“I hope you realize this is suicide,” Granny said.
Gertrude “Granny” Wilcox sat at the conference table in the Captain’s cabin with an unlit cigar clenched in her teeth at a jaunty angle.
“I have to agree with Granny,” Elijah Maxwell, the giant First Officer said. “StarCen is no fool, and you can’t trick her twice the same way. She is going to know something is up with our long-range teleportation technique since it was successfully used on Clarion.”
Raleigh crossed his arms. He looked over at Anthony Kim and Michael Pak, who sat on the same side of the table as Biffender Jones, Julia and Jillian.
“What do you guys think?” he said.
Pak spoke for the two engineers. He said, “Technically, the risks should be about the same. I mean, it shouldn’t matter if it’s a capital planet or not. The solar system is just as vast as before, and they won’t be monitoring every corner of it.”
“That’s gonna be different now, I tell ya,” Granny said. “StarCen has had time to go over what happened at Thrall Manor. She’s going to deduce that the princess here was spirited away by outside teleportation. Since an AI is the only thing capable of terrestrial teleportation, she’ll have figured out that either a Republican or a pirate ship came in to drop people off and pick them up. She’ll be on guard this time.”
Nobody spoke for a moment.
Finally, Raleigh said, “Lootie, what’s your opinion? Do you know anything about what’s going on at Juventas?”
LuteNet’s contralto voice came from the ceiling. She said, “Presently, PLAIR’s sources indicate the Sixth Fleet is stationed at Juventas. However, half of those ships have departed recently. Presently StarCen has only 30 League Navy ships in orbit around Juventas, with 22 destroyers and eight support vessels.”
Everyone’s expressions dropped.
Granny’s cigar drooped. She said, “Suicide. Half a fleet is there waiting for us to show up. We can’t take on two Eagles at the same time, let alone 30 Navy ships at once.”
Raleigh said, “What are the odds we can sneak in and drop off a couple of people at a distance?”
A long pause.
“I do not have enough information to form a qualified risk assessment, Captain. While we were successful the first time, it is entirely possible StarCen may be on the alert now in all League solar systems. Engineer Pak is correct that the space to be covered is large. But, with 30 armed ships at her disposal, StarCen could easily spread them out once she became aware of our presence. That adds a higher level of probability that we will experience interference in the mission.”
“Okay,” Raleigh said. “Say they find us. Can you take counter measures? Port us out of there before things get too hairy?”
“Of course, Captain. Provided they do not have new anti-teleportation measures with which I am unfamiliar, we will be able to port away to safety. The problem will be retrieving the party you send down. While porting, or at too far a distance outside the solar system, I will be unable to bring them back. In order to do so we will need to come close again and stay put for a while, placing the Ultima Mule in greater danger.”
“Alright,” Raleigh said. “That settles it. Lootie can at least get a party in. Whoever goes down will be tasked with recovering that drive. Then it’s up to us to get them back.”
“We’ll go down,” Biff said, looking at Julia.
She nodded and said, “Biff is from there, he needs to get home anyway.”
“Yeah, but you’re not,” Jillian said. “Besides, you’re wanted for murdering the Tetrarch. If SSI doesn’t get you, the Navy will. Or the local cops. No offense, Biff.”
“I’ll return as Catarina Mulligan. StarCen has been programmed to recognize that alias. I think it’ll be okay. Don’t worry, little sister. I’ll be alright.”
Raleigh said, “Lootie, will PLAIR be happy with the destruction of the pocket computer, or does she need it returned intact?”
Over the quantum-matrix, LuteNet and PLAIR conferred with one another, the interaction taking place immediately.
LuteNet said, “Since the device is going to League territory, she would have no way of confirming its destruction. To receive the agreed upon five million credit payment for this mission, she wants it returned intact to an appropriate agent of her choice, or destroyed under my observation.”
“Hm. Well, that complicates matters. The only way it can be destroyed under your observation is onboard this ship.”
Raleigh faced Biff and Julia and said, “We’ve got to stick around in the system until you two are able to send back that computer. Well, nobody ever said making money was easy.”
“That’s exactly opposite of what you told me when you recruited me to join this company,” Granny said. “You said this was the easiest way to make money ever.”
“Did I ever say that?” Raleigh said with a smile. “That doesn’t sound like something I’d say.”
Granny glared at him, the unlit cigar pointing upward at an angle from her clenched teeth.
The seconds ticked down as the Mule raced toward Juventas. Jillian and Julia spent some moments together, each one sensing they would not be seeing one another for some time after parting ways again.
Jillian suggested they go for a walk to help burn off some nervous energy. The sisters strolled the length of the crew deck, then took the elevator to the flight deck.
“Several people use the flight deck as a jogging trail,” Jillian said, leading Julia in a circle around the fighter drones parked on the tarmac.
They stopped at the portal, and looked out through the forcefield at the stars blinking by. Every second a new set of lights appeared as the ship teleported from point to point.
Jillian said, “I really wish you didn’t have to go back there. Why can’t you let Biff go get the pocket computer and come back with us?”
“I appreciate what you and what everybody on Lute is doing in this conflict. But, I’ve invested a ton of time and effort into working against Dad on the inside of the League. There are things going on and people at work that you know nothing about. I can do a much better job on Juventas than I can on Lute.”
Julia took a deep breath and said, “Juventas has a history of yearning for independence, more so than any of the other capital planets. It’s got a strong resistance movement. I think it’s key to toppling the whole Tetrarchy.”
Jillian took a different approach. She said, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get caught? I mean, you murdered Tetrarch Lopez. They’re going to be out for your blood.”
Julia shook her head. She said, “I told you, StarCen’s programming gives us certain privileges. She won’t betray me. She can’t. It’s not in her wiring. The only thing that could trip me up is if somebody did a deep dive on the DNA evidence I left behind. And even then, StarCen will obfuscate things if I’m disguised as someone else.”
“How does that work, exactly? I mean, you’ve told me there’ve been some major hacks, but what has StarCen been programmed to do? And who did it?”
Julia smiled sadly. She said, “Little sister, there are some things you are just better off not knowing. I’ll just say that the efforts arrayed against our father are far larger and more widespread than many people know.”
Jillian suspected Julia would not be sharing much else with her. Instead of trying to pry more out of her, she wrapped her arm around her sister’s and together they watched the stars go by in silence.