Vengeance hunts them.
Rebellion seeks them.
Loyalty commands them.
The shadows will fear them.
Captain David Rice and Mage Maria Soprano have made their choice, signing up with the Martian Interstellar Security Agency and converting Red Falcon into a covert operations ship for the Protectorate.
Their new duties drag them back into the very underworld they once strove to escape, intentionally provoking the Azure Legacy into a renewed conflict. They find unexpected allies with secret agents from Legatus’s rebellion against Mars as they seek to stop Mikhail Azure’s Blue Star Syndicate from being reborn.
The Azure Legacy wants revenge. Legatus wants blood. David and Maria are bound by the overriding duty of all officers of the Mage-King’s Protectorate:
Protect the innocent.
The young woman across the table from Captain David Rice seemed utterly unperturbed by the panel interview. She just barely qualified for the Senior Ship’s Mage position she’d applied for aboard the jump freighter Peregrine, but there was no sign of that in the slim redheaded Mage’s poised form.
“All right, Miss McLaughlin,” the stockily built Captain of the freighter Red Falcon—and owner of the soon-to-be-commissioned Peregrine—said. “Everyone in this room knows that we’re going to have at least half a dozen more-qualified candidates for Peregrine’s Senior Ship’s Mage.
“So, I suggest you tell us why Captain Campbell should hire you.”
Jenna Campbell sat to his right, the stoutly built blonde woman his strong right hand. After ten years as his XO, however, there was no question who would be the Captain when he’d purchased a second ship.
Grace McLaughlin smiled.
“I can think of a few reasons,” she told them. “Firstly, I served as Ship’s Mage aboard Gentle Rains of Summer for over two years, rising from the most junior Mage to second-most senior through my skills.
“Captain Michaels and Ship’s Mage Caomhánach have both provided glowing references that I have supplied you,” she continued. “The only reason I’m looking to leave Gentle Rains is that Mage Caomhánach has no intention of retiring anytime soon, so I’ve advanced as far as I can under Captain Michaels.”
And David was quite certain she knew he and Michaels were old friends. That was part of how McLaughlin’s friend had ended up as Ship’s Mage aboard David’s old ship, Blue Jay.
“I’ve read Mage Caomhánach’s reference,” the third person on the hiring side of the table noted. Ship’s Mage Maria Isabella Soprano had rapidly become David’s strong left hand, even if her presence had dragged him into working with the Protectorate’s Martian Interstellar Security Service.
“It’s glowing and adorable,” Soprano continued in her calm, lightly accented voice. “But sufficiently short on details to easily be the kind of letter you write a politically connected subordinate as a favor.”
McLaughlin’s smile didn’t even waver.
“I would be glad to demonstrate my skills to you, Mage Soprano,” she said firmly. “I’m no Navy Mage and I doubt I am as powerful as you, ma’am, but I am more than capable of fulfilling both the jumping and the defensive portions of the Ship’s Mage job.
“I understand you’ve had some difficulties with the crime syndicates?” she concluded.
“You know Damien Montgomery,” he noted. Everything in David’s life right now still seemed to come back to hiring that one Mage. Now they both served the Protectorate, though David understood that Montgomery was somewhere in the Sol System, training to be some kind of uber-Mage.
Even that was probably more than he should know.
McLaughlin coughed and flushed slightly.
“I know Damien, yes,” she confirmed. “Part of my reason for applying with your crew was that I know he works for you.”
“Damien worked for me, yes,” David told her. “He left us for the service of the Mage-King eighteen months ago or so now. He was a capable subordinate and a dear friend.”
“That he was,” she agreed, her eyes flickering aside. David figured he’d just lost a quarter or so of her interest now she knew she wouldn’t be working with Montgomery again.
That was…fascinating, and he smiled at her.
“I hope that doesn’t render this interview pointless?” he asked.
“No,” she told him. “I’ll admit that working with Damien again would be a large bonus, but your new shipping line is intriguing to me—and getting in at the beginning looks like a good idea to me!”
After the young Mage had gone on her way, David refilled his officers’ coffees and looked at the two women questioningly.
“If we could bring her in on the secret, I’d take her as a junior on Red Falcon instantly,” Soprano replied. “I’m not so sure at making her senior on a ship—especially with a first-time Captain; no offense, Jenna.”
“None taken. I’ll note that if she was on Falcon, she’d inevitably be working with Xi Wu, at least, if not LaMonte herself. How many of Damien’s ex-girlfriends do you really want on a ship?”
“Given Miss LaMonte’s demonstrated lethality to anyone who threatens her friends, that’s a trick question,” he pointed out. “It’s irrelevant in any case; the Agency has already made up the Mage complement for Red Falcon.”
