Valiant Dust - Tor/Forge Blog



$2.99 Ebook Sale: Valiant Dust by Richard Baker

Place holder  of - 51The ebook edition of Valiant Dust by Richard Baker is on sale now for only $2.99! This offer will only last for a limited time, so order your copy today!

And look out for Scornful Stars, coming this December.

About Valiant Dust: In a stylish, smart, new military science fiction series, Richard Baker begins the adventures of Sikander North in an era of great interstellar colonial powers. Valiant Dust combines the intrigues of interstellar colonial diplomacy with explosive military action.

Sikander Singh North has always had it easy—until he joined the crew of the Aquilan Commonwealth starship CSS Hector. As the ship’s new gunnery officer and only Kashmiri, he must constantly prove himself better than his Aquilan crewmates, even if he has to use his fists. When the Hector is called to help with a planetary uprising, he’ll have to earn his unit’s respect, find who’s arming the rebels, and deal with the headstrong daughter of the colonial ruler—all while dodging bullets.

Sikander’s military career is off to an explosive start—but only if he and CSS Hector can survive his first mission.

Order Your Copy

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This sale ends December 1.


New Releases: 11/7/17

Happy New Release Day! Here’s what went on sale today.

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault by James Alan Gardner

Placeholder of  -50 Monsters are real. But so are heroes.

Sparks are champions of weird science. Boasting capes and costumes and amazing super-powers that only make sense if you don’t think about them too hard, they fight an eternal battle for truth and justice…mostly.

Black Goat Blues by Levi Black

Place holder  of - 27 In Red Right Hand, Charlie Tristan Moore was thrust into a nightmarish world of lurking Lovecraftian horrors when The Man In Black, a diabolical Elder God, chose her as his unwilling Acolyte. Discovering her own power, Charlie ultimately defied The Man In Black, but at a cost.

Now armed with a magic coat made from the skin of a flayed angel, Charlie is out to destroy The Man In Black and save her boyfriend Daniel.

The Realms of God by Michael Livingston

Image Place holder  of - 71 The Realms of God is the thrilling conclusion to Michael Livingston’s historical fantasy trilogy that continues the story begun in The Shards of Heaven and The Gates of Hell.

The Ark of the Covenant has been spirited out of Egypt to Petra, along with the last of its guardians. But dark forces are in pursuit.

Steal the Stars by Mac Rogers and Nat Cassidy

Poster Placeholder of - 87 Dakota “Dak” Prentiss guards the biggest secret in the world.

They call it “Moss.” It’s your standard grey alien from innumerable abduction stories. It still sits at the controls of the spaceship it crash-landed eleven years ago. A secret military base was built around the crash site to study both Moss and the dangerous technology it brought to Earth.

Valiant Dust by Richard Baker

Image Placeholder of - 31 In a stylish, smart, new military science fiction series, Richard Baker begins the adventures of Sikander North in an era of great interstellar colonial powers. Valiant Dust combines the intrigues of interstellar colonial diplomacy with explosive military action.

Sikander Singh North has always had it easy—until he joined the crew of the Aquilan Commonwealth starship CSS Hector. As the ship’s new gunnery officer and only Kashmiri, he must constantly prove himself better than his Aquilan crewmates, even if he has to use his fists.


Anti-Magic Academy: The 35th Test Platoon – The Complete Missions Story by Touki Yanagimi; Art by Youhei Yasumura

Dreamin’ Sun Vol. 4 Story and art by Ichigo Takano

Magical Girl Site Vol. 4 Story and art by Kentaro Sato

Record of Lodoss War: The Grey Witch (Gold Edition) Story by Ryo Mizuno; Art by Yutaka Izubuchi

The Testament of Sister New Devil Vol. 7 Story by Tetsuto Uesu; Art by Miyakokasiwa


Starships and Old Cruisers

Image Place holder  of - 67Written by Richard Baker

The most important ship in Valiant Dust is USS Olympia.

You might think I’m referring to a starship that appears in my novel, but I’m not. I mean the old cruiser commissioned in 1895 and preserved as a museum ship in 1957. Olympia served as Commodore Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, and you can see it today at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia.

Olympia doesn’t appear even once in my book. But my long-ago visits to the museum ship inspired much of the world-building behind Valiant Dust, including elements of naval technology, culture, and the strategic challenges Sikander North’s star navy faces.

Let’s start with the technology. From the get-go, my Sikander North books were intended to be naval-themed military sci-fi. I’m a former naval officer and a serious history buff, and it’s important to me to write what I know. Several other writers are engaged in universes that do an excellent job of bringing the “missile age” of naval warfare to space. (As someone who earned a Surface Warfare qualification, I appreciate the thought that writers like David Weber or Jack Campbell put into missile tactics.) But I want to create battles that feel distinctive in this subgenre. Olympia suggests a different era of naval combat as an inspiration: the era of steam and iron, big guns and short-ranged torpedoes. In the Sikander North universe, point-defense fire is so effective that missiles can’t get through to score hits. The primary shipboard weapons are powerful rail guns (or kinetic cannons) and warp torpedoes that exit normal space for self-protection during their attack runs.

