Ultima Mule popped into existence in orbit around Halcyon. Everyone onboard looked at the nearest holoscreen and watched her sun cresting the edge of the planet.
“It’s beautiful,” Jillian said on the bridge with Raleigh.
He grunted in a non-committed tone, his mind on other things besides the scenery.
Raleigh said, “Tell us more about this planet, Lootie. Seems kind of useless.”
“Halcyon was discovered to be life bearing approximately four years ago. The League claimed it and had begun initial efforts at colonization when hostilities commenced. Since then they have not revisited the planet.”
Jillian said, “Really? That seems harsh. Why haven’t they at least dropped in with a supply boat or something?”
“For one thing, Jillian Thrall, the planet is too close to the disputed Seychar system. Odds are strong that StarCen calculated there was too high a risk to send vessels this way. Therefore, the planet has remained in a state of bureaucratic limbo.”
“And we think the damaged League ship from Seychar will show up here?” Jillian said.
“It’s probably a case of ‘any port in a storm.’ Right Lootie?”
“That is correct, Captain. I predict a 75 percent chance of the ship arriving soon.”
“Alright. Prepare us accordingly and let us know the second she shows up.”
“Will do, Captain.”
The lights flashed red and StarCen’s voice sounded repeatedly throughout the corridors.
“Prepare to abandon ship. Evacuate to the flight deck. Prepare to abandon ship . . .”
The elevator door opened and Benson rushed out with Chung. They went straight for the tarmac.
The lights flickered on the flight deck, showing the structural damage. Both officers glanced toward the portal, still covered in a red glowing force field. Stars flickered hazily with every jump.
“Thank God the portal is intact,” Benson said. “StarCen, is the ship in danger of breaking apart?”
“It will become uninhabitable within hours, Captain Benson. Life support is critically damaged. Air is not being recirculated. Outer parts of the hull are unstable and exposed to space. An immediate evacuation is necessary.”
A handful of people stood on the tarmac in front of one of the transports. Chung and Benson joined them. Then a handful of others came from the elevator.
StarCen said, “Captain Benson, all remaining Navy personnel onboard are on the flight deck and accounted for.”
Benson stared at the small crowd of sailors around her.
“So few. Are you sure there are no more living? Are there any injured? Is anyone immobile who can’t make their way to an elevator?”
“No, Captain Benson. Anyone who can make it is present.”
Benson stared at the people around her. These were her people, under her care and authority. She felt she had let them all down.
StarCen said, “The Excelsior will be in orbit around Halcyon in eleven seconds. Ten. Nine. Eight . . .”
“Everybody get on board. Curly, you can pilot this thing. Do it.”
A large bald man nodded, walked up the ramp and sat down in the pilot’s chair. Others filed in behind him.
“Your ship is now in orbit around Halcyon. Warning. A private warship is also in orbit. You have been spotted. The ship has moved into position nearby.”
“Pirates,” Chung said.
Benson pointed to the ramp for the last few people. They rushed onboard to buckle into the seats.
The last young woman about to board threw her hands up. She turned around to go back. Chung stopped her with an arm across her chest.
He said, “Get onboard. Do not go back.”
“I can’t! I can’t do this! Don’t you understand? I just can’t!”
She struggled to get away from him. He tightened his arm around her middle and picked her up to carry her back to the transport. She squirmed and screamed, completely out of control.
Chung lost his grip and she fell to the floor. She crouched up, preparing to make a run for it. He reached down and thumped her behind the ear, knocking her out. She collapsed flat on the tarmac.
He reached down and picked her up in both arms. He brought her into the transport, placed her in a chair and strapped her in.
Chung looked out the doorway again and noticed the Captain standing there. He went back out to join her.
StarCen said, “Captain Benson, the privateer demands your immediate surrender. What should I tell him?”
Benson locked eyes with Chung. She said, “Well. I guess our luck has run out.”
Chung said nothing. He waited for her decision.
She said, “The ship cannot be forfeited so long as a League sailor remains onboard and conscious.”
She made it a statement instead of a question. Both knew the answer.
StarCen said, “That is correct, Captain Benson.”
She looked back up at Chung and smiled.
“Get onboard, XO. Get my surviving people down to the surface. StarCen will send a rescue vessel shortly.”
“What about you, ma’am?”
“There is no way I am giving up this ship to the enemy. Now, go.”
She pointed at the doorway. Everybody inside watched as Chung nodded.
Benson turned back toward the elevator. Chung swung around and thumped her on the back of the head behind her ear. She collapsed to the floor.
He reached down and picked her up, just as he had done with the other crewmember. He brought her onboard the transport and strapped her in.
To the ensign in the chair next to her, he said, “When she comes to, tell her I still would.”
“You still would?”
He nodded. “She’ll know what it means.”
He went back to the door and pointed at the pilot.
“Take off, Curly! Head to the planet’s surface and wait for rescue.”
“Aye, aye, sir!”
Chung headed for the elevator while Curly flipped a switch. The ramp pulled in and the door to the transport closed. It rose a meter above the tarmac, and Curly pushed forward on the control stick. The transport rushed through the portal, and he pointed it down toward the surface.