The following morning Natasha checked out of her hotel and entered the Petra Roe embassy in Port Ryan where she introduced herself to the android receptionist at the front desk. Within minutes, a human met her and took her to an inner waiting room, where Ambassador Huntington himself came out to shake her hand.
Huntington did not ask her name or engage in other pleasantries, but led her immediately inside his office. The door swished shut behind them.
“I’m afraid travel to the League is rather difficult and circuitous at the moment,” he said. “You will have to take one of our ships to PR and catch another ride from there.”
Natasha nodded, expecting this. She said, “Last time I was on Petra Roe, I did not see any listings at the spaceport for Lute.”
He smiled and said, “That’s true. We don’t have many ships flying under the PR flag, but one happens to be in orbit at this moment. The Parasol is departing within the hour.”
“Very well. What do I need to do to board her?”
“We’ll send you off through the disembarkation zone at the Admin Building. Everything will be on the up and up. I trust you’re carrying no contraband of any sort? Not that LuteNet cares much, but you will be subject to a scan.”
“No. I have some equipment I’m carrying, but nothing illegal in the League or the Republic.”
“Good, good. We will call a skycab for you and send you right over. The ship will depart before lunch.”
Later, the scan picked up her pocket computer tucked away behind her belt and under her belly button, but it caused no alarm just as Huntington predicted. Inside the disembarkation chamber, she went through the purification routine, then LuteNet teleported her up to the Parasol.
One hour and 12 minutes later, Parasol ported away, her human pilot having fed the onboard computer with the appropriate plots for a path back to Petra Roe.
At the Free Acres Funeral Home in Port Ryan, a staffer finally made her way out to the coffin that had arrived yesterday. She checked the holosheet on the front and shrugged, then pushed its gurney into another room.
The mortician looked up, the last of a sandwich disappearing in his mouth.
He swallowed and said, “Who do we have here?”
“Latest arrival from Pekindale.”
“Pekindale? Why’d the send the body here? Relatives?”
“I’ve no idea, sir. Says here his name is Collin Todd, from Diego. Tourist maybe?”
The mortician’s brows furrowed. He said, “We just did an Agnes Todd the other day. I’m pretty sure her son was named Collin.”
He palmed the coffin and the lid open. The staffer stepped backward involuntarily, making a face. The mortician swiped through the holosheet, scanning the info.
He said, “Hm. Mountain accident. His . . . girlfriend? Fiancée? I believe I remember her at the mother’s funeral too. She signed off on the transfer back to here.”
“Well, where is she?” the staffer said. “You’d think she’d have shown up by now to make the arrangements.”
“Yes, that is odd. Lootie?”
LuteNet’s rich contralto came from the ceiling. She said, “Yes, Mr. Masters?”
“Where is Natasha Krizinski? Her fiancé’s body is here at the morgue and she has not stopped by to make arrangements for the funeral.”
“I am sorry, Mr. Masters. Ms. Krizinski has left the planet.”
“What? When did this happen?”
“Earlier this morning, about two hours ago. She is on the Parasol, heading to Petra Roe.”
Masters and his assistant stared at one another.
He said, “Lootie, I’ve got a body with no next of kin. Can you find any other family members in the League that we can contact? Maybe his place of work or something?”
“Will do, Mr. Masters. Mr. Todd was employed at Republican Shipworks. I will contact PLAIR and have her find the appropriate person.”
Masters palmed the coffin shut and reactivated the preservation mode. Instantly, the temperature inside cooled considerably.
“I’ll keep this one on ice until you tell me what to do, Lootie.”
Raleigh sat in a large leather office chair behind his desk in Mule Tower. Jillian sat in his lap, arms wrapped around his neck. The chair easily handled both of them. Raleigh was not getting much work done this afternoon, but he hardly seemed to mind. Having Jillian in his arms felt a lot more fun than work, anyway.
LuteNet’s rich contralto filled the air.
“Captain, Governor Zhang requests permission to visit about an urgent matter.”
“Oh? Okay, send him over.”
Jillian frowned, their intimate little moment ruined. She stood up and moved away from the chair.
A holographic circle appeared and LuteNet said, “Terrestrial teleportation incoming. Please stand clear.”
Leonardo Phong Zhang, Governor of Lute, popped into the open area in Raleigh’s large office. He stood tall and skinny, with dark curly hair. He had a worried look on his face.
“Captain Raleigh, Lootie tells me your ship has some additional capabilities that might be useful for a situation that has developed.”
“What kind of situation?”
Zhang touched his temple and a hologram shot out from his forehead. It featured a woman of showing Asian descent. Her head rotated slowly on the center of the table.
“This is Natasha Krizinski, or at least that was the last name she was going by. We believe she’s a League agent of some sort.”
The picture changed to a young man showing a mix of Pacific Islander descent.
“This was Collin Todd, a programmer for Republican Shipworks on Diego, and evidently Ms. Krizinski’s boyfriend. He died yesterday in an apparent mountain climbing accident at Pekindale. Lootie now thinks that Ms. Krizinski killed him after extracting information from him. PLAIR confirms that Todd was very knowledgeable about the latest ships and perhaps some secret weapons programs that are a very big deal.”
The image changed to show Natasha walking through security scans in the Lute disembarkation zone.
“Krizinski left earlier today aboard the Parasol, heading to PR. Lootie noticed a pocket computer here.”
The image froze, and a circle around her belt buckle appeared briefly.
“Both Lootie and PLAIR surmise that Republican Shipworks information is stored on that computer. They would like you and your people to get it back.”
“Lootie says your ship has been especially equipped to drop off and extract people in hard to reach places. She’s been rather vague about the whole thing, but she’s insistent that the Ultima Mule Company is the right one for the job.”
“Can’t the League intercept her when she reaches Petra Roe?”
“Maybe. But the AIs have run the odds and both of them want you there. Evidently the chances of recovering that computer go up considerably when you and your people are in the picture.”
“Okay,” Raleigh said, cracking a smile. “How much are they offering for us to do this?”
“Chris!” Jillian spoke for the first time, using a tone of admonishment.
Raleigh spread his hands and said, “I’m being asked to risk my ship and crew here. I’d like to know if it’s worth it.”
Zhang nodded, as if this was to be expected. He said, “PLAIR is offering you five million credits. She says she won’t negotiate higher, if you’re interested in asking for more. I agree with her that it is a reasonable sum.”
Raleigh and Jillian shared a glance.
Jillian said, “Is that a lot of money?”
Raleigh nodded. He said, “That’s a lotof money. The information in question must be significant.”
“It’ll probably affect the war in a major way. This fellow was a programmer and on the inside loop of everything they’re doing at the Diego shipyards these days.”
“Why’d they let him out of their sight?”
“His mother died. She lived here in Port Ryan.”
“Hm. Seems fishy.”
Zhang shrugged. He said, “We’re swarming with League spies, I suppose. Most of them work with Petra Roe as it is.”
“Alright,” Raleigh said. He took a deep breath and locked eyes with Jillian once more before looking back at the Governor.
He said, “Let me get a crew together and we’ll leave within the hour.”