Yesterday, the Star Kingdom of Manticore was a small, unimportant interstellar backwater. A quiet little star nation, only recently recovered from the devastating blow of the Plague Years. More affluent than some, perhaps, but with little to attract trade or interstellar commerce, it had little need for a navy . . . and even less interest in paying for one.
But Manticore has now become a target. The Star Kingdom isn't certain who is attacking it, or why, or what its mysterious foe can possibly want, but Queen Elizabeth I knows she has to find out. And she knows that whatever some of her subjects think, Manticore does need a navy. And it needs allies, friends like the dynamic Republic of Haven and the Andermani Empire. It needs their trade . . . and to learn from their more experienced and powerful navies.
It is the job of officers like Travis Long and his wife, Lisa, to acquire that experience. Of utterly inexperienced diplomats like Travis's brother Gavin, Earl Winterfall, to build those alliances.
They have been sent to the powerful Andermani Empire to do just that, for the Imperial Navy is one of the most potent and experienced fleets in the galaxy. But the Andermani have problems of their own. Their Emperor's death is the trigger for insurrection, and now that powerful and experienced navy is locked in civil war.
The Manticoran visitors find themselves squarely in the path of the storm, and before Travis, Lisa, and Gavin can accomplish anything else, they first have to survive.
At the publisher's request, this title is sold without DRM (Digital Rights Management).
About A Call to Arms:
“The plotting is as solid as ever, with smaller scenes building to an explosive, action-packed crescendo, and the authors strike a nice balance between technical details of space flight and the human cost of war.”—Publishers Weekly
Praise for prequel A Call to Duty:
“This exciting book marks the first collaboration of two powerhouses . . . fans of both writers should be quite pleased with the result. Like Robert A. Heinlein and Orson Scott Card, Weber and Zahn are telling a story about a teenage character but writing for readers of all ages.”—Booklist
“A new series set in the universe of Weber's popular heroine Honor Harrington gets off to a solid start. . . . Cowriters Zahn and Weber do an excellent job alluding to events known to longtime fans. . . . [T]his astronautical adventure is filled with . . . intrigue and political drama.”—Publishers Weekly
About the Honor Harrington series:
“Weber combines realistic, engaging characters with intelligent technological projection and a deep understanding of military bureaucracy in this long-awaited Honor Harrington novel . . . Fans of this venerable space opera will rejoice to see Honor back in action.”—Publishers Weekly
“. . . everything you could want in a heroine. . . . Excellent . . . plenty of action.”—Science Fiction Age
“Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant!”—Anne McCaffrey
“Compelling combat combined with engaging characters for a great space opera adventure.”—Locus
“Weber combines realistic, engaging characters with intelligent technological projection . . . Fans of this venerable space opera will rejoice . . .”—Publishers Weekly
Release date: February 1, 2022
Publisher: Baen Books
Print pages: 480
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
A Call to Insurrection: Book IV of Manticore Ascendant
Hereditary President Trudy McIntyre had never been what Lucretia Tomlinson would have called a handsome woman. But there were pictures from two decades earlier that had captured a smoldering fire, a defiance, and a sense of righteousness that had more than made up for the lack of physical beauty.
Now, sixteen T-years since McIntyre’s world and people had been ruthlessly torn away from her, much of that fire had faded.
Much, but not all. And if the fire hadn’t aged well, the moral righteousness certainly had.
“…I know you must be getting tired of hearing from me,” the image on the display said, “as I’m sure your father did before you, as well as all the other directors that have graced the PFT boardroom. But it’s important to me—and to many others—that the crimes of Gustav Anderman aren’t forgotten. For sixteen T-years the people of the Tomlinson System have been crushed under his heel, denied their God-given rights to liberty and free expression.
“I know that after all this time our small and distant problems probably don’t even register on PFT’s agenda. That’s why I’ve sent this message directly to you, Director Tomlinson. To remind you of what was once yours, and to plead with you to do whatever you can to make right what Gustav Anderman once made wrong.
“I hope to hear from you at your earliest opportunity. I hope even more that you’ll do whatever you can to persuade the Solarian League to take action on behalf of your people, your colonists, and your world.
“Thank you for your attention and consideration. I know that if we work together we can return the Tomlinson System to the freedom and shining glory that your grandfather first envisioned for us.
