A new home on the edge of nowhere
A new hope for a peaceful future
An old enemy that won’t let go
Kira Demirci left her homeworld of Apollo pursued by assassins seeking revenge for her victories in the war against the Brisingr Kaiserreich. Now she has a new home and a new role: as the nova fighter wing commander aboard the mercenary carrier Conviction under Captain John Estanza.
Conviction is on retainer with the royal family of Redward, who encourage Kira and her pilots to make themselves a new home on the frontier planet. But there is a reason they want to tie the mercenary carrier’s crew more tightly to themselves and stormclouds are brewing on the horizon.
Those clouds break when a Redward warship goes missing on a standard patrol. Conviction and her fighters are sent out to find the destroyer—but instead they find a deadly plot by old enemies that will bring down the Syntactic Cluster in fire and war.
Unless Kira Demirci can do the impossible.
“Attention on deck!”
As the sharp-voiced command echoed across the flight deck, it was easy for Commander Kira “Basketball” Demirci to see who was new aboard the mercenary carrier Conviction.
The old mercenary hands, the ones who predated her own arrival on the carrier, barely shifted in response to the command. Most of them had been military at one point, but they’d all served as pilots and copilots on the mercenary ship for at least four years.
Her own people, once the elite pilots of Apollo’s Three-Oh-Three Nova Combat Group, still had some instincts, but they had been elite nova fighter pilots. The Apollo System Defense Force had allowed its nova fighter squadrons to get notoriously unmilitary.
The newcomers, though, were all locals from the Redward System. All of them were formerly of the Redward Royal Fleet, some more recently than others, and the Redward Royal Fleet wasn’t letting its tiny handful of nova fighter pilots go yet.
They all snapped to attention at Kira’s command, and the tiny officer, the carrier’s Commander, Nova Group, grinned as she walked into the middle of the rough circle of pilots and copilots. From there, she could see all thirty-five of her people and all twenty-four of her nova fighters.
“Vacation is now officially over,” Kira told them all. “We were supposed to be having a nice comfy briefing in the flight country briefing room with coffees and snacks and all that, but, well.” She shrugged.
“Conviction is one hundred and sixty-seven years old, people; shit happens. Our briefing room currently has no lights and is roughly forty-five degrees Celsius. The snacks the stewarding crew put together are ruined, and I don’t plan on melting us all to death. So…get over here, all of you.”
Despite the lack of formal attention she’d gathered from the mercenaries, everyone gathered around her in the middle of the flight deck as she waited for them.
“So, boss, do we get to play with the new toys?” one of her oldest friends asked. Joseph “Longknife” Hoffman commanded the newly constituted Memorial-Bravo Squadron. He was a gaunt man of average height with pale skin and blue eyes. His second-in-command—and boyfriend, mercenary fighter wings being even more relaxed than elite military wings—Dinesha “Dawnlord” Patel shared his height but was dark to Hoffman’s pale.
“We do,” Kira confirmed, looking around the room. “We have to,” she said more loudly. “Too many of you have too little experience behind the stick of a nova fighter.”
She gestured widely at the starfighters around her.
“We’re nowhere near what Conviction can carry, but we already have more nova fighters than we can really fly,” she noted. The flight group now consisted of twelve Hoplite-IVs, the top-of-the-line interceptors she’d stolen from Apollo when she’d left home, and twelve PNC-115s, “Parasite Nova Combatants,” fighter-bombers Conviction had acquired from a more technologically advanced power thirty years ago.
Of course, seven of the Hoplites and five of the PNC-115s were knockoffs, built with plans extracted from Conviction’s repair fabricators. The class two nova drives at their hearts were difficult to build and rare, especially out there. The Redward System was part of the Syntactic Cluster on the edge of the Rim, the outer limit of human civilization.
No one out there could build class two nova drives…no one except Redward, thanks to a fabricator Kira and Conviction had helped them acquire two months earlier.
“Four of you are on my rolls as pilots but can count on your fingers the number of times you’ve flown a nova fighter in real space,” Kira said grimly, nodding toward that group. The four Redward natives were still clustered together, looking awkward.
They’d flown gunships for the RRF and passed her tests in simulators or they wouldn’t be there, but they still looked unsure of themselves.
“Seven of you were copilots aboard Conviction before we acquired the new birds,” she continued. “You’ve been on nova fighters in real space, but you haven’t flown in combat. And, of course”—she grinned and waved at the freshly fledged collection of copilots—“we don’t have a single copilot aboard our PNC-One-Fifteens who has flown in combat.”
It was a far cry from the wing she’d taken into the Battle of the Kiln two months earlier. She’d gone into that fight with fourteen nova fighters, but every one of her pilots had been a combat-hardened veteran.
