Raleigh and Jillian stood on the bridge along with Granny, Gina, the Dvoraks, the Joneses, and Maxwell. LuteNet had halted progress 100 AUs from Sporades. The main holo covering the wall in the front of the bridge showed the blackness of space punctuated by distant stars. Sporades’s star shined the brightest, in the center.
Raleigh said, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the final voyage of the Starship Aquamarine.”
Slowly, LuteNet fired the Mule’s standard drives, turning her nose in the opposite direction. On this side, a massive hulking shape blotted out most of the stars in the holo.
“Mm. Nothing like a Mammoth-class to take your breath away,” Maxwell said, softly.
The AI brought them closer, and soon all the stars winked out. In the dim light they could barely discern details as they drew closer. The hull had been damaged multiple times. Beams of metal stuck out like bare black bones, and large swaths of plates were stripped from her skin.
A gaping hole loomed ahead, and LuteNet carefully guided the warship inside the much larger superstructure.
“Too bad she couldn’t port us in,” Granny said, nervously chewing on a cigar.
Now the Ultima Mule was inside the Aquamarine. LuteNet carefully turned the smaller ship until her bow faced the same direction.
“Alright,” Raleigh said. “Are we all set, Lootie?”
“We are indeed, Captain. If Sergeant Wilcox and Mrs. Jones will make their way to the debarkation zone, I will commence the final leg of our journey. We are one minute, 40 seconds out. It will take an additional two seconds to safely port them to the surface.”
Raleigh turned to face the two women and nodded.
He said, “Time to say your goodbyes.”
“Come on,” Julia said, motioning to Biff and Granny. “You can take the elevator down with us.”
Nobody said anything in the elevator. Biff and Julia held hands. Granny held Gina’s arm.
The pod dinged, the elevator opened, and the four walked out into the corridor leading to the disembarkation room. They stopped outside the door.
Biff hugged his wife, and kissed her.
“Come back to me.”
“What are you going to do while I’m gone?”
“I guess I’m going to stick around on the Mule. Captain Raleigh says I’m welcome to join the crew.”
“You’re going to become a pirate, Officer Jones? Whatever will your precinct commander think?”
“Ha. There is no more precinct. In a way, this is something I can do to help out in the war effort. I know it’s not as glamorous as what you’re about to do . . . but it’s something.”
She hugged him again, tightly.
She said, “It’s everything.”
Granny looked up at her taller daughter, and a tear trickled down her cheek.
She said, “You take care of yourself, baby girl. Don’t go doing nothing stupid.”
“I won’t Mama.”
“And you take care of the princess here. Make sure she gets back to her man.”
“I’ll do my best, Mama.”
“You got cigars? Here, I got some fresh ones from Pearl.”
Granny reached into a back pocket and pulled out a travel case filled with tobacco products.
“I can’t Mama. The local AI could pick up on it. I’m going to have to go without while I’m down there.”
Granny sighed in resignation, and put the cigars back in her pocket.
“Well, you can carry me around in here.”
She poked Gina in the chest, above her heart.
“No AI can take that away from you.”
“I know, Mama. I love you.”
“And I love you, baby girl. You be safe. I’ll say a prayer for you.”
They hugged tightly. Then the Sergeant nodded at Julia, and together they walked into the disembarkation zone. The door swished shut behind them and the access pad turned red.
StarCen ported the Aquamarine away, with Ultima Mule inside.
Down in the engine room Kim and Pak smiled at each other.
Kim said, “Operation Trojan Horse begins.”
He held his hand up and Pak gave him a high five.
StarCen indeed had a surveillance grid in the solar system, and 97 seconds later received advanced warning of an incoming bogey. Time seemed to slow down for the AIs as decisions were made and actions taken within milliseconds.
Aquamarine appeared near Sporades in a higher orbit than her satellites and other ships. The following second, two things happened. LuteNet ported a sensor the size and shape of a can of soup down to the city of Rostin. It popped into existence in an abandoned structure in the city’s warehouse district, far from any municipal sensors or cameras.
StarCen ported four solar torpedoes from the holds of nearby Eagles to within close proximity of the Mammoth. Having recognized the Aquamarine, and having experienced how dangerous she was, the League’s AI wished to take no chances.
In the following second, LuteNet did something completely unexpected. Minor explosions occurred along the battered hull of the Aquamarine, and it broke into four separate pieces. Before the torpedoes could detonate, the four chunks ported into their space, obliterating them.
In the next second LuteNet had her bearings from the sensor on the ground, and ported Wilcox and Jones down to the surface.
StarCen hesitated, the milliseconds ticking by as she assessed the situation. She did not commit any more torpedoes to the remnants of the Mammoth’s hull, or the Hawk-class warship in the middle of the debris field.
LuteNet took full advantage of the slight pause, and pulled the Mule away from Sporades, and out of the solar system. StarCen watched as the ship ported outside the surveillance grid and away from danger, leaving the damaged pieces of the Aquamarine behind.
All told, the Ultima Mule spent less than five seconds above Sporades.
But it was long enough.