When a bomb explodes in the bustling Commonwealth capital city of Salaam, responsibility is quickly claimed by an extremist independence movement. But after a former comrade, an ex-spy with his own agenda, is implicated in the attack, Simon Kovalic and his team of covert operatives are tasked with untangling the threads of a dangerous plot that could have implications on a galactic scale. And the deeper Kovalic digs, the more he'll uncover a maze of secrets, lies, and deception that may force even the most seasoned spy to question his own loyalties.
File Under: Science Fiction [ Galactic Cold War | Friends close | Enemies closer | Nowhere to Run ]
Release date: July 26, 2022
Publisher: Angry Robot
Print pages: 388
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The Nova Incident: The Galactic Cold War Book III
Simon Kovalic was halfway through his grocery shopping when the explosion hit.
He’d been picking up some bread from a stand at the Salaam farmer’s market on Oluo Plaza when there had been a brilliant flash of light; his head jerked up just in time for the deafening thunderclap that had followed.
Even unconsciously braced against the shockwave that his instincts knew was coming, he felt the loaf knocked from his hand. Debris littered the pavement all around him with a sizzling pitter-patter. Through the ringing in his ears he could just make out raised voices, but he could clearly feel the vibration of footsteps pounding away from the crowded market.
He leaned on the farmstand and wiped a sleeve across his eyes. The bread and pastries, pristine and mouthwatering just a moment ago, were now dusted with a fine layer of grit; more drifted through the air like ashen snow.
Behind the table, the vendor was on his backside, eyes widened to their whites in a face streaked with grime. A trickle of blood worked its way down the side of his head – nothing serious, Kovalic’s battlefield intuition immediately told him, but the man was in shock.
Reaching out a hand, he opened his mouth to say something encouraging, then immediately started coughing as he took in a lungful of the same grit. He spat onto the ground, dark against the fine dust.
Then something automatic took over and he was in motion. It took him a second to realize where his instincts were pushing him, but his peripheral vision had already registered the cloud of black smoke roiling from the upper stories of a nearby building.
Dimly, he felt his sleeve buzz, glanced down at the smart fabric display in time to see EMERGENCY ALERT splashed across it in red, then wiped it away with a palm. No shit.
A steadily increasing number of sirens filled the air and Kovalic looked up to see fast-response drones with flashing red lights swarming the building, spraying flame-retardant foam at the source of the fire.
People rippled past him like a wave, stumbling or running away from the source of the explosion as he threaded his way upstream through them.
Some still cowered behind stalls, and Kovalic did his best to check on them as he made his way past. Most were uninjured, more shocked and scared than anything else. A few had lacerations or minor cuts like the baker’s, but none seemed to require more serious intervention. They’d keep until emergency services arrived.
The building hadn’t been so lucky. As he stepped out past the last of the stalls and into the open plaza, he got his first good look at the explosion site.
A mid-height office building, around fifteen stories, mainly constructed of dark burnished metal, interspersed with panels of tinted glass. Unremarkable in any other way – he wouldn’t have looked twice at it, had it not been for the thick smoke pouring from a floor about halfway up. By its look it was mostly offices; his breath caught before he remembered with relief that it was early Saturday morning, which hopefully meant there hadn’t been too many people inside.
Movement caught his eye: a red groundtruck with flashing lights pulled up at the base of the building, offloading fire personnel in heavy insulated suits, masks, and helmets. Damn fast response, Kovalic thought in appreciation as they formed up and headed into the building. They’d even beat the security forces to the punch.
He approached the fire brigade, waiting for them to notice him, but they had mostly disappeared into the building, leaving only a couple of figures behind, anonymous in their emergency gear.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said one of them, a man with dark eyes whose voice was muffled through his mask, as he stepped in front of Kovalic. “Where do you think you’re going, pal?”
“Came to see if I could help,” he rasped, then coughed again. “I’m Commonwealth military. I’ve got field medic training.”
He thought he saw the man’s brow furrow behind the transparent face shield.
“I’m going to need you to step back, sir,” said the firefighter, putting a hand on Kovalic’s chest. “The structure is unsafe, and there may be another explosive device.”
