Captain Christopher Raleigh stood on the bridge of the Ultima Mule, along with his wife Jillian. They stared at the main holo showing Mr. Smithers. His name was probably fake since he worked for Republican Naval Intelligence. His face was probably not real, too. Both thoughts ran through Raleigh’s mind as they stared at Smithers.
The Mule had been floating out here in the middle of nowhere, a few hours from Sporades, all these days. They were isolated, a tiny speck in the cosmos, and virtually undetectable since they were well off the beaten path.
The crew entertained themselves. They watched holos, or read, or played games. On occasion, especially at meal times, they even interacted with one another.
It was not a bad way to pass the time if one could overlook the fact they were cooped up in, essentially, a giant metal tube floating in space.
But now, maybe things would change. Smithers put in a direct call. And that was a hopeful sign, Raleigh thought.
Smithers smiled at both of them.
“Good news, Captain. We’ve taken Sporades.”
“That’s nice. I wonder if we could drop by and visit any time soon?”
Smithers nodded, and elected to continue speaking in vague generalities.
He said, “Come on by. However, be aware that things on the ground are not quite settled yet. You might have to spend some time in orbit before coming down. Maybe look around a bit while you’re up there. Maybe run some searches for us.”
“Also, it would be good to stay away from the outer planets in the quadrant. Some of their financial systems can’t take the strain of tourists, I’m afraid.”
“Alright, Captain. I think we understand one another.”
“Then I’ll see you soon?”
The holo switched off and Raleigh turned to share a glance with Jillian.
She said, “They don’t know where Gina and Julia are, do they?”
“Probably not. It takes a while to establish a new AI on a planet. And the girls are good at hiding. We’ll get into orbit and see if Lootie has any luck. Maybe she can see something others can’t. We’ll start by looking where we dropped them off.”
“And I guess we can’t rob any banks while we’re there, either. That bit about tourists must be what he was hinting at.”
“That’s true” Raleigh said. “But who knows? Maybe we’ll happen upon some other lucrative targets.”
“Lucrative? I like it when you talk like a pirate, Captain!”
He grinned and ordered LuteNet to take them to Sporades.
Jillian threw her arms around his neck and said in a sultry voice, “I want to make out with you right here on the bridge, Captain.”
“Well, I would, but the bridge is not at all private.”
He pointed toward a side holo and she turned to look. Kim and Pak stared back at them from the engine room.
“No, go ahead,” Pak said.
Kim said, “Yeah, don’t mind us.”
On Sporades, Smithers turned away from the holo and prepared himself mentally for his second big meeting of the morning. This one would be face to face with Admiral Severs himself.
He exited the office and walked down a hall in the Sporades Administration Building until he came to what used to be Tetrarch Billings’s office.
He walked inside and nodded to the officer at the outer desk. Here, Marines stood on guard, armed and alert. Smithers noted they were supplemented by Verberger X99s, which had proven themselves to be more than adequate in battle conditions following the wreck of the Ronald Reagan.
In fact, Severs had requested at least one X99 be assigned to him at all times. That said a lot for how impressed he was by their performance.
Smithers agreed. Anything that could knock out a supersonic missile and shoot down an enemy battalion was probably a good weapon to have around.
So long as nobody hacked it, he thought. Hm.
He made a mental note to ask Wilcox what she thought about that.
The door opened to the inner office. Several Captains and a Commodore walked out. Another officer waved him in and then stepped out, giving Smithers and Severs privacy.
“Mr. Smithers, how are you?”
Smithers had a rank, but Admiral Severs had no idea what it was. If he asked, it would probably be a fake one, anyway.
“I’m good, sir. I’m ready to give you the briefing you asked for.”
“Alright. I’m all ears.”
“This planet was a little different than Juventas, as you are aware. We have captured the administrative personnel and infrastructure, which was destroyed last time.”
Severs nodded and said, “I’m aware of that. I take it Tetrarch Billings is now our guest in orbit?”
Smithers smiled, and his eyes glinted. “Not only is he our guest, but we are using a brain scan on him. I expect to gain considerable intelligence from his recent memories alone.”
Severs’s eyebrows shot up. He said, “We can do things like that?”
“Yes, sir. The Tetrarch is unconscious at the moment, and his mind is a veritable treasure-trove.”
“Very good. I’d like a report on what you learn, when you collate the data.”
Smithers nodded. “Absolutely, sir.”
“Too bad the SSI building was taken out. I imagine you could have gained some info there, too.”
“It was, sir, but we found something just as good.”
Smithers’s eyes lit up in excitement and he grinned at the Admiral.
He said, “It turns out Sporades is the offline backup site for SSI’s data.”
He flicked his wrist and a holo appeared above Severs’s desk. It showed a shiny blue globe, one meter in diameter, floating above a magnetic base. Different shades of blue flashed and flowed across its surface as it spun slowly on its axis.
“By ‘offline,’ what do you mean, exactly?”
“It turns out they had a considerable amount of records generated over the years, but they did not trust its storage to the normal network backups. So, it was placed offline, here on this planet.”
“Hm. An archive. How did they go about accessing it when they needed something?”
“Well, that’s the tricky part. Our techies are telling me everything is encrypted. The only keys, evidently, are bio-based. You need an SSI director to access it. Normally, that job fell to the director of SSI Sporades.”
“And, our people took him out with Starfold,” Severs said with a frown.
“Correct. However, as you know, Angel captured the director of SSI Juventas a while back.”
Severs raised a skeptical eyebrow. He said, “You think you can talk her into unlocking it for us?”
“We have some ideas, some things we’re willing to try. The League has been making some good progress with mind control, especially with indents. Pirates on our side, as you know, intercepted a League ship filled with civilians who were all forced to take the collar a while back. We’ve been studying their techniques, and like I said . . . we have some ideas.”
“Very well. Keep me informed. If you have anything I need to know, tell me. Don’t worry about making an appointment, Mr. Smithers.”