“With respect, Hereditary President-in-Exile Trudy McIntyre.”
The final image froze, a final mute plea in those aging but still fiery eyes.
With a sigh, Tomlinson blanked the screen. She’d been Chief Director of the Board for the transstellar corporation Preston, Fagnelli, and Tomlinson for the past four years. In that time she’d received no fewer than six other messages from McIntyre, all of them pleading with her to take some kind of action against Anderman and his so-called Andermani Empire.
The hell of it was that Tomlinson had tried. She’d sent a dozen formal protests of her own to the Solarian League, both to official agencies and to Anderman’s former employers and fellow mercenary chiefs. She’d sent notes to some of the other transstellar corporations, suggesting the possibility of bringing sanctions or other economic levers to bear on the Andermani. She’d even sent messages to Gustav Anderman himself, appealing to his better nature or at least to his current reputation and his future legacy.
The League bureaucrats unanimously declared the situation Not Their Problem. None of Anderman’s old friends—or enemies—were interested in stepping up to the challenge, at least not for the funding PFT’s Board was willing to offer. The transstellars were likewise uninterested in rocking any boats.
Many of the latter group, in fact, hinted broadly that PFT’s concerns were well beneath their interest level, as was PFT itself.
As for Gustav, the old man had started speaking exclusively German nine years ago. That said a lot right there about his perception of either reputation or legacy. Or, for that matter, reality.
Part of the problem was the distance. The Tomlinson System was a long way from the League, and despite the old saying, absence usually made the heart simply wander off. Probably one reason the rest of the transstellars had never taken PFT seriously, as well. Owning an entire star system—Preston—sitting on the edge of the Core worlds carried a certain amount of prestige, but the fact that their only other system had been at the back edge of nowhere hadn’t added a lot to that status. And of course, since Anderman moved in PFT didn’t even have that much.
The painful bottom line was that if McIntyre’s situation barely registered in the upper levels of PFT, it didn’t register at all anywhere else.
Added to that was the fact that the situation was anything but clear-cut. Anderman had indeed conquered the Tomlinson System, but the records suggested that McIntyre had launched the first attack of that brief war.
Technically, of course, McIntyre had actually launched her attack against the Nimbalkar System, with which Tomlinson had had long-standing tensions and which had only recently been annexed by Anderman.
McIntyre claimed that the attack was merely a response to Nimbalkar’s previous aggressions and, furthermore, that her commanders had believed the ship they attacked was a local warship running a false Andermani ID. None of that had mattered to Gustav, of course, who’d used it as an excuse to attack and subjugate the offending system.
Unfortunately, it hadn’t mattered to anyone else, either. League officials were reluctant to get involved with something so muddled, and the few who might have been sympathetic to McIntyre’s plight knew far better than to cross someone with Anderman’s expertise and firepower.
Tomlinson’s grandfather had been the one who pushed for and ultimately set up the Tomlinson colony seventy years ago. It was his legacy, or it was supposed to have been. Gustav Anderman had taken that from him.
And his granddaughter Lucretia would be damned if she was going to let him get away with it.
In which case, she thought bitterly as she pulled up the report she’d been reading when McIntyre’s message was delivered, she was indeed going to be damned. Right now she was Chief Director of PFT, with all the authority and power that entailed; but that stint would only last another eight T-years before it rotated to the heads of one of the other two families. At that point, under the corporation’s rotation rules, it would be a full twenty-four years before it came back to her. Or to her successor, if she didn’t live that long.
The bottom line was that if she didn’t succeed in freeing her grandfather’s colony from its oppressors this time around, she would probably never get another chance.
Gustav would win. And he wouldn’t just win against the authority and against the property of PFT. He would also get away with building an empire by sheer force of arms.
And those were not lessons humanity needed to be learning right now.
Her intercom pinged. “Director, your eleven o’clock is here,” her secretary’s voice came over the speaker.
Tomlinson frowned, pulling up her schedule. She didn’t have an eleven o’clock appointment.
Or at least she hadn’t when she checked four hours ago upon arriving in her office. Now, somehow, that slot had been magically filled. Filled, moreover, by a name she didn’t recognize.
“One moment, Zaimal,” Tomlinson said, punching the name into her computer. Everybody who was anybody was in PFT’s files, along with most people who weren’t anyone at all.
