Twelve miners rode into town at a gallop, rifles jutting out over their horses’ heads like lances.

The townspeople took cover, hiding inside buildings, closing doors and windows.

If there were any question about the men’s intent, they were answered when a sailor stuck his head up from behind a makeshift barricade of broken wagons and lumber piled near the church. The men at the front of the line aimed their rifles and fired. A hail of bullets thudded into wood as the sailor ducked.

Kerpow! Pow! Pow!

“Okay, people.” Benson said over the neural net, “Let ’em have it.”

Sailors popped up all over, stepping out from behind buildings, heads appearing on rooftops. They all carried blasters.

Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!

Green energy bolts rained down on riders and horses. The lead horse reared up on its back legs, tumping its rider out of the saddle. He scrambled for cover on the side of the street. Other riders aimed up at sailors on the rooftops and squeezed off a few more rounds.

Benson watched a handful of her sailors get shot. One tumbled off a roof. Another two fell down in the street.

She muttered several choice words under her breath. Even with inferior weapons, these guys were still able to take some of her people out.

She watched as one sailor ducked behind the façade of a building on its roof. A miner aiming up at her simply shot through the thin wood barrier she hid behind. Benson heard a scream and saw the hole from the slug. She grimaced, aimed carefully, and took the shooter out before he could reload.

Reloading proved to be the tipping point in the brief battle. The muzzle-loading rifles took almost a minute to prepare, requiring awkward maneuvers with gunpowder and Minni balls. Some of the miners had ridden in with three or four weapons ready to shoot, but once they were used, the battle was essentially over.

“Shoot down anyone trying to reload,” Benson said over the neural net.

She heard a few more blasters fire off.

Then it was over. A couple of miners were left standing. They gave up quickly, raising their hands as sailors came out of hiding places with their blasters aimed at the men.


Curly said, “Looks like three of our people are hurt seriously, ma’am. One lightly wounded. Ten bad guys are down, most are dead.”

Benson remembered she had sent Curly and Vargas up in the transport. Now she realized he was watching from above on the vessel’s holoscreen.

“Alright. Stay up there a while longer, Curly.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Benson strode out from the front of the church, heading toward the middle of the street where the two miners were now on their knees, hands behind their heads while sailors pointed blasters at them.

Kilmeade came out from cover and joined her.

“We did it, ma’am.”

Benson nodded and said, “Yes, but at a heavy cost. Those primitive guns are devastating. When they figure out how to make cartridge ammunition . . .”

She shuddered, imagining the carnage.

“Captain, look out!”

Everything slipped into slow motion.

Benson turned, Curly’s warning in her ear. The bullet plunked into her chest, missing her heart by inches. She felt herself thrown backward from the force of the slug, throwing her off balance.

Kilmeade yelled, drew her sidearm and shot toward the doorway of a small shed between the church and the nearest house. Several other sailors saw the gunman too and opened fire, peppering the building with blasts. It erupted in flames and the man fell face-forward, his rifle clattering to the ground, smoke rising from his midsection.

Kilmeade turned her attention to Benson. She knelt down and covered the wound.

“Hang on, Captain. Just hang in there!”

“It was a trap,” Benson said looking up in the sky. She could see a tiny dot up there that she knew must be the transport.

“Yes, ma’am. Just hang on. Curly! Get down here with the medpack! The Captain’s been hit!”


Later, Benson decided she got lucky once again. The town had a doctor. He was able to extract the bullet somehow. She did not ask for details. Evidently an artery was nicked, but the nanobots stopped the damage in time. With the transport’s medpack and swift action by the doctor, she managed to live.

The hidden gunman in the shed turned out to be Darcy himself. He had sneaked into position the previous night, then had his men ride into town. He waited for the firefight to start in hopes of getting a chance to kill Benson.

No one in Wallisville seemed overly upset about his fate, but many lamented the loss of his fortune. Or at least its whereabouts. Mayor Carver dropped by to check on her and told Benson several people would likely be scouting out the known haunts of Darcy and his gang, looking for the gold.

“It’s a huge pile of riches for whoever finds it,” Carver said. “I imagine the town will be mostly empty for a couple weeks until someone happens across it.”

When he left, Curly said, “I can take the transport and reach the mountains before anybody else, Captain. If you think I should go look for his fortune, say the word.”

Benson shook her head, grimacing in pain. The bullet had entered above her right breast. There would be a nasty scar, not that anyone would ever see it, she thought.

She said, “No, it’ll give them something to do, and with fewer people in town maybe we can settle in easier. Besides, a move like that would just stir up resentment. We’ve probably killed somebody’s lover, husband or brother as it is. I don’t want to create any more trouble than we already have.”

Curly nodded. They were back in the church, in the room Benson had been using. The remaining sailors were in the sanctuary or outside on guard duty.

They had to bury some bodies, hold funerals, move into their new quarters, account for all the weapons, secure food, and a dozen other things. Benson did not have time to get shot, she thought.

She sat up, making Curly and Kilmeade jump and try to help. She waved them away.

She said, “Besides, if you go off hunting for Darcy’s fortune, the gold bug will bite you, Curly. And I can’t lose you. You’re the only pilot I have left.”

Curly smiled at her and said, “Navy first, ma’am. Always.”

“You say that now,” she said, returning the smile. “But what if you found a million credits in gold on the ground, just waiting to be picked up?”

“Well, then . . . I’d be a rich Navy man, ma’am.”

“Yeah. Somehow I don’t think the Navy would still be first in that case. A rich man doesn’t need the Navy, for one thing.”

“No, ma’am. But the Navy would still need him. I’m your last pilot, and I’ll be right here until I’m discharged.”

“Good. Good.”

Benson put her feet on the floor and stood, shakily. Kilmeade and Curly were ready to catch her if she fell over, but she managed. The nanobots had already repaired most of her internal damage. She knew she had to take it easy for a few days, but she could be mobile. She had to be.

“Come on. We’ve got a town filled with a bunch of independent-minded gold diggers to take over. Let’s move into City Hall.”


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