Raleigh thought long and hard about who to send over with Jillian on their first stop. If Julia planned on doing something, she would likely try to overpower those nearby and hold her own sister hostage. It seemed like a reasonable course of action to Raleigh. Maybe she would not harm her own kin, but she probably would not be above using her sibling as a bargaining chip.

One way to prevent this, Raleigh thought, would be to send in a small team, each person armed and keeping a watchful eye on the two.

Jillian would no doubt balk at such a measure. And, if he were being honest with himself, he cared deeply about what Jillian thought and how she felt.

In the end, he decided to send Skylar with her. The two had become close friends, roomed together, and were practically inseparable anyway.

As the hour approached, Raleigh took Skylar aside for a private conversation about the upcoming visit.

He said, “Look, we can’t fully trust Julia Thrall yet. She hasn’t proven herself in any way. Until then, we want to keep a close eye on her. Lootie will be watching, too, and will port both of you out of there at the first sign of trouble. But keep your eyes and ears open.

“I’m going to send you over without a blaster. I don’t want to risk the possibility she grabs it.”

Skylar raised an eyebrow.

He said, “I know, I know. But look how resourceful this woman is. She has evaded everybody for over a year. That is very hard to do these days. I’m not going to underestimate her. You can carry over a blade of some sort. Hide it on your person. And stay alert. Remember, don’t trust her.”

At the first stop, LuteNet ported over Jillian and Skylar to Julia’s stateroom. The two sisters hugged and Jillian introduced Skylar.

Skylar smiled and shook hands. Julia gave no indication of disappointment that she would not have some alone time with her sister. She planned to be careful in what she said to Jillian anyway, so the addition of a third party did not really change much.

Jillian said, “What have you been doing all this time?”

“What have you been doing? Besides dating a pirate captain.”

“You first. Where have you been? What’s going on?”

Julia took a deep breath and said, “Well, I have been on Juventas.”

Her smile dropped. Her face and tone took on a serious air.

She said, “I was trying to work against Dad by empowering Maria Lopez. She was the best hope out of all the other Tetrarchs. She was the most independent of the four, and most likely to rebel.”

Jillian said, “You keep saying, ‘was.’ Did something happen?”

“You could say that. Lopez is dead, and Admiral Cooper is in charge of the Juventas quadrant now.”

“Oh, that’s terrible!”

“Well, sort of. It turns out that Lopez was too independent minded. She was willing to drop a nuclear missile on Yorkton just to take out Cooper’s troops and thwart the overthrow. So . . . she had to be taken out.”

Silence fell in the room as Jillian and Skylar absorbed her words. Skylar found herself wondering if Julia was the one who did the taking out, but she decided not to ask. They could glean details later.

Julia said, “Tell me about your Captain. What’s he like?”

As the observer, Skylar thought this was a great move by Julia to focus the conversation elsewhere. Jillian enthusiastically dove into the tale of how she joined the Ultima Mule Company, their battle at Pegasi, her capture and rescue. The hour seemed to fly by.

When LuteNet broke in to inform the ladies their time was almost up, Jillian hugged her sister and promised to come back over tomorrow.

Raleigh took Skylar aside after supper that night and asked her how the time went.

Skylar said, “She’s definitely hiding something. She’s unwilling to talk about her time on Juventas. She says Tetrarch Lopez is dead and an Admiral by the name of Cooper is in charge now.”

Raleigh asked LuteNet for any news from Juventas, but the AI informed him that sort of information was rarely shared between the warring sides. But, she could confirm the Tetrarch’s death. PLAIR had spies everywhere, just as StarCen likely had on Republican planets. PLAIR was willing to share with LuteNet that her spies could confirm Lopez’s death, but she knew little else of interest.

The days passed quickly as the two ships neared Lute. The stopover hours began adding up. Raleigh explained to Jillian he was switching to every third day.

“Everything is going well over there. I can’t justify daily stops anymore,” he said.

In fact, if it weren’t for Jillian’s desire to see her sister more, he would not feel bad about eliminating most of the stops altogether. He tried to comfort her with the fact they would be getting home earlier.

“Look, you can spend long uninterrupted time with her once we get to Lute. And if we stop less often, we’ll get there sooner.”

This made Jillian feel better. For her part, Julia spent most of the rest of the trip immersed in books and movies.

At long last the ships popped into orbit around their home planet. LuteNet had not revealed their existence in order to mislead StarCen’s spies as long as possible. Their sudden, surprise appearance created a sensation. Correspondents across the globe breathlessly reported the reappearance of the Ultima Mule from her doomed mission, carrying another Mammoth-class transport in tow.

Raleigh’s favorite headline: “Lazarus, Come Forth!” with a picture of both ships in orbit.

At long last, the crew ported down, with the promise of lucrative shares to be deposited in their accounts in the near future.

In Port Ryan they received a hero’s welcome.

A note from jaxonreed

With all the tornado warnings and copious amounts of rain, I stayed inside all weekend and finished up Book 3. It's up on Patreon.

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