Chapter One

~ October 1st, 2277 ~

“Is this true?” Emperor Maxxiloth roared, with all the intensity his body could produce! One of his four tentacles darted out and clenched a portable electronic pad so tightly that the device began to warp. Suddenly smashing the pad down onto the table with such force that the officers and ministers, most of whom had averted their four eyes to avoid his stare, jumped in their seats, he bellowed, “Did our First and Second Fleets, the pride of the Milori Empire, run away from a fight with a convoy of merchant ships? Have we sunk so low that we fear to have our finest warships engage unarmed food merchants and baggage handlers?”

Perhaps the ugliest sentient species that Terrans had so far happened across since first moving off Earth, just looking at Milori made a Terran’s skin crawl. The aliens were said to more closely resemble giant cockroaches than they do Hominidae. Generally about the same height as Terrans, a brown, stringy hair said to be extra sensitive to vibrations, covers much of their torso. They have what pass for two arms, and their hands, which could be more accurately described as gripper claws, each have an opposing finger, like a thumb on a Terran. Additionally, they have four tentacles. It’s probably that fact that upsets Terrans so much. The body hair completely conceals their tentacles when at rest, and it’s said that they can shoot out to coil around you, then crush you to death, as would a boa constrictor on Earth. Their four eyes offer them superior peripheral vision, but most Terrans think that they make them look like some kind of enormous insect.

“My Lord,” Exalted Lord Space Marshall Berquyth said softly, hoping to calm the emperor, “the intelligence information appears to be accurate, but Supreme Lord Space Marshall Dwillaak couldn’t have known they were freighters. They were positioned behind a line of Galactic Alliance warships of the highest caliber, and so far distant that they were barely registering on the scanners. Space Command’s senior officer in the area, an Admiral Carver, tricked Dwillaak into believing that the convoys were fleets of warships, and the ship sizes, as recorded by our ship’s DeTect systems, certainly made them appear to be battleships, cruisers, and frigates.

“This Carver,” Berquyth continued, “is their most able admiral. It was she that annihilated our Third Fleet, and, although outnumbered seven to one, she suffered only minor damage to her task force. Her exploits have become legendary throughout the Galactic Alliance, and she is generally credited with forcing the giant Raider organization to its knees. Even they admit to that and have placed a bounty on her head. Two assassins have died trying to earn that reward; one at her hands, and the other by a bite from one of her pets. We’ve obtained a picture of her from one of their news broadcasts.”

Berquyth turned to gaze at the enormous wall monitor in the War Planning Chamber where an image of Admiral Jenetta Carver, jumped into focus. Taken during an awards ceremony, the image showed her receiving her third Space Command Cross. It was Space Command’s highest military award, and second only to the Galactic Alliance Medal of Honor.

“Is this the most recent image of her that we have?” the Emperor raged. “Surely someone of such importance would have her picture taken regularly. My regal visage is captured dozens of times every day.”

“This image is just a few weeks old, my Lord. It was broadcast by their news services when she was decorated for defeating our fleets. I know that you’re unfamiliar with their military insignia, but if you’ll notice her shoulders, you’ll see two stars on each. They mean that she’s risen to the second level of five, in Space Command’s topmost ranks. Her rank and seniority place her sixty-seventh in their top hierarchy of two hundred seventeen flag officers.”

“But from what I know of the physiology of these ugly, almost hairless creatures, she looks like a mere child,” the emperor said, speaking a bit more rationally now that he had become intrigued.

“She’s the youngest admiral in Space Command history, by quite some measure. Chronologically, she’s forty-two Earth years old, but she was in stasis for eleven of those years following an accident that occurred aboard her ship while she was a very junior officer. Her escape pod, damaged in the explosion of the ship, went undetected by the rescue vessel and she drifted in space until discovered accidentally by a freighter. Space Command, for purposes of calculating years to retirement, records her age as just over thirty-one Earth years.”

“Thirty-one Earth years? Isn’t that the equivalent of about twenty of our annuals?”

“Yes, my Lord. Twenty-point-seven-seven of our annuals.”

“How could someone so young rise to such a powerful position. I distinctly remember hearing that Space Command promotes on some strange sort of merit system instead of the time-honored tradition of clan ascendancy. Is her clan so well connected that she has received special promotional consideration?”

