Peace forged on the edge of civilization
Lies forged in the heart of mankind
A legend rises to the final challenge
Exile to the Syntactic Cluster has been good for Kira Demirci and her friends. Once elite pilots of the Apollo System Defense Force, they now own the most powerful mercenary warship in the entire star cluster. Working with the carrier-for-hire Conviction and her Captain John Estanza, they have helped the King of Redward usher in a new era of hope for the entire Cluster.
That hope is nearly shattered when Estanza’s old enemies in the Equilibrium Institute strike directly at Redward’s king. Revenge and money bring the mercenaries into an allied fleet—one intended to neutralize the last threats to the peace.
But the Institute’s plans for the Syntactic Cluster are intricate and deep. Even as the mercenaries and their employers move against the enemies they see, shadows gather in the Cluster, bearing whispers of a forgotten name: Cobra Squadron.
“Stand by for firing pattern alpha.”
Commander Kira Demirci listened to the calm report as she waited. The bridge of the newly rechristened mercenary heavy cruiser Deception was quiet, with no one speaking except for the tactical officer. The bridge crew were faking calm competence, but Kira could feel the tension under it.
For six weeks, technicians had gone over every link, every switch and every breaker of the cruiser’s main batteries. Even the small cadre of the cruiser’s original crew weren’t sure they’d found every one of the traps the ship’s previous Captain had activated.
“Check charge and status on all guns,” Deception’s new Captain ordered. Kavitha Zoric had been the executive officer of the mercenary carrier Conviction until Kira had poached her. Now the dark-haired and dark-skinned officer occupied the central chair of the amphitheater-style bridge like she was born to it.
“Every turret is green,” the chief engineer reported. Konrad Bueller was a broad-shouldered man who did dual duty as the cruiser’s executive officer—he was the senior officer of the contingent of defectors from the original Brisingr crew.
He was also Kira Demirci’s boyfriend, even if that role was still very fresh. He was from Brisingr, the sworn enemy of the petite, hundred-and-sixty-centimeter-tall nova-fighter commander’s homeworld of Apollo.
That might still wreck them, but for now he was the XO and chief engineer of the cruiser. He’d been the one who’d led the testing of Deception’s twenty-four heavy turrets.
“All right,” Zoric said. She looked around the bridge, twisting slightly in her chair to meet Kira’s gaze. She raised a questioning eyebrow and Kira nodded.
Technically, Kira Demirci was the Commander, Nova Group, for the cruiser. She was also the Commander, Nova Group, for Conviction, the mercenary carrier currently half a star system away standing guard over their employer’s planet.
Of course, Kira Demirci was the main shareholder of Memorial Squadron, the mercenary entity that owned Deception. Zoric might command the ship while Kira led the nova fighters…but Kira was Zoric’s boss, not the other way around.
But there was no point in delaying. They’d spent at least two weeks longer than they should have, in Kira’s opinion, going over Deception’s systems—but the Redward Royal Fleet had insisted. Going over Deception with a fine-toothed comb had been part of their price for letting Kira keep the ship.
“Activate the drones and…fire,” Zoric ordered calmly.
Almost a hundred automated drones activated their Harrington coils, leaping into motion around the heavy cruiser in preprogrammed but complex patterns. This was a test in more ways than one.
“Turrets in independent control. Engaging the targets,” the tactical officer reported. Marija Davidović was a hawk-nosed Black woman from Redward, “borrowed” from the Redward Royal Fleet since the mercenaries hadn’t previously needed gunnery officers.
Deception shivered as her turrets opened fire. Each pulse of plasma from the magnetic tubes was equal to the firepower delivered by a nova-fighter torpedo.
The first sequence took almost a minute, each turret firing its dual guns independently in a carefully calculated sequence that allowed Bueller to assess their problems.
“Well?” Zoric asked him as the plasma pulses faded from the display.
“All turrets still green,” the Brisingr man reported. “All power-load systems are green. Everything looks like it should, Captain.”
“Davidović?” Kira asked, turning her attention to the tactical officer. “How are the gunnery crews looking?”
“Twenty-four shots, sixteen hits against automated targets without jamming in play,” the Redward woman replied crisply. “For a first firing run on a new ship, I suppose that’s acceptable, but the guns and the targeting systems on Deception are more effective than I’m used to.
“They’d better improve.”
“Then they will,” Kira said with a small smile. Davidović was new to being a mercenary, but Kira was a twenty-year veteran of the Apollo System Defense Force, a fleet for whom Deception would have been barely a first-rate combatant. She could live with some of her new mercs being rather more hard-edged than her old mercs might prefer.
“With your permission, Captain, Chief?” Davidović turned to Zoric and Bueller. “Second-sequence tests?”
“Fire at will, Commander Davidović,” Zoric replied. “Everything is looking good so far. Let’s stress the guns and see what happens when we’re a short nova from a proper yard.”
Or as close as the Cluster has, Kira reflected. From the way Bueller met her eyes when she looked over at him, the engineer was thinking the same thing.
The Syntactic Cluster was on the far edge of the Rim, fifteen hundred light-years from Sol for all intents and purposes. Both of them—and Deception—were from the mid-Rim, almost two hundred light-years coreward.
Deception might be barely a capital ship to them…but she was the single most powerful warship in the Syntactic Cluster.
“Firing all turrets,” Davidović reported. “On my mark… Mark.”
