Gren hurried down the wide corridor, his hooves clicking against the cold stone tiles in a frantic staccato rhythm that matched his agitated state of mind.
“Who installs stone tiles on a naval flagship? How pompous. I mean really, who do these Dendracs think they are?” Gren thought to himself.
As an ambassador of a barely tolerated and mostly ignored race, Gren was not permitted access to the flagship’s data-net. This meant he could not access a ship map, and had to rely on memory to find his destination. He counted the doors as he passed them. With their bas relief carvings depicting stylised scenes of past Dendrac military victories, each door was as ornate and overbearing as the last.
“Three doors, then right. Two, then left. Up a level at the statue of the Dendrac war chief wearing the face of his vanquished foe. Straight, past the tapestry woven from the dreadlocks of defeated insurrectionists. Ah, here it is.”
To most people, the door he stood in front of was barely distinguishable from the others. Gren however, as an ambassador thoroughly versed in Dendrac history and culture, easily identified the scene it portrayed. A Dendrac naval destroyer rained down particle beams on a fleeing civilian fleet, the furthest members of which were being sucked into the maw of a black hole. This was an artistic representation of the genocide perpetrated by the Dendrac against the Kalurra, a largely peaceful race who had had the audacity to evolve to sentience on a planet bordering the former outer limits of the Dendrac Empire.
In one of their more aggressive expansionist phases, the Dendracs had evicted the Kalurra from their own world after a short but brutally violent offensive, ostensibly accepting their unconditional surrender. Yet, instead of honouring their promise that the Kalurra would be allowed to evacuate safely, the Dendrac had waited until all evacuation ships had launched and then promptly forced them into the event horizon of a nearby black hole. They had watched with delight as the last members of the Kalurra were sucked into the singularity, resulting in the complete extinction of their race. The ease with which the Kalurra had been defeated, and their inability to wage effective war, had made them the objects of great scorn in the eyes of the Dendrac people. The fact that they had allocated this particular room, and its associated artwork, to its current occupant indicated that they viewed his race with great scorn as well. It was a blatant message of disrespect, as well as an assertion of the dominance and superiority of the Dendrac Empire.
An unpleasant jarring doorbell chimed as Gren’s manipulator pressed the button announcing his arrival. A moment later, the door slid open, granting him entry to the suite of rooms within.
The suite was luxurious and well appointed, despite the disrespectful door art. For it to be otherwise would have besmirched the honour of the Empire. Gren knew that every inch of this flagship would be similarly grand, a testament to the majesty of the Empire and its supposedly god-like Emperor.
Stepping through the entryway and into the office within, Gren was greeted by the sight of the Terran ambassador seated behind his desk. In his hands was a small device, its screen flashing with bright colours and moving shapes. The human’s thumbs mashed repeatedly at buttons on the gadget’s sides, the vigour of the movements causing it to jerk from side to side as the man stared at it with intense concentration.
“Playing that infernal game again, Peter?” asked Gren drily.
“Come now, Gren, don’t your people know the joy of Galaga?” responded Peter without looking up.
“My people prefer entertainments that weren’t created over hundreds of years ago. Terran video games don’t interest us; we find the excessive visuals too disorientating.”
The gaming device made a disapproving sound, and the words ‘GAME OVER’ blighted the screen. Peter tutted with disapproval and inserted the device back into the pocket of his suit jacket, then he tented his fingers in front of him on the desk and looked at Gren with mock seriousness.
“Soooo… good news or bad?”
Gren sighed. Why couldn’t humans take anything seriously? Not that his experience with humans was very comprehensive. Peter was the first one he had actually met in person.
The Terran Republic and Gren’s own Ovidian Union had been formal allies for only a few short decades. Both species were galactic neighbours, their territories far away from the location of his present assignment here in the Dendrac Empire. When the current crisis had broken out, and the human ambassador had been summoned to appear before the Dendrac Emperor, Gren had been the closest Ovidian official at hand. He had been tasked by his superiors with the job of guiding their human allies through this trying time. Relative newcomers to the galactic scene, it seemed the humans had provoked the ire of the Dendracs, the galaxy’s most powerful and violent race. If the situation was not remedied successfully the Ovidians would become tainted by association, and if war were to break out, they would be sucked in to fighting on the humans’ side. A fight they could never win.