Kovalic blinked as he stepped backwards. Explosive device? He looked up at the black cloud which had begun to filter throughout the blue sky, obscuring the sun with a fine haze. Salaam was the safest place he’d ever lived. Even when the conflict with the Illyrican Empire had been a shooting war, the fighting had never reached Terra Nova – it had been largely insulated ever since the Commonwealth had declared the planet its capital, almost two decades ago.
He started to open his mouth to ask how they knew it was a bomb, but at that moment several of the fire brigade came out of the building, escorting a handful of civilians in suits. Their clothes were ragged and torn and many of them had blood dripping down their stunned faces as they stumbled into the light.
A handful of security vehicles and three ambulances pulled up in the plaza, the latter disgorging blue-suited EMTs with military efficiency; they quickly took charge of the injured from the fire brigade. An additional pair of fire engines pulled up, producing their own water cannons and some drones. The security officers quickly started setting up a cordon, pushing the crowds back.
Kovalic stared up at the fire, something in the back of his head still rolling back and forth like one of those puzzles where you had to get a little metal ball into a hole. This seemed wrong. Like reality was askew on its axis.
He looked back at the initial team of firefighters, but they were loading up on their truck, their work of evacuating the building apparently complete. One of them, a tall slender man by his silhouette, hung back, still looking up at the building with an uncertain air, but as he turned, he made eye contact with Kovalic through his faceplate.
The dark eyes were cool and collected, not betraying anything, but Kovalic thought he detected a quirk of the eyebrows, almost in recognition.
His breath drew in deep. No, it couldn’t be. His brain was still muddled, playing tricks on him. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them for a closer look, but the firefighter was gone, the truck already starting to pull away from the scene.
Kovalic looked around the plaza, at all the people rushing to and fro – the uniformed personnel, the walking wounded, the weeping, the shocked – and his mind flashed through all the battlefields he’d stood on in the past twenty-odd years.
He found himself sinking to a nearby bench, his head in his hands. This shouldn’t be happening. Not here. The firefighter must have been wrong – it couldn’t have been a bomb. Must have been an accident. A power overload. Unstable fuel cells. Who would bomb an office building in the downtown district on a weekend morning?
His sleeve vibrated again. He thought he’d silenced it after the first emergency alert, but when he glanced down he saw the display was garbled, pixelated with visual artifacts, as though it were a glass screen that had shattered after being dropped on the floor.
After a moment, the pixels started to reorganize themselves, unscrambling into a series of irregular letters, like someone had cut them out of an old magazine. And as each word became clear Kovalic’s stomach sank deeper and deeper, the conviction that this wasn’t some unfortunate accident solidified into cold hard fact.
He stared at the screen, the three words written there, and with them his entire reality tilted, in ways that seemed almost imperceptible, but irrevocable. And as he glanced about, he saw the same look on faces all around him, as others looked down at their own buzzing sleeves.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of scrolling video signs attached to nearby buildings, the kind usually reserved for weather reports or headline news or ads. But now they were also repeating the same three words as the ones on his sleeve, over and over, a never-ending chorus.
SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS.
“Whoa,” said Eli Brody as the acceleration from even the slight tap to the throttle pushed him back into the pilot’s seat. “This thing is moving.”
Beside him, in the co-pilot’s seat, Cassie Engel’s smile was all kinds of smug. “Boosted the lift/mass ratio.” Not for the first time, Eli silently thanked whatever quirk of fate had assigned her as the team’s resident mechanic; the performance she’d managed to eke out of the Cavalier had pushed it way past its baseline specs. And, given how critical the ship was when the team was in the field, even a hairline improvement could end up saving their lives.
“By almost a factor of five,” chimed in another voice from behind them. If it weren’t for the g-forces keeping all of them in their chairs, Cary Maldonado would have no doubt been poking their head up in between the two of them, eager as a puppy. After Mal had helped Eli and Sergeant Tapper escape the Queen Aminasix months ago, the sergeant’s endorsement had gotten them hired as the team’s resident technical expert, a role that they’d taken on with a gusto only matched by their genuine enthusiasm for their colleague’s work. “I don’t know where she found more headroom in the intermix, but she did it!”
