An offer that no one else could match
A mission that no one else could achieve
An enemy only a few know they share…
Commodore Kira Demirci is now the commander of a small but powerful mercenary force—one of the most dangerous in the cluster of stars she now calls home. Her own actions have brought peace to the Syntactic Cluster, though, and a mercenary is in limited demand.
A mutual interest brings her into the circle of the heir to the Royal Crest, a wealthy kingdom dozens of light-years away. Jade Panosyan has a nightmare brewing—and a plan to deal with it.
In the Crest, a powerful political party beholden to Kira’s own enemies is maneuvering to remove Jade’s father before he can free a dozen star systems from the clutches of the Equilibrium Institute. If they are to fail and the Institute’s plans be thwarted once more, Jade Panosyan needs someone to complete an impossible mission.
The payment? The fleet carrier Fortitude, unmatched by any ship within a hundred light-years.
The catch? Kira Demirci has to capture the carrier—from the elite forces of her employer’s nation!
Commodore Kira Demirci had done many things in her life. She had raised sheep, flown starfighters, led fighter squadrons, dodged assassins, buried two mentors, performed covert operations, trained pilots and, most recently, commanded a mercenary fleet.
She had never in her life piloted a merchant starship—but even to her, the behavior of the ship on the tactical display was wrong. They were trying very hard to pretend they were normal now that Kira’s ships were there, but they’d edged just a bit too close to the other ship in the nova stop for it to look right.
The blonde Commodore really had no place on Pegasus’s cramped bridge. The brand-new Parakeet-class fast attack destroyer, one of two Kira Demirci’s Memorial Force mercenary fleet owned, was perfectly capable of handling this mission—and so was Caiden McCaig, Pegasus’s immense Captain.
Kira could come up with a dozen reasons why she was aboard Pegasus—it was the first time the two destroyers had been sent off on their own, McCaig was a former ground-troop commander, et cetera, et cetera—but if she was being honest, she was there because she was bored and the pirates harassing the New Ontario System were the biggest problem the Syntactic Cluster had right now.
“Ancillary is responding to hails and maneuvering as instructed,” Gala Negri reported. The permanently tanned-looking woman was the destroyer’s executive officer, a new recruit to Memorial Force.
Like so many. Kira had buried more friends than she liked to think about—and her mercenary fleet was expanding rapidly.
“And yet Ancillary is so very much in the wrong place,” McCaig murmured. “I’m not wrong, am I, Gala?”
“No, sir,” she confirmed. “I’ve done merchant shipping through this exact stop. We’re two novas from New Ontario, and New Ontario has bugger and all for out-system security still. No one would be getting close to anybody else out here.”
There was a tiny degree of surprise in Negri’s voice. Kira wasn’t sure most people would have caught it, but she was a bit surprised herself. She’d picked McCaig to command Pegasus because he had been a long-standing officer on the now-wrecked mercenary carrier Conviction—and she needed a destroyer Captain more than a ground-assault officer these days—but she’d worried how well he’d take to starship command.
The answer appeared to be like a duck to water.
Both of Kira’s destroyer Captains were learning a new skillset. Persephone was commanded by Evgenia Michel, one of Kira’s original Memorials who’d evacuated their homeworld of Apollo with her. Michel had lost both of her legs in a dead fighter in the battle that had turned the Syntactic Cluster around.
She was both unwilling to fly a nova fighter anymore and her mobility prostheses didn’t really allow for it, either. So, Kira had given her a destroyer where the rest of those old hands commanded fighter squadrons.
“Captain Michel agrees,” McCaig said aloud, probably communicating with Michel via a silent headware channel. “Do you have any suggestions, Commodore?”
From his sideways glance at the company’s chief shareholder and unquestioned commanding officer, the destroyer Captain knew damn well Kira had no business on his bridge.
On the other hand, Kira signed his paychecks.
“Nothing so far, Captain,” she told him. “Carry on.”
“All right,” he said grimly. “So, Ancillary is suspicious as all hell. How long does she have left on cooldown?”
“Jianhong radiation signature is unclear but present,” Ionut Ayodele reported. A small Black man from Redward, Kira’s main employer there, he was shorter than the Commodore and barely wider in the shoulders.
“I would guess at least an hour before she can nova,” Ayodele concluded.
“And eighteen for us,” McCaig murmured. A standard six-light-year nova required a twenty-hour cooldown for the class one nova drives used by large ships.
“Yes, sir,” Negri confirmed.
“I don’t think that leaves us many options, and Captain Michel agrees,” the destroyer Captain said calmly. “Set an intercept course for Ancillary. Maximum speed. Stand by multiphasic jammers and the plasma cannon.
“Michel is confirming…” He paused. “Do we have that course?”
“Yes, sir!” the navigator confirmed crisply.
“Engage on my mark,” McCaig ordered, clearly still silently communicating with Evgenia Michel aboard Persephone.
Two destroyers flipping on their Harrington coils and blazing toward you at full speed wasn’t something you generally missed. Within a minute of the change of course, Ancillary’s Captain’s nervous-sounding response was being played on the bridge.
“Destroyers Pegasus and Persephone, my sensors have you on a high-speed approach vector,” she said quickly. “Please advise your intentions.”
The bridge was silent and Kira watched as McCaig ran a series of numbers on the screens attached to his command seat. Finally, clearly aware that every eye was on him, the massive two-plus-meter-tall Captain stretched his shoulders and bestowed a big grin on his team.
“Record for transmission,” he ordered aloud, then leaned forward into the camera that would automatically point at his seat.