The cultural inspiration provided by Olympia is a little harder to explain, but I’ll give it a try. If you spend any time walking around a modern warship, you’re struck by how plain things are. The interior decks are covered by linoleum, the weather decks by something that looks like roofing material. The wardroom—the space where officers gather to eat, relax, or entertain, presumably the nicest part of the ship—is fitted with furniture that frankly wouldn’t cut it in a cheap motel. But Olympia is a relic of a different age; the wardroom is finished with beautiful paneling and china cabinets, the decks are (or at least were) real teak, and brilliant brass fittings gleam at every turn. Olympia exudes an atmosphere of gentility and elegance that modern ships lack. The officers of the Age of Steam were expected to be gentlemen and observe social niceties that had fallen out of use by the time I served in the Navy. I’m not saying that Olympia’s time was better, mind you; I’m just saying that it was different, and I wanted to capture that feeling in my depiction of a starfaring navy of the far future.

Finally, Olympia’s moment in history pointed me toward a complex and changing era of “geopolitics” to serve as the backdrop for Valiant Dust. A multipolar galaxy with Great Powers fighting over prized colonial possessions provides a wealth of rivalries and crises to explore. Sikander North and his shipmates live in a universe where rising powers are challenging established powers and imperial systems are being tested by restive subject populations. A military sci-fi story needs sources of conflict, and those conflicts need plausible driving causes. Valiant Dust isn’t the Spanish-American War in space, but I definitely drew inspiration from a different near-conflict in the same era (the Second Moroccan Crisis, if you’re curious). I find that borrowing a bit from history helps a story to feel “real,” simply because if it happened in our own world it’s not crazy for a writer to suggest that something similar could happen in the future.

USS Olympia isn’t mentioned once in Valiant Dust. But you can sense its presence in dinner parties and military formalities, k-cannon salvos and torpedo runs, and exotic worlds where imperial powers shamelessly engage in the Great Game. Throughout months of worldbuilding, I found myself closing my eyes from time to time to recall how it felt to walk Olympia’s decks or imagine what it would have been like to be a naval officer in the 1890s instead of the 1990s. Maybe I’m the only person who would ever notice or care about that hidden influence in Valiant Dust, but it’s there. If you’re anywhere near Philadelphia and you’re interested in military history, I’d encourage you to make the visit—Olympia’s a national treasure.

Oh, and there’s one other thing. Take a moment to Google USS Olympia, and check out the paint scheme: the gleaming white hull, the red waterline, the buff superstructure and black funnel caps. I borrowed the same white, buff, and red colors for the Aquilan Commonwealth Navy in Valiant Dust. I didn’t even tell my editor why I chose those colors, but now you know.

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Follow Richard Baker on Facebook and on his blog.


On the Road: Tor/Forge Author Events in November

Tor/Forge authors are on the road in November! See who is coming to a city near you this month.

Richard Baker, Valiant Dust

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Saturday, November 25
Liberty Bay Books
Bremerton, WA
12:00 PM

Shannon Baker, Dark Signal

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Thursday, November 9
Mysterious Galaxy
San Diego, CA
7:30 PM
Also with Charlie Lovett.

Sunday, November 12
Book Carnival
Orange, CA
3:00 PM
Also with Ellen Byron and Daryl Wood Gerber.

Saturday, November 18
The Bookworm
Omaha, NE
1:00 PM

Tina Connolly, Seriously Hexed

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Tuesday, November 28
Powell’s Books
Beaverton, OR
7:00 PM

Matt Goldman, Gone to Dust

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Thursday, November 9
Barnes & Noble
Minnetonka, MN
7:00 PM
Minnetonka Mystery Night – also with Jerry Rice, Ellen Hart, James Tucker, Kristi Belcamino, Rachel Howzell Hall, PJ Tracy, Brian Freeman, and Chuck Logan.

Friday, November 10
Mystery to Me
Madison, WI
7:00 PM
Also with Wendy Webb.

Saturday, November 11
Boswell Book Company
Milwaukee, WI
2:00 PM
Also with Wendy Webb.

Annalee Newitz, Autonomous

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Sunday, November 19
American Bookbinders Museum
San Francisco, CA
6:30 PM
SF in SF – also with Trina Robbins.

Brandon Sanderson, Oathbringer

Monday, November 13
Brigham Young University Bookstore
Provo, UT
7:00 PM

Tuesday, November 14
Mysterious Galaxy
San Diego, CA
7:00 PM

Wednesday, November 15
Borderlands Books
San Francisco, CA
6:00 PM

Thursday, November 16
Powell’s Books
Beaverton, OR
6:00 PM

Saturday, November 18
Murder by the Book
Houston, TX
2:00 PM

Tuesday, November 21
Community Christian Church
Naperville, IL
6:00 PM
Books provided by Anderson’s Bookshop.


8 Military Sci-Fi Must-Reads

Ready, set, action! We’re obsessed with military sci-fi. If you’re ready to go on an adventure filled with aliens, terrifying technology, dangerous weapons, and even pirates, these books are for you. Here are some of our favorites, ranging from classic military sci-fi everyone should read to new and upcoming novels destined to become classics in their own right one day.

Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber

Poster Placeholder of - 23 The Gbaba aliens destroyed nearly all of humanity. The few survivors have fled to Earth-like planet Safehold. However, because the Gbaba can detect any industrial emissions, the people on Safehold must regress to an earlier medieval time. Using mind control technology, the government on Safehold imposes a religion that every citizen believes in — a religion that keeps them safe. 800 years pass, and an android awakens to spur a technological revolution… and likely war. Off Armageddon Reef is just one of David Weber’s many impressive science fiction works.

Valiant Dust by Richard Baker

Placeholder of  -13 When David Weber praises a sci-fi novel, it moves to the top of our reading list, and he calls Valiant Dust “new and extraordinary.” Baker drew on his background as a U.S. Navy officer to create an exciting tale of war and action set in space. The novel takes place aboard a starship led by gunnery officer Sikander Singh North, who, when faced with a planetary uprising, must prove to himself and his crewmates that he is the right man for the job.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Place holder  of - 29 In this adventure-packed military sci-fi classic, lead character Juan “Johnnie” Rico leaves his privileged life to join the military in its fight against an alien species known as the “Bugs.” As philosophical as it is fantasy, Starship Troopers was written in response to the politics of the Cold War and 1950s America. If you’re looking for a novel that strongly has plenty of action but also deals in real-world moral issues, then this book is a great option.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Image Place holder  of - 8 In The Old Man’s War series, interstellar space travel has led to territory wars with alien species. These wars are fought by elderly volunteers of retirement age, whose consciousness, along with their knowledge and skills, are transferred to younger bodies.. John Perry, the protagonist, has chosen to enlist on his 75th birthday, in the hopes that he will receive a homestead stake in one of the colony planets if he survives his two-year tour. This Hugo-award nominee is an enjoyable and thought-provoking series that provides a fresh interpretation of humanity’s future.

Unbreakable by W. C. Bauers

Image Placeholder of - 57 Promise Paen reluctantly returns to her birth planet of Montana to lead the Republic of Aligned Worlds’ Marines infantry, sent to Montana to stabilize the region from pirate raids. Haunted by her past and none too pleased to be back on her home planet, Promise has her work cut out for her. When the marines appear depleted, RAW’s rival, the Lusitanian Empire, is all too eager to take advantage. This suspense-filled, action-packed novel is W. C. Bauers’ wonderful debut.

Dauntless by Jack Campbell

Captain John “Black Jack” Geary has been in survival hibernation in enemy territory for over a century. While in hibernation, the captain is heroized in the Alliance for facing the Syndics in his “last stand.” Now, Geary wakes up to end the war once and for all. He aids a depleted Alliance fleet that is stranded on the Syndics’ territory, and sets forth on a mission to bring back the stolen hypernet key: the Alliance’s last chance at winning the war. If you enjoy Dauntless, check out the rest of the Lost Fleet series, which are equally as exciting.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The award winning Ender’s Game series is one of the most well-known science fiction novels for a reason — Orson Scott Card creates a military sci-fi masterpiece using beautifully simple prose. Set in a time when Earth is at war with an alien species, Ender’s Game is about a young genius, nicknamed Ender, who is grouped with other skilled children to go through rigorous military training to prepare for a third alien invasion. Ender and his friends think they are playing video game simulations… but these “games” have much more dire consequences.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

A science fiction classic and winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards, The Forever War is about physics student William Mandella who is drafted into the army to fight in a thousand-year war on a faraway planet. When Mandella finally returns home, he finds that what felt like two years in space was nearly 30 years on Earth — and nothing seems to be the same. The Forever War is a captivating story about war, time dilation, death, and survival.


Excerpt: Valiant Dust by Richard Baker

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In a stylish, smart, new military science fiction series, Richard Baker begins the adventures of Sikander North in an era of great interstellar colonial powers. Valiant Dust combines the intrigues of interstellar colonial diplomacy with explosive military action.

Sikander Singh North has always had it easy—until he joined the crew of the Aquilan Commonwealth starship CSS Hector. As the ship’s new gunnery officer and only Kashmiri, he must constantly prove himself better than his Aquilan crewmates, even if he has to use his fists. When the Hector is called to help with a planetary uprising, he’ll have to earn his unit’s respect, find who’s arming the rebels, and deal with the headstrong daughter of the colonial ruler—all while dodging bullets.

Sikander’s military career is off to an explosive start—but only if he and CSS Hector can survive his first mission.

Valiant Dust will become available November 7th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

ONE: New Perth, Caledonia System

Lieutenant Sikander Singh North leaned forward in the shuttle’s right-hand seat, eager to catch his first glimpse of the light cruiser Hector. The shuttle climbed slowly into low orbit, only four hundred kilometers above the feathered white cloud tops and gray-green dayside of New Perth. The white glare of Caledonia’s sun illuminated dozens of freighters and tugs going about their business in the planet’s busy approaches. Sikander quickly spotted the huge mass of New Perth Fleet Base—hard to miss, really, since the orbital structure was the size of a small city—and narrowed his eyes, peering in turn at each of the ships moored to the station’s long arms. To his disappointment, the hulls of the Aquilan warships all looked the same at this distance; he felt he should have been able to spot his new ship as easily as he might pick out a pretty girl’s face from a crowd. He’d certainly spent enough time memorizing every detail of CSS Hector’s lines and armament over the month and a half since he’d received his new assignment.

