The war is over and ex-Space Marines like Sergeant Gina Wilcox are transitioning to civilian life. For Wilcox, that means a career in law enforcement, complete with shootouts and other violent crimes.
But not everyone considers the war entirely over. When an old SSI code activates sleeper cells in the Republic’s capital, Wilcox and a team of veterans suddenly find themselves in the midst of a deadly cold war using high technology and facing even higher stakes.
The third book in Agents of the Planetary Republic is up on Amazon! Triskelion Conspiracy deals with an insidious plot by the League to assassinate VIPs in the Republic. Here’s the blurb:
Triskelion is active. The Chancellor is murdered. Scores of deep undercover operatives have mobilized to take down politicians, judges, and law enforcement personnel.
Former Marine Sergeant Gina Wilcox leads an elite team that fights back, bringing swift justice to the SSI agents arrayed against the Republic.
But the deadliest assassin of them all has just arrived by interplanetary transport. And things are about to get much, much worse . . .
Don’t miss the third installment in this ongoing action-packed series!
You can pick it up today and download immediately from Amazon.
Today Detective Wilcox is released, first in a brand new Space Opera series, Agents of the Planetary Republic.
Here’s the blurb:
The war is over. For ex-Marine Sergeant Gina Wilcox, that means using her powers outside the military for a change.
Wilcox is an electronic telepath, and when Naval Investigations is dissolved she’s recruited into AOJ, the Republic’s top civilian law enforcement agency.
AOJ has a reputation for being corrupt to the core. And to make matters worse, crime spikes out of control right before election season.
Wilcox does her part, rounding up terrorists and assassins. But the criminal underworld reaches far deeper than anyone realizes. Something darker and much more sinister is lurking . . . just beyond her enhanced powers of perception.
The series is set in the Pirates of the Milky Way universe and picks up where the other series left off. Thanks to everybody on Patreon who has supported and helped in the story’s development.
I’m pleased to announce the box set for Pirates of the Milky Way is out! Here’s the short blurb:
When the League moves on a golden planet deep inside Republican territory, war breaks out. Competing forms of galactic government fight to the death. AIs strategize, teleporting star fleets and space-based weapons systems across vast distances in an epic interstellar conflict.
Outgunned and desperate for more ships, the Republic turns to privateers, recruiting law-skirting companies from the fabled planet of Lute and offering huge rewards for their service.
One man, Captain Christopher Raleigh, flies the Ultima Mule with a crew of brilliant misfits. Together, they set out to teach the League a lesson or two, and collect multiple bounties along the way . . .
Many thanks to everybody who has supported this series since its inception and its year-long run as a serial. You can pick this up for a limited time at a greatly discounted price.
Julia popped into existence inside the gaming environment called New York, 1985. She appeared in Grand Central Station and walked out with a crowd of other newcomers signing in.
In this hedonistic virtual environment, League subjects could engage in activities otherwise prohibited in real life. Of course, the government made sure they suffered consequences for it.
As the saying goes, Julia thought, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The League made sure of that.
She watched people who immediately bought and took drugs after leaving the entry area get mugged. Some of them were stabbed, painfully bled out and forcibly ejected from the game right away.
Others, soliciting prostitutes, were occasionally beat up by angry pimps for not showing proper levels of respect or other perceived slights.
But not always . . . Some managed to indulge in bacchanalia without immediate ill effects. Julia knew that the game’s designers, under the direction of a government office, were engaging in a sort of reverse intermittent reinforcement.
A newcomer who escaped “punishment” for his or her actions the first couple of times they indulged, would face profound disappointment when they finally met due consequences. Subsequent trips to the digital playground would prove ever more difficult to score pleasurable experiences.
Julia had read the whitepaper on the plan, outlined by some very smart professors at Epsilon U. Rather than rewarding bad behavior, the game turned the tables and made them psychologically frustrating. It was a most excellent government conspiracy in an effort to control the online behavior of billions of people.
However, despite the efforts to tamp down the pleasures of acting bad, the company that owned the gaming worlds, in this case Sergio Productions, needed to make a credit or two in order to keep the virtual doors open. So, she also knew they often toned down the “penalties” for engaging in bad behavior. There were still rewards to be found amid all the negative feedback.
Also, a player might get killed by a mugger, or drug dealer, or pimp, but nothing would happen in the real world. And nine times out of ten, they would come back online chasing that ever more elusive high. Sergio Productions used the law of diminishing returns for profit while the government tried to leverage it for social engineering. The two were at odds, but so far the government had not balked at the arrangement.
Julia ignored the sketchy people as well as tourists. She made her way to Times Square, walking about 800 meters through the purportedly faithful rendition of the grimy squalor of late 20th century New York City.
She stepped down into the Times Square-42nd Street Subway Station and Port Authority Bus Terminal complex.
Several people milled about on the platform, and she waited patiently for a while. A subway car stopped and some exited while others boarded.
Convinced the coast was clear, she opened an unlocked door leading to a service corridor along the back wall. She pulled it shut behind her and breathed a sigh of relief. Then she turned and faced the featureless hallway before her.
