clarion called, fittingly, Sergio Productions. His grandfather started the company back in the day and it had grown into a highly successful entertainment conglomerate, primarily by supporting the League in all sorts of propagandistic ways. Through neural and holographic movies, even in virtual reality games played in the quantum matrix, Sergio Productions made sure that all plot twists, statements, character opinions and everything else within their fictitious environments supported the Tetrarchy and the League.

Good guys were invariably loyal. Bad guys, especially since the start of the war, were either Republicans or traitors. Everything in Sergio Productions’ worlds were typically black and white, with the League being white and all else black.

Consequently, Sergio Productions was huge. They were a billion credit company at least, Julia thought to herself. And Niles was a tall, handsome bachelor, with high cheekbones and a lupine face. He was very, very eligible and heir to one of the largest fortunes in the galaxy.

The Sanfords, Donald and his wife Tina, were a delightful couple in their 40s. Refined and elegant, they epitomized the upper crust of society. Even their casual clothes looked like they cost several thousand credits. 

Tina evidently liked to play matchmaker, and Julia suspected she had been the one who talked Captain Horton into inviting the two most prominent single people in first class to sit at his table. Thus, Julia had to endure almost every meal with the leering Niles Sergio seated to her right, the aging Captain to her left, and the beaming Tina Sanford across the table next to her husband Don. 

Julia hid her nervousness when this first happened because the Sanfords’ company provided the technology used in her Facial Features Reorganizational Manipulator, the official term for the gadget disguised as a charm around her neck. 

But after spending a couple of dinners with the couple, Julia realized that Don and Tina were not up to date on the latest black hat research in their own company. It helped that the “framer” as the FFRM was known in a very tight circle of researchers, was disguised as jewelry. The Sanfords wouldn’t recognize it even if they were aware framers existed.

So for the most part, Julia tried to relax and enjoy the decadent meals Coral Reef’s human chef served up for first class passengers. She smiled and remained polite and pretended to be interested in all the things other people in this high society were interested in. When she expressed opinions or carried forth on her own in conversation, it was usually on neutral topics. She offered opinions on fashion, celebrities, and other light issues. 

She repeatedly shot down Niles Sergio who only seemed to want to bed her. 

“Perhaps you should find an indent for that,” she said the first night when he cornered her after dinner and invited her up to his place. He had one of the ship’s luxury suites, with a ridiculous amount of space all to himself, and he was looking for someone to share it with him. 

Sergio grew very serious at her offhand remark and said, “I understand we have researchers in the Navy working on overriding the consent safeguards. Of course, we would not do that with any League citizen that took a collar. But, as you can imagine, it might work very nicely with indents captured from the Republic.” 

The comment made Julia’s stomach lurch. But she maintained a polite smile on her face and bid the rich young man good evening. 

She had trouble sleeping that night. The news that researchers were working to thwart the biocollars’ subroutines bothered her. She knew that her father had already found a way to put collars on prisoners without signing a contract. That in and of itself was very troubling. But now, to learn that others were out there trying to thwart the subroutines for even baser purposes . . . that thought kept her up most of the night. 

She had no desire to have anything to do with Niles Sergio, but she maintained a polite smile in public and suffered silently through every meal with him at the Captain’s table along with the Sanfords. 

At the moment Niles was telling a story, much to the interest of everybody else except her. Julia listened without really paying attention. 

“And so I said to this attractive young woman, ‘Look, we really don’t need human actors anymore.’ I mean, movies are cute and all but they don’t use many people these days. Actors grow old, you know? And they die. But Brin Bolling hasn’t aged a bit in 40 years, because he’s not real. 

“‘And movies are passé,’ I tell her. People like the immersive experience these days. And on the quantum matrix, it’s like you’re really there, you know? And in all those games and activities online, the NPCs are totally realistic. There’s no need for human actors. 

“And I tell her all this, and you know what she says?”

At this point he paused and looked at the others with a silly grin on his face. Everyone at the table shook their heads. 

No, we don’t know what she said, Julia thought to herself. But she kept her sarcasm in check and a polite smile plastered on her face. 

“She says she wants to act in renaissance festivals! Real, live acting up on a stage, just like they did in the olden days. Is that a hoot or what?”

The Sanfords and the Captain chuckled politely. 

Julia said, “Sounds like a noble calling.” 

Everyone at the table stared at her. Tina Sanford paused, spoon halfway to her mouth. Then she burst out laughing. 

“Oh, Cat! It’s taken me a while to get used to your sense of humor. My, my, is it ever so dry.” 

The men chuckled too at that point. Julia smiled politely. Actually, she was serious. But it would not do to get into an argument with these people. Niles Sergio stared at her with bedroom eyes as he spooned the last of the chocolate mousse into his mouth. 

Julia did not like the way he was eating it in front of her, all suggestive-like. He was licking the mousse off the spoon with his tongue. She ignored him.

StarCen’s voice came from the ceiling above their table. 

“Captain, the First Officer needs to share a few words with you.” 

“Oh. Very well.” 

Captain Horton stood up and placed his cloth napkin on the back of the chair. 

He said, “If you good people will excuse me, I’ll go meet with my second in command.” 

The other two men stood up with the Captain and watched as he headed out of the dining area toward the elevators. 

Julia said, “I think I’ll take this opportunity to powder my nose.” 

The men stood again as she left to follow the Captain toward the exit. She felt Sergio’s eyes on her as she walked away. She regretted her choice in dress, a short and tight-fitting outfit offering him an excellent view of her rear figure. Nothing she could do about it now, she thought, following the Captain. 

The elevator dinged before the Captain arrived and the First Officer stepped out, a tall man named Ahmed. Julia stopped nearby and took out a compact. True to her word, despite the phrase being a euphemism for using the restroom, she stood discreetly in a corner and powdered her nose. But she did so within earshot of the two officers.

“Captain, I wanted to tell you this in person rather than having StarCen mention it to you at your table. It appears that something has happened to the quantum trunk line on Pegasi Station. StarCen wants us to drop in and inspect it since she has no eyes or ears there at the moment. We’re the closest ship.” 

“Hm. I suppose that’s okay. How far out of the way is it?” 

“It’s nearby. We’re going right past it. StarCen says we won’t lose significant time if we divert now.” 

“Very well. We’ll stop in and check on things for her, then be on our way. We might be able to swing a deal or two while we’re parked there.”

Clarion’s Call 29

Pirates ran from store to store along the main corridors in the business district. They burst in, pointed their guns, took money and sometimes merchandise. When bags were full they called up to LuteNet, who quickly ported the booty away and sent down fresh bags. One by one, each establishment in Pegasi Station was systematically ransacked. 

Max and Skylar found themselves in a clothing store. After looting the cash box and safe, they wandered the aisles. Skylar grabbed a couple outfits she thought looked cute. She activated her neural net and called Jillian. 

