A starfighter squadron driven to desertion
Hunted by friends and enemies alike
With one final hope for a new beginning
The last reward Kira Demirci expected for heroism in a time of war was to spend the rest of her life dodging assassins—but when her government betrays her as part of their surrender, she and her comrades flee the star system of Apollo to the edge of civilized space.
The Syntactic Cluster is disorganized, disunified, and in desperate need of the nova fighters Kira smuggled out of Apollo with her. With an entire squadron supposed to follow in her wake, it falls to her to build a new home for her comrades.
But their enemy’s reach may be longer than her worst nightmares—and even her new friends may not be all that they appear…
Humanity had spread to an almost uncountable number of stars. Ships traveled between those star systems in mere weeks instead of the years light took. Gravity could be created, manipulated, set to an exact value. Even the human body and mind itself were now artifacts of human technology and achievement.
And tall men still always thought they could beat short women at basketball.
“She’s coming on your lef—right!”
The changed warning wasn’t as fast as Kira Demirci. The blonde woman ducked under the grabbing hands of the tallest of the three men she was playing against, bounced the ball off the laminate floor—even on a starship, metal wasn’t acceptable for a ball court—and planted her feet in perfect position for her shot.
The ball dropped through the hoop as her intended interceptor hit the ground. He’d lost his balance as Kira had ducked around him.
“Shit, sorry, Gregor,” she told him as she turned to check on him.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” the big guy told her as he levered himself back to his feet. “Damn, you’re fast.”
“That’s three,” Kira told Gregor and the other two men. The three were cargo handlers aboard the freighter Hopeful Future. They were, in fact, three-quarters of the entire cargo division aboard Future.
The ship only had a crew of twenty, after all. She’d been working her way aboard the ship for the last six weeks as an environmental tech, but the clock on the gym’s wall told her that her stay aboard Future was almost done.
“Now, I believe the bet was on one game,” she continued with a grin. “Then best of three for double the money. Then best of five for double that.”
She pointed at the clock.
“My schedule says we dock in ten minutes and you three are supposed to be hauling cargo around as soon as we make contact. So, do you want me to demonstrate that I can beat you in under ten minutes or would you rather shower?”
At a hundred and sixty centimeters tall and maybe sixty kilos soaking wet, Kira came up to roughly mid-chest height on the shortest of the three cargo hands. She was also faster and stronger than any of the three, which they’d also somehow missed despite working out in the same gym as her for six weeks.
“You need to call it, boys,” a new voice said. All four of them looked up to see Future’s second officer, Chief Roland.
Even after six weeks, Kira wasn’t sure what Roland was Chief of—or whether Roland was the older man’s first or last name. He was third in command. That was enough for the cargo hands and the passenger working to pay for her passage.
“Gotcha, Chief,” Gregor conceded. “I was about done being run over as it was.”
He was grinning as he said it. His friends looked less enthused. Of course, Kira had slept with Gregor—and his friends had not been nearly pleasant enough for her to consider them.
The three of them each rifled through their bags and produced small stacks of hard currency. She skimmed the chips as they were handed to her and smiled. The payment was in funds from at least three star systems, but the credit chips themselves were nearly universal.
“Thanks,” she told them cheerfully as she pocketed the coins. “Have fun hauling cargo.”
“Sure thing, Riker,” one of Gregor’s friends said in a mostly-accepting tone.
Kira kept her smile up as her friendly several-night-stand and his friends disappeared off to their work, but her actual humor had vanished at the name “Riker.” That wasn’t her name. It was just the name she’d given when she’d come aboard Hopeful Future.
Because Kira Demirci had a death mark on her and that was why she was there, over a hundred light-years from home.
“Does the big guy know you’re getting off here?” Roland asked, watching her as his people trooped off to the cargo bay.
“Yeah,” Kira confirmed, still distracted by the reminder of why she was there. “No games there, Chief Roland. He knew what was on offer.”
The freighter’s second officer snorted.
“Get yourself showered,” he told her. “I’m guessing you’re already packed, so meet me in my office when you’re ready to go.”
Kira nodded in reply as she grabbed the duffle of clothes next to her. Kira Riker had a few more tasks to complete before she ceased to exist. She didn’t have time to deal with Kira Demirci’s problems just yet.
Even now, the standard unmarked shipsuit of a civilian spacer felt vaguely wrong to Kira. It wasn’t heavy enough, for one thing. Thanks to its emergency space-capability, it would probably stop most slugthrower fire, but even the cheapest blaster would burn right through it.
The “leather” coat she was wearing over it hung down below her hips and neatly concealed a more modern layer of armor. The jacket could, thankfully, stop blasters. She’d had to quietly patch it up in her downtime aboard Future because of the proof of that.
It also handily concealed a small blaster of her own. Expensive even back home in the Apollo System, the weapon might be irreplaceable out here in the Redward System.
“Hey, Chief,” one of the cargo handlers shouted at Roland as Kira dodged around the edge of the cargo bay. “The big black boxes—we pinged the station net for a delivery address but didn’t get one. They’re half the damn bay; what do we do?”