She dutifully slapped the wall, looking for a glitch in the game that would let her step inside the building blocks of the virtual world. She found it on her third try this time, and stepped into a dead space of monochromatic orange columns and tight passageways. Ahead, she knew the “Font of Knowledge,” or whatever the programmers called it, would let her communicate with people in other gaming instances, even in Republican territory.
“Stop right there. Hands up!”
She turned and an officer wearing the blue uniform of NYPD aimed his sidearm at her. Three more men stepped out from behind the orange geometrical columns comprising the virtual skeleton of the building.
Julia was surprised to see they were aiming ancient revolvers at her. Surely the NYPD used semi-automatics by 1985, she thought. Hm. Evidently not.
A fifth man stepped out of hiding, this one wearing the plain gray suit of an undercover detective.
He flashed a badge at her and smiled.
“Going somewhere, sister? Maybe for a talk by an isolated water fountain or something?”
The first cop crept closer. He took one hand off his pistol and grabbed a pair of handcuffs from his belt.
He said, “Now just turn around. Slowly.”
Julia waited until he came within range and thwacked his gun hand away.
She grabbed the cop and pulled him close as the others opened fire.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
The officer’s body jerked as slugs from the other cops hit him. She reached over and grabbed the pistol in the dead man’s hand while dropping his body to return fire.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Three cops fell down holding their chests.
NPCs, Julia thought, always die easy in this game. Probably a nod toward people who enjoyed committing murder and mayhem online.
She ran to the glitch and jumped back into the corridor. Then she ran to the door, still holding the officer’s revolver.
How many shots do I have left? Three. Stupid game.
Back in the glitch, the detective made a very anachronistic motion, touching under his ear.
He said, “Suspect is on the move. Heading to the subway platform.”
On the platform, she jumped out into the crowd and a few people looked her way.
Someone said, “Gun!”
Several people screamed and rushed for the exits.
Six more NYPD officers rushed in, aiming their sidearms at her. She saw two more in suits.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
The screams intensified as the officers opened fire.
A slug tore into her shoulder, and she felt the pain register in real life, although she was not shedding blood back there. The neural connections were intense, though.
Instead of aiming at the uniforms, she squeezed off a round at one of the detectives, figuring he was more likely a real person instead of an NPC.
His head blossomed red, and he went down. Julia felt a fleeting moment of satisfaction as she moved onto the subway platform, now void of people.
At the back of her mind, she wondered how accurate the game portrayed old-fashioned ballistics. That shot was over 20 meters, and from what she knew about ancient weapons, pistols were not extraordinarily accurate at longer range.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Two of the next bullets got her, accuracy algorithms helping the other side this time. She felt one go into her thigh, shattering bone. Another plunked into her stomach. She heard the third whiz by her ear harmlessly.
She went down on her knees and noticed all the blood for the first time. Her own virtual blood. She was covered in red, and it dripped down onto the platform.
One of the detectives ran up, this one from the glitch and the service entrance. He made a downward motion with his hand at the NPC officers.
He said, “We want her alive for interrogation. Don’t let her exit the game just yet. We’re zeroing in on her location IRL.”
Julia stood up in a sudden burst of renewed energy and shot him point blank in the face.
His body fell backward as he exited the game.
She looked down the tracks and saw a train coming, the light approaching rapidly along with the unmistakable sounds of the subway. This one did not slow down. It was not going to stop.
More NPC officers flooded the area, all aiming guns at her. She saw two of them carrying a net, others with rope. They still intended to capture her alive, evidently.
“Time to go,” she said.
As the train rushed into the station, she jumped out on the tracks, right in front of it.
Her virtual body thumped into metal.
She felt intense pain from the impact, then exited the game.
“Incoming bogey, Captain. One half AU out.”
“I’m on my way, Max. Thanks.”
Elijah Maxwell clicked off the connection on the neural net and stared at the main holo on the Ultima Mule’s bridge. Kim and Pak had come up with an idea for a warning grid surrounding Thalia, a planet in the Juventas quadrant they were watching along with the Chaucer Company.
Kim left a grid of drones surrounding the planet at one half astronomical unit intervals, up to three AUs out. It depleted their supply of drones, but the engineers felt this layer of protection would give them ample warning of anyone coming in. All LuteNet needed was a second or two for a heads-up, and they would not be taken by surprise.
The elevator dinged and Christopher Raleigh stepped onto the bridge. He nodded at Maxwell who tilted his head toward the holo.
“I take it they’re just parked out there, right? I mean, if they were truly incoming, they’d have been here by now.”
“That is correct, Captain. They are sitting one half AU out.”
“Do we have an identification?”
“Not yet. They are evidently not under the control of one of the major AIs.”
“Aha,” Raleigh said, nodding. “Smugglers, then. They’re the only ones who like to hop around manually.”
“That’s what I was thinking, too. It also explains why they stopped one jump out. They’re probably trying to make contact with someone on the surface.”