Beside him Petty Officer Second Class Robert Long, a pilot in Hector’s Flight Department, smiled. He’d guessed exactly what Sikander was doing, and he pointed out the docked cruiser for him. “Left-hand side of Fleet Base, sir, the second berth from the top. We’ll be there in just a minute.”

“Thank you,” Sikander replied. He looked where the pilot pointed, and there was the Aquilan Commonwealth starship Hector, hull number CL 88. She was not the newest or largest of the ships moored at New Perth’s orbital dock, but she was a handsome vessel nonetheless. He tapped the visual controls for the shuttle’s viewports and zoomed in for a good look. Two hundred and sixty meters long, the Ilium-class cruiser (so called because all of her sisters were named for Trojan heroes from Homer’s ancient epic, or so Sikander had read) had a graceful teardrop-shaped hull and powerful drive plates in sleek fairings aft. Her deadly kinetic cannons were housed in large, dome-like turrets that dotted her spine and keel, and the round ports ringing her bow concealed her potent torpedo battery. Hector might have been nothing remarkable by Aquilan standards, but she would have been the most powerful warship several times over in Sikander’s native system of Kashmir, and it would be at least another generation before his homeworld could build a ship to match her.

“The Old Worthy’s a fine-looking ship, isn’t she?” Long observed. “Captain Markham is a stickler for appearances. She isn’t happy unless the paint’s still wet somewhere on the hull. But that’s the way it ought to be.”

Sikander agreed with the sentiment. If Hector’s captain took pride in her ship and wanted everyone to know it, he wouldn’t argue. Of course, the Commonwealth Navy didn’t actually use real paint on their warships, or at least not the sort that went on wet and dried into a coat; it was more of a nanoengineered polymer designed to stand up to the rigors of vacuum while displaying a handsome color scheme. Some star navies, such as the Dremish or the Nyeirans, favored all-black paint that made them a bit harder to spot with visual detectors, but stealth was generally pointless in normal space;simple physics dictated that ships couldn’t hide their heat signatures. The Aquilans recognized that and chose colors designed to evoke a little institutional pride from their ships’ crews. Accordingly, CSS Hector boasted a gleaming white hull, with buff-colored upperworks and beautiful red piping around the bow and the drive plates.

The shuttle continued its approach, while Hector seemed to swell up to fill the cockpit’s viewports. Sikander dialed back the viewport magnification, and leaned over to call down to the shuttle’s passenger area. “Come have a look, Darvesh,” he called. “We have a few minutes yet before we dock.”

“I am certain I shall see enough of Hector over the next two years, sir,” Darvesh Reza replied in a carefully neutral tone. He generally disapproved of the fact that Sikander continued to serve in Aquila’s star navy instead of returning to Kashmir to assume the proper duties of a North. Despite his reservations, the valet unbuckled his restraints and came forward to the cockpit, ducking through the low hatchway and steadying himself with a hand on the back of Sikander’s seat. In deference to the requirement of being able to don a helmet in case of catastrophe, the tall Kashmiri wore a small round pakul instead of his customary turban. Darvesh functioned as Sikander’s security detail, secretary, and general minder as well as his body servant. The impassive valet’s eyes widened just a little as he took in the size and lethal beauty of the Aquilan cruiser.

“Impressive,” Darvesh admitted. “And she is only a light cruiser?”

“Still three times the size of anything we can build back home,” said Sikander. The Commonwealth of Aquila was a first-rate power, by some measures the foremost among the multisystem states that formed the core membership of the Coalition of Humanity. Decades or centuries ahead in technology and industrial capacity, the great powers far outclassed single-system backwaters, even populous and economically valuable ones such as Kashmir. Sikander’s home system was merely a client state—or a colonial possession, more accurately—to Aquila. Building a fleet of large, modern warships remained out of reach for Sikander’s people, but he hoped to change that someday. Until then, he wore an Aquilan uniform.

Darvesh merely nodded in reply. As a younger man he had served in a Kashmiri regiment of the Commonwealth Marine Corps; he was accustomed to displays of Aquilan power. He glanced at the shuttle pilot. “Did you call Hector ‘Old Worthy,’ Petty Officer Long? That seems a strange nickname.”

“It is,” Long agreed. “I understand that it’s a reference to the ancient Earth hero Hector, the one who fought in the Trojan War. There have been a lot of ships—spacegoing and the old seagoing sort—named after him over the centuries. But I never have heard how that got turned into ‘Old Worthy.’ ”

“It’s a reference to medieval chivalry,” said Sikander. “Hector was considered one of the Nine Worthies, heroes that young knights should strive to emulate. Except the part about getting slaughtered by Achilles, anyway.” The Aquilans might have been a hundred years ahead of Kashmir in shipbuilding, but it seemed that he’d received a better education in the classics than his Commonwealth shipmates. Of course, very little about Sikander’s upbringing had been normal. Even by Aquilan standards the Norths were extremely wealthy, an aristocratic clan who could afford to buy their sons and daughters opportunities most Kashmiris could only dream of—for example, appointment to Aquila’s prestigious naval academy and an officer’s commission upon graduation.