Kira managed not to actively shout at the crew to just leave them be for now. She’d have all of that set up within a few hours of getting off of Future, but she needed to get off the ship to handle that.
“We just docked,” Roland shouted back, standing in the entrance to his office and studying the carefully organized chaos filling the big space. “It’s also the middle of the night, local station time. Give ’em eight hours to wake up and realize we’re here!”
The cargo bay was easily half of Hopeful Future’s volume, a hundred-meter-long twenty-thousand-cubic-meter void. Future was on the large size of middling for a freighter in Apollo, which meant she was probably massive out here. Redward was supposedly the best-off system out here, but Kira’s expectations were low.
“Everything else is in front of them, anyway,” Roland continued. “I wasn’t an idiot when I had you load them in!”
It wasn’t much of an exaggeration to say that the six big black storage units took up half the freighter’s storage. Each was fifteen hundred cubic meters and Kira had no idea how they’d managed to get aboard the ship. These particular boxes were unlabeled, but she knew them by heart and they should have been marked with the stylized gold bow and arrow of the Apollo System Defense Force.
“You wanted to talk, Chief?” she asked Roland, shaking off the vagaries of the past.
“Yeah, come in,” he told her.
They stepped into his office and Roland closed the door with a gesture in the air. The window changed its tint ever-so-slightly as well, converting to a one-way mirror. They could see out into the cargo bay, but no one could see in.
The sound of the bay cut off as soon as the door closed, and Chief Roland heaved a sigh.
“Those crates worry me,” he admitted aloud. “I’ll be happier once they’re off the ship, which means a missing receiver is making me more nervous than I’m telling them.”
“You know what they are?” Kira asked in surprise, then realized that even asking the question was giving away more than she meant to.
“I served in a system fleet coreward from Apollo, yes,” Roland said dryly. “And I’ve hauled military materiel on three ships along the way, though not this one. I know what a damn nova-fighter shipping container looks like, Em Riker.”
She shivered at his tone.
“And I know you do too,” he continued. “I’ve seen you watching them. But…none of that’s my business.”
Roland waved a screen alive over his desk.
“You worked your passage, but six weeks’ pay for an enviro tech is more than the cost of a passenger ticket on a tramp freighter,” he continued. “Captain says you get half, which is honestly a bit unfair to you, but I’m not arguing with her. You going to?”
Kira chuckled mirthlessly.
“No.” She’d met Captain Helen Ngo a few times over the trip. For a civilian, she was impressive.
“Thought not.” Roland studied her across the desk. “Look, Riker, I know that’s not your name. I don’t care. What I do care about is that the Syntactic Cluster is the ass end of fucking nowhere and you made a more than half-decent enviro tech.
“You’re running from something; I can read that much. I’m guessing it’s in Apollo, or at least that sector. Hopeful Future only ports in that region once a year. You could stay on with us. You’d be safe from whatever you’re running from.”
“Chief? Those boxes in your cargo bay? They’re mine,” she told him. How they’d ended up hers was a long story, but the paperwork was loaded into both her headware and the hard datachips in her luggage.
“Yours?” He stared at her. “That’s six nova fighters,” he noted slowly. “There are, last time I checked, only about two dozen nova fighters in the entire Syntactic Cluster. Those birds make you a target out here while they’re in crates.”
“Out of those crates, they make me a power to be reckoned with,” Kira replied. Only Apollo and Brisingr in her home sector could build nova fighters. Everyone else only had larger ships with more basic nova drives.
And that was part of why Apollo was Brisingr’s only real opposition. That, on the other hand, brought up other memories. None of them good.
“If you have the money to run them.” Roland snorted. “And now I feel like I wasted my time arguing with the Captain to get you half your pay instead of a third. Still.”
He slid a handful of credit chips across the desk to her.
“They’re in crests, drawn on the Bank of the Royal Crest,” he told her. “The Syntactic Cluster doesn’t really have a local reserve currency, so mostly they use the Royal Crest for interstellar trade.”
Kira ran through her mental map.
“Aren’t they out of the Valerian System?” she asked.
“Not just a sector away but two sectors away,” Roland agreed. “They’d be just as well off using Apollo new drachmae or Brisingr crowns—same distance and stability—but the Bank of the Royal Crest is actually out in a few places like the Cluster, trying to make a name for themselves as a potential reserve currency. And they’re well enough known that most exchanges will take the crest…and most exchanges outside the Cluster haven’t even heard of most of the Cluster’s currencies.
“So, out here, we pay and take payment in crests.”
Kira took the coin.
“That’s background I didn’t have,” she admitted. The funds that had come with her and been sent on ahead were all in Apollo new drachmae. She figured the exchanges here would recognize those if nothing else, but it was useful to know the local default international currency of choice.
“Thank you,” she told Roland. “It’s been a more pleasant journey than I expected, but I didn’t come to Redward randomly, either.”
“I’m not surprised,” he replied. “Good luck…Major.”
And that, Major Kira Demirci, Apollo System Defense Force (retired), realized, was the closest the Chief was going to ever come to admitting that Hopeful Future’s senior officers had always known exactly who she was.