An uneasy peace broken by an old enemy
An old ally owed debts and obligations
A new mission to bring light into darkness
In the aftermath of the destruction of the Cadre’s main base, there was a period of quiet in the Solar System. Now, however, pirate attacks are on the rise again. When the Cadre ambushes a medical convoy under the protection of Brad Madrid and the Vikings Mercenary Company, the attacking warship turns out to be of a type and class the pirates should never have come into possession of.
The Cadre is no longer limited to pirate corvettes and scratch-built destroyers. Somehow, they’ve come into possession of a modern fleet of warships no one outside the Commonwealth should possess.
Brad Madrid owes the Agency and the Commonwealth his allegiance and his life. So when Kate Falcone calls on him to help seek out the Cadre’s new shipyard, he answers without hesitation. Their investigation, however, will draw his mercenary company into a newborn conflict unlike anything he’s ever faced before.
Serenade Station wasn’t a source of happy memories for Commodore Brad Madrid of the Vikings Mercenary Company. He owed the doctors there more than even they seemed to realize—not only had they saved his arm in the aftermath of a vicious battle out at Saturn’s orbitals, but his presence there had brought bounty hunters and assassins that had left far too many innocents there dead.
But the same events that had left him with unpleasant memories of the primary human habitation in Jupiter’s leading trojan cluster also meant that when the Board of Directors of Serenade Station made contact with the Mercenary Guild and requested that one Commodore Madrid meet with them, Brad made the trip.
The station itself was a sprawling complex of hab sections, industrial sites, and a small shipyard, but the main driver of Serenade Station’s economy and reputation was the medical school that occupied its own semi-detached space station.
Right now, a destroyer and two corvettes hung over that station while a second destroyer pulled back from the dock Brad had just boarded through. A massive observation window allowed him to check over the status of his little fleet, and the dark-haired officer smiled to himself.
“Was it really necessary to bring an entire battle fleet?” a familiarly sardonic voice asked, and he turned to salute the attractive auburn-haired form of Dr. Gina Duvall.
“Somehow, I doubt your Board asked me to come all this way to discuss my opinion of their fashion choices,” he told her. “Since my ‘battle fleet’ is my stock-in-trade, I figured I’d best bring them along.”
He gestured to his companions.
“You know Michelle and Saburo,” he continued, introducing his executive officer—and wife—Commander Michelle Hunt and his ground forces commander, Colonel Saburo Kawa.
Gina had been in the background on the mission to rescue Michelle from the pirates known as the Cadre, and she embraced the other woman and traded a handshake with Brad’s Asian ground commander.
“There’s more ships out there than anyone was expecting,” Duvall said. “Picked up some friends?”
“Fleet is on, what, their third round of cuts in the last two years?” he asked his wife.
“Only the second,” Michelle replied. “It just feels worse to those of us who expect to end up replacing Fleet at the sharp end.”
“Okay, two rounds of cutbacks,” Brad allowed. “But since their lords and masters on Earth have told them to cut their ship strength, Fleet is selling off their older light units—and if you happen to be, say, a reserve Fleet officer, they’re selling them at pennies on the dollar.”
He gestured out the window. “Hence the Bard-class corvette Alan-a-dale and the Bound-class destroyer Bound by Law. I may not like why they were on the auction block, but I can’t argue with the price.”
“That’s probably for the best,” Duvall allowed as she joined him in looking out the observation window. “The extra ships might make the Board happier, considering what they’ve got themselves into.”
“Whatever that is, I owe Serenade Station a debt of gratitude I can’t easily repay,” Brad told the doctor. “And you, particularly, but I also owe the Station in general. I suspect they’ll be pleasantly surprised by my rates.”
Duvall snorted. “I know what platinum-rated mercenary companies sell their services for. I suspect even your discounted rate will give the Board a collective heart attack.”
“Probably,” he allowed with a grin. “What do they need us for?”
“It’s not my place to say,” she said with a shrug. “I’m just the greeter. If you three will come with me, I’ll let the Board explain that themselves.”
Most of the time Brad had spent in Serenade Station had been in the long-term rehabilitation ward—he had, after all, arrived in a medical coma with his arm missing.
After that, he’d fled the station in something of a rush to avoid assassins and hadn’t had much of a chance to take in the sights. He didn’t think that Duvall was intentionally taking them on the scenic route, but their destination apparently had an atrium park in front of the entrance.
It was one of the largest he’d ever seen on a station, too. The trees and plants made him feel almost unwelcome, a looming presence of life around spacers used to utterly sterile environments.
If they bothered Duvall, though, she gave no sign of it as she led them to a nondescript entrance tucked away in the park. There was no name on the door, just the paired-snake caduceus of the medical profession.
“I thought the Board of Serenade Station would be in a bit more obvious of a location,” Michelle murmured.
“Serenade’s Board has multiple locations throughout the Station,” Duvall said. “They mainly operate out of Serenade Central, the old ring station that anchors the industrial site.”
Brad noted that the doctor hadn’t answered Michelle’s implied question as the door slid open to admit them into a reception area. A pair of young women in nondescript uniforms most readily described as “black combat scrubs” but carrying mono-blades and pistols met them as they came in.
One of the guards ran a scanner over them. “Nothing unexpected, Dr. Duvall,” she told the woman who’d brought them in. “All three are carrying mono-blades, and Colonel Saburo and Commodore Madrid are both carrying pistols.”
The guard smiled. “Both the Colonel and the Commodore have several other monofilament weapons on them, but nothing sufficient to threaten the Board.”
