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In the Ultima Mule’s mess hall, most of the crew watched as service bots flitted about the Excelsior.

“How is it possible,” Jillian said, swallowing a bite of food, “that StarCen does not sense this drone?”

“She likely does sense the drone,” Raleigh said. “But, she thinks the Mule is destroyed. Thus she thinks this drone is dead. Lootie has done nothing to indicate it has control of the drone. Thus, to StarCen, it’s just part of the debris from the last battle.”

“Hm. So in the meantime, we get to spy on the Excelsior with it.”

“Exactly.”

Granny sat at the same table as Jillian and Raleigh. She said, “Looks to me like they’re not going to hang around much longer. I’d be willing to bet they’re not going to be there by the time we show up.”

In fact, Granny already had a pool going. But she decided Raleigh did not need to know about that right now.

“That’s always a possibility,” Raleigh said. “Her Captain, a woman by the name of Benson, is rumored to be extraordinarily lucky. We’ll see if her luck holds out against the Mule. We’re three days out, and Lootie is stretching the port points as far as she safely can.”

Maxwell spoke up. He said, “That ship represents 10,000 credits a share.”

“Well, the Slender Sylph Company will get something, if we’re successful,” Raleigh said.

“That reward would be all fine and dandy,” Granny said. “But we’ve got to capture or kill her, first. As y’all can see, they’ve got her fixed up nice and pretty. She’s not quite the sitting duck she was on our first visit. And need I remind you that she still has most of her drones intact, while we have . . . what? One with a working camera? Two more floating around out there somewhere?”

“It’s an issue,” Raleigh said. “At least we have the element of surprise. But, I’m open to ideas on the best way to take her once we get there.”

“Tony and I have been thinking about that,” Pak said. "When we get close enough to retrieve that drone, or one of the others still operable, we think we can plant a bomb onboard. Then we’ll port it back near the Excelsior and let it sail into their flight deck.”

Everybody thought about it for a moment.

Maxwell said, “Could work.”

Granny said, “Nah. StarCen will see that thing coming a mile away. The minute it gets close she’ll either blast it or port the Excelsior somewhere safe.”

“That’s if they can port by the time we get there,” Raleigh said. “Lootie, how big are the guns near the Excelsior’s portal entry? Can they take out the drone easily?”

“Eagle-class ships have four repelling guns near the flight deck entrance, Captain. Side-defender carronades are the bigger threat. The drone’s shields would only be able take three or four direct hits from the side cannons before disintegrating.”

“How close could we get the drone to the ship? How fast could it make a run for that portal?”

“Any threat suddenly materializing near the ship will be dealt with immediately by StarCen. The odds are not in our favor for success.”

Everyone fell silent again, staring at the distant ship on the holovision.

Finally, Kim said, “Well . . . if a drone would get blown out of the sky too quickly . . . why don’t we appear alongside her in the Mule and start blasting away?”

Raleigh’s eyebrows shot up.

“What do the odds look like for that idea, Lootie?”

“Close to a 35 percent chance of success, Captain. The Excelsior is an Eagle-class destroyer, and it is very difficult to successfully attack. We also have no standard drives, complicating matters.”

Kim pressed his case. He said, “If we showed up, suddenly and without warning, and started hitting them from the front where they’re weakest, that would be a distraction. While they’re occupied with us, then we port over the bomb-laden drone.”

Raleigh shook his head. He said, “Two things. First, they may be weakest in the front so far as shields go, but they’ve got those massive guns there to compensate. Those things are going to immediately start pounding us. And our shields are not in great shape. Second, StarCen can easily multitask. She can still make short work of our drone even while pounding us.”

“The odds are marginally better with a multi-pronged attack,” LuteNet said. “But we have a very limited supply of drones, and that does not bode well for our success.”

Jillian said, “Wait. Why does it have to be a frontal approach? They’re porting in and out people all the time from the station, right? Why don’t you just send somebody up there with a bomb?”

Granny cackled. She said, “There’s no way StarCen would port up somebody she didn’t know. Especially not a person who’s supposed to be dead.”

“Well, how about a maintenance bot or something? They don’t go under bioscans.”

“No, but they’re usually not ported, either,” Maxwell said.

Kim said, “Hold on. She might be onto something. If we kidnapped a maintenance bot, planted a bomb in it, then returned it to go work on the ship . . .”

“What are the odds on that, Lootie?” Raleigh said.

“There are too many unknown factors to give an accurate estimate for the chances of success, Captain.”

“Okay. I’m willing to accept an inaccurate estimate. If we try to sneak in a booby-trapped maintenance bot, what do you think our chances might be?”

“Presuming the unknown variables work out in our favor, the chances are relatively good. I am unable to provide a numerical estimate with so many unknowns.”

“Are the odds better than a frontal assault?”

Long pause.

“Possibly.”

Raleigh cracked a grin at everyone. He said, “Well there you have it, people. That’s as good as we’re going to get. Kim and Pak, finalize your plans. Let’s figure out the best way to blow up a destroyer.”

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jaxonreed

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