“Hey, are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

Mentally, Skylar broadcast her eyesight. She showed Jillian a rack of t-shirts sporting a snazzy design with glowing beads that looked like stars and a hologram of an old-fashioned rocketship floating in a circle around the t-shirt. 

“Omigosh, Skylar! Can you grab one for me? Chris doesn’t want me to go down there.” 

Skylar heard the note of regret in her girlfriend’s voice. She smiled and said, “No problem. I’ll keep the connection open and if you see anything else you want, just tell me.” 

Maxwell leaned over into Skylar’s line of sight and grinned at both of them. 

He said, “Remember, it’s not a shopping spree, it’s a stealing spree!” 

He laughed and wandered off. He stopped laughing when he saw a dark leather jacket big enough to fit him. 

“Oh . . .” 

He grabbed it off the rack and tucked it into one of his bags. 

Skylar walked down a few more aisles and came across a long line of black shirts and pants.

She said, “Wow. I guess black is really popular out here or something.” 

Jillian said, “Yeah, look at that.” 

“What’s going on?” Raleigh’s voice interrupted them, next to Jillian

Skylar mentally made an adjustment and added him to the neural net conversation. 

She said, “Hi, Captain. I’m just showing Jillian what’s in this clothing store. They’ve got enough black pants and shirts to take care of a small army.” 

“Hmmm.” 

Back on the ship, Raleigh gazed in his mind’s eye at the sight Skylar broadcast. 

He said, “That gives me an idea. Lootie, please port all the black clothes in that store up to our hold.” 

“Will do, Captain.” 

Instantly, the long rack popped out of sight. The shop owner, an older woman of about 60 standard years who had watched in some distress as Skylar and Maxwell wandered about the store, gasped in dismay.

“Are we going all black now, Captain?” Skylar said.

Raleigh said, “I’m thinking since we’re about to show back up on Lute from the edge of the grave, a change in uniform might be called for. Something about attending your own funeral . . .” 

Jillian interrupted them and said, “Wait, Skylar. Go back to those jackets. Look at that overcoat, Chris. Doesn’t it look nice? Don’t you think you’d look good in that?” 

Raleigh snorted. “I don’t have much need for a coat in space. We keep the Mule at an even 23 degrees all the time.” 

“Yeah, but it looks manly. I like it. And you don’t spend all your time on the ship. Skylar will you grab it for us, please?” 

Skylar grinned at the exchange and quickly grabbed the coat off the rack before “Chris” could say anything about it. 

She said, “Port this bag up, please, Lootie.” 

The bag popped out of existence and Skylar smiled again. The Captain was about to get dressed up by his girlfriend. For some reason, that thought amused her.

-+-

Later, the elevator door to the Mule’s bridge slid open. Maxwell and Skylar walked out, smiling. Max flipped a 10,000 credit token with his thumb and caught in neatly in the air. 

Raleigh and Jillian smiled back at the pair. The Captain said, “How much have we got, Lootie?”

“Approximately 5.2 million credits have been collected from merchants and individuals, Captain.” 

“How much do you estimate we’re leaving behind?”

“Past estimates indicated Pegasi Station currently holds about eight million token credits.”

“And there’s no way you can . . . sense things better?” 

“Some of the hiding places are quite ingenious, Captain.” 

This was true, Raleigh thought. His people found tokens hidden in floorboards, air vents, and a variety of other places. Short of torturing everybody and tearing apart the space station rivet by rivet, they would likely never find all the money tucked away on Pegasi.

“Well, we don’t have time to do a more thorough search. Get everybody back up here ASAP, Lootie. Let’s go home.” 

“Captain, a ship has materialized next to us.” 

Raleigh’s blood turned to ice. 

“Get my people back on board. Show me the ship.” 

The holoscreen on the bridge switched to a view outside the Mule. A giant ship orbited nearby. Meters upon long meters of dark metal panels stretched out of range from the outside camera.

Maxwell said, “Hey! That looks like the Aquamarine.” 

“Records indicate this is not Aquamarine, First Officer Maxwell,” LuteNet said. “This is the Coral Reef. StarCen is now aware of our presence.” 

Raleigh and Maxwell shared a glance. Raleigh’s mind sprang into action.

He said, “Lootie, activate the net! Port out the pieces and set it off.” 

Teleportation mitigation canisters popped out of Ultima Mule’s hold and into the space surrounding Coral Reef. They immediately formed a circle around the ship’s stern.

Phoom!

“It is done, Captain. Their Wu Drive is irrevocably damaged and they are unable to port away. They still have standard drives, though.” 

“Send over the service drone that we had reserved for Excelsior to the landing bay portal and take out their repelling guns. That’s more important than damaging the standard drives right now.” 

“Will do, Captain.” 

Raleigh turned toward Maxwell and Skylar and said, “You two get over there. Take the transport. Hurry. Skylar, don’t even mess with their entry corridor or any other defenses. You know where the bridge is. Get inside, find their Captain and force a surrender. Now, before they have a chance to mount a defense.” 

Skylar nodded, curtly. She said, “If Max can get me onboard, I’ll take care of the rest.” 

They raced for the elevator. LuteNet already had a pod waiting for them.

Clarion’s Call 28

A collective groan went up throughout the Mule when Excelsior ported away. 

“Man, we were this close!” Maxwell said from the bridge where he, the Captain, Granny and Jillian watched on the holoscreen as the drone puttered away, nothing but empty space in front of it now.

Raleigh activated his link to the ship’s PA system. He said, “Let’s move on, people. Pak and Kim, go ahead and take out the station’s trunk line. We’ll pay them a visit and see how many credit tokens we can recover.” 

The mood onboard the Mule brightened considerably with this announcement. 

Two small service bots moved closer to external protrusions on the surface of the artificial moon. Each bot stood about one meter tall and carried various appendages. They clanked to the side of the external trunk lines connecting Pegasi to StarCen’s quantum communications network. Both exploded simultaneously. 

“Alright,” Raleigh said. “Pegasi is cut off from StarCen. Let’s go introduce ourselves.”

The Ultima Mule popped into orbit around Pegasi Station. 

LuteNet said, “I will have to adjust the orbit via teleportation on occasion, Captain, since we do not have standard drives to maintain stability.” 

“Understood. Take care of us as always, Lootie.” 

“Will do, Captain.” 

Raleigh activated the PA system again. He said, “Bear in mind they’ll probably stash their tokens somewhere so be on the lookout for potential hiding places. We are not barbarians, so there will be no unnecessary violence. Anyone caught raping somebody will be shot. You don’t have to be polite to these people, they are the enemy after all. But remember they are quasi-neutral. They have serviced Republican ships in the past. We’re just here to liberate their tokens and maybe some other merchandise. We can’t carry much in the way of cargo, so just grab small things that are worth reselling back home. 

“Okay. Away teams, prepare to port down. We’re not sticking around. StarCen will likely send somebody to check on the communications disruption soon. We want to be long gone before they get here.” 