Cassie waved a hand. “There’s always room if you know where to look.”
Eli eased off the throttle, watching the white blurs in front of them resolve once again into clouds. The weather over Terra Nova’s northern continent was often stormy, but today the skies were blue as his sister Meghann’s eyes, with nothing but fluffy white pillows of cumulus.
“Gotta admit, the Cav has never flown better,” he said. “She’s come a long way since that seized patrol ship they requisitioned for me almost a year ago.” Jesus, has it been that long? Sometimes it seemed like just yesterday that he’d been dragooned into the Special Projects Team, other days it felt more like a lifetime – and with everything he’d been through since joining the SPT, it more or less was.
“We’ve made a few other modifications,” said Mal. “I mean, Cassie did most of the hard work, replacing some burned out waveguides and retuning the central reactor.”
“Mal’s just being modest,” said Cassie. “They spent almost as much time rewiring the cockpit systems as I did with grease on my hands.”
“I did upgrade the core OS to the latest version to patch some nasty firmware bugs. And installed some encrypted communications gear that will probably come in handy. But!” Mal just avoided clapping their hands together in glee. “My favorite is the new transponder system. Check this out.” They spun around and tapped a few commands on the flight engineer’s console. “Usually transponder codes are burned in, to make them harder to fake. That’s why every time you need a new cover for a mission, you have to swap out the chips. But I managed to replicate that with a software-programmable unit. So, now you can broadcast a clone of any transponder the Cav has seen.” With a flourish, they punched the execute button.
In front of Eli, a holographic window popped up, alerting him to the change, and noting that the ship was now broadcasting as a Commonwealth bulk freighter.
Eli choked back a cough. That’s like a half-dozen class five Intersystem Traffic violations there. Probably ten years of jail time, easy. Then again, the punishment for espionage was probably way, way worse.
“Pretty cool, right? Man, the transponder system is so old. You totally shouldn’t be able to hack it this easy.” Mal shook their head.
The tech’s enthusiasm was so genuine that it couldn’t help but be infectious, and a grin threatened to split Eli’s face, but he just managed to hold it back. Technically, I think I’m supposed to be the responsible one here.
“With this system, I could make it look like the secretary-general of the Commonwealth’s personal transport. I’m telling you: nobody would know the difference. Oh! And I cracked the Illyrican IFF system too – check this out.” Mal slid their fingers over the controls and the holo display switched to the familiar image of an L-37 fighter, the backbone of the Imperial Navy. Eli’s heart ached as he looked over the ship’s angular lines, tracing the familiar pattern of its weaponry. More than six years – or, again, depending on how you counted, a lifetime – since he’d flown one, and he could still remember every inch of the cockpit like it was his childhood bedroom.
“Attention, unidentified fighter!” blared the radio suddenly. “This is Yamanaka Base Tower. Emergency lockdown protocols are now in place. Transmit a clearance code immediately or our automated systems will open fire.”
Lockdown protocols? That was weird. Had Eli missed a scheduled drill? He sure as hell didn’t have any sort of clearance code for this.
“A little too real, I guess,” he said under his breath. “Okay, Mal. You’ve scared the poor flight controllers enough for today. Turn that thing off.”
“Oh, sure. Sorry. One sec.” Mal swung back to the controls and tapped a few buttons.
“Huh,” said the tech, frowning at the panel. “Getting an error thrown back here. Hold on.”
“Unidentified fighter, this is your final warning,” said the flight controller. “Transmit a clearance code immediately. Our systems are acquiring now.”
A red TARGET LOCK warning appeared on Eli’s display, along with a steady, high-pitched tone. If this was a drill, they were taking it to the extremes. And Eli didn’t want to wait and see exactly how far the verisimilitude went.
“Mal, turn that thing off now.” He flipped the transmit switch. “Yamanaka Base Tower, this is ST321. We’re having a malfunction with our transponder system, but we are definitely authorized to be here. Disengage target lock!”
“ST321, Tower. Lockdown protocols require clearance code. You have ten seconds.”