“The question is, are they carrying something in or out? If smuggling it in, we want to intercept before they unload. If going out, we want to pick them up afterward. Lootie? What’s your opinion?”
“At this time there are too many variables to provide an accurate estimate, Captain. However, bearing in mind the reward for capturing enemy ships, and even though this one is not a League Navy vessel, its sale should bring in at least two million credits on the low end.”
Raleigh raised his eyebrows and said, “Can’t argue with that logic. And, it is our turn to grab a ship since we gave the Chanticleer first dibs.”
Maxwell nodded. An independent merchant vessel popped into orbit around Thalia yesterday, oblivious to the recent change in power. The Mule and Chanticleer instantly surrounded it and pummeled their engines with blaster fire, crippling it. The holds were loaded with clothes, food, and consumer electronics. LuteNet estimated its cargo alone was worth a million and a half credits, all of which was claimed by the Chaucer Company.
Raleigh scrolled through his list of mental contacts and stopped on “Lightfoot.” He concentrated and made a connection.
“Hi Krystal. Listen, we found a bogey half an AU out, just parked there. We think it’s a smuggler. Want to help us grab it?”
“Sure thing! I guess it’s your turn to pick up a ship, isn’t it? Say, whoever dreamed up that idea of using drones for a surveillance grid is one smart cookie. Ask them if they’d like a job with Chaucer. We offer great benefits!”
Raleigh ignored the playful, flirting tone in her voice. He said, “Okay. We’re jumping over in ten minutes. I’ll relay the coordinates, or you can just ask Lootie to follow us.”
“Sure thing, Chris. See you in a bit.”
Raleigh signed off and sighed, partly in exasperation. He looked up and noticed Maxwell grinning at him.
“Not a word, Max. Not a word.”
The First Officer raised his hands up in mock surrender.
“Oh, I won’t say anything. Least of all to Jillian. Not a word.”
Raleigh’s lips twitched up a bit at the jab, but Jillian indeed had a problem with Krystal Lightfoot, one of his old girlfriends. The less said about her in Jillian’s presence, the better.
He headed back toward the elevator, already wishing this venture was over and he could put several light years between Ultima Mule and the Chanticleer.
The Mule and Chanticleer were both Hawk-class warships. They appeared suddenly behind the merchant, forward cannons blasting into the aft section.
At the same time, LuteNet popped an anti-teleportation grid around the ship. Practically all military ships and many others now shielded their Wu Drives as a matter of course, but there was always the possibility this merchant had not.
The ship disappeared suddenly, clear evidence that her Wu drives were indeed shielded.
“That trick just doesn’t work anymore,” Max said.
Raleigh said, “Are they still in the grid, Lootie?”
“They are, Captain. They are two AUs out. I will bring both ships in again.”
Ultima Mule and the Chanticleer popped away and appeared in place once again behind the merchant.
This repeated two more times, until at last their combined firepower broke through the merchant’s shields. Its standard drives were blown apart by blaster bolts. Once again, she popped away, and once again the two warships followed.
“Send them a message, Lootie. If they run again, we’ll destroy them.”
“I am sending it, Captain.”
Dillon Dvorak, sitting in the pilot’s seat, turned around and smiled at Raleigh.
He said, “You know, if they were smart they would port somewhere outside the grid so Lootie can’t see them.”
Raleigh smiled back at the young pilot. He said, “They don’t know about the grid. And they’re operating without the benefit of an AI to help make split second decisions like that. Hold on, I’m getting a response.”
He made an adjustment so that everyone on the bridge could listen in. Jillian, Granny, Maxwell, and Skylar were in the group.
“This is Enrique Vega, Captain of the Bronze Iguana, an independent merchant vessel. This is a seditious act of piracy you are committing here!”
Raleigh said, “Captain Vega, you are in Republican-controlled space without permission from her AI. Your vessel is subject to forfeiture or destruction. The question of which one it will be is up to you.”
A long pause.
At last, Vega came back on the line. He said, “Very well, Captain. You have me at a disadvantage. My ship is yours, I ask you spare her crew.”
“Lower your shields. I’ll send a party over via transport immediately.”
Raleigh looked at the people he had on the bridge. He said, “Maxwell, gather up a group and go over there. Bring a sensor and one of our new control pods so Lootie can take command the ship. Check her cargo bins. There’s probably some hidden compartments on board, too. Maybe Lootie can suss them out once the pod is installed.”
Maxwell smiled, white teeth shining in his dark face.
He said, “Aye, aye, Captain. Skylar and Dillon, come on you lovebirds. Let’s round up a couple more, grab some guns and go over there.”
Julia quickly stepped back onto the sidewalk as a taxi raced toward her. The driver slammed on the brakes and yelled curses at her from his open window.
Most of his words were unprintable, but Julia caught “No jaywalking!” and decided that was the gist of his sentiment.
She sighed and followed the crowd on the sidewalk as they filed into Times Square. Scantily dressed prostitutes solicited customers, rubbing up against men as they ogled them. Drug dealers stuck out too, in other ways. They typically stood in one location, wearing overcoats and casting shady glances at everyone.
