After Olivia’s gloating subspace call, Jeanine plots her next move.
Minutes later, in my office, I gave Drake a quick summary of my conversation with Olivia. From his expression, he immediately understood the consequences of it.
“So much for our plan to keep things hidden from the Star Stone.” He stopped pacing and looked at me, “We’ve got to get Jana, Kelly, and Tilly off that planet as soon as possible. Knowing the three of them, they’ll insist on bringing Fox and his friend, too. I’ll tell them to get back to the Rising Star immediately and lift off.”
I shook my head, “I don’t think that will work. Olivia swore they’d never get away, and she looked pretty damned confident about it. She probably already has everything in place to ensure that, too. I can’t imagine her telling me unless she did.”
“I know you, babe, there’s no way you’re going to abandon them to Olivia and her government thugs. What do you have in mind?”
I considered getting out the writing tablet and having Drake use the tap code, but the Star Stone already knew everything I had wanted to keep hidden from it. Whatever it was capable of, I felt certain direct control of Recognized individuals — even those born to Recognized mothers — wasn’t in its bag of tricks. Otherwise, it would have compelled me — its greatest enemy next to Jana — to do its bidding.
From what Jana told Drake of her conversation with the Star Stone, I got the idea it could subtly manipulate emotions. I also made the potentially dangerous assumption that people who were Recognized as adults were immune to such manipulation or, at least, less susceptible to it. God knows I hoped that was true.
I yanked myself away from that train of thought and considered what I should do next. “What are the odds the RIA has found the Rising Star?”
Drake thought for a moment before saying, “Pretty slim. Converted Helldiver blockade runners are pretty common throughout the Star Kingdom — so common there could be as many as a thousand of them on Xapreathea right now. Olivia’s agents might have identified all the Helldivers, but they won’t have had time to dig through their registrations, yet. Even then, the Rising Star will be hard to identify. Its new name — I think Kelly chose Dragonstar — is legally registered in the Duchy of Neert. That will attract suspicion, but so will the other Helldivers registered through Neert.”
“I sense another ‘but’ in there.”
“But they’ll have every Neert-registered Helldiver watched. You can be sure lots of heavily armed government troops will descend on anyone who approaches one of those ships.”
I considered that. “Tilly is a thief. Do you think she can find a way to sneak everyone on board?”
Drake shrugged, “Your guess is as good as mine. Even if she could, I don’t think it will matter. In Olivia’s place, I’d have the Royal Navy on high alert, ready to intercept any ship making an unauthorized departure from Xapreathea.”
“That’s why we’re sending Grant to Xapreathea, remember? If he can calculate a hyperspace jump from just outside the planet’s atmosphere, they can get away just like you and I did from Gaunner after your old crew broke me out of Olivia’s palace.”
Drake nodded, still not happy with the idea of sending Grant into danger. “Have you called and asked him, yet?”
“I was just about to do that but wanted to fill you in on my conversation with Olivia, first. Do you want to stay for the call?”
Drake sighed, “Yeah, I think I’d better if for no other reason then it’ll save you telling me about it later.”
I had the tech manning the subspace communications array placed the call. A few minutes later, she put it through to me and Grant’s curious face appeared on the screen.
“Hey, Skipper!” Grant grinned. “What can I do for you and her most illustrious Grace Lady Jeanine Duchess of Neert and Gaunner?”
As I outlined the situation facing our three friends Grant’s grin vanished, replaced by a somber and concerned expression. “Grant, I need the best astrogator in the Star Kingdom on their ship with them when they take off. You’ll have to find a way to jump out of the system before the Royal Navy blasts the ship to atoms. Can you do it?”
Grant scratched his head and looked thoughtful. “Maybe… Xapreathea has something like ten times the space traffic of any other planet in the kingdom. I can plot a course to get them into hyperspace a lot sooner than normal, but I don’t think I could pull off another edge-of-the-atmosphere jump like I did back on Gaunner. There’s just too much stuff flying above Xapreathea.”
Drake leaned over my shoulder, “From the time you break atmo, how long do you think it will take before you can make the jump?”
Grant’s eyes went out of focus for a moment, then he answered, “Twenty minutes? Maybe fifteen if we’re lucky.”
Drake dropped his forehead on my shoulder, “The Royal Navy will destroy them within five minutes.”
“I’m sorry, Skipper, that’s the best I can offer.” Grant’s eyes shifted to me, “Have you got a ship waiting for me? I can be onboard in a matter of minutes.”
“You just told me it was impossible to get away before the Royal Navy destroys the ship.”
Grant shrugged, “We might get lucky. I’m willing to risk it. Kelly would do the same thing for me.”
The matter-of-fact way Grant said that astounded me. I found myself blinking back tears at his ready willingness to put his life on the line for the slimmest of chances he could save his friend.
Damn the Royal Navy.
Damn Xapreathea and all the space traffic around it.
And damn me for putting my friends into this position.
If only there was a way to distract the Royal Navy…
“Oh, holy hell!” I cried. “Drake, I know how we can get the Royal Navy off Grant’s back. At least, I think I know a way we can distract them long enough for him to plot that jump.”
In unison, Grant and Drake asked, “How?”
“I think it’s time your rebellion started earning its keep.”
“What are you suggesting?” Drake asked.
“I’m suggesting it’s about damned time the rebels made their first move. How long will it take to ready the rebel fleet for a jump to Xapreathea?”
While Jeanine and Drake plot a surprise for Olivia and the Royal Navy, what have Jana and her friends been doing? Find out in Chapter 28, coming Monday.