Tetrarch’s Dilemma 37

The following morning after a brief discussion, the women decided they should let Father Verrick know something. Neither one knew exactly how much to tell him, though.

After breakfast had been served, they found themselves in his office.

“My door is always open,” he said as they settled into chairs in front of his desk. “What can I do for you?”

“It’s about a couple who disappeared last night, over in the small courtyard on the edge of the property.”

“Oh, the Bensons. Yes, I didn’t see them this morning. They have a daughter who is Captain of a Navy warship. They’ll talk your ears off about her if you give them a chance. You say they’re missing?”

Julia and Gina shared a glance.

Wilcox turned back to the priest and decided to be blunt.

She said, “They won’t be coming back. Some goons took them away using police bots and killed them in a warehouse nearby.”

Father Verrick looked stunned. He did not reply for a moment.

Finally he said, “How do you know this?”

“We followed them,” Julia said, “but we couldn’t stop them. Well, maybe we could have if we moved fast enough right after they were abducted. And I feel terrible about that. But we were curious as to what the bots wanted with two old people. So, we followed them. And . . . we saw them get killed in some kind of experiment inside a warehouse near here.”

Verrick processed the information a bit longer.

Then he said, “You say police bots? Are you sure?”

Both women nodded.

Wilcox said, “You were right. Somebody is abducting indigents.”

“I see. We can’t really call the police about this, can we? Not if they’re using police resources to do this. Hm.”

“Maybe we can help patrol at night, now that we know what’s happening,” Wilcox said.

“That’s a good idea,” Verrick said, slowly.

The priest looked troubled. He said, “I’ll try to bring in those on the periphery, like the people sleeping in that courtyard. Have them move closer to the others. Maybe if we cluster the people together more, it will help. Thank you, ladies. You’ve given me a lot to think about. And pray about.”

The women nodded and stood to go.

As they walked away from Father Verrick’s office, Julia said, “I think it’s time we went exploring. Can you recognize any of the implant signatures on those guys?”

Wilcox nodded and said, “Absolutely. I’ll never forget them.”

“I wonder if they’d be around the police headquarters, or the Administration Building?”

“Or SSI,” Wilcox said. “I hate those bastards.”

Julia said, “Let’s make our way into the city and poke around.”

-+-

It took some time to get to the center of Rostin. They found a bus stop outside the AWD, and calculated how many kilometers away the Central Administration District was from their current location.

Wilcox subtly indicated the sensors onboard the terrestrial bus that pulled up, and with that knowledge in mind, Julia decided they should walk. Rostin was not that large a city, after all, and it was only about a four kilometer trek. They could be there in under an hour.

The buildings steadily grew nicer, and taller, the closer they came to the Administration District, At last they found the Central Administration Building, an ornate skyscraper standing in the center of other government structures.

A pathway with green space on either side, and a large fountain circled all the way around it. It reminded them of a moat.

The ladies found a food cart, tended by a late model droid, and ordered an early lunch along with something cold to drink after their long walk. Then they took a seat on a public bench beside the fountain/moat.

“How’s the talking environment?” Julia said before taking a large bite out of her sandwich.

“Not good,” Wilcox said.

Julia nodded. This was code. Too many sensors were about for them to enjoy private conversation. So the “talking environment” was no good. But, she expected as much this close to the seat of government.

“See anything interesting?”

Wilcox nodded. She said, “I just want to sit here a while.”

“Okay.”

They continued eating, then polished off the cold drinks. Wilcox sat in silence, occasionally closing her eyes.

The day passed. Wilcox sat in silence, mostly with her eyes closed. She looked asleep, although Julia noticed uneven breathing.

After two hours, Julia got up and walked around the circle surrounding the Central Administration Building. The entire area was open to the public with the strip of green space providing something of a park, or at least a park-like atmosphere. The moat/fountain offered water, which seemed to cool the area off. Long concrete benches offered people places to sit, and several were taking advantage of the opportunity. Mothers strolled with infants while other people just wandered around.

After a while she made the complete circuit and came back to Wilcox, who had not moved.

Resigned to boredom, and silence, Julia sat down next to her and watched people go by for another hour or so.

Finally, about the time Julia was wondering if it would be worth it to purchase more food from the vendor bot’s cart, Wilcox’s eyes opened.

She said, “Let’s go.”

She stood and began walking back toward the AWD. Julia had to hurry to catch up.

Half an hour later they reached the outer edges of the district. Wilcox stretched her senses out, looking for AI monitors. Finding none, she began speaking to Julia in a low whisper.

“Baron Roth is our guy’s name. He’s an executive with Thespar. I was able to listen in on a conversation he had with Tetrarch Billings.”

Julia’s eyes grew wide.

“What did they talk about? Did he mention the old couple from last night?”

Wilcox nodded and said, “In a way. That was evidently a trial run of a new weapon Thespar is developing. Billings gave Roth the green light to commence trials in space on a much larger scale. They’re using the latest technologies combined with some of the things they’ve been learning in the war. I’m afraid this weapon is going to really hurt our flyboys.”

“What . . . what’s it do? I mean, the old man and woman, they just stepped across a line and disappeared in a flash. It’s like they walked into the sun or something. But . . . how’s that work in space?”

“I’m not sure. But from what I gathered from their conversation, they plan to set it up where the ships are going. Like a bear trap or something. When the ships cross that line, they’ll be . . . obliterated.”

“But how’s it work? I don’t see how it would be effective.”

“I dunno. But you saw what it did to Mr. and Mrs. Benson. Or, at least you were there. Now, imagine that on a giant scale . . . in space.”

They walked in silence for a moment.

Julia said, “We’ve got to get word back to the others.”

“We can’t communicate until we’re ready to go.”

“I know. But this might be worth leaving early for.”

“That’s not part of our mission.”

“I know. I know.”

They walked faster, with purpose now.

Half a kilometer away, on the rooftop of a nearby building, an SSI agent with a directional microphone frowned at the discussion he had just picked up. He had been aiming his device toward the AWD, at the property owned by the Church, but he did not expect to pick up this sort of conversation.

This would require a report. Since he did not use a neural implant, it would have to wait until he met his superior in person . . .

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 36

Amazingly, at least to Gina Wilcox, they did not have to chase the bots very far. The machines cleared the property owned by the Church, but stayed in the Abandoned Warehouse District. Other entities evidently set up shop in the area, including somebody with access to police bots.

She waited outside a large structure the bots entered with their human cargo, feeling frustrated and irritated that she did not have a camo unit like Julia. Instead she spied through Julia’s neural implant, listening and watching everything the other woman heard and saw. It felt less than satisfactory to Wilcox, but at least it was something.

“There does not appear to be much in the way of security,” Julia whispered over her neural net while looking around on the inside. “Just the armed police bots. That’s enough out here, I guess. I mean, after all it’s the AbandonedWarehouse District. Are you sensing any monitors?”

