Clarion’s Call 11

Jeter glanced up and down the corridor. He had not seen Jillian Thrall since coming aboard. Quiet inquiries had led to the discovery she was holed up in the Admiral’s cabin. 

Privately, this bit of information infuriated him. He had to share barracks with ensigns while she got to relax in privacy, that most precious and rare commodity aboard a Navy vessel. 

He had waited patiently now for three days. And during those three days he had seen neither hide nor hair of Jillian. Evidently, she was not planning on coming out of her luxurious accommodations. Or was she confined there? More discreet inquiries led him nowhere. The men he bunked with had no idea. All they knew was that the VIP had been rescued and was returning home. That was good enough for them.

Frustrated, Jeter made the decision to try and see Jillian privately. Technically he was probably not supposed to be in this corridor, which included the Captain’s cabin and a couple other exclusive doorways. Nonetheless, such matters of decorum had rarely dissuaded the infiltrator in the past. And they were not about to now, either. 

He tried his palm on the reader. It flashed red. This did not surprise him. He swiped a finger through the doorbell hologram and waited patiently. 

A minute passed and he swiped the doorbell icon again. Could she be out? If she was out, confronting her would be much easier . . . 

Lieutenant Steele walked around the corner and into the corridor. She tilted her head, surprised to see him standing at the door.

“What are you doing here, Mr. Jeter?” 

“I’m trying to see Ms. Thrall. I was hoping to inquire as to her well-being since I had not seen her at mess or anywhere else since helping her escape.” 

Lying came easy to Jeter, and he had this one prepared in advance just in case he was caught. He gave the Lieutenant a relaxed smile, and presented himself as if he had every right to be in this part of the ship. 

Steele’s irises contracted as her eyes squinted slightly. 

She said, “I will give Ms. Thrall your regards. She will not be seeing anybody. Move along please, this corridor is reserved for Naval officers only.” 

Her tone, while courteous, made it clear she would suffer no argument. 

He kept smiling and nodded in acquiescence. As he walked down the corridor, his smile disappeared. 

There had to be a way, he thought, some way to get close to that girl.

As he walked down the hall, deliberately maintaining a leisurely pace under the watchful eyes of the Lieutenant, the weight of Raquel’s electronic trap jostled inside his pocket.

-+-

Steele watched the spy walk down the corridor and turn the corner, returning to the hall reserved for junior officers’ quarters. 

Why would the infiltrator on the pirate ship want to see the Tetrarch’s daughter? She was flummoxed. It made no sense. Did Jillian Thrall want to see him? Was that it? Had she summoned him somehow? 

No, surely not. 

“StarCen?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Has Ms. Thrall tried to communicate with anybody, onboard this ship or otherwise?”

“No ma’am, she has not.” 

“Has she been out of this cabin since coming from sickbay?”

“No, ma’am.” 

“Has she had any contact with Agent Jeter?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Hm.”

She shrugged, then palmed the door and it opened. Today, she resolved to glean more information from the Tetrarch’s daughter. That, she knew, was easier said than done. The girl proved surprisingly useless in transmitting actionable intelligence.

Jillian glanced up from the pages of a book in her mind’s eye as Steele walked in. She frowned and dismissed the book with a wave, but did not get up from her seat. 

Jillian sat in a sumptuous leather recliner, one of four surrounding an elegant marble-topped coffee table. The Admiral’s quarters appeared even nicer than the Captain’s. Rank has its privileges after all, Steele thought. 

It still rankled her that this young civilian would warrant so much consideration, but the feelings had been tempered somewhat over time. Jillian had not left the cabin, and appeared bored and morose. Despite accessing some entertainment options, mostly romance novels from what Steele could tell, she had little to do. 

Steele sat in the recliner opposite Jillian. The Lieutenant could imagine rising through the ranks and becoming an Admiral herself one day. Then she could be the one entertaining guests in a large cabin like this, perhaps sipping snifters of brandy with other Admirals or inviting the Captain in to tell him how they were going to approach the next engagement with the enemy. Perhaps she might even—

“Who was ringing my doorbell?”

Steele blinked at the interruption to her daydream and refocused on the extraordinarily attractive civilian currently occupying her—the Admiral’s—quarters. 

“That was Mr. Jeter. He evidently wanted to share a few words with you.”

“Oh.” 

With one disdainful word, Jillian summarily dismissed the notion of seeing the man. 

Well, Steele thought, it would appear the desire to meet and discuss things was not mutual. She did not know if that was good or bad. She made a mental note to have StarCen keep a closer eye on Mr. Jeter. 

“Now, Jillian . . .”

Jillian glanced up and her eyes frosted. 

“. . . Ms. Thrall . . .”

Jillian’s eyes relaxed. They both knew she was not about to let anyone forget her family name. 

“. . . Today I would like to discuss more about your experiences on Lute.” 

Jillian had delayed the debriefing for a while, explaining her desire to simply rest the first day out of sickbay. Finally, on the second day, she agreed to begin. But her description of the events surrounding the taking of the Aquamarine proved completely useless. She had seen nothing of it, spending the entire voyage to that point in first class. 

This was true. Steele confirmed Jillian’s movements before and during the battle with StarCen, who maintained control of the ship until Captain Hernandez officially relinquished it. 

Jillian described boarding at Clarion, and gave excruciating details about Aquamarine’s food, the service, the entertainment, the other passengers . . . but nothing of military value as to the pirates and their tactics. 

Steele had smothered her irritation, dictating her summary for the report anyway. Her superiors could review the holorecord StarCen made of the conversation if they wanted to, but they would find it all colorless and bland. 

Perhaps today she could gain some valuable information . . . 

“Please begin, Ms. Thrall.”

Jillian leaned back in her chair and stared up at the ceiling for a moment to collect her thoughts. 

She said, “Well, my first experience of Lute was with the food. Aboard the Ultima Mule I was offered something called poshbird. I discovered this particular dish, native to Lute and one of their primary exports, is known as ‘chicken of the stars.’ I thought that was kind of funny. But it really does taste a lot like chicken.”

. . . Or maybe not. The girl’s fascination with food and clothing and other useless things was maddening. How many details about the current fashions on a backwater pirate planet was she going to provide for Naval Intelligence?

“Ms. Thrall, let’s skip ahead to your decision to join the pirates. Describe to me how that came about, please.” 

“Well, obviously I could not let myself be ransomed by those people.” 