When he signed off he looked at the others on the bridge and said, “I know the Excelsior has a million credit bounty on her. But at least we might be able to profit a little from Pegasi.” 

Granny nodded and said, “They’re probably loaded with credits from the Excelsior’s crew.” 

Maxwell smiled, showing most of his teeth. He said, “I’ll lead the first team down.” 

-+-

The Embarkation/Disembarkation Zone for Pegasi Station was similar in size to the room aboard the Mule and other spacecraft. Maxwell and Skylar appeared, popping into existence. They were automatically scanned for microorganisms, but having gone through the same procedure back on the ship, there was nothing to notice. 

“Nice to see their subroutines work without StarCen,” Skylar commented as they exited the area. Behind them, Escobar and Granny popped into existence. 

Maxwell nodded and said, “Let’s go exploring.” 

He kept his gun out, a rifle, but he pointed it down and remained calm as the door to the chamber opened into a wide corridor. 

“It looks like an indoor mall,” Skylar said. 

Up and down the corridor they saw a variety of storefronts. Tables and chairs were scattered around outside a couple restaurants. A hologram projected the ancient symbol for a barber pole nearby. 

Maxwell said, “Yup. Must be the commercial district. Good for us.” 

Granny and Escobar stepped out, and were quickly followed by several more pairs of pirates flooding the corridor.

Maxwell said, “Everybody split up and move fast. Stay with your partner, nobody go off alone. Remember, as soon as word spreads they will hide whatever they can. So grab stuff fast. And remember what the Captain said.” 

Everybody nodded and the pairs split up, heading toward different businesses. 

Maxwell nodded toward the barber pole. He said to Skylar, “Come on, let’s visit this place first.” 

Skylar said, “I wouldn’t think a barber would have a lot of money.” 

“You’d be surprised. Navy boys love them some haircuts.” 

The door to the barber swished open for them. Two men sat in chairs out front. They stood up in alarm when the pirates entered. 

One of them, an overweight middle-aged man said, “Who are you? Is that a gun? Firearms are not permitted in Pegasi Station.” 

Maxwell smiled at this statement and aimed the gun for the overweight man’s chest. 

He said, “Is that so? Well, if you will fill up this bag with all your credit tokens, my partner and I will take our guns and go. Sound like a fair deal?”

The man broke out in a sweat at the site of the blaster aimed at his middle. The other man shifted in his chair, only to be covered by Skylar’s weapon. He looked at the muzzle, then at the beautiful woman holding the gun. Unlike Maxwell, Skylar was not smiling. He gulped and decided to remain sitting. 

Shaking, the fat man moved to the cash drawer and palmed it. It slid out silently, and he removed all the credit tokens inside. When he reached to hand the bag back to Maxwell, his hands shook. 

Max glanced inside the bag and said, “Hm. That’s not nearly enough. I know you boys have been giving Navy scum haircuts for weeks. Where’s the safe? If there’s enough in there maybe we won’t have to destroy this place . . .” 

The fat man’s face went pale and he shared a glance with his partner. 

“Don’t look at him,” Maxwell said. “You’ve been doing business with League sailors for months now. As far as the Republic is concerned, that’s an act of war. And we will have remuneration from you or you will forfeit this establishment. What’s it going to be?”

Still the man hesitated. 

Maxwell turned to Skylar and said, “Shoot the place up.” 

She turned her gun to one of the barber chairs. 

Thoopah!

It exploded into flames. 

“No! Stop! I will open the safe.” 

“That’s more like it,” Maxwell said. “See? All we’re asking for is a little cooperation.” 

The barber hurried to the back of the store, past the burning chair just as fire retardant sprayed down from the ceiling. Maxwell followed, keeping his gun aimed steadily on the man while he sidestepped the spray. 

In a back office, the fat man wiped away tears while he touched a hidden panel, which slid back to display a safe. He palmed the door and it swung open, revealing stacks upon stacks of credit tokens piled up like poker chips. 

“Jackpot!” Maxwell said. “Don’t you people use banks? Oh, I forgot. No banking services to speak of while the war’s going on, huh?”

“Please,” the fat man said, openly crying now as he poured the tokens into the bag. “This is all I’ve got! My family will starve.” 

“Oh don’t worry. We’re taking everybody else’s money, too. You’ll be fine.”

Clarion’s Call 27

“What’s our status, Chung?”

SLS Excelsior’s Captain, May Benson, asked the question of her XO, a large man with a freshly shaved head. Like many in the crew, he had spent lots of time the last several weeks roaming around Pegasi Station. He got a haircut from the local barber before they began preparing to leave. Everybody had visited their favorite merchants and restaurants, saying goodbye to the local populace whose services they had used for so long while the ship underwent extensive repairs.

For her own part, the Captain had visited a hair stylist who had set up shop near the larger salon most of the crew used. The proprietor cut her straight brunette hair just right, so that it covered the back of her neck and no more. At 40, Benson no longer worried about fancy hairstyles. Of course, being married to the Navy, she never had to worry about it much anyway. Short and simple, keep it out of the way.

Chung said, “All personnel are onboard. All systems are operable. We are ready to go when you are, Captain.” 

“Very good.” 

And it was good, she thought. By any reasonable standard, they’d still be stuck here for another month. But a few days ago the last of their needed parts and panels arrived via a freighter from Epsilon. They could get back in the game ahead of schedule.

“Pardon me, Captain Benson.” 

“Yes, StarCen?”

“An external service drone is approaching.” 

“Put it on the holo.” 

The bridge’s front holoscreen switched over to the port side where a drone moved steadily closer.

“What’s it doing, StarCen?”

“I am uncertain, Captain.”

“Well, keep an eye on it and, uh . . . find out what it’s supposed to be doing. I thought all repairs were accounted for.” 

She cast a questioning look at Chung. He nodded. 

StarCen said, “I will do that, Captain”

Benson took a deep breath and ran through a final mental checklist of all the things that needed doing before departure. Most all of them were complete. They had been parked here for way too long. 

Initially, the Excelsior indeed needed to stop somewhere to make emergency repairs. Somebody (Cooper? Thrall himself?) had the idea to use her ship as bait for a trap set for the Republic. This was an idea she was not happy with, and she let her officers know about it in so many words.

That, of course, was a mistake because then the whole crew knew. She could not help it, though. The decision frustrated her, and left her feeling very angry. After all this crew had done for the League, to be used as a decoy was humiliating. 

But of course, they did their part. The men and women of the Lucky Lady, as the crew affectionately called Excelsior, always did their part. Just like at Nocturnus.

Nocturnus was a planet with minimal light, on the edge of the Goldilocks zone. Even at high noon on most parts of its surface, sunlight was dim. It was supposed to be beautiful, despite the paucity of natural light. Benson could not say, she had never been to its surface. She had been involved in the fighting above the planet’s skies, though. 