Here in New York 1985, tourists could revisit the city during that time period. It seemed very realistic. Privately, though, she wondered if things were really this bad back then.
She knew a little of the history. A man named Rudy Giuliani was elected Mayor in the early 1990s, and cleaned the city up. He lowered regulations, increased law enforcement, decreased crime, and generally made the city a much better place for a while. He earned the nickname “America’s Mayor” for his huge success in managing the metropolis.
The online simulation, part of the mega game Off World, showed the city before Giuliani took over. New York 1985 had constant crime, rampant drugs, open prostitution, daily muggings, and the lowest forms of human depravity on display in filthy grimy streets with thick, choking pollution. Trash blew in the wind, fumes filled the air, and the unwashed masses milled about in it all, hurting and killing one another.
Surely it wasn’t this bad, Julia thought.
Visitors could engage with the prostitutes, of course. They could also buy illegal drugs. Julia had not tried them, but she knew players could choose from cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, and a host of other substances. She also knew the effects, while purely in the player’s head, had the same negative consequences as the real life versions, unlike modern versions.
Supposedly, the simulated old-style drugs were allowed by the League here so that players could experience those negative consequences. The thinking was, if people experimented with ill social behavior in a virtual environment, and suffer, it would help convince them to behave in real life. Rumor had it the negative effects were exaggerated.
Privately, Julia wondered about that as well. Modern drugs could be tailored to a user’s body so that side effects were minimal. Few people partook in basic drugs these days. At least, as far as she knew. She had to admit she was not much of an expert in drug use, illicit or otherwise.
She watched as a tourist sucked on a crack pipe, getting high. He stumbled away from the dealer, clearly enjoying the effects of the drug.
A street bum approached him from behind, drew a switchblade and knifed him in the back. He took the tourist’s wallet before the body blinked out of sight, the player forcibly exiting the game.
One thing was for certain, Julia thought. New York 1985 was a wretched place. It reeked, and the NPCs were horrible. The subtle message in the game was that the Republic was a lot like this caricature of a society presented to players . . .
That, Julia thought, was certainly a lie, if not a misrepresentation of the facts.
The League was not perfect either. She wondered if the Republic had a version of society that modeled the League. Maybe it would be called something like Moscow 1949? East Berlin 1972?
She looked around at the tourists, the people who were obviously not NPCs. A handful of college boys were hooking up with streetwalkers while some girls were buying drugs out in the open. The NYPD cops, what few were present as NPCs, looked on with bored expressions but did nothing to put a stop to the lawlessness.
Besides the bacchanalian activities, sightseers enjoyed the scenery. It was supposed to be a faithful recreation of the way the city looked in 1985. The Twin Towers were popular, as were the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Statue of Liberty. You could even watch a baseball game. The Yankees and the Red Sox played every night, and the Yankees always won.
But Julia was not here for the hookers, the drugs, or the sights. She kept walking, heading for the subway station.
Supposedly, she had read somewhere, the subway system underwent extensive changes in 1988. This version of New York, true to its name, did not have those changes.
It mattered little to Julia, and it probably mattered to few other than history buffs who no doubt obsessed over the accuracy of minutia in the simulation.
The place Julia wanted to go, she thought as she descended the steps, was not in existence in 1985 anyway.
On the busy platform as a subway car pulled in and unloaded passengers, she tried the handle of a service entrance against the back wall. As expected, it was unlocked. She quickly went inside and locked it behind her, in case anyone saw her and tried to follow.
She breathed a sigh of relief. The hard part was over.
The changes made to StarCen should, in theory, ignore Julia, even in her current identity as Catarina Mulligan while in Off World.
However, Julia was not one who enjoyed taking chances. The location within this virtual reality should be safe, even if StarCen was monitoring her with malicious intent.
She walked down a hallway and found a long stretch of featureless gray walls. She slapped the wall on the left with the palm of her hand.
When nothing happened she took another step and slapped it again. On her fifth try, the wall faded and she stepped into another corridor that branched off where the wall had been. This one showed the bare building blocks of the virtual world, orange columns and straight lines extending outward in a large featureless gray space. She was now in the “skeleton” of the Times Square-42nd Street Subway Station and Port Authority Bus Terminal complex.
Several meters in she spied a fountain, sitting incongruously within the digital substructure.
She smiled, approaching it.
“Cute. I get it. ‘Font of Knowledge.’ Who says programmers don’t have a sense of humor?”
A man’s voice came from the fountain. It sounded slightly artificial, as if digitized and transmitted over a long distance. Julia decided it had to be some kind of text reader, and not a real person’s voice.
“We have important news for events coming soon to your planet.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’m all ears.”
“There will be a change soon. Tomorrow would not be a good day to be in the Administration Building, the Spaceport, or other major installations. All ports and military sites are best to avoid as well.”
“I see. What about major population centers? Will they be susceptible to change?”
“Not if it can be helped. However, residences of certain people, those living in the mountains, for instance, may find themselves under new management.”
Julia frowned, trying to work though the vague statements. She thought she understood.