Long shook his head. “Huh. That’s the best answer I’ve heard yet, and I’ve been on the ship for a year and a half. Can’t wait to try it out on the fellows in the ready room. They—” He broke off as the comm unit came to life.

“Shuttle Hector-Alpha, New Perth Traffic Control,” the audio crackled. “You are cleared for final approach and recovery on parent deck, over.”

The pilot nodded, even though this was only an audio link. “New Perth, this is Hector-Alpha. Clear for approach and recovery, roger, out.”

“Better go take your seat, Darvesh,” Sikander told his valet. A routine shuttle landing on a stationary dock was probably going to be about as rough as an elevator ride, but procedures were procedures, and passengers were supposed to strap down during departure and landing. For that matter, he was supposed to be ready to back up the pilot since he was riding in the copilot’s seat. This was Long’s boat and Sikander wouldn’t touch the controls unless the petty officer invited him to, but like any Aquilan line officer he was rated for ordinary shuttle operations.

Darvesh nodded and returned to the passenger seating, buckling himself in. Sikander adjusted his own restraints and sat back in his seat, watching as Long expertly adjusted the shuttle’s course and yawed the small vessel into a dead-center approach. Hector’s hangar was located in the middle of the ship’s “belly,” although that was mostly an illusion created by the customary Aquilian color scheme; there was very little real difference in what part of a warship was considered up or down. The large hangar door rolled open slowly with a puff of escaping atmosphere as the shuttle glided closer. No matter how many times a big compartment like a hangar deck cycled, traces of air remained to turn into a silver dusting of snow and drift out into the night.

Sikander watched carefully, but Long handled the shuttle with a masterly touch. He brought the boat into its cradle and set it down with a bump so gentle it wouldn’t have spilled a glass of water. “There you go, Lieutenant North,” he said. “Welcome aboard! Wait for the indicator to turn green before you crack the hatch, please.”

“Thanks for the ride, Long,” Sikander replied. He unstrapped himself and straightened up, tugging at his flight suit and stretching carefully in the cockpit. He was not particularly tall, standing five or six centimeters shorter than most Aquilans he met, but he was wide through the shoulders and solidly built. The gravity of Jaipur, his homeworld, was a little higher than one standard, and over centuries natural selection had left most Jaipuri with stocky frames. Cramped spaces like a shuttle cockpit had a way of finding his elbows and shoulders if he wasn’t careful.

He ducked back into the passenger compartment, seized one of his own duffel bags despite Darvesh’s disapproving look, and waited for the atmosphere indicator by the shuttle’s hatch to go from red to green. No doubt the Kashmiri servant thought it undignified for Sikander to carry his own luggage, but Sikander had learned it was necessary to show his Aquilan comrades that he didn’t think he deserved any special treatment. No other officer on board besides the captain would have a personal attendant, after all, so the less he relied on Darvesh Reza, the better.

The light by the hatch turned green, indicating that the hangar bay was repressurized. Sikander cycled the hatch and stepped onto the hangar deck of the Commonwealth starship Hector for the first time. He turned and saluted the Aquilan flag displayed at the end of the hangar bay, then faced the watch officer in the hangar’s control booth. “Lieutenant Sikander North reporting under orders,” he said. “Request permission to come aboard.”

The watch officer returned his salute behind the booth’s wide viewport and answered through the intercom. “Come aboard, sir.”

Sikander waited a moment for Darvesh to complete the time-honored ritual of boarding a warship—for purposes of Aquilan naval etiquette, he’d been assigned an acting rank of chief petty officer—while the watchstander, a first-class petty officer, stepped out of the hangar control station and logged in their datacards. If the rating was surprised by Sikander’s identity, he didn’t show it. He simply nodded and said, “You’re expected, sir. The captain left word that you’re to call on her as soon as you get settled.”

“Very well,” Sikander replied.

“If you’ll follow Deckhand Parris, she can show you to your stateroom and give you a hand with your gear,” the watch officer continued. “After that, you can signal the ship’s info assistant to find anything you need—you’re logged in to the system now. Chief Reza, I’ll call for a messenger to give you a hand to the chiefs’ quarters.”

“No need,” Darvesh replied. “I will accompany Mr. North to his quarters first.”

The watch officer raised an eyebrow—he probably didn’t see many chief petty officers toting officers’ duffels—but made no comment. “Very good. Mr. North, Chief Reza, welcome aboard.”

“Right this way, sir.” Deckhand Parris was a short young woman who probably wasn’t more than twenty standard years of age. She smiled broadly at Sikander and Darvesh, and seemed to grin even wider as she tried to maintain a suitably solemn demeanor. Sikander had seen the reaction more than once. Many Aquilans were simply unsure of how they were supposed to greet him, and couldn’t help but get a little nervous or self-conscious. “Can I get your bag?”

