An enemy hidden in the shadows
A crack in the armor of secrecy
One chance to find an answer
Captain David Rice and the crew of Red Falcon have spent two years infiltrating the arms smuggling underworld of the Protectorate of the Mage-King of Mars. When the co-opted rebellion on Ardennes reveals a supply chain of weapons intended to fight Mars, this makes them the perfect team to investigate.
His new mission brings him across old friends and old enemies alike, but as his suspects start turning up dead, David realizes he isn’t the only one following the loose ends.
As shadowy enemies move to position themselves for civil war, Red Falcon’s crew must chase an ever-shrinking set of clues. If they succeed, they might just buy the Protectorate peace for their lifetime.
But if they fail…
“You’d think that they’d learn, sooner or later,” Alexander Jeeves noted drily as the red icon of a pirate missile drifted lazily across the bow of their ship and detonated. The warning shot didn’t slow the wiry little gunnery officer in the process of allocating targets and setting up Red Falcon’s weaponry as he spoke, though.
David Rice, Captain of the independent merchant freighter Red Falcon—which just happened to share a hull with the Martian Interstellar Security Service’s covert operations ship KEX-12—chuckled and shook his head as he studied the incoming flotilla.
“Give them credit, Jeeves,” the stocky merchant officer turned covert ops commander replied. “Most of the folks who discovered what we’re actually armed with died in the process. All anyone really knows is that pirates who go after us cease to exist.
“And they brought five whole ships!”
Red Falcon was a Martian Navy–built Armed Auxiliary Fast Heavy Freighter, carrying antimatter engines alongside a civilian jump matrix. Equipped with four Mages, like David’s crew, she could outrun almost anything in space.
Her sister ships in civilian service had had most of their weaponry removed. David, however, had done the Mage-King of Mars some large favors three years before. Red Falcon had come into his hands intact, to the regret of everyone who’d been on her wrong side since.
“I’d dearly love to talk to Mr. Newberry,” his XO observed. Kelly LaMonte was a lithe woman who currently had dark turquoise hair. She was a terrifyingly capable programmer and engineer, and had become his executive officer just over eighteen months earlier.
Isaac Newberry was the man their current cargo—a shipment of unregistered military-grade weapons falling at about three out of five on the illegal scale—belonged to. He was also the only person who’d been supposed to know their actual course, which raised the question of just how the pirates had known they were going to be here.
“Do we reply to their message?” LaMonte continued. “Assuming relatively standard missiles, we’re in their missile range for real shots.”
Which, as his XO had carefully not pointed out, meant that the pirate ships had been in Red Falcon’s range since they’d emerged from their own jump flares twenty minutes before.
“We are hauling an illegal cargo, Officer LaMonte,” David pointed out. “There was always the chance these people might be someone legitimate we were going to have to talk down.”
It had happened before, after all. Red Falcon had very different reputations depending on who you talked to—though, as Jeeves had pointed out, most pirates were terrified of the ship now.
Which meant his new friends probably weren’t going to settle for less than him dumping his magazines and flushing his fuel tanks before they got much nearer. That wasn’t going to happen.
“But since they have sent messages of several types now”—including the warning shot—“I think we can respond in kind. Mr. Jeeves,” he barked, and his gunnery officer sat up straight, hands poised over the console.
“Two lasers for each of our friends, if you please, then follow up with missiles,” he said conversationally. “If we can leave one or two intact-ish, I’m sure Leonhart would love to talk to them about how they found our course.”
Rhianna Leonhart was their security chief, also a Marine Forward Combat Intelligence Captain and the CO of the Marine platoon aboard Red Falcon. Any pirate that ended up in her hands would survive to the custody of appropriate authorities.
They just wouldn’t enjoy said survival.
The fight should have been over before it even started. Lasers were lightspeed weapons, leaving no time to react or to even see the incoming fire, and the pirate commander was still posturing on David’s video screen—giving them thirty seconds to surrender “or else”—when Jeeves hit the button.
Red Falcon’s beam armament rivaled that of a destroyer of the Royal Martian Navy that served the Mage-King of Mars and his Protectorate. Ten five-gigawatt beams lashed out into space, and the five ships that they’d targeted didn’t even dodge.
That should have been the first clue that everything wasn’t as it seemed. The five pirate ships vaporized…into bursts of steam?
“Jeeves?” David asked. “That doesn’t look right!”
“No, no it’s not,” the ex-Navy officer replied. “Please tell me we’re—”
Return laser fire lit up the screens, cutting through the space where Red Falcon would have been if Kelly LaMonte hadn’t fired up the big ship’s engines the moment Jeeves had fired. There was nothing visible on David’s screens, and he growled at his gunnery officer.
“Jeeves? Where the hell are they?”
“Ice shells,” Jeeves replied, which wasn’t really an answer to his Captain’s question. “They strapped engines onto ice shells and used those to replace their own signatures. They gave us easy targets.”
