“It was two Hawk-class warships! Do you not understand that, Mr. Sergio?”
“I understand you can teleport away from any threat. That’s just a fact. Everyone knows you simply teleport away when faced with warships!”
“We did that, you idiot! Several times! Somehow they were able to follow us every time!”
The two combatants broke off as Maxwell walked onto the bridge, followed by Skylar, Dillon, and two other pirates. All five were armed, carrying blasters but pointing them down at the floor at the moment.
Maxwell said, “Did we interrupt something? Well, as I live and breathe! Hello, Sergio.”
He smiled at the men.
The taller of the two, a handsome, swarthy man with light brown skin and dark hair said, “I am Captain Enrique Vega. This is my lone passenger, Niles Sergio.”
Maxwell said, “We’ve met. Niles and our crew go way back. Small universe, Niles! What are you doing out here on a smuggler’s vessel?”
Sergio’s face turned increasingly darker shades of red. But he refused to say anything.
Maxwell turned back to his crewmembers and said, “Find the engine room and install the control pod.”
He looked at Vega as they headed back to the elevator and said, “We’ll take a look at your cargo holds.”
“Certainly, certainly,” Vega said. “Of course, they’re empty at the moment.”
Half an hour later, Maxwell reported back to Raleigh over the neural net.
He said, “The holds are empty, Captain. Lootie says there are eight hidden spaces onboard, but they’re empty too. She can see them now that she has control of the ship. What’s funny is the passenger they were trying to sneak into Thalia is our old buddy Niles Sergio.”
“How did he get off Petra Roe? And what is he doing in this neck of the woods?”
“No idea. You’ll have to ask him yourself. I can bring him back with us, if you like.”
“Yeah, do that. I’d like to talk to him.”
A few minutes later, the transport floated away from the Iguana and Max steered it back into the Mule’s landing bay. The door slid open and everyone stood up to exit.
Maxwell slapped Sergio on the back and said, “Come on, Niles. Captain Raleigh would like a word with you.”
Wearing a glum expression on his face, Sergio followed Maxwell down the assault corridor to the elevator. On the way up to the bridge, he stared at his feet.
“Cheer up, man!” Maxwell said. “At least you fell in with us and not the Chaucer Company. They don’t know who you are.”
“That was the other warship, I take it?”
“Yup. The Shawn . . . the, uh, Chanticleer. Yeah, that’s it. Their nickname for it is the Red Rooster or some such. I don’t get it.”
Sergio thought for a moment before the door dinged and opened onto the bridge.
He said, “I don’t get it either.”
“Hey, Niles! Welcome back!”
Raleigh smiled at him as he and Maxwell exited the elevator.
“What in the world are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere, may I ask?”
Sergio sighed and said, “I was trying to get to Thalia. I don’t suppose you could give me a lift?”
Granny smiled behind her unlit cigar. She said, “Don’t you realize there’s a war going on, sonny? Thalia is Republican territory now.”
“Yeah, but . . . it’s not a capital planet, and I was hoping to get there.”
Raleigh said, “Why?”
Niles looked up and glanced at the people on the bridge. They were all staring at him: the Captain, Granny, Max, and Jillian.
He took a deep breath and said, “Okay, look. You guys like money, right?”
Granny snorted and everyone else’s smile grew a little wider.
“I was placed under house arrest in the League Embassy on Petra Roe because somebody thought I had something to do with letting you guys know about a bank drone you intercepted.”
Everyone nodded. They had, in fact, helped plant the false information about Sergio and let him go in order to protect their informant on Lute.
“So there I was, a prisoner again, only this time by my own people. I gotta say you guys treat your prisoners better than we do.
“Anyway, I finally managed to convince them I was innocent of the charges, and . . . did you know Petra Roe is a corrupt cesspool?”
Raleigh shrugged. He said, “I’ve heard a few things.”
“Well, it turns out if you pay off the right people, charges can disappear. So, that’s what I did.”
Granny said, “How many palms did you grease and how much did it cost you?”
“I don’t know how many people ended up getting fingers on the money, but I paid a grand total of one point eight million credits.”
Maxwell let out a whistle. Everybody looked at Jillian.
She smiled and said, “I know that’s a lot, okay? Anything over a million is a lot.”
Raleigh turned back to Sergio and said, “So . . . of all the places you could go, you hitch a ride with a smuggler and head straight for Thalia?”
“The smuggler was the only one willing to bring me here. Right before I was ready to leave, the stupid Republicans attacked Juventas and claimed the whole quadrant. No one was willing to fly anywhere near here. Except Captain Vega.”
“Okay. You have our full attention. What is so important on Thalia that you have to fly all the way out here, sneak into Republican territory, and get it?”
“Are you familiar with gold certificates?”
Raleigh nodded. “They are good as gold, so to speak. The central banks in both the League and Republic issue them. They can be redeemed for the real thing at any other bank. Well, any other bank in that AI system. I don’t think Republican banks honor League gold certificates right now, and vice versa.”
“Aren’t all those virtual?” Maxwell said. “You shouldn’t need to travel somewhere to pick them up.”
“Yes and no,” Sergio said. “The originals are physical artifacts, printed on paper. They are usually stored in a bank vault. When they’re traded, a virtual representation can be transferred.”
“Wait, I’m beginning to understand,” Granny said, shifting the cigar to another corner of her mouth. “You have physical copies in the bank on Thalia that can’t be virtually transferred now that the quadrant is in Republican hands.”
Sergio nodded, the glum expression returning to his face.
Raleigh said, “So . . . the only way to get this batch of certificates is for you to show up in person at the bank, right?”
Sergio nodded again.
Raleigh chuckled. “You sure do get yourself into some pickles, Niles.”
“Tell me about it. Look, just drop me off on Thalia, let me retrieve my certificates from the bank, then get me over to Epsilon. Or if not there, take me to a neutral planet like Petra Roe. I’ll give you a percentage of what I retrieve once I can get to a League bank and cash the certificates.”
“That’s not a bad offer. How much are we talking, Niles?”
“At First Galactic Bank on Thalia I have on deposit 30 million credits in League gold certificates.”
This statement was met with stunned silence while everyone looked at one another in astonishment.
Raleigh said, “We are not authorized to have any dealings at all on the surface of Thalia. We are just here to patrol for enemy incursions in orbit or the solar system.”
He looked at the others and smiled. Everyone smiled back and a seed of hope sprouted in Sergio’s chest.
Raleigh said, “But I think we have just been enticed to bend the rules a little bit for you, Niles.”