She said, “The whole planet will see a change in management.”
“That is the plan,” the fountain said. “Yes.”
“And the Sixth Fleet in orbit? Or, what’s left of the Sixth Fleet?”
“They will be ameliorated.”
“Hm. That’s an interesting way of putting it. Okay. Anything else?”
“No. Just stay away from the buildings tomorrow. After the change in management, we would be very interested in meeting you.”
Julia smiled at this, her lips curling up.
She said, “We’ll see.”
She turned and walked away, then logged out of the game.
[Author’s Note: Welcome to Book 5! Just a heads up, I am nearing a decision point on whether or not put the series into Kindle Unlimited, which pays authors by pages read. We’ll see how this month goes in terms of sales in wide distribution and on Patreon.]
Johan Milford stood at the lecture dais wearing a comfortable polo and blue jeans. Blue jeans, that ancient style of clothing, was currently in vogue on Epsilon, and Dr. Milford was a very popular, and hip, professor.
Milford was proud to boast ancestral blood from four continents on Old Earth: North America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. He had nice blended look, featuring light brown skin, dark brown hair and eyes.
He stood five foot nine, or 175 centimeters, with bushy brown hair and a bushy brown beard. He carried too much weight from lack of exercise, good food, and copious amounts of beer consumed on the weekends.
In short, he was a very typical university professor, looking every bit the part. He stepped out from the podium and waved a hand around the lecture hall, filled with undergraduate students hanging on his every word.
Most professors preferred teaching small and intimate gatherings of graduate students, and the lighter grading load such classes entailed. But if Dr. Milford held such a preference, he kept it well hidden. He remained one of the most popular professors at Epsilon University, consistently scoring high on social media surveys. Students loved him, and his classes always filled to capacity.
Today he taught the 400 or so undergraduates in a stadium-style classroom for his Philosophy 101 class. Most in the class were 16-year-old freshmen, although a few older students were mixed in, particularly those who were unable to attend when they were freshmen themselves.
Unlike other lecturers at the university, Milford worked at making his time on stage entertaining. He danced around, gesturing wildly, varying the cadence of his voice. He included amusing anecdotes and used all the techniques of compelling oratory. Holos of his lectures were very popular, even among non-academics, and had racked up millions of views.
Several students were in fact recording him right now, their neural implants storing optical and aural sensory input as they watched him on the stage. Most recorded his lectures for their personal benefit, ostensibly so they could re-watch them before tests. In actuality, parties and personal relationships interfered with studying time for many of them, and the holos were never seen again.
A handful sold their recordings to companies looking to capitalize on the professor’s fame. This practice was officially frowned upon by Epsilon University and was grounds for dismissal if caught. However, it proved too lucrative for some to resist.
One student recorded the lecture for an entirely different purpose. He was registered as a sophomore under the name Ben Fernando. Fernando was an agent for State Security and Intelligence.
SSI had kept tabs on Dr. Milford for years. In fact, SSI monitored almost everyone at Epsilon University, students as well as professors. The hard sciences were watched for developments that could be appropriated by the state, or that might be used against the state. The soft sciences and humanities were monitored for political adherence, although less stringently. Everyone knew liberal arts and the like were mostly useless from a practical standpoint.
However, the war changed things and SSI slowly began to realize the true meaning of a liberal education. Liberal arts and social sciences taught students how to think. And if students learned to think outside established orthodoxy, that could be a problem.
Director Munk himself realized the error in their lax coverage of the humanities late in the war. He had since performed due diligence, including learning about the history of university education.
The liberal arts always rebelled against orthodoxy, it seemed. There may be times when professors adhered to the status quo, but invariably their politics shifted to the opposite side of the spectrum from which they were governed.
Therefore, capitalist societies produced professors who championed socialism. Socialist societies produced professors championing freedom and capitalism. The pattern held true for centuries.
Since the Star League was an authoritarian tetrarchy, it only stood to reason that her universities would produce freedom loving capitalistic professors. So, Munk increased surveillance on the humanities, and Fernando found himself signing up for various classes in liberal arts.
Fernando had to admit, Milford was a very good speaker. He found himself entertained, and often spent time afterward thinking about what the professor said. If it were not for the fact Fernando was an SSI agent, loyal to the state in every way, he might have been influenced to think the wrong way sometimes.
Philosophy was a broad topic, and Milford spent much time going over the classics. But the way he presented philosophical movements, ideas, and opinions always left his students with the notion that more freedom was better for individuals than what authoritarian governments typically allowed; that people flourished when government largely left them alone; that the right to be left alone was to be cherished and sought out whenever possible.
In short, Fernando increasingly grew to realize that Milford was extraordinarily dangerous and spreading seditious rumors and half-truths to his students. He grew increasingly alarmed as the semester advanced, and his reports back to SSI HQ became more strident in tone.
Today Milford expounded upon the philosophies underlying the American Revolution, and Fernando remained particularly alert. These ideas were poison to the League, especially in their ongoing war against the Republic. The Republic was in fact founded on the same ideals.
