When Terra knelt to an alien Imperium
They guaranteed our safety and our future
But now their enemies are coming for us
To preserve humanity’s survival and freedom in a hostile galaxy, Annette Bond tied her world to the A!Tol Imperium, taking on the mantle of Duchess of Terra to rule humanity in the Imperium’s name.
The A!Tol have provided technology, ships, and money to uplift the new Duchy of Terra, but those gifts come with strings attached. The Imperium has their own plan for Terra—but Bond has tricks of her own.
With enough time, she can build Earth a place in the galaxy. But as Bond’s many enemies gather their forces, the clouds of war threaten not only the recovering Terra but the entire Imperium.
Captain Harriet Tanaka couldn’t help being ambivalent about her job.
A year ago, the slim, frail-looking Japanese woman had commanded the United Earth Space Force battleship Masamune. Like so many other ships, hers had been scuttled when the A!Tol conquered Earth, leaving Captain Tanaka without a job.
Now she commanded the cruiser Hunter’s Horn, a ship a third again the size of her old battleship and infinitely more lethal—but she commanded it in the name of the same A!Tol Imperium that had conquered her world.
Her reasons for being the first human—and still the only senior UESF officer—to join the Imperial Navy had been enough to stay her conscience, but it still didn’t feel right to wear the uniform of her conquerors.
As Hunter’s Horn conjured the strange, brightly blue hyperspace portal to whisk her ship into another alien system, though, she had to admit that she loved her new ship.
“What have we got, Commander Sier?” she asked her executive officer. The A!Tol word for that role literally translated as “First Sword”, but she’d been working on her translator. Every oddity of the translation she fixed would make the lives of the humans who followed her easier.
“We had three ships enter the system a twentieth-cycle ago,” the tall blue-feathered Yin replied. His beak clicked sharply as he regarded the hologram in the center of the cruiser’s bridge. “The system is uninhabited, part of the treaty zone around Sol. There shouldn’t be anyone here.”
Harriet nodded, studying the hologram herself She’d only been in command of Horn for three months after a single A!Tol “long-cycle”—roughly six months—of the training needed for an officer who’d commanded a fusion-torch battleship to command an interface-drive warship.
“Take us in and keep our eyes open,” she ordered. “Charge the capacitors for the proton beams and get a salvo of missiles in the launchers.”
“You expect an attack?” her Indiri tactical officer demanded. He was a red-furred, toad-like creature named Okan Vaza. Something about the squat, always-damp creature set Tanaka’s teeth on edge.
“The only people other than us, Okan, who are going to be out here are pirates and Kanzi slavers, and the last I heard, the new Duchess of Terra massacred most of the local pirates on her way to her title,” Harriet pointed out.
“So, most likely, we’re looking at a Kanzi scouting formation,” she continued. “If they’re inside Sol’s Kovius Treaty Zone, they’re in violation of Imperial borders—and Tan!Shallegh’s orders for that situation were to give them one chance to withdraw.”
She didn’t bother to tell her mixed-race bridge crew what the next step in her orders was. There were six species represented on her bridge, eight on her ship, and all of them had seen the depredations of Kanzi raiders.
If the little blue-furred kusottare-me didn’t obey her one order to withdraw, Hunter’s Horn got to blow them to pieces.
Hunter’s Horn screamed through the portal into normal space at half the speed of light, her scanners sweeping the nameless system—a brown dwarf even Terran astronomers had only assigned a number—for any sign of the trio of signatures they’d seen enter it.
In hyperspace, all they could detect at a distance was the anomaly of a gravitic-hyperspatial interface drive and how fast it was going. In normal space, an array of sensors would eventually tell Harriet everything she needed to know about her targets.
Eventually. Even in ships that moved at half of lightspeed, its limit was still ironclad on their scanners.
The brown dwarf’s sparse collection of planetoids appeared on the hologram first, the ship’s computers mostly confirming that the rocks were where the hundred-long-cycle-old survey said they would be.
