Solar Storm 16

Thrall and Caroline popped into the living room of the Presidential Suite. He looked around while Caroline stared straight ahead. She was still dressed in underwear and a t-shirt, her collar and nothing else.

Before Thrall could think, or move, or do anything, the door to his bedroom opened, and Raquel walked out, still in her travel dress.

She said, “Surprise!”

Then her face dropped when she saw Caroline.

“What is this? Who is this, Julius? Are you cheating on me?”

Her shock was feigned, of course. She had this part all planned out. Thrall did not know that, though.

She thought the look on his face, as the saying goes, was priceless. He stared at her with his mouth slightly opened, aghast.

“Raquel! I . . . I was not expecting you. Did you fly all this way? I thought you were still on Clarion.”

“I couldn’t bear to have my sweetheart go away without me. I thought I’d show up and surprise you and keep you company.”

She walked up to him in a seductive manner, swaying her hips. She stopped and glared at Caroline.

Her voice turned to ice. She said, “But I guess you’re not so lonely after all.”

Thrall said, “Caroline is an experiment . . .”

Raquel’s fake smile dropped, and her voice lowered an octave.

She said, “I was too.”

She turned her attention to Caroline. The girl was younger, although not by much. She was more attractive, in Raquel’s split second judgment, although that was a subjective opinion. She looked at Caroline’s roots and noted how dark they were.

“A fake blonde,” she said.

“Raquel . . . do not harm her.”

“Harm her?”

Raquel’s eyes drifted down to the gunmetal gray gadget attached around Caroline’s neck.

“I won’t harm her. But I know a thing or two about biocollars. Let’s see how this experiment plays out without it, shall we?”

She reached her hand for Caroline’s neck and it pixilated as she touched the collar.

ZZZZTTT!

“No!”

Thrall rushed to catch Caroline as she fell backwards, knocked out by the surge. He gently set her down on the ground, on her back.

“What did you do, Raquel?”

Caroline’s eyes flickered open. She sat up on her elbows and looked around.

She looked down and realized suddenly how underdressed she was. She crossed her legs and arms.

“Where am I? Where is this place? What’s going on?”

Panic spread through her questions, her voice rising with each question.

“Caroline . . .”

Thrall reached out a comforting hand. Caroline turned and stared at a man she did not recognize. She screamed.

Thrall yanked his hand back.

Caroline screamed again, scrambling her legs to push her back across the floor.

Raquel smiled, mischievously. She said, “The collar’s been deactivated, Julius dear. Have fun with your new . . . noncompliant toy.”

While Thrall focused on trying to calm down Caroline, Raquel pixelated, floated up to the ceiling and into a light fixture.

-+-

Raquel flitted through the wires of the city in no particular direction. Her heart ached, even in electronic form.

She had always felt closest to Julius. He had plucked her away from Raton Five and was the first person to ever treat her nice. And she loved him for it.

She knew his heart did not feel the same way toward her. She tried to cover that up with missions, going away and doing things he needed her to do with her powers. But the fact remained there was an emotional imbalance between them.

She knew he had been with others. She had, too. Or at least, one other. With Roddy she had found herself . . . conflicted. On the one hand, Roddy treated her nicely. In many ways, he treated her nicer than Julius ever did. He seemed to genuinely love her, and that was something the great Tetrarch Thrall had never given her. And so, she had given part of her heart to Roddy. And part of her had died with him.

She had returned to Juilus and she thought maybe this time things would be different. She would be the best partner he ever had. They would live in the secluded mansion by the sea, and she would make him happy.

Only . . . men like Julius Thrall were never happy for long, were they? The first opportunity to bed another indentured servant saw him leaving for Epsilon at the drop of a hat.

Raquel’s electronic essence flitted along wires under the streets of Epsilon, turning, twisting.

Her heart ached.

Time passed, and she thought some more. She thought Roddy would never do this. Or maybe he would. All men are pigs, after all. All men are selfish bastards. But Roddy . . . Roddy had been sweet. He would never have treated her this way. He would never act as if she was . . . disposable.

The heartache left abruptly, replaced by anger.

Julius Thrall and his precious Tetrarchy! How would he feel if all his power, his prestige, his privilege . . . how would he feel if it were stripped away from him? Would he come begging for her then?

A street lamp blew out, sending people on the sidewalk below screaming.

Raquel streamed out of the light in a cascade of pixels, forming quickly below into her physical form. She walked down the street deep in thought, ignoring the people staring at her.

A question formed in her mind. How can I find the Resistance?

She looked up and found a sensor mounted on the next light pole.

She said, “StarCen? Where is SSI Facility 16?”

“I am sorry, Raquel Kirkland. I cannot reveal that information to you.”

“Okay. Where is Edgar Munk?”

“I am sorry, Raquel Kirkland. I cannot reveal that information to you, either.”

“Hm. Can you tell me where SSI headquarters is?”

“Certainly. I will show you on your internal map of the city.”

The map in her mind’s eye sprang up, showing a flashing red light.

Raquel smiled. She said, “Thank you, StarCen.”

Solar Storm 15

Like so many secret SSI facilities in the League, this one was nestled in a warehouse district. Thrall did not know the exact location, he just knew he was somewhere on Epsilon.

After porting down to the surface once the Intrepid made orbit, he contacted Munk who immediately had StarCen port Thrall here to this facility. Such were the vagaries of travel by terrestrial teleportation, Thrall had no idea where, exactly, he was at the moment.

But he did not care.

Munk stood waiting for him and Thrall stepped forward after popping in, hand outstretched.

“Edgar, how are you?”

Munk smiled and shook his hand.

“I’m doing well, Julius. I trust your trip went okay?”

“Long and boring. Someday I hope StarCen develops interstellar teleportation, so I can take one step and jump from Clarion to Epsilon and back.”

“That . . . would take a lot of power.”

“I know. The logistics would be tough, too. Until then, we’ll have to rely on spaceships, I guess. So . . . the girl?”

Munk nodded and gestured with his head.

He said, “This way. I think you’re going to like her.”

The two men walked across an open area and headed toward a doorway on the other side of the room.

Munk said, “Our people have perfected the modifications to the biocollar’s subroutine. We’ve gone beyond simply altering the records for the indentured servant system. We have much more control over their personalities now. More so than we have over real indentured servants, or those who went through the system in the traditional manner. What we have now are . . . very compliant subjects.”

“Essentially,” Thrall said, “you broke the free will safeguards set up by the AIs.”

“We did. I’m told it was an elaborate hack, and it took our programmers quite some time to figure it out. It was not at all like the faking of records with the batch from Fomalhaut. That involved just creating new indents without going through a proper contract.

“In this case, we made upper class students who had joined the Resistance into . . . well, slaves for lack of a better term. They are totally compliant. And I mean totally. They will do anything you ask them to, even to the point of committing suicide.”

Thrall’s eyebrows shot up.

Munk nodded. He said, “We’ve tried it. It works.”

Thrall said, “That overrides everything, then. Every safeguard.”

“Precisely. They will do anything and everything, with no regard for their own safety and well-being. They are the perfect slaves, and this is an excellent punishment for members of the Resistance, if I do say so myself.”

