AN ENEMY OF NEWFOUND STRENGTH
A FRIEND GONE MISSING IN THE NIGHT
A THREAT THAT CAN BE IGNORED NO MORE
Brad Madrid, Commodore of the Vikings Mercenary Company, has once again been drawn into the war against the resurgent Cadre. Called into action in battles across the Solar System, from the fogs of Venus to the ice fields of Ceres, he faces deadly enemies at every turn
In the midst of the chaos, Brad learns that his Agency contact and partner, Kate Falcone, has gone missing before she could deliver the evidence of treason she carried. With millions of lives at stake, finding her cannot be his first priority, but he searches as he goes.
Then an old enemy shares a poisonous gift as they flee from battle: the Cadre doesn’t have Kate Falcone. They know who does, however, and the hints they give Brad lead him to the one place he thought he would never make war…
There was a feeling of exhaustion, of bone-deep weariness no amount of rest could shake, that hung over Commodore Brad Madrid. At a glance, there was no reason for him to be so tired. He was young, barely into his mid-thirties, wealthy and powerful. He was the sole owner of the Vikings Mercenary Company, a Platinum-rated Guild company sought after for their reputation and firepower.
He owned and commanded a fleet of six destroyers, staffed by over five hundred crew and ground troops. The tall and gaunt mercenary had the money to afford those ships and those crews, and that gave him a power few in the solar system could rival.
Right now, however, he stood in a small gallery in the Vikings’ home office in the Io Shipyards and looked out over his fleet. His eyes were blind to his warships, however, and all he truly saw was the stone plinth behind him, reflected in the glass.
A statue of a burly Viking warrior, the symbol of his company, stood on top of that plinth. It represented Vidar, the old Norse silent god of vengeance. It was appropriate for its current location, since the plinth had been laser-carved with the names of every trooper and spacer who’d died in the service of the Vikings.
Three months earlier, he’d taken his company into combat in the service of the Commonwealth, the government of the Solar System, and they’d added a lot of names to that plinth. One of his oldest friends and employees was among those new names.
There were a lot of friends on that list. The Vikings had been an informal organization for most of their existence, though necessity meant much of that was changing now. The same mission that had added so many names to the plinth had ended up adding four new ships to his roster, payment from a Fleet still reeling from the corruption he’d uncovered.
Many of the officers and crew of those new ships were freshly ex-Fleet, released as “excess to requirements” in recent draw-downs. Despite the information Brad had seen delivered to the Commonwealth, those draw-downs hadn’t been reversed.
He finally focused his gaze through the glass, looking at his ships for several long seconds. The two Bound-class ships were surplus, released like their crews. The three Warrior-class ships, though…those were a sign of the favor Fleet held the Vikings in.
They were the newest and most advanced ships Fleet had designed. These three, in fact, had been headed for service in the Earth Defense Formation. The EDF was instead receiving the three ships that Brad Madrid had captured from the Cadre—identical ships in every sense.
Past the ships he could see Io and then the massive bulk of Jupiter. He checked his wrist-comp to confirm a suspicion, and nodded as the computer told him what he suspected: one of the tiny, barely visible stars hanging between Io and Jupiter was Earth.
Not enough had happened to account for the data he’d sent back to Earth with Agent Kate Falcone. An entire major supplier for Fleet had been caught red-handed selling warships to the enemies of the Commonwealth, the pirate Cadre.
And…nothing seemed to have happened.
That was part of why Brad was tired. If that level of treason could go unpunished, just what was the Commonwealth coming to? Just what was the human civilization he lived to protect coming to?
“Hey, grumpyface,” a familiar voice told him as his wife, Michelle Hunt—also the executive officer of his flagship—stepped into the gallery. “Got your game face to hand somewhere?”
“It’s around here somewhere, if I need it,” he told her.
She stepped up and kissed the back of his head.
“Well, you probably want to find it and strap it on, my love,” she said. “We’ve gathered the team. They’re ready for your announcement.”
He nodded and ran a hand over his face, rubbing away the mood that had taken him.
“Then I need to go talk to everyone,” he confirmed. “It’s time to let the Solar System know that the Vikings are back in business!”
“Attention! Commodore on deck!”
Brad waved Colonel Saburo Kawa, his senior ground commander, back to his seat.