“No, my Lord. Her sire is a mere ship’s captain. Her ancestry chart shows a long lineage of military officers, but as far as our agents can determine, she has not exploited political connections for favorable treatment. She was captured by the Raiders nine or ten Earth years ago, and intended for their brothels on the Moons of Kapatia, but she managed to escape, destroying the entire Raider base along with dozens of warships and tens of thousands of Raider personnel in the process. She still carries the slave brand and is officially registered as the property of Resorts Intergalactic in many systems within the Uthlaro Dominion.”

“And this young, escaped slave is responsible for destroying one of our fleets, and greatly humbling the others?”

“Yes, my Lord. The Space Command task force was under her direct supervision, and one of the battleships that faced Dwillaak served as her flagship.”

“And she only had twelve warships, not the hundreds that Dwillaak thought?”

“Yes, my Lord, it certainly appears that way. She is incredibly clever.”

“Then she is indeed a worthy opponent, despite her young age,” the emperor said. Beaming, as if he had already defeated Admiral Carver, he said, “Her mounted head will fit in well with the other trophies in my study. You will issue orders for Dwillaak to immediately reverse course, engage this child and her fantasy force again, and bring me her head.”

“Uh, there is a difficulty, my Lord.”

“What is it?” the Emperor asked angrily. “Is Dwillaak afraid to take on this child again?”

Calmly, Berquyth said, “Not at all, my Lord. He is most anxious to restore his clan’s honor. But our spies report that at least nineteen more warships have arrived at Stewart since the confrontation. Carver now has at least thirty-four first-class warships in her command.”

“Only thirty-four? We’ll crush them to space dust. Dwillaak has almost two hundred left of his invasion force.”

“We also know that Space Command has scrambled its entire fleet. We estimate that as many as two hundred more warships are headed to the border at top speed. We’ve definitely lost the element of surprise. We can still engage Space Command, but it’s extremely unlikely that we could even get near Earth now. At best we might only succeed in destroying much of their force, at the expense of our own.”

“But wouldn’t that accomplish most of our goals?” the Emperor asked. “We already intended to let privateers run wild in the territory until it was time for us to take full control. The privateers will keep Space Command bottled up and the systems in turmoil while we consolidate our territories.”

“But we didn’t intend to lose the three fleets that we sent. That might make us much more vulnerable to attack by our other enemies. And there’s still the matter of the unknown weapons that Space Command used against us. The construction of the energy cage has been explained by our Raider contact, Commandant Mikel Arneu, and Dwillaak figured out how Carver made it appear that the cage was causing ships to explode upon contact. She had positioned proximity mines in positions coincident with the array pattern of the generated electronic fields. But we still don’t know anything about these invisible bombs that explode with the force of a hundred nuclear mines. That one weapon makes their forces several times more lethal than their ships would be on their own.”

“So you recommend that Dwillaak not reengage her at this time?”

“That would be my recommendation, my Lord.”

“Where is Dwillaak now?”

“The First and Second Fleets are still over one hundred twenty-five light-annuals inside the Alliance’s Frontier Zone, headed back towards our territory as we speak. They could turn around now and be in position to attack Stewart Space Command Base in a quarter of an annual, if that is your wish.”

“And if they don’t turn around, they travel three-quarters of a light-annual further away from this Admiral Carver each day. Perhaps we should simply halt the invasion force and have them maintain position until we learn more about these new weapons?”

“We know that Admiral Carver has spotter ships watching for our fleet at irregular intervals, because we were given specific course instructions for leaving their territory so they could monitor our departure. If we fail to pass the hidden spotter ships, they would know that we have stopped and could declare us in breech of the treaty that Dwillaak endorsed.”

“I didn’t agree to that treaty and I don’t recognize it,” Maxxiloth said angrily. Defiantly, he added, “Let them declare us to be in breech.”

“But they might then begin making preparations to invade us, my Lord. With half our fleets still in their territory, we are ill prepared to stop a major invasion force in our space, should they get past our borders undetected.”

Emperor Maxxiloth growled ominously in frustration. “Very well, allow our fleets to continue as if they were headed home–– but I want a detailed report on the status of our remaining forces by the end of this day. I want to know how many ships we can free up from other duties so they may be sent against the Galactic Alliance. The record of this inglorious defeat must not be allowed to stand any longer than necessary.”

End of Chapter 1

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