“Why not?”

Steele leaned in closer. Now maybe they were finally getting somewhere. 

Jillian said, “Such a thing might change the outcome of the war. Or at least, cause some major trouble. I know that LuteNet would have demanded at least a million credits for my safe return. I don’t know what Daddy would have done. Maybe send in a fleet to attack Lute? And you know that the Republic would have responded, since Lute is a close ally. Besides, Lute is very heavily armed with warships, and who knows how many the Republic could have brought in on short notice? It would have been a huge battle. How many people would have died just trying to get me back? 

“No, the better thing was to exploit their rules and apply for membership. Especially in light of the fact that Daddy was shipping hundreds of illegally forced indents on Aquamarine.” 

Jillian raised her eyebrows and smiled softly at the Lieutenant. 

Steele’s face dropped. The spoiled brat was not quite as dumb as she thought.

Clarion’s Call 10

Aboard the Ultima Mule Raleigh stood on the bridge, hands on his hips. He and Granny watched on the holoscreen as Anthony Kim and Michael Pak directed their men working around the tandem drives. 

He opened a neural network connection and said, “Status, Mr. Kim?”

“I’m sorry, Captain. It’s taking longer than we expected. One more hour should do it, though. Then we’ll be able to port anywhere we want to. Just be aware we still can’t maneuver once we get there without porting again, since we don’t have any standard drives.” 

“Understood.” 

Granny said, “I don’t understand how we’re going to get her, Captain. We can’t just show up in orbit around Clarion and demand her back.”

Raleigh acknowledged her with a smile. 

He opened a neural network connection once more and said, “Mr. Pak, would you care to explain to Granny your bold idea?”

Pak turned from the other tandem drive and faced them through the holovision. 

“We think StarCen is way too busy on Clarion and elsewhere to keep an eye on every square centimeter in her solar systems. So, we proposed to Lootie that we show up on the edge of the system and park in orbit around one of their outermost objects. We should be able to evade detection for quite some time, if all goes well.”

“Okay,” Granny said. “Then what? You still can’t do anything that far out. That’s too far away to teleport down to the surface.” 

Pak smiled and tapped the elephant-size tandem drive he and his men were working on. 

“That’s where this puppy comes in. Normal teleportation distances are one AU or so. Lootie has stretched that out, but at the outer periphery of the Clarion system, it will still take two ports to get people on and off world.”

“People?” Granny said, shock edging the tone of her voice. “You’re going to port people in and out from the edge of their solar system?”

“That’s the idea, yes ma’am. First, Lootie is going to port this here spare tandem drive halfway in. Then she’s going to drop a sensor near our target on Clarion so she can see what she’s doing. Then she’ll port a volunteer, probably the Captain, to the surface of Clarion where he’ll retrieve his girlfr— uh, Ms. Thrall.” 

Granny turned to Raleigh and narrowed her eyes. 

She said, “Are you sure this is not suicide?”

Raleigh said, “The biggest problem at those distances are the accuracy of the proximity calculations. The first jump will be in the middle of space. I’ll be wearing a spacesuit. Lootie will pick a spot free of debris. It won’t matter if she’s off by a centimeter or two because it’ll be out in the middle of nowhere. 

“The second jump she’ll drop me off in the water. Or above the water, where I’ll fall safely into it. Show us the picture of the Thrall family home, Lootie.” 

The holoscreen changed to display an enormous four-story house sitting near the ocean. 

“By that time her sensor should be fully synced with local conditions. Jillian and I should be able to port back easily enough.”

“Well, shucks,” Granny said. “Why do you even need to go at all? Let’s just pull her out of there.”

Raleigh shook his head. He said, “She’s got to wear a spacesuit for the way back. It’ll take two jumps. I’m going to bring her one and make sure she gets in it safely.”

“And then you’re both porting back?”

He nodded and said, “Two jumps. One from her house, the other from the halfway point.” 

“You know how they say, ‘That sounds so crazy it just might work?’”

He smiled and nodded.

She said, “Well, this is just crazy. There is a reason AIs don’t make long distance jumps with people to planetary surfaces.” 

“It’ll work. Have a little faith, Granny.” 

She snorted. “And what happens if they spot us orbiting around that distant rock? It’s not out of the question, you know. One of their battleships could pop in and blow us to Kingdom Come.” 

“If that happens, Lootie takes us away before they open fire.” 

“You say ‘us.’ What if you’re not onboard when that happens?”

“You’ll just have to find a way to come back and get me, Granny. You’ll be in charge while I’m gone.”

Clarion’s Call 9

Jeter was assigned a bunk in the junior officers’ quarters, a cramped place with 15 slender mattresses on shelving that folded in the wall during the day for added space. Twelve were claimed, but ships this size usually kept a handful of extra sleeping berths just in case. 

He had no luggage, and few concerns. After willingly surrendering his firearm and a handful of remaining egg grenades, he insisted on keeping the trap holding Raquel Kirkland. When questioned by the ensign assigned to him, he said the device, about the size and shape of a deck of cards, was a classified intelligence-gathering contraption that he needed to personally deliver to his superiors. 

The ensign bought the story and let him keep it. 

Two days passed while Jeter acclimated himself to the ship’s routines. He would not be able to escape StarCen’s observations, but he could keep Raquel away from the crew. Finally, knowing that she had to eat and drink, he decided to ask StarCen some questions to see how troublesome revealing her presence would prove to be. 

He found a moment to himself in the junior officers’ quarters, pulled out the trap and set it on the mattress. 

“StarCen, what do you know about Raquel Kirkland?”

“Ms. Kirkland is an indentured servant involved in Gemini Exponentials’ series of teleportation experiments on Raton Five. After blending in with a group headed to Epsilon Prime from Clarion aboard the Aquamarine, she was captured by pirates aboard Ultima Mule. Most recently she was retrieved by you with the portable electronic radiation absorber used to contain her.” 

So, he thought, StarCen knows. 

“I want her bond, StarCen. I retrieved her from her previous bondholder who is now dead, and it rightfully belongs to me.” 

“Very well, Mr. Jeter. It has been so noted in the records. Since her previous bondholder is deceased and was killed in a wartime act of piracy, no exchange of money is necessary to transfer her bond.” 

Jeter smiled. He picked up the device and left, making his way to the ship’s mess. There he sneaked a couple sandwiches out along with a bottle of flavored water, then returned to the room. 