There was a single world roughly the size of Mercury, an “asteroid belt” that barely deserved the name, and a pair of frozen balls of ice orbiting each other that barely added up to the size of Earth’s moon.
“We have energy signatures in orbit of the ice planets,” Vaza reported. “Three ships, as expected. I’m reading Kanzi energy signatures, one cruiser, two destroyers.”
“Thank you, Lesser Commander,” she told him. Thankfully for her mental balance, most of her senior officers used ranks roughly equivalent to the UESF ranks—Commander and Lesser Commander basically paralleled Commander and Lieutenant Commander.
Once you got below Lesser Commander, you were into Speakers and Initiates, and she still got confused sometimes.
Her briefings put Kanzi technology slightly behind Imperial. Her shields were tougher and she had a slight edge in missile velocity. She could take the Kanzi cruiser easily. The destroyers changed the math, though.
“Sier,” she said quietly, gesturing for her XO to join her. “Politics-wise, what am I looking at?”
She had no hesitation about her ability to command Hunter’s Horn in combat, but she’d known about the A!Tol Imperium for only a year and been in their Navy for only nine months. Her XO had served the A!Tol for fifteen years. The Yin officer understood the context of the situation better than she did—and any officer who wasn’t prepared to admit that didn’t deserve command.
“We’ll want more data to be certain,” Sier said after a moment’s thought, “but they’re probably not units of the actual Kanzi Theocracy. They’ll be Clan ships, privately commissioned slavers, not warships.”
“So, likely not up to our weight?” Harriet asked.
“If they’re Clan raiders,” the Yin emphasized, “the destroyers will have weaker shields and slower weapons than regular Theocracy military ships. The cruiser, however, will both have lower-grade systems and have sacrificed a portion of her weapons for more assault shuttles and prison compartments.”
Harriet hummed to herself softly, studying the hologram as she brought up information on the type of ship Sier was referring to on her chair’s screens.
If they were facing a slaving party put together by one of the Kanzi Clans, Hunter’s Horn could take them. If it was a Navy scouting force, though, Horn was outgunned.
“Set an intercept course,” she ordered, “and prepare to record for transmission.”
She smiled grimly. Her orders said she had to order them to withdraw—and if they didn’t, well, there was always a time when you had to throw the dice.
“Vessels of the Kanzi Theocracy, this is Captain Harriet Tanaka of the A!Tol Imperial Navy warship Hunter’s Horn,” she said into the camera, practice allowing her to nail the guttural stop replacing the beak-snap in the name of the Imperium’s first species.
She spoke in English, trusting the ubiquitous translator devices her crew wore to translate for them and the ship’s computer to change her words into the primary Kanzi dialect.
“You are in violation of the Kovius Treaty Zone around the homeworld of an A!Tol Imperium member species and hence of the Imperium’s border and the treaties between our nations.
“This is your only warning. Withdraw immediately or you will be forced to withdraw.”
Hitting a key to end the recording, she glanced over at Sier.
“Anything else I should add?”
“I believe our orders preclude accompanying the transmission with weapons fire,” the Yin replied, his voice deadly serious. “So, no.”
Harriet wasn’t sure if the alien was joking or not. After three months working with Sier, she was starting to suspect the Yin had a recognizable sense of humor. With the difference in culture and language, she wasn’t entirely certain.
“Send it,” she ordered. “Keep us on course to intercept them. If they don’t immediately withdraw, I want us ready to start dropping missiles onto them at maximum range.”
“All launchers loaded, proton beam capacitors charged,” Vaza told her. “If they want a fight, we will give it to them.”
“I’m transferring you a program I’ve been working on,” Harriet told her tactical officer. “If they open fire on us, I want to try to use our proton beams in a missile-defense role.”
The Indiri blinked his large, liquid eyes and swallowed massively, a sign of confusion.
“We have shields, Captain,” he finally pointed out.
“So do they. And if those are Theocracy military units, not slavers, theirs are almost as good. We’re not doing much with the proton beams in a missile duel anyway, and every missile we shoot down is one fewer to help overload our shields, isn’t it?”