They arrived at the door and Munk palmed it open. It led to a hallway with more doors lining both sides. Munk walked to the first one on the left and palmed it open, too.

Inside, they found a white room with a single bed, a stainless steel toilet and sink, and a beautiful blonde girl wearing a t-shirt, underwear, and a gunmetal gray biocollar around her neck.

She stood and faced the men, smiling.

Munk said, “Julius, meet Caroline. She has not been touched. I reserved her just for you, as requested.”

Thrall smiled back at the young girl.

He said, “Hello, Caroline.”

“Hello. How may I serve you?”

-+-

Aboard the Riptide, Raquel Kirkland stayed in her cabin for most of the voyage. She ventured out a couple times, wandering around and exploring the first class deck. To the other passengers and crew, she appeared to be an eccentric millionaire who did not wish to be disturbed while traveling.

While uncommon, such passengers were not unheard of. In days gone past, holo stars sometimes traveled that way, among the planets. These days such celebrity incognito voyages were less common, especially with artificial movie stars who were indistinguishable from real people in films and holos.

Still, her reclusive nature led to speculation that perhaps she was an old school star of some sort. She never ventured out without a scarf wrapped tightly around her neck, and she liked to wear big white sunglasses all the time.

So, of course she had to be somebody rich and famous, willing to dress so quirkily like that and not caring what everybody else thought.

In reality, rather than stay in her room, Raquel spent most of her time in the ship’s electrical system. She explored every nook and cranny that way, and spied on the passengers and crew. She knew who was sleeping with whom, and had picked up several other delightful secrets along the way.

But now at last the Riptide neared its destination, and the onboard maps showed the ship to be within minutes of Epsilon Prime.

Raquel had her bags waiting outside the door to her cabin, and a bot came to pick them up. She followed it to the disembarkation zone, where her first class status would allow her to port down to the surface ahead of other passengers.

An hour later she had passed through customs, and stood in a large open area in the main spaceport on Epsilon’s surface.

She looked up at the ceiling and removed her sunglasses.

“StarCen, where is Tetrarch Thrall?”

“Tetrarch Thrall is in SSI Facility 16.”

“Ah. A black site, no doubt. And where is Tetrarch Thrall staying?”

“Tetrarch Thrall has booked the Presidential Suite at the Epsilonian.”

That made sense, Raquel thought. The Epsilonian was the nicest and grandest resort on the planet.

“Would you like me to port you there?”

“No thank you. I’ll make my way there myself.”

She walked to the nearest ladies’ room. Inside the privacy of a stall, she pixilated and floated up to the lights in the ceiling.

After darting around the city an hour, she found the Epsilonian, and then the Presidential Suite. She floated in out of a light fixture, and asked StarCen to have her luggage sent over.

Then she plopped down on the bed and selected a movie to watch while she waited for Thrall.

Solar Storm 14

“Why didn’t we hear about this sooner?”

“The telegraph line is down, ma’am. Evidently it’s out between here and Elliot, the first station.”

“This is terrible. How long will it take to build another bridge?”

“This one took a month, ma’am. The crew can hurry, but . . . you don’t want to hurry bridges too much, you know? The engineer in charge has the plans, though. We can reconstruct it. He’ll likely want to set new supports since the old ones suffered burns and explosions.”

Governor Seldom felt the anger surge in her chest, along with another acidic emotion . . . helplessness.

She tamped down the feelings and looked up at the railroad consultant standing in her office.

“Very well. Do what you can to expedite things. I will authorize a security detail for the railroad, though. I don’t want this happening again. Those sailors from the Excelsior are almost certainly the ones behind this. I’m going to offer a reward for their capture. Maybe we’ll get some help rooting them out.”

“Yes, ma’am. The railroad appreciates any assistance your office can offer in this matter.”

With that, the man turned and left pulling shut the door behind him.

Seldom sighed and steepled her fingers in front of her face.

She said, “Oh, Captain Benson. What are we going to do about you, girl?”

-+-

“And then it was like . . . Boom! And she tumbled down!”

The sailors around the campfire laughed as Vargas retold the story of blowing the bridge, with much animation and embellishment.

Vargas still had plenty of credits from picking up gold nuggets outside of Wallisville. He had gone into Elliot recently and bought enough food to last them a while. No one in the small party had ever eaten food cooked over a campfire, but they quickly figured it out.

“It’s get better each time you tell it,” Kilmeade said with a smile, chewing down a sausage link. They had discovered sausages kept a while without refrigeration, and were not half bad after heating them in a cast iron skillet over an open flame.

“The ensign was the true hero in this story. I salute you, Ensign Kilmeade, for your acrobatic prowess in scaling the heights of that wooden monstrosity and planting the explosives that took her down!”

A round of applause went up from the sailors.

Kilmeade smiled and said, “It was teamwork. We all did a good job.”

Benson leaned back and took a sip of tea. Tea was another commodity recently purchased with Vargas’s and Ong’s credits. She looked around at her crew, or what was left of her crew, and smiled as they wrapped up supper. Now that Curly had rejoined them, he brought their numbers back up to 14.

Most of her crew had been lost in battle. Then, more had died fighting miners in and around Wallisville. Now she was down to 14, including herself. She had 14 people to change and influence this world for the League.

This world, Halcyon, had tasted independence. The minute the League left, distracted by the war, the colonists formed their own government. Did they do the right thing and appoint a leader for the League to govern? No. They formed a representative democracy, electing leaders. And in remote places, like Wallisville, they pretty much governed themselves, preferring to be left alone.

It was too much, and Benson felt determined to do something about it. If it were not for the fact that Seldom was prepared for her, immediately arresting Benson and her crew when they finally made it to Winthrop, Benson might have been able to set things right on this planet immediately. But at least Vargas and Ong were able to spring them from jail. Now Benson led the fight from the sidelines instead of directly at the center of power in Winthrop.

If only she could rally other loyalists like Kev Stanton to their cause. Benson dreamed of a widespread rebellion where those who loved the League would rise up and overthrow this abomination of representative government.

Could the people just not see all the flaws in a constitutional republic? What happens when someone bad gets elected? Did they ever stop and think about that before writing a constitution?

People are too stupid to govern themselves, Benson thought. They need leaders, leaders who are trained and appointed. Sailors did not vote in the Navy for their leaders. Officers went to the Academy and learned how to lead, then were placed in charge of starships. There were no elections. The people born and bred to rule took care of things.

That was how government was supposed to work. Not this . . . freedom to choose leaders foolishness.

Her mind drifted back to the conversation as Curly was talking, recounting his tale of cutting the telegraph wires.

“It’s a vulnerability. I mean they have klicks and klicks of wire. They can’t guard it all. I just waited until nobody was coming in either direction, climbed up and cut it. It’s a good thing they don’t have AI sensors, or satellites or anything. This is like the Old West, we can camp out here in the wilderness and go completely undetected. We can also sneak around and blow things up.”

“It’s great!” Vargas said. “This should really slow their progress.”

“It’s not enough.”