“No. The place has no external electronics, except for the bots. They can transfer data back to HQ if they need to. I am sensing three people inside with neural implants, though. Be careful.”

“Okay.”

Begrudgingly, the Sergeant thought, their toolsets did compliment one another. Maybe it was a better idea that she stayed outside after all. She returned her attention to Julia’s feed, watching through her eyes.

Julia crept down a hall to a doorway where she heard voices. Somebody was talking while the elderly couple returned to consciousness and started making loud noises.

She found a closed door. The voices came from behind it.

In her head, Gina whispered, “The bots are in there. The people with implants are in another room.”

Julia looked and spied an open door further down the hall. She walked to it and peeked her head around the corner. She stared into a control booth, with a thick window showing an open area with doors on either side. The elderly couple and the police bots could be seen through the window.

Three men stood in the booth staring at occupants of the larger room.

One of the men said, “We’ve made all the final calculations and considerations. This should work.”

“I’m a little nervous about being here, Baron. Are you sure about this?”

“Yes, we’ve experimented. We can stand here and not be affected, the barrier will protect us. However, you’ll want to wear sunglasses. These are welder-level dark and should do the trick. Or you can look away when it happens, but that would kind of defeat the point, wouldn’t it?”

Baron smiled while handing out thick, dark sunglasses.

The elderly couple stood up. The man shook his fist at them down on the floor of the large room. His voice came into the control booth through a speaker.

“You’ve got no right, waking up good people like that and dragging them away!”

The three men smiled as the old woman grabbed her husband’s arm and tried to hide behind him. She tried to cower from both the police bots and the men behind the window.

“You’re free to go, old timer,” the man called Baron said, activating a floating holo switch that looked like a microphone. “Just walk over to the other side of the room, to that door over there on the far wall, and you can head back home.”

The couple turned and spied the door several meters away. Then they noticed that between them and the exit, a large black apparatus lay sprawled out on the floor.

“What is that thing?” the old man said.

“Nothing, don’t worry about that. Just . . . step right over it. Now, go on. Get going.”

Still the couple hesitated.

Baron flicked the mic switch again and said, “Police bots, herd these people toward the door.”

The bots advanced forward a step, with a metallic thunk! They raised their stun guns in a threatening gesture.

The older couple dutifully retreated from them, and began heading for the far door.

A few steps later they came to the thick, black flat metal beams stretching across the floor. The men at the door tensed in expectation.

Wilcox felt a premonition. She said, “Don’t look, Julia! Turn your face! Your eyelids are transparent.”

Julia turned just as the couple stepped across the contraption. A blinding flash of light lit up the room.

She turned back and . . . the man and woman were gone.

“You were right, Baron,” one of the control booth men said, a tone of wonder in his voice as he removed his sunglasses. “This barrier did the trick. We were within a few meters and suffered no ill effects! My face feels sunburned, though.”

Baron said, “The teleportation occurs instantaneously. If you are shielded enough, you are not effected. The wall and window are made from special materials.”

“How did the bots do?” the other man said.

Julia stretched her neck for a better look into the room. The bots were a smoldering pile of ruins on the floor.

Baron said, “Oh well. Rostin PD will have to get us a couple more bots. Better them than us, am I right boys?”

The sound of the men laughing faded as Julia quietly made her way back down the hall, heading for the exit.

Gina’s voice felt small in her ear.

The Sergeant said, “What in the world happened to those people, Julia?”

Julia shook her head, partly in frustration and partly in anger.

She said, “I think they walked into the sun.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 35

The women immediately settled into a routine with Father Verrick. He seemed to deliberately avoid asking them many questions about their past or much else about anything. Julia supposed he did not want to make them lie, because they surely would have if asked.

He also did not seem overly surprised at their need for a place to stay. He offered them a room in one of the many interconnected buildings comprising this part of the AWD.

As for the vast network of structures and alleyways and courtyards, he explained that all the surrounding buildings were owned by the Church, and had been for some time. In years past they had been used for profitable endeavors, namely renting them out to shipping companies for storing stuff coming or going off world. But things slowed precariously after Billings took over as Tetrarch. His administration changed several local regulations on interplanetary shipments.

Now with the war, the entire district suffered an even more drastic decline. The Church retrofitted its space to house the city’s growing indigent population. Much to everybody’s surprise, that population exploded. Even with the spacious real estate the local parish held, they were splitting at the seams with more people streaming in all the time.

Nonetheless, Father Verrick still had a handful of choice accommodations available for volunteers, and Gina and Julia were happy to have a place to stay far from the prying eyes of StarCen.

Julia immediately inquired as to the possibility of finding work in the Administration Building. This had been her modus operandi on Juventas while getting close to Tetrarch Lopez.

Father Verrick knew little about the inner workings of the Administration Building, but he doubted they were hiring right now.

“The Billings Administration went on something like a lockdown once the war started. They are more insular now than they ever were,” he said.

So, Gina and Julia helped run food lines during mealtimes and found other ways to make themselves useful to Father Verrick. For his part, the priest greatly appreciated the help.

On their second night, they agreed it was time to start scouting the premises. Julia activated her camouflage unit and winked out of sight. Gina silently got up and followed her out the door of their room, spreading out her senses, alert for anything electronic that might pose a threat.

They immediately noticed that the mission did not sleep after dark. A number of clandestine transactions took place in the shadows. Drug dealers peddled their wares, and the indigents found credit tokens to pay for hits of various substances. Alcohol was available as well, along with other black market goods.

“The AWD has a dark underbelly,” Wilcox muttered as they crept along an alleyway, disrupting a drug deal.

From her place beside the Sergeant, invisible, Julia agreed.

She said, “That libertarian priest would say, if you get your food for free, it frees up money for other things.”

“Would he say that? I know he’s got a lot of political ideas, but he’s the one feeding them, after all.”

“I don’t know. But it sounds like something he’d say.”

“I wonder if he even knows all this is going on under his nose. I mean, he’s pretty young. He hasn’t been beaten down by the reality of his fellow man yet. He’s too idealistic.”

Julia agreed. “He needs to at least secure the premises so bad apples can’t get in to ply their trade. Heads up, I’m going to go take that guy out.”

Wilcox felt her leave and approach the drug dealer they interrupted. He still stared dagger eyes at the Sergeant, upset she interfered with his transaction.

Julia crept up on him and kneed him in the groin.

“Urk!”

He collapsed to the ground.

Julia bent down and whispered in his ear, “Get out of here! Don’t ever come back to the AWD!”

His eyes grew wide and he whipped his head around, looking for the source of the voice. But Wilcox stood several meters away in the gloom, and Julia’s camo unit prevented him from seeing her.