“None of you would be getting into one of my fighters if I didn’t trust that you could do the job,” she told them all, her tone suddenly hard. “I will tolerate no hesitation, no lack of confidence. It’s your job to tell me you’re ready. It’s my job to tell you when you’re wrong. You are fighter pilots. You have a long tradition of being arrogant jackasses to live up to; am I understood?!”
It took a few seconds for everyone to catch up and start laughing, but she got the result she was after. It would take time to get them all on board, but hopefully they’d have that time. The Syntactic Cluster had been quiet for the last couple of months.
Kira didn’t trust it. She knew too much about what had been behind the rise to power of the Warlord they’d crushed at the Kiln—the KLN-35XD System. She didn’t trust the shadowy players her Captain had once worked for to stay quiescent for long.
“Waldroup, this is Basketball. Are we clear for launch?” Kira asked.
Her callsign reminded her that she hadn’t had a chance to get on the court as much as she’d like. She was capable of playing circles around most people on a basketball court, regardless of their height. It was good exercise and often handy for putting foolish subordinates in place.
“Basketball, this is Conviction,” her deck boss, Angel Waldroup, replied. “Are you green?”
Kira’s headware was interfacing with her Hoplite as she checked over the nova fighter’s systems. Redundancy and safety meant three-quarters of the information was displayed on the screens around her anyway, and all of it could be accessed with physical controls, but the mental connection helped update the pilot faster.
“Memorial-Alpha-One is green,” Kira confirmed. “I have green lights on the rest of the flight group as well. Can you confirm?”
“We show all markers green and you are linked in to the system,” Waldroup told her. “All fighters are under deck control.”
There were times for manual launches and manual landings; and Kira would insist her pilots train for both. Right now, when she was taking the entire fighter group out for a mass exercise on the edge of a star system, was not that time. Even a small error in lining up a nova fighter before bringing the Harrington coils online could see the fighter impacting the inside of Conviction’s hangar at several dozen kilometers per second.
With twenty-three other fighters behind Kira in the launch order, all fully fueled…it would turn into a cascade disaster that could easily kill everyone aboard the sixty-thousand-cubic-meter carrier.
Kira checked the link and watched a green indicator appear on the front of her starfighter cockpit. Everything around her was virtual projections and viewscreens. The fighter itself was a deadly wedge of metal that averaged three meters thick, tapering from a barely flat nose to a ten-meter-wide base fifteen meters back.
Her cockpit was in the exact center of the spacecraft, as protected as physically possible in a relatively tiny vehicle. There were no windows showing her the outside world, only the screens. They showed her a lot of information right now, but they also showed her the carrier deck around her.
And that green indicator on the window into space at the end of the deck.
“I have the ball,” she told the control center. “Initiating launch cycle in five.”
“We have you on the line,” Waldroup confirmed. “You are green.”
“Bounce the ball…now.”
Kira’s order was for the computers involved, not the humans. The entire process of flinging her starfighter out of Conviction’s hangar bay with a controlled gravity well and bringing up the fighter’s own Harrington coils took under a hundredth of a second. Even with headware and neural interfacing, there was no way any human could exert control of that process.
By the time she took direct control of the fighter, she was already over fifty kilometers clear of the carrier, spinning the Hoplite-IV in place to slow and watch the rest of the fighter group launch.
Today, Conviction was in the extremities of the Redward System. The gas giant Lastward, the main fuel and supply depot for the Redward Royal Fleet, was visible as a thumb-sized blotch in the distance. The rest of the system’s planets were invisible.
Redward didn’t want to advertise their newly acquired ability to manufacture nova fighters. While Conviction wasn’t part of the RRF, they were under a retainer contract with King Larry’s government. When they started showing off extra nova fighters, people were going to wonder.
That wasn’t going to stop Kira or her boss using every one of those fighters to achieve their missions, but they would give their employers’ request enough credence that they would practice with them in private.
More starfighters were streaming out of the carrier as she watched. This part was easy enough, run by computer control.
“All fighters, form on me as you reach clear space,” she ordered. That should also be easy enough. She’d see how her new people did. She was honest enough to admit she’d poached the best of Conviction’s PNC-115 copilots for her own squadrons, but she needed everyone to be good.
The twelve Hoplite-IVs of the two Memorial Squadrons directly belonged to Kira and her own mercenary company. They were contracted with Conviction, but Memorial Squadron Limited Liability Corporation was a separate legal entity owned by Kira and the five other ex-Apollo pilots.
She’d only been a mercenary for a few months, but she definitely had the impression that complicated ownership structures and legalese were normal. At least she and the other survivors of the Three-Oh-Three Nova Combat Group had been well set up, with a lawyer ready to guide them through the process.
Another debt Kira owed her old squadron commander. She’d love to pay it back with interest on the people who’d killed him, but she knew that Jay Moranis had wanted them safe. He’d sent them to the edge of civilization, to the old friend who ran Conviction.
Which made keeping her people alive the only way Kira could repay her debt. So far, they were working with her on that one.