“The Emperor has demanded your presence,” replied Gren as he settled into a guest chair.
In the five years he had been posted in the Empire, he’d never had the opportunity, or the misfortune, of an audience with the Emperor. He had rather liked it that way. Audiences with the Emperor rarely ended well for the foreign dignitaries involved.
“Let me check my schedule,” said Peter. He made exaggerated typing motions on an imaginary keyboard in front of him. There was no computer in the room.
“Yes, I think I can fit him in,” Peter said finally, when his charade was done.
“I wish you’d take this a bit more seriously. You Terrans have been encroaching on Dendrac trade for quite a while now. Undercutting their prices. Stealing their customers. Putting the quality of their goods to shame. It was just a matter of time until they fought back. But Dendracs tend to take ‘fighting back’ in a very literal sense, and now they’re out for blood. This could all go very badly for you, and by extension for us.”
“Nothing our insurance won’t cover,” said Peter with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Gren’s eyestalks fluttered in frustration.
“Insurance doesn’t cover acts of genocide inflicted by power-crazed despots,” he growled in annoyance.
Were all humans this exasperating?
“Ours does,” said Peter simply, a small smile on his face.
Gren knew he would have trouble getting any sense out of the human. Their conversations over the past few weeks, while they waited on the Emperor’s summons, had proven that.
“Come on, we’d best not keep the Emperor waiting. He doesn’t take kindly to that.”
Together, they exited the suite and made their way through the corridors towards the throne room.
Gren remained silent as they passed a further multitude of artistic displays proclaiming the superiority and ruthlessness of the Dendrac Empire. Atrocity after atrocity. Genocide after genocide. Even the pieces that commemorated their great feats of engineering were heavily slanted towards the construction of weapons of war.
Peter stopped in front of one statue, a large cannon that had been instrumental in the first Emperor’s war to unite the Dendrac clans, effectively creating the Empire itself. He regarded it quietly for a moment.
“Think they’re compensating for something?” he asked wryly.
Gren’s anger flared. He couldn’t hold back any longer.
“Damn it, Peter! Do you know that you and I will be the first to die if this goes badly? Dendracs don’t follow galactic convention. When they hear news they don’t like, they’re very inclined to kill the messenger! And the guy standing next to him! If you persist in playing the clown and provoking the Empire, they will declare war on both our races, and then we will be well and truly, to borrow human parlance, up shit creek!”
“I told you not to worry. Our insurance is going to cover it. This will all be smoothed over in no time.”
“Are you brain damaged?!?! Can your insurance reattach my head to my body after it’s been sent back to Ovis as a declaration of war?”
“Well, no, but that’s not going to happen. Have a little faith, my friend.”
“Faith is not a proven strategy against genocidal maniacs,” spat Gren as he stormed off, not waiting for Peter to follow him.
The remaining walk to the throne room in silence allowed Gren to reduce his anger down to a low simmer. Mentally, he started composing the letter he would send his wife before his execution. It would include some strongly worded advice to the Ovidian senate on their future dealings with humans. They were too great a liability, in his opinion. Foolhardy and flippant. Better to cancel the alliance and let them fight the Empire on their own.
The doors of the throne room were predictably large and adorned. The themes here tended away from the magnificence of the Empire and towards the grandeur of the Emperor himself. He was depicted as a towering figure, standing bestride whole worlds as they were reduced to ashes at his feet. The whole thing was so very gauche, in Gren’s opinion.
Ceremonial guards watched their approach. They were the largest examples of Dendrac warriors that Gren had seen thus far. Heavily muscled and standing tall in their armour, their large paws held plasma lances barring the door. They were quite intimidating. The bioluminescent dreadlocks the Dendrac were known for showed the crest of their warrior class, a red downward pointing chevron. It symbolised the tip of the spear, blade thrusting down justly into the body of the enemy. The soft red light of the chevron flowed from the crowns of their heads down to their shoulders, before fading and repeating again. The effect was almost mesmerising.