He painfully pulled himself to his feet and stumbled away, looking for an exit in the maze of alleyways between buildings.

“My good deed for the night,” Julia said, sidling up next to Wilcox again.

Gina nodded, then turned her head sharply as she felt something.

Julia said, “What is it?”

“Bots are approaching. That direction.”

She pointed.

Julia said, “Let’s go take a look.”

Two buildings over they came to another open area, a courtyard of sorts between warehouses. Only a handful of tents were up here, and a couple of police bots were in the process of tearing one down. Mechanical hands simply gripped the cloth and pulled. The elderly woman and man inside screamed as the structure collapsed, and they tried to run away.

The bots shocked them with stun guns, and they fell down to the ground.

The other tents were either empty, which Julia doubted, or the occupants were likely cowering in fear.

The two bots reached down and each grabbed a person, slinging them over their shoulders in a fireman’s carry. Then they marched toward an alley leading away from the area.

“I hate League bots,” Wilcox whispered. “Let’s go get those bastards and get the humans back.”

“Wait,” Julia said, placing a hand on the bigger woman’s arm. “Let’s follow them and find out what they’re up to. I’ll go on ahead, you catch up.”

Reluctantly, the Sergeant nodded. She felt Julia move away, jogging to catch up with the bots. Wilcox followed, slower and at a distance.

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 34

Father Verrick led Julia and Gina through a veritable maze of corridors, rooms, and alleys as he brought them to his office, talking all the way. They introduced themselves with pseudonyms, with only a hint of guilt. Julia said she was Jane Bremmer, and Gina indicated her name was Ginny Collier. The Sergeant desperately hoped she would not forget either one of the fake names.

As for himself, Father Verrick started by telling them something of his ministry in the “Abandoned Warehouse District,” or AWD for short.

Although the Catholic Church had long ago abandoned celibacy requirements for priests, Father Verrick was young and had not yet spent time pursuing a wife. He had been tasked by the Archbishop of Sporades with handling the indigent population in the AWD . . . and then seemingly forgotten. He had little money, and less help, and seemingly an ever-growing population relying on him alone for spiritual and physical nourishment.

Gina looked around at the occasional shanty they passed and asked a question on the top of her mind.

“So, they can’t just take a collar? I thought that was what the indent program was for, a sort of last resort for indigents.”

Father Verrick sighed, as if he had explained this to other people several times before.

He said, “The indentured servitude program is fine for able-bodied people. But these are cripples, the mentally unstable, and the elderly. Nobody wants an indent that can’t walk or pick up heavy loads. Nobody wants an indent that will likely die in the coming weeks. No, these are the true dregs of society. The ones who cannot work. The ones nobody wants. They have no families, and nowhere else to go.”

Julia, too, had never seen anything like this. She felt even more disturbed, having spent her childhood in the home of a Tetrarch, within the ultimate privilege of a ruling family.

She said, “Surely there’s a government program that could tend to their needs.”

“There used to be, before the Welfare Wars,” Father Verrick said. “The government would provide food and shelter for indigents. But, like most government programs it was subject to abuse. Nothing really works, especially at the government level, when there is no accountability. So, the people still suffered. Before, they suffered under the auspices of a supposedly benevolent government. Now, they just suffer.”

“‘Supposedly benevolent?’”

Julia did not really like the sound of that, although she was opposed to many of the things for which her father stood, and the government he represented.

Father Verrick nodded. “Governments don’t care about people, Ms. Bremmer. Certain individuals working within them might, but governments are just cold bureaucracies. They care not whether people suffer or thrive. They are merely impersonal structures imposing order.

“Now, when people outside government insist those in control ‘do something,’ that is when you get programs for the poor. It makes people feel better knowing that their government is ‘doing something’ for those in need.

“It matters not to them if the program does more harm than good. It matters not that the program inevitably leads to corruption and negligence. All that matters is that people feel good the government program is there.

“But as we have seen, that cannot last forever. Ultimately, the house of cards falls apart and we have an incident like the Welfare Wars, and everything has to be recalibrated. Now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, back to the way it was for millennia in societies past. Now, it is up to charities to care for the truly indigent.”

“Catholic charities?” Julia said.

Neither of the women were Catholic. They shared a glance.

Father Verrick nodded again. He said, “We are one of many, but this small effort is not nearly enough. I cannot singlehandedly feed and care for all these people every day.”

They rounded a corner and he stopped, reaching down to an elderly woman who held her hands up as soon as she heard his voice. The woman looked old, and Julia decided she must be blind. Her wrinkled face tilted toward the young priest and she broke into a smile as they hugged.

“There you are, Ms. Tomei. Are you doing good today?”

“Bless you, Father Verrick. Bless you.”

“Bless you, Ms. Tomei. And I hope to see you at mass on Sunday.”

She nodded and smiled again. He patted her on the shoulder and continued walking.

Julia still had trouble grappling with the emotional breadth of the problem. She looked back at the old woman sitting on the ground outside the shack as they walked away.

She said, “Charity is good. Maybe the government could fund charities instead of frittering all the money away.”

“Ha! If the government funded the Church, it would want a say in Church matters. Absolutely not. We do not need money from the government, and besides, the government is not going to give us any. No, what we really need is for the government to leave us alone. I am constantly fighting off eviction bots and the like, as you saw earlier.”

“But you said yourself, you need help. You can’t do it alone.”

“We get volunteers, much like you two. And, there is an ecumenical movement afoot. I have received word that the Baptists and Methodists are interested in teaming up with us. It seems we are the largest, in terms of numbers of souls fed every day. But, the Baptists and the Methodists have more money they can allocate for things like this.

“So, rest assured, one way or another these people’s needs will be met. Without the government, thank you very much. Churches and charities will do what we have always done, down through the ages.”

He stopped walking and faced the two women, his face changing so abruptly it startled them.

“There’s other issues surrounding the government. I can’t prove it, but I think they are stealing people away, out of the AWD. Why, I don’t know. But . . . it can’t be good.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 33

When the doors closed, Julia activated the Framer hanging from her neck. She smiled at the Sergeant as her face changed into a new one.

Wilcox raised an eyebrow. She said. “That’s impressive. Your hair and eye color changed, too.”

Julia nodded. She now looked completely different. Still attractive, but with a different face.

“Classified technology,” she said.

Wilcox stared at the pendant, trying to figure out the circuitry.

She raised her eyebrow and gave up. She said, “It’s too complex. Maybe when we have some downtime I can examine it better.”

Julia nodded and waited patiently while LuteNet scanned them for foreign biomatter. The holo on the far wall showed the ship’s icon progressing toward Sporades. Numbers counted down the AUs, and the seconds left until they arrived.

Julia reached into her pack and pulled out a visor, with a headband attached. She handed it to Gina.

“Just in case.”

Wilcox nodded and pulled it on. Julia pulled out another one and covered her own face, too.