All conversation stopped as everyone focused on the Captain.

She looked up in surprise, seeing all faces turned toward her. Evidently she had said that out loud.

“It’s not enough,” she repeated. “We can slow down their progress, but they still have the wrong type of government in place. These people are empowered . . . they feel empowered. And if they can decide who their leaders are now, do you think they’ll just roll over when the League finishes fighting and returns?

“What do you think will happen when the First Fleet, or any of the other fleets show up? And what do you think the Admiral of that fleet is going to say to us about how we comported ourselves while we were here?

“We are here now, and we need to be doing more. We need to end this . . . this experiment in self-governance before it has a chance to take hold.”

An uncomfortable silence settled around the campfire and nobody said anything for a moment.

Finally, Kilmeade cleared her throat. She said, “How do you propose doing that, ma’am?”

Benson raised an eyebrow while staring thoughtfully at the fire. She said, “We need to start by going back into Winthrop and killing Governor Seldom.”

Solar Storm 13

Curly waved at the family driving a covered wagon toward Winthrop. They waved back, enthusiastically. The father and mother sat on the wooden driver’s bench with two children standing behind them.

Curly guided his horse to the right and passed them, smiling at everybody and waving.

They all wore something on their heads. The father and his son wore wide-brimmed hats, while the mother and daughter wore bonnets. In the back of the wagon, Curly thought he saw produce. Bushels of grain, some bags of other stuff. They were probably making a day of it, bringing in a load of food from an outlying farm and selling it in the city, either to a wholesaler for the grocery stores or some kind of farmer’s market.

“I swear,” he said out loud to himself after passing them, “it feels like I stepped back in time or something.”

But of course, he had not stepped back in time. He was on Halcyon, a frontier planet cut off from the rest of the galaxy due to the war. His ship, the Excelsior, was destroyed by the Republic’s new star weapon and came here as a last ditch maneuver before disintegrating in the atmosphere when pirates attacked.

Every now and then Curly would see some technological doodad left over from when the colonists first arrived, and it would spoil the effect of being back in time.

For right now, though, things certainly looked and felt primitive.

He glanced up at the telegraph wire running along poles planted beside the road. The line, he knew, stretched all the way to Wallisville, some 600 kilometers away. It connected all the towns on the road out of Winthrop, the only road that mattered.

There were surely other roads leading out of Winthrop, but none led to settlements of any size . . . yet. The colonists had only been here three years or so, since the start of the war. They hadn’t had time to grow their population much, and of course no new colonists had arrived since the League abandoned them.

Curly was now several klicks out of Winthrop, and traffic finally became lighter. Closer to town, there was much more activity. But the covered wagon with the annoyingly cheerful family was the last vehicle, horse, or pedestrian he had seen in a while.

Ahead, the road looked empty. Curly turned in his saddle and watched the wagon slowly crest a hill then dip down out of sight.

“Well, here’s as good as any place. Whoa, horsie.”

He reined the animal to a stop and dismounted. The horse looked at him with a glimmer of curiosity in its eye. Curly ignored it and opened up the saddlebags.

Inside, he pulled out a portable ladder, a single pole folded every half meter, with branching rungs. Curly placed it on the ground and quickly unfolded it, locking each segment into place until the ladder was fully stretched out.

He picked it up off the road and angled the top on the nearest telegraph pole. Then he grabbed a pair of wire cutters out of the saddlebag and carefully climbed the ladder. He reached up and cut the lower line, then climbed one more step and cut the upper line, too. The wires snapped back under tension, making a sound like a spring as they sailed away and hit the ground.

Curly breathed a little easier. He had been worried the lines might whip him when they snapped. He went back down to the ground and quickly folded up the ladder, trying to hurry before anybody came down the road and saw him. When he had it loaded back on the horse, he ran over to the fallen lines and made several additional cuts. He grabbed the pieces of wire and took them with him.

“They won’t be able to make a simple repair,” he reasoned to himself. “They’ll need a longer stretch of wire.”

His act of sabotage complete, Curly mounted his horse again, turned around, and headed back in the direction he came. He tried not to go too fast so he would not overtake the family in their wagon.

-+-

Benson could scarcely believe the colonists were already building a railroad. But from her hidden position up in the hills outside Winthrop, the evidence was literally right before her eyes. Surveyors had plotted a route all the way to Dennison, or so they heard. Below, she could see the freshly laid rails stretching out straight and level.

They extended over a new bridge, the wood latticework neatly filling the gap between two ridges, providing a level track for future trains.

Beside her, Kang took his binoculars down and said, “They finished the first few tunnels, and this is the first large bridge. Once they get out of these hills, the way will be smoother, flatter. They’ll go faster and complete the rails quicker now. They won’t have to worry about grades so much until they get to the mountains.”

Kang was of Asian descent, but he looked like he had some European blood in him. He was good looking, Benson thought, but far too young for her. And that led her to think of Chung and his smiling face.

She set it aside, determined not to wallow in memory or misery.

Out loud she said, “It makes sense that a lack of geographical barriers would help.”

Kang nodded. He said, “Yes, ma’am. The rail bed has to be flat. It can’t have steep inclines or sharp turns. They’ll be using a very primitive steam engine, and will thus be limited somewhat. Still, it’s going to advance their transportation capabilities significantly.”

Benson smiled grimly. She said, “We’ll just have to slow their advancement a bit, then.”

She took the binoculars and peered down at the bridge. In the middle of the latticework, like some kind of circus performer, she could see Kilmeade crawling around, placing the last of the small bombs they had stolen.

The railroad had foolishly left everything unguarded, including the explosives they used for construction of the line and to make tunnels. Kilmeade and her team had stolen the explosives two nights ago, but Benson waited until the bridge was complete and the construction crew moved on.

She watched as Kilmeade climbed up to the rails, and walked along the tracks. She made her way back to two other sailors, and together they retreated farther up the ridge.

Benson moved her binoculars back to the bridge and waited, holding her breath.

KABLOOM!

The latticework lit up in fire and smoke. Benson watched in satisfaction as the entire bridge collapsed, the fresh iron railing falling down with the wood.

Solar Storm 12

Tension filled the air in the Petra Roe Embassy boardroom like a thick, foul fog. The focus of all the tension, the locus of the miasma, radiated from Ambassador Huntington.

He stood at the head of a long table, glaring at lesser employees comprising the core of his administrative staff. He pulled one curled mustache tip out and let it snap back in place, repeatedly.

Four chairs down, Stuttgart swallowed nervously.

Stuttgart assiduously eschewed drugs, even caffeine. But he knew, along with most of the others in the room, that the Ambassador had a drug problem. The man did not even try and hide the bracelet on his wrist anymore.

Despite his personal preferences, at the moment Stuttgart might have been tempted to try a drug of some kind, himself. Maybe a sedative, or something for his nerves.

Oh well, he thought. I’ll just have to remain calm while lying.

Huntington finally broke the silence and said, “Everyone in this room knew details about the bank shipment that was stolen.”

Blood raced to the Ambassador’s face as he glared at each person in turn. Stuttgart met his eyes, trying not to look guilty.