The first of a hundred little decisions that might color how Hector’s crew receives me, Sikander reflected. Kashmir was a little old-fashioned, and a gentleman would never allow a young lady to carry a bag he was perfectly able to carry. On the other hand, an Aquilan officer would not want to suggest that he thought that a female rating couldn’t carry a duffel that a young enlisted person would be expected to tote for an officer . . . and a North would never carry a bag at all, but that was also an impression he would not wish to put forward. He decided that he’d rather look unconcerned about the whole business. “It’s no trouble,” he answered. “Lead the way.”

Hector might have been more than two hundred meters in length, but that didn’t translate into a very spacious interior. Armor, power-plant shielding, drives, weapon capacitors, and space for fuel, water, oxygen, and other necessary stores took up a lot of the hull volume. Officers’ country turned out to be just aft of the ship’s bridge. The stateroom reserved for Sikander’s use featured a decent-sized bunk, a desk and chair, a closet, a sink, and a small couch that faced the desk; as a department head, he rated his own quarters, including enough space to meet privately with a subordinate if needed. A screen on the outward-facing bulkhead showed the busy orbital approaches around New Perth Fleet Base, although it was a video feed from an exterior camera. Overall the room was not much bigger than three meters by six—spacious and comfortable for shipboard accommodations, and certainly a big step up from the tiny cabins he’d shared with other officers in his previous assignments.

Without a word, Darvesh went to work unpacking Sikander’s clothes and hanging them in the closet. Deckhand Parris stared; in all likelihood she’d never seen a valet. Most Aquilan enlisted men and women came from the middle class, after all, and the Commonwealth Navy had a deep-rooted egalitarian tradition. “Thank you, Parris,” Sikander told her. “I think we can manage from here.”

“Yes, sir!” the young woman replied. Curious or not, she recognized a dismissal when she heard one. She saluted and hurried back down toward her watch station at the ship’s hangar.

“Your whites, sir?” Darvesh asked, holding up Sikander’s dress uniform.

“Yes, please.” Hector’s crew wore shipboard jumpsuits for their in-port routine, but to report to a new commanding officer Sikander preferred to err on the side of formality. He quickly changed out of his flight suit, pulling on the clean white tunic and red-striped trousers of an Aquilan officer, and took a moment to splash a little water on his face and check his appearance in the mirror. He always liked the way he looked in his dress whites; the uniform complemented his copper complexion and dark, wavy hair. Those features were common enough in Kashmir, but he also had the North eyes—a striking jade-green hue rare anywhere Sikander traveled. It must have been a good combination, since he rarely had much trouble attracting the interest of the relatively tall and slender Aquilan women he encountered. “Right, I’m off to call on the captain. Why don’t you go get settled in the chiefs’ quarters?”

“As soon as I finish here,” Darvesh replied. “Good luck, sir.”

“Thanks.” Sikander left the tall Kashmiri arranging his shoes in the closet, and set out to find his way to the captain’s cabin. As the petty officer on watch in the hangar promised, he already had access to the ship’s information network; a few quick taps on his dataslate produced a small map to show him the way. One deck up and halfway around the circular main passage, and he was at the captain’s door.

Sikander paused for a moment to collect himself. In theory Captain Markham was fully briefed on his unusual situation, but there was no doubt that it would be awkward for any commanding officer. In his brief naval career he’d already seen resentment, distrust, cold formality, and—the most commonplace reaction—complete bafflement. It all struck him as more than a little unfair, but he’d learned to put up with it because his service in the Aquilan star navy was important to Kashmir. His home was in dire jeopardy of becoming as obsolete as the polearms carried by the guards who paraded in front of the Revered Kathakar’s Palace. Like many of the second-wave colonies established in the early centuries of Terra’s expansion to the stars, the worlds of the Kashmir system had fallen out of contact with the rest of humanity. By the time the Aquilan Commonwealth had reestablished contact, Sikander’s people lagged generations behind less-isolated worlds in technology and industrial development. Kashmir desperately needed a thousand Sikanders—a million Sikanders—to help catch up by taking service with Aquilan corporations, universities, research facilities, and armed forces, learning everything they could. But that didn’t mean Aquilans always welcomed the junior partners in their alliance or regarded them as equals, especially in conservative organizations such as the Commonwealth Navy.

“Easy things are not worth doing,” Sikander murmured aloud—a favorite expression of his father’s. Nawab Dayan North expected that any son of his would work tirelessly to make himself the master of his circumstances. Small obstacles such as growing up in a world decades behind the current technology of the Coalition powers or a wall of institutional discrimination did not matter. Much was expected of a North and a son of the nawab.

I am not doing this for him, Sikander reminded himself. But despite that, he found himself remembering the night he was sent away from home. It was ten years ago now, the night of the Bandi Chor Divas celebration. The Day of Release, ironically enough. He closed his eyes, remembering—

the terrace of the palace at Sangrur, sirens of emergency vehicles keening in the night. The doctors fight to save Mother and Gamand; he waits in the warm night just outside the palace’s medical center, unable to watch. After an hour, Father emerges from the medical center, his face harder than stone.

Sikander fears the worst until Nawab Dayan sighs and speaks: “Your mother will live, and Gamand as well. But I have just been informed that Devindar was attacked at the same time we were.”

“Devindar, too?” Sikander grips the balcony rail to steady himself. His older brother is studying at the university in Ganderbal, not even on the same continent. The KLP means to eliminate all of us, he realizes. “Is he—?”