The Battle of Nocturnus was particularly ugly. A total of 18 Star League ships were involved against 24 Republican vessels. Two freighters and a passenger liner on the League side were damaged in the action, too. The passenger liner was destroyed by enemy fire and fell out of orbit, crashing to the planet’s surface. StarCen managed to teleport the freighters out before they were hurt too badly. She parked them at Pegasi Station, where they became part of the honey trap. 

At the end of the day, Excelsior had indeed been very lucky. She ported in after the battle had begun, when the Republicans showed up with overwhelming force against the motley assortment of League ships surrounding Nocturnus. The League had four Sparrow-class ships in orbit, two Eagle-class ships, and the rest were Harriers. The Republic brought in 20 Hawk-class destroyers, and four Eagles. 

It should have been a route for the Republic, and no doubt PLAIR calculated that the odds were in their favor. And the Republic would have carried the day and possibly moved Nocturnus to the PLAIR side of the ledger, if Excelsior had not shown up at the last minute. 

StarCen diverted their course. They just happened to be within 45 minutes or so when the shooting started. That was their first stroke of luck, Benson thought. 

When they popped into the middle of battle, they found themselves behind one of the Republican Hawks. That was stroke of luck number two. They pummeled its stern with their big front guns and quickly took it out. 

The Excelsior had a part in blowing up eight more enemy ships, either by herself or assisting other League destroyers. Each one netted it an increased strain on her shields, but Benson pressed forward. No one ever said Claude Benson raised his little girl to be a coward, and Benson did not shy away from fights. Especially not with those Republican bastards.

PLAIR’s ships were outnumbered then, with only five able to move. Seven League ships were still in commission. Excelsior was the last Eagle-class ship in action by that time, and PLAIR decided to focus on taking her out. 

StarCen had other ideas, though, and quickly brought the remaining League ships into the fray. But with the combined blasts from multiple ships, Excelsior’s shields failed at last. A Republican Hawk rammed her right before disintegrating from League fire. Just before Excelsior could fall apart, StarCen stopped her fire and pulled the ship out. 

Porting in the middle of battle is a risky maneuver, with all the flotsam floating around in space from broken ships. It also can’t be done while shooting. But StarCen pulled it off perfectly. 

Unfortunately, they were crippled. And with each jump they made, pieces fell off. The engine room had a hull breach, which meant everyone inside it had been ripped out into space during the battle. It also meant no one could even get to that deck to see about repairs from inside the ship. They would have to find someplace to stop and patch things up. They were not too far from Pegasi . . . 

But they survived and Excelsior became something of a celebrity ship in the League Navy. She showed up at Nocturnus to save the day, and managed to escape after turning the tide of battle. Despite the forces arrayed against her, she beat the odds. Viewing the battle footage, Benson could see how events might have turned out differently if one or two things had not gone their way. In many ways, they truly were lucky. 

They even managed to stay lucky while serving as bait. From the report Benson heard, Expedient and Polaris managed to kill two Hawk-class pirate ships, at the cost of losing Expedient. But the Navy recovered some important classified assets. Cooper had sent in a commendation for her role in the whole thing, even though all she and her crew had down was to sit, parked in orbit, and watch the fighter drones battle it out. The numbers there had been overwhelmingly in StarCen’s favor, so it was not something to get all fired up about. 

But now . . . now it was time to go. Benson had the itch to jump back into battle. Her orders were to join Cooper at Juventas. From there, no doubt, they would sally forth into the next engagement with the enemy. Where? Was it finally time to head back to Seychar and claim Gotha Mu? The League had a score to settle there, and Benson hoped the Lucky Lady would have a part in it.

“Captain Benson, the drone continues approaching. I still cannot discern its purpose. Apparently it is on another subroutine, or perhaps it is operating autonomously.” 

“Are there any other repairs needed, StarCen?”

“No ma’am. You are ready and the Excelsior is good to go.” 

Benson watched the approaching drone. In seconds it would be within the ship’s three-meter zone. 

“Very well. I think we can safely skip any service this drone has to offer. Take us away please.” 

Excelsior disappeared. The drone continued going forward, but it puttered into open space. 

Captain Benson remained unaware that her lucky streak continued.

Clarion’s Call 26


In the Ultima Mule’s mess hall, most of the crew watched as service bots flitted about the Excelsior.

“How is it possible,” Jillian said, swallowing a bite of food, “that StarCen does not sense this drone?”

“She likely does sense the drone,” Raleigh said. “But, she thinks the Mule is destroyed. Thus she thinks this drone is dead. Lootie has done nothing to indicate it has control of the drone. Thus, to StarCen, it’s just part of the debris from the last battle.” 

“Hm. So in the meantime, we get to spy on the Excelsior with it.” 

“Exactly.” 

Granny sat at the same table as Jillian and Raleigh. She said, “Looks to me like they’re not going to hang around much longer. I’d be willing to bet they’re not going to be there by the time we show up.” 

In fact, Granny already had a pool going. But she decided Raleigh did not need to know about that right now.

“That’s always a possibility,” Raleigh said. “Her Captain, a woman by the name of Benson, is rumored to be extraordinarily lucky. We’ll see if her luck holds out against the Mule. We’re three days out, and Lootie is stretching the port points as far as she safely can.” 

Maxwell spoke up. He said, “That ship represents 10,000 credits a share.” 

“Well, the Slender Sylph Company will get something, if we’re successful,” Raleigh said. 

“That reward would be all fine and dandy,” Granny said. “But we’ve got to capture or kill her, first. As y’all can see, they’ve got her fixed up nice and pretty. She’s not quite the sitting duck she was on our first visit. And need I remind you that she still has most of her drones intact, while we have . . . what? One with a working camera? Two more floating around out there somewhere?”

“It’s an issue,” Raleigh said. “At least we have the element of surprise. But, I’m open to ideas on the best way to take her once we get there.” 

“Tony and I have been thinking about that,” Pak said. When we get close enough to retrieve that drone, or one of the others still operable, we think we can plant a bomb onboard. Then we’ll port it back near the Excelsior and let it sail into their flight deck.” 

Everybody thought about it for a moment. 

Maxwell said, “Could work.” 

Granny said, “Nah. StarCen will see that thing coming a mile away. The minute it gets close she’ll either blast it or port the Excelsior somewhere safe.”

“That’s if they can port by the time we get there,” Raleigh said. “Lootie, how big are the guns near the Excelsior’s portal entry? Can they take out the drone easily?” 

“Eagle-class ships have four repelling guns near the flight deck entrance, Captain. Side-defender carronades are the bigger threat. The drone’s shields would only be able take three or four direct hits from the side cannons before disintegrating.” 

“How close could we get the drone to the ship? How fast could it make a run for that portal?” 

“Any threat suddenly materializing near the ship will be dealt with immediately by StarCen. The odds are not in our favor for success.” 

Everyone fell silent again, staring at the distant ship on the holovision. 