The list came up: twenty-seven Freya Bryces were on the planet at the moment. They were ordered by prominence, and Tomlinson ran her eye quickly over them. The first four were definitely people of some moderate power and influence, and she wondered briefly which of them could have figured out how to bypass the normal roadblocks and come calling on PFT’s chief director on the spur the moment. Running a quick eye over the four photos so she’d recognize her visitor, she again tapped the intercom. “Send her in.”
A moment’s pause, and then the door across the office swung open and a young woman walked in. Youngish, anyway, probably late thirties or early forties, Tomlinson estimated. She was slender, in an athletic muscular way, with short black hair and wearing the kind of business suit that definitely put her in the upper one percent of society.
And she wasn’t any of the top four Freya Bryces on the list.
Tomlinson stifled a curse. That’s what she got for not looking deeper before she let the unexpected visitor in. Despite the carefully engineered roadblocks, average citizens with a charity to plead or an axe to grind still sometimes managed to find their way into even the very pinnacles of power.
Still, there was that suit. She might as well hear the woman out. “Good day, Ms. Bryce,” Tomlinson said courteously, waving her to the chair at the front corner of the desk. “Please, have a seat.”
“Thank you,” Bryce said as she walked toward the indicated chair. Her stride was measured and confident, her voice polite and well-modulated. But Tomlinson could hear a hint of dark steel beneath the courtesy. “My apologies for breaking in on you this way,” the visitor continued as she lowered herself gracefully into the chair. “But time is short, and your official waiting list is tiresomely long.”
“Then we’d best get to it,” Tomlinson said. “What exactly are we discussing this morning?”
“The topic foremost in your mind at the moment,” Bryce said. “Your namesake colony world of Tomlinson.”
Tomlinson drew back a little in her chair, the odd feeling in her back turning decidedly eerie. How could this woman possibly have known that she’d just screened McIntyre’s message? “Tomlinson?” she asked carefully.
“As in the message you just received from former President McIntyre.” Bryce smiled slightly. “And no, I’m not psychic. I know you received McIntyre’s message because I arrived on the same ship that brought it to you.”
“Not really,” Bryce said. “I was speaking with her about her problems before I—and the message—boarded the ship.”
“You’re a friend, then?” Tomlinson probed.
“A friend to Tomlinson, perhaps,” Bryce said. “Not so much to McIntyre herself. I talked with her; now I’m here to talk with you.”
“Yes,” Bryce said. “And how we—or rather you—are going to get it back.” She raised her eyebrows invitingly. “That is what you want, is it not?”
There were a half dozen ways of summoning security to her office. Tomlinson was sorely tempted to use one of them. She’d been over this ground again and again without finding any foothold. Anyone who claimed it was possible was naïve, delusional, or a flat-out con artist.
But there was that suit. If this was a con, at least the woman knew how to play the game. It would probably be worth another couple of minutes of her time just for the entertainment factor.
“What I want isn’t the question,” she said. “I’ve put a lot of thought and effort into it. So have a lot of other people. Every avenue has been a dead end.”
“I know,” Bryce said. “But if I may be so bold, none of those people has been me.”
“And you are…?”
“Who I am is of no consequence,” Bryce said. “What matters is that I represent certain parties who would be interested in freeing Tomlinson from Gustav Anderman’s hands.”
“I hope that doesn’t mean you’re one of McIntyre’s alleged army of freedom-fighters.”
“Hardly,” Bryce said dryly. “After sixteen T-years I imagine the fires of defiance have dimmed considerably, especially given the relative unpopularity of McIntyre’s rather heavy-handed leadership style. No, my associates aren’t driven by any such high-minded ideals, but by the very practical fact that we have issues with the way Gustav is growing his empire. We feel that a reminder of the uncertainties of life would be in order.”
“Ethical lessons don’t qualify as high-minded ideals?”
Bryce gave a small shrug. “There may be some personal aspects, as well,” she conceded. “The point is that we’re offering the means to deliver Tomlinson back to you.”
“To me,” Tomlinson said, leaning a little on the word.
Another small shrug. “I think we can agree that McIntyre need not be brought back into the equation. The fact that she launched a reckless and unprovoked attack on an Andermani ship demonstrates a serious lack of fitness to govern.”
