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?”
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.