On the second floor of the Yorkton spaceport terminal, in a deserted embarkation/disembarkation zone, a remote AI scanner the size and shape of a soup can popped into existence half a meter in the air and dropped to the floor.
It landed on a flat edge, and thus did not roll away. It silently collected data for a moment and sent it back to LuteNet via the Ultima Mule, gathering information about the current planetary motion of Juventas and other pertinent details she needed.
A few seconds passed, then Officer Biffender Jones and Julia Thrall appeared, five centimeters above the floor.
Their feet hit the surface simultaneously. They had bent their knees before departing, in expectation of the short drop. Julia waved her arms in circles to maintain balance.
Biff smiled at her as they both straightened. He said, “Beats having the bottom of your foot materialize in the tile.”
Julia smiled back. She wore her Catarina Mulligan face, having changed it just before porting. She still wore her framer, disguised as a charm on a necklace around her neck. She no longer needed to wear it once the change was made, but having it around her neck helped her keep track of it while traveling.
She said, “Let’s go find the target.”
The door opened for them as they walked out into a spacious but deserted corridor.
“This is the second floor,” Biff said. “All Republican ship boarding and departures used to occur up here, before the war. Needless to say, it’s been locked up for the last three years.”
He pointed the way to a stairwell, the doorway clearly marked against a far wall. As they approached, they realized the palm panel at the door glowed red.
Biff put his hand on the panel and said, “Officer Jones, Biffender. SSPF badge number 3-4-9-2. Requesting access.”
The panel turned green and the door slid open.
Biff waved Julia through, then followed. They quickly went down the stairwell and walked out into another corridor, identical to the one above. But this one had people walking about. Nobody looked at them too closely, hurrying to departure zones or the building’s exit.
“How are we going to find her?” Julia said.
“I’m a cop, remember? StarCen, I need to locate Natasha Krizinksi.”
StarCen said, “Natasha Krizinksi is in the spaceport, Officer Jones. She is to your right, about 200 meters away in the main corridor.”
Biff and Julia turned and broke into a jog, passing startled passengers along the way.
Raleigh, Jillian, Skylar, Granny, and Maxwell watched the holoscreen on the bridge of the Ultima Mule as Julia and Biff walked out of the disembarkation room.
“Are you still able to track them, Lootie?”
LuteNet’s voice came from the ceiling. She said, “Yes, Captain. As long as they stay in or near the spaceport, I can tell what is going on with this sensor.”
“Any chance StarCen will pick up on your sensor?”
“I do not think so, Captain. However, there is a risk the Ultima Mule will be detected. Ever since our last venture into a League solar system, and bearing in mind that we are considerably closer to a populated planet this time, there is an estimated 50 percent chance we will be noticed.”
Everyone shifted uneasily. Right now, the Mule was parked in a wide open empty spot, less than one astronomical unit away from Juventas. Ordinarily, such a long distance terrestrial port of humans would be discouraged by the AIs, but LuteNet felt confident if she had a sensor in the desired location she could get Biff and Julia within a safe margin. The math was certainly more complex, with a large planetary body in motion and their ship not parked in its orbit, but with a sensor she felt confident in the chances of success. So, Biff and Julia placed their trust in LuteNet.
They had said their goodbyes moments earlier. Jillian and Julia shed a few tears. Raleigh took Biff aside and gave him some more credit tokens.
He said, “These are worth 10,000 each, so that’s 100,000 credits. You might need it.”
“I can’t take this, Captain.”
“It’s not charity. It’s to help in the mission. Get that pocket computer back to us. And if you do, you can consider it your share of our payout. You and Julia’s.”
Biff said, “I feel kinda funny helping the enemy like this. But Andi . . . Julia . . . has convinced me. I mean, if Tetrarch Thrall’s own daughters are opposed to the League, and if half of what she told me is true about what we’re doing to our own people . . . I guess I’m on the Republican side of this mess.”
Raleigh shook his hand, then Biff and Julia walked inside to prepare for the long distance port while everybody else moved up to the bridge.
Now, they watched the empty room through the scanner.
“I should be down there with them,” Skylar said.
Jillian said, “Me too.”
“Neither one of you gals would last very long,” Granny said. “StarCen would see you and treat you like a chicken snake in the henhouse. But those two belong down there, even with Ms. Thrall in disguise.”
The women nodded, reluctantly.
Jillian said, “I know. But I feel so helpless stuck up here while they do all the dangerous work.”
The holoscreen switched views suddenly to the ship’s exterior. Four Eagle-class destroyers materialized behind them, forward guns aiming at their aft.
LuteNet said, “Captain, we have been discovered.”
All four ships opened fire at once.