Making sure they were alone again, he pressed the button on the trap. A stream of pixels sprayed out, quickly forming into the attractive blonde. 

She glared at him. 

He handed her the food and drink. 

She threw back the bottle and chugged it down, then shoved a sandwich in her mouth, never taking her eyes off him. 

When she finished, she started on the second sandwich, eating slower this time. 

Between bites she said, “Where are we?”

“We’re onboard the Polaris, a League Navy ship.” 

Her eyes widened. 

“Where’s Roddy?”

“Roddy and everybody else aboard that tub are dead. Well, except for the Princess. Seems her daddy threw a fit and demanded the Navy bring her back home. So, we are headed for Clarion.”

“I see.” 

She looked around the room, chewing her food. She glanced up at the lights in the ceiling.

“Nah, ah-ah . . .”

Jeter waved the trap at her. 

Her shoulders slumped a little, but she never changed her expression. She quickly finished the second sandwich. 

She wiped the crumbs from her lips with her tongue, taking every last bit of nourishment she could. 

Raquel looked at him again and said, “What now?”

“I’m your bondholder now,” he said, reaching out and touching her cheek. 

He rubbed her skin with his thumb. 

“I know you were giving Roddy something. It’s time you gave that to your new owner.” 

Her cheek pixilated and his hand slipped through her face. 

“Now cut that out! Stay solid.” 

He reached for her again, this time for her middle, intending to pull her close. But his hand went right through her waist. 

“Stop it. You need to submit to your bondholder’s request. I’m your bondholder now, so submit!” 

He swung his hand up to slap her on the face, but he whiffed through her cheeks again. She gave him a disdainful stare and began pixilating, floating up to the lights above. 

He said, “Oh no you don’t!” 

Jeter grabbed the trap and pressed the button on top. A red ray came out. The silver pixels swarmed into the device, like dust sucked into a vacuum cleaner. 

He looked at the container, its edge pulsing red now, and said, “You better behave or I’ll let you starve in there.” 

He shoved it in his pocket with a frustrated snarl.

Clarion’s Call 8

Jillian slowly returned to consciousness. She found herself lying on her back atop a sickbay gurney, her head propped up at an angle and resting on a sterile pillow. 

She glanced around the room nervously, and tried to regain her bearings. A droid doc stood in the corner, inactive, his head angled down. He had a different face than the one on the Mule. This one had short gray hair and had been designed to appear older, like a friendly stereotypical family doctor one might have seen in ancient movies or television shows from Old Earth.  

To her right stood a woman, fit and trim, medium height and build. She wore a crisp blue Star League Navy uniform with long sleeves and starched trousers tucked into shiny black boots. Her brunette hair was pulled back in a bun and she wore a traditional two-pointed cap on her head. She stood at ease, hands behind her back, facing Jillian. 

Jillian disliked her at first sight. The crisp uniform, the casual demeanor of someone completely in their element, combined with the unspoken yet clearly evident implication that Jillian was merely a guest visiting her domain . . . all contributed to Jillian’s negative impression. 

The officer’s attitude, unspoken yet palpable, grated on Jillian’s nerves. She found it everywhere in the League, but even more so among military types. And these days, military types ran the show. 

When the woman spoke, it was with a mildly condescending tone, too.

“Good morning, Ms. Thrall. Welcome aboard the Star League Ship Polaris. My name is Lieutenant Noreen Epsilon-Steele. I will be conducting your debriefing and accompanying you the rest of the way home.” 

Jillian nodded, accepting this. There would be little reason to protest. She would have zero say as to where the ship went, even if she wished to continue to her original destination before the Aquamarine was captured. There would be no sense protesting a return to Clarion. 

Instead she said, “How long have I been out?”

“You have been asleep for eight hours. We injected you with nanobots to repair your eardrums, and gave you a full physical. We were pleased to discover you were evidently not mistreated during your time away.” 

Jillian raised an eyebrow. While hardly unexpected, the invasion of privacy that a medical examination would have involved felt . . . disturbing. A tendril of irritation curled inside her, threatening to ignite into full-blown anger. A complete physical examination meant they had inspected her for—

“I’m sure you’ll understand, Ms. Thrall, why Captain Fontenau authorized our droid doctor to administer a thorough examination, in light of your recent capture and time with the enemy.”

Jillian said nothing, but the look on her face expressed her displeasure quite well. Her multi-hued eyes reflected anger and righteous indignation. She looked very much like her father right now.

Steele’s back stiffened. She was not about to be intimidated by this girl. Besides, the procedure had been approved by the Captain and he would be the one suffering the consequences from the Tetrarch should this young . . . brat . . . complain to her father.

Steele took a deep breath and said, “Anyway, I wonder if you feel up to beginning the debriefing?” 

“Debriefing?”

“Yes. About your time in enemy territory. We are going to require a thorough debriefing from you. The knowledge you may have gained should prove useful to the Navy.” 

Jillian looked down at her clothes. Her t-shirt, pants and boots were gone. In their place she wore a hospital gown, an outfit that covered little and exposed a lot. It did not inspire confidence, especially in light of the examination she had undergone while she was out.

She said, “I want a bath, some decent clothes, and private quarters. I could also use a bite to eat. Once I have all those, we can talk.” 

Jillian smiled at Steele, but her eyes remained cold. She had plenty of experience with people like the Lieutenant. These individuals held nominal positions of authority, and they thought that meant something. Perhaps it did, in their little spheres of influence. While Jillian had no authority, especially in the Navy, the ties to her father lent her an impalpable yet undeniable prerogative everywhere in the League. 

And Jillian would not be intimidated by this woman, regardless of her rank or position on this ship. She was the Tetrarch’s daughter, and she was much more important in the grand scheme of things than Noreen Epsilon-Steele would ever be.

The lieutenant lowered her eyelids, silently acquiescing to the younger woman’s will. The requests were not outside the bounds of reason, after all.

She said, “I will bring in some clothes. When you are ready, I will escort you to your quarters. We have an Admiral’s cabin onboard you are welcome to use.” 

Jillian allowed herself a small smile of triumph. 

“Thank you. And how many days are we from Clarion?” 

“We are still eight days out. Your father has been notified and is expecting you.” 

Jillian nodded and sunk back on the gurney, crossing her arms and staring at the ceiling. Steele realized she had been wordlessly dismissed. 

