The mood onboard Ultima Mule deteriorated substantially when everyone realized they were not going to get as large a payout as expected.

Raleigh addressed the crew in the mess after supper, standing in front of the room with Granny to one side of him and Maxwell on the other. About 18 crewmen stared back at them with unhappy expressions. All were present except Roddy who remained in sickbay, recovering.

Raleigh was tired. Dog tired. He looked it, too, with dark circles under his eyes. The stress of losing men and the burdens of command wore on him at the moment. The loss of any hope for decent profit on this trip did not help matters, either.

The Captain said, “I know it sucks. We were looking forward to a lot of money. But think of it this way, people. You would not want your wife, or daughter, or girlfriend to have been forced to take a collar. These women were basically enslaved after everybody else on Fomalhaut was slaughtered. They did not get their 30,000 credits. This was not in payment for a debt. Everything about their background and the contracts they supposedly signed were all faked by StarCen. We are correcting a huge, huge wrong here.

“Now, Lootie is going to see if we might be able to work out some kind of reward from PLAIR, but don’t hold your breath. If we get one, we’ll split it among the shares. I think the biggest thing to come out of this will be the detrimental propaganda PLAIR is going to be able to generate. She’ll show the footage Jillian Thrall has of what happened at Fomalhaut, and she’ll show the documented evidence of these women being forced into collars against their will. It’s going to create a big stink when this gets out, and that should help the war effort on our side.”

Nobody looked impressed with these comments. The loss of unrealized gain still stung.

Raleigh said, “Lootie’s going to bat for us with PLAIR. It’s not a total loss. Plus, we still have that Mammoth-class ship out there.”

Pak spoke up. He said, “Yeah, I don’t think anybody on Lute is going to want it without an electrical system. That’s going to be incredibly expensive to replace, on account of the ship itself is so big. Plus the Wu drives and the standard drives are kaput.”

“Okay, okay. I understand that,” Raleigh said. “But look what we got. We got the killer who took out Samuel, did we not? She also nearly killed Roddy, and she took out the other ship’s captain, too. I’m willing to trade the Aquamarine’s electrical system in exchange for that killer’s loss of freedom. Heck, I’m willing to trade the whole ship.”

There were a couple of murmurs of agreement. Pak frowned, but he seemed willing to drop it.

Raleigh said, “It’s still got a lot of metal. Even if it goes to a scrapyard, we are going to wring some credits out of that thing.”

He let out another long sigh. What he really wanted to do was go to sleep.

He said, “I realize we are not going to get as much out of this venture as we had hoped, but come on. We’re bringing in 800 souls that were practically enslaved against their will. We captured a killer with remarkable powers. It was not a total waste of our time. We’ll have other voyages. You guys will be first on the list when we re-equip the Mule and get ready to go again.”

“What about the Thrall girl?”

This question came from Jeter, the short but stout, thick-necked bulldog of a man who was always willing to jump into combat on a moment’s notice. Jeter wasn’t smart, but he was good to have at your side in a fight.

Raleigh said, “Lootie has checked her out thoroughly. I’m convinced she’s legit. Also, she gave us the initial info to help us figure out what was going on with the indents.”

“So she’s the one responsible for us losing our stake?”

Raleigh smiled, but the exhaustion was evident in his voice. He said, “Come on, Jeter. You know that’s not fair. More than likely she saved us money. What do you think would have happened if all those bonds were auctioned off at Hasselbeck’s, then it was discovered the women never signed an indentured contract? Their purchasers would be demanding refunds from Hasselbeck’s. Do you think the auction house would just sit on their losses over counterfeit bonds? No, they’d come to the company demanding we refund them everything.

“Where do you think the company would get the money? I’ll tell you where. From the payouts to everybody here. We’d want the money back. But by then you probably wouldn’t have any of your shares left. And then because you owed an enormous unpaid debt, the marshals would come looking for you and you’d have to go under the collar for the rest of your life. So, in a way Ms. Thrall has saved you from a biocollar.”

The leaps in logic were not the greatest, but they were enough to make Jeter back down. The Company would, in fact, fight the auction house about any refunds. But, Jeter did not need to know that at the moment and Raleigh did not bring it up.

“Alright, meeting’s over,” Raleigh said. “Let’s try to have some peace and quiet. Next stop is in 22 hours. I’ll want a report on how everybody is doing over there at that time. We need to make sure they have plenty of food and water, and keep a close eye on life support.”

Everybody disbursed. Raleigh set out for Granny’s cabin, planning to call it a night. Others wandered over to the holovision while a few settled down to play games on the neural net, their faces blanking out as they engaged in mental pursuits.

On his way down the corridor, LuteNet spoke in his neural link.

“Captain, Ms. Thrall would like a word with you, if you are willing to speak with her.”

“Okay. Just a word, then I’m going to sleep.”

He stopped short of the door to Granny’s cabin and touched the doorbell icon on his own panel.

The door swished open and Jillian stood waiting to see him. She still wore a t-shirt that was too small for her, although now she had pants that fit properly. Even with the mundane pirate uniform, he thought, she still managed to look amazing.

“Hello, Captain. Please come in.”

He walked in and the door swished shut behind him.

He said, “I’m very tired, Ms. Thrall.”

“I won’t keep you. I know it’s been quite a day. Mainly I just . . . I just wanted some company. I mean, we’ve got a few days left, right?”

He nodded and said, “We’re about four days out from Lute.”

“Well, I hope . . .”

She stepped closer to him, inside his personal space. He could feel the warmth of her body heat.

“I hope that we might be able to have some chances to . . . get to know each other better. In the time remaining.”

She smiled and fluttered her eyelashes.

He smiled back and said, “Maybe we will. Goodnight, Ms. Thrall.”

With that he turned and walked out the door. It swished shut behind him and the door panel turned red, indicating it was locked once more.

Jillian sighed and said, “I suck at making passes.”

Raleigh walked down to the next door and palmed the controls. He entered Granny’s cabin, pulled his boots off and climbed into his bunk. He fell asleep instantly, and began dreaming about the Tetrarch’s daughter. He wouldn’t remember everything about those dreams when he woke up, but subconsciously he would make more opportunities to spend time with her in the days ahead.


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