“Ancillary, this is Captain Caiden McCaig of the Memorial Force LLC mercenary company,” he said, his tone calm and cheerful. “We are under contract with the Kingdom of Redward to enforce interstellar traffic and trade regulation under the Syntactic Cluster Free Trade Agreement, as agreed to by all systems within the Cluster.”
That was even true now. The Bengalissimo System had been the last holdout, but the externally supported government there had collapsed and the newly formed Republic of Bengalissimo had signed on to the Free Trade Zone as one of its first acts.
“Per the terms of the SCFTA, all ships in the Syntactic Cluster are subject to close examination and potential search if duly authorized officers believe they have grounds for suspicion,” McCaig continued.
“My officers have scanned your ship and course and are concerned your vessel’s armament is sufficient to engage in piracy. Based on the recent incidents in other trade-route stops near the New Ontario System, we wish to carry out a closer examination of your vessel and an inspection of your ship’s cargo and logs.
“Per the terms of the SCFTA, you will cease acceleration and permit our ships to match velocity and board.”
He leaned back and glanced at Kira.
“Sounds about right?”
“We have the authority,” she agreed. “Carry on, Captain. I’m not here to interfere.”
Not unless things went really sideways, and Kira wasn’t overly worried about that. The Parakeet-class ships were the Kingdom of Redward’s newest and most advanced ships—which meant they were on par with the nearly obsolete heavy cruiser from her home sector Memorial Force used as a flagship.
But cubic meter for cubic meter, the thirty-two-thousand-cubic-meter destroyers outmatched anything in the Syntactic Cluster except Kira’s Deception. A rogue thirty-kilocubic freighter with half a dozen light plasma turrets wasn’t going to worry her.
There were real threats that freighter might conceal…but she wasn’t expecting them there. And even if the ship did somehow conceal advanced nova fighters, she’d still trust McCaig and Michel to deal with them.
She really was only there because it was the only excitement going on.
“Incoming response from Ancillary,” Negri reported. “Playing.”
“My ship is no pirate, Captain,” the woman’s voice said harshly. “I will not tolerate this high-handed abuse of rights of passage that have been honored for decades!”
Kira heard several people around the bridge chuckle—and unless she was wrong, it was mostly the Syntactic Cluster natives who were finding the response amusing.
“I do not recognize your authority, ‘Captain’ McCaig. How do I know you are not pirates?”
“Well, then, she is being a pain, isn’t she?” McCaig said loudly. “Negri—time to range?”
“Ten minutes, sir,” the executive officer confirmed instantly. “Assuming she doesn’t have jammers, we could handily disable her engines at that point.”
“Oh, if she’s a pirate, she has jammers,” the big Captain said, before Kira could interject. “Not as good as ours, but that doesn’t matter much for jammers.”
The multiphasic jammer rendered functionally all communications and sensors except visual identification useless within a light-second of the emitter. Even visual analysis was degraded inside the jamming field.
“With jamming, we’ll need to get within about a hundred thousand kilometers of her to guarantee a disabling shot,” Negri reported. “Another minute or so.”
The big Captain was silent, watching the range drop. “And their Jianhong signature?”
So long as the nova drive was emitting Jianhong radiation, it was still cooling down and couldn’t be used. A military ship had baffles and shields to prevent that scan, but a civilian ship wouldn’t take the expense.
“Hard to read,” Ayodele noted. “I don’t think they’ve got military-grade baffles or shielding, but there’s definitely some attempt to conceal their signatures.”
The bridge was silent. Kira didn’t have much to contribute at the moment—she was a starfighter pilot, not a destroyer skipper. She had some ideas on how to operate a two-on-one intercept like this, but McCaig and Michel clearly had it in hand.
“Lay in plasma cannon one,” McCaig ordered. “Target is fifty thousand kilometers ahead of Ancillary’s bow. Warning shot when you’re ready, Commander Ayodele.”
Memorial Force had expanded the rank structure from the three-rank version Conviction had used…but not by much. The department heads, squadron leaders, and executive officers all shared the vague title of Commander.
“Firing,” Ayodele reported.
A flash of white light marked the tactical display, the near-lightspeed burst of plasma blasting past Ancillary with tens of thousands of kilometers’ clearance.
“Ancillary, this is Captain McCaig,” McCaig intoned grimly. “I repeat my orders: you will cease acceleration and prepare to be boarded.
“Attempts to evade will be treated as an admission of piracy and I will fire into your ship. While I will attempt to disable her, I can make no promises.
“Heave to, Ancillary. This is not subject to discussion.”
He turned to look at Kira again.
“I’m expecting them to pop their jammers in about five minutes,” he noted conversationally. “It was either then or when we fired the warning shot.”
“I was expecting them to jump at the warning shot,” she admitted. “Do you have a plan for if they’re actually innocent?”
“Close-range hull scan, search the cargo, inspect the logs,” McCaig reeled off. “Exactly as I told them. If I’m wrong, the cargo will be properly certified and the logs will say they were well clear of the known incidents.”
“Which we don’t expect,” she murmured.
“Indeed.” He shook his head and tapped a command on his chair. The bridge didn’t show any differences, but Kira could feel the slight vibration of the battle-stations alarm. The active shift had been enough to get them this far—and, hell, might be enough to handle a single pirate. But why take the chance?
“Lost the target,” Ayodele snapped a few seconds later. “Multiphasic jamming is active—looks like they jumped at the warning shot, sir. They were just slow about it.”
“Probably have the jammers concealed,” Kira suggested. She leaned back in her observer seat. “You seem to have everything in hand, Captain McCaig. Fight your ship.”
The petite blonde Commodore didn’t need to be there at all—and the only real question in her mind was whether her boyfriend or her business partner was going to lecture her about that first!