Chagrined, she turned and left, intent on finding this spoiled child some clothes. The initial interview had not gone at all the way she expected, and she left the room before that thin little bitch could see the flustered look on her face. 

When the door swished shut behind Steele, Jillian said, “StarCen?”

The high-pitched voice of the League’s AI system said “Yes, Ms. Thrall?”

“What is the status of the crew aboard Ultima Mule?”

“Captain Christopher Raleigh and everyone else who were aboard Ultima Mule are dead according to LuteNet’s biorecords, with the exception of yourself, Raquel Kirkland, and Avery Jeter, all of whom are safely aboard this vessel.” 

Jillian’s face appeared blank. Her breathing remained stable, as did her heart rate. 

She closed her eyes and remained still for a moment.

Then, quietly, she said, “Good.”

Clarion’s Call 7

Raleigh stood by while the droid doc attended to Skylar. The robot wiped away blood from her face and applied a fast patch to the gash, then gave her a shot of nanobots. 

He stood and addressed the Captain. 

“She will be fine. Minor blood loss. Concussion. Burst eardrums. She’ll need 24 hours of bed rest then she should be back to normal.”

“Good. Max, take her to sickbay, please.” 

Maxwell nodded and gently guided Skylar toward the elevator. She hung onto his side and he kept her standing up straight with one arm under her shoulders. A pod waited and whisked them away when they entered. 

The droid doc approached the bodies nearest the grenade blast. He did not bend down. 

He said, “I am sorry, Captain. These two did not make it. Blunt force trauma. Explosive injuries. Death was instantaneous.” 

Raleigh nodded and said, “Let’s check the others.” 

They walked down the corridor, but the others were dead, too.

The droid said, “I am sorry. If they survived the initial explosion, the blaster fire afterward was terminal. No one here survived, Captain. Their injuries were too great.” 

Raleigh accepted the verdict without a word. They reached the elevator and the last body. Roddy sat up against the wall, his head slumped over with a blackened hole in his chest. 

“What about him?”

The droid doc said, “I am sorry, Captain. He has suffered too much blood loss and internal damage.” 

Raleigh took a deep breath and wiped his face. His hand trembled. 

“Captain, you are displaying physiological evidence of extreme emotional trauma. Would you like a sedative?”

A single tear trickled down Raleigh’s face. 

He said, “No, Doctor,” his voice breaking. “I don’t need a sedative. I just need a moment to myself, okay?”

The droid nodded. The elevator door opened and he stepped into the pod. 

Raleigh sniffed, still looking down at his pilot’s corpse. He said, “I don’t think she was worth it, Roddy. But don’t worry. I’ll take care of this. I’m going to make it right. For you. For Lee. For everybody.”

He turned away from Roddy’s body and joined the droid in the elevator. He composed himself, drying his eyes with an effort of will. The door swished shut and the pod whisked them away.

Back on the bridge, Granny found herself blubbering. She had been watching on the holovision feed and saw everything. 

“Them sonsabitches killed our flyboy and took our women, Lootie.” 

LuteNet did not respond, having judged Granny as one who should not be engaged in conversation unless Granny specifically requested it. Random comments did not necessitate a response.

Granny shifted from tears to anger in the silence. She wiped her face dry and pointed an angry finger up at the ceiling.

“You are going to help the Captain make this right, Lootie, or so help me I will find a way to get down to your core and blow it up again myself!”

Again, Lootie did not respond. She did inspect the entrance privileges for the basement of the Administration Building back in Port Ryan, to ensure Gertrude Wilcox was not on the list of personnel allowed on that level. To be on the safe side, she decided to add Granny’s name to individuals given extra scrutiny whenever they entered the building’s lobby, too. 

The elevator opened and Raleigh returned to the bridge. He touched the implant under his ear, activating the neural network. 

“Status updates, people. Kim and Pak, how we doing?” 

Anthony Kim responded. He said, “We think we can replace the Wu Drive, Captain. We brought along two tandem drives in anticipation of bringing those freighters home. One of them can serve as a spare as soon as we get it into position and hook it up.” 

“How long before we’re ready to go?”

“At least an hour. Maybe longer.” 

“I want it done in half an hour. Fast as you can, Kim. We’re not sticking around. How about the standard drives?”

“They’re more of a problem. We’ll need a complete overhaul back at the repair station orbiting Lute. Until then we are not going to be able to maneuver in space without teleporting.”

“Understood. How about life support, gravity, everything else?”

“Everything else seems to have come through just fine, Captain.” 

“Good.” 

The elevator opened again and Maxwell walked onto the bridge. 

Raleigh warmly shook his hand. Maxwell nodded, accepting the silent praise. 

Raleigh said, “Lootie, have you recorded the deaths of our crew in the biorecords?”

“Not yet, Captain. I will do so shortly.” 

“I want you to indicate that all of us are deceased.” 

LuteNet remained silent as she processed this request. 

After a few seconds she finally spoke and said, “That would be deceptive, Captain.” 

“I agree. But the enemy has already proven quite deceptive. In order to gain an edge in this conflict, we are going to need to adopt the enemy’s techniques and use them against her, just like she used tactics against you with the Wu Drive net.” 

LuteNet spent a few more seconds working through the Captain’s logic. 

“The records for Jillian Thrall, Avery Jeter, and Raquel Kirkland have already been transferred over to StarCen. I can indicate on my records for all others an official certificate of death at the time of the bomb blast.” 

“Do it. Remember to record the proper time for the ones who actually died earlier in the entrance corridor.” 

“Will do, Captain.” 

“Why the deception?” Granny said. “We’re going home for repairs, right?”

“We’re not going home, Granny. We’re going to go get Jillian back.”

Clarion’s Call 6

“Captain, I cannot teleport that bomb away.” 

Raleigh, Granny and Maxwell looked at each other. The blood drained from Granny’s face. Raleigh mentally sifted through a series of options. They watched on the holoscreen as the transport entered the other ship. Then the Polaris disappeared.

Before he could make a decision, Maxwell said, “I’ll take care of it.” 

He dashed for the elevator. Lootie sped a pod over to him. He jumped inside and it rushed down to crew quarters. 

Ding!

He jumped out and looked around. The bomb sat on the floor of the corridor nearby, the numbers on the timer floating in the air above it. 

Maxwell opened a neural connection to Raleigh.

He said, “I found it! There’s about two and a half minutes left!” 

He grabbed the bomb and ran back inside the elevator. 

