The holographic circle appeared in the courtyard outside Thrall Manor, and Julian Thrall popped into existence.
He walked in silence to the house, head bent down and eyes unfocused.
He passed the new and improved guardbots the Navy had sent. These recent models from Thespar Industries had armored heads. They were square, with sloping sides that connected to the shoulders. They had no neck, and personally Thrall thought they looked like monstrosities. But Thespar engineers had assured him this new model could not be taken down by small explosions to the head like the previous ones.
Thrall ignored the two at either side of the door to the gym, which swished open for him as he approached.
Inside, all had been cleaned and repaired from the recent attacks on the house. It still irritated him that SSI had managed to infiltrate his home so easily and attack his daughter. And, Jillian had somehow escaped.
At first, he thought she had been captured by SSI. But, with the help of StarCen he finally figured out that Jillian had teleported away. She had teleported without the assistance of StarCen.
This was still something of a mystery to the Tetrarch. He struggled to fill in the gaps of his knowledge. Evidently, an enemy ship had sneaked into their solar system and taken her. That was the only feasible explanation for what happened.
Then word from the Petra Roe ambassador on Lute came back to him. Jillian was seen on that world again. Even more intriguing, the ambassador thought a woman who looked like his other daughter was present as well. Julia had been off his grid for over a year.
He still did not know how the pirates pulled off the stunt, but he knew what to do from the lesson learned by it. First, he had taken steps to once again retrieve Jillian, now that he knew where she was. The Navy and SSI retrieved her last time, it was true. But both organizations were stretched thin at the moment, and he certainly did not trust SSI. So he called in one more favor, this time with a different organization . . .
The other measure involved security. He directed the Navy to increase diligence in all League solar systems, and keep an eye out for enemy ships lurking at the periphery.
Sure enough, another pirate ship . . . the same one? . . . was caught hiding out in the Juventas system. This time they were not so lucky, and were quickly chased off.
But Thrall was not so sure their mission had been a failure. SSI Juventas had suffered some serious setbacks lately. He had difficulties getting much information from them. But Thrall and Edgar Munk went back many years, and maintained a cordial professional relationship. Munk now headed up SSI on Epsilon, and nominally, at least, was head of the entire organization. A personal call to Munk had led to the news that SSI Juventas had truly suffered. Terrorists had taken out their director. Thrall knew something about that since one of his Vice Admirals was killed in the same bombing.
But Munk hinted at something more. Some other lapses occurred that Munk was more vague about. One of his best field agents had disappeared while trying to bring in some valuable intelligence. Munk did not know what the data pertained to, but if he heard anything that would help the Navy, he assured Thrall he would mention it.
Thrall paused at the stairs and wondered if the agent had discovered something about the Republican’s new Condor-class ship and its devastating weapon.
If so, it truly was a pity they did not have that information before Operation Golden Return commenced. The Republicans had been waiting for them. Waiting for them to show up in force so they could wipe them out.
Already, Thespar engineers were working to replicate the weapon. Nobody had ever thought of teleporting the sun before and harnessing its energy as a weapon. Soon, they assured him, soon the League would have a similar weapon. In the meantime, StarCen would teleport away any ship in sign of danger. She had taken measurements when the Excelsior showed up late at Gotha Mu, and the AI knew how fast to respond now.
Speaking of Excelsior, StarCen had informed him the surviving members of her crew were safe on Halcyon. They could wait. As far as Thrall was concerned, they could stay there until the war was over. He put Excelsior out of his mind.
Admiral Cooper was not happy with that decision. Excelsior was part of the Sixth Fleet after all, and he felt like Benson and her people were being abandoned. But Thrall reminded him that not only was there a Republican squadron nearby at Seychar, they had a ship there that outclassed anything the League had in the sky at the moment. No, Benson and her people could wait.
He sighed. Cooper had not balked against the orders, but Thrall saw the look on his hologram’s face. Thrall had no doubt the stubborn Admiral would have willingly sent two dozen ships just to recover the few survivors, never mind all would likely get blown out of the sky just like the expanded Fifth Fleet had.
At the top of the stairs he turned toward his room down the recently repaired hallway, and Raquel poked her head out the door.
She said, “There you are! I thought I heard something.”
He smiled, all the troubles of managing a war temporarily forgotten at the sight of her beautiful face and blonde hair.
She said, “Hard day? Let me give you a back rub.”
He nodded and walked in, sitting down in a leather wingback. She moved behind the chair and started rubbing his shoulders.
“What’s the matter, sweetie? What’s troubling you so much?”
He sighed again and said, “We’re in a bad spot. We’ve lost over 90 ships to this new weapon the Republicans have. If they choose to attack with it—and they will, I’m certain of it—we can’t fight back. Not yet.”
“This is the nuclear torpedo substitute you were talking about? Sun teleportation, wasn’t it?”
He nodded, grateful for her kneading fingers rubbing out the tension in his neck and upper back.
“StarCen can port our people away in time, right?” she said. “Now that we know what they’ve got, we can take steps to prevent it from destroying anything else.”
“It’s not that simple. They can still destroy things before StarCen reacts. Then whatever she ports away is no longer there to defend locations. They can take over entire planets easily, at least until Donald Sanford’s company can come up with a counter-weapon.”
“The pirates got him and his wife recently, didn’t they?”
Thrall nodded. “They were on the Coral Reef. Thespar paid an outrageous ransom to get them back.”
“I’m surprised PLAIR let them go.”
“The Sanfords run the company but they know very little about its inner workings, especially classified projects. That was a deliberate choice they made at the start of the war, and a smart one. So, with no intelligence, they were useless to hold onto. The pirates took the money instead.”
“I see. Well, in their case it’s good to be useless then.”
She finished rubbing his back, walked around the chair and sat down in his lap, throwing her arms around his neck.
“You’ve got to look on the bright side of things, sweetie. The Republicans haven’t attacked. Maybe we’re weaker and maybe we can’t fight off their fancy new weapon just yet, but they have not taken advantage of the situation. Maybe their big old ship with its big old gun was only good for one round right now.”
She kissed him then, to help take his mind off his troubles.
When she finished he looked into her beautiful blue eyes and for a moment all seemed well in his world.
Then his own eyes clouded over with worries and doubts again as reality quickly snatched the moment away.
He said, “There is no bright side in war.”