The Republic even thumbed its nose at the League by naming their most powerful spacecraft after American founding fathers.
So Fernando paid close attention, sitting front and center in the auditorium for a good view, and recorded it all on his neural implant.
Milton paused dramatically and said, “Somebody once said a democracy is like two wolves and a sheep voting what to have for dinner.”
Everyone in the room chuckled. All these students, Fernando thought, had been taught from an early age the evils of capitalism and democracy by state-approved schools and teachers. The notion had been pounded into them relentlessly.
Milton continued and said, “Somebody else said a representativedemocracy is where the sheep has a gun.”
A girl in the back of the room, “Oh, no!”
A few turned around and looked at her. She clapped a hand over her mouth and her ears grew red.
Milton nodded sagely. He said, “Of course, it doesn’t have to a literal gun, although in the case of the United States it certainly was with the Second Amendment to the Constitution. But the weapon in question is really the electoral process. You see, in a representative democracy, the people’s weapons are elections. If the people don’t like who is serving them in government, they can have a revolution at the ballot box and vote the scoundrels out of office.
“This is why representative democracies are the most stable and longest lasting of all governments. Their ‘revolutions’ occur every four years or so. The people in charge change, while the underlying framework within their constitution carries on.”
Fernando heard some mutterings, a couple of “Hmm’s” and “Aha’s.” He looked at the students sitting near him and noticed some eyebrows raised.
Milton had made an excellent point, and his ideas were shaking the carefully entrenched attitudes toward government these students had been indoctrinated in almost since birth.
Milton had also, Fernando decided, signed his own death warrant.
Author’s Note: Book 3 is here! I’ll have some exciting news about an upcoming compendium/boxset available soon. Stay tuned!
Biffender Jones walked out of the Embarkation/Disembarkation Zone in Petra Roe’s spaceport carrying a single duffel bag. He stopped for a minute to gain his bearings.
The place looked like a spaceport on any other world, built for functionality over aesthetics. He made his way down a large corridor to the line forming at Customs and endured the contraband scanner while he waited.
The line progressed rapidly. As per usual Customs was manned by a human, this one a middle-aged woman who gazed at her holoscreen as he approached, no doubt looking over his information.
“State your business on Petra Roe, Mr. Jones.”
She nodded and said, “Enjoy your stay.”
He walked past her and followed the crowd toward the exit.
Tourists were clearly evident, what few there were in the crowd. They were dressed for travel, wearing bright colors, chatting happily amongst themselves. Petra Roe was known for incredibly beautiful scenery, with green snow-capped mountains and beautiful white sandy beaches. The wealthy often vacationed here, although during the war their numbers had declined significantly.
Stepping outside, Biff blinked in sunshine for the first time in weeks. He had almost forgotten how good natural daylight felt.
Skycabbies approached him, offering to take him to any hotel in town. They were human, for the most part, but the cabs they directed people to were drones.
Biff had no plans, and no hotel reservations. He really had not thought much beyond getting here. All he knew was that his wife Andi, the prime suspect in Tetrarch Lopez’s murder, was likely on Lute by now. And the only way he could get to Lute was through Petra Roe. But how? There were no departures for Lute listed at the spaceport.
He ignored the cabbies when he caught sight of a flickering holosign down the street, showing two cocktail glasses floating in a circle. He took off on foot, deciding to worry about a hotel later. Bars were often a good source of information in his line of work.
The door to the bar slid open and his eyes adjusted again, this time to dim interior lighting. A handful of customers sat drinking in opposite corners. Everyone looked at him as he entered, but Biff sensed no hostility. The bar area was empty, with several vacant stools from which to choose. Biff picked one and headed for it, setting his bag on the floor near the middle of the bar, equidistant from both groups.
The bartender arrived, and Biff realized he was an android. He was an older model, with a decent looking face but it was before manufacturers perfected the eyes. The human eye, it so happens, is one of the more difficult things to replicate. Older models were often criticized for having “dead” or “spooky” eyes. This one indeed had spooky looking eyes. They were functional, but they gave Biff the creeps. Obviously, this was at least one of the reasons no one sat at the bar.
The proprietor must have decided to keep the old unit around for whatever reason. Maybe it filled in when human bartenders were unavailable, Biff thought.
The droid said, “What can I get you?”
It nodded, pulled out a frosted mug and headed for the taps.
Conversation between the groups had muted somewhat, Biff thought. Both sets were eyeing him, and maybe discussing him. He could not make out what was being whispered in either corner.
When the bartender returned with his beer, Biff said, “I’m looking for passage on a ship. I wonder if you might know anything.”
Both groups stopped talking altogether. Mentally, Biff shrugged. There did not seem to be a better way to do this.
The android said, “All departures are noted on the main holosign at the spaceport. Perhaps you could find a ship heading for your destination there.”
Biff nodded and said, “I already checked. Where I want to go is not listed.”
“Where do you want to go?”
Dead silence reigned in the bar. No one said a word.