Maria Soprano had, apparently, been an agent for MISS since she’d come aboard. His own membership in the organization was more recent—and was why they now owned Peregrine.
He and Soprano had been tasked to go poke several of the galaxy’s more dangerous underground organizations with a stick. He wasn’t taking anyone on that mission who didn’t know what they were getting into, so he was shuffling a large chunk of his crew over to Peregrine and replacing them with a mix of MISS personnel and people the Agency had cleared.
An even larger portion of his crew was ex-Navy now than Red Falcon had carried before—and since Falcon was a former armed Navy auxiliary, the big ship had always had a solid cohort of Navy crew and Marines.
“Almost as important, though,” Campbell noted, “is that rumor has it that Sherwood is calling home any of their Ship’s Mages they can find for a new security force. Anyone want to bet that the Governor hasn’t already sent a letter to his granddaughter?
“Or that Miss McLaughlin won’t disappear back home to answer the call?”
“I’m not taking that bet,” David agreed. “So, she’s off the list, then. You’re going to want an experienced senior Ship’s Mage in any case, XO. I’m not prepared to send you off into the black without the best I can give you.”
“I know, boss,” she replied. “What about you? I know the Navy gave you a new tactical officer, but who gets my job?”
He shook his head.
“I was waiting until LaMonte finished her Mate certification to make the decision,” he admitted. “I was planning on making LaMonte our new Fourth Mate and Chief Engineer, bumping Kellers to the XO slot.”
“I’m going to guess our friend Kellers shut that down fast?”
“Before I’d even finished the offer,” David agreed. “However, since I’m not a first-time Captain, and I have First and Fourth Mates I can rely on…”
A merchant freighter usually had three Mate-certified officers, people who were qualified to take over command if something happened to the Captain. First Officer was the Ship’s Mage, Second Officer was the executive officer, and the Third Officer was the Chief Engineer.
Armed ships like Red Falcon—and like Peregrine once her refit was complete—moved the Chief Engineer to Fourth Officer and inserted a tactical officer as Third Mate.
“You’re making LaMonte XO?” Soprano asked carefully. “She’s a little…young.”
“She is,” David confirmed. “And she’s dating both our second-most senior pilot and our second-most senior Mage,” he continued, shaking his head at the complexity of the relationship mess going on with his mid-twenties officers. “A complication I expect you, Ship’s Mage, to keep an eye on.
“That said, she’s one of the best programmers I’ve ever met, good with people, and a solid engineer,” he continued. “I’ll teach her to fly the ship, and the other three Mates can keep her feet on solid ground. She’ll be fine.”
“Sink or swim with that Mate certification, huh?” Campbell noted.
“She’ll swim,” David replied confidently. “If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be tossing her in the deep end.”
The Tau Ceti System was the heart of the Royal Martian Navy’s presence outside the Sol System, and the entirety of David Rice’s little shipping line was docked at one of the civilian stations orbiting the massive military shipyard complex.
Red Falcon had only recently left the military yard, the RMN technicians far more capable of dealing with the armed megafreighter’s idiosyncrasies than most yards. She was a big mushroom-shaped vessel, with a rotating hab-ring tucked underneath a heavy armored dome containing her main water tanks and most of her arsenal.
Next to the twenty-megaton ship, Peregrine looked tiny. That was deceptive at best. The Maui-class heavy freighter was rated for twelve million tons of cargo, four times David’s old Blue Jay, if still far less than Falcon.
Of course, the Maui class normally only carried a half-dozen of the Rapid-Fire Laser Anti-Missile turrets for self-defense, with no heavier armament. Peregrine was nearing the end of a two-month refit in the capable hands of one of Tau Ceti’s more reliable contractors.
When it was done, she’d still be a fusion-drive ship with rotating ribs for gravity—but she’d be a civilian ship with four battle lasers, a complete suite of gravity runes for her Mages to keep charged, and sixteen missile launchers.
David had made far too many enemies over the years to send people out under his banner without making sure they could protect themselves.
The transfer pod he and his senior officers were aboard slowed to a halt in the zero-gravity section of the station docks. Two bays next to each other were now labeled with the simple text of his expanded company: Rice Shipping Interstellar.
“If I’m reading my mail right, our new tactical officer should be reporting aboard this evening,” David told his companions. “I’ll stay aboard until then. You two?”
“I’m going to go take a walk around my ship,” Campbell replied. She was still sleeping aboard Falcon, but Peregrine was intact enough that her captain-to-be could walk her decks now.
“I’m going to get a drink,” Soprano said. “The ship is getting stuffy.”
He chuckled. Fast as she was, any lengthy voyage would involve them spending weeks or even months locked aboard Red Falcon. Stuffy wasn’t something the environmental plant would permit.