At last, the floating numbers approached zero. The women crouched, ready for the port. They popped out of the Mule.

They showed up next to LuteNet’s sensor, appearing suddenly in an empty warehouse. They watched as the sensor popped away in the following second, its presence no longer needed on the planet’s surface.

Up above, the Aquamarine was splitting apart and taking out solar torpedoes. But on the planet’s surface, in the warehouse, they were oblivious to what occurred in space.

Julia said, “Let’s go. Keep an eye out, or whatever, for sensors. We want to avoid them if we can, for as long as we can.”

Gina nodded and mentally stretched out her senses, looking for the telltale signs of electronic monitoring.

Finding nothing, she nodded at Julia and together they walked across an empty floor toward a distant door.

“Looks old fashioned. Hope it’s not locked,” Gina said.

Julia tried the latch. She turned it, and the door opened to the outside, letting the sun shine in. Before them, hundreds of people were stretched out or standing around. Many were huddled under makeshift shelters and tarps to stay out of the sun.

Several dozen turned to look at them with weary eyes.

Wilcox said, “Wow. A shanty town.”

“Yeah how about that. And nobody has an implant in all this lot?”

The Sergeant looked around, her senses extended. She pointed to an old man who smiled at them with no teeth.

“He has an older model. It’s not activated.”

Julia nodded again. She said, “Okay, then. Well, it looks like the exit is on the other side of this courtyard. Watch your step. Keep your visor on, just in case.”

They were in some sort of courtyard, walled off from the outside. But a set of double doors on the opposite side promised an exit. Carefully, the two women made their way between shacks, shelters, and sleeping bodies lying prone on the ground.

Halfway across, Gina tapped Julia on the shoulder.

She said, “Heads up. Guard bots approaching.”

The double doors burst open and two bots appeared, older models with round heads.

One of them had a loud voice, obviously magnified from its mouth speaker.

It said, “This site is condemned. Vacate the premises! Vacate the premises!”

Hundreds of eyes turned toward the bots, watching them with a sense of alarm. Julia and Gina froze, but nobody seemed in a rush to follow the bots’ orders.

Julia slowly reached for her lead-lined backpack, where she had a blaster stowed.

Before she could pull out a weapon, a man ran out of another door to the courtyard.

The women blinked, giving the man a double take. He had a priest’s collar around his neck.

He said, “Stop! Stop! This is not an illegal settlement! I have the paperwork right here!”

He ran up to the bots, who pointed their guns at him as he halted right in front of them, panting and out of breath. He flicked his wrist and a holosheet appeared, floating in the air. He twisted it around and let the bots read it.

One of the bots said, “This is not in our online records, Father Verrick.”

“I’m aware it may not be in there, yet,” the young priest said. “But I assure you this is an indigent care facility operating under the auspices of the local parish. This holo has the signature of the appropriate municipal administrators. Everything is up to date.”

The bots looked at the holo again and recorded the information.

One of them said, “We’ll check in with HQ. If there’s a problem, we’ll be back.”

They holstered their weapons and turned for the doors. Father Verrick seemed to deflate in relief as they walked out the courtyard.

When the doors closed, he turned and looked out over the shantytown. The two women wearing visors stood out like sore thumbs.

His brows furrowed and he said, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

Gina and Julia exchanged glances, although neither could see the other’s face.

Wilcox shrugged. She said, “You can’t lie to a priest.”

“Sure you can,” Julia said. “Or at least, you can leave some of the truth out.”

She lifted her visor up. Wilcox followed suit. Together they approached the priest.

Julia said, “Hi there. We’re here to help.”

“Help?” the priest said, a look of confusion on his face.

“Yeah. You know. Volunteer?”

“Well . . .”

Father Verrick looked out at the sea of people in the courtyard.

He said, “I could surely use some help.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 32

Antonio Eduardo Epsilon-Escarra waved at the bartender. She saw him and obligingly pulled another draft of beer for him.

It seemed odd to Escarra, far more accustomed to server bots and androids. But in this out-of-the-way spot, hours outside Epsilon City, they still served food the old-fashioned way. And drinks.

The bartender was kind of cute. She was short and sported short dark hair. She smiled a lot and could be flirting. But probably, Tony thought, she was just trying to squeeze him for a bigger tip.

When was the last time that happened? he thought. Mechanicals don’t expect tips. Oh sure, some high class places add them to your bill, and they supposedly go toward maintenance costs. But everybody knew modern bots were highly reliable. No, tips toward a server bot generally went into the owner’s pockets.

He sighed, and smiled at the bartender as she set down his full glass and took the old one away. She smiled back with a toothy grin.

Yeah, she was definitely hitting him up for a bigger tip.

He thought, When did we lose the human touch?

Then another thought hit him. Where in the world was Niles Sergio?

He was the one who convinced Tony to take an autocab all the way out here to the middle of nowhere.

As if mentally summoned, Niles stepped out of an elevator pod and waved at him. He walked up to the bar and Tony stood to shake his hand.

Niles said, “Good to see you, man. Come on, let’s go for a walk and see the sights.”

“Sure thing. Let me pay my tab.”

He took out some credit tokens and settled with the bartender, giving her an extra one. She smiled at the ten-credit piece and thanked him, dropping it into a jar in the middle of the bar. Then she returned to dunking his used mugs in a sink and scrubbing them.

Niles led the way out the resort, through a doorway in a huge glass wall that opened out onto a gorgeous orange, red, and yellow landscape. The windswept rocky ground had been formed by erosion from wind and water. A small river ran through the middle of the vast open space.

The entire place had been turned into a national park called Terra Rouge. One hotel with a restaurant and bar offered guests a place to stay, but in truth not many people visited Terra Rouge.

It was the kind of place many people either never visited, or visited only once. The rough shapes of the landscape and the isolation of the area reminded Tony of pictures he had seen of Big Bend National Park in Texas.

The hotel was subsidized by the state, so it persisted despite the lack of visitors. Only humans worked there, including the cute bartender.

“You got your walking shoes on?” Niles said as they set off on a path leading through the barren, beautiful landscape.

“I do. How far we going?”

“I dunno. A kilometer or two, at least.”

The two men started walking.

They talked about little things, catching up with one another. Niles mentioned a new holo Sergio Productions was working on. Tony brought up a story on the war effort he was helping to write.

An hour later, Niles finally started talking openly.

“I think we’re far enough away from the hotel that the sensor can’t pick us up.”

“You sure they don’t have anything planted out here? I’m a journalist, Niles. And being a journalist has made me suspicious.”

“Nope. We made a documentary on Terra Rouge a few years back. The fact there’s no sensors out here was one of the things I discovered. The government decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Nobody visits this place, except the occasional nature nut.”

“So. A private conversation. What do you want to talk about?”