Finally the android said, “I’m afraid you won’t find many ships going there. That’s pirate territory. It is a restricted zone. Petra Roe only flies one official vessel there, and it’s not due for another week.”
Biff took a sip from his beer and said, “I’m sure other ships head that way from time to time. I just need to book passage with one, as soon as possible.”
A chair from the table on Biff’s right scraped back on the floor and a tall, ugly man stood up. He sauntered over toward Biff, covering the distance in a few long strides. For the first time, Biff sensed open hostility brewing.
The man stood taller than Biff. He had a paunchy middle and the tattoo on his shoulder was clearly visible with the sleeveless jacket he wore: a stylized E, the symbol for League Marines.
He leaned down on the bar, invading Biff’s personal space. His body odor came along with him, assaulting Biff’s nose. The man evidently had not showered or shaved in days.
He said, “Lute’s pirate territory. Now, why would you want to be going there?”
Biff took another sip of beer and looked at the man.
He set the mug down and said, “I have my reasons.”
The chairs from the other table scraped back, and all five people who had been sitting there approached the bar. Biff noted they were dressed identically, with tan t-shirts and dark brown pants. Probably crewmembers, he thought to himself.
When they began moving, Big Ugly’s companions stood up and headed that way, too. In seconds, every person in the place hovered near Biff’s barstool.
At this point, Biff decided to announce his affiliation with law enforcement.
He looked up into Big Ugly’s face, who was now staring daggers at the other group. He said, “I am a—”
Before he could finish, someone from the other table slammed their fist into Big Ugly’s jaw. It knocked his head back, but he did not go down. Instead he roared in anger and started swinging.
Both sides threw punches, and Biff ducked down out of the way, carefully holding his beer. The fight quickly spread throughout the room, everybody knocking over tables and chairs.
The android bartender said, “Police are on the way. No fighting is allowed. Police are on the way.”
Two men ganged up on Big Ugly and threw him back across a table, which buckled under their combined weight. All three went down to the floor with a crash.
A young woman of Asian descent, wearing a tan shirt from the group at the other table, grabbed Biff’s arm and pulled him up.
“Come on,” she said. “We need to get out of here.”
Biff set his beer down, grabbed his duffel bag and followed her out. They weaved between fighters trading blows, fists and faces connecting with thwacks and thumps.
Out on the street, the woman hurried him along until they were half a block away. Then she slowed to a walk. They heard the sound of sirens as a squad car landed near the bar. A human cop and his android partner exited and rushed inside.
“Will your friends be alright?” Biff said.
“Oh yeah. We’ll pay the fine and spring them from jail before we leave. I’m Melanie Polansky, by the way.”
They shook hands.
“So, you’ll be wanting to come with us,” Melanie said. “We’re on the Salamander, an independent freighter. The reason you won’t see any departures heading to Lute from the spaceport is, there’s nothing authorized to go that way right now.”
Biff thought for a moment and said, “But you’re going anyway.”
She smiled, her entire face lighting up in a wide grin.
She said, “That’s right. And our Captain will be happy to take along a paying passenger, as well. I’m kind of new myself, but I know the Captain is always looking for extra fares.”
Smugglers, Biff thought. Bending the rules, and finding ways around laws and regulations. All for a profit. And I’m in law enforcement, not evasion.
They walked the remainder of the block in silence while Biff reached a conclusion. He thought about Andi, and how he needed to find her.
They stopped at the next crosswalk and he said, “So, how much do you think your Captain will charge me to tag along on your trip to Lute?”
“Come on, you two. You can do better. Wotta bunch of weenies.”
Granny put both fists on her hips and looked down on the mat where Skylar and Raquel lay panting. They were all barefoot and wearing gym shorts below their t-shirts.
“I don’t get it,” Skylar said between breaths. “How can someone so petite be so strong?”
“I don’t get how someone so old can be in such good shape,” Jillian said, equally winded.
“Okay that does it, missies. Get up so I can kick your butts again.”
Both younger women sprang up from the mat and rushed Granny at the same time. She sidestepped and tripped Skylar, then swung around and grabbed Jillian’s arm, turning her forward momentum into a flip.
Jillian fell end over end and landed on the mat again with a loud, Splat!
“Who looks old and petite now?” Granny said. She cackled and walked over to offer the women a hand up.
They were a week into the voyage to Pegasi Station aboard the Ultima Mule, and already the three had formed a bond while sharing quarters.
Skylar and Jillian, closer in age, had more to talk about with each other. In previous voyages, Skylar kept mostly to herself, interacting with her brother Samuel and rarely spending time with others. Now that he was gone, she turned to these two for companionship.
Granny served in a matronly role, freely offering advice. She also willingly served as the odd person out for the other two to gripe about.
Granny said, “Two women are friends. With three women, someone is going to become the target of the other two. So I’ll be you gals’ target. If you can hit me!”
Indeed, Skylar and Jillian found themselves griping about the older woman frequently. Part of it had to do with their inability to take her down during these sparring sessions.
“What do you call this again? What’s this style?” Jillian said.