“To the flight deck, Lootie!” 

Raleigh said, “What are you doing with it, Max?”

“I’m going to throw it overboard.” 

“Can we survive that, Lootie?”

“Provided Mr. Maxwell evacuates the explosive to within a minimum of three meters from our side shielding, yes. The ship should remain intact.”

Ding!

Maxwell ran out of the elevator carrying the bomb and promptly tripped on a bloody body in the hall. The bomb flew out of his hands and skittered across the floor. 

Maxwell groaned, stunned and facedown on the deck. 

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Captain.”

He crawled to his feet, shaking his head and regaining his balance. Raleigh and Granny watched him from the holovision on the bridge.  

Granny said, “Hurry up, Max! You’ve got less than a minute.” 

Maxwell jumped off the floor and scooped the bomb up. He rushed down the hall, jumping over the remaining bodies, and pivoted through the doorway onto the flight deck. In the distance he could see the red glow from the portal’s forcefield, and hazy stars blinking through it. 

He ran toward the portal, the muscles in his massive legs straining. With no drones on the tarmac, he closed the distance, carrying the bomb like an athlete rushing for an end zone on a wide-open playing field. 

The numbers ticked down, “00:18 . . . 00:17 . . .”

When he reached the portal he pulled his arm back and flung the bomb as hard as he could through the entrance. It sailed through the air, popping through the barrier and flying out into space. 

“00:12 . . . 00:11 . . .”

Maxwell’s eyes grew big as a sudden realization hit him. The forcefield was designed to keep air inside and let everything else pass through. If the bomb could be thrown out through the porous barrier, its blast could come back in. 

He turned and ran back in the other direction, putting as much distance between himself and the portal as he could.

The bomb floated through space, tumbling in slow motion.

“00:06 . . . 00:05 . . .”

Maxwell reached the door to the corridor and rushed inside, seeking the safety of the metal barricades. 

The bomb slowly drifted away from the ship, tumbling as it went. The Mule glowed orange on the port side as Lootie strengthened her defenses, sucking power away from the remaining shields to concentrate maximum protection in preparation for the blast. 

“00:03 . . . 00:02 . . . 00:01 . . . 00:00”

A sudden burst of white light ripped through the blackness of space. 

KWABOOM!

The Mule shuddered as the force of the impact slammed against her port side. A few more loose panels in the rear floated free.

Maxwell picked himself up from the floor where he had covered his head, expecting the worse. He dusted himself off and chuckled in relief. 

Back on the bridge, Raleigh said, “What’s our status, Lootie? How’re we doing?”

“The Ultima Mule is intact, Captain. All sensors indicate structural integrity remains adequate. Mr. Maxwell succeeded, quite admirably.” 

“Good job, Max!”

Maxwell grinned in delight. He said, “I coulda played for the big leagues! I still got it, too. Consistent 90 mile an hour fastball! Now granted, that thing was bigger than a baseball, but still . . .” 

He noticed the bodies in the corridor again, and all the blood splattered about from grenade and blaster fire. He frowned, his good humor and the victory of the moment forgotten. 

Behind him he heard a moan. He turned and found Skylar trying to open her eyes. Her forehead had split open from the impact with the wall, and blood flowed out of the gash. 

She said, “What happened?”

Maxwell said, “Captain, send the droid doc down here. Skylar’s alive!”

Clarion’s Call 5

Jeter pressed his palm to the elevator’s panel. It flashed red.

He smiled at the Marines standing behind him and said, “Emergency override. Crewmember Jeter, Avery.” 

The elevator dinged and the panel turned green. 

He said, “Gotta love those safety measures. Any crew can use the elevators in an emergency, no matter what the AI thinks.”

The boarding party entered the capsule and it shot away.

The doors opened on the quarters and mess hall deck. Jeter stuck his head out carefully and looked both ways down the corridor. 

Somebody stepped out of a doorway and said, “Oh hey, Jeter. I thought—”

Thoop! 

Jeter shot the man in the chest. 

He turned to smile at the men in the elevator and said, “Coast is clear.” 

They filed out, guns ready. Jeter led them down to the Captain’s quarters. He placed his palm on the reader and it flashed red. 

“Yeah, I don’t think the override is going to let me get in here.” 

The Sergeant looked at one of the men and made a motion with his head. 

“Get on it, Williams.”

The man unslung a backpack and quickly retrieved small explosive modules with sticky edges. He placed six of them on the door, then pulled back out of the way. The others spread out to either side. Williams touched the implant under his ear with one hand and raised his other in the air, finger pointed up. 

The Sergeant nodded at him, and he concentrated on the trigger over the neural net. He brought his hand down, finger pointing at the door.

KABLOOSH!

The door blew open. Williams rushed in first, gun raised.

Thoop! Thoop!

“Arg!” 

He went down to the floor, his left shoulder charred and bloody. The other Marines pulled back to either side of the door. One of them grabbed Williams by the feet and pulled him clear while energy bolts peppered the floor.

Thoop! Thoopah! 

The Sergeant looked across the damaged doorway at Jeter, their backs to the wall. 

He said, “She’s armed?”

Jeter said, “Oh, yeah. The pirates thought it would be cute to teach her how to shoot. Don’t worry, I got this.” 

Jeter reached into a pocket and pulled out an egg grenade. This one was white with a red stripe around the middle. 

He mouthed the words “Flash-bang,” at the Sergeant. 

The Sergeant nodded that he understood, turned away and covered his ears. The other men followed his lead. 

Jeter pressed the activation button and counted off three seconds. Then he lobbed the grenade into the room and quickly covered his own ears.

Thoop! Thoo— BLAM!

The Marines stormed through the smoke and rushed inside. Lying on the floor near her pistol, unconscious, blood trickled from Jillian’s ears. 

The Sergeant turned back to the hallway and said, “Williams, you mobile?”

Williams stood, holding his injured shoulder carefully. He said, “Yeah, Sarge. Nothing the doc can’t fix up.” 

“Good. You two, grab her and let’s go.” 

One of the men he pointed to was bigger than the other. The big one said, “I got her,” and put Jillian in a fireman’s carry over his shoulder. 

The group left the room and headed back toward the elevator. Jeter palmed the controls and made a system override again. 

While they waited for the capsule, half their guns trained nervously on the elevator door, the other half back down the corridor toward the mess hall, the Sergeant motioned to Williams again.

He said, “Let’s deliver the package right here.” 