“Shit,” swore Eli, slapping the cutoff switch. “Mal.”
The tech’s fingers interlaced in their short, dark hair, tugging at it in frustration. “It’s not responding! I’ll need to reboot the entire transponder system.”
“Will that take longer than ten seconds?”
Eli gritted his teeth. “In that case, don’t bother. Everybody’s strapped in, right?” Looks like we’re about to find out exactly what these upgrades can do.
MISSILE LAUNCH the console blared at him in stark, bright red letters.
“Cassie, get me a read on those inbound!”
Wide-eyed, the mechanic looked down at the display in front of her. “What? I don’t know–”
“Middle toggle, right side.”
Cassie found the button and hit it, producing a holodisplay just in time for Eli to see two missiles closing fast from below. Ground launch, he had just enough time to think as he opened the Cav’s throttle, throwing all three of them back into their seats.
At least the response time on the Cavalier’s upgraded engines was better than the missiles’ ability to make a sharp turn. Blue sky blurred above them as the ship punched through a cloud. They’d bought some time, but only a little. At least the tower hadn’t scrambled interceptors yet. The Cav’s performance might be good for a patrol ship, but if they had to go up against armed fighters, even drones, this was going to be over faster than every chess game Eli had ever tried to play.
“Cass? Where are they?”
“Coming about. Trailing us aft.”
“Tell me this new engine tuning means we can outrun them.”
Her gulp was audible. “I think so.”
Not the ringing endorsement I was looking for. “Mal? How’s it going?” He risked a glance over his shoulder to see that the tech had the engineering panel flipped open and was buried up to their elbows in wiring. “Working on it! I need a minute.”
“I don’t know if we have a minute!”
“Eli!” said Cassie, stabbing a finger at the display, where the two blips were moving rapidly from the aft. “They’re almost on top of us!”
“Jamming countermeasures. Top left.”
Mal looked up from their panel. “Uh, is this a bad time to mention that the jamming package piggybacks on the transponder system?”
Eli stared at the tech. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“So it is a bad time.”
Without a second thought, Eli slammed the yoke forward, putting the Cavalier into a steep dive; there was a split second of weightlessness, a calm before the storm, and then they were slammed back against their restraints. See if you can follow that one, you automated buckets of bolts.
“Tell me there’s a system on this boat that does work,” he said through gritted teeth.
Cassie exchanged a glance with Mal. “Well, we did put in an escape pod. But it’s not designed to work in atmo.”
And we’re not abandoning the damn ship.
“Mal, can you just power down the entire transponder system?”
“But if we do that, we’ll be flying blind–”
“Yes or no?”
“Get ready to do it on my mark. Cassie, when I tell you, launch the escape pod.”
The mechanic opened her mouth to respond, then closed it with a nod.
The ship punched through another cloud and the equatorial content of Terra Nova lay before them, all mottled greens and browns. As it grew closer, Eli could start to see the black ribbons of roads, the glimmer of the sun off lakes and ponds, and the occasional carefully squared-off field of crops; on the horizon gleamed the skyscrapers of Salaam, the planet’s capital.
All of it growing steadily larger.
WARNING blinked on the screen. RAPID ALTITUDE LOSS.
Kind of the point. He’d known Cassie long enough to trust that she didn’t oversell her work. But this was going to be tight.
He watched the altimeter tick down, feeling the g-forces pressing at him even through the ship’s inertial compensators. Casting his eyes about, he saw a likely target: a shining lake abutting one of those fields.
“Missiles are still with us!” said Cassie.
“Here goes nothing.” Eli throttled up and the ground rushed to meet them. Five thousand meters. Four thousand. Three. Two. The field grew so close he thought he could see individual stalks of corn.
The tech unplugged something and there was an electronic whine as several displays on Eli’s console went abruptly black.
There was a loud bang and the ship shook as the escape pod fired its explosive bolts and detached. Eli hauled back on the yoke, flattening the ship out and hit the throttle to maximum, skimming so close to the field that they may have brushed the tops of the crops. No higher than an elephant’s eye.
The Cav rocketed forward, careening drunkenly from side to side, and suddenly there was nothing but water in front of them.