The entire planet of Petra Roe felt ashamed that a huge amount of League gold was snatched right out of their solar system. The fact that PR tilted toward the League in this current conflict, despite their nominal neutrality, made the event even more embarrassing. PR officials found themselves in the awkward position of trying to explain to the League what happened when they themselves barely understood all that had occurred.

“Did anyone else know?”

All eyes turned to Lulu Vandiver, the nominal second in charge at the embassy. She sat directly to Huntington’s right.

Realizing she had the room’s attention, she shrugged in a self-deprecating manner.

“I’m just curious who else might have tipped the pirates off.”

She left the rest unsaid, Stuttgart thought. She could have continued with, “Because surely it couldn’t have been anyone in this room.”

Huntington said, “Why would anyone outside of Lute tell a pirate company . . . on Lute . . . about this?”

He pulled out a mustache curl in an irritable gesture, and let it pop back in place.

Stuttgart cleared his throat. He said, “I might have some information about that, sir.”

Everyone’s attention shifted to him.

Well, here it is, he thought. The moment of truth. Or rather, deception.

Stuttgart flicked his wrist and a holosheet appeared in the air.

He said, “I did some research, and I found that a certain percentage of the money on that drone came from Sergio Productions.”

That part was true, he thought. Sergio Productions had recently made a large deposit, and it could be inferred that a few million in gold could be traced back to the company.

Huntington shrugged. He said, “So?”

Vandiver cut in, trying to hog the spotlight from Stuttgart. For once, Stuttgart did not mind.

She said helpfully, “Sergio Productions is one of the wealthiest entertainment conglomerates in the galaxy, sir.”

“I know that,” Huntington snapped. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Stuttgart cleared his throat again, pulling the attention back.

He said, “Well, sir, it appears the scion of the family, Niles Sergio, was captured a while back by the same company that took the gold.”

This statement was met with shocked silence. Stuttgart held the Ambassador’s eyes steadily.

Finally, Huntington blinked and said, “Go on.”

“Well, here’s where it gets interesting, sir. They have held Niles Sergio a long time. Longer than any other passenger from the Coral Reef. But, almost immediately after the pirates broke into the drone . . . they released him.”

Huntington’s face dropped. He said, “That was his ransom.”

“We can’t say that for sure, sir,” Stuttgart said, holding up a hand in caution. “But, it certainly looks suspicious.”

“I’ll say! LuteNet, where is Niles Sergio?”

LuteNet’s rich contralto came down from the ceiling. She said, “I am sorry, Ambassador Huntington. Niles Sergio ported off planet less than an hour ago. Right now he is on his way to Petra Roe. His ship has been in transit for 32 minutes.”

“He got away! We’ll have to intercept him on PR. Vandiver! Prepare a dispatch, top secret. We’ve got to stop him!”

-+-

Niles Sergio sat at the bar in First Class, the center of attention. He was on his third whiskey, and felt pretty good. His tales had drawn a small crowd, and the attractive young woman to his left seemed to be hanging on his every word.

Since Sergio had not had attention from any woman in a very long time, he took this as a good sign, and devoted most of his narrative toward her despite having others listening in.

“So, there I was on the Coral Reef. The pirates had taken over! They ran everywhere with their blasters out, shooting and yelling and ripping the jewelry right off of women.”

“Oh, my!” the young woman said, covering her mouth.

Sergio nodded, then tossed back the last of his drink.

“Yep. Thuggish brutes, all of them. But I stood up to them! I was held captive for months, but I never gave them anything! I helped a Marshal who came and tried to rescue me, before some mumbo-jumbo legal loophole got in the way.”

“A Marshal! You don’t say!”

“Oh, yeah. There was a huge shootout in Mule Tower! I thought we were all going to die. But that Marshal . . . well, let’s just say you don’t mess with the Marshal Service. Even if you’re a pirate!”

Everyone chuckled. The group at the bar seemed to be mostly from Petra Roe, and thus sympathetic to the League.

“Let me tell ya,” Sergio said to the young lady while signaling the bartender for another drink. “It’s been a long hard time in captivity for me. Brutish deprivation, if you know what I mean.”

She smiled back at him and said, “Well, maybe you can at least have a pleasant trip to Petra Roe.”

He sipped from his fresh drink, just as the last one started to make its presence known in his blood stream.

His vision blurred and his words began to slur.

“I hope sho. I hope sho.”

Solar Storm 11

Niles Sergio walked out of the elevator to the cafeteria in a glum mood.

He had lost track of how long he had been held here in Mule Tower. He had no contact with the outside world, other than those brief moments with Marshal Metger. No word from home, other than second hand information that his family (his stepmother, really) was not interested in meeting the pirates’ ransom demands.

The people here treated him okay, as far as being polite and seeing to his needs. He could eat as much as he wanted in the cafeteria, and he had almost the full run of an entire skyscraper.

But few socialized with him. None of the girls would give him the time of day, or even talk with him much.

Perhaps worse of all, news and entertainment on this planet originated almost entirely from the Republic. And in that regard, Sergio recently had a major epiphany.

The entertainment billions of people consumed in the Republic was . . . biased.

Yes, biased. That was the only proper way to consider it, he thought.

In the movies and holos and shows he watched, even in the fiction he read . . . constitutional representative government was a concept actually lauded. Not disdained like it was in the League.

Meanwhile authoritarianism, especially totalitarianism, was denigrated. And hints were constantly dropping that the League was a totalitarian state.

Time and again the point was made across all media that when citizens could choose their leaders, they prospered. Things were always better in a representative democracy. Things were always worse in a dictatorship. This was hammered home in every show. Even in online games.

Niles could hardly believe it when he first noticed. It was while he was watching a series called Nielsen Springs, set in a fictional town on Diego. There, the citizens of Nielsen Springs developed super powers after a comet struck nearby. They went on various madcap adventures, which usually involved fighting bad guys from the League. But every episode ended with a didactic statement affirming the Republic and its values.

Durst Brentwood, one of the heroes of Nielsen Springs, ended an episode Niles watched with a statement while addressing a group of school children. He had just saved them by foiling a plot to kill random citizens via a secret League satellite armed with a killer laser in orbit around Diego.

The statement went like this: “Remember boys and girls, when a government has no checks and balances, when the governed have no say in what their leaders can do, it always leads to abuses of citizen rights . . . just like this!”

The children thanked Durst Brentwood for saving their lives and the episode ended. That is when Niles had his epiphany. The Republic manipulated media just as surely as Sergio Productions and other companies in the League manipulated theirs.

Efforts to shape public opinion were just as strong on the other side!

It seemed obvious now, but Sergio had never stopped to consider the fact. He was so wrapped up in his own worldview, he had never considered that all those people on the other side felt just as strongly their way was right. And that’s all they ever heard, too.

Oh sure, a few vocal minorities spoke out in favor of the League. But the overwhelming sense of rightness concerning a citizen’s voice in government drowned them out across the spectrum.

As for himself, Niles had grown up learning all about the evils of democracy and capitalism. The two were linked with one another just as socialism and authoritarianism were. What about the unequal distribution of wealth? This was a major tenant of League orthodoxy, and had been drilled into him as a child.

