Mars destroyed his ship — but gave him a new one.
Mars drafted his Mage — for the good of humanity!
He should have known that wouldn’t be the end of it…
Captain David Rice has a new ship, a new crew, and a new set of Jump Mages to carry him between the stars. All he wants is to haul cargo, make money and keep his head down.
His past, however, is not so willing to let him go. An old enemy is reaching out from beyond the grave to destroy any chance of peace or life for Captain Rice—and old friends are only making things more complicated!
All he wants is to be a businessman, but as the death toll mounts he must decide what is more important: his quiet life or the peace humanity has enjoyed for centuries…
Maria Isabella Soprano had been taught a wide variety of magical techniques while in the service of the Mage-King of Mars. Among other tricks, the ring she wore would heat against her skin if the spell carved into the silver runes on its surface detected drugs or poison in her drink.
Her “date”, however, was so bad at trying to slip the drug into her drink discreetly that it was all she could do not to laugh in his face.
Once that urge had passed, however, the tall and dark-haired ex-Navy officer slid her chair back from the table in the bar and glared at the somewhat pudgy man she’d met for drinks.
“What the fuck was that?” she said sweetly. “Did you just put something in my drink?”
She hadn’t even realized she was fingering the gold medallion she wore on her throat, the one that marked her as a fully trained member of the Mage Guild of the Protectorate. It carried the three stars of a jump mage and the crossed swords of a combat mage—the standard symbols of the Mage officer of the Royal Martian Navy she’d once been.
Her date was staring at the medallion as he flushed and half-stumbled out of his chair.
“I didn’t… I was just…”
“You just tried to drug me,” Maria observed, shaking her head. Idiot. She wasn’t quite hard up enough to need to sleep with him for a place to stay tonight, but she’d been planning on doing so. Until he’d tried to drug her.
She rose, towering over the man and intentionally using her magic to add new shadows to her loom.
“Get away from me,” she continued conversationally. “Xu?”
The bartender was a massive man with a shaved head, heavyset facial features, and a pronounced fold to his eyes. At her call, he calmly produced a police-issue stungun from under the bar and laid it on top of the smooth plastic surface.
“You’re paying your bill and leaving now,” the big Asian man told Maria’s date calmly. He didn’t exactly approve of her habits, but being the one bar with magical gravity in the zero-gee section of Tau Ceti f’s main orbital station was worth a lot—and Maria was cheaper than any other Mage he could get to run his gravity runes.
“I didn’t even—”
“Pay and leave.” Xu picked up the stungun. Its SmartDarts were intelligent enough that the man was in no long-term danger if the bartender shot him, but it still wouldn’t be a pleasant experience.
Flushing, the man tapped his wrist personal computer on the table’s reader, paying the bill, and almost evaporated out of the bar.
Shaking her head, Maria took her date’s drink and stepped over to the bar.
“Thanks, Xu,” she told the big man.
“Warned you you were going to run out of even half-decent men for your game,” Xu replied. “You’re going to end up in trouble. Again.”
She took a sip of the beer silently. There was no point arguing with Alexis Xu. His cousin, Sagacity Xu, had been the Martian Marine commander on her last ship, and she’d almost dragged Sagacity Xu’s career down with her own.
“I got more cousins,” Xu noted after a moment. “Keri works with the Jump Mage Guild. She can get you onto a ship. You’re ex-Navy, for crying out loud. Any jump-ship in the system will fall over themselves to hire you.”
“I’m one step above dishonorably discharged,” Maria reminded him softly, staring into her beer. No pension. No right to the uniform. Nothing. That was what happened when you screwed up, but not quite badly enough to get an actual dishonorable discharge.
“Half of the ships in the system won’t care,” the bartender told her. “Not for a trained Navy Commander, regardless of her current status.”
“Leave it be, Alexis,” she said. “I’m not going back to space.”
The stipend paid to every unemployed Mage in human space would keep her fed. Her “game”, as Xu called it, helped her put more aside.
Maybe someday, she’d even go home. There wasn’t much appeal to the thought of the little Brazilian town she’d come from. She could follow in her father’s footsteps and drink herself to death on the beach.
Or she could do the same thing here in Tau Ceti. What was the point in paying for a starship ticket when the result wasn’t going to change?
Xu sighed and slid another beer across the bar.
“This one’s on your tab,” he said dryly. “And I remind you, again, that we do have a spare room back in the half-grav rings. If Sagacity finds out how you’re sleeping, he might just kill me.”