Granny said, “The flips are from Aikido. It’s a type of fighting that uses your opponent’s weight against them. It’s particularly useful for women because the fellas are usually bigger than we are.
“Now, my other techniques are based on Krav Maga. That’s for close quarters combat. You girls need to learn some fundamentals, first. Like how to roll when you fall. If you were to have gone down on a hard floor like that, Princess, you might have busted your neck.”
Granny grinned at them and pulled out a cigar she had hidden on her person somewhere. She stuck it in her mouth, unlit, and kept smiling.
“I’m gonna hit the shower and have some lunch. See you gals at mess!”
She walked out of the gym, leaving the younger women alone.
Skylar said, “She must have some anti-aging nanobots in her system or something. I swear she can’t be 73 years old. Nobody that age can move like that.”
Jillian cracked her neck and rubbed the small of her back. Granny was right. Without the mat her fall would have hurt much worse. Plus she was beginning to wonder if her long hair was going to become a problem. It certainly did not seem conducive to fighting.
She said, “Chris says that’s her real age. I think she just stays very active. She’s certainly limber enough.”
Skylar gave her a lopsided grin. Nobody onboard the Ultima Mule called Captain Christopher Raleigh by his first name, except Jillian Thrall.
Skylar said, “Come on, let’s go eat. After lunch we can resume your shooting lessons.”
The elevator door to the flight deck corridor opened. Skylar and Jillian stepped out, now well fed, showered, and dressed again in grey slacks and brown boots below fresh white t-shirts.
The corridor looked ribbed, with metal protrusions sticking out from the wall every couple of meters, each stretching from ceiling to floor.
“I meant to ask, Skylar, what are these for?”
Jillian pointed at one of the extensions.
“These are barricades to hide behind if someone tries to board us. They would land on the flight deck and try to shoot their way through to the elevator. Our people would take cover behind the barricades and try to keep them holed up at the doorway. It’s a fairly common defensive measure. You should have seen the size of the entrance corridor on the Aquamarine. They had something like a hundred soldiers waiting for us. Of course, Samuel and I took care of things.”
Skylar put her palm on an armory panel near the elevator and it hissed open, showing rack after rack of rifles and pistols.
“Can anybody open the armory?” Jillian said. “Seems like it would be more secure.”
“The Captain, Quartermaster, and First Officer can open it without question. When a regular member like you or me tries, Lootie makes a decision. If she needs to, she’ll query the Captain directly. In this case, she knows we are about to practice shooting, so she’s not overly concerned. No doubt she’ll keep an extra eye on us while we have the guns out, though.”
She handed Jillian a rifle and took one for herself, then closed the panel door.
Jillian said, “At least we don’t need Granny for this.”
Skylar said, “Yeah, this is my preferred method of fighting. A gun levels the playing field, you know? It doesn’t matter how big they are, you can always take them down with one of these.”
She patted the rifle affectionately. Jillian shivered. She knew that Skylar and her brother had killed a lot of people.
They slung the guns over their backs and walked out onto the flight deck. They weaved between fighter drones, heading for the large hexagonal opening with a forcefield on the side of the ship serving as the flight deck entrance. The opening shimmered red and they watched the stars wink by as the ship teleported once every second.
Skylar said, “Give us two moving targets, please Lootie. And a score counter.”
Round holograms the size of dinner plates appeared in front of the forcefield, moving in random patterns. The number zero showed on the top left of the hexagonal opening, and another one on the right.
“You always beat me at this,” Jillian grumbled.
Skylar said, “I’ve just got more practice.”
“I know. Before I joined the company, I never even touched a gun before.”
“You’ve come a long way, girlfriend.”
Skylar raised her rifle and shot the first hologram circle. The number on the left turned into a one. Jillian shot at her circle and missed. She fired three more times before finally hitting it. Skylar shot two more during that time.
Half an hour later, they called it quits. Skylar shot 111 discs while Jillian managed to hit 82.
“You’re getting better,” Skylar said as they walked back toward the corridor.
Jillian rubbed her arm where it cramped from holding the big gun for so long. Despite her muscle pain, she was happy with her score. It was a new personal record.
They heard a Ding! from the distant elevator and a moment later Rodrigo Diego-Rodriguez, the ship’s pilot, stepped out of the corridor. He looked around, but failed to see the two walking through the fighter drones out on the tarmac. Instinctively Skylar pulled Jillian down behind one of the small crafts, and they remained hidden.
Satisfied of his privacy, Rodrigo pulled out his portable radiation absorber from a pocket and pressed the button on top. A cloud of silver pixels formed, quickly coalescing into the beautiful blonde and silver shape of Raquel Kirkland.
He handed her a plate of food from the mess hall then stuck his hands in his pockets while she wolfed it down in front of him.
When she finished, she stepped very close to him and looked up into his face.
“Thank you for taking care of me, Roddy. I’m sorry about what I did before. I don’t know what came over me. But I am so glad you are my bondholder now. You’re the best bondholder I’ve ever had. And I mean that with all my heart.”
The plate crashed to the floor as he took her into his arms and kissed her passionately.