“I think we’re on the wrong side of this war, Tony.”

Escarra said nothing for a moment.

Finally, he said, “Statements like that could get you locked up.”

“Good thing we’re in the middle of nowhere, then.”

“Look, I know there’s been some shady dealings. But, we’re a highly regulated business, Niles. The news is controlled by the Tetrarchy. So is your line of work, the entertainment industry. We can’t just start publishing stories about how wrong Thrall is, and how great Republican values are.”

“No. And likewise, we can’t put out holos that have those messages. But . . . we have to try. And there are things we can do. You know what I’m talking about. You can slant a story a certain way, lead your audience to think a certain way. I’m inserting messages, subtle ones, into our programs. Speaking of which, that leads us to my time in captivity on Lute.”

Tony nodded. He said, “I’m almost ready to put that feature story out that we talked about. It may not be as favorable to the pirates as you’d like, but it does not paint them in too negative a light.”

“That’s good, that’s good. I know we can’t do much. But we can do something. Even if it’s only a little bit, we can do something.”

“We might be able to do a little more than that.”

Niles looked sharply at his friend.

He said, “What do you mean?”

“There’s rumors. I’ve chased a story for a couple years now about some really deep resistance factions. So deep no one knows much about them.”

“Well . . . what can they do that we can’t? If they’re that darn deep, what good are they?”

Tony grimaced. He said, “Here’s where the rumors get really sketchy. And of course, I can’t verify anything. But supposedly, these guys are so deep they can modify records. And records supposedly have been modified quite a bit.”

“Modify . . . how?”

“Well, you know that pirate company you were with? They nabbed the Aquamarine a while back before they got the Coral Reef which you were on.”

Sergio nodded.

Escarra said, “And, on the Aquamarine, they supposedly had a cargo hold full of indents. Now, the bonds on indentured servants are good regardless of what system you’re in, the League or the Republic. That holds true even in war. But, I have it on good authority your pirate company released every single one of those indents. They lost millions by letting them go.”

Sergio’s face fell. He said, “That doesn’t sound like something they would do unless they had to. Why’d they do it?”

“Because, the records were altered.”

“So . . . the Resistance did that? Why would they alter the records on indents?”

“No, our own government did it. But it’s a clue. It shows that the records are not set in stone like we thought they were. I’ve heard other rumors, too. I’ve heard of people who are ghosts. They show up, they cause disruption, they disappear never to be seen again.”

Tony looked at his friend with intensity. He grabbed Sergio’s arm.

“What I’m trying to tell you is, the AI can be hacked. Both sides have done it.”

“Okay. What’s that mean?”

“It means . . . reality can be altered. Records can be changed. People can gain new identities and lose old ones. I can’t prove it yet. And even if I did have proof, my boss and SSI and the Tetrarchy would never let me publish it.”

Sergio stared at him, his eyes growing wider as the full impact of what his friend said hit him.

Tony took a deep breath and looked out at the desolate, colorful landscape.

He said, “This much I know, Niles. The AI can be changed. We are not living on as solid ground with StarCen as we thought.”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 31

Thrall glared at the report hovering in the air near his face, his nostrils flaring. The Admiral of the Fourth Fleet, stationed around Sporades, tried to put a positive spin on things. He read Kitano’s words again, noting how the Admiral took pains to indicate how the Aquamarine was finally destroyed.

“Yes, but . . . her payload got away.”

The other ship hidden inside Aquamarine, the one StarCen identified as the Ultima Mule . . . that was the part glossed over by Admiral Kitano.

He read that part of the report out loud.

“Subsequent efforts by an enemy warship evidently inside the empty hull were thwarted when it retreated following initial action via Fourth Fleet torpedoes.”

In other words, Thrall thought, your torpedoes failed to take out the smaller ship and it got away.

That was a far less delicate way of putting things, though, and Kitano had not been able to bring himself to state it outright. Thus the embellished version in his official report . . .

Thrall leaned back in his chair, glaring at the holosheet rather than dismissing it.

“The Ultima Mule again.”

He had no doubt his youngest daughter had been onboard, married now to the ship’s Captain. How much of this was her doing? Or, was she merely going along for the proverbial ride?

Even more troubling was the question why. Why did the Ultima Mule hide inside the Mammoth for a ride to Sporades?

He looked up at the ceiling and thought.

Obviously, they either dropped something off or picked something up. Or someone.

His eyes drifted back to the report. The entire incident, once they reached orbit, lasted five seconds. That was more than enough time to teleport an individual.

He thought about the attack on his compound back on Clarion, and how Jillian had been ported out in the confusion. It was only later he realized SSI had not taken her, but the pirates were responsible.

In another life, he might have been . . . proud . . . of his son-in-law’s achievement. This particular Captain seemed rather adept at taking whoever or whatever he wanted off of League planets.

Of course, he would not be using the Aquamarine for such shenanigans again. But he had put the Mammoth-class hull to considerable use.

He finally flicked the holosheet away.

“StarCen, show me Raquel Kirkland’s report from her time on the Aquamarine.”

Another holosheet popped into existence. He scanned the text.

Ah, yes, he thought. The pirates set off an EMP while trapping Raquel. The entire electrical system in that giant ship was shot.

He flicked the sheet away and pulled up another, this one involving intelligence reports of large industrial sales in the Planetary Republic. The interior components of Aquamarine had been sold as scrap. Even the wiring, hundreds of kilometers of it, could be reused. Especially during wartime.

Thrall sighed. He said, “And then they had the bright idea to use it as a giant battering ram.”

He flicked to a new holosheet, showing all the ships Aquamarine had taken out. Eagles, Hawks, and Sparrows. It was a depressing list.

Kitano had one thing right, he thought. Aquamarine’s hull will not be troubling us anymore.

His mind wandered back to the Ultima Mule.

“What were you doing there, daughter?”

He looked up at the ceiling and thought for a moment.

“StarCen, what are the odds the pirates made a tactical maneuver on behalf of the Republican Navy? Or, do you think it more likely this was a private endeavor?”

“There are too many variables to say, Tetrarch Thrall. They have made other incursions for personal reasons such as the one to Clarion. However, our intelligence does indicate they intercepted information forewarning us of the Republican’s new Condor-class ships. We would have greatly benefited from that information if they had not interfered. With that in mind, this could have been an officially sanctioned mission. It has gone both ways in the past. There is a 50/50 chance it was one or the other.”

“‘Officially sanctioned mission,’” Thrall repeated, thinking. It was definitely a mission of some sort. One does not take chances like this for nothing.

“Were you able to determine if anyone was ported down or up by the Ultima Mule while it was in orbit?”

“No, Tetrarch Thrall. But such an occurrence was possible.”

Indeed, he thought. They had more than enough time.