Kira’s headware flashed data across a display on her eyes as she assessed the result. Deception’s Harrington coils, powering her reactionless drive, had spiked to compensate for the thrust imparted by the guns.
Forty-eight plasma cannon was a lot of force and called for a lot of power. If there were going to be any problems with Deception’s repaired power-distribution network, they’d show up in a mass salvo like that.
“Green,” Bueller said aloud, confirming what she was seeing in her headware. “All systems are green. You are cleared for sustained fire, Commander.”
“Commander Davidović, your old employers gave us a nice little set of test drones,” Zoric told her tactical officer. “Let’s show our appreciation by vaporizing every last one of them, shall we?”
As the cruiser continued to work through the planned exercises, Kira’s attention began to drift. She hadn’t been overly worried, but each test made it clearer and clearer that Bueller’s teams had gone above and beyond.
If anything, Deception was in better shape now than she had been when Kira and a mixed team of mercenaries and Redward commandos had boarded the ship, then called K79-L, in orbit of Ypres. The warship had been a third party’s intervention tool of choice in the civil war in that system, the gateway between the Syntactic Cluster and the galaxy beyond.
In Kira’s hands, the warship was going to be the Cluster’s answers to that third party. The Equilibrium Institute had attempted to meddle in hundreds of star systems before, but Kira’s new boss was one of their former operatives. He’d made it his mission to slow and stop their plan for all humanity.
Her new boyfriend was of the same mold, a former Equilibrium operative sickened by what the Institute was prepared to embrace in pursuit of their goal. The objective “peace for all humanity” sounded good, even to Kira, but the Institute’s plans to create that peace were going to drench half the galaxy in blood.
“Do we need to do any exercises for the fighter wing while we’re out here at Lastward?” Zoric asked, cutting into Kira’s thoughts.
Kira considered it for a moment, then shook her head. The gas giant, on the fringe of the Redward System, was a no-fly zone for civilians, a military reservation that the Redward Royal Fleet—and their retained mercenaries—used for covert testing.
“No, we’ve been exercising the wing while Deception was being gone over with a fine-toothed comb,” she said. “Even the Vier pilots are familiar with their planes now.”
The Brisingr cruiser had arrived in the Syntactic Cluster with twenty Weltraumpanzer-Vier heavy nova fighters. Kira had managed to hang on to a six-ship squadron of them and sold the rest to Redward.
The rest of Deception’s fighters were Apollo-style Hoplite-IVs, top-tier interceptors from her former home system. Most of the fourteen on Deception were Conviction-built clones using Redward-built Harrington coils and nova drives, but no one except a veteran of the Apollo-Brisingr war would ever realize that.
And all of those in the Cluster now worked for Kira.
“Once you’re done running through the tests, we’ll nova back to Redward and check in,” Kira decided aloud. “Let’s keep everything simple for today. RRF command is going to be pleased to hear Deception is ready for work.”
“For some reason, governments don’t like paying mercenaries to just sit there—though gods know they were happy to pay us to poke through Deception’s guts and Bueller’s brain.”
That worthy chuckled, clearly half-listening to the conversation.
“They moved fast on all of that, too,” he told them quietly. “We don’t quite have a prototype for the Twelve-X up and running, but they’ve started building slips and laying the keels for the ships that will hold them. A fleet carrier and a battlecruiser, to start.”
Kira whistled silently.
Bueller had been the engine-gang chief on one of Brisingr’s top-line battlecruisers before he’d been relegated to a desk and then recruited by the Institute for their operations here. His headware contained most of the specifications to build a ten-thousand-cubic-meter 12X nova drive—enough to build hundred-and-twelve-kilocubic warships, as big as anything Apollo or Brisingr could build.
Built with Redward’s tech base, those ships wouldn’t be as effective as Apollo or Brisingr’s ships, but sheer size would put them ahead of anything within a hundred light-years.
“Ever wonder if that was the right call?” she asked him.
“Every hour on the hour,” he replied. “But everyone I’ve met here has been good people, and, well, fuck the Kaiser.”
Kira shivered. She wondered if Brisingr’s Kaiser had realized quite what he was unleashing when he’d handed a crew of his spacers over to the Equilibrium Institute. The Kaiserreich’s officers could justify atrocities committed in the name of Brisingr, barely.
But ones committed for the Equilibrium Institute’s ideals and plans? That had proven a lot harder in the end.
“Sirs?” Davidović interrupted. “I have a nova signature at just over forty light-seconds. It’s not on our schedules.”
Kira checked the time and smiled.
“It is on mine,” she told the tactical officer. “And it’s part of why we’re out here. Their Majesties are back exactly on time, I see.”
The King and Queen of Redward had spent the last few weeks at the Ypres System, trying to negotiate both the end to that system’s century-long civil conflict and the beginning of a new Cluster-wide free trade zone.
They were traveling on one of Redward’s handful of cruisers, but with everything going on of late, no one was communicating their travel itinerary in advance.
“That makes sense,” Davidović replied. “Biggest looks like sixty kilocubics; I’d guess that’s First Crown.” She paused, blinking at the data coming into her headware—and then visibly paled.
“New novas!” she snapped. “I have multiple gunship novas on what appear to be attack courses for First Crown. Multiphasic jamming engaged, and I have lost scan data on the cruiser and escorts.”
“Fuck,” Kira snapped. “Zoric, get us into motion. I need to be in a nova fighter now!”