“I don’t understand why she has to be here.”
Jillian’s voice had an edge to it. Raleigh reached down and squeezed her hand in a comforting gesture.
He said, “It’s traditional to have a face-to-face when discussing major plans. No big deal.”
“She asked you and you said yes. You could have handled it over the neural net.”
“That would be rude, Jillian. Besides, we’re going to have to face Krystal at some point or other anyway.”
“Why now? Later is better. Later is always better with her.”
“This won’t take long, sweetheart. Just bear with it, and I’ll try to do the same when I meet your father.”
“Oh, right. Like that’s ever going to happen.”
The Chanticleer’s transport burst through the hazy red force field leading into the Mule’s landing bay. Its pilot flew closer to the party waiting for them near the door before setting the craft down gently. Granny stood next to Maxwell, who in turn stood beside Raleigh and Jillian.
The door opened and Lightfoot stepped out, followed by an older muscular man with thick white hair.
Jillian lifted an eyebrow while catching her first sight of Krystal Lightfoot. She stood relatively short at five foot five or 165 centimeters. She had medium brown hair down to her shoulders, and an unusually attractive face showing hints of American Indian ancestry.
Jillian felt good about her own looks. She had no doubt she appeared attractive to others. But this woman had something else: an overwhelming sense of confidence. Lightfoot approached them with the surety of someone used to giving orders and seeing them obeyed.
“What’s she wearing, a cat suit?” Granny said softly.
Indeed, Jillian thought. Lightfoot wore a skintight black leather outfit with a zipper in front pulled down and showing ample cleavage.
“That or a dominatrix outfit,” Maxwell said.
Granny cackled. She bent her head to look past Maxwell at Jillian and said, “I bet she’s just wearing that to piss you off.”
Jillian looked up at Raleigh’s face and said, “Does she normally wear that sort of thing? Have you ever seen her in that outfit before?”
She watched his eyes and could not decide if he was lying or not.
The two newcomers finally reached them.
Lightfoot said, “Hello, Chris! Max, Granny. And you must be Jillian. I’m Krystal.”
Everybody murmured polite greetings.
Lightfoot said, “This is my first mate, Dergus Gibbons. He’s from Farguard.”
Jillian did not like the subtle emphasis Lightfoot placed on “mate.” She noted everyone else giving Gibbons appraising looks.
He said, “On Farguard, the gravity is much stronger than everywhere else, yah? I have trouble keeping my strength up off my home planet. But Captain Krystal, she finds ways, yah?”
Granny’s cigar quivered in her mouth. Maxwell shot her a warning glance, but she just could not help it. She had to say something.
“I’ll bet,” she said in a soft voice.
“Right!” Raleigh said, changing the subject. “Let’s go up to the conference room, shall we?”
The party headed down the assault corridor. Granny fell in beside the large first mate.
She said, “So, how is the Chant Clear doing these days?”
“That’s not how you pronounce it,” Lightfoot said over her shoulder, a hint of annoyance coloring her tone.
“Whatever,” Granny retorted. “That’s what happens when English majors name their ships. You come up with something nobody’s heard of and can’t pronounce.”
“English majors? My father named the Chaucer Company, and our ship. Besides, I wouldn’t be talking about odd names, were I you. The Ultima Mule?”
“It’s a play on words,” Raleigh said in a defensive tone. “Ultima Thule was the name given to the farthest discovered object in Old Earth’s solar system back in the day. Since we have the animal thing going, I thought ‘Ultima Mule’ was a good idea.”
The elevator door dinged open and Maxwell, Raleigh, Jillian, and Krystal crowded in.
Granny grabbed Gibbons by the arm, holding him back.
She said, “Come on, Goebbels, let me give you a tour of the ship while the bigwigs do the talking.”
“It’s Gibbons, yah?”
“Yah. Is that the German ‘ja’ or the English ‘yah?’ Never mind. This way.”
She angled him back away from the elevator. He shared a look of alarm with Lightfoot.
As the door swished shut, Granny said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever met a man your age in as good a shape as you are . . .”
“I am from Farguard.”
The elevator opened again and Raleigh led the way down another hallway.
Before they came to the door, Pak approached them.
He said, “Captain, we’ve got some readings you need to see. Mr. Maxwell, you might be interested in this too.”
Raleigh smiled at the women as the door opened to the conference room.
He said, “I’m sorry. This won’t take long, I’ll be right back. Krystal, there’s drinks and snacks in there. Help yourself.”
And with that, the two women found themselves alone in the conference room.
“So . . .” Lightfoot strolled over to a fruit bowl in the middle of the table and plucked out an apple. “How’s married life?”
“Wonderful,” Jillian said with a smile. She moved to the head of the table where two seats were positioned side by side and sat down in one of them.
Seeing this, Lightfoot took a seat and munched on the apple for a while, watching her.
Finally she swallowed and said, “I have a theory.”
Jillian raised a questioning eyebrow.
Lightfoot said, “Yes, a theory. Girls are attracted to powerful men. Do you know how restaurants used to be, all staffed by people instead of bots? They used to have fast food places on every corner filled with young employees. The girls who went to work in these places would always go for the hot male manager. Why? Because he had power. That’s an aphrodisiac.”
Jillian said nothing, wondering where she was going with this. Lightfoot took another bite from her apple.
“So, I see the daughter of the Tetrarch. And you know power. Your father is one of the most powerful men in existence. But you ended up captured, didn’t you? And suddenly you were in a whole new world, a world where the Captain of a pirate ship holds tremendous power. In our world, ‘Captain’ is always spelled with a capital ‘C.’ And just like the teenager in a fast food restaurant falling for the manager, you found yourself falling for Chris.”
“Is that right? And I suppose it was different with you, since you’re the Captain of your own ship?”
Krystal smiled, enigmatically. “You catch on quick. That’s precisely right. Chris and I met as equals, and we held equal attraction. That is the difference between you and me.”
“Ah, I see. Well, here’s another difference between you and me.”
Lightfoot waited, a fake polite smile plastered on her face.
Jillian said, “He married me.”