Out loud he said, “I think we have to go on the presumption they did. So, if we have no idea who or what, that leads us to the question of why. This trip portends something, StarCen. It foreshadows a move by the Republicans.”

“There is a possibility this amounts to guided misdirection, Tetrarch Thrall. The Ultima Mule is a known asset to the Republicans, and its appearance at Sporades may be an effort to misdirect us.”

Thrall pondered that notion for a moment.

He said, “What are the odds this is a false flag?”

“I give it a 33 percent chance. I have no intelligence from any of our spies about what the event was about. That usually means the information is held too tightly by too few people. Or, it is a false flag.”

Thrall nodded. The lack of access to Admiral Severs’s plans and his thought processes was maddening. For all the League loyalists trapped on enemy planets, they had very few in the upper command of the Republicans’ Navy. The officers were too patriotic to betray their government, for the most part.

StarCen said, “However, such a blatant breach of our defenses by the one ship which has successfully done this in the past, and carrying your daughter as well, might be designed to provoke us into making a mistake about defensive alignments.”

Thrall thought about that statement for several moments.

He said, “They have taken one of our quadrants, and it makes sense they would be hungry for more. Put yourself in their shoes, StarCen. Where would you attack next?”

“Clarion and Epsilon are too distant. Euripides and Sporades are closer. The Third Fleet stationed around Euripides was halved to attack Juventas. Right now, Euripides is vulnerable, and most open to attack.”

Euripides, Chu’s quadrant, Thall thought. Ricci took her ships from there in an effort to take back Juventas, an effort that failed in part thanks to that pirate and the Aquamarine.

“So, you definitely think they will attack Euripides next.”

“Yes, Tetrarch Thrall. I give it a 75 percent chance. I suggest strengthening the remaining Third Fleet with elements of the Fourth Fleet currently positioned at Sporades.”

“And yet, we have this . . . potential false flag you called it . . . of the Ultima Mule dropping something off or picking it up from Sporades. And there’s a 66 percent chance it’s not a false flag.”

StarCen took a few milliseconds to follow Thrall’s logic.

She said, “Based on standard military reasoning, PLAIR will encourage Severs to attack our weakest position. Our weakest position at the moment is Euripides. That quadrant needs strengthening right away. I have returned all surviving warships from the Juventas expedition, but we are down by a considerable amount. I reassert my suggestion to move some ships from the Fourth Fleet at Sporades to buttress the forces at Euripides.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

Again, the AI took a few milliseconds to consider the comment.

“Odds are favorable Euripides will be attacked soon. If ships are diverted there and Sporades is attacked instead, they will serve as back up for when Euripides is attacked later.”

A graphical representation of both systems appeared in a holo above the table, showing current fleet numbers. Republican ships showed up at Euripides. Several of the little ships exploded, leaving only Republican ships in the quadrant.

Thrall watched the simulation in silence, and thought briefly—very briefly—about the loss of life all the little graphics represented.

The simulation started over, this time with several ships leaving Sporades and showing up at Euripides. The Republican fleet arrived again, several more explosions occurred, and this time a handful of League ships remained.

He nodded.

“Very well. Send a portion of the Fourth Fleet to Euripides, and make all necessary preparations.”

“Will do, Tetrarch Thrall.”

It was a gamble, Thrall thought. A dilemma. But the decision had to be made, one way or the other. He hoped he made the right one.

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 30

Raleigh and Jillian stood on the bridge along with Granny, Gina, the Dvoraks, the Joneses, and Maxwell. LuteNet had halted progress 100 AUs from Sporades. The main holo covering the wall in the front of the bridge showed the blackness of space punctuated by distant stars. Sporades’s star shined the brightest, in the center.

Raleigh said, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the final voyage of the Starship Aquamarine.”

Slowly, LuteNet fired the Mule’s standard drives, turning her nose in the opposite direction. On this side, a massive hulking shape blotted out most of the stars in the holo.

“Mm. Nothing like a Mammoth-class to take your breath away,” Maxwell said, softly.

The AI brought them closer, and soon all the stars winked out. In the dim light they could barely discern details as they drew closer. The hull had been damaged multiple times. Beams of metal stuck out like bare black bones, and large swaths of plates were stripped from her skin.

A gaping hole loomed ahead, and LuteNet carefully guided the warship inside the much larger superstructure.

“Too bad she couldn’t port us in,” Granny said, nervously chewing on a cigar.

Now the Ultima Mule was inside the Aquamarine. LuteNet carefully turned the smaller ship until her bow faced the same direction.

“Alright,” Raleigh said. “Are we all set, Lootie?”

“We are indeed, Captain. If Sergeant Wilcox and Mrs. Jones will make their way to the debarkation zone, I will commence the final leg of our journey. We are one minute, 40 seconds out. It will take an additional two seconds to safely port them to the surface.”

Raleigh turned to face the two women and nodded.

He said, “Time to say your goodbyes.”

“Come on,” Julia said, motioning to Biff and Granny. “You can take the elevator down with us.”

Nobody said anything in the elevator. Biff and Julia held hands. Granny held Gina’s arm.

The pod dinged, the elevator opened, and the four walked out into the corridor leading to the disembarkation room. They stopped outside the door.

Biff hugged his wife, and kissed her.

“Come back to me.”

“What are you going to do while I’m gone?”

“I guess I’m going to stick around on the Mule. Captain Raleigh says I’m welcome to join the crew.”

“You’re going to become a pirate, Officer Jones? Whatever will your precinct commander think?”

“Ha. There is no more precinct. In a way, this is something I can do to help out in the war effort. I know it’s not as glamorous as what you’re about to do . . . but it’s something.”

She hugged him again, tightly.

She said, “It’s everything.”

Granny looked up at her taller daughter, and a tear trickled down her cheek.

She said, “You take care of yourself, baby girl. Don’t go doing nothing stupid.”

“I won’t Mama.”

“And you take care of the princess here. Make sure she gets back to her man.”

“I’ll do my best, Mama.”

“You got cigars? Here, I got some fresh ones from Pearl.”

Granny reached into a back pocket and pulled out a travel case filled with tobacco products.

“I can’t Mama. The local AI could pick up on it. I’m going to have to go without while I’m down there.”

Granny sighed in resignation, and put the cigars back in her pocket.

“Well, you can carry me around in here.”

She poked Gina in the chest, above her heart.

“No AI can take that away from you.”

“I know, Mama. I love you.”

“And I love you, baby girl. You be safe. I’ll say a prayer for you.”

They hugged tightly. Then the Sergeant nodded at Julia, and together they walked into the disembarkation zone. The door swished shut behind them and the access pad turned red.

StarCen ported the Aquamarine away, with Ultima Mule inside.

Down in the engine room Kim and Pak smiled at each other.

Kim said, “Operation Trojan Horse begins.”

He held his hand up and Pak gave him a high five.