“That…processes,” Vaza accepted. “I had not considered it.”
“That’s because you were trained by the A!Tol,” Harriet pointed out. “And our tentacled overlords haven’t used active missile defenses since they invented the interface drive—but I once saw fusion-torch battleships survive the fire from an Imperial capital ship because, crude as their laser missile defense was, it could still shoot down even our best missiles.
“So run the program, Lesser Commander,” she ordered.
They didn’t have enough emitters to really make a difference. It was a small edge—but even if those three ships were proper warships, she wasn’t going to need that big of an edge.
Their message shot ahead of them, crossing the length of the brown dwarf star system as Hunter’s Horn closed toward weapons range of the three Kanzi warships. Harriet had to consciously not sit on the edge of her command chair as she impatiently scanned her command displays and the main hologram for information.
“Incoming transmission,” Speaker Piditel, her communications officer reported. The massive six-limbed Rekiki looked like nothing so much as a crocodilian centaur. “Sending to main display.”
Kanzi were disturbingly adorable to Harriet’s eyes. They looked like human children covered in blue-and-white fur. This particular specimen was standing in the middle of a pristinely clean bridge, clad in a pitch-black uniform made with some kind of leather.
“I am Oath Master Kanwal of the Theocracy cruiser Strikes with God,” he said softly, his natural voice covered by a translated soft contralto. “While my government recognizes the Kovius Treaty Zone around the human world, the First Priest has declared the A!Tol’s annexation of that system illegitimate.
“Per Her wise rulings, your presence in this system represents a violation of the Kovius Treaty and I must summon you to withdraw.”
Harriet wasn’t sure if human facial expressions mapped as neatly to Kanzi as the facial structure of the two species did, but if Kanwal had been a human, she’d have wanted to punch the smirk off of his face.
Fortunately, it looked like she got to do that either way.
“Sier, our friend is claiming to be Theocracy Navy, I take it. What do our scans show?”
The Yin clucked his beak, an odd sound to hear coming from a creature almost two meters tall.
“Strikes with God is in our databanks,” he noted. “Definitely Theocracy Navy and the scans match. She’s a Holy Flame-class cruiser, an older ship but still potent. We have her outgunned, but the destroyers…”
“Change the math,” Harriet agreed. “Time to weapons range?”
A ripple of concern ran through her bridge. Hunter’s Horn had become used to their new commander, the only human aboard, but they had yet to go into battle with her. Even Harriet wondered if they would trust her that far now, in the moment of truth.
“Missile range in three thousandth-cycles,” Okan Vaza replied. Four and a half minutes, she translated in her head. “Proton beam range… five thousandth-cycles after that.”
A little over seven minutes. Eleven and a half all told to the range of the mind-bogglingly powerful beam weapons all four ships mounted.
“Pick a destroyer, Vaza,” she told the Indiri. “Hit it with every missile we have until it’s dead, then move onto the other one. If Kanwal isn’t running once we’ve shredded his escorts, hammer Strikes with God to debris.”
She turned to her navigator. The big creature was a four-armed biped covered in pale blue feathers, a Tosumi named Kirit Ides. Ides met her gaze with his dark eyes and snapped his beak gently, awaiting her orders.
“Ides, hold your course until we’re just outside proton-beam range, then turn to hold the distance,” she ordered. “I may change my mind, but I’m not planning on a knife fight today. Understand?”
Harriet Tanaka’s impatience and nervousness were gone now, and she leaned back in her chair and regarded the hologram with perfect calm.
“Let’s go fuck up some trespassers, shall we?”
The Oath Master clearly hadn’t expected Hunter’s Horn to retreat in the face of his demand for their withdrawal. The three Kanzi ships formed up into an inverted triangle, both destroyers “above” the cruiser, and shaped a direct course for the Imperial ship.
Technically, all four ships were traveling at half the speed of light, but their effective closing velocity was somewhere around point eight cee. The interface drive might not play entirely fairly with Newtonian or Einsteinian physics, but basic special relativity still applied.