“I thought the details of that incident were unclear.”
“Not as unclear as McIntyre pretends,” Bryce said. “But her stupidity isn’t the issue. The issue is the people of Tomlinson, and the fact that PFT hasn’t lifted a finger to right the wrong that was done to them a decade and a half ago. This is your chance to become a hero, not just to your namesake world but throughout all of human history.”
“And you can make all this happen?”
“We can,” Bryce said firmly. “In partnership with you.”
“Of course,” Tomlinson said, smiling cynically. There it was. Partnership: a code word that nearly always directly preceded a request for money. “And how much would this partnership cost us?”
“I have records for the last profits PFT received from Tomlinson before McIntyre surrendered to the Andermani,” Bryce said, pulling a data chip from her pocket and placing it on the desk in front of her. “I also have records for the much higher profits those exports have brought in over the last sixteen T-years. Even adding in the additional shipping costs, I estimate you’ll recover your expenses within three to four years.”
Silently, Tomlinson reached over and took the chip. Just as silently, she inserted it into her tablet.
Silently, but with her heart suddenly thudding, she ran her eyes down the pages. She didn’t have those precise numbers memorized, of course, but Bryce’s figures seemed reasonable. Was a four-year recouped investment really all it would take to bring Tomlinson out of its current exile? “And what would these funds buy me?”
“It’s going to buy you what you need,” Bryce said. “What you’ve never been able to get from the League or any of Gustav’s former mercenary friends. Strategic and tactical skill. A full support and logistics structure. A shipping system in place to begin bringing Tomlinson’s exports to market until you can make your own transport arrangements.” She paused. “And, of course, a battle fleet.”
Tomlinson jerked her eyes away from her tablet to the other woman’s face. “A battle fleet?”
“Surely you don’t expect Gustav to release Tomlinson just because we ask nicely,” Bryce said with a small smile. “No, of course you don’t. That’s why you’ve been trying to find a military or paramilitary force willing to take him on.”
“There are plenty of groups who are willing,” Tomlinson said stiffly.
“Are there?” Bryce countered. “Fine, let me rephrase. That’s why you’ve been trying to find a force who’s willing to take him on for the money your Board is willing to spend.”
Tomlinson felt her stomach tighten. That was indeed the sticking point. Even more so than Anderman’s intimidating reputation.
“Plus the fact that any such group would want overwhelming odds before they even considered such an action, which means you’d need three to five separate forces,” Bryce continued calmly. “All of whom would want to be paid.” She raised her eyebrows. “But really, Director. A paltry couple of billion credits to a corporation of PFT’s wealth and power?”
“It’s not just the money,” Tomlinson gritted out, all the memories of all the arguments flooding back over her. “We’ve got the money, and we’re a planetary government. We could buy the ships and crew them without raising a single eyebrow. But certain Board members are ridiculously skittish about the whole idea. They think PFT should be above such things.”
“Even at the cost of your one out-system possession?”
“Even there.” Tomlinson swallowed a curse. “They don’t understand. Or they don’t care.”
“Not surprising, really,” Bryce said. “None of them is the granddaughter of the man who founded the colony. They don’t have the same roots you do.”
Tomlinson felt her eyes narrow. Was this stranger actually sympathizing with her? “It’s not a question of roots,” she said stiffly. “It’s a question of right and wrong.”
“Or, to put it another way, a question of ways and means,” Bryce said. “Tell me, how far are you willing to go to regain the Tomlinson System?”
The alarm bells in the back of Tomlinson’s mind, which had been doing a slow cadence ever since this woman walked into her office, picked up their pace. “Meaning?”
“Meaning something far less dark and sinister than you’re undoubtedly visualizing,” Bryce assured her with a small smile. “It will take less money than you think, but that money will have to be quiet and completely off the books.” She raised her eyebrows. “Is that an area you’re willing to discuss?”
Tomlinson eyed her, the familiar mental image of blind Justice and her scales floating in front of her eyes. PFT had a reputation among the business community and the League for straight dealing. Tomlinson herself had a similar reputation among her own people.
But on the other scale was freedom for the people of their long lost colony. Justice for the wrong that had been done. A return to the days when PFT truly could claim the status of a major transstellar corporation.
“Tell me more,” she invited.