“Don’t stay out too late, and behave,” he ordered his Ship’s Mage. “Tau Ceti may be safe, but…”
“I still have friends here,” she replied. “I’ll be fine.”
Kelly LaMonte entered her Captain’s office with a certain degree of hesitation. It had seemed so clear to her when she’d started the Mate certification program: she’d get the certificate and then her career would take off.
That had been when she’d been aboard a ship she’d been afraid would fall apart around her. It had been post-Damien Montgomery but before Xi Wu and Mike Kelzin. Before Red Falcon and their conflict with Azure Legacy and the Legatans.
Before her ship had helped end a pirate fleet and become an unofficial covert operations ship for the Protectorate.
Now…she wasn’t quite sure what to do with the certificate that said she could be one of the senior non-Mage officers of a starship. The MISS courses in hacking and programming she’d taken hadn’t helped either. They’d expanded her skills to a level she couldn’t help wanting to try out…and no ordinary ship was going to give her that chance.
“Have a seat, Kelly,” Rice told her, gesturing to the chair across his desk. “Coffee?”
“Please,” she agreed, nervously tugging on her hair—currently a natural-looking red—for a moment before folding her hands in her lap. She couldn’t be certain, but she’d thought she’d seen her Captain conceal a smile at the nervous gesture.
Rice returned to the desk with two mugs of coffee and slid one over to her.
“I saw the posting from the Shippers’ Academy,” he said. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Kelly replied. “They don’t tell us much other than ‘You passed.’ You can kind of guess how you did on the different sections, but they don’t tell you.”
She knew, for example, that there was no way she’d excelled on the normal-space flight portion of the test. Campbell had helped teach her, but she knew she lacked the instinct that Campbell or Kelly’s own boyfriend had for maneuvers.
“Officially, they don’t tell anybody,” Rice agreed. “Unofficially, your Captain can usually get at least a rundown from your tester.”
She sat up straight, leveling a curious gaze on her boss.
“Can you tell me?” she asked frankly.
“You sure you want to know?”
“I need to know where I still need to improve,” she said instantly.
“You’re a freshly minted ship’s mate, Kelly,” Rice said gently. “You need improvement everywhere; that’s the nature of the world. That said…” He held up a finger.
“To no one’s surprise, you nearly maxed out the programming and engineering portions of the test. You did almost as well on the personnel interactions and counseling portions, which I’ll admit I didn’t expect. You were fine on the rest but, bluntly, got a pity pass on normal-space flight.”
“I didn’t think pity passes were a thing,” she admitted. Somehow, that was more important than the nearly max grade on almost half the components of the testing.
“They’re what happens when your history and the rest of your testing say you’ll make an exemplary officer,” Rice told her gently, “but you fail one or two components by a slim margin.
“If you stay with us, we’ll make sure you get more practice and training at the stick,” he continued. “You’re fine on the software side, the navigation, but given the kind of scrapes we get into, we need a live hand on the controls more often than most.”
“‘If I stay’?” she repeated.
“You now have your Mate’s certificate, a mechanical engineering degree, eight years’ experience, and a stack of glowing recommendations as long as your arm,” her Captain pointed out. “This is Tau Ceti, Kelly. You could walk off Red Falcon and have six interviews scheduled by the end of the day and be in a Chief Engineer slot somewhere by the end of the week.
“I don’t want you to feel obligated to stay,” he concluded. “We’d love to keep you, but we don’t have a perfect slot to drop you into. There are ships out there that could be a better fit for your skills and experience, much as I hate to say it.”
“And how many of them have stopped a war?” she asked quietly.
“I’ll note that I don’t think we’ve stopped any wars,” he replied. “Though I’ll admit that we’ve probably helped delay a civil war by short-circuiting some of Legatus’s plans.
“But, yes, Red Falcon is probably the only covert Agency ship available,” he admitted. “With your qualifications, though, you could probably talk your way into the Navy with a near-guaranteed rapid promotion scale.”
“Probably,” she agreed with a smile. “But I’m guessing you do have some openings for me?”
“I do,” he confirmed. “None are what I hoped, but, as I doubt surprises you, Kellers refuses to leave Red Falcon’s engineering section.”
Kelly wasn’t surprised at all, sadly. The perfect job for her would have been to take over for Kellers in the engineering section she knew inside and out, with the people she already knew.
“The first option is probably the most obvious,” Rice continued. “While we’ve interviewed several solid candidates, Peregrine doesn’t have a Chief Engineer yet.
“You’d be building a department up from scratch, which is a solid opportunity but very much the deep end for your first department,” he noted. “Kellers would backstop your hiring and we’ll be sending some key personnel over from Red Falcon, but you’d be an inexperienced officer with a new department on a new ship.