“Missile range in one thousandth-cycle,” Vaza announced. “Target designated destroyer-one, full salvos.”
“Carry on,” Harriet confirmed, watching the distance evaporate at a rate Masamune’s crew would have barely had the systems to calculate.
Hunter’s Horn barely even shivered as her main weapons spoke in anger for the first time since Harriet Tanaka had boarded her. At six hundred meters long and a million-plus tons, she had a lot of mass…and it wasn’t like her interface-drive missiles had much in terms of recoil either.
The weapons shot clear of her hull and started to drop behind, losing Horn’s velocity as they cleared the field of her drive. They drifted for a fraction of a moment before engaging their own engines and taking off at three quarters of the speed of light.
“Enemy has fired as well. Seventy missiles inbound,” Vaza reported. “Bringing your program online, Captain, and charging the proton beams.”
At a full light-minute’s range, there was no point engaging the Kanzi ships with the proton beams. The impact to their shields would be negligible. The impact to an unshielded missile was an entirely different story.
Horn’s AI happily drew the proton beams in on the hologram as white lines crisscrossing the space between the Imperial and Kanzi ships in a pattern that Harriet had coded after reviewing hundreds of hours of prior engagements with the Kanzi Theocracy.
It took time for the beams to cross space. More time for the data to report back—time in which the missiles closed almost the entirety of the distance and more beams had to fire out. Almost the entire sequence had to be done on automatic, with no real chance for updated information.
Four more salvos blasted into space as the missiles closed—and almost half of the Kanzi’s first salvo disappeared into the glittering dance of death Okan Vaza wove around Hunter’s Horn.
The Indiri himself looked more shocked than anyone else, sucking in air in loud, gulping breaths that would have grated on Harriet’s nerves without the look of sheer awe he was bestowing on her at the same time.
“Ides?” she questioned aloud.
“Adjusting course,” the Tosumi announced calmly. “Holding us in missile range.” He paused. “The destroyers may be able to bring us to beam range if they try. Databanks say they should have another point oh two to point oh four of lightspeed to play with.”
“Only if they’re suicidal,” Sier told him as the first destroyer’s shields failed. There was no way to tell how many of the forty missiles in Horn’s second salvo had actually impacted, but it was more than enough. The horseshoe-shaped three-hundred-meter-long warship came apart in several balls of flame as the missiles impacted, their drive fields collapsing and releasing all of the pent-up kinetic energy of their unimaginable velocity.
“That cruiser could fight us at beam range,” the Yin continued, “but that destroyer can’t. And he isn’t going to live long enough to try.”
“Revising follow-up salvos,” Vaza confirmed as warning icons flashed on Harriet’s screens, Kanzi missiles slamming home on her ship’s shields.
She checked the status. The beams were being less effective on the follow-up salvos, but they were still killing over a dozen missiles before impact. Hunter’s Horn’s shields were taking a beating, but they were holding.
The second destroyer was only slightly luckier than the first. Her captain had dropped her back, pulling the smaller ship behind Strikes with God, forcing much of Horn’s fourth salvo to slam into the cruiser.
It wasn’t enough to save her. Vaza’s fifth salvo, the third targeted on the second destroyer, whipped around the cruiser in a preprogrammed maneuver and hammered into the fleeing destroyer.
Another set of explosions rippled through the barren system.
Horn’s shields flickered under the latest salvo. They snapped back into place before the second group of missiles hammered home, but the moment of weakness concerned Harriet.
“Get us spinning,” she ordered Ides. “Keep the damaged sectors clear of their fire, buy Vaza time to take down their missiles with the beams.”
Earth’s last space force had developed some armor worth deploying against interface-drive missiles. Harriet didn’t know the details, but apparently, it was a trick the A!Tol hadn’t mastered yet. Beneath her shields, Hunter’s Horn was basically unarmored. A single hit probably wouldn’t kill her—but three or four would.
