Maxwell, Jeter, and Escobar met the others down on the street while Roddy lifted off from the building’s roof and headed back up to the Mule.

Maxwell handed Raleigh a rifle. He said, “Safest thing is to get off the street right now, Captain. We should fly home.”

Raleigh nodded. A sky bus landed nearby. Its doors opened and several people streamed out. Most of them took the massive white steps up to the Administrative Building.

Raleigh said, “Why don’t we take a bus?”

Maxwell smiled and they headed toward it.

Jeter jogged over and put his hand out to stop the people queued up to enter as the last person exited. Everybody stared down at his blaster, which he carried slightly angled to the ground but ready to bring up quickly if needed.

Jeter said, “This bus is taken.”

When the Captain and the others climbed onboard he turned and followed them. The door closed behind him leaving the queue of people watching as the bus rose up in the air.

Inside, the driver’s eyes grew wide at the sight of all the guns. He was an older, heavy-set man who spent most of his days as a human backup to the automated subroutine flying the bus.

Raleigh said, “We need you to make a detour from your usual route. Take us directly to Mule Tower.”

The driver spread his hands and said, “The stops are all automated.”

Maxwell said, “Come on, man! We know LuteNet is down and you have to do some actual work. Not to mention the manual override.”

Caught in his attempted deception, the driver closed the door behind Jeter and lifted up into the air again. He banked sharply and headed to the edge of the city where a lone skyscraper stood apart from the others.

The crewmembers found seats. Jillian smiled apologetically at the half dozen other passengers. They stared back with varied expressions ranging from bewilderment to outrage.

Then she glanced out the windows for a good look at Port Ryan.

To the east, blue ocean stretched out to the horizon. Some distance away she could see surface ships and she realized the city served as a traditional port as well as one for space travel.

As they gained altitude she could see everything was laid out on a carefully planned grid. The Administration Building took up an entire block. Everything looked clean, and pedestrian and terrestrial traffic seemed to flow easily on the streets below. Many aircraft streamed around the city, too.

They passed over another district and the lighting changed. Flashing signs of red and other bright colors caught her eye.

She said, “Are those casinos?”

Raleigh said, “Yep. Plenty of places for a sailor to lose his money here.”

They flew by another building with a holographic image of a giant, scantily clad woman sitting on the roof. Letters floated above her head saying, “Tower of Power Pleasure Palace.”

Smaller letters below read, “Humans, Robots, & VR.”

“Are there a lot of prostitutes? Or do they mostly use alternatives like the sign says?”

Raleigh said, “I dunno. Never been inside. You’ll have to ask Maxwell or one of the other guys.”

He winked to show he was kidding. Maxwell did not hear the jab, sitting further back in the bus and in the middle of a conversation with Escobar and Jeter. He loomed over the other two, even sitting down. Escobar, with brown skin and a muscular build, was taller than Jeter but still far shorter than the giant.

Jillian said, “It’s a good thing they can’t use indents as prostitutes. Or, do those rules not apply here?”

“The rules apply. In general, humanitarian regulations established by the two main AIs are followed by ours as well. Contracts in one system are honored by the others. So, no. We’re not barbarians using indents as prostitutes.”

She was worried she had offended him, but his gentle smile let her know she had not.

Jillian returned her attention to the scenery. She could see they were heading toward a skyscraper on the edge of the city.

The driver looked in his mirror and said, “You want to be dropped off on the rooftop or the street?”

Raleigh said, “Rooftop, please.”

The driver nodded and they gained more altitude.

“So, how does this work?” Jillian said. “Your company owns a building and a warship?”

“Yes. Our investors back the funding for both. In return for that and outfitting the ship on runs, we supply them with a healthy share of the profits.”

This last statement Maxwell did hear. He said, “Except for this trip!”

Raleigh raised an eyebrow in acknowledgment. “This trip being an exception,” he said. “I don’t think anybody will profit much from the ship we brought in, except for the 800 victims we saved.”

Maxwell grinned, conceding the point.

The bus slowed to a stop, hovering over the rooftop of Mule Tower. Jillian noticed a holographic image rotating above the building, depicting a skull inside an old-fashioned spacesuit helmet.

She said, “Is that your mascot or something?”

Raleigh said, “Yeah. That’s Roger Mule. He’s our version of the Jolly Roger.”

The bus settled on the rooftop and the driver opened the door. The pirates and Jillian made their way to the exit. 

On his way out, Raleigh thanked the driver and apologized for the forced detour. The driver nodded but did not reply. 

Escobar was last to step off and the driver closed the door behind him. The craft lifted up into the sky then shot back toward the city center. 

Raleigh motioned to the elevator door some distance away.

He said to Jillian, “Welcome home.”


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