“Okay, so that’s how they hid from us. Where are they?” David demanded again, watching as missiles appeared on the screens to follow up on the laser fire.
There were only four icons now, not five, and their engines were more muted and shielded than the cheap fusion rockets they’d strapped to their decoys. Heat signatures at this range weren’t precise things, but none of the icons were as large as the drones had been, either. They’d been radiating their heat into chunks of frozen water—and their now-visible power levels gave the lie to their apparent size.
“Neither I nor our MISS files know what the hell these guys are,” LaMonte told David sharply as she danced the armed freighter out of the way of another salvo of laser fire. Falcon’s Rapid-Fire Laser Anti-Missile turrets were opening up on the incoming fire, but the math wasn’t looking good.
“They’re small for jump-ships, maybe two hundred thousand tons each, but each is packing a five-gigawatt laser and at least a dozen fusion missile launchers.”
“Destroyer-killers,” Jeeves said grimly. “The Navy tries to suppress the designs, but the concept keeps emerging—pirates with access to shipyards build them. They’re supposed to operate with other pirates that actually carry cargo and boarding troops.
“Their job is to catch up with a Navy destroyer in groups and fuck it up from outside amplifier range.”
“And I am suddenly wishing we actually had an amplifier,” David muttered. “Again.”
His ship, despite her military heritage, was still a freighter. The runes woven through her hull were a civilian jump matrix, designed to allow a Mage to teleport her a full light-year. A warship’s equivalent runes would amplify any spell—and any ship that entered the vaguely defined range of an amplified Mage would simply die.
“Keep us maneuvering,” he ordered, watching the last missiles die in a glittering flash of blue fire as his Mages ignited their fuel stores. “Mage Soprano, we appreciate the assist, but I’d love some new ideas.”
Maria Soprano’s image appeared in one of the small screens on his command chair, the tanned-looking dark-haired Mage looking unusually grouchy.
“Don’t get shot?” she suggested. “They might be slow, but that’s a lot of missiles out there.”
A lot more than Falcon could launch. David watched grimly as the ten missiles Jeeves had launched disappeared in the teeth of the pirate ships’ own RFLAM turrets.
“Jeeves?” he said, as calmly as he could manage.
“Full-court press. Clear my damn skies!”
“Full-court press” meant that Red Falcon’s crew stopped pretending they weren’t a fully-equipped warship. Electronic countermeasure systems no civilian ship would ever be permitted to own came to life, trolling the second wave of missiles with siren songs of false targets and jamming their sensors as they came close to Falcon herself.
It didn’t stop all of the missiles—but it stopped enough. The RFLAM turrets tore into the rest, and the handful that made it through that vanished in blasts of magic as Soprano and her people played backup.
Their own missiles weren’t getting through either. The incoming pirate ships were continuing their deadly pattern of laser fire. LaMonte had learned her trade well, but no one could keep dodging a twenty-million-ton starship around that.
The first salvos of antimatter missiles took the pirates by surprise. Even working for the Martian Interstellar Security Service, David only carried a handful of those aboard his ship and used them sparingly.
To his knowledge, no one who’d seen Red Falcon fire antimatter missiles had survived—and these pirates were going to be no exception. With over six times the acceleration of the pirate missiles, the first salvo of ten blasted through the pirates’ defenses and blotted the closest ship out of space.
Three more pirates closed, but the jammers weren’t just confusing the pirates’ missiles. The deadly dance between the ships and lasers continued—but Jeeves’s jammers were lying to the pirates about where Red Falcon was. A second ship dodged into one of the freighter’s lasers, disintegrating under the crushing power of the five-gigawatt beam.
Their careful planning clearly hadn’t extended so far as to provide them an escape plan, as both surviving ships charged at Red Falcon as fast as they could. Missiles continued to flash through space both ways, and the massive lasers all three ships carried cut invisible lines of death.
David held his breath. His XO was doing better than he’d feared, but this dance could only end in one way—and his ship lurched under him as a pirate laser struck home.
“Damage report,” he barked.
Even as he spoke, a third pirate disintegrated as another salvo of antimatter missiles struck home. The fourth tried to dodge and bring her laser to bear again—only to be bracketed by Red Falcon’s entire laser armament.
David wasn’t even sure how many beams hit the pirate, but the ship disappeared in a blast of vapor.
“It could have been worse,” LaMonte said quietly. “Beam hit the cargo and burned clean through. We’ll need to check containers and see what we’ve lost, but…” She shrugged. “We’ll also need to get in touch with Kellers and see how much work the spine is going to need.
“According to our systems, the spine was breached sixty meters to the rear of the simulacrum chamber and has been sealed off by the automatic safeties. We lost about a third of the power lines and atmosphere conduits, but we can maintain atmosphere and power in both halves of the ship.”
She shook her head.
“No casualties, but we’re in rough shape, skipper.”