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A human porter saw them and rushed over, a quizzical expression on his face. He wore a serving outfit, a universal design resembling an old-fashioned tuxedo with black sleeves and a white shirt.

He said, “Who are you? What’s going on? Is that a cigar? Tobacco is strictly forbidden on all League starships!”

Granny said, “Is that right?”

But she did not remove the cigar.

Raleigh gave him a curious look and said, “Are you not aware this ship has been captured?”

The man’s face dropped. He said, “Captured? By whom? When?”

“During the battle that just occurred. You didn’t hear anything? Explosions? No? I am Captain Christopher Raleigh of the Lute ship Ultima Mule, flying under privateering papers from the Planetary Republic. Everything on this ship belongs to my company now.”

The man’s face drained of color.

“I don’t believe you! StarCen, please respond and inform these visitors they are mistaken.”

Silence.

“StarCen! Please respond!”

LuteNet’s gentle contralto voice sounded in the air nearby instead. She said, “I am sorry, Porter Jeremy Kent. StarCen is no longer present on this ship. You are now on Ultima Mule Company property, under the imprimatur of the Planetary Republic via privateering license number 167.”

The look of absolute horror on Kent’s face might have made Raleigh feel sorry for the man if it was not so comical. He turned and ran away, leaving the area.

Granny watched the man’s back as he rushed for the corridor.

She said, “Where’s he going?”

Raleigh said, “I don’t know. Keep an eye on him, Lootie. Don’t let him off of this deck.”

“Will do, Captain.”

One of the passengers nearby turned in her beach chair and faced them.

She said, “What’s this about a capture?”

She left the chair and walked toward Raleigh and Granny.

Raleigh found himself staring at an incredibly attractive young woman. She wore a white bikini and had a tan that practically glowed. She was perfectly proportioned in all the right places, moving with style, grace, and confidence. She knew she was attractive.

Granny elbowed Raleigh in the ribs.

“Eyes up, Cap! You know, I used to have a body like that when I was her age. About a hundred years ago.”

Raleigh smiled. He said, “You’re in great shape, Granny. Everybody knows that.”

Granny cackled at his remark, and moved the cigar from one side of her mouth to the other while eyeing the young woman. She had long dark hair flowing down her back all the way to her waist. She stood before them with one hand on her hip, a perfect picture of feminine beauty.

LuteNet opened a private connection to Raleigh and Granny over the neural network.

“Captain, this is the passenger I mentioned earlier, in regards to the suspicious records.”

Raleigh shared a meaningful glance with his Quartermaster.

Out loud he said, “There was a battle after we disabled the Wu Drive on this ship. You didn’t hear any explosions or anything?”

She shook her head, and he noticed her eyes twinkle. They were not brown or green or blue, but seemed to have a mixture of colors. He had never seen anything quite like it. He found himself instantly attracted to every part of her, despite all his efforts to remain detached.

She said, “We’re almost literally in the middle of the ship, and no sounds of battle ever reached us. Kent hasn’t said a word. I guess he didn’t know about it, either. So, StarCen is really gone? I heard a different AI’s voice just now. What’s going to happen to us?”

Raleigh said, “Well . . . in a little while, once we get things patched up enough for the ship to travel again, we’ll be taking everyone to Lute. Once there, we will send a request to your home planet for a negotiated fee in exchange for your return, and then you can go back to League territory again.”

“So, we’re to be held for ransom.”

“That’s a more direct way of putting it. But essentially, yes. When we get some money from your loved ones, or whoever, you’ll be free to go.”

She crossed her arms under her breasts, and he couldn’t help but notice how flat her belly looked. She was well toned and obviously exercised on a regular basis. He struggled to keep his eyes locked on hers and not let them wander, but his peripheral vision soaked up everything.

She said, “What if . . . nobody back home wants me?”

He chuckled.

“Surely somebody wants you. Who wouldn’t want you?”

“What if . . .”

She put both hands on her hips and one knee slightly forward, presenting her entire body in the best possible light.

“What if I were to become a pirate? That’s possible, right? People you capture sometimes join up. I’ve read about it. In fact, I bet your company has rules for it. You have to consider anyone making the request, don’t you?”

The Captain and Granny shared yet another glance.

He turned back to the woman and said, “Yes, we do have a process to consider new recruits requesting to join. As to whether or not we would consider you, that would depend on who you really are. Our AI noticed some discrepancies in your record, occurring about the time hostilities between the systems started.”

She nodded, as if this were to be expected. She gave a quick glance around to make sure no one else was listening.

She said, “I’m Jillian Thrall. Tetrarch Julius Thrall’s daughter. And I want to join your company.”

Raleigh’s eyes grew wide and Granny’s jaw dropped. The cigar fell out of her mouth.

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