“We know of a fleet that’s available,” Bryce said. If she was at all surprised that Tomlinson was flirting with the edge, it didn’t show in her face. “All we need is the cash to buy it from its current owners—untraceable cash, of course—and we’ll be in business.”
“Those owners are…?”
Bryce shook her head. “Sorry, but for the moment that’s confidential. Once you’re aboard—officially or perhaps a bit less so—I’ll be able to give you more details.”
“Before any money changes hands?”
“Of course,” Bryce said. “If you agree, you’ll be paying the owners directly. None of it will touch my hands.”
Tomlinson chewed the inside of her cheek. Which still didn’t mean this wasn’t a con, of course. But the odds of that were steadily decreasing. “What kind of fleet are we talking about? I trust you’re not talking about some hand-cobbled corvettes some third-rate dictator is trying to unload.”
“Hardly,” Bryce assured her. “What would you say to a few surplused League naval ships?”
Deep in her gut, Tomlinson felt a twinge of disappointment. “I would say we’ve already looked into that, and they were way pricier than anything the Board was willing to spend. Also way pricier than anything I could cover from our accounts without it being instantly flagged.”
“Well, yes,” Bryce agreed. “If you buy them from the League. If you buy instead from a private party—” She shrugged. “You see, not all League ships get resold once the SLN’s done with them. A fair percentage get sent to the breakers.”
“And some of them get lost along the way?”
“It happens,” Bryce said with another shrug. “It also happens that my associates know of one such graveyard. All we need is the money to buy the ships, and Tomlinson is as good as back in your fold.”
“What about crews?”
“As I said, the support system is already in place. All we need are the ships. For that, we just need a relatively miniscule amount of PFT’s money.”
Tomlinson looked back at her tablet. Not because she needed to see the numbers again, but because she was afraid that if she looked at Bryce the other woman would read straight down into her soul.
Tomlinson, back in the PFT fold. Lucretia Tomlinson, the savior of a whole world.
And, perhaps, the chance to be the first person in recent history who’d ever made Gustav Anderman blink.
And all for just a couple of billion credits.
It sounded too good to be true. The question was, was it too good to be true? “And what do your associates get out of it?”
“I already told you,” Bryce said. “They don’t like the way the Andermani Empire has been expanding of late. They’d like to cool things down a little out there.”
“So that your associates can move into the region with their own agenda?”
“They may have interests out there,” Bryce conceded. “But that’s not something either of us need to know. All you need to know is that they have no interest in Tomlinson itself other than returning it to you. All they need to know is whether you’re interested in the same thing.”
“And if we did this, that would be it?” Tomlinson asked. She’d seen this hidden hook gambit many times before. “PFT would be under no further obligation to them?”
“Exactly the opposite,” Bryce said. “Once you’ve regained Tomlinson, my associates hope you and they can work further on other mutual projects. There’s one in particular that they’re expecting will pay high economic dividends in the near future. A partnership with PFT could be advantageous to both parties.”
Tomlinson took a deep breath. “All right, then,” she said. “I’ll obviously need more information on this ghost fleet of yours before I can release any funds. But I can get things started here while you move on that part.”
“Of course,” Bryce said. “There are some specifications on that data chip. Nothing that could possibly identify individual ships or mark their location, of course, so don’t bother trying. There’ll be more data later; this is just something to whet your appetite and give you an idea of the ship classes you’ll be getting.”
“If I agree, what sort of time frame are we looking at?”
“Once I have your commitment, we can probably pull everything together in a year, possibly two.”
Bryce smiled. “Patience, Director. Some of that will be travel time, but most will be the straightforward but somewhat tedious tasks of bringing the ships out of mothballs, rearming them, and training the crews on the new hardware and systems. Charging into combat against Gustav Anderman without proper preparation would be utter folly. As Trudy McIntyre has already proved.”
Tomlinson hissed out a sigh. She knew better than to let impatience override her brain. But that didn’t mean it didn’t sometimes happen. “Understood,” she said.
“Don’t worry, that year will fly by,” Bryce said. “Now that I have your assurances, I can start making the other arrangements.”
“Yes,” Tomlinson murmured, the image of Justice and her scales disappearing and the faces of the Board taking its place. If they found out what she was doing…
She shook the last lingering shadow of doubt away. A couple of billion credits was indeed miniscule in comparison to the company’s assets, easily hidden until Tomlinson herself decided when to reveal the truth.