“They’ve begun rotating as well,” Sier reported. “They’re holding the range.”
“It seems Kanwal is figuring our shield damage is enough to make up the difference,” Harriet observed aloud. “Let’s prove him wrong, shall we?
“Vaza, focus your fire as tightly as you can. Sier, take over the defensive fire. Ides, this ship doesn’t need to run. Put me all over the damned sky—every missile you make miss makes it more likely we get to go home.”
Killing the destroyers had evened the odds, but Horn’s shields were flickering close to overload in several sectors. Now it was a numbers game—Harriet’s ship had more launchers and the proton beams were working better than she’d expect, but Horn had already been battered and Strikes with God hadn’t been.
The battle quickly settled into a deadly metronome, both ships’ shields flickering with impacts every ten seconds as they danced across the star system at half the speed of light.
The moment of shield failure was sudden and shocking when it came, a single sector of Hunter’s Horn’s defenses crashing down for a few fractions of a second, enough for a single Kanzi missile to slip through and hammer the elegantly built cruiser.
“Take the hit,” Harriet snapped. “Cease weapons fire, spin with the damage!”
The order was almost redundant. Horn rang with the impact for several seconds, the million-ton cruiser spinning end over end.
“Shields are back up and intact,” Vaza announced, his voice unstable even through the translator. “We’ve lost a quarter of the proton beams and ten missile launchers.”
“Interface drive is at forty percent of capacity,” Ides reported grimly.
“We can fix the drive but not the weapons,” Sier told her. “What do we do?”
“We spin like our drive is crippled and play dead,” Harriet ordered. “He’s a Kanzi. Given the chance to take prisoners, he’s going to come right to us.”
Unspoken was the fact that a Theocracy officer was only going to take that risk when presented with an unusual prize—an unusual prize like a human female. Humanoid slaves were prized in the Theocracy and exotic ones even more so.
It was a risk but one that Harriet knew could pay off.
“If he doesn’t take the bait, we can still take him,” she pointed out to her suddenly quiet bridge crew. “We can’t evade him, so let’s take advantage of our weakness.”
“He’s ceased missile fire and is closing with us,” Sier reported. “Optimal proton-beam range in two thousandth-cycles.”
“Patience, people,” she said softly, watching the range drop rapidly. With Horn spinning “helplessly” in space, her drive down, the Kanzi ship was closing at her full velocity.
If Kanwal wanted to get close enough to disable the ship for boarding, he’d need to bring Strikes with God within a light-second—an insane distance against a functioning opponent.
“He’s being cautious,” the XO noted. “Showing full charge on his proton beams and active targeting sensors. Strikes with God is ready to resume fire at a moment’s notice.”
“Let’s not give him that notice. Ides: when Vaza gives you the word, I want our proton beams aligned on Strikes for exactly one half-second, then I want maximum delta-v perpendicular to the ecliptic plane. Take us up—I don’t want to be anywhere Kanwal’s expecting when we shoot him.”
“Understood,” the navigator confirmed.
Seconds ticked away. Markers appeared on the hologram, preprogrammed responses at certain distances. There would be fractions of a second to respond, and no sentient had reflexes that fast. Whether Harriet’s plan saved them or doomed them was down to the computers now.
At exactly six hundred thousand kilometers, Hunter’s Horn stopped spinning. She aligned all of her remaining proton beams on Strikes with God and fired.
The beams tore through the Kanzi ship’s shields, gouging massive holes in the cruiser’s hull as Horn leapt into motion.
She was slow and crippled compared to her normal grace, but it was enough that Strikes’ counter-fire tore through empty space, and her second salvo of beams completed the crippling of the cruiser’s shields—moments before Vaza’s missile salvo struck home.
Then Hunter’s Horn was alone in the brown dwarf system and Harriet Tanaka sighed in relief.
“Not slavers,” she said quietly.
“No, Captain,” Sier replied.
“I need those drives back, people,” she told them. “Fleet Lord Tan!Shallegh needs to know the Theocracy Navy is scouting around Sol.”