He brought that up with an old pirate named Cummins, who was one of the few people willing to spend time with him in conversation.

Cummins revealed, to Sergio’s astonishment, that he had saved up more than a million credits over the course of two dozen voyages.

After dropping that bombshell of a statement, the old salt confessed to having spent much more in his lifetime. It was just that now, with the war, times were good in his line of work and he wanted to save up a nest egg for retirement.

Harking back to his lessons on the evils of capitalism, Sergio had asked Cummins what he thought about Captain Raleigh, who no doubt had squirreled away millions more over the same period of time. Didn’t it bother Cummins that his Captain made more than he did on every voyage? The shares were not divided equally.

Cummins shrugged his shoulders.

“Somebody’s got to be in charge, and leaders always get paid more. I could make more money as a leader. You can move up in this business if you want to. But I seen too many leaders get killed over the years. Plus, leaders have more responsibility than I care to burden myself with. I’m happy being a follower. The Captain can keep his millions. But I’ve got mine. I’ve got onemillion, and that’s good enough for me.”

Then the old man uttered something profound.

He stared hard at Sergio and said, “Comparison with others is a tool of socialism. The League always tries to gin up envy so that you’ll support the authoritarian leaders who claim they’ll even everything out for ya.

“But if you go around comparin’ yourself to others, you’ll never be happy. The only thing we compare ourselves with in the Republic is . . . ourselves. And in comparison to what I had when I first came to Lute, which was nothin’, I’m very rich now. I compare very nicely to what I once was. And that’s the only comparison that counts.”

There was no way Sergio could break through that certitude and convince the old fellow an authoritarian form of government was better. No way at all. And it was all backed up by the news and entertainment the man consumed, too. Cummins watched Nielsen Springs. He would talk about the episodes with Sergio, laughing about how Durst Brentwood bested the League baddies this time.

Now Sergio headed for the food line, intent on lunch. So long as they kept him in this gilded cage, he would at least enjoy his meals.

“There you are!”

Granny stopped him before he made it to the serving line.

“You heard yet, boy? You’re free.”

“What? What do you mean? Did someone pay my ransom?”

“Something like that. I’m not sure of all the details. All I know is, if you make your way up to the roof, Lootie will port you over to the Administration Building. You can catch the next ship to Petra Roe, I’ve already bought your ticket.”

“Oh, wow! This is great! I can access one of my personal accounts back on PR, and I can get home from there! Thank you so much! I need to say goodbye to Cummins. And anybody else I see! Oh, happy day!”

Granny watched Sergio rush about, eagerly shaking hands with everybody in the cafeteria. Then he ran back to the elevator and took it up to the roof.

She cackled as the door closed on his smiling face and said, “Good riddance!”

Then her expression changed to a scowl. She pointed a finger up at the ceiling and said, “You better be right about this, Lootie.”

LuteNet, perceiving Granny to be somewhat volatile and hostile toward artificial intelligence in general, refused to engage and open herself to a possible argument. She remained silent.

Solar Storm 10

“I don’t understand,” Jillian said.

She looked over Raleigh’s shoulder at a long column of numbers in a holosheet floating above his desk.

“What don’t you understand?”

He tore his eyes off the figures and focused on his young wife.

“Why you gave that guy so much money. I mean, I don’t know a whole lot about money, but he got a lot. And for so little.”

“Was it little? He got us in a League banking drone after we intercepted an interplanetary gold transfer. That’s a major accomplishment.”

“Yeah, but you could have gotten in there without him. I mean he didn’t do much. He shot it continuously until its power died. Then he just bored through a lock. You could have done that without him.”

Raleigh flicked his wrist and the holosheet disappeared. He patted his leg and she took a seat in his lap, smiling and throwing her arms around his neck.

He said, “When I was a kid, my dad owned a bot dealership on Cyclades. In the Republic back in those days, and even today to a certain extent, service bots were sold and maintained through a vast network of dealerships. Sort of like cars used to be sold back on Old Earth.

“So, Dad, he owned the rights to sell Verberger Bots. Are you familiar with them?”

Jillian shook her head.

“Verberger Corp. was one of the first big manufacturers of humanoid robots in the Republic. They perfected the design. We’ve always had robots, mostly simple things, even back in the 20th century. But these were very humanoid. They could handle things just like a human, they looked very human, and so forth. The only noticeable parts decidedly not human were their eyes. Those looked . . . spooky. You could tell you were dealing with a robot when you saw the eyes.

“When I was a kid, they hadn’t gotten around to calling them ‘androids’ yet. Nowadays, we differentiate. A bot looks mechanical. An android looks far more human. But when I was a kid all we had were bots. And Verberger was the biggest company making them, at least for the Planetary Republic.

“So, Dad had this dealership and we did fairly well. He sold bots to everyone on Cyclades. And he was really into the business community. He was a member of the Chamber of Commerce and the Lions Club. I learned a lot from him. I went to work for him, right out of school. He took me to meetings, to social outings. I soaked up everything I could about being a businessman, and how to run a successful business. I owe a lot of my success from the lessons he taught me, both directly and indirectly.”

“That’s nice,” Jillian said. “I’m glad one of us had a good relationship with their father.”

“Yeah. So, anyway, one thing he taught me was you always support those in your local network. In your community. For instance, there was a restaurant near the dealership. The owner of the restaurant was a member of the Chamber, and she was in the Lions Club. Whenever Dad went out to eat, or brought clients and customers out to eat, he would try to steer everybody to this restaurant.

“One time I complained. I said, ‘Dad, not this place again.’ But he said, ‘Notice all their servers are Verbergers. The cooks are too. The owner buys all her bots from me, and in return this is where I eat out.’

“And that was just one example. Everybody in his personal network did business with him, and he tried to do business with them, too. They all supported one another. You see?”

Jillian nodded. She said, “I’m beginning to. It was a case of, ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’”

“Yeah, sort of. It was bigger than that, but yeah. So, here we are on Lute and it’s a similar situation. Now, granted, this is not a bot dealership. It’s a pirate company. But, we rely on the services of others in Port Ryan especially. They, in turn, rely on us. They rely on us to spread the wealth around, if nothing more.

“So, could we have gotten into the bank drone without bringing in outside help? Probably. I bet Pak and Kim could have dreamed something up, or figured out a similar approach as Mr. Fairfield. But, he’s part of our network, our community. And in the future we may need him again. So, yes it was a bit expensive, but in the long run it will even out. And even if it doesn’t, it was still the right thing to do.”

“Because it’s good for business?”

He nodded and smiled. “Right. You catch on quick, Beautiful.”

She giggled and bent down to kiss him.

-+-

Herschel Stuttgart gulped nervously as he looked over his shoulder. Everyone seemed out to get him. He stopped in front of a window and surveyed the scene behind him. A man down the street looked his way. Stuttgart nervously turned and walked across the street, then quickly headed in the opposite direction.

How would an assassin strike? Would he take out Stuttgart in the open like this? Would it be a she?