“I have confidence that you and Captain Campbell could make it work, but I’ll warn you ahead of time that it’ll be an uphill struggle.”
“It would be a challenge,” Kelly admitted slowly, “but I think I could do it.”
The challenge was tempting all on its own. It wasn’t often you were offered the opportunity to stretch your skills that far. Leaving her partners behind on Red Falcon would be…suboptimal, but her understanding was that the two ships should be meeting up relatively regularly.
“So do I, or I wouldn’t be offering it to you,” Rice told her. “But if you want to stay on Red Falcon, I do have another option.”
Kelly nodded, leaning back in her chair to let him speak. The only way she could see to stay on Falcon would to remain as a secondary engineering officer, maybe with a bump in authority to make her Kellers’s second-in-command.
She could do that, and it would be good experience, but she wasn’t sure it would be worth it. She knew she could make more of a difference aboard Red Falcon than aboard Peregrine, but she couldn’t hamper her own career, either.
“James Kellers, obviously, is staying on as Chief Engineer, and Maria isn’t going anywhere,” Rice reminded her. “Connor Daniels, our new Third Officer will be arriving later today, freshly retired from the Navy and connected to us by the Agency.
“That does leave one open position for a Mate-certified officer,” he concluded.
Kelly stared at him in silence for several long seconds. He couldn’t be saying what she thought he was saying.
“Red Falcon’s crew is one of the better ones I’ve worked with,” Rice noted. “Our ridiculous proportion of ex-Navy probably has something to do with that, but with three experienced ship’s officers and a solid crew, we can probably handle bringing a green executive officer up to speed.”
His words were still barely processing. That was a massive offer—an insane offer.
“It’s the deep end,” he continued. “Nothing deeper, in fact, but Maria has been executive officer aboard a warship, and I still remember most of the drill myself. You’ll have to hit the ground running, but we can at least point the way for you.
“If you want the job.”
“You.” She paused, considering. “You want to make me XO. Second Officer.”
“Yes,” Rice confirmed. “We’ll back you all the way. Both Maria and I know what you need to do, and we’ll make sure you keep your head above water.” He grinned. “I can’t promise that James will go easy on you, but we’ll make sure Connor knows you’re his boss.
“Two options, Kelly,” he continued. “I won’t tell you which is better. Both would be challenges. The Peregrine role is probably closer to what you should be doing at this point in your career.
“But I think you can do the XO role here. I’d rather have someone whose skills I know and that I know I can trust at my right hand, Kelly.
“What do you say?”
She exhaled sharply, shaking her head as she looked up to meet her Captain’s gaze.
Executive officer. Second Officer of an armed megafreighter, a covert ops ship that was going to go looking for trouble. If she wanted to make a difference, she couldn’t see anywhere better to be.
“Hell, yes,” she told him. “I’m not leaving this ship if I’ve a choice, Captain, so if you want to stick me on your bridge, I guess I’m learning to fly this barge.”
“Hey!” her Captain objected. “Call my Falcon a barge again and I might change my mind!”
Kelly wasn’t sure if Rice had told people in advance of his plan or if Red Falcon’s Chief of Security had been advised afterward.
Or, potentially, had worked it out on his own. “Chief” Ivan Skavar was also Lieutenant Ivan Skavar, Royal Martian Marine Corps Forward Combat Intelligence—and he saluted briskly as he met her in the corridor.
“XO, the new tactical officer just reported aboard,” he informed her brightly. “I figured you and the Captain would need to sort out your plan before meeting with him, so one of my girls is showing him to his quarters.”
Right. Quarters. She was going to have to move—had Campbell even moved out yet?
It was the executive officer’s job to know that. She’d hit the ground, but she wasn’t running fast enough yet.
“I’ll consult with Rice,” she confirmed. “XO? Does everyone know already?”
“I don’t know about everyone, but I did the math two days ago—and you just spent an hour closeted with the Skipper. Two plus two equals new executive officer, I think. Am I wrong?”
She chuckled. Skavar was ten years older than her, but there was something infectious in the Marine officer’s sense of the world.
“You’re not wrong,” she confirmed. “I’ll ping the Skipper and see what he thinks, but right off the bat…”
Kelly checked her wrist-comp. The smooth plastic tablet strapped to her arm was linked in to Falcon’s far more powerful computers, and since it now had the executive officer’s codes, it could access the Captain’s and Ship’s Mage’s schedule.
“Let me confirm with Rice”—she had, after all, been executive officer for under an hour—“but it looks like Maria is due back aboard in forty minutes and we’re all free in ninety.”
“Sounds like a plan, ma’am,” Skavar replied. “I’ll make sure Mr. Connor Daniels is where he needs to be.”