And really, a small deception in the service of justice and freedom could hardly be faulted.
“I presume you’ll allow my representatives to come along for the purchase?” she asked.
“We wouldn’t do it without them,” Bryce assured her. “As I say, my associates and I won’t be dealing in that aspect at all. The ships will be PFT’s, free and clear, to do with as you see fit.”
She rose to her feet as gracefully as she’d seated herself. “The data chip also has my contact information. Most of the numbers are off-planet, so plan your timing accordingly. Message me when you’ve made your decision. I’ll be contacting you with more details in a few months. With luck, we’ll be ready to make the purchase and start the training at that time.”
“Good,” Tomlinson said. “One other thing.”
“You said you’d talked to McIntyre,” Tomlinson said, eyeing her closely. “So why didn’t she mention you in her message?”
“Because she had no idea I was coming to see you,” Bryce said. “I went to her solely to learn her interpretation of the incident sixteen years ago, and to see if she might be a useful ally in our recapture of her former world.”
Bryce’s mouth tightened, just noticeably. “As I said earlier, I don’t believe she needs to be involved. Good day, Director Tomlinson. We’ll be in touch.”
* * *
The support system is already in place, Bryce had told Tomlinson. All we need are the ships.
As usually happened in the real world, it wasn’t quite that easy.
Commodore Catt Quint and her Quintessence Mercenaries weren’t where Bryce’s information had said they would be. It took Bryce another two weeks of poking around Kenichi until she got another tip, and then it was five weeks’ more travel before she could finally track down the commodore.
And when Bryce did finally catch up with her, it wasn’t in a nice spacers’ lounge or corporate office. It was, instead, in a marginally sleazy bar on Dzung, seated at a table with a half dozen less marginally sleazy types.
It was just as well, Bryce reflected as she worked her way through the crowd, that she’d left that ten-thousand-credit business suit back on her ship.
Still, it was clear from the start that Quint was exactly the person Bryce was looking for. There was a toughness and steel in her face and body language that none of her pictures had managed to capture, along with a confidence that allowed her to sit among rough-looking men without a hint of nervousness. On top of that was a keen sense of global awareness: Bryce could tell the commodore had spotted her before she was even halfway across the room.
She would be ideal for what Bryce had in mind. The question now was whether she could be roped in as easily as Tomlinson had been.
Bryce was pretty sure she could. After all, the files had revealed the big fat red button plastered across Quint’s psyche.
And Bryce knew exactly how to push it.
She was still five meters from Quint’s circle when the two men closest to her pushed back their chairs and stood up. “Yeah?” one of them challenged as they turned to face her.
Mentally, Bryce offered them a salute. With their backs to her, the men must have been given a warning of the approaching stranger, but Bryce hadn’t seen even a hint of a signal. The group was good, all right. “I’m here to see your chief,” she said, nodding past them in Quint’s direction. “I have a proposition for her.”
“I’ll bet,” the first man growled. He let her get another two steps, then held out his hand in silent order. The second man, a smarmy grin of expectation on his face, stepped forward, hands raised for a good, solid, intrusive frisking.
Normally, Bryce was of the same mind as some of her other colleagues: the less attention one drew to oneself the better. But in this case, she was pretty sure that the commodore watching silently from the other side of the table would be more responsive to a different approach.
The big man’s hand entered Bryce’s personal space, his fingers aiming for her upper rib cage. Bryce let him get another few centimeters, then reached over and intercepted the hand, putting on a fingerlock that brought him to a jerking halt. His other hand darted under his jacket, and Bryce caught a glimpse of a pistol at his belt.
Unfortunately for him, his gun hand was the one currently locked in her grip, and before he could get his other hand to the gun Bryce had relieved him of the weapon. Still maintaining the fingerlock she flipped the gun in midair, caught it by the barrel, and sent it arcing smoothly toward a landing on the table directly in front of Quint.
Or rather, that was where Bryce had aimed it. Instead of the crunching rattle of metal on wood, there was merely the subdued slap of metal on flesh as Quint’s hand darted out and caught the weapon in midair. “I think you dropped something,” Quint said mildly, lifting the gun a couple of centimeters.