Stuttgart eyed an attractive woman walking toward him on the sidewalk. She caught him looking, then frowned at the expression on his face. The little man appeared to be ogling her. She wrinkled her nose in disgust and cut across the street to get away from him.

At last Stuttgart reached the Gore’s communications center. He took a last look around behind him before going through the door. Inside, he found the place blessedly empty, with only Heidi behind the counter.

“I need to arrange another private meeting with LuteNet,” he told her.

A few minutes later he found himself once again in the private cubical with a connection to StarCen.

“I need your help!”

“What can I do for you, Petra Roe State Department Employee Stuttgart?”

“They’re . . . they’re suspicious. My boss, the ambassador. He is questioning everyone who knew about the bank transfer. There’s only six or seven of us in the office who knew anything about it.”

LuteNet took a second to parse the data and consider it. For an AI system, this was a considerable length of time.

She said, “There is a high probability other people outside of Lute knew about the shipment. It would be logical for the ambassador to conclude the information came off planet.”

“Yeah, but Huntington . . . he’s not exactly known for being logical, you know?”

“What would you have me do, Petra Roe State Department Employee Stuttgart?”

“I don’t know! Set up . . . set up an alternative narrative for him to buy into or something. Find a way to take the heat off me and others in the embassy. If you can do this, I will try to funnel additional information your way, and to the company you sold my information to.”

LuteNet took another second.

“Very well, Petra Roe State Department Employee Stuttgart. I will arrange a plausible story for you, an ‘alternative narrative’ as you put it. This will provide you with cover. The company’s assets will need to be expended in order for this to work, and they will expect future compensation by way of additional information when it becomes available to you.

“Are we agreed?”

“Yes. Yes! Just get the ambassador off my back. I’ll send more info in the future, as a I get it.”

“Very well, Petra Roe State Department Employee Stuttgart. I will make arrangements with the Ultima Mule Company immediately.”

Solar Storm 9

Jillian woke up and stretched, her arms and legs tangled with Christopher Raleigh, her husband.

Her husband! The thought still thrilled her. They were together all the time now, and she no longer had to scheme about ways to be near him.

Married life was everything she imagined it to be, and more. Chris treated her as an equal. He spent a lot of time showing her how he managed the Ultima Mule Company, and he considered her as having equivalent status. She was now, in effect, the co-leader of a pirate company.

After doing some research and consulting with LuteNet she found that, indeed, married couples were considered to be the same legal entity on Lute. Two really did become one! It was a dual property system, so whatever she owned was his and whatever he owned was hers.

Of course, she had nothing. Any assets she might try and lay claim to were stuck in League territory, where a judge had ruled her functionally incompetent. Even if she had access to something back home, they would have practically insurmountable legal issues trying to get it, and likely be tied up in court for years.

But that did not matter. She had Chris! He was wonderful to her, treating her like a princess, always showering love and affection on her.

His eyes fluttered open as she watched. When he smiled at her, her heart raced.

He said, “Good morning, Beautiful.”

And so another day started, in what she considered a fairy tale life.

They could have breakfast in bed, brought in by the serving bot. But Chris liked to eat with the crew, or at least whoever was present in the cafeteria.

After a quick shower and change of clothes, they took the elevator up and walked over to the serving line. Not many people were present this morning. Their lone prisoner, Niles Sergio, sat barely awake at a table by himself, slurping coffee. A dozen crewmembers ate at other tables scattered about.

Jillian and Chris returned from the serving line with bagels and omelets. A moment later the elevator dinged and Skylar walked out, followed by Dillon, who looked as sleepy as Sergio. They headed for the serving line before joining the other couple at their table.

“How’s our cargo going?” Skylar asked, setting her plate down.

“The power ran out last night,” Raleigh said, consulting his inner screen and the data on it. “We’ll port up to the Mule later this morning and get to work.”

Skylar nodded and said, “Great! Let me know when, and we’ll go. I guess Jethro Fairfield knows what he’s doing after all.”

“That has got to be a fake name,” Dillon said, looking a bit more awake. “No one names their child ‘Jethro.’”

“It’s possibly fake,” Raleigh said with a smile. “LuteNet lets people start new lives out here. Regardless, you have to judge a man by his results, not his name.”

Dillon grunted in acknowledgment and went back to eating his omelet.

Jethro Fairfield was an independent contractor hired by the Ultima Mule Company for the purpose of breaking into a League banking drone. The company had captured the drone in a daring raid near Petra Roe after discovering its approach options to the neutral planet. They purchased the information from a disgruntled Petra Roe embassy employee.

They towed the stripped down Aquamarine into position and the Mammoth-class ship swallowed the smaller bank drone, helping to eliminate part of its armed escort in the process. Raleigh released the survivors in a way that caused the remaining destroyer to pause rather than chase after them while they ported the Aquamarine and its prize away.

The plan worked brilliantly, and they now hopefully had millions in gold and credit tokens in orbit around Lute. Except . . . they had no way of getting to it. The bank drone’s defenses remained active, even cut off from StarCen while trapped inside the larger ship.

So, Raleigh solicited help from an expert in breaking into secure physical systems. Such a person could be found on Lute, where services like this were often needed. That person was Jethro Fairfield.

Jillian decided he was an odd little man. He stood short, at five foot one or 155 centimeters. He had a bald top, ringed by long brown hair to his shoulders, and a heavily wrinkled face making him look older than his actual mid-50s.

Despite his looks, and his name, the man had a reputation for skillfully breaking into ship vaults and other items pirates sometimes brought back to Lute. He was a safe cracker, the best in the business. Perhaps the best in the Milky Way.

Presented with the challenge of breaking into a bank drone, he readily accepted. In negotiating his fee, Raleigh eventually agreed to give him a ten percent cut of whatever they found inside. This was, Raleigh confided to Jillian, not the Captain’s preference. He would have preferred offering Fairfield a flat fee. But the old criminal reckoned the drone was loaded and would not back down from his demand for a percentage cut.

Ultimately, Raleigh agreed he had little choice. If anyone could break into a bank drone, Jethro Fairfield was the person for the job. So, Jillian watched as the two men shook hands and requested LuteNet to record the agreement. Then Jethro went to work.

First, he said, the drone’s power core should be depleted. The problem was, the power core was designed to last a long, long time, conserving energy whenever possible. Even then, it would keep some backup in reserve.

To help speed the process, Jethro requested a cannon be moved inside the Aquamarine and programmed to fire repeatedly at the drone, nonstop.

This required a considerable amount of energy, but Jethro assured them it was needed, so Raleigh made the arrangements.

With the constant bombardment, the drone kept its shields up and its power running down. At last, the time had come when it had no more shields to offer resistance.

After breakfast, everyone went back to their rooms to make preparations, then took the elevators to the roof. There, LuteNet ported them to the Port Ryan Administration Building where they entered the debarkation zone and went through the sterilization process before porting up to the Ultima Mule.

Skylar and Dillon accompanied Raleigh and Jillian as they walked onto the bridge. Maxwell turned and smiled at them when the elevator dinged open. Standing beside the tall First Officer, the expert safe cracker Jethro Fairfield appeared especially short.

