“Please step away from the entry zone,” LuteNet said.

Raleigh made a gesture with his head and Jillian followed him away from the circular platform they had popped onto. Kim and Pak followed, carrying the trap.

They were in a large open area, and had landed in a giant yellow circle. Outside the circle, in a windowed control booth, several people observed them. A greeting party waited at the far end of the open space, including some local law enforcement agents and a smattering of customs officials. The Ambassador followed them as they headed that way.

Nearby, a hologram of a lute floated in the air, rotating slowly. Underneath, the word “Welcome!” winked on and off.

Jillian said, “I always thought lutes were more like harps. That looks sort of like a fiddle.”

“It’s closer to a guitar, I think,” Raleigh said. “Kind of like a medieval version of a guitar. Or something. I’m not a musical person.”

The officials were there merely for formalities. LuteNet already had records of everything they brought back, and scanners could detect any contraband on their person. But some traditions died hard, and a greeting from customs officials upon arrival persisted on most planets.

Huntington followed them. He said, “Ms. Thrall, I am the Ambassador from Petra Roe. As you may or may not realize, my planet serves as an intermediary of sorts in this current conflict between the systems. You might say we are a sort of Switzerland.”

“I am familiar with your planet, Ambassador.”

Raleigh found himself admiring Jillian’s tone. She did not seem impressed at all to meet an Ambassador, and acted like she was blowing him off. He decided the best course of action would be to keep his mouth shut and let events play themselves out.

“We were informed by officials with the Star League that you had been captured on the Aquamarine. I am here to negotiate your ransom and immediately bring you to PR, whereupon you will be transferred to a ship heading back to Clarion.”

“Oh really? Not to Epsilon Prime? That’s where I was going.”

He cleared his throat nervously. They approached the reception committee. Everyone smiled at the Captain and his extraordinarily attractive companion.

The Ambassador hurried to keep up. He cleared his throat again and said, “I am afraid your father has requested you be sent home immediately. He is extremely worried about your safety.”

“I see.”

They stopped in front of the reception committee. Raleigh said, “Hello, boys. You want to go through our bags?”

“That’s not necessary, Captain,” one of them said, smiling. “We already know what’s in them.”

“Then what are my taxes paying you for, if you don’t actually do anything?” Raleigh said with a wink and a smile.

“Why, I’m here to welcome you home, and to give warm wishes to your newest crewmember.”

This statement caused Ambassador Huntington to splutter.

He said, “What? Now see here. Most irregular. This is Tetrarch Thrall’s daughter, not some common pirate.”

Raleigh turned to face the man and decided it was time to speak. He said, “Well, you’re right on both counts. Ms. Thrall has requested consideration to join my company, obviating the need for her ransom. Now, if you will excuse us, we will be leaving the building.”

The Ambassador stared at them with a completely flummoxed expression.

Jillian smiled at him and said, “I won’t be accompanying you. Tell my father I’m staying on Lute for now.”

Together they walked past the reception committee and headed for the exit, which swished open for them.

As Kim and Pak approached, one of the Customs officials pointed to the radiation trap they carried.

“What’s the deal with that?”

Pak said, “It’s a teleportation mitigation canister. You’ll find it on our manifest when we took it offworld. We’re taking it back to UM Tower on account of the odd readouts it’s been giving.”

The face of the radiation absorber glowed a brighter shade of red as he spoke, which seemed to back up his statements. The Customs officer nodded and made no further mention of it as they passed through, following the Captain and Jillian.

The Ambassador recovered from Jillian’s snub. His expression changed to one of anger, then annoyance. He rubbed under his ear, twice.

As they walked, Jillian looked around and found herself in a large open area with marble columns, open-air desks, kiosks and counters. Queues of people stretched in front of some places while other booths and counters were free, the people staffing them appearing bored.

She said, “What is this? City Hall or something?”

Raleigh said, “Yup. Only, for the whole planet. All sorts of business going on here. Come on, the street’s that way.”

“We’re not going to just pop over there?”

“Not allowed in this part of town. Too many people. The Gemini experiments scared off the AIs from a lot of terrestrial teleportation, unfortunately. Lootie still does some, but it’s not common.”

They approached the entrance to the street, a grand and open area with a 15 meter high ceiling. It was well apportioned with marble floors, lustrous wooden bannisters, and a brilliant glass wall facing the street that stretched up to the full height of the ceiling above, offering a tremendous view of the outdoors.

Jillian caught her first sight of the city through the wall, a beautiful modern skyline with air taxis zipping by and wispy white clouds in a pale blue sky. Buildings near and far stretched into the heavens, straight, symmetrical, and aesthetic.

They stepped through a porous barrier and the glass shimmered around them. Then they were outside and they both filled their lungs with the free air of a planet again.

Jillian set her bag down and looked around. She said, “It’s beautiful!”

Raleigh smiled and pointed at a building in the distance, standing apart from others and taller than those around it.

He said, “That’s Mule Tower. Come on, let’s go home.”


She bent to retrieve her bag just as a blaster bolt slammed into the doorway behind her.


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