“My problem, Alexis,” Maria told him as she took the beer. The night crowd would be wandering in in another hour or so, shipyard workers and ship’s crew. She’d find someone willing to take her home in that group.
She wasn’t particularly interested in using any of her skills at this point, but fortunately, she was still beautiful.
Maria was making carefully calibrated eye contact with a young man in a merchant uniform, waiting for his companions to talk him into approaching the older woman, when someone sat down at the bar next to her.
The newcomer cut off her eye contact with her mark, and she barely managed not to glare at him as she processed who was sitting next to her.
He was an older gentleman, likely in his late sixties or early seventies, but still clearly trim and fit. His hair had gone pure white, but he had a full head of it cropped close to his skull. He wore a plain black suit and white shirt without a tie, and was smiling knowingly at her as he shook his head.
“You know, Mage-Commander,” he greeted her calmly, “when I’m sent to look for an officer who I’m told is drinking and whoring themselves to death, I expect something somewhat different.”
Her irritation flashed to anger and she felt warmth flare around her fists as her magic unconsciously responded.
“I don’t see how it’s any of your fucking business,” she said bluntly. “If you’ll excuse me.”
She began to rise, only for a liver-spotted-but-still-iron grip to lock onto her shoulder and pin her to her chair.
“I apologize,” he replied. “That was rude, but…it was a point that needed to be made, Mage-Commander Soprano.”
“I am not a Mage-Commander anymore,” Maria hissed. “If you have a clue who I am, you know that.”
“True enough.” The iron grip didn’t move. “I am Brent Alois, and I am a friend.”
“Bullshit. I don’t have friends anymore. Who’s friends with the disgraced?”
“Mr. Xu over there might object to that comment,” Alois told her. “I didn’t say you were my friend, Commander. Only that I was yours.”
“Did the Xus send you?” she demanded. “Are you another goddamn cousin?”
Alois laughed, a cheerful noise that flashed pure white teeth.
“No,” he told her. “Though I did interview Lieutenant Sagacity Xu before I came to see you.”
Maria winced. Lieutenant Sagacity Xu had been Captain Sagacity Xu before she’d dragged him into her damn fool crusade. He’d been demoted. She’d been kicked out.
Disobedience to orders could be forgiven if the results proved out the actions. Hers…hers hadn’t done anything close.
“What do you want?” she finally asked.
“Ten minutes of your time. Maybe twenty,” Alois replied. “I have a proposal for you, Commander.”
“I’m not a Commander anymore,” she reminded him.
“I know. And I know why. I’m also quite certain that Navigator Jamieson behind me won’t disappear in the next half hour, so if you aren’t interested, you can go right back to seducing the poor kid with your eyes and cleavage.”
“You’re not my type,” she snapped.
“No, I presume not,” he agreed cheerfully. “But I was on the other side of this conversation once, long ago. Please, Miss Soprano. Twenty minutes of your time. That’s all.”
She glanced over at Xu. It wouldn’t be obvious to most people that he was giving her and the strange older man space, but she’d been half-living out of this bar for six months. Xu might not know who Alois was, but he was a good judge of character—and the space he was giving meant he thought the man was worth hearing out.
“Ten minutes,” she said shortly. “Then you can go fuck yourself.”
The iron grip relaxed and Alois smiled at her.
“My wife would hate it if I did that. Come on, Mage Soprano. I have an office booked nearby.”
Outside the runes that Maria had installed for Xu’s bar, they were in the steady-state, zero-gravity portion of Tau Ceti f’s Armstrong Station, the main orbital for civilian shipping above one of the two worlds in humanity’s first colony.
Like the hundred or so colonies that had followed it, Tau Ceti paid allegiance to the Mage-King of Mars in exchange for his protection and the services of the Mage Guild in providing the jump mages that tied humanity’s far-flung worlds together.
Science had never given humanity the keys to the stars. Mages like Maria Soprano, however, had—even if the price for their existence was enough to give those who researched it nightmares.
Alois handled the switch to zero gravity with the assured aplomb of an experienced spacer, another piece of a puzzle that Maria was beginning to see the outline of. She wasn’t quite sure what the solution to the puzzle was, but she could tell it was there.
The office he led her to also had gravity runes, an unusual expense but a requirement to have an office space in the zero-gravity section of Armstrong. There were six small rooms off a central hub, all with gravity, and all empty. It was late in the night by the time of the far-distant Olympus Mons, the standard time the Protectorate’s space installations ran on.
