Raleigh knocked on the door to his own cabin and waited patiently rather than palming right in. A moment later the door opened and Jillian stood before him. Someone had fetched her a uniform. The white t-shirt was too small and therefore everything above the waist remained highly distracting. The brown pants, in contrast, were too large and very baggy. They did not flatter her lower figure at all. The boots, though, fit perfect.

She flashed a grin at him.

“I guess that’ll do for now,” he said, giving her a quick once-over. “Ready for a chat?”

She made a sweeping gesture with her hand and stood out of the way so he could walk in. The door swished shut behind him.

He walked to the table near the bar, which had two chairs. He sat in one and made a motion for her to take the other.

Without waiting for a preamble, Jillian jumped in and said, “So how does one go about becoming a pirate, anyway?”

He said, “It usually starts by an interview with the Captain.”

She grinned and said, “Okay. So I guess we’re starting. How does the conversation go?”

“For one thing, it involves a discussion of the risks involved. And the repercussions associated with your system’s AI. During times of war, there’s one set of repercussions, but there’s another set you face during times of peace which can be just as serious.”

“You lost me. How is it still dangerous when nobody is at war?”

“The AIs track everything and everybody they can within their reach. There is, by necessity, some cross-pollination of the data. StarCen wants to know who somebody from PLAIR’s system is when they visit, and vice-versa.”

She nodded impatiently. Everybody knew this.

He continued. “But LuteNet is outside of the other two. It’s the largest independent AI in the galaxy. So when you come to work for us, the other two AIs will take note.”

“But not right away, right? I’m no longer under StarCen’s domain and she can’t see into Aquamarine anymore. Or this ship. Will LuteNet tell her right away that I’ve joined your company and become a pirate?”

“No, not necessarily. It is wartime, and the information the AIs share with one another is more limited right now. But at some point, StarCen will find out about your decision. Or figure it out. This could happen when we attack another League ship, for instance, and she notices you in a boarding party. Or if you visit a planet where a League spy reports your presence back to StarCen. Or any number of ways. Then you have to worry about what happens when the war is over.”

“Okay. What happens when the war is over?”

“At that time, when communications are restored to normal levels, your allegiance to our side will be duly noted by both system AIs.”

“Fine. I’ll just stay in the Republic’s territory.”

“Ah. But, that might be a problem. Lute is independent. It’s true right now we are allied with the Republic. But at some point in the future it is entirely possible the Republic may turn against us, especially when they don’t need us to help attack League shipping anymore.

“In fact, I would not be surprised if part of the treaty that is drawn up, whenever this conflict ends, calls for the Republic to disavow Lute and treat us as enemy combatants. I especially would not be surprised to see that clause included if the Republic falls on the short end of the conflict.”

Jillian nodded now and seemed to be more fully realizing the potential consequences of her decision.

She said, “So, you’re saying that it’s entirely possible I could be considered an enemy of both systems after the war, even by the side I fought on.”

“Correct. You also have to consider that you may never be able to go home again. Well, not as a free person, anyway.”

She crossed her arms and leaned back in the chair, thinking. Raleigh waited patiently.

Finally she locked eyes with him and said, “I accept the fact I may be considered ‘on the wrong side’ by both AIs at some point in the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen in this war, but what I do know is that I don’t want to go home again. My father is a monster.”

He nodded, accepting her statement, and made a mental checkmark on his list of things they needed to discuss. He was ready to move on.

Before he could say anything, though, she continued.

“Do you know what happened at Fomalhaut?”

The Fomalhaut system was relatively close to Old Earth. It was part of the Piscis Austrini constellation, the “Southern Fish,” and one of the brightest stars in the home planet’s sky.

It was also one of the first distant solar systems astronomically confirmed to have planets, and was subsequently visited by early explorers. However, as with most solar systems, nothing there supported life. That did not stop humans from setting up a way station in orbit around one of the system’s gas giants so it could service ships exploring deeper into space.

The small garrison grew into a huge space station and became a permanent settlement, populated by thousands of people claiming it as home. But over time, as humans pressed deeper into the galaxy, its importance ebbed and it faced obscurity as more and more hospitable planets were discovered and colonized.

Nominally, Fomalhaut Outpost was part of the League. But as with many fringe areas, its residents held onto quaint and old-fashioned notions of independence. Raleigh knew the settlement did not formally consider itself beholden to StarCen. As with many distant locations from civilization, the AI’s influence there was weak.

Out loud he said, “No. What happened?”

In response she touched her temple with two fingers. A tiny ray of light projected from her forehead, sharing her mental “screen.” A hologram appeared in the center of the table.

He watched as soldiers in League uniforms pillaged and raped a civilian population. Two men held a struggling woman by her arms while a third tore her shirt off. When he finished he pulled his blaster out and casually shot her in the face. Other soldiers in the background ran around breaking glass, lobbing egg grenades and randomly shooting injured people. A group of children ran by screaming, only to be mowed down by blaster fire, one by one.

Someone new stepped into the scene from the left. He looked tall and carried himself with a regal bearing, as if accustomed to wielding enormous power. He wore a stern expression on his tanned face. Long gray hair fell gracefully down to broad shoulders. His upper body looked extremely powerful, despite his apparent age, featuring enormous biceps and well-defined pecs under his tight shirt. There could be little doubt he followed an advanced workout regimen, even into middle age.

He turned to the camera, apparently addressing whoever was filming. He spoke with a deep, rumbling voice.

“Save only the youngest and most attractive women and put biocollars on them. Kill everyone else. Destroy everything. There should be nothing left worth keeping here when we are done.”

The recording stopped, freezing the image. The man’s icy green eyes stared sharply out of the hologram.

Jillian said, “Yeah, that’s my dad.”


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