“Please, Colonel,” he told his old friend. “Necessity dictates a degree of greater formality as the Vikings grow, but that will never be necessary.”
The Asian mercenary, the youngest son of the man who had built Brad’s flagship, Oath of Vengeance, grinned incorrigibly as he slowly took his seat.
The scattering of mercenary old hands and ex-Fleet officers in the room returned to their seats as well, with surprising grace. Brad was more than a little surprised that Saburo had got the mercs on their feet at all.
He wasn’t so surprised with the five ex-Fleet officers who commanded the majority of his destroyers, though. He and Captain Brenda Andre, the senior of those officers in his force, went back a long way now.
She’d once saved his life—but lost her ship in the process. When Fleet had started drawing down numbers, well, COs who’d lost ships were at the top of the list. However good the reasons.
The other four were new, recruited over the last three months. What Brad wouldn’t tell any of them was that the Commonwealth Investigative Agency had screened all of them to a level that was probably illegal.
Brad’s relationship with the Agency was…complex, but he was technically an Agent of the Commonwealth. In practice, the Vikings often acted as a somewhat-deniable asset for the Agency as they tried to work out just where the Cadre had come from.
“Necessity does, however, demand more formality than I prefer,” Brad finally continued, studying his Captains. “All of our new folks have old Vikings hands as XOs, but that’s still five of you only recently out of Fleet.”
Said XOs sat next to the men and women Fleet had given him. His surviving tactical officers from before they’d fought the Independence Militia were now XOs, but Fleet had found some damn good officers to send him.
He wasn’t even sure how they’d justified letting any of his four new Captains go. They were certainly men and women he would have fought to keep.
“We don’t play by Fleet rules in the Guild or the Vikings,” he told them all. “But you know that. Even Keala has had a whole two weeks to get used to being a mercenary.”
A chuckle ran around the table. Keala El-Hashem was a dark-skinned, dark-haired woman who’d most recently served as the tactical officer of the cruiser Tremendous. She knew several of Brad’s secrets and he was glad to have her in command of Montgomery.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever be used to this, sir,” she replied cheerfully. “But it definitely has its virtues!”
She toasted him with her beer as she spoke, highlighting one of said virtues.
“That it does. Unfortunately, it has its vices, too: the big one is that we actually need to make money. Our happy holiday is at an end, folks. As of twelve hundred GMT today, I have advised the Guild that we are available for contract and are looking for clients.”
The Mercenary Guild was an unfortunate necessity of human civilization in the Solar System. There were distinct limits on how far and how fast the Commonwealth could project power—and even harder limits on how much will the Commonwealth had to project it. To keep order and peace, and to protect assets and people, the people of the system turned to mercs.
The Guild kept those mercs in line and following rules of some kind. They also acted as a broker for contracts.
“I’m not sure what work is going to come our way, but Platinum companies generally don’t sit idle unless we choose to,” he continued. “I’m also not entirely sure of the breakdown, but we’re somewhere in the top three companies for spaceborne firepower—and we might make the top ten for Saburo’s troops, too.”
Each of his ships carried roughly thirty ground troops and even more spacers. All told, Brad was responsible for a hundred and seventy-five troops and three hundred officers and crew.
It was more intimidating than anything else.
“I’ll be keeping my ears to the ground for news,” he told them all. “I suggest you do the same. I have no intention of deploying partial forces right now. Too many of us are too new to this gig. I’m not letting you out of my sight with my destroyers just yet!”
That got him a chuckle, as it had been intended to.
“Any idea what kind of op we’ll get?” Captain Fabia Laurent, commanding officer of Grant, asked.
“Well, I don’t know of any wars going on, and I doubt anyone is going to look at six destroyers and think we make a great amphibious landing force, so I’m guessing station or colony security,” Brad told them. “Possibly convoy escort, maybe blockade.” He grimaced. “Someone would have to have some damn good reasons for me to accept a blockade contract, but I’m sure there’s something out there I haven’t thought of.
“Whatever comes up, unless it’s in the Jupiter planetary system, we’re days’ to weeks’ flight away from the mission locale. We’ll have time to plan and practice.
“We got our Platinum rating by being the best. Let’s make sure we live up to it.”