“Catarina Mulligan” sat at the Captain’s table for lunch, and laughed at some little story he told the group. She promptly forgot most of the details. They were not important. Very little of the social interactions on the Coral Reef were important, she thought.

Captain Otto Horton approached his mid-60s in age. He sported a potbelly but he stood tall and ramrod straight. This possibly had something to do with his years in the League Navy. He was too old and out of shape to serve now, although he was certainly willing if the Navy ever asked him back. He made sure everyone knew that, mentioning it at least once per conversation it seemed.

Julia doubted the Navy would ask, even if there was a shortage in the officer corps at the moment. Besides, Horton seemed to enjoy hobnobbing with wealthy first class passengers too much to return to the rigors of military life.

At the table she sat with the Sanfords, who ran a weapons production company on Epsilon, and a dashing young man named Niles Sergio.

Niles came from a family involved in media production on Clarion called, fittingly, Sergio Productions. His grandfather started the company back in the day and it had grown into a highly successful entertainment conglomerate, primarily by supporting the League in all sorts of propagandistic ways. Through neural and holographic movies, even in virtual reality games played in the quantum matrix, Sergio Productions made sure that all plot twists, statements, character opinions and everything else within their fictitious environments supported the Tetrarchy and the League.

Good guys were invariably loyal. Bad guys, especially since the start of the war, were either Republicans or traitors. Everything in Sergio Productions’ worlds were typically black and white, with the League being white and all else black.

Consequently, Sergio Productions was huge. They were a billion credit company at least, Julia thought to herself. And Niles was a tall, handsome bachelor, with high cheekbones and a lupine face. He was very, very eligible and heir to one of the largest fortunes in the galaxy.

The Sanfords, Donald and his wife Tina, were a delightful couple in their 40s. Refined and elegant, they epitomized the upper crust of society. Even their casual clothes looked like they cost several thousand credits.

Tina evidently liked to play matchmaker, and Julia suspected she had been the one who talked Captain Horton into inviting the two most prominent single people in first class to sit at his table. Thus, Julia had to endure almost every meal with the leering Niles Sergio seated to her right, the aging Captain to her left, and the beaming Tina Sanford across the table next to her husband Don.

Julia hid her nervousness when this first happened because the Sanfords’ company provided the technology used in her Facial Features Reorganizational Manipulator, the official term for the gadget disguised as a charm around her neck.

But after spending a couple of dinners with the couple, Julia realized that Don and Tina were not up to date on the latest black hat research in their own company. It helped that the “framer” as the FFRM was known in a very tight circle of researchers, was disguised as jewelry. The Sanfords wouldn’t recognize it even if they were aware framers existed.

So for the most part, Julia tried to relax and enjoy the decadent meals Coral Reef’s human chef served up for first class passengers. She smiled and remained polite and pretended to be interested in all the things other people in this high society were interested in. When she expressed opinions or carried forth on her own in conversation, it was usually on neutral topics. She offered opinions on fashion, celebrities, and other light issues.

She repeatedly shot down Niles Sergio who only seemed to want to bed her.

“Perhaps you should find an indent for that,” she said the first night when he cornered her after dinner and invited her up to his place. He had one of the ship’s luxury suites, with a ridiculous amount of space all to himself, and he was looking for someone to share it with him.

Sergio grew very serious at her offhand remark and said, “I understand we have researchers in the Navy working on overriding the consent safeguards. Of course, we would not do that with any League citizen that took a collar. But, as you can imagine, it might work very nicely with indents captured from the Republic.”

The comment made Julia’s stomach lurch. But she maintained a polite smile on her face and bid the rich young man good evening.

She had trouble sleeping that night. The news that researchers were working to thwart the biocollars’ subroutines bothered her. She knew that her father had already found a way to put collars on prisoners without signing a contract. That in and of itself was very troubling. But now, to learn that others were out there trying to thwart the subroutines for even baser purposes . . . that thought kept her up most of the night.

She had no desire to have anything to do with Niles Sergio, but she maintained a polite smile in public and suffered silently through every meal with him at the Captain’s table along with the Sanfords.

At the moment Niles was telling a story, much to the interest of everybody else except her. Julia listened without really paying attention.

“And so I said to this attractive young woman, ‘Look, we really don’t need human actors anymore.’ I mean, movies are cute and all but they don’t use many people these days. Actors grow old, you know? And they die. But Brin Bolling hasn’t aged a bit in 40 years, because he’s not real.

“‘And movies are passé,’ I tell her. People like the immersive experience these days. And on the quantum matrix, it’s like you’re really there, you know? And in all those games and activities online, the NPCs are totally realistic. There’s no need for human actors.

“And I tell her all this, and you know what she says?”

At this point he paused and looked at the others with a silly grin on his face. Everyone at the table shook their heads.

No, we don’t know what she said, Julia thought to herself. But she kept her sarcasm in check and a polite smile plastered on her face.

“She says she wants to act in renaissance festivals! Real, live acting up on a stage, just like they did in the olden days. Is that a hoot or what?”

The Sanfords and the Captain chuckled politely.

Julia said, “Sounds like a noble calling.”

Everyone at the table stared at her. Tina Sanford paused, spoon halfway to her mouth. Then she burst out laughing.

“Oh, Cat! It’s taken me a while to get used to your sense of humor. My, my, is it ever so dry.”

The men chuckled too at that point. Julia smiled politely. Actually, she was serious. But it would not do to get into an argument with these people. Niles Sergio stared at her with bedroom eyes as he spooned the last of the chocolate mousse into his mouth.

Julia did not like the way he was eating it in front of her, all suggestive-like. He was licking the mousse off the spoon with his tongue. She ignored him.

StarCen’s voice came from the ceiling above their table.

“Captain, the First Officer needs to share a few words with you.”

“Oh. Very well.”

Captain Horton stood up and placed his cloth napkin on the back of the chair.

He said, “If you good people will excuse me, I’ll go meet with my second in command.”

The other two men stood up with the Captain and watched as he headed out of the dining area toward the elevators.

Julia said, “I think I’ll take this opportunity to powder my nose.”

The men stood again as she left to follow the Captain toward the exit. She felt Sergio’s eyes on her as she walked away. She regretted her choice in dress, a short and tight-fitting outfit offering him an excellent view of her rear figure. Nothing she could do about it now, she thought, following the Captain.

The elevator dinged before the Captain arrived and the First Officer stepped out, a tall man named Ahmed. Julia stopped nearby and took out a compact. True to her word, despite the phrase being a euphemism for using the restroom, she stood discreetly in a corner and powdered her nose. But she did so within earshot of the two officers.

“Captain, I wanted to tell you this in person rather than having StarCen mention it to you at your table. It appears that something has happened to the quantum trunk line on Pegasi Station. StarCen wants us to drop in and inspect it since she has no eyes or ears there at the moment. We’re the closest ship.”

“Hm. I suppose that’s okay. How far out of the way is it?”

“It’s nearby. We’re going right past it. StarCen says we won’t lose significant time if we divert now.”

“Very well. We’ll stop in and check on things for her, then be on our way. We might be able to swing a deal or two while we’re parked there.”


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