Niles Sergio ported down to Petra Roe in the early rounds of first class disembarkation. He had been the proverbial life of the party, providing countless hours of story telling and rich conversation.

He felt pretty good. He had made up for the paucity of fellowship in Mule Tower. Three women had been led to believe that real human actresses still played important roles in holos, and that he could very well land them such roles.

They all left with hope in their hearts, not knowing he had already shuttled their contact info to his recycle bin.

As he ported down to the surface, he felt that now at last he would be able to access his accounts, presuming of course his stepmother had not frozen them or something in his absence.

Privately he doubted she could do that. She could cut off the flow of funds, but what was in his accounts should still be there. At least, so he hoped.

Petra Roe had no AI of its own, but as an avowed neutral planet it maintained ties to both PLAIR and StarCen. They took turns in porting people from PR spacecraft. This time it was StarCen’s turn for the Parasol.

Niles did not care. All he wanted was to get down there and book a ride home to Epsilon as soon as possible.

When he stepped out of the embarkation/disembarkation zone, he was surprised to be met by a welcoming committee comprised of Petra Roe police and League Embassy officials.

A stern-faced woman identifying herself as an SSI official suggested he accompany them to the embassy.

Pale and nervous, with no idea what this was all about, Sergio reluctantly agreed to accompany the party to the embassy. Not that he had any real choice in the matter.

There, in a bare interrogation chamber, he discovered he was the prime suspect in leaking information regarding a bank drone shipment the Ultima Mule Company intercepted.

He also discovered, to his horror, that considerable circumstantial evidence tainted him. He had been released almost immediately after the drone was broken into.

At this point Niles began to loudly proclaim his innocence. He called on StarCen to back up his assertions that he was not to blame.

StarCen did indicate that no communications of any kind had been received by Sergio after his capture on the Coral Reef. However, she also could neither confirm nor deny that Sergio had any knowledge of the bank drone’s schedule.

“That’s preposterous!” he said, shaking a fist at the ceiling. “How in the world would I know that? I produce entertainment. I don’t give a rip about bank drone schedules.”

Finally, an idea struck him. He demanded to bring in Marshal Miller Metger, who had almost been able to rescue him. Marshal Metger would back him up and attest that Niles had no knowledge of any bank drone schedules.

Referring to the Marshal’s Service broke the logjam. No one present had been aware of the aborted rescue attempt by Metger. Sergio’s bona fides were immediately enhanced.

An effort was made to conference the Marshal in via hologram. It took the League Ambassador pulling a few strings to finally get the man on the line.

When Metger’s hologram showed in the interrogation room at last, he confirmed Sergio’s story. Metger had indeed gone to Mule Tower on a separate mission, and found Niles in confinement there. He tried to bring Niles home, but bureaucratic loopholes on Lute prevented him from doing so. No, he had no idea about any drone shipments, and Niles had mentioned nothing of the sort.

The Marshal’s statements corroborating his story took considerable heat off Sergio, but Petra Roe law enforcement still demanded a kilo of flesh for the bank heist. After discussing the matter with League officials, they all agreed Niles should stay on Petra Roe as a person of interest until a full investigation could be conducted. Sergio would remain as a guest in the League Embassy and not be allowed to leave until the investigation concluded.

To his dismay, Sergio found himself being led to a small room in the embassy’s basement, a much less accommodating space than he enjoyed on Lute. Nor, he learned, would he be allowed to roam the embassy at will. He was expected to stay in the small, 20 square meter room.

The door shut, locking behind him, and he felt despair as he looked around the windowless room, with a simple sink, toilet and bunk bed . . . and nothing else.

Tentatively, he reached out in his mind on the neural net to look for the quantum matrix. Here in the embassy, he found he was connected to the League’s news and entertainment services. That provided some small solace for his change in circumstances.

For the next several hours, he caught up on what was happening from the League’s perspective, and he glanced over the shows that he was behind on watching.

Several hours later, he was ready to retire for the night, his first under house arrest on Petra Roe.

Before going to sleep he said, “StarCen? What is the status of my investigation?”

“The investigation into the bank drone heist is ongoing.”

“What is your estimate of time to completion?”

“There are too many variables to give a firm estimate. At the moment we are looking at a span of time ranging anywhere from one month to two years.”

Sergio’s heart sank.

He turned over on the lumpy mattress and pulled the sheet over his head. He stared at the toilet and sink combo in the other corner of the room. At least the accommodations on Lute were not . . . barbaric . . .

Inspiration struck.

“StarCen? I have the ability to communicate with others, right?”

“That is correct, Niles Sergio, so long as they are individuals within the League. Wartime restrictions apply.”

“Please connect me with Antonio Escarra, of the Epsilon Beacon. Tell him I have a story to tell.”

Several minutes later, Antonio Eduardo Epsilon-Escarra’s hologram appeared in the small holding room with Sergio. They had been drinking buddies back in college. Escarra now worked at the most important news organization in the League. Like everyone else, he knew little of what happened to Sergio. He had heard about the Coral Reef’s capture, then . . . nothing.

Sergio spent the better part of an hour telling him everything. He started with details about the pirates capturing the ship, then his travails in coming up with the ransom money, then the months spent in Mule Tower and the abortive attempt by the Marshal to bring him home. Finally he was released, only to find himself subject to suspicion about a drone heist he knew nothing about.

He tried to make it an honest portrayal of events, unlike the yarns he told to other passengers back on the Parasol.

“Don’t worry, buddy,” Escarra said when he finished. “We will get this story out there. I’ll write it up in such a way to avoid the censors. You do make the pirates look sympathetic, though. The Republic, too. We’ll have to be careful about our tone.”

“I’m sure you can handle it, Tony. Write it the way you need to. If I ever get back to Epsilon, I want to make a holo about this. You’ll get credit, if it comes off well.”

Escarra smiled. Stories that became holos could be lucrative, as well as reputation-enhancing.

Sergio said, “I want this to focus more on me than on bashing the Republic or the pirates. Write it so that I look sympathetic. Don’t waste time trying to make them look bad. We get enough of that everywhere else.”

Escarra’s eyes drifted away in thought for a moment. When they came back he said, “Have you heard about the Resistance movement at Epsilon U?”

“No. I’m just now catching up on the news from while I was gone.”

“Evidently, among the young, there is growing resentment about the war and . . . other things. This story might tie into that groundswell. I’ll have to be careful, of course. There are lines I can’t cross. But . . . your tale might become the story of the year. It might be the biggest thing since we blew the lid on the Gemini Project.”

They shook hands, virtually, and Escarra departed.

Sergio crawled back into the lumpy bed and closed his eyes. He allowed himself a brief moment of hope that things would take a turn for the better. Then he fell asleep.


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