“Just trying to cut through the small talk,” Bryce said. “In the future, you might want to instruct your men to start a frisking with their off hand.”
“Or to hand off their weapon beforehand?” Quint suggested.
“Even better,” Bryce said, releasing her grip. He gave her a look that was half glower and half speculation, but made no move to pick up the frisking where he’d left off. “Sorry about the theatrics,” Bryce continued. “But I spent a lot of time hunting you down, and I wanted you to take me seriously.”
“Consider yourself serious,” Quint said. “Taylor: the lady needs your chair. Grimling, get her a drink. Scotch?”
“Scotch is fine,” Bryce said as the slightly less bulky man seated next to Quint stood up and stepped away from the table. “And for the moment I’d prefer to keep this just between the two of us. Can I buy your people a round?”
Quint gave her a measuring look, shrugged, and gestured. “Everyone to the bar,” she said. “Tell Georgio the lady will pick up the tab on her way out.”
Silently, the other men and women at the table got up and made their way through the crowd. “Let’s make this quick,” Quint said as Bryce settled into the vacant chair beside her. “You’re either looking for a job or you’re looking to hire me. Either way, you’re out of luck. The Quintessence Mercs are out of business.”
“So I heard,” Bryce said. “Temporarily, I hope.”
“Don’t count on it,” Quint said, a bitter edge to her voice. “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. This time, we were definitely the bug.”
“It happens,” Bryce said with a shrug. “Still, the bug usually doesn’t pick itself off the windshield and make it back to its home leaf. Very impressive that you were able to do that.”
“We were lucky,” Quint said. “Usually once a battlecruiser is wrecked that’s it. But I have good men and women, and they were able to get us home.” Her lips compressed briefly. “Rather, I hadgood men and women.”
“Is that what you’re doing here?” Bryce asked, nodding at the crowd around them. “Trying to get some of your competitors to take them on?”
“I don’t have competitors anymore,” Quint said. “But yes, that’s the plan. Like I said, they’re good people. They deserve good jobs.” She cocked her head. “Right—I missed that possibility, didn’t I? You wouldn’t happen to be hiring, would you?”
“As a matter of fact, I would,” Bryce said. “How many battlecruisers do you think you could crew right now?”
Quint snorted. “How many have you got?”
Quint’s mouth started to open into a laugh. It froze halfway, her face abruptly stiffening. “You’re serious.”
“Deadly serious,” Bryce assured her. “Four mothballed battlecruisers, plus probably a few smaller ships.”
“I haven’t personally inspected the merchandise,” Bryce said. “But the sellers know what they’re doing, and they’re certainly going to keep their prizes in good shape. Of course, I’d want you to check everything thoroughly before any money changes hands.”
“Of course,” Quint echoed, still studying her. “What group are you with?”
“My associates aren’t mercs,” Bryce said. “No, wait—we’re supposed to say Contingency Management Firms these days, aren’t we?”
“If we’re being pedantic,” Quint said. “Or bureaucratic.”
“Words of a feather,” Bryce said philosophically. “Regardless, that’s not who we are. My associates are merely a group of interested individuals who want to deliver a message.”
Quint smiled faintly. “There are courier ships for that, you know.”
“They’re looking for something a bit more difficult to ignore,” Bryce said. “I dare say diplomatic subtleties are lost on a man like Gustav Anderman.”
Quint’s face froze. “Anderman?”
“Sixteen T-years ago he took over a system that was owned by someone else,” Bryce continued, pretending she hadn’t noticed the abrupt change in mood. “That someone has decided it’s time they took the system back. All they lacked were ships, which is where my associates come in, and crews, which is where you and the Quintessence come in.” She raised her eyebrows slightly. “Assuming you want to come in.”
“Mmm,” Quint said, a polite but noncommittal tone. “Tell me more.”
Translation: where the hell was Bryce going to find four battlecruisers no one else wanted? “Obviously, I can’t go into details until you’re officially aboard,” she said. “Hypothetically, though, there are ways that ships can, shall we say, go missing. Ships that various regional navies, such as the SLN, are decommissioning, for instance.”
“The SLN,” Quint echoed, her voice flat.
“Hypothetically, why not?” Bryce said. “They have a huge navy, and a fairly impressive turnover of their ships. When they’re done with something, ...
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...