As Gren and Peter approached, the plasma lances were withdrawn and the doors parted to reveal the throne room. It was huge, with columns rising high above to a vaulted ceiling and walls bedecked with yet more scenes of a glorious Empire and the semi-divine Emperor who shepherded his people from victory to glorious victory.
“Having a cavity this size within the ship must cause major load balancing issues when it’s under thrust,” thought Gren. Not that the flagship would see much actual combat. Although heavily armed, it was never found fighting in the vanguard. Its royal cargo was too precious to risk destruction by a lucky shot or the suicide run of an enemy bomber.
A giant window took up a whole wall. Through it, Gren could see the planet Dendra spread out below them as they viewed it from their vantage point in high orbit. Dendra’s small moon was passing serenely behind the planet while other ships, both big and small, glided through space around them. It seemed the Dendracs were marshalling their forces. Gren felt a sinking feeling in his stomachs. If the Empire was already mobilising for war, then it was unlikely to be dissuaded by mere diplomacy. On one side of the room naval officers stood at holo-consoles coordinating fleet operations and relaying the Emperor’s orders.
This spectacular view framed the throne itself where, elevated imposingly above the floor, the Emperor looked down imperiously on everyone present. Members of the courtly nobility stood chatting in clusters on each side.
Gren had expected a more imposing figure. The Emperor was small for a Dendrac, and his body seemed smaller still when lost in the folds of his royal robes. The left paw that poked from the cuff of his robe looked slightly malformed and seemed to tremble softly, despite the Emperor’s attempt to hold it still with the other paw.
All these flaws were overshadowed though, by the crown of glowing dreadlocks that floated around him. Each dreadlock was tipped by a small anti-grav ring that caused it to float up and outwards from his head, creating a halo that glowed brightly with golden bands that moved outwards from his scalp in waves of brilliance. The Emperor glowed so bright that he was hard to look at directly, and Gren bowed his eye stalks deferentially as an excuse to look away.
He glanced at Peter and saw the human gawking like some backwater yokel without a hint of humility. He nudged Peter sharply, and the human stepped forward, hands clasped in front of him.
“Greetings, Your Majesty. On behalf of the Terran Republic, I give thanks for your invitation to address you and your court.”
“Thank the cosmos. At least he knows basic etiquette,” thought Gren. He had half expected the human to greet the Emperor with a ‘waddup’ and a high five.
“Silence!” screamed the Emperor. “This is no invitation. You have been summoned here to answer for your crimes against the mighty Dendrac Empire.”
Waves rippled through the Emperor’s halo as the fury of his words set the set dreadlocks drifting wildly.
Peter did not recoil at the Emperor’s rebuke.
“Surely there is some mistake, Your Grace. The Republic has committed no crimes against your people. We seek to deal with all races in a fair and forthright manner. Any offense is surely inadvertent and unintentional.”
“Do you deny signing a contract to supply grade one bio-nutrient to the Dranian Collective? Or with the Ovidian Union to supply prefabricated fusion tokamaks?”
“No, I do not. We offer all our customers fair pricing and terms. Those contracts were won legitimately through open tender.”
“Those contracts belong rightfully to the Dendrac Empire. You treacherous Terrans have sniped them out from under us, like scavengers stealing the kill of a proud and noble hunter.”
“I assure you, Your Majesty, that is not the case…”
“Do not contradict me and deny your guilt!” screamed the Emperor, now rising from his throne. “It is plain to see. The Terrans must pay for this insult to my people.”
Gren had to hand it to Peter. By this stage, most diplomats would be grovelling pitifully at the Emperor’s feet, begging forgiveness for whatever spurious charges he cared to throw at them. Instead, the Terran’s composure was admirable, his posture strong and upright, not submissive at all. Gren realised that Peter had not bowed when they had entered the throne room. Now, the human simply waited silently for the Emperor to continue his tirade.