Williams nodded and painfully took off his backpack again. This time he retrieved a considerably larger explosive device, about the size of a bowling ball, complete with a timer. 

The Sergeant said, “Set it for five minutes.” 

The elevator dinged as a pod arrived. The doors opened and everybody went inside except for Williams. He made some final adjustments, and holographic numbers appeared above the bomb. They read, “5:00 . . . 4:59 . . . 4:58 . . .”

The Sergeant nodded and said, “Let’s go.” 

Williams scrambled inside. The doors shut and the pod whisked them to the flight deck. 

Jeter said, “What’s that about? Why don’t you just shoot them apart from the Polaris?”

“Captain’s orders. Even without any shields in the rear, it would take some doing. He doesn’t want to waste any more time on them than necessary. We’ve got to get the Tetrarch’s daughter back to Clarion, ASAP. We’ve already been waiting too long for you guys to show up. The bomb will do the job for us from the inside, easy-peasy.” 

The door dinged and opened to the flight deck corridor. Everyone streamed out, stepping over bodies on the floor, and rushed to the transport. They jumped onboard and the door closed. The transport rose two meters, then raced to the portal. It slipped through the portal, turned and headed back to the Polaris.

The numbers above the bomb read, “4:01 . . . 4:00 . . . 3:59 . . .”

Clarion’s Call 4

The Mule crept closer to the warship, her forward shields absorbing blows from the giant guns on the Eagle-class vessel. 

Behind the Mule, three dozen enemy fighter drones popped into existence. They swarmed toward the pirate ship, concentrating fire on her afterburners. 

“We are being hit from behind, Captain. I cannot hold the aft shields.” 

Mule’s orange forcefield flickered out in the rear from the combined blasts, and the drones’ cannons struck her engine cones. Explosions rocked the ship as chunks from the stern flew off into space. 

“We’re stranded, Captain. Forward momentum has stalled. We have no more propulsion power.”

“Fire everything you’ve got on that ship, Lootie. We can still take out her front shield!” 

Thup! Thup! Thup!

Three more red bolts from Mule slammed into the warship’s bow. She popped out of sight. 

“Where’d she go?”

The holoscreen shifted. It showed the warship now behind Mule, along with the fighter drones. 

“She is behind us, Captain. I cannot maneuver the large front guns to get a clear shot at her. Repulsion cannons can keep the fighters busy, but we are otherwise at her mercy.” 

“They’ve got a shot right up our butts,” Granny said, her voice full of anger.

Indeed, the warship’s forward guns pointed ominously at their rear, where the damaged drive cones barely covered their exposed hull. 

LuteNet said, “Captain, I calculate it would take several minutes to completely destroy us. It would involve multiple sustained hits.” 

Raleigh looked at Roddy, Maxwell, and Granny. Everyone held their breath, waiting for those giant guns to fire. The huge tubes aimed right toward them, threatening . . . threatening . . . yet they remained silent. 

“What are they waiting for?” Roddy said.

As if in response, Lootie said, “Captain, StarCen demands you surrender to the SLS Polaris. What is your response?”

“Ignore the request. What are my options?”

“You are helpless. You are without propulsion or teleportation. I recommend surrender.” 

“How about anti-boarding measures?”

“Those remain active. They will have to fly over a boarding party if you refuse to surrender. They have ample Marines onboard if you successfully thwart the first wave.” 

“Yeah, but we’ve got Skylar. Why haven’t they taken us out yet? We are completely at their mercy. Our side just destroyed one of their ships in a Samson maneuver. Why are they holding back?”

“It is possible they are aware the Tetrarch’s daughter is onboard, and do not wish to harm her.” 

“How could they have figured that out?” Granny said. “Nobody is supposed to know she’s with us.” 

“Spies,” Raleigh said. “Port Ryan is filled with spies. Somehow they got word out to the League that she’d be on this ship. It’s the only thing that makes sense. I wonder if they know about Raquel, too?”  

He glanced meaningfully at Roddy.

Roddy said, “I dunno. But if I can’t fly this thing, I want to support the repelling party.” 

Raleigh nodded in assent, and the pilot headed for the elevator. The doors opened and a pod whisked him away.

LuteNet said, “Captain, a transport is leaving Polaris now. I am not going to be able to shoot them down, nor prevent the transport from landing on our flight deck. The drones just took out the last of our small cannons.” 

Raleigh touched the implant under his ear and shifted over to the ship’s PA system. 

“Everybody listen up, this is Captain Raleigh. We’re crippled, and they’re behind us where our big guns can’t reach them. They’re sending over a boarding party as I speak. We suspect they’re after Jillian Thrall. 

“Jillian, please retire to my quarters and lock the door. Everyone else, prepare to repel the boarders. Let’s give them a welcome party they won’t forget. Skylar, go down and help them feel welcome.” 

-+-

Lights flashed red as the elevator door to the flight deck corridor opened. Half a dozen crewmembers ran out and scrambled into position behind hallway barricades, protrusions jutting from the walls on either side designed for this very purpose. They aimed rifles at the entrance to the tarmac, providing a solid line of defense that would prove difficult to pass. 

The Polaris’s transport flew through the red hexagonal opening on Mule’s port side and onto the landing deck. 

LuteNet’s voice echoed throughout the Mule. She said, “Intruder alert. An enemy transport is inside the ship.” 

Jeter remained at the rear of the repelling party. The short, thick-necked man had a well-deserved reputation to be handy in a fight. No one was surprised to see him joining their first line of defense. 

The elevator opened and Roddy stepped out. He nodded at everybody before palming the armory panel. It opened and he selected a gun, then took up position behind the last barricade opposite Jeter.

The elevator opened again and Skylar came out. She grabbed a pistol and walked confidently down the center of the corridor past the men behind the barricades, and stood facing the doorway to the flight deck.

“Let them come through,” she said, “and I’ll take care of it.” 

The men smiled with relief, their thoughts evident by their expressions. Skylar served as their own angel of death, and with her pulling for them they just might make it through this alive. 

Outside on the landing deck they heard the rails of the enemy transport thunk down on metal. 

Skylar lifted her pistol and flickered once. 

Jeter pulled out an egg grenade and tossed it underhand down the corridor in one smooth motion before she disappeared. 

KABLOOM!

