The service drone puttered over toward the giant ship, and headed toward the large hexagonal portal marking the entrance to her flight deck.

Following on the cameras, StarCen recognized the drone from its approach earlier toward Excelsior. She immediately decided it was a threat, and fired repelling guns at the drone.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

With no shields, the drone shuddered and a few pieces from its body spun off into space from the blasts. But it edged closer, even under fire. It floated near the repelling guns, meter-long tubes on turrets near the flight deck portal. All of them fired simultaneously now

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

The force of the blasts finally slowed the drone, and it began disintegrating from the onslaught even as it came extremely close to the portal.


A huge burst of energy exploded from the drone, like a bright white flower of light suddenly blossoming. The belly-buster bomb was designed to rip apart a warship from the inside. Outside the Coral Reef’s gigantic hull, it tore up the landing bay portal, scattering debris in a huge radius and simultaneously obliterating all the nearby repelling guns.

With the portal ruined and the forcefield gone, air inside the landing bay blew out in a rush through the now larger and jagged opening.

Maxwell guided the Mule’s transport in right behind the exploded drone, dodging the heavier flotsam from the explosion. They approached the jagged hole, now no longer hexagonal and no longer glowing red. Inside, he and Skylar listened tensely as smaller rivets and chunks of metal bumped against the shields on their craft.

“Dark inside,” Maxwell said. “I guess the explosion took out the power in this part.”

He turned on the transport’s landing lights as they skimmed above various craft parked on the huge tarmac. He found an open space near the main corridor doorway. It was sealed shut with red lights flashing on either side.

“And we are inside their antiteleportation field.”

“I presume that’s an airlock now,” Skylar said.

“Yeah, if it’s like other ships, that door shut automatically and became an airlock when the portal blew.”

Maxwell landed near the large three meter tall door. The craft’s legs thunked down on the metal tarmac.

He grinned at Skylar and said, “I’ll stay here. You go do your thing. Find their Captain ASAP.”

She smiled back at him, flickered several times, and disappeared.


Horton stood on the bridge of the Coral Reef with First Officer Ahmed and his pilot, a woman in her 20s named Martha Marsh. Together they watched the bridge’s large holoscreen, currently split into four different views. One showed the Ultima Mule, facing them with its large forward guns in a threatening position. Another showed Coral Reef’s port side, where panels stretched away in the distance until a large jagged hole showed where the landing deck’s portal used to be. Pieces of metal floated nearby from the recent explosion.

Another showed the interior of the landing deck. It was mostly dark. Not much could be seen without power down there. But Horton knew a transport from the pirate ship had recently landed inside.

The fourth showed the entrance corridor leading to the landing deck, now sealed shut. The few guard bots and soldiers on the ship streamed into the corridor, confused. They ran aimlessly, showing no coordination yet.

Horton jerked his head between the four views, but he could not make any sense of things yet. Were they under attack? Surely it must be so. The explosion on their port side proved it. Yet the warship facing them had not opened fire.

In a calm voice that surprised even him, Horton said, “StarCen, port us away. Immediately.”

“I am sorry Captain Horton. The Lute ship has employed a teleportation mitigation grid on Coral Reef. Your Wu Drive is disabled. You can attempt to leave via standard drive, and I am sending out a request for assistance to the Navy.”

“What? That doesn’t . . . Never mind. If we start moving, will they shoot?”

“That is a probable outcome. However, the Mammoth-class ships such as Coral Reef can absorb tremendous damage before disintegration. I calculate help will arrive before such an outcome.”

Horton blanched. She sounded so casual.

“What . . . what would be the outcome . . . in terms of loss of life?”

“I estimate up to 60 percent loss of all aboard Coral Reef before help arrives.”

“But that’s over half! You can’t . . . we can’t . . .”

Skylar flickered into existence on the bridge. She raised her blaster and pointed it at Horton’s face.

“Surrender this vessel right now, or die.”

Horton’s face grew a shade paler as he stared down the muzzle of the gun pointed at him by this beautiful young woman.

He froze, displaying the proverbial deer in the headlights look.

Skylar flicked her wrist and shot at his shoulder.



Horton crumpled into a ball on the floor, blood streaming out from the chunk of flesh missing from his arm.

“Next one’s your head, Captain. Then I start on your crew. Then I start killing your passengers. You can stop the bloodshed right now by surrendering.”

“Okay. Okay! Just don’t shoot!”

Unsteadily, he climbed to his feet, blood dripping to the floor. Ahmed and Marsh gaped openly at the wounded Captain, their heads swiveling between him and the white-haired beauty with the gun.

“Do it now!”

Skylar’s finger tightened on the trigger.

“Okay! StarCen, this is Captain Otto Willoby Horton. I hereby surrender Coral Reef to the forces arrayed against her. Make a note in the record that this action is taken under duress.”

StarCen said, “Understood, Captain. I am now relinquishing control of this ship to LuteNet.”

Skylar kept her gun pointed at Horton while she fingered the implant under her ear. She made a neural connection to Raleigh and said, “Captain, the ship is yours. I have three officers on the bridge who need escorts to their quarters. Armed resistance seems heaviest in the entrance corridor from the landing deck. I suggest Lootie lock that corridor off for now.”

Raleigh said, “Thanks, Skylar. Again.”

Escobar and another pirate popped into existence on the bridge, guns drawn.

Escobar said, “Alright. Everybody to the elevator.”

“I need medical attention!” Horton snarled.

Escobar glanced at his injury. He said, “And, you’ll get it. After we get you safely to your quarters.”

With a look of wounded dignity, Horton reluctantly went with his First Officer and pilot to the elevator. Escobar and his partner followed. He smiled at Skylar as they passed.


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