Finally, Kim said, “Well . . . if a drone would get blown out of the sky too quickly . . . why don’t we appear alongside her in the Mule and start blasting away?” 

Raleigh’s eyebrows shot up. 

“What do the odds look like for that idea, Lootie?”

“Close to a 35 percent chance of success, Captain. The Excelsior is an Eagle-class destroyer, and it is very difficult to successfully attack. We also have no standard drives, complicating matters.” 

Kim pressed his case. He said, “If we showed up, suddenly and without warning, and started hitting them from the front where they’re weakest, that would be a distraction. While they’re occupied with us, then we port over the bomb-laden drone.” 

Raleigh shook his head. He said, “Two things. First, they may be weakest in the front so far as shields go, but they’ve got those massive guns there to compensate. Those things are going to immediately start pounding us. And our shields are not in great shape. Second, StarCen can easily multitask. She can still make short work of our drone even while pounding us.” 

“The odds are marginally better with a multi-pronged attack,” LuteNet said. “But we have a very limited supply of drones, and that does not bode well for our success.” 

Jillian said, “Wait. Why does it have to be a frontal approach? They’re porting in and out people all the time from the station, right? Why don’t you just send somebody up there with a bomb?” 

Granny cackled. She said, “There’s no way StarCen would port up somebody she didn’t know. Especially not a person who’s supposed to be dead.”

“Well, how about a maintenance bot or something? They don’t go under bioscans.” 

“No, but they’re usually not ported, either,” Maxwell said.

Kim said, “Hold on. She might be onto something. If we kidnapped a maintenance bot, planted a bomb in it, then returned it to go work on the ship . . .” 

“What are the odds on that, Lootie?” Raleigh said. 

“There are too many unknown factors to give an accurate estimate for the chances of success, Captain.” 

“Okay. I’m willing to accept an inaccurate estimate. If we try to sneak in a booby-trapped maintenance bot, what do you think our chances might be?” 

“Presuming the unknown variables work out in our favor, the chances are relatively good. I am unable to provide a numerical estimate with so many unknowns.” 

“Are the odds better than a frontal assault?” 

Long pause. 

“Possibly.” 

Raleigh cracked a grin at everyone. He said, “Well there you have it, people. That’s as good as we’re going to get. Kim and Pak, finalize your plans. Let’s figure out the best way to blow up a destroyer.”

Clarion’s Call 25


How could it go so wrong? 

That thought kept storming through Julia’s mind as she made her way to the spaceport. 

First, she took the stairs from her apartment down to the basement. There were no monitors inside the building, unlike some more expensive properties. However, there were plenty out on the street. One in particular recorded who entered and exited her building through the main door. 

Fortunately for Julia, the basement had a doorway leading into the storm sewer. It had been placed there for maintenance crews. There was a monitor there, too, but she knew it was disabled. Yorkton’s Capital City Police Force had 11,652 monitors scattered throughout the city. Of those, 4,671 were malfunctioning or otherwise disabled. That one, she knew, had been broken for months. She also knew there was little incentive to replace monitors in low crime or low traffic areas. 

Such was the knowledge she gained by being married to a cop. She laughed when he told her about the committees he had to serve on. Whoever heard of cops serving on committees? But such was the power sharing arrangement in the police force. Few decisions were made without committees comprised of officers on the force as well as upper management. 

Biff was on the Monitors Committee, and he took his work home. And everything the Monitors Committee knew about the monitors in Yorkton, Julia knew. 

So, she walked past the disabled monitor and through the storm drain tunnel for three blocks. 

One more monitor at a manhole cover exiting into an alley between two buildings had been destroyed by a masked thug months ago. It was not on the list of priority replacements, either. 

The manhole cover cracked open an inch and Julia scanned the alley carefully. Finding it empty, she gently moved it aside and extracted herself from the hole before replacing the cover. 

Dusting off her blouse, she walked out to the street and down to the nearest skybus stop.

Unlike Lute, which was small enough that Customs and the Port of Entry could be handled through the Administration Building, Juventas required its own spaceport. Julia used tokens to travel there, privately grateful for the anonymity. 

Tokens were tolerated by the city because everyone was subject to facial and discreet iris scans upon boarding the bus. But Julia’s new face, tied to a separate identity in StarCen’s records, did not set off any alarms. 

Halfway to the spaceport, she noticed the public holovision in the bus showing her old face. Her head rotated in a high-definition image with words underneath saying, “Alert! If you see this woman, contact CCPF immediately!” 

That face, she thought, had been a construct, just as her current one. The technology was so advanced, few knew it even existed. A touch of the amulet gave her a new identity. The hacking into StarCen’s database to line up records with the faces meant she had at least a dozen identities she could use. One touch of the amulet and her face would change, down to the molecular structure. Even her fingerprints and irises changed. 

Her DNA did not change, and that was the whole setup’s kryptonite. If someone obtained her saliva, or a hair sample, they could trace it back to Julia Thrall no matter what face she presented to the world at the time. 

Fortunately, she knew that StarCen had some safeguards in place falling under the special considerations for Tetrarch family members. For instance, right now if someone examined her DNA on Juventas, it would show in the records as belonging to Andi Jones. 

Still, it would not do to have her DNA found at a crime scene, if it could be avoided. StarCen was smart enough to tie whatever was found to the Andi Jones identity. But if someone were to ever get suspicious and start pulling records from different sites at different times and somehow get past StarCen’s safeguards . . . well, that could be very bad indeed. 

The risk did offer a certain thrill, and each time she changed identities she had to admit to herself that the adrenaline rush was . . . pleasant.

Was she addicted to danger? An adrenaline junkie? 

If she were honest with herself, the answer would be yes. However, navel-gazing bored her, so she sidestepped the question.

The skybus landed and she exited with the other passengers at the spaceport. She walked through the security line, subjecting her bag and person to the scanners. 

Inside, she gazed at the hologram sign showing departures and chose a spaceship. The Coral Reef was scheduled to depart within a few hours, and had plenty of room. By the number of empty berths available, Julia guessed she was a Mammoth-class ship. 

Julia got in line at a booth without many people. She tugged at her earlobe, nervously. Within minutes she faced the booth’s android, a very human-looking female, completely realistic from the waist up. Without glancing down, Julia guessed the bot had no legs, and was a permanent fixture at this booth. She would sit here and smile, answering questions and selling tickets non-stop, all day and night.

Julia said, “I’d like to book passage on the Coral Reef to Epsilon Prime, please.” 

The bot smiled at her and a scanning ray quickly checked her biomarkers. 

“Very well, Ms. Mulligan. Would you prefer a first class or second class cabin? I’m afraid third class has several indentured servants, and is unavailable at this time. But, there’s lots of room in the other two available.” 

“First class, please.” Julia reached into her duffel bag and pulled out the appropriate amount in credit tokens. 

The bot smiled and took her money. She said, “The next port up to the Coral Reef is in twelve minutes, from Disembarkation Zone 15. If you’d like to make your way over there, you will find it down the corridor to your right.” 