“Missiles still incom – wait, they’re tracking the escape pod.”
Well, that plan worked. “Hard shutdown!”
“Now?” chorused Cassie and Mal in disbelief.
Eli slapped the control for the landing repulsors and the ship hit the lake, skipping like a stone. Cassie flipped up the cover on the emergency cutoff switch and hesitated, but Eli reached over and slapped the button, turning everything dark even as they continued to slide across the lake.
Without sensors, they were flying blind, so when the shockwave from the missiles hitting the escape pod reached the Cav, it sent them bouncing like they were surfing a wave.
Hard shutdown, as it turned out, included the compensators, so they were suddenly heaved side to side against their harnesses, teeth rattling in their heads. Eli let go of the yoke – with no power, it wasn’t doing anything anyway – and grabbed the safety webbing across his chest, closing his eyes. He’d have crossed his fingers if he weren’t worried that would break them.
Water splashed up against the canopy and the ship finally slowed to a stop, bobbing gently atop the lake. Everything was aggressively quiet.
Next to him, Cassie let one eye crack open. “Are we alive?”
Eli let out a breath. “Close enough.”
“How the hell did you know that would work?”
“Redundant targeting systems – when the missile lost our transponder signal, it tried to fall back to its sensors. Fortunately, the mass profile of an escape pod is way closer to an Illyrican fighter than the Cavalier actually is.” He leaned his head back against his seat, trying to will his heart rate to come back down to something like normal.
“Ha,” said Mal, from behind them. “Silly me. Turns out I put this jumper block on the E4 pins instead of the E5 pins.” They held up a small plastic clip.
Eli put his head down on the console, resisting the urge to bang it repeatedly. “Okay, let’s just all agree to never tell anyone about this.” He hit the release button on his harness and struggled out of it. “Come on, we’ve got about fifteen minutes before the shit hits the fan.”
Cassie looked up at him. “What happens in fifteen minutes?”
“Two things,” said Eli, ticking them off on his fingers. “First, traffic control scrambles fighters to figure out what the hell just happened. Second, I’m going to be late for lunch.” And I know which one I’m more worried about.
“So let’s get to work. And remember,” he added, leveling a finger in their direction. “This. Stays. Between. Us.”
“So, I hear you almost died this morning,” said Addy Sayers as the sandy-haired pilot dropped far too casually into the seat across from her. She’d been reading the news on her tablet, sitting and enjoying the cool late morning breeze on the cafe’s patio and trying to restrain her irritation at her lunch partner’s tardiness.
Brody’s cocksure smile, already plastered across his face, froze. “How the hell – ?”
“Cassie is terrible at keeping secrets. You should know that by now. She sent me a picture of your ‘landing’ site half an hour ago.”
“How is she still cleared to work with a covert operations team?” said Brody with a sigh.
The mechanic’s cheery personality had wormed its way past Addy’s defenses with the offer of a glass of whisky and a gravball match projected in their hangar, and Cassie had subsequently decided that she and Addy were now the best of friends. Addy hadn’t had the heart to refuse and, if she was being terribly honest, she kind of missed having friends. After six months with the Special Projects Team, she’d started to finally feel at ease with her teammates, but she still couldn’t quite imagine kicking back for a drink with Kovalic, or Commander Taylor, or even Tapper.
And Brody was… well, Brody.
The server, a young pink-haired woman, appeared at the table and handed them a pair of flimsies. “Sorry about the hard-copy menus. Our network is down, so we have to do things the old fashioned way today.” Her expression was apologetic but distracted.
“No problem,” said Brody. “I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.”
Addy rolled her eyes. “I’ll take a coffee refill when you have a chance,” she said, raising her cup.
“Sure thing. Be right back.” She disappeared into the café.
“Can’t believe the communications network is still down,” said Addy, glancing at her tablet where a video showing a gaping hole in a Salaam office building played on mute. A big LIVE banner was splashed across it. “Crazy morning.”