“Rental offices are handy things,” the older man told her as he pulled a chair out for her. “They give you a key, don’t care if you come in after hours, and don’t ask too many questions.”
“I can’t imagine one with gravity runes is cheap,” Maria observed. She suspected he’d rented the office just to meet with her, too, and she wasn’t sure just what she had agreed to.
“It’s not,” he confirmed. He took a seat and gestured her to the other one. “I’d offer you a drink, but all they have in the fridge is water, and the coffeepot hasn’t been run. It’s slow and would cut into my ten minutes.”
“So is your babbling,” she replied crisply.
Alois grinned at her and tapped a key on his wrist-comp. The wall behind him dissolved into a screen showing the Royal Martian Navy service record for Mage-Commander Maria Isabella Soprano.
“You,” he said unnecessarily. “Earth native. Mage by Blood, descended from MGS-276, AKA Megan Grayson. Neither of your younger siblings pinged, though,” he noted. “One of those unfortunate flukes that come along.”
Mages by Blood were linked back to the survivors of Project Olympus, their families forming a pseudo-aristocracy for the Protectorate. They were confirmed by the testing every child of the Protectorate underwent, unlike Mages by Right, the uncommon flukes the tests existed to catch.
“Excelled in school, excelled at the Lunar Academy, top efficiency reports from your midshipwoman cruise,” he continued. “Service with distinction for ten years in His Majesty’s Navy.”
“I know all of this,” she pointed out. “And how it ended.”
“Indeed.” Alois shook his head. “Unilaterally assuming command of your destroyer while the skipper was on shore leave, and rushing off to tangle with pirates. You misestimated the enemy, and Swords at Dawn was badly damaged, leaving now-Lieutenant Xu trapped aboard the pirate station until Commodore Cor arrived in the actually planned counter-operation and saved everyone under your command.”
“I know what I did,” she snapped. “If all you’re going to do is rehash history, I think we’re done here.”
She began to rise, but Alois chuckled.
“The door won’t open for you,” he said quietly. “The office landlord would be quite displeased if he found out what I’ve done to it, but I’ll fix it before I give it back. We’re also inside a white-noise privacy generator, if you were wondering what the buzzing was.”
“Let. Me. Go.” Power flared around Maria as she turned on the strange little man, but he just smiled and shook his head.
“You said ten minutes, Miss Soprano, and I’m afraid I must insist.”
“How do you plan on stopping me?” she demanded.
“Honestly? I have no way to stop you,” Alois said with a small smile. “But I am the only person willing to offer you what you need. What you’ve been looking for since the Navy kicked you out.”
“And what’s that?”
“A cause,” he told her softly. “You charged to the rescue. It was foolish and careless, but it was for all the right reasons. There are many people in this galaxy who will do what they think is the right thing when it doesn’t endanger them.
“There aren’t many with the courage to put their entire life’s ambition at risk to do what they think is the right thing. You were wrong and you failed, but that doesn’t change what you did or why you did it.”
“Who are you?” Maria asked.
“Major Brent Alois, Martian Interstellar Security Service,” he said simply. “The Agency. We are the shadows in the dark, Mage Soprano, who watch for the knives aimed at the Protectorate’s back. Like the Royal Martian Navy, we serve His Majesty, Desmond Michael Alexander the Third, but we are not the public face of his sword.”
That fit with the puzzle.
“Ex-Marine,” she concluded, slotting the last piece into place.
He chuckled again and nodded.
“I was a Marine Captain once, yes,” he agreed. “Like your Xu, I followed a Navy officer into the wrong place for the right reasons. In my case, the officer in question ended up dead,” he concluded sadly, “so I took the fall. Dishonorable discharge for mutiny in peacetime.
“Then someone came into the bar I was drinking myself to death in and gave me an offer, just like I did for you. MISS has been my life for thirty-five years, Mage Soprano. Guarding the shadows behind the Protectorate’s back.” He smiled. “It’s a cause worth fighting for. Worth living for.”
He was certainly passionate enough, twinging the same nerves that had resulted in Maria being damned stupid back aboard Swords at Dawn.
“If I were interested,” she said slowly, “what would you want me to do?”
“You were a Navy Mage-Commander,” Alois replied. “Every merchant ship in this system would love to snap you up—and we’d like you to be snapped up by a specific ship.
“The crew has been in and out of a lot of trouble and the Protectorate owes them a debt—but they’ve also got a target painted on their backs.
“We want you to protect them,” he noted. “But…we also want to use them as bait.
“With you as the first jaw of the trap.”