“And what exactly are you looking for?” Saburo asked with an arched eyebrow.
“Bombs,” the guard said flatly. “Or fully automatic weapons. Even you or your Commodore would have a problem taking out the Board with a blade or a semi-automatic pistol before we could stop you.”
Brad smiled coolly. “We’ll have to agree to disagree on that, but we aren’t here to pose a security threat to the Board.”
His answer seemed to discomfit the guard. “If you’ll follow me, Director Yamada is waiting.”
Somehow, Brad was unsurprised to enter a small conference room, plain except for a gold caduceus on the back wall, and find only one person waiting for them. He wasn’t familiar with Director Yamada, but he’d suspected Gina Duvall had picked up a bit more importance since the chaos of their adventures across the Solar System.
Being directly involved in bringing down the most notorious pirate in a century or two tended to do that. A seat on Serenade’s Board would be entirely reasonable…though in that case, where was the rest of the Board?
“Director Yamada,” he greeted the gaunt and aged Japanese man on the other side of the conference. “I understood we were meeting with the Board of Directors of Serenade Station?”
“A necessary deception, Commodore, for which I apologize,” Yamada told him. “I am Dr. Masami Yamada, a geneticist by profession.”
“The good doctor, of course, undersells himself,” Duvall added. “Dr. Yamada was responsible for the counter-viral agent synthesized to contain the Red Plague thirty years ago.”
That was well before Brad’s time, but it was hard to avoid learning about. The Red Plague had been a mutation of the bubonic plague that targeted a specific set of characteristics common to humans raised in space and artificial gravity.
It had killed over a million people—and the speed with which Commonwealth geneticists had developed the counter-virus was credited with saving at least a hundred times that. It was one of the success stories the Commonwealth used to remind people of its value.
“Yes, well, my victories of late have been far smaller,” Yamada said. “Saving a handful of children from a rare genetic disease rarely makes headlines, even if it was actually more difficult than my work on the Red Plague.”
He smiled and gestured for Brad and his people to sit. “Director Duvall does sit on the Board of Directors of Serenade Station,” he noted calmly, “and the Board is aware of this meeting and has approved our use of their name.”
“I see,” Brad allowed, carefully taking a seat. “I doubt it’s news to Dr. Duvall that I am highly sensitive to being lied to.”
“It was necessary,” Yamada stressed. “Director Duvall and I represent a two-thirds quorum of a smaller and quieter Board of Directors than that of Serenade Station. We, Commodore Madrid, speak for the Doctors’ Guild of Sol.”
Brad blinked and slowly straightened. “I did not know there was such a thing,” he said slowly.
“Like your Mercenary Guild, we provide a necessary service and unifying factor for humanity’s stations and habitats beyond the true reach of Earth’s Commonwealth,” Yamada said. “Unlike the Mercenary Guild, few outside the ranks of our members need to know we exist.
“Any doctor you have visited off Earth, however, has been certified by us,” he noted. “We operate every medical school outside the homeworld. We coordinate money, personnel, and other resources to try and make certain that every human has access to a certain minimum medical care.”
He shrugged delicately. “It’s hardly news to you, I’m sure, that we’re far from successful. The influence of the Cadre and similar pirates has long been a thorn in our side. They wish to maintain control of the Outer System—or to at least prevent anyone else from controlling it. Honestly, we don’t give a rat’s ass who runs anywhere, so long as we’re allowed to freely operate.”
“And this brings us to me…how?” Brad asked carefully. “And why the deception? If the Mercenary Guild knows about you…”
“It is not your Guild we’re hiding from,” Duvall assured him. “The Cadre has been quiet since you killed the Terror, but eighteen months is long enough for them to reestablish chains of command, and there were leaders that were never caught.”
“Doctor, there was a cruiser that we never caught,” Brad admitted. So long as Lioness was at large, the Cadre wasn’t—couldn’t be—truly dead. Even if Brad Madrid had literally cut off its head.
“Indeed,” Duvall agreed. “And there is…something going on in the Commonwealth government. The degree to which the death of the Terror is being used as grounds for disarmament is concerning to us…even if we are mostly bound by the Hippocratic Oath.”
Mostly, Brad suspected, specifically excluded the black-clad young women at the front door.
“Again, then, what do you need from me?” he asked.
“You are familiar with Oberon,” Duvall said. It wasn’t a question and Brad shivered as memories flashed across his vision.
“I’ve…visited,” he said mildly. Oberon was the outermost of Uranus’s moons, well beyond what was regarded as “civilized space.” It was a decently sized settlement, if something of an anarchic mess.
“Oberon has always played host to a small clinic run by members of our Guild,” Duvall explained. “Every time we’ve attempted to set up a larger facility or organization there, ‘accidents’ have happened.”
“We want you to make certain no such accidents happen this time,” Yamada told him firmly. “We’ve assembled a convoy here at Serenade Station. Six freighters, carrying eighty-three of our people, and approximately four hundred million in medicine, equipment, and prefabricated facilities.”
“We need you to make sure they make it to Oberon,” Duvall concluded. “Once there, we’ll make arrangements with a Gold company for long-term protection.”
“I owe you a lot. I also owe Serenade Station and this Guild of yours almost as much. Still,” he said with a grin, “I can’t work for free. I have ships and troops to pay for. Let’s get down to the haggling. Or does the Hippocratic Oath bar that kind of fighting, too?”
“Assuredly not,” Duvall said with a smile. “It will even allow us to keep reminding you of that debt you keep mentioning to get the best deal we can realistically expect. Let’s strike a bargain we can all live with.”