“The Terran Republic must pay reparations, or else face my wrath. You will furnish us with five of your colony planets. One hundred million of your people are to be given over as slaves to the Empire. Lastly, one billion galactic credits are to be paid in Flux and other precious metals.”
The Emperor punctuated each demand with a loud stamp of his gilded boot. Gren flinched with every blow. These demands were outrageous, calculated to make a Terran refusal inevitable. This was a thin pretext for war. A war that he realised had now already started in earnest.
Yet, Peter did not flinch. Gren knew the human well enough by now to recognise the latent smile at the corner of his mouth. What madness was this, to delight in the face of oblivion? What cloth were these allies cut from?
“Deliver this to us or prepare for war.”
The Emperor, finished for the moment, stared at Peter awaiting the human’s response. No doubt, he would continue to heap on more excessive demands at any attempt to negotiate a settlement.
Gren knew he had to intervene before Peter said something they would both regret. He stepped forward.
“Your Excellency, your demands are great. Please give us time to relay them to our superiors.”
The Emperor frowned and flicked a hand towards Gren. A burly Dendrac guard stepped forward and smashed the butt of his lance into Gren’s back. He stumbled and dropped to the floor in agony.
“Do not think I have forgotten about you, Ovidian. Your Union is complicit in these Terran schemes. Without your assistance, they would not have risen so fast and dared to challenge our supremacy.”
“That’s enough,” said Peter firmly. The steel in his voice caught the Emperor’s attention instantly.
“Do not presume to command me, Terran.” He spat the words coldly, laced with venom.
Peter’s eyes drilled into the Emperor for a moment, then broke off to look at Gren writhing on the floor. Peter bowed down and clasped his ally firmly, helping Gren back to his feet. He patted Gren on the closest thing he had to a shoulder and leaned in to whisper quietly.
“Don’t worry, the insurance will make this right.”
Gren stared back blankly. He still had no idea what Peter was talking about, but he saw nothing humorous in the man’s demeanour. He was deathly serious.
Peter stood upright, and turned back to face the Emperor.
“Your accusations are false, your demands unjust,” declared Peter in a strong voice that carried easily across the throne room and the assembled members of the royal court.
The Emperor smiled. He was finally getting the display of defiance he needed to give him an excuse to declare war.
“This farce is nothing new to us. Throughout all human history, the strong have preyed upon the weak. You may believe your flimsy excuses give you cause to hurt us, but the truth behind them is plain. You desire war and the destruction of my people.”
He pointed to Gren. “Of our people.”
The collected nobility scoffed and murmured amongst themselves. They were not used to hearing their sovereign addressed with such insolence. The Emperor simply looked on smiling. His golden dreadlocks cast dancing light across his face, making his bared fangs stand out more menacingly.
“You are a bully. Sure, you’re one of the biggest, but still only one among many. The galaxy is filled with them. Humanity knows how to deal with bullies. That’s why we took out insurance.”
The Emperor scoffed loudly. He pointed at Peter and laughed incredulously.
“You expect me to believe that you have the backing to withstand us? That someone out there will replace the losses that I will inflict upon you? You are fools. What my ancestors did to the Kalurra will look merciful compared to what’s in store for you.”
“Let me show you our policy,” replied Peter.
Peter removed the gaming device from his pocket. The guards didn’t bother to move. All foreign diplomats were scanned thoroughly for weapons before they were even allowed on board the flagship. Peter had nothing that could be used to attack the Emperor, unless he had fashioned some crude shiv out of his toothbrush.
He raised the device and spoke into it.
“Insurance Protocol. Scenario Two. Initiate.”
A few seconds later, a flashing warning graphic appeared above a naval officer’s holo-console. The officer sprang into action, extracting situational data from the network of sensors scattered around the solar system.
“Your Highness, in-system warp ingress detected. Distance four point three AU. Eight pings, no transponders. Assumed hostile. Routing superlight feed from nearest observation station now.”