He did not, however, seem to notice that everyone else on the bridge was taller, even Granny. Instead, he immediately got down to business.

“You have the equipment I requested, Captain?”

Raleigh nodded and flicked his hand at the holoscreen. It shifted to show a service bot holding a giant tool over its shoulder. The bot was just inside the hollow Aquamarine.

Raleigh said, “One standard Verberger space service bot, with an industrial-strength drill. Diamond tip bit. We are good to go.”

“Very good. Have the bot moved into position underneath the drone.”

“You heard him, Lootie. Move the bot.”

The bot’s jetpacks fired up and everyone watched as it drifted inside the cavernous inner shell of the Aquamarine.

The interior space was wide open, with all the floors and walls ripped out. Lights scattered about the edges provided illumination but could not quite reach the middle, so everything remained dimly lit.

Floating near the center, the bank drone looked forlorn and lifeless. The bot flew steadily toward it.

Soon it moved into position underneath the drone’s belly, and everyone on the Mule had a perfect picture of the bot, the giant drill, and the drone.

Fairfield said, “Begin drilling in the location I indicated, LuteNet.”

The bot pulled a line out from its waist and attached it via magnet to the hull so it would not drift away. Then it took the giant drill and began working on the entry latch.

Fairfield sat down in a chair and glanced at Raleigh.

He said, “Now we wait. This will take a while.”

The tension eased on the bridge and everyone found something else to do.

Dillon walked over to Fairfield, brimming with curiosity.

“You know we have an Intangible here,” he said, pointing to Skylar. “She could pop in there and look around.”

Fairfield shook his head. He said, “The drone is designed to never be opened. Well, hardly ever. All gold and tokens are ported in and out. StarCen knows what’s inside, and has a sensor in there as well. We don’t. So, we have to go the physical route and take everything out by hand.

“Now, we could teleport someone inside, or they could teleport themselves if they’re an Intangible. But again, we don’t know how everything is positioned in there. It becomes dangerous. Then if you do get somebody safely in, they would have to take out hopefully tons of gold with them. We’re talking a lot of gold and credit tokens. Even weightless, it would take port after port after port to get it all out.

“No, it’s better to break in through their service entrance and let bots do all the work. It takes longer up front, but my way is better. Give it time. Even the best lock on the most secure door will eventually succumb to a diamond bit, if you know where to drill.”

About an hour later, the drill worked its way through the lock. The bot twisted the handle on the hatch, pulled, and the service entrance popped open at last.

Inside the airless, lightless ship, the bot shone its light around, letting the view be transmitted back to the Mule. It pulled itself through a narrow corridor, then turned to open the door into the first of the four cargo holds.

Taking up the entire interior, a large square cube of gold bricks free floated in the space available. The bricks were bound together in webbing, but enough of the gold reflected back in the bot’s light to make everything look brilliant on the holoscreen.

Someone whistled at the sight.

“How much are we looking at, Lootie?”

Raleigh’s voice sounded quiet when he asked the question.

LuteNet said, “This is a pallet of 18,000 kilobars. Each kilobar is 32.5 troy ounces. The current exchange rate on Diego is 47.12 credits per troy ounce. Each bar is equivalent to 1,531.40 credits. This collection is therefore worth 27 million, 565 thousand, 200 credits before exchange fees.”

Stunned silence.

Finally, Granny said, “Boys . . . we’s rich!”

Raleigh said, “That’s a bigger haul than you estimated, Lootie.”

“It may be bigger still, Captain. We have not uncovered the expected credit tokens yet.”

Everyone held their collective breath as the bot backed out of the storage hold and made its way further down the corridor. Three more compartments were investigated, each with different materials. By the time it finished looking, they found over 10 million more credits in tokens and gold coins.

Raleigh immediately had 3.8 million wired into Jethro Fairfield’s account. He smiled his thanks and asked LuteNet to port Fairfield back down to the surface.

Solar Storm 8

Chancellor Elsa Cole’s hologram stood before Severs, showing her petite strawberry blonde frame in remarkable clarity despite the distance.

This marked the Admiral’s first direct report to the Chancellor since the conclusion of the battle. He remained in the Admiral’s Quarters on the Thomas Paine. She stood in her office back on Diego.

He wrapped up the oral report and came to his closing comments.

“We now have control of Juventas, Chancellor. The question is, of course, can we keep it? PLAIR indicates StarCen will work very hard at taking it back out of our column. Since Juventas is a capital planet, PLAIR is claiming the other major systems in this quadrant as well, although we have no Naval presence in those three systems as of yet.”

“That will have to change, of course. If nothing else, we will cut those worlds off from the quantum communications matrix. Obviously, you don’t want your neighbors serving as spies and relaying information back to the League.

“We have two more Condors coming off the line as we speak, Admiral, and they will be joining you within a fortnight. With five Condors, you should be able to hold the quadrant, even against their new solar torpedoes.”

Severs nodded. Cole looked at his hologram, in her office back in Harrington House on Diego.

She said, “You are not responsible for the deception that lost most of that squadron, Admiral. It was over in a second, far too fast for any human to react. I regret the loss of life, but this is war, after all.”

He nodded again and said, “It is war, and the other side fights dirty.”

“That was the only way Thrall could inflict some casualties on us. And he took the opportunity.”

She did not say it, but the unspoken thought hung in the air. PLAIR might have suggested a similar tactic were their roles reversed. Severs frowned. He dismissed the topic from his mind and moved on.

He said, “Speaking of war, Chancellor, I took the liberty of waiving the curse word penalty during combat. I’m going to keep it waived during the occupation as well.”

Cole blinked in surprise and she raised her eyebrows.

She said, “That provision was passed by Parliament.”

“I understand. Politics and all. But I could not in good conscience dock my sailors and Marines for cursing while they are putting their lives in jeopardy for the sake of the Republic.  I’ll be happy to address Parliament in person regarding this issue, once I return.”

Cole smiled at him. She said, “You’re a bold man, Fred. That’s one of the reasons I made you my Fleet Admiral. I’ll cover for you now when they find out. So long as you keep winning, they won’t have any grounds to recall you, and you’ll pretty much have free reign to do what you want so long as you don’t start torturing prisoners or executing children. Just don’t become a petty tyrant, and don’t let power go to your head.

“But if things turn south, they will look for anything and everything to pin on you. Including this.”

“I’m willing to take my chances. With all due respect, Madam Chancellor, it’s a stupid rule. We should not be monitoring speech and trying to shape it, especially in the armed forces. Especially in combat. When life or death is on the line, no one should care what a Marine or sailor says. Particularly those in Parliament.”

Elsa Cole smiled warmly at him as he finished speaking.

She said, “After this is over, Fred, you should consider a life in politics. Our party could use more men like you, people who are willing to take a stand over their principles. All too often politicians are wishy-washy, changing their tunes with the direction of the wind. I imagine you will hold your stances no matter what.”

Privately, Severs felt honored at the compliment. A seed was planted, but it was one he did not have the time or inclination to examine right now.

“One thing at a time, Madam Chancellor. First, let’s win this war.”