The bot helpfully pointed in the right direction before saying, “My I help the next person in line, please?”

Julia nodded and walked down to Disembarkation Zone 15.

Half an hour later, she was settled in a cabin in orbit above Juventas. 

Later that evening, fully loaded with all passengers aboard, the Coral Reef popped out of existence and began its journey toward Epsilon Prime. Julia pulled out a wrinkle-free evening gown and a pair of black high heels. She changed and left her room, searching for something to eat.

Clarion’s Call 24

Admiral Cooper strode down the opulent hallway of the Juventas Administration Building, followed by a phalanx of senior officers. He stood five foot ten, or 178 centimeters, with dark hair featuring wings of silver above the ears. He was 55 standard years old. 

The silver in his hair did not appear until the war started, and most of the press in the League only had holograms taken from before. They were standard issue images from the Navy, publicly available for the news. When someone met him who only knew about him through the media, they often expressed surprise at how much older he looked from his pictures. 

He aged faster because he took each loss personally. And Cooper had lost more ships, sailors, Marines, officers, and bots than he ever cared to remember. Despite the constant positive spin in the news, the war was not going well. Yes, they had bled the Republic considerably. But the Republic had given at least as much as she had taken. 

Now he fretted as he walked down the corridor, followed by his staff. This move by Thrall to take over Lopez’s quadrant concerned him. He and his people were playing the enforcer role, and he did not like it.

It was widely known in the Admiralty that Maria Lopez was no fan of the war. Heck, he thought, who was a fan of the war? But Lopez had always been the most vocal in her pronouncements against it. 

Thrall, of course, considered her talk merely foolish at best. Now, evidently, he considered it treasonous. Cooper had feared this outcome two months ago when Thrall ordered him to bring the Sixth Fleet to Juventas and maintain his Marines in orbit. 

Cooper feared the outcome, but he prepared for it. The men and women and bots under his command were kept in a state of preparation, despite days and weeks of nothing happening. 

And now this, the order he had hoped would never come: Take over Juventas. 

In private moments with his Captains and Marine General Santos he confided that each time the General Assembly met, he worried Lopez might take it too far. Sure enough, that idiot must have said something stupid in the last meeting. No sooner had it concluded than Thrall gave the order to take over Juventas and arrest her for treason. 

His people were ready. The Marines in particular had no problems in grabbing control of the planet. They received almost no resistance. After all, everybody was on the same side here. The people in this quadrant were coming under new leadership, that’s all. 

Of course, he was that new leadership. In effect, he was the newest Tetrarch, although nothing was officially announced. 

In reality, although this was not something he had shared with General Santos or anyone on his command staff, Cooper felt he was just an extension of Thrall’s will. He would not be doing anything Thrall did not tell him to do. Thrall controlled the Navy, after all, and Cooper was an Admiral who reported to Thrall. Chain of command. Thrall now essentially controlled half the primary planets in the League.

That rubbed Cooper the wrong way, if he stopped to think about it. But Thrall was his boss. If he did not toe the line, so to speak, Thrall would simply have him replaced with a different Admiral. One who would do what Thrall wanted. And there were plenty in the pipeline below Cooper who would be happy for the chance to rise in rank and gain favor with the Tetrarch.

So for now, he thought to himself, to use a sports metaphor . . . if Cooper wanted to play in the game, he had to keep quiet and follow the coach’s orders. 

All of these thoughts raced through his mind as they approached the private elevator at last. A Commander stood waiting, clearly anxious. Cooper racked his brain trying to remember the officer’s name. Barton? 

The man saluted when the party arrived at the elevator. 

“Commander Barton, sir. I’m afraid the elevator cannot accommodate everybody, Admiral.” 

“No problem,” Cooper said. “Take me down. Everyone else can wait here.” 

The officers all nodded and the tightly clustered group spread out a bit. Cooper followed Barton into the elevator as he waved at the controls. The door closed and they started going down. 

“It’s a completely separate system down here, sir. StarCen has no control whatsoever. Our technical engineers were able to poke around, though.” 

“Very good. Do we have any holos or audio from what happened?” 

Barton shook his head. He said, “I’m sorry, sir. The bunker had no recording apparatus of any kind. All we have are what StarCen captured out in the hall. We can see Lopez and her aide go in this elevator. Some minutes later, the aide comes out, alone.” 

The door opened, and the smell of blood assaulted the Admiral’s nose. 

MPs stood in place, one next to each body. They stared ahead, stoically. A man and a woman in blue uniforms with “NCIS” in holographic letters on their breasts walked up. 

The man appeared to be about 30. He had dark brown hair cut short, military style. He said, “Admiral, I’m Judd Stallings. This is my partner, Patricia Marr-Zhou. We’re in charge of the investigation at the moment.” 

“What do you have for me, Stallings?”

By tradition, Cooper knew, members of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service were civilians. Thus, they would not be saluting him. They were usually former Naval officers or noncoms, though, and were intimately familiar with how the Navy operates. But it would not do for an Investigator to be in the Naval hierarchy and arrest a superior officer. Thus, all NCIS agents were civilians. Nominally, at least, no one was outside their arresting authority. Not even Admirals.

Stallings said, “We have a holorecord of the Tetrarch and her aide entering the elevator after a conversation with Terry Arthur. A few minutes later, the aide leaves. An hour passes before the next person comes in, one of the guards’ supervisors. He finds the bodies and immediately sounds the alarm.” 

“DNA? Fibers? Fingerprints?”

“Just of those four individuals in this room, Admiral.” 

“So. Have you picked up the aide for questioning?”

“There’s an APB out on her as we speak,” Zhou said. “Local SWAT is about to take her apartment.” 

She, like her partner, looked to be in her early 30s. She was of Chinese descent, with dark hair and brown skin. 

“But there’s our first problem,” she said.

Cooper raised a questioning eyebrow and waited for the pair to continue. 

Stallings said, “StarCen can’t find her. We doubt she’s in the apartment.” 

Cooper raised his other eyebrow. He said, “What do you mean, ‘Can’t find her?’ Is she dead?”

“Not that we can tell, sir,” Zhou said. “It’s like she never existed. StarCen can’t even tell us where she’s been or anything about her background or . . . anything.” 

“Somebody had to have known something,” Cooper said. “You don’t get to be in the Tetrarch’s inner circle without anyone noticing.” 

Stallings said, “We’re doing some old-fashioned footwork, sir. It seems she was married to a cop on the Capital City Police Force, a guy named Biffender Jones. We are interrogating him now.” 

“Good. Well, find her. Although, I have to say, it looks like she may have done us a huge favor. The briefing said something about a nuclear control center down here.” 

Zhou nodded. She said, “That’s right. Lopez had access to a command structure outside of StarCen’s control. Our techies noticed the last coordinators for their land-based silos had missiles aimed toward Yorkton.” 