A giant holographic image sprang to life in the middle of the throne room. It shimmered and twisted for a second before resolving into a sharper image. It showed eight ships emerging from Flux warp in a wide but precise octagonal formation. Each ship had the exact same vector and velocity.
“That kind of precision is unheard of,” thought Gren. Exit from Flux warp was a messy process, likely to impart an unpredictable heading and momentum to any ship that attempted it. No race he knew of could exit warp in any kind of formation, let alone one as clean as this.
Data overlayed on top of the image indicated that the formation was nearly four thousand kilometres in diameter.
The ships themselves were strange, although they followed fairly standard design principles for the most part. Gren saw rear thruster nacelles, weapons hardpoints and sensor booms, but there was something else he couldn’t identify. Mounted underneath each ship was a large curved structure that looked like an arc. The curvature of the arcs was shallow, and they looked like small slices taken from the circumference of a very large circle. A harsh blue light shone from gaps within the structures, giving the impression of immense energies contained within.
The ships were large, each equivalent to a Dendrac fighter carrier, but one of the ships was significantly bigger than the others. A secondary frame appeared within the hologram showing a magnified view of the colossal ship. Stencilled across the bow in giant white letters was its name: The Underwriter.
There was a flash and beams of light, somehow curved, shot out of the ends of the arc structure carried by The Underwriter. The beams flowed around to the two ships adjacent to it in the formation, connecting with their own arc structures before progressing to the next pair of ships. Quickly, the beam circumscribed a massive circle, connecting all the Terran ships. As soon as that happened, there was another flash and the interior of the circle was covered in a meniscus of scintillating blue light.
“A gateway!” cried Gren, but nobody heard him. They were all transfixed by the events going on in front of them.
There were only a half dozen gateway portals in the whole galaxy. They were massive structures, built in pairs, to facilitate warp travel for ships that didn’t have their own warp core. It normally took a coalition of races hundreds of years to complete a pair of them. All known gateways were fully circular ring constructions, packed with dense technology. They definitely weren’t ship-based and mobile.
The Terran Republic had pulled off the engineering feat of the millennia. A gateway that could be deployed anywhere at will.
“Looks like we chose the right allies,” thought Gren. Things were looking up. Finally.
Abruptly, the holographic image went white and disappeared. The naval officers frantically poked at their consoles, seeking explanation.
“Sir, observation station destroyed. Routing feed from backup now,” said one of the officers.
A new image filled the air replaying the last few seconds. The shimmering gateway appeared again, smaller this time since it was being filmed from further away. The space in front of the gate flickered, and then the portal collapsed. The circle of light was gone, and now a normal star field was visible in the space between the human ships, which quickly warped away into the ether.
“Ha!” jeered the Emperor. “Your plan has failed. Your ships are retreating!”
Peter continued to smile and pointed back to the hologram. “Play it in slo-mo,” he said.
The naval officer tapped the console, and the holographic video replayed in slow motion. This time, it was clear what had transpired.
A huge white object emerged from the gateway’s meniscus. It was rounded like a ball, but rough and dotted with circular craters. The diameter of the object was almost as wide as the gateway itself.
It was a moon. Even in slow motion, it was only in frame for a split second.
“Sir, new planetary body detected in system. Diameter estimated at three thousand kilometres. It’s moving fast… point three c! It’s on a collision course for Dendra!”
“What have you done?!?!” shrieked the Emperor. He jumped down from the throne podium and grabbed Peter by the lapels of his jacket. The guards all tensed but didn’t intervene.
“If you want to be alive two minutes from now, I suggest you sit down and shut up,” said Peter sharply, like a teacher addressing an unruly pupil.
Taken aback, but not knowing what else to do, the Emperor retreated back to his throne.
“Humans have fought many wars. These days, we prefer diplomacy, but sadly that is not always an option. There is an old adage from Earth. I’m not sure who said it, but it goes like this: ‘Diplomacy frequently consists of soothingly saying ‘Nice doggie’ until you have a chance to pick up a rock.’”