Twenty-three fighters followed her out of Conviction’s launch bays, one by one. They could do a faster cycle on the launch or even launch multiple fighters at once. They didn’t need to today, so a fighter left the ship every ten seconds or so.
They took up formation around her with fewer problems than she’d feared. Even the gunship pilots could fly in normal space, after all. They were used to ten-thousand-cubic-meter pocket warships, not nova fighters, but they were still pilots.
“All right, everybody,” she greeted them. “If you check your systems, you’ll see a beacon with your name on it about ten light-seconds away. Everybody pinging their beacon?”
One of the toys she hadn’t even realized she’d been missing until she had them again was shuttles with class two nova drives. There were two of them aboard Conviction now, and they’d spent the morning laying out the targets for everyone.
“Your guns are in training mode and the beacons can pick up if you ping them,” she continued. “No jammers for this. Straight nova, shoot and scoot. I want to see you all back here in ninety seconds with your target ‘destroyed.’ Any questions?”
Silence answered her and Kira grinned in anticipation.
“Lock in your targets. Timer on my mark…mark. Break and attack!”
Kira knew the drill as well as anyone. The moment she was finished speaking, she threw her fighter into motion. She’d already calculated the three-million-kilometer nova and triggered it. A wave of intense discomfort flashed over her as she novaed, and then she was there, ten thousand kilometers from the beacon transmitting her ID.
Aboard a proper starship, usually ten thousand cubic meters or bigger, the nova didn’t have any detrimental effects. Part of it, she understood, was the nature of the class two nova drive, a side effect of the process that allowed the drive to recharge from a short nova in sixty seconds instead of ten minutes. Part of it was just that a nova fighter had that much less shielding.
The stomach cramps were an old friend now, and she ignored them as she focused on the task at hand. Her mental triggers twitched and light flickered across space. Her plasma guns were shut down right now, but the ranging lasers were enough for the beacon to register the hit.
She flipped in space, twisting around the beacon and firing again. She tagged the target four times as her nova drive recharged, and she reversed her fighter’s position.
Then the nova fighter informed her that the drive was charged and she triggered it again. Another three million kilometers vanished and she was back beside Conviction.
Kira gently rotated her Hoplite-IV in space, looking to see who was back with her.
This time, she hadn’t been expecting everyone to pull it off perfectly. Her five Apollon pilots were with her instantly. Galavant and Swordheart, the two copilots she’d borrowed before the last of her Apollons had arrived, were trained up to her expectations and were only a moment or so later.
The mercenary veterans filtered in over the next three seconds, along with one of the former gunship pilots. The ex-copilots and the rest of the gunship pilots followed, and Kira checked the timer as the last nova fighter emerged from nova.
“Back in formation, everyone,” she ordered. “I make it eighty-seven seconds for the sweep, which is within what I told you.” Kira paused, then shrugged as she decided to be honest with her pilots.
“It takes sixty seconds to cycle your nova drives,” she told them. “That firing pass should have lasted exactly sixty seconds. Every second we spend in the battlespace is a vulnerable moment. The less time we spend in combat, the better.
“Today, I said ninety and you hit ninety. Tomorrow, we’ll aim for eighty. Next week, seventy. Eventually? The target is sixty-five seconds in and out. At most.”
The targeting beacons’ data was trickling into her headware now that they’d been back for over ten seconds, and she concealed a grimace.
“I now have our targeting data as well,” Kira told them, and the silence on the channel told her at least some of them were guessing what came next. “Across twenty-four fighters, we fired just over ninety times. Each of those would represent a quarter-second or so of pulses from our actual guns. The extra speed of the lasers washes out with the spread of the pulses for accuracy in my experience, so we call it close enough to assess accuracy.”
She paused, letting that all sink in.
“We hit sixty-three times,” she told her people. “Not quite a seventy percent hit rate…which would be bad enough, except that not everyone managed to hit their own target. Had we actually just made a firing pass on an enemy formation of twenty-four targets, two of them wouldn’t have been touched.”
Everyone had at least hit something, which was better than some training exercises she’d run in Apollo.
“I am not, today, breaking down those accuracy rates and misses by pilot,” Kira said quietly. “This is your freebie. We’re going to repeat that run, without jammers, a few more times and see if we can at least manage to hit every target.
“Tomorrow, we cut to an eighty-second in-and-out and I do start tracking who is shooting other people’s targets,” she continued grimly. “I do not expect perfection today. I don’t expect perfection tomorrow, even. I do expect continuous improvement.
“We don’t know how long we have until we need to go into action. Best-case scenario, we’re up against pirate gunships again—but someone brought real modern nova fighters to the Kiln. Which means, people, I’m going to train you to fight real modern nova fighters.”
Because if she didn’t, she was going to find herself training a new set of pilots.
And she’d attended enough funerals in the last year already.