Skylar flew forward in the blast, hitting the wall face-first. She crumpled to the floor. The two men nearest her were blown apart, their bodies mauled in the explosion. The two in the middle and the two in back survived, the metal barricades providing some protection from the grenade’s blast, but their eardrums were blown and they fell to the floor stunned, covering their heads. 

Jeter stepped out from behind his barricade and shot Roddy in the chest. Then he quickly walked down the hall shooting the other survivors in the head. 

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

The doorway to the flight deck blew open before he got there, and League Marines streamed through with guns out front. They stopped, confused at all the bodies in the corridor. 

Jeter dropped his gun and raised his hands. They pointed their weapons at him and advanced quickly down the hall. 

A Sergeant said, “On your knees!” 

“I’m the infiltrator, you idiot. Agent Avery Jeter. StarCen will confirm.” 

The man listened to StarCen’s voice over his neural connection and nodded. He aimed his gun at the floor and his men followed suit. 

The Sergeant said, “Is Jillian Thrall onboard?”

“Yes.”

“Is she unharmed?”

“Yes.” 

“Take us to her.” 

“Follow me, boys.” 

He turned and headed toward the elevator.

When he came to Roddy’s body he said, “Just a minute, fellas. This one has something I need to retrieve.” 

He reached down and pulled Raquel’s electronic trap out of the pilot’s pocket.

“Thanks, Roddy. Saves me from having to hunt you down.”

Clarion’s Call 3

Another bolt slammed into the Mule. And another. The ship shuddered with the impact, her shields flashing orange while absorbing the energy.

Raleigh said, “Get us outta here, Lootie!”

“I cannot do that, Captain. StarCen’s warships have triggered a Wu Drive disabling screen, much like we used earlier on the Aquamarine. They ported the grid into place immediately upon arrival. The Wu Drives aboard the Ultima Mule and the Slender Sylph are now inoperable.” 

The emotion-free tone of her voice made it seem worse to Raleigh, somehow. She spoke as if it were so matter of fact.

“Full attack, then. Hit ’em with everything we got! Sync the Sylph to fire at the same spot on one of them. Can you bring back any fighter drones?” 

“I am sorry, Captain. Without the Wu Drives, I cannot perform any teleportation in this sector.”

“Okay. Pick one of those ships and coordinate our fire with the Sylph.” 

“Affirmative, Captain. I am already on it.” 

LuteNet’s inflection-free tone at least did not incite panic, any more than the panic that already existed. At least that was a small comfort, Raleigh thought. 

Ultima Mule’s forward guns pivoted and shot at the vessel to her right. The Hawk-class ship’s forward guns were a set of giant, four-meter long tubes connected to her power core. Huge bolts of raw energy spewed out of them, red flashes flickering from the front of Mule’s hull with each shot. Slender Sylph’s guns fired at the same spot on the warship. Red energy slammed into the destroyer’s front shields from two directions at once. 

But the two Eagle-class ships controlled by StarCen had the same idea. They concentrated their much larger cannons on the Sylph. Green bolt after green bolt slammed into the pirate ship, her shields flashing orange as she absorbed the rapid-fire energy blasts. 

“They can’t survive that for long,” Maxwell said. 

The holoscreen showed the red and green bolts crossing one another, opposite ships taking combined two-on-one blows.

“Do something, Lootie!” 

“I am on it, Captain. Our ships have better front shields. We are almost through their forward defenses.” 

Indeed, the front forcefield on the warship closest to Sylph flickered suddenly. Then the orange barrier disappeared altogether. The red bolts from Mule and Sylph slammed home, hitting metal now. Bits and pieces flew out into space. But the warship was far more heavily armored than the Aquamarine. It had been designed to withstand multiple direct hits even without shields. 

She remained in place, and continued her cannons’ horrific blitz against the Sylph along with the other ship. 

The Sylph’s shields failed next, finally succumbing to the onslaught. The bolts quickly blew apart her forward cannons. She stopped shooting and green explosions hit home. Flotsam sprayed out from the hits, littering the space around her. 

Maxwell said, “She isn’t going to last much longer!”

The Slender Sylph’s standard drives lit up from the aft. She moved forward, slowly at first, heading toward the shieldless warship nearest her, still absorbing hits to her bow as green bolt after green bolt slammed home.

“What’s going on? Lootie! What are you doing?”

In response, Po’s voice came over Raleigh’s neural net. 

“Hey, Chris, we got this one! They can’t move while they’re shooting and Lootie is going to ram us into her. You get the other one, okay buddy?”

“That’s suicide, Lee! Stop!”

The Slender Sylph’s afterburners flared brighter and she picked up speed. Bolts from the warships pummeled deeper into her hull, blasting wide-open holes through her skin. Her bridge ripped off, shredded to pieces by the blasts. But her engines kept going, bringing her closer and closer to the warship.

WHUMPH!

Everyone threw up arms, shielding their eyes from the light as both ships exploded in a giant fireball. The Mule shuddered as the shockwave hit. 

“Lee!” 

Chunks flew out in a huge radius, slinging off into the black night. The holoscreen was littered with pieces, parts, and bodies.

“Lootie, any sign of survivors?”

“No, Captain.” 

Raleigh deflated. He watched in silence as parts of the Sylph and the warship floated away in all directions. 

He took a deep breath, held it a moment, then let it out slowly.

The big guns of the other warship turned and aimed at the Mule. 

Thup! Thup! Thup! Thup!

Green energy bolts slammed into their shields. The screen flashed orange as bolt after bolt blasted in. 

Raleigh made a decision. 

“They’re not going to be able to take us from the front. Prepare for the same maneuver against this ship. Take them out!”

Clarion’s Call 2

Jillian stopped at the Captain’s quarters carrying a tray with two plates of covered food. She pressed the doorbell icon on the panel and waited patiently. The door swished opened and Christopher Raleigh stood smiling at her.

He stood six foot three, 190 centimeters, with dirty blond hair and bright blue eyes. Trim and fit and handsome, her heart melted at his smile and his obvious pleasure in seeing her.

“Dinner is served,” she said, presenting the tray for his inspection. He stepped out of the way and let her enter his quarters. The door slid shut behind her.

“You’ve never waited tables or served anyone in your life, have you?”

“No. Is it obvious? Am I doing something wrong?”

He chuckled and said, “You’re doing fine. I doubt it was something you were expecting to do when you signed on, though.” 

Jillian sat the tray down at the table and put one plate out for him before taking the other for herself.