With an open palm, Peter gestured at the image of the moon hanging above them.
“Doggie, meet rock.”
A multitude of bright lights flared through the throne room’s giant window as the ships of the Dendrac fleet ignited their drives and rushed to break orbit. No doubt, they had just been informed that they were now in the path of a moon travelling at nearly one third the speed of light.
Peter glanced at his device, then clasped his hands behind his back and continued his speech.
“We’ve been accelerating it for quite some time. Orbital mechanics get quite interesting when you can nudge a moon so that it falls down a star’s gravity well, then pluck it out again before it impacts. With a gateway, you can simply reset and do it all over again, this time with the added velocity imparted by the first pass. Then again, pass after pass after pass. We actually had to slow this one down a bit. It was getting a little too hot to handle. Now it’s heading straight for your home planet.”
He checked the device again.
“In approximately ninety three seconds, it will impact, and I don’t need to tell you what kind of damage a moon doing point three c will do. Or perhaps I do?”
He paused and stood silently staring at the Emperor, letting the remaining seconds dwindle away like sands through an hourglass. His face betrayed no hint of tension. He was in control.
“You’ll die too! The blast will vaporise everything for millions of kilometres!” cried the Emperor.
“Yes,” was all Peter replied, seemingly unaffected by the prospect of his own imminent death. More seconds passed before he continued.
“Now, here are our demands. You will disband any and all armed forces you possess. You will scuttle every ship in your navy, and any in your civilian fleet that could be effectively retrofitted as weapons of war. You will pay reparations to every surviving race on whom you have declared war since the formation of the Empire, and…”
Peter glanced at Gren and winked.
“You will appoint the Ovidian Union as your sole and exclusive agent in all matters of foreign trade for the next two hundred galactic standard years, and swear to conduct no direct trade with any other race in that time, save for the Terran Republic. All of this you will agree to in the next…”
“…forty four seconds, or else we will let that moon reduce your homeworld to its constituent atoms.”
He stopped and stared expectantly at the Emperor, one eyebrow raised in the peculiar Terran fashion.
“There it is,” thought Gren, “a boot to neck of the Empire for the next two hundred years.” The Dendrac Empire would never recover from such a blow, and it was all without the loss of a single life, Terran, Ovidian or Dendrac. Gren was astounded by the generosity the Terrans had just shown his people.
The Emperor sat mute on his throne. He knew his citizenry would rise up against him if he agreed to this extortion. He had seen the same thing happen many times to monarchs of the planets he had forced similar terms on. But, the alternative was death.
“Twenty eight seconds,” said Peter.
The murmuring of the assembled nobility increased in pitch as panic sunk its cold teeth into their hearts. The braver ones pleaded with the Emperor to save them, while the timid stood in place, almost catatonic with fear.
“Alright,” said the Emperor quietly, his head hung low in defeat.
“What’s that? I didn’t quite hear you,” exclaimed Peter, hand cupping his ear.
“Agreed! We concede to your demands!”
Wasting no time, Peter spoke into the device.
“Abort Insurance Protocol. Repeat, abort Insurance Protocol.”
Eight ships re-emerged into space just outside the orbit of Dendrac’s own moon, which was now tainted with the shadow of humanity’s celestial projectile. The ships were as orderly as the first time, and three seconds later, the shimmering blue meniscus of energy flared to life once more. Two seconds after that, the errant planetoid shot through the gateway, away into the depths of space where it would wait until it was called again in defence of the Terran Republic and its allies.
Without a word, Peter turned on his heel and marched towards the door. Gren hurried in pursuit.
“How many of these insurance policies have you got?” asked Gren in a low voice, so no one else would hear.
Peter’s walk slowed as his smile widened into a wicked grin.
“One more thing,” the human said loudly, projecting his voice over his shoulder towards the throne.
The Emperor lifted his head lethargically. He was plainly in shock at the unexpected reversal of their respective positions. The glow coming from his dreadlock halo had dimmed substantially.
“What?” he asked glumly.
“We’re taking your moon.”