“You’re telling me,” said Brody. “I can see the logic of a lockdown triggering automated defense systems, but I really did notwant to be on that end of it. At least we managed to convince traffic control that it was just a transponder glitch.” He jutted his chin at Addy’s tablet. “I caught a little bit of the news, but I still don’t know what the hell is going on.”
“There was an explosion in downtown Salaam – 1342 Oluo Plaza. Turned out it was a major ConComm hub, and it knocked out the entire civilian communications network for the capital region.”
Brody’s eyebrows went up and he let out a low whistle. “Do they know what caused it?”
Addy tapped her tablet’s screen and turned it towards Brody. A replay of footage from the morning’s events showed every display, news ticker, and device in the vicinity of Oluo Plaza splashed with the same three accusatory words: SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS. “What do you think?”
In the six months that she’d known Eli Brody, she’d only seen him struck wordless maybe a couple times. When the server reappeared and put down Addy’s coffee, Brody mutely pointed at something on the menu and gave the woman a shaky smile.
“Christ,” said Brody, when they were alone again. “Somebody bombed a building? In Salaam?”
Addy’s stomach roiled. She’d grown up on the streets of Salaam, knew every inch of the Commonwealth capital city. It wasn’t as though it were all gleaming buildings and clean sidewalks, but Oluo Plaza had always been amongst the nicest, brightest, and, well, safest places in the city. Seeing it scarred and violated in this way felt intimately personal.
“Any idea who did it?” Brody’s voice lowered, and he glanced around. “The Illyricans?” The ongoing conflict with the rival superpower might have largely stayed cold in the two decades since the Imperium had occupied Earth and its colonies, but flare-ups had been known to happen.
Addy couldn’t believe that the Illyricans would have the guts to set off a bomb in the Commonwealth capital, though. Especially like this. “The talking heads have been on all morning, but it’s just speculation right now. I’ve heard a bunch of people talking about the Nova First movement.”
“Those kooks who want Nova to leave the Commonwealth? They always seemed… extreme, but not exactly bomb-abuilding extreme.”
The server reappeared, placing a plate of eggs and toast in front of Brody and asked if they needed anything else. At the pilot’s request, she produced a bottle of hot sauce, before going back into the café to sit at the mostly empty bar and watch the vidscreen there.
Brody was right about one thing: Nova First was a fringe group. The central thrust of their message was that Terra Nova’s membership in the Commonwealth of Independent Systems was tantamount to the occupation of Earth and its colonies by the Illyrican Empire. They claimed they’d been dragged into an endless war against the Imperium without a voice or a vote – which was technically true, since the Commonwealth had been formed by Earth refugees fleeing the planet’s occupation by the Imperium. Nova had already been a settled colony at the time, albeit with a relatively small population. But the group’s message had always had a pacifistic bent which seemed somewhat undercut by blowing up a building.
And why that building? Consolidated Communications ran the planet’s communication infrastructure – with the blessing of the Commonwealth Executive, to be sure, which had granted it a near monopolistic status, since it connected everybody on the planet and off. But despite its close ties to the government, it was a civilian corporation. Not a military target, or even an official government entity.
She blinked and found Brody looking at her curiously. “Sorry, drifted off there. What?”
A more familiar, and more genuine smile crossed his lips. “I can tell when you’re focused on something.”
She bristled, more out of instinct than anything; somehow, he always seemed to pick up on what she was thinking. Her self-control must be slipping.
In which case, this couldn’t come too soon.
“Look, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.
Brody stabbed a chunk of eggs, smeared it in the hot sauce, and popped it in his mouth. “Sure, what’s up?”
Addy had always been the type to rip the bandage off, and this was no exception. “I think maybe it’s time I found my own place.” There. Done.
Brody paused mid-chew, before forcing a swallow with a swig of water. “Oh,” he said. “Yeah. I mean, you know you can stay as long as you want, it’s not like I’m hurting for space or any–”
Something plucked inside of her, a heartstring she didn’t even know she’d had. Guilt, probably. “I mean, I’ve been having fun and everything. But maybe it’s best if we, you know, cool it?” Her eyes went to her coffee because it was someplace to look that wasn’t at him. “I just think the longer this goes on, the more likely the rest of the team is to find out. ...
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