She said, “I’m doing lots of things I’ve never done before. Learning how to fight. Shooting a gun. Spying on people while they’re making out . . .”

Jillian told him the story of how she and Skylar observed Roddy and Raquel getting it on at the flight deck.

When she finished, Raleigh shrugged. He said, “As much pain as Roddy has gone through on account of her, and as much money as he’s lost, I can’t say I blame him for wanting a little affection in return. Even if the collar might be enhancing her feelings at the moment.” 

“Yeah that’s just it,” Jillian said between bites. “It’s not the fact he’s taking advantage of an indent. I know there are free will protections in place for that. It’s the fact that she has treated him so horribly in the past. I can’t imagine he’d still be interested in her.” 

He shrugged again. “Some guys are like that. Like a dog that keeps coming back to the owner who whipped it.” 

She frowned at him. “That’s a bad analogy.” 

“Is it an analogy or a metaphor?”

“What’s the difference?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Anyway, how can he get away with that, and we can’t kiss or anything?” 

He shrugged again and said, “I’m the Captain. He’s crew. She’s technically his property, or at least her bond is. If she is willing, they can do whatever they want during his free time.”

“But did Lootie see this? Does she allow that sort of thing to happen onboard?”

“As long as nobody was harmed, I don’t think Lootie cares. Lootie, did you witness the interaction on the flight deck between Roddy and his indent?”

LuteNet’s rich contralto voice came out of the air above the table. 

She said, “I did indeed, Captain. The indent was not coerced or harmed in any way and her consent alarm was not triggered. Such actions fell within the parameters of acceptable onboard activity.”

“Well, there you go,” Raleigh said. “Everything was on the up and up. Let’s talk about something else.” 

-+-

The days stretched on, and the voyage of the Ultima Mule and the Slender Sylph to Pegasi Station quickly became one of Jillian Thrall’s favorite times in her life so far. 

Mornings were spent learning self-defense techniques with Granny. Jillian and Skylar progressed to the point where they could, at least occasionally, flip the older woman for a change. Granny moved on to close quarters combat, teaching them how to disarm opponents and make use of nearby objects as makeshift weapons. As they closed in on Pegasi, Granny told them their training would never really stop. But, after this crash course she felt they were at least better prepared than they had been.  

Afternoons were spent competing with Skylar at the makeshift shooting range on the flight deck. The girls observed Roddy and Raquel two more times. On his third visit, Jillian and Skylar were still shooting and made more than enough noise to announce their presence before the couple had a chance to start. Roddy did not show up again. Presumably he found a better place for Raquel to eat her lunch.

Jillian ate suppers in the Captain’s quarters with Chris. After eating they would spend an hour or so in deep conversation. The forced platonic nature of this relationship, with the ship’s strictures against fraternization, meant that Jillian found herself focusing on Raleigh’s intellect and personality. 

She was drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He had seen so much of the galaxy, and he had done so much. His life of adventure she found amazing, and he gladly shared stories of space battles and other conflicts in which he had a part. 

As the ship’s map icon edged closer to Pegasi, Jillian felt for the first time she really knew a man. She experienced an attraction that increased over time, even with the increased familiarity. In the novels she had read and the movies she had watched, all of which combined to comprise her sum knowledge on the topic of love, she had been taught that familiarity breeds contempt. People grow tired of one another and look for variety. But she did not think she would ever grow tired of Chris. At least, not anytime soon. Maybe when they were much older and had spent years together . . . but even then, she thought, what is the point of love if not to find someone you wanted to grow old with? No, Chris felt like the kind of man she could fall even more in love with over time.

As far as the rest of the crew was concerned, the Captain was known as a famous bachelor and few felt he would ever truly settle down. Granny started a pool behind the lovers’ backs. Crewmembers could bet on time remaining before their first kiss, their first major fight, and their wedding date. Jeter asked why he could not bet on the date they broke up. Granny berated him for being a pessimist. 

At long last, the Ultima Mule and the Slender Sylph came to within an hour of Pegasi. Both ships stopped for final preparations. Lee Po hailed Raleigh over the neural net. 

He said, “We’ll stop one sec out and have Lootie port over the drones. We’ll hold the Sylph and the Mule back out of harm’s way until the fighting has stopped.” 

“Sounds good to me,” Raleigh said.

The two ships resumed their journey, the seconds counting down as they made jump after jump with each tick of the clock. 

First Officer Elijah Maxwell opened the armory panels and made sure each crewmember had a gun. Then everybody went to their duty stations with tension filling the air.

At last they stopped teleporting, one astronomical unit away from Pegasi Station. 

LuteNet spoke, her voice filling both ships. 

“I am sending over the first wave of fighters. I will pipe in a holofeed to observation monitors on both ships.” 

Fifty of the Sylph’s fighters popped out of existence, followed by another group. Within seconds they were all gone. Fifty from Ultima Mule’s flight deck followed, then another batch. 

The holoscreen on Mule’s bridge showed what the drones could see. Roddy sat in the pilot’s seat. Raleigh, Granny, and Maxwell stood behind him. The front of the bridge seemed to turn transparent, showing the drone feed from space, one AU away. 

Before them Pegasi Station floated, a small artificial moon glinting back reflected light. The Excelsior orbited nearby. But the two merchants they were expecting were nowhere to be seen. 

Elijah Maxwell spoke up, his voice deeply troubled within his giant six foot six, 198 centimeter frame. 

“Uh, Captain . . . where did those two come from?”

In place of the freighters, two more Eagle-class destroyers orbited near Excelsior. All three ships spewed out their own fighters, hundreds upon hundreds of them. They all streamed toward the pirates’ drones, filling the screen with a huge cloud of incoming bogies. 

“Aw, man,” Roddy said. “There’s goes all of our drones.”

“Is there any way you can get some of them back here, Lootie?”

“I will try, Captain.” 

Granny said, “Uh oh.” 

She pointed to the screen. The two destroyers near Excelsior disappeared. 

The ship’s klaxon rang out and the lights flashed red. 

Wa-Wahhh! Wa-Wahhh! Wa-Wahhh!

LuteNet said, “Enemy ships nearby. Switching to proximity feed.” 

The holoscreen changed to show the exterior of the Mule. The Sylph floated nearby. The two new warships from Pegasi faced them. 

Blinding white flashed across the screen, and green bolts of energy shot out from the warships. 

The first one hit the shields with a solid Thump! reverberating throughout the Mule.