“Two minutes to landing, Commander.”
Commander Karen Hunt nodded as the skimmer crossed the North Sea and headed over Norway, angling right towards an estate belonging to one of the most powerful humans in the Alpha Empire. The invitation had been polite, but there had been an edge in it that had suggested that refusing would have been a bad idea. It might have had career-wreaking consequences.
Karen cursed herself as the mountains slowly came into view. She was twenty-nine years old, an experienced naval officer who had seen action in the border skirmishes between the Empire and its enemies, but she couldn’t help feeling nervous. Everyone knew that Admiral Ivanovo was a sexual predator, with a long list of lovers both male and female; everyone knew that the commanding officers of three battlecruisers had only received their commands after spending a night with the Admiral. Karen knew that she was on the short list to command herself, and yet she knew that mere competence was not enough to get someone into the command chair of a starship. The thought of putting out for a senior officer was horrific, but she wanted command. It was the highest position any human could aspire to in the Alpha Empire.
She looked down at her hands and shivered. Like most naval officers, she’d had the benefits of rejuvenation treatments from a very early age and it showed. Her dark chocolate-coloured skin covered a face that looked youthful, almost as if she had never grown out of her teens. The exercise routines that the navy insisted that its people use routinely, every day, had added muscle and a healthy glow that a pair of boyfriends had admired, before her career had left them behind. She wouldn’t be betraying anyone, she told herself, if she spent a night with the Admiral. And yet the thought of whoring herself – and it would be whoring – was horrific.
The skimmer dropped down towards a patch of grass next to a simple wooden hut. Admiral Ivanovo had served the Alphas faithfully for years and they were always generous to those who were loyal to them. In his case, the Alphas had deeded him five hundred square miles of Norway as a private reserve, a place where he could relax and enjoy indulging himself when he wasn’t on duty. They didn’t care that he preyed on his own subordinates, or that large numbers of junior officers hated him passionately. The Alphas only cared about results and, despite all the rumours surrounding him, Admiral Ivanovo had done much of the work in building the Alpha Navy. Only the official broadsheets from the Empire claimed otherwise.
A pair of men wearing unmarked uniforms met her as the skimmer landed and waved a sensor wand over her body, before removing her wristcom and the terminal she carried on her belt. Karen felt naked, suddenly aware of how tightly her uniform pressed against her body – and of the fact that she could no longer call for help. Not that that had ever been a realistic possibility, of course. The Admiral’s status was so high that he could strangle her without any fear of punishment. Alphas tolerated anything in their clients provided that they remained loyal.
She walked up the steps to a small wooden cabin and pushed the door open. The interior smelt faintly musty, as if the cabin was rarely used; inside, she could hear the sounds of someone shuffling wood. She stepped through a second door and into a large room, illuminated only by primitive gas lamps. A small wood-burning stove dominated one side of the room; a large bed lay at the other, along with enough chairs and cushions to seat an entire command staff. Did the Admiral and his friends ever have orgies? Rumour attributed all kinds of perversions to the Admiral, although if he’d been guilty of all of them he wouldn’t have had any time to attend to his duties. Had he really climbed high enough that he didn’t have to worry about the fall?
Admiral Ivanovo looked up from the fire and smiled at her. He looked healthier than she had expected, even if he’d spent most of his career behind a desk. But she didn’t find him attractive and the thought of allowing him to touch her, of feeling him pushing inside her, was repulsive. Even knowing that refusing him might cost her the chance to command a starship…
“Please, relax,” the Admiral said. His face broke into a sudden smile that seemed ill-suited to the moment. “You’re not here to satisfy my lusts, I’m afraid.” He smiled again at her expression. “Take a look around this hut and tell me what you think?”
“Primitive,” Karen said, feeling her head spinning. “Don’t you have any modern technology in here at all?”
“None,” the Admiral said, with a touch of pride. “This building is over five hundred years old, built by a family of hunters and fishers. Modern society never quite caught up with it even before the Invasion. Right now…”
His eyes sharpened. “Right now, no one can see or hear what we do in here,” he added. “We are completely off the grid.”
Karen had worked that out, if only because a person with the Admiral’s reputation wouldn’t want too many rumours spreading around. “I see, sir,” she said. “And why did you call me here?”
The Admiral chuckled. “Having a bad reputation is sometimes an asset,” he said. “I summon a young and beautiful officer to my cabin and everyone assumes that I intend to indulge myself with her. Our masters certainly won’t consider any other possibility. They consider the perks of power something to be indulged as often as possible.”
Karen nodded as she took one of the chairs. The Alphas loved luxury, even if some of the things they considered luxurious didn’t make any sense to their human subordinates. As an Alpha climbed up the promotion ladder, the rewards grew along with the responsibilities. Using one’s subordinates for sexual gratification was not only tolerated, but keenly encouraged. They had never evolved rules that suggested that it was a bad idea.
The Admiral took the chair facing her and looked her right in the eye. “What do you think of the Alphas, really?”
Karen’s hesitation must have shown in her face, for he snorted. “This isn’t a loyalty exam,” he said, dryly. “I need a honest answer.”
“I’m not sure,” Karen admitted. On one hand, the Alphas had introduced humanity to the stars – and created the navy that had given her a shot at command. But they were also the undisputed masters of their empire and tended to consider humanity – and all other known races – second-class at best. Very few humans reached positions of power and influence off-world. “They are our masters, are they not?”
“The Alphas have become…concerned about humanity,” Admiral Ivanovo said, softly. “What would you do if they ordered you to bombard a human settlement from orbit?”
Karen started, shocked. “They wouldn’t do that, would they?”
The Admiral shrugged. “Humans are the most numerous species within the Empire,” he said, dryly. “There are human enclaves on a hundred worlds, places where humans live while doing the work that the Alphas disdain for themselves. And there are humans outside the Empire too, most notably on Beta Four. There are Alphas who are beginning to wonder if we’re worth the risk involved in keeping us in the Empire.”
He smiled, humourlessly. “You won’t have heard of this, of course, but three months ago there was a bloody strike on Delavan,” he added. “Several hundreds of thousands of human workers, mistreated by their owners, finally went on strike. The House Military had to put them down, killing two-thirds of them in the process. That – and a number of other incidents – have been carefully suppressed in the media.
“Think about it. They gave us the shit jobs, the ones that no Alpha wants to do for himself, and expected us to be content with our lot. But humanity is never content with its lot, is it?”
“No, sir,” Karen said, slowly.
“So now we have generations who look at the Alphas, realise that we are not treated as equals, and start planning trouble,” the Admiral said. “And we have Alphas who have come to realise just how dependent they have become on human labour and believe that it is time to do something about us before we take over.”
He looked her right in the eye. “And their final solution to the human problem will be genocide,” he said. “They could wipe out the entire human race.”
Karen stared at him. “But they’d be wiping out their own labour force…”
“Not all of it,” the Admiral said. “But from our point of view it won’t matter. We’ll all be dead.”
He hesitated. “I don’t know if any of their plans will be activated, but if they are we will have to move fast,” he concluded. “And if that happens…can I count on you?”
Karen looked at him. She had sworn loyalty to the Alpha Empire; they’d all sworn loyalty to the Alphas. But she was human.
She swallowed, hard. “Yes, sir,” she said. It was funny how much she wished, now, that the Admiral had merely wished to use her in exchange for Captain’s rank. “You can count on me.”