Nawab Dayan shakes his head, sparing him the rest of the question. “He is not seriously injured. But you must leave for High Albion as soon as possible, Sikander.” It is always “Sikander” when his father addresses him, never “Sikay” or even “son.” “I can arrange for you to join this year’s midshipman class instead of next year’s. We can never all be on the same planet again.”

He stares at his father in horror. “People will call me a coward, Father!”

“This is not a matter for discussion,” Nawab Dayan snaps—a rare failing in a man who habitually keeps his own fierce temper firmly in check. “I will not be defied on this.”

Even though he is only eighteen standard years of age on this awful night, Sikander already knows that It’s not fair! has not the slightest chance to alter one of his father’s decisions. He fights down the urge to say it anyway. “I know nobody at the Academy. And I will be the only Kashmiri there!”

“Nothing has ever been difficult for you, Sikander. A little adversity might teach you something about yourself.” Sikander’s father turns then to set both hands on his shoulders. “This is an opportunity. Our enemies in the KLP are right about one thing: We will not always be tied to the Commonwealth of Aquila. Study hard, do what is right, and remember that you are a North of Jaipur. Make us all proud.”

Standing at Captain Markham’s door, Sikander opened his eyes and brushed away the past. In ten years he still hadn’t found a good answer to his father’s expectations. In his more honest moments, he could admit to himself that Nawab Dayan had been right about what the eighteen-year-old Sikander needed, no matter how much he’d hated it at the time. Now . . . now he could return to Kashmir any time he wanted to, but he’d come to define himself by his chosen profession, not his family name.

This is not about my father or his expectations, Sikander told himself. This is for me, and whether I can be proud of myself. Father was right about one thing—it isn’t supposed to be easy.

He rapped his knuckle on the door.

“Come in,” a woman replied in a firm voice.

Sikander entered. The captain’s cabin doubled as her office and private conference room, much like his own stateroom, but her quarters were large enough to seat half a dozen people at once. There were a few personal touches in sight: a couple of digital images displayed in a frame on the bulkhead, a pair of small viewports that offered a peek at New Perth’s darkening coastline far below, half a dozen small models of older starships (and one seagoing vessel), and, most uniquely, a large oil painting showing an equestrian in traditional riding dress jumping her horse over the water obstacle in a race of some kind. Physical artwork was quite uncommon, especially aboard starships; without meaning to, he allowed his gaze to linger on the painting for a long moment before he remembered himself.

He turned his attention to the officer seated at the desk and saluted. “Lieutenant Sikander North reporting for duty, ma’am,” he said calmly.

“Commander Elise Markham, captain of the Aquilan Commonwealth starship Hector,” she replied, and acknowledged his salute. Captain Markham was a tall, thin woman with short red-brown hair and a deep, tawny complexion, perhaps forty-five years of age. She had stern, dark eyes—unusual for Aquilans, whose eyes usually ran toward a warm brown or hazeland a serious set to her wide mouth. Most Aquilans and citizens of other cosmopolitan powers showed few characteristics of the old Terran races, which had blended together long ago; idiosyncratic phenotypes were usually found among people from more secluded systems. Her lips quirked upward as she took note of his distraction with the painting. “Welcome aboard, Mr. North. Please, have a seat on the couch.”

“Thank you,” Sikander replied. He took a seat in the cabin’s small sitting area, while Captain Markham got up from behind her desk and came to join him, sitting on the opposite couch. He took the opportunity to study her more closely, and looked back to the painting again. “Wait a moment. Are you the rider in the painting, ma’am?”

“You have a sharp eye. Yes, that’s me, although I was only nineteen then. My sister painted it.”

“It’s quite good,” he said, and he meant it. Sikander had seen more real paintings than most people, and he could see that the artist had effortlessly captured the horse in midjump, with the young Elise Markham leaning forward and standing in the stirrups.

“Do you have horses in Kashmir, Mr. North?” Captain Markham asked. It was not a meaningless question; few colonists setting out from Old Terra during humanity’s early migrations had brought horses along for the trip, and even fewer had managed to keep the creatures alive during the hard years most new colonies had faced in the distant past.

“We do, ma’am. I have done a fair amount of riding myself, but nothing like that sort of competitive jumping. Just trail riding.” In fact, one of the North estates in Srinagar offered better than five thousand square kilometers of rugged and beautiful riding on the edge of the Kharan Desert. Sikander had spent a few summers there as a teenager.

“That’s actually an ancient type of race called a steeplechase, not a jumping competition. I used to do some of those, too.” Markham looked at the painting for a moment, and a small grimace passed over her face. “I broke my leg badly just two races later, and never raced competitively again. But I still like to ride every chance I get. Can I offer you some coffee or tea, Mr. North?”

“Coffee, thank you, ma’am.” Sikander was not particularly thirsty, but he very much wanted to make sure that Captain Markham felt comfortable pursuing the interview in her own good time. In Sikander’s experience, some people in authority engaged in small talk simply because they enjoyed the sound of their own voices, while others seemed to sincerely try to put their subordinates at ease at the beginning of a conversation. Elise Markham seemed to be one of latter, which he took as a good sign.

