Raleigh determined Estes was stuck in orbit until he could find at least one pilot who understood how to program interstellar jumps by hand. Evidently his previous two had quit on him. Raleigh exchanged information with the other Captain and asked Estes to contact him before leaving.

As for Estes’s passenger arriving on the Salamander, he was evidently Julia’s husband while Julia was pretending to be someone else. Somehow the guy tracked her to Lute.

Privately, Raleigh thought that if Julia had played it cool, she could have gotten away from Biff altogether. But, she actually seemed delighted to see the man she had abandoned back on Juventas. That sort of enthusiasm was hard to fake, he thought. She also completely changed her plans.

Raleigh suggested they all retire to a restaurant nearby to rest and catch up on things. Biff gave him a distraught look that suggested he was low on funds, so Raleigh immediately offered to pay for everybody.

Then he asked LuteNet to port them over to another building’s rooftop, the one housing the restaurant in question. This proved to be another big surprise for Biff, who was unused to terrestrial teleportation. He followed the others to an elevator entrance, and they went down to an elegant restaurant offering excellent views of the city from a private dining suite.

“You’re probably suffering from weeks of ship food,” Raleigh said. “Order whatever you want. I’m having a steak, myself.”

Emboldened by his host’s choice, Biff also ordered a steak while trying to ignore the prices on the hologram menu hovering over the table.

Once the robot waitress left with their orders, Biff glanced over at the beautiful woman beside him. The voice sounded like Andi, but her face had changed.

“I still can’t believe I found you. But, you look totally different. What happened?”

Julia said, “This is actually my real face. I’ve lived the last year or so on Juventas wearing a . . . another face. It’s some advanced technology.”

“So, that woman who took a skybus near our place, and then left on the Coral Reef . . . Catarina Mulligan? That was you, right?”

Julia smiled and nodded. She said, “That’s my husband. Good detective skills, Officer.”

Raleigh cleared his throat. Jillian sat on one side of him, Granny on the other. Biff and Julia looked across the table at him.

He said, “Speaking of law enforcement . . . if you are planning on bringing Julia back to Juventas in custody, we might have a problem.”

Biff said, “The 400 kilo gorilla in the room, huh?”

They paused as the waitress bot returned with their first round of appetizers. She was much more utilitarian than the bartender android Biff spoke with back on Petra Roe. Humanoid in appearance, down to five articulated fingers on each hand, she was composed of a metal alloy that gleamed dully. Someone had given her wig and a skirt. Her round red electronic eyes above a speaker slit for her mouth completed the look.

No one said anything while the bot set out plates filled with gourmet French fries and breaded balls of poshbird and dipping sauce.

When she left, Biff turned to Julia and said, “I just want to know if it’s true. Did you really kill Lopez and her guards? How? Why?”

Julia sighed and said, “Tetrarch Lopez was about to send a nuclear missile down on Yorkton. It would have killed almost everybody, including you.”

He stared at her and she did not blink. He nodded slowly. She was telling the truth.

He said, “I know about the nuke. It’s not public knowledge, but the CCPF learned about it and NCIS knows, too. I just . . . I mean, my wife . . . You killed three people with a . . . a hairpin?”

“It’s not like I enjoyed it or anything. But it had to be done. Like I said, millions of lives were literally hanging in the balance at that moment. But if I could have done anything different, I would have. I was actually trying to help Lopez resist my f—the other Tetrarchs. Instead, I’m afraid I played right into their hands.”

When they finished the meal, Raleigh offered Biff a room at Mule Tower. Biff thanked him, as his funds were indeed running low. Julia offered to show him the town, and suggested they could spend some time alone before heading to the tower for the evening.

Granny, Jillian, and Raleigh said their goodbyes to the couple, and LuteNet ported them home.

Back in his office, alone, Raleigh said, “Keep an eye on them Lootie. Do not let Biff Jones assault Julia in anyway without sounding the alarm. Also do not let him try to drag her off the planet by force. He seems okay, and he’s saying all the right words, but he just got here. I don’t fully trust him, yet.”

“Will do, Captain.”


Melanie walked quickly away from the transport, not even bothering to look back at her former crewmates.

On the elevator down into the Administration Building, she mentally adjusted her mindset. She was changing from a crew hussy to a sophisticated businesswoman. And the first order of business was buying a new set of clothes.

Truth to tell, she thought to herself, she had fun playing the hussy. Smuggling operations were criminal enterprises, officially frowned upon by StarCen. It was her duty as an agent for SSI to undermine and destroy such operations whenever possible.

Maybe she had not fully succeeded in shutting down the Salamander, and in truth a belly buster bomb in its crew quarters would have been the best solution. But she at least disrupted the cohesiveness of the crew. And, that lush of a Captain would likely have a hard time finding qualified pilots on this backwater planet. She had effectively marooned the Salamander for the near future, and walked away proud of her accomplishments.

She spent the next couple of hours trying on outfits in Port Ryan’s shopping district. Later, when she was more suitably attired with several new items including fresh underwear and comfortable shoes, she summoned a skycab and made her way to a hotel where she booked a room under her Republican alias. She paid in credit tokens and dropped off her shopping bags.

She grabbed a quick bite to eat at the hotel restaurant, then took a skycab back to the Administration Building. Extensive work was taking place as she entered, with chunks of the marble floor being replaced. Maybe they were remodeling, she thought.

She discovered this sparsely populated planet did not have its own spaceport, so passengers often ported down directly to the AB. Melanie found a floating sign indicating which ships were arriving soon, then asked for directions to the Embarkation/Disembarkation Zone.

She found herself in a large area with a handful of other people waiting for passengers to show up from the next ship. She stood, impatiently tapping her foot, not bothering with neural entertainment options.

Soon, people began trickling out of Customs. She examined each group carefully, waiting for her asset to arrive.

Finally, Collin Todd walked out. He saw her right away. He looked grief-stricken, and he did not even smile when she ran up and threw her arms around him.

Instead, he burst into tears. He said, “Natasha, if I’d known they were going to take Ma, I never would have agreed to this!”

She shushed him the best way she knew how, by kissing him on the lips and slipping her tongue in. Hopefully, she thought, the local AI did not pick up his comments and make too much of them.

When they came up for air, she said, “I understand it was perfectly natural, Collin. It was just a matter of timing. Come on. Let’s get out of here and relax for a while before we go see her. The funeral home has been waiting for you to arrive before she’s interred.”

Together the SSI agent currently known as Natasha Krizinksi, previously known as Melanie Polansky, and her asset, a programmer for Republican Shipworks named Collin Todd, left the Administration Building and headed to her hotel room.


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