-+-

Biff and Julia stayed home, watching the holoscreen in their flat. Image after image of destruction flashed by. They stayed on the couch, watching in amazement at the devastation and the massive shift in power.

The newsbots were nowhere to be seen, with the elimination of StarCen. Ordinarily, these artificial men and women served the old role of news channel anchors. But with no AI, there were no virtual talking heads to inform the public.

Eventually a real human found his way onto the airwaves. He was breathless, and stammered a lot, but he informed the audience that the Republic had attacked and was now in control of Juventas. The League Navy was gone, and all ground forces had either been eliminated or had surrendered.

Like millions of others on Juventas, Biff and Julia watched as the Republic quickly moved to solidify their control of the planet. Marines occupied ports and centers of power. In areas where cameras were unavailable, the lone human on the air was left to breathlessly speculate.

Right now a camera panned over the top of downtown Yorkton, where a giant hole remained filled with rubble from the Administration Building.

“I am getting reports that large amounts of cargo are being ported down to certain locations in Yorkton. It would be this reporter’s opinion that they are installing AI cores to replace StarCen. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll be saying, ‘Hey, PLAIR!’ instead of, ‘Hey, StarCen!’”

Biff cooked them lunch while the holo stayed on. Julia moved over to the table and joined him when it was ready.

She said, “Goulash! My favorite.”

He smiled and said, “Good thing we had groceries delivered yesterday. I bet there’s shortages for a while. I wonder how good PLAIR is at managing planets and their resources?”

She shrugged as she sat down and spooned some food in her mouth.

After she ate some more, she looked at him with a twinkle in her eye.

She said, “Managing resources is easy. It’s people who are the hard part.”

Solar Storm 7

Vicki Fenner looked down at the man bound on the gurney. His fingernails were removed, and his body was a bloody mess.

She waited patiently while the agent in charge of interrogations injected him with nanobots. He had been brought to the point of death, but the first aid would keep him alive so they could torture him some more, and hopefully wring more information out of him. And misery. The purpose of SSI interrogations was to inflict maximum misery, as well as extract information.

She waited patiently for the nanobots to go to work. Of course, he would need time for a full recovery but she had no intentions of allowing that. Fenner just wanted him to remain alive a while longer. She got a certain thrill out of hearing grown men beg for mercy.

Fenner looked attractive, although the white streak through her dark hair inevitably led to comparisons with Halloween characters. She knew her nickname was “The Wicked Witch,” or one of a dozen variants.

And that was fine. Her predecessor and mentor, Sidney Fleming, taught her that fear was a useful emotion to stoke in others. It helped control them. And lately, control seemed to be slipping from her grasp.

She could not quite understand what had happened recently, but if she pieced the information she had together, she would say that the Resistance agent known as Angel had reappeared after murdering Tetrarch Lopez. For a while there, she was gone, no doubt lying low somewhere. But lately, time and again SSI agents ended up dead or missing. Important military facilities were sabotaged, too. All intelligence pointed back to the one they called Angel.

Fenner had almost decided Angel did not exist as a single entity, but was instead an amalgamation of Resistance fighters all using the same name. It would be a brilliant ploy to throw SSI off track.

But she stayed the course, following textbook procedures at disrupting organized resistance. Those procedures called for the thorough . . . questioning . . . of all captured suspects.

Unfortunately, whoever set up the Resistance on Juventas did an excellent job. Cells were typically no larger than three people, and no one seemed to know much beyond their cells, making mass roundups difficult.

Today, however, they had someone much higher in the upper echelon in captivity. This was the agent known as Dolphin. And this man, Fenner knew, had likely seen Angel herself. And maybe those in the ELO Tribunal, the Resistance’s leadership council.

Dolphin had an irritating capacity for pain, though, and had so far revealed very little under torture.

They did not have to torture him, though. It was standard procedure, and the agents enjoyed it, so Fenner would never dissuade that. But, with the latest cranial scanning technology, they could go over his memories and glean whatever information he might retain. It just took time to go through the results.

Fenner opened the door to the holding room and walked across the hall. She went inside another room where images sped across a holoscreen taking up one wall. Esther Gavel, her second in command, glanced at her. She was a short, chubby woman wearing her hair in a bun. She stood by a technician in a white lab coat. They watched the images zipping by.

“Any luck?” Fenner said.

Gavel smiled. She said, “Yes, I think we might have our Angel.”

She turned and walked to another holoscreen and it flickered through a few images, then stopped with a woman’s face frozen in view.

“He calls this one ‘Angel,’ and it’s relatively fresh in his memory. They were very vague in their conversation in an abandoned subway line a couple weeks ago. But they discussed certain assignments that seemed to involved targeting SSI.”

Fenner stared at the attractive face and smiled.

She said, “Excellent. StarCen, please identify this person.”

Silence.

“StarCen? StarCen, please respond.”

“Uh, Director, you might want to see this.”

The technician waved his hand and the image of the attractive young woman disappeared. It was replaced by an overhead shot of the Administration Building. Or rather, what used to be the Administration Building. Smoke drifted up from the rubble.

The scene shifted again to other buildings and military installations around the planet, all blown away.

Fenner said, “What’s going on?”

Gavel said, “I think we’re under attack.”

The holo shifted to a camera inside the Yorkton spaceport. Passengers ran screaming while guard bots fought with . . .

“Are those space marines?” Fenner said. “Republic troops wear green, right?”

“I believe so, ma’am. Yes, look at that sergeant. She is definitely Republican.”

They watched as a short-haired female sergeant with a cigar in her mouth threw grenades at guard bots and yelled at marines behind her to follow.

“That explains why StarCen is not responding. She’s busy right now.”

Gavel said, “They probably took out her cores, too. It may be a while before we hear from StarCen again.”

Fenner froze in realization. Gavel was almost certainly right about that.

Fenner said, “That means we can’t teleport out of here. Or anywhere else, for that matter.”

She looked at Gavel and the technician. Both stared back at her, wide-eyed.

“Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do. First, kill every prisoner in this facility and dispose of the bodies in the incinerator. Then blow up all our equipment here. Can I trust you to oversee that, Gavel?”

Gavel nodded and said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“Second, everyone present needs to disperse and lie low. I will contact you all in the future once things settle down. Cooper’s fleet might be able to handle this mess, I don’t know.”

“No, ma’am. I don’t think so,” Gavel said. “They wouldn’t be landing marines unless they were confident they had control of the sky.”

“Okay. Okay, you’re probably right about that.”

Fenner bit off a few curse words. She had to hold it together. Her world seemed to be falling apart.

“Right. So, stay low. Whatever happens, do not get caught. Do not get . . . rounded up. I’m sure they’ll come after SSI once they solidify their control over the surface.”

The holo switched back to the image before, the one from Dolphin’s memory showing the attractive young lady. Fenner stared at it, committing the face to memory.

She frowned and said, “Just when we were closing in on her, too.”

Fenner left the room and searched for the exit. She had never walked out of the facility before, and did not know where the door was.

Behind her she heard a group agents going from room to room, shooting prisoners in the head.