Markham retrieved a pitcher and a pair of cups and saucers from a small wall unit and set them on the low table between the couches. “How are you settling in?”

“Well, thank you,” said Sikander. “This is not my first tour in New Perth. I have quite a few old classmates in-system, and I own a nice condominium in Brigadoon. For now I’m in one of the spare rooms, though. My cousin Amarleen moved in a few months ago while I was off-planet. She’s studying at Carlyle.” Most officers and senior enlisted personnel assigned to ships based in New Perth established homes down on the planet for their families; Brigadoon, the planetary capital, was a popular choice. For Sikander, raising a family was not yet a consideration, but establishing himself in the fleet’s social circles ashore and entertaining friends were things he very much looked forward to. He could keep his boat in the marina and go fishing when he was off-duty, and it was only ten minutes by flyer from the city’s orbital shuttle terminal.

“Carlyle, really?” Markham nodded in appreciation; it was one of the foremost medical colleges in the Commonwealth. “I’m impressed.”

“We all are, although I can hardly tell her that to her face,” Sikander admitted. “She’d be insufferable.”

“Naturally,” Markham agreed, and smiled. She set down her coffee and leaned forward. “Well, let’s get down to business. As you might expect, I have reviewed your service jacket closely. And I’ve also had a conversation with a representative from the Admiralty, and another from the Foreign Ministry.” She gave a small shrug. “I’ve been in the Commonwealth Navy a long time, Mr. North, but I confess that this is the first time I’ve had a diplomatic briefing about an officer serving in my command.”

“I understand, Captain,” Sikander said, setting down his own coffee. “It’s an unusual situation. However, it is my sincere hope that you will treat me exactly like you would treat any of your other officers. I don’t expect any sort of favoritism or prejudice. If I screw up—which hopefully will not be often—I expect to be corrected or reprimanded like any other Aquilan officer.”

“So I was told by the Admiralty, and so I intend to proceed.” Captain Markham studied him. “However, your service jacket suggests differently. You seem to have had a reputation at the Academy, your first shipboard tour on Adept was not terribly successful, and I can’t help but notice that you are quite junior for assignment as a department head. You are taking over for an experienced and well-liked gunnery officer, and I have some . . . concerns.”

Sikander tried not to wince. Fortunately he had been expecting to hear something along these lines, and did not allow himself to become angry or flustered by the sentiment. “I can’t change what is in my service jacket, Captain Markham,” he said. “Yes, I didn’t always take things seriously at the Academy, and yes, I argued with my department head on Adept. I also suspect that the Admiralty is under some pressure to accelerate my career in order to foster good relations with my father—something I certainly never asked for, I should add.” The Commonwealth had figured out long ago that it was easier to exercise influence through Kashmir’s existing aristocrats than it was to build a local administration without their help. As a result, Aquila’s Foreign Ministry placed a high value on the support and goodwill of potentates such as Nawab Dayan . . . which, incidentally, did nothing to endear the North clan to the Kashmiri Liberation Party or any of the other Kashmiri nationalist movements.

“Asked for or not, it’s not the sort of help that is likely to make a favorable impression on your fellow officers,” Markham observed.

“So I have learned, ma’am,” said Sikander. “However, I think you will see that my tour on Triton was much more successful, and I received high marks in Department Head School at Laguna. I’d like to think I have matured a bit in the last couple of years, Captain. I ask only that you base your opinion—for good or for ill—on how I perform on Hector.

Markham regarded him for a long moment before she answered. “Very well, Mr. North. You begin with a clean slate with me.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Sikander decided that the captain meant what she said. Of course, what she didn’t say was whether the rest of Hector’s officers would feel the same.

“As I just said, you’re taking over a gunnery department that is running well at the moment. Do you know how you would like to proceed with assuming your duties?”

“I have already started reviewing the service jackets of my personnel—my thanks to the chief yeoman for forwarding them to me at Laguna. As soon as I can, I intend to meet with the division officers and chief gunner’s mates. But what I would really like to do is get in some live-fire exercises and see how the team works together.”

Markham offered a small smile. “A gunnery officer who isn’t interested in shooting is a gunnery officer I have no use for. As it so happens, we have some range time already scheduled for next week. I’ll see if we can add some torpedo practice, too.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Don’t thank me yet, Mr. North. I am a stickler for high range scores.” Markham stood, and offered her hand. Sikander stood and shook it. “If you have any questions or trouble, my door is always open. Make sure you introduce yourself to Pete Chatburn—the XO—soon. He’s running errands planetside right now, but he should be back in a few hours.”

“I will, Captain,” Sikander promised. He saluted again, and turned to go.

“One more thing, Mr. North.” Captain Markham stopped him. “Out of curiosity, just what is the significance of the title Nawabzada of Ishar?”

“Ah. Ishar is the largest continent of Jaipur, the fourth planet in the Kashmir system. It’s the next one out from Srinagar—Kashmir Prime. My father is the nawab, or prince, of Ishar. Nawabzada simply means ‘son of the prince.’ ”

Markham’s calm reserve cracked just a little at that. She blinked. “You are the prince of a continent?” