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Brent Nichols is a fantasy and science fiction writer, book cover designer, bon vivant, and man about town. He likes good beer, bad puns, high adventure and low comedy. He's never been seen in the same room as Batman, but that's probably just a coincidence. He has two novels with Bundoran Press, and self-publishes military science fiction under the pen name Jake Elwood.

Stars Like Cold Fire by Brent Nichols

TARGETED FOR ASSASSINATION

The Naval Academy is bad enough. Jeff Li, despised by his classmates who resent his family ties, just wants to make it to graduation. But a weekend of shore leave turns into a fight for survival when Jeff is attacked by strangely persistent muggers. His family connections make him a symbol to the anti-fascist movement – which means the fascists see him as a threat.

THROWN TO THE WOLVES

The admiralty knows there's only one way to keep him safe. He must have his own command. They assign him to the Petrel, a tiny, worn-our stealth ship. He's not qualified for command, and he knows it. His crew knows it too, and they are not impressed. Now, a young officer who only ever wanted to fit in will have to rise to the challenge of command. He'll have to overcome his own doubts and win over a hostile crew, and he'll have to do it quickly, because the galaxy is about to erupt in interstellar war.

CURATOR'S NOTE

Brent is another writer I met through the submission process, though, in his case, it was when I bought a short story for the 2012 anthology, Blood and Water, which I edited for Bundoran Press. We met up at conventions and through social media and I came to appreciate his devastating sense of humour and his generous kindness. When he submitted Stars Like Cold Fire, I was immediately captured by the excitement of the story and the moral growth of its main character. I soon had elicited a sequel from him (Light of a Distant Sun) and was happy when both of his novels were nominated for Aurora Awards. – Hayden Trenholm

 

REVIEWS

  • "Fast paced and exciting, definite page turner. Prose is sharp and clear. Can't wait for more titles by this author."

    – Amazon Review
  • "Loved it. Couldn't put it down."

    – Amazon Review
  • "Stars Like Cold Fire is a very solid space opera with a military bent, and well worth your time"

    – Amazon Review
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

I ran through the pine forest, my breath making puffs of white vapour in front of me with every exhalation, avoiding the snow so I'd be harder to track.

Movement caught my eye, and I slowed. Off to the right another young man jogged through the trees: Jason Hagman. He was a fit young man of twenty in the uniform of an officer trainee, superficially just like me. But he was Caucasian and I was Chinese, and in this platoon that made all the difference.

Our eyes met across a dozen metres of forest; embarrassment marked his face. We were supposed to be teammates, after all. Then he ran on through the trees, angling away from me.

Would he call Hannity? I would have to get out of this sector just in case. If they cornered me, out here where there were no witnesses …

"I found a dish. Northeast of seven."

The message came over my implants, a text overlay on my retina identifying the speaker as Acting Sixth Level Kyla Rosh.

"Jason, find Kyla and help her. The rest of you keep searching." That was Hannity, the natural leader of our class of twelve.

I kept running. We had four targets on this mission, three communication dishes and a control hut. All four targets were scattered somewhere in ten square kilometres of forest. In theory we would work together, searching the forest, finding the dishes and the hut, and getting the equipment working. In reality our class had two factions, and the other faction wanted me to fail.

The harsh call of a magpie sounded behind me. I had never seen an actual magpie in these woods, and I smiled as I stopped and turned. A slim figure jogged up behind me, dressed in the same brown field uniform I wore. Carolita Doolittle, known as Carrie, was the other half of my two-person faction.

She reached my side and tilted her head, double-checking that her voice implants weren't broadcasting. "See anything yet?"

Two years in the Naval Academy hadn't done much to smooth the clipped, staccato accent of Ryland. Her planet of origin was what made her an outcast.

"Jason is in the area. I haven't seen a dish yet, or a hut."

"There's a ravine just over that ridge." She pointed. "If I was trying to make things hard for a bunch of eager recruits, that's where I would hide something."

I smiled. "Let's go check it out."

She pointed northeast. "The other end should be that way. I'll meet you in the middle." She headed northwest, and I went northeast.

I found the ravine before long, a narrow fissure choked with brush. It was, realistically, a stupid place to put a communication dish. Our exercises weren't required to be realistic, though, and I was inclined to agree with Carrie. The ravine was a great spot to hide something.

It took fifteen minutes of bushwhacking before I found a pyramid of aluminum struts and a black plastic dish a couple of metres across. Carrie was already there, fiddling with the control panel.

"What have you got?"

"Unknown hardware problems," she muttered. "What a pain in the ass." She looked up. "It's supposed to be a teamwork exercise, right? So it must need at least two people." She didn't add that if it needed three, we were sunk. "Climb the scaffold and look for a control panel on the dish itself."

The tower wasn't all that tall. My feet were less than a metre above the ground when my head came even with the centre of the dish. I found a black plastic cover and pried it open. "I've got a touch screen."

"Well, do not just hang there like a monkey. Touch something."

An excited voice spoke over my implants. "I found the hut. Centre of three." Nowhere near Carrie and me.

"I'm on my way," said Hannity. "The rest of you keep searching. Call out the quadrants that you've cleared. I want to start the weapons strikes as soon as possible." That was part of the exercise – virtual strikes from orbiting weapons on different parts of the forest. Marks lost if students were hit.

I mashed a thumb against the panel in front of me, and a grid of coloured squares appeared. "I don't know what this means," I told Carrie, and described what I saw.

"We'll have to do some trial and error," she said. "Touch a square."

I put my fingertip against the blue square in the top left corner.

"I got an indicator light," she announced. "Keep going."

Branches crackled off to my right. I looked up and over, and found myself staring at Jason from a range of four or five metres. He stood on the edge of the ravine, just above me. He stared at me, his mouth open, looking like he was trying to make up his mind.

"Hello, Jason," I said for Carrie's benefit. She went silent.

Jason didn't speak, didn't move.

"You can't tell Hannity that we're here," I said. "He'll order you out of the quadrant."

Jason scowled. He didn't like me telling him what to do.

"You can't leave, either. Hannity will call in a strike on us. We'll all fail the assignment."

Jason's scowl deepened.

"You know it's true," I told him. "He'll let the whole class fail if it means making Carrie and me look bad."

Jason tilted his head, then said, "Are you almost done?"

"We've just started," I said. "I don't know how long it'll take. It'll go faster if you help, though."

Something very like shame crossed his features. "Let me do it," he said. "You guys leave."

It was a stupid suggestion, and I ignored it. I ignored Jason completely, turning my attention back to the control panel. I tapped one icon after another, telling Carrie what I was doing each step of the way.

"I think I see a pattern," she said when I finished. "Try pressing the two green icons at the same time." She muttered under her breath, then said, "This is stupid. We spend two years learning how to use every piece of equipment in the Navy, and they give us make-believe machines to work with on a test."

"So maybe it's Ryland tech that we encounter," I said. "Something the Wukan navy doesn't know about."

"Whatever. Press the two blue icons."

I did so, glancing up at Jason. He stood there like an idiot, unwilling to walk away, unwilling to help. We were on the same team, but Carrie was a Rylander, I was Chinese, and Jason had no backbone. Frustrated fury rose within me, buoyed by two years of petty harassment. I wanted to abandon the dish, climb up there, and pummel the idiot while he stood there gaping.

"Jeff. Jeff!"

I blinked, shook my head, and looked down at Carrie.

"I said, try blue and yellow. If you're not too busy staring holes in Jason."

There was real irritation in her voice, and I flushed. "Blue and yellow. Got it." I pressed the two icons, but I could feel the rage rising again. Did I even want this exercise to succeed? Did I want to help Hannity and Jason and the rest of those idiots graduate?

Was I just like Hannity, ready to sacrifice my own career over a stupid grudge? Or was I more like Jason, not taking responsibility for my own actions while gumming up the works? The dish was a puzzle to be solved. But I wasn't thinking about the puzzle. I was thinking about Hannity, and Jason, and abstract notions of justice.

"Doof," I murmured to myself, and made myself grin. Then I rolled my shoulders, releasing some tension, and exhaled, letting the bitterness and frustration trickle away. And I looked at the control panel in front of me.

"Okay, try yellow and red together."

"That's not it," I told her. "It's a sequence. Dark to light. Remember the Zhao array? The display goes through all the same colours as it's powering up." I tapped nine icons, one at a time, starting with dark red and finishing with pale yellow.

"Dish two just went live," Hannity said in my year. "Who did that?"

I tilted my head, heard the chime that told me my implanted mic was live, and said, "Three guesses."

"Where is he?" said Hannity.

"South of six," said Jason. "A little east of south."

A burst of static came through my implant and a mechanical voice said, "You have been destroyed from orbit."

Jason put a hand to his ear. "Oh, for fuck's sake. I'm here too, you know."

"Welcome to Hannity's view of teamwork," I said. "We don't even get to tell him how to unlock the other dishes."

"I guess we're done here," said Carrie. "Let's head back to the hall."