Cooper shook his head in amazement, and locked eyes with Barton, who stared back with an equally amazed look on his face.

“Well,” Cooper said, “after you find this Jones woman and arrest her, I’d like to shake her hand.”

Clarion’s Call 23

Julia entered her Yorkton flat. She had avoided taking the skybus and walked all the way home. Fortunately, it had not been far. About halfway there, she remembered the monitors and wondered if taking the bus might have been better after all, even with mass transit security measures. But so far, no alarms had sounded and her presence on the street had been ignored. 

When she reached her building she took the stairs, and finally reached the door to her flat. She palmed it and the door swished open. 

“Hey, babe.” 

Biff looked up from the stove where he fussed over one frying pan with bacon and another with scrambled eggs. Both pans rested on an energy pad supplying heat. 

She said, “Hi,” and kissed him. 

“Oh, smelly. What’d you do, walk home?”

“Yes. And up the stairs. Maybe I’ll get in as good a shape as you.” 

“Hey, long as the weather holds out, you can do that.” 

Biff was buff, she thought, and not for the first time. 

She almost spit out her drink the first time she met him. She had not been in Yorkton very long, perhaps two weeks, when someone in the Tetrarch’s office convinced her to go out with a group after work and hit the local pubs. 

Biff had a bad boy vibe that appealed to her. And he was a body builder. When he walked up to her in the pub, he looked like a thick-necked slab of flowing muscles with ripped abs, outstanding pecs, and well-defined shoulders and arms. The tight fitting shirt he wore showed everything.

“Hi, I’m Biff Jones.” 

After she stopped laughing, she said, “Of course you are.” 

The name fit him perfectly. 

Biffender Holloway Jones had some endearing qualities. He was not the most intellectual of men, but as a cop on the Capital City Police Force he had proven to be extremely useful for Julia. She made up her mind to get as close to him as possible. Their civil union ceremony occurred seven months ago. Being married to a cop afforded her access to all sorts of useful intelligence. 

He said, “So, what’s going on at the Admin Building, Andi? News alerts said something about a bunch of Space Marines landing. Is that why you had to walk home?”

“Yeah, something like that. Evidently the Tetrarchy deposed Lopez today.” 

He turned off the stove and whipped around in surprise. 

“What? When did this happen?”

“Just a little while ago. Yeah, that’s why the Marines are here. Thrall is taking over this quadrant. Admiral Cooper is to be his puppet.” 

Biff moved the bacon and eggs to a plate, grabbed a fork and headed for the sofa. 

He said, “That’s bad. I know you don’t care for Thrall.” 

“It’s terrible.” 

She stopped herself from saying more. She wanted to say that Lopez was willing to nuke everybody in the city, including him, to hang onto power. She wanted to say that even though she was no fan of her father, she found herself actually helping him in order to save innocent lives. She wanted to say that no matter what she wanted, her father always seemed to get his way. 

She felt incredibly frustrated, but there was no way she could ever share any of this with Biff. He didn’t even know who she really was. 

He said, “Looks like it’s going to be a long night.” 

Biff sighed, in between wolfing down the bacon and eggs. He watched brief snippets of the news on the holovision, as one Marine transport after another landed on rooftops across the city, spilling out troops and military robots. 

When he finished eating, he walked over to a chair and retrieved his police jacket and blaster belt. He strapped them on. 

“I’d better go in early. I’m sure we’ll be swamped tonight.” 

Julia smiled and nodded. At first she was not happy when it came time for him to cycle over to a night shift. Cops rotated every so often, he explained. She got over it quickly, though. Having Biff gone at night proved to be very convenient. Tonight would be no exception. 

He bent down and kissed her. When they broke apart she looked in his eyes and reached up to touch his cheek. 

“I want you to know that whatever happens, I always loved you.” 

He chuckled. “Now, what’s that supposed to mean? It’s just a change in government. Tetrarchs come and Tetrarchs go. It probably won’t affect us much. Other than you probably losing your job, of course. But I’m sure you’ll find something else. They always need good people in Administration. And you’re one of the best, babe.” 

He stopped at the door and looked back one more time. 

He said, “I’ll see you in the morning.” 

She nodded and watched as the door swished shut behind him. 

Out loud she said, “That’s not what I meant.” 

She walked into the flat’s bedroom and reached under the mattress frame. She pressed a hidden button and a floorboard slid back. Reaching inside the hidden compartment, she pulled out a duffel bag. She closed the compartment and crawled out from under the bed. 

Julia changed clothes quickly, choosing casual tights, a loose blouse, and comfortable shoes. Very carefully, she pulled a necklace with a shiny amulet out of the duffel bag and placed it over her neck. 

She pressed the button, and her face shimmered. When it stabilized, she looked completely different. Her nose and cheekbones were altered, along with the color of her eyes, which turned hazel. Her hair changed to auburn. Overall she had a completely different look. 

Satisfied with everything, she palmed the door to the apartment and left. 

Back in the living room, the holovision stayed on. A picture of her old face appeared, with the word, “Wanted,” underneath.

Clarion’s Call 22

Some 200 kilometers away from the planet, in the middle of Clarion’s solar system, a spare Wu Drive floated, rotating slowly. 

Suddenly, a cube of seawater appeared with two figures wearing space suits in the middle.

The water sloughed off them in slow motion, instantly separating into globules floating lazily through space. 

Then the figures disappeared. 

A moment later, a smaller amount of water mixed with silt appeared, this time encapsulating a sensor the size of a soup can. A second later, the sensor disappeared. 

Then the Wu Drive disappeared. 

In the disembarkation zone aboard the Ultima Mule, the two figures in spacesuits appeared, three centimeters off the floor. Their feet thumped down to the deck as the last of the water fell, succumbing to the ship’s gravity field. 

Decontamination rays swept them, killing off microorganisms. 

When the rays stopped, Raleigh reached up to his neck and pressed a latch. His suit relaxed and pulled away from the helmet. He took it off and looked at Jillian with a smile. 

She followed the procedure and took her own helmet off. The suit relaxed and her hair came loose. Freed from the suit, she shook her head and it rippled in all its glory. 

Her heart stopped when she caught Raleigh’s eye. 

“You came for me.” 

“I couldn’t leave a crewmember behind.” 

“StarCen said you were dead. I had to pretend that I was glad, but it tore me up inside.” 

“As far as she knows, we are dead. We wanted to keep it that way. I was a little worried you wouldn’t recognize me.” 

“When you gave me an order, I knew it had to be you. I didn’t know how it could be you, since you were dead. But . . . nobody gives orders to the Tetrarch’s daughter. Except my Captain.” 

She took a step forward. The suit seemed to sense her will, and slid down her body into a sort of puddle at her feet. His suit reacted likewise, sliding off him. 

The moment seemed perfect. She wrapped her arms around him and they kissed. Her lips parted to let his tongue in, and their bodies pressed together in a passionate embrace.