StarCen indeed had a surveillance grid in the solar system, and 97 seconds later received advanced warning of an incoming bogey. Time seemed to slow down for the AIs as decisions were made and actions taken within milliseconds.

Aquamarine appeared near Sporades in a higher orbit than her satellites and other ships. The following second, two things happened. LuteNet ported a sensor the size and shape of a can of soup down to the city of Rostin. It popped into existence in an abandoned structure in the city’s warehouse district, far from any municipal sensors or cameras.

StarCen ported four solar torpedoes from the holds of nearby Eagles to within close proximity of the Mammoth. Having recognized the Aquamarine, and having experienced how dangerous she was, the League’s AI wished to take no chances.

In the following second, LuteNet did something completely unexpected. Minor explosions occurred along the battered hull of the Aquamarine, and it broke into four separate pieces. Before the torpedoes could detonate, the four chunks ported into their space, obliterating them.

In the next second LuteNet had her bearings from the sensor on the ground, and ported Wilcox and Jones down to the surface.

StarCen hesitated, the milliseconds ticking by as she assessed the situation. She did not commit any more torpedoes to the remnants of the Mammoth’s hull, or the Hawk-class warship in the middle of the debris field.

LuteNet took full advantage of the slight pause, and pulled the Mule away from Sporades, and out of the solar system. StarCen watched as the ship ported outside the surveillance grid and away from danger, leaving the damaged pieces of the Aquamarine behind.

All told, the Ultima Mule spent less than five seconds above Sporades.

But it was long enough.

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 29

The stillness of space surrounded Phil when he woke up. He looked around and could see nothing. He directed his hand to move in front of his face and touch his nose, but he felt nothing.

Pinpricks of light appeared. They streamed around him, as if he moved quickly forward.

More lights came, large fuzzy patches of different colors, soft water paint blobs mixed with cotton candy.

Then everything became clear. He was seated in a circle with twelve other young men, and an older man in a slightly larger chair faced him.

“Welcome, Phil. Good morning. You are in Reeducation Camp Five, on Patmos. My name is Cedric Buchner. I lead our discussion circle here.”

“Discussion circle?”

“Yes. Let’s start by trying to gauge your understanding of political theory.”

Phil shrugged. All the other young men stared at him. He gulped, nervously.

“I’m not very political.”

“Nonsense. Of course you’re political, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Now, I’m going to say a word, and I’d like to know how it makes you feel. Ready? Collectivism.”

Everyone stared at Phil for a moment. He looked around, bewildered.

“Uh . . . okay?”

“Socialism.”

“Hm.”

“Central authority.”

Phil shrugged again. He said, “Am I supposed to feel anything?”

“Let’s try some others. Freedom.”

A spark flashed in Phil’s eyes. Briefly, but visibly.

“I see,” Cedric said. “How about liberty? Democracy? Will of the people?”

Phil swallowed, but said nothing.

Cedric took a deep breath. He said, “Well, I see we have our work cut out for us, in your case at least. Alright, gentlemen. We’ll meet again tonight before lights out.”

The room with the seats and the other men winked out of existence.

Phil opened his eyes in reality, only to see rough wooden planks just a few centimeters away. He tilted his head up, careful not to bump into the narrow bunk, and slid to the floor. Dozens of other young men slid out of their cramped sleeping areas. The bunks stretched six high, and the room felt far too small for the number of people it held.

A short man with receding black hair smiled up at him as he got out from the bunk below Phil.

“Who’d you get for Circle Talk?”

“Um . . . Cedric Buchner.”

“Ah, Buchner. He’s not bad. He’ll try to trip you up though, find out if you’re lying. Hard to convince him you’re ready to go back into society. You could have gotten Duhring. He’s an idealist. Believes communism could actually work if it was done right. Of course, try to nail him down on a time it actually was done right! Ha!”

He smiled and for a moment Phil thought maybe this was an elaborate trap.

“Don’t worry!” The short guy slapped Phil on the back. “They don’t pay much attention to us here in the bunks. They don’t pay much attention to us anytime outside of Circle Talk. That’s when they’re doing all the brainwave measurements and such.”

They followed the crowd out the door and into the courtyard. A table was set up with one server bot holding a ladle near a large pot of something liquid. The men queued up, grabbing bowls and letting the bot fill them.

“What is that?” Phil said.

“Breakfast. Name’s Topher, by the way. What’s yours?”

“Phil.”

“Please to meet you, Phil. It’s some kind of nutritious sludge they feed us. Don’t ask what’s in it. Prolly best not to know, if you know what I mean. I suspect it’s got soy, and whatever else is available ground up in there to help the taste. After you’ve been here a while you can start to discern slight variations at times. It’s still bland, regardless.”

“So, what’s for lunch?”

Topher laughed. “Sludge! Supper, too. You really are new, aren’t you? Don’t worry, just renounce your freedom-loving capitalist democratic ideals, and you can go back home. The trick is, convincing our teacher overlords you really have changed your ideological leanings. And that’s not easy. Trust me, I know.”

Phil grabbed a bowl, then stuck it out and let the bot pour thick, steaming soup in it. It looked yellow, with a green tint. He brought it closer to his face to sniff it, but could not smell anything.

Topher accepted a serving from the bot and together they headed for an empty spot on the grass. There were no spoons; everyone sipped from the bowls directly.

A thought crossed Phil’s mind. He said, “So, how long have you been here, Topher?”

“Me? This is my seventh year.”

Phil stared at him in shock.

Topher nodded. “Yup. I still haven’t convinced them that I embrace the collective mindset. Not that I’m trying to.”

“Does anybody ever leave?”

“Oh, yeah. A few guys are out of here after a few weeks. They embrace everything they hear in Circle Talk, pass the online tests and they’re sent home fresh-faced and subservient to the state.”

Phil took his first sip of the soup. It was indeed mostly tasteless.

He said, “But, you’re still here. Surely you could tell the teachers what they wanted to hear by now.”

“Oh, they test you. They see if you are just saying what they want you to say, or if you really believe it. It’s possible to fake it. You just have to believe it while you’re here. Believe it for a moment. When you get home you can go back to being a free thinker again. Lots of guys do that, you know. They go home, keep their mouths shut, stay out of trouble. They never bother the state again because they never want to come back here. If you want to go home, that’s what you’ve got to do.”

“But . . . you haven’t?”

“Nah. There’s lots of us here. We’re lifers, man. We ain’t never leaving Patmos.”

Phil swallowed more soup. He frowned as he thought about what Topher said.

Phil said, “Why? Just . . . do the trick. Do whatever it takes and leave. Like you said, go back to thinking the way you want to think when you get home.”

Topher shook his head.

“I can’t do it, man. I just can’t lie to myself. Socialism is not better than capitalism. Totalitarianism is not better than freedom. Liberty and free will are the single greatest pursuits humans can strive for. I’m not going to sacrifice my personal ideology for the right to leave here.”

Topher tipped his bowl back and swallowed the last of his soup. He wiped his mouth on his arm and smiled up at Phil.

“Besides, the more of us who stay here, the more strains are put on the state. We’re already overcrowded and word has it the other reeducation camps are bursting at the seams, too. The more of us who refuse to leave, the bigger problem the state has in keeping us. If we demonstrate back home, they shoot us. But if we go to reeducation camps and stay here . . . well, let’s just say we can overwhelm their resources and put passive-aggressive pressure on them. This is our safe way to protest.”

Phil thought about it for a moment.

He said, “I suppose that works, so long as they don’t get fed up, line us all up and shoot everybody.”

Topher laughed. He said, “Nah, they ain’t gonna do that. Billings is an old softie. Truly believes in his heart he can get you to become a collectivist if he just talks with you long enough. The reeducation camps were his idea. They’re his baby. He’s not going to let them become death camps.”

A guard bot approached, his blaster aimed at the crowd as if contravening Topher’s last statement.

It said, “Everybody up. Morning work detail. Head to your assigned duty stations.”

As one, the men stood and brought their bowls back to the table. Then they filed out after the bot who led the way toward the first duty station.

“Think about joining us,” Topher said as they started walking. “We’re a loosely organized group of like-minded individuals.”

“What do I have to do, sign a pledge or something?”

“Nah. Just hold true to your ideals. Never compromise. Stand for freedom. It’s worth making a stand, even a small one like ours. Life has to mean something, man. The ideology of liberty, and the rights of an individual . . . that’s worth fighting for. That’s worth sacrificing for. If you give in to them and go back home, you’ll regret it the rest of your life.”

Phil chuckled. He said, “When you put it like that, how can I say no?”

Tetrarch’s Dilemma 28

For Biffender Jones, this voyage was the fastest he had ever travelled through space. If Einstein was correct in that time was relative for individuals experiencing it, Biff thought time was certainly flying by for him right now.

Julia clued in to Biff’s issues, and stayed with him most of the trip in their private quarters. Biff did not know if that made things better or worse. As far as he knew, these could be the last moments they would get to spend with one another for a long time. Maybe ever.

“I really wish you didn’t have to do this.”

She nodded and squeezed him. They had been holding each other all morning after breakfast. They had been holding each other a lot as the days ticked down on the trip to Sporades.

She tried to say something comforting. But there really was not much more she could say. They talked about her mission almost exclusively the first few days of the voyage.

“I’ve done it before. Everything worked out okay.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know you were doing it the other time. It was a lot easier back then.”

“Don’t you want to know where I’m going? What I’m doing?”

“Yeah. I do. But, you know, ignorance is bliss I guess.”

They held each other for a moment longer, in silence.

Finally, Julia said, “You know those nights you were out on patrol, and something happened? Like that mugging you saw, and the guy had a knife. Or how about that time terrorists set off a bomb near the Administration Building? You were . . . what? A couple hundred meters from the blast?

“All those times you were out there, I knew you were in danger every time you went on patrol. Because that’s a cop’s life. A cop puts their life on the line every day.”

Biff nodded. He said, “It’s part of the job.”

“Right. It’s part of the job. Well, this is my job. I know, it’s not official like police work. But, this is what I do. I work to . . . take down the League. To undermine my own father, because . . . because half the galaxy’s population lives under tyranny. And I want to do something about it. Because I cando something about it. This. So, it’s what I do.”

She shrugged, looking up at him and smiling.

She said, “Now, you get to be the one who stays behind and prays for me. Turnabout is fair game, Officer Jones.”

He smiled at her, then bent to kiss her.

He said, “I guess so. I don’t have to like it, though.”

-+-

Granny and Gina Wilcox walked arm in arm in a long circuit around the flight deck. The open area was ideal for crewmembers who liked to jog without using a treadmill. Or walk.

Granny could not stop smiling, her cigar clenched tight between her front teeth.

“I am so proud of you, girl!”

The Sergeant made a dismissive motion with her free hand.

“It’s nothing, Mama. More of a nuisance than anything.”

“For real? Nah, this is great. My baby is an Intangible!”

“Not really, Mama. I can’t do things like the Intangibles can. I can’t teleport like Mrs. Dvorak.”

“Skylar? Well, that’s true. That’s true. But, she can’t read electronic devices like you can, can she?”

“No. I asked. She explained it to me. A little. She and her brother were experimented on, when SSI ran a lab on Raton Five. It seems the . . . exposure to certain energies . . . affects everybody differently. They were always aiming for creating people who could teleport on demand, without using an AI or a Wu Drive or anything. So, over time they perfected the procedure.

“The blast that got me was . . . uncontrolled. And, it came from earlier experiments. So, no. I can’t teleport myself. I can see what you’ve been watching on your personal holo list, though.”

She smiled down at her mother.

“I have nothing to hide,” Granny said, a serious expression on her face. “Those were all documentaries.”

Gina snorted, but let it drop.

She said, “I’m really not cut out to be a snoop. I just get curious sometimes. But, Mama . . . I’m worried about this assignment.”

“What’s to worry, Baby? Go in, do the job, help the Tetrarch’s daughter, and get out.”

“It’s not that easy, Mama. I’m a Marine Sergeant. I’m not a spy! I’m not a . . . a secret agent. I don’t know how to do any of this!”

“Phhhhhsssh! You’ve got all the qualities you need, girl. You’ll do fine. Just follow the princess. Follow her lead, keep her out of trouble, and everything will be okay. Who knows? You might find you like skulking about in enemy territory more than leading a bunch of teenagers into combat.”

“I doubt that, Mama. I’ve got no training for this! I know nothing about being a spook or . . . or whatever this is we’re doing.”

“It’s called war, girl. You think I had any training in becoming a pirate? I’m the quartermaster on a private warship, for Pete’s sake. There ain’t no classes for that!”

“Your degree is in accounting, Mama.”

“Okay, bad example. But you do have combat experience, and that’s something Little Miss Muffet does not have, for all her spycraft. So, I think you can compliment her skillset and the two of you will make a great team. Obviously RNI thought the same thing.”

“RNI was desperate. That’s why they asked us . . .”

The Sergeant broke off as they rounded a bend and saw two sets of legs sticking out from under a drone up ahead.

Gina said, “Is that . . . Who is that?”

Granny cracked a grin. She said, “Speaking of Intangibles, that’s the Dvoraks. They don’t have a private room so they’re sneaking out here for privacy. Come on, let’s go back the way we came.”

“Isn’t that against the rules or something?” Gina said, looking one last time over her shoulder as they turned around.

Granny cackled. She said, “Yup. I’ll use it against them sometime in the future.”