Back on the bridge, Granny cackled and put an unlit cigar in her mouth. The holovision showed the disembarkation deck in perfect clarity.

“Okay, Lootie. Who wins for first kiss?” 

“That would be Mr. Escobar, Quartermaster Wilcox. The date and time he chose is closest.” 

“That son of a gun. Okay. When we get back to where you have us officially alive again, deposit the winnings in his account.” 

“Will do, Quartermaster.” 

Maxwell grinned and said, “How much is he going to get?”

Granny said, “Hey, Lootie. How much did Escobar win?”

“He will receive 42,100 credits. As per the arrangements, you will receive 4,600 credits in your role as pool organizer.” 

Granny glared at the ceiling. The AI did not have to mention that last part. 

Maxwell said, “Hold it. You mean you get something for setting up the bets?” 

She spread her hands wide and said, “The house always wins, Max. You should know that.” 

He chuckled and rolled his eyes. 

“You’re always full of surprises, Granny.” 

They returned their attention to the couple in the disembarkation zone, still passionately embraced. Jillian lifted a leg and wrapped it around Raleigh’s.

“You know,” Granny said, “I used to be quite the kisser back in the day, too.” 

“Was that before you started chewing on those stink sticks?” 

Her face dropped and she turned to stare at Maxwell. 

Without taking the cigar out she said, “Watch it, fella. You may be the biggest on this ship, but I can still whup ya.” 

He chuckled and raised his hands in defeat. 

Max said, “I wouldn’t doubt it, Granny. I wouldn’t doubt it.”

-+-

Raleigh walked into the mess hall holding Jillian’s hand. The entire crew stood up and applauded. 

Jillian smiled, clearly embarrassed but with happiness on her face.  

Raleigh raised a hand for silence, and eventually everyone sat back down. 

Pak spoke up before he got a chance to say anything. 

“Where to now, Captain? Back home?” 

Raleigh shook his head. He said, “Everybody thinks we’re dead. I say that gives us an opportunity. Maybe we can wreak a little vengeance and make some profit while we’re at it.” 

Everybody leaned forward, anticipation quickly filling the air. 

Raleigh said, “Lootie, do you still have any drones at Pegasi?”

“Yes, I do, Captain. Three survived.” 

“Do any of those have eyes on the station at the moment?”

“Yes, Captain.” 

The mess hall’s holovision blinked and showed Pegasi Station at a distance. An Eagle-class warship slowly orbited around her.

“Crew, the Excelsior is still undergoing repairs at Pegasi. They are not expecting us. I say, we give them a visit.” 

A cheer went up in the mess hall as the Ultima Mule popped out of existence from its orbit around CSNP908.

 

Clarion’s Call 21

Jillian pulled the spacesuit up and around herself. It was made from some kind of intelligent fabric that quickly conformed to her body. 

Raleigh handed her a helmet, and they ran into their first problem. He shoved as much of her hair into the back of the helmet as he could, but it would not all fit. 

So much hair! He pushed and shoved, and still it would not all fit. Finally he resorted to shoving it down the back of the suit, which adjusted and made room for it. Then he pulled the helmet over her head, and the suit quickly wrapped itself around the helmet’s base. 

They were ready to go. 

He stuck his head out the bedroom door into the hallway, cautiously. All the bodies were still there, all the dust and debris from blaster fire and grenade explosions remained undisturbed. He walked out into the hall and motioned for her to follow. 

They made it to the stairs without incident, then to the gym, passing the last body along the way. Outside, they stepped over busted robot parts. Raleigh led them to the beach. He walked into the surf and looked back at her. She stood there, staring at him from behind the opaque visor. 

His voice clicked out over the suit’s speaker again. 

“Come on, we’ve got to get out of range of the teleportation dampers.” 

She nodded, or tried to under the helmet. She followed him out into the water. 

Soon they were in over their heads and they both dog-paddled to gain more distance from shore. 

At last Raleigh stopped and treaded water. She stopped too and looked at him again. Only their helmets were above the surface. She swung her arms back and forth to make herself turn around and she looked back at the mansion one last time. 

Then they disappeared, along with all the water around them. The sea closed in on the void immediately. 

In the courtyard on the other side of the house, the holographic circle appeared in the air and four armed Marines popped into existence, guns drawn. They quickly exited the circle and split up, making a perimeter sweep around the house. 

Behind them, four more Marines popped into the circle. As soon as they left the perimeter, another four popped in. 

By this time the perimeter sweep was finished and the initial four prepared to enter the house. 

The first one breached the blown door and swept the room. He focused on the body lying near the inner door. 

“Bioscan indicates subject is dead.” 

“Copy that.” 

The other three followed, sweeping the room with their guns. Carefully, the first two made their way through the inner door and toward the stairs. 

Back at the circle outside, Tetrarch Thrall and Lieutenant Commander Elven popped into place. 

One of the Marines stood waiting for them in full body armor. 

“It’s not safe yet, sir. We’re sweeping the house as we speak.” 

A corner of Thrall’s mouth came down, but he nodded in acceptance. He stood outside the circle with his arms crossed, waiting. Elven stood beside him. 

The team inside made it up the grand stairway and found the bodies in the second floor hallway. 

“Good grief!” one of them said, gazing down at the blaster marks and blown apart walls. 

“Did . . . did she do all do this?” 

“They had a firefight with the guard bots here.” 

“Okay. Yeah, that makes sense.” 

At the far end of the hall, one of the assailants groaned as he returned to consciousness. 

The Marines froze and aimed their guns at him. 

“Hands where I can see them! Hands up!” 

Behind the visor covering his face, Jeter became fully conscious. In his field of vision he could see three members of his team lying in the hallway. Mentally, he pulled up the vitals screen for everybody. Underneath his own graph, he saw four flat lines. 

Failure. 

“Don’t move! Don’t move!” 

The Marines approached with their guns, stepping over debris. 

SSI will never survive the fallout from this, Jeter thought. 

He smirked behind his visor. Good thing no one will ever never know for sure it was an SSI black op, he thought.

Mentally, he flipped a switch. 

The special nanobots inside his bloodstream ignited. An SSI scientist had read about a strange phenomenon called “spontaneous combustion,” where an unexplained flash fire would quickly consume someone, leaving behind only a pile of ashes. Intrigued, he rigged up some nanobots that could replicate the phenomenon. 

Jeter and the other four agents burst into bright white flames. 

The Marines yelled in surprise and jumped back. The one in the rear almost fell down the staircase before catching himself in time. 

Outside, the hovercraft started up, floating on a cushion of air and energy. It made an autonomous U-turn and headed back out over the water. With all the attention on the indoors, nobody watched it speed out to the lagoon’s entrance and head toward the open sea. 

Several kilometers away, above deep water, it self-destructed and the pieces sank to the bottom. They were not unrecoverable, but doing so would be costly and time-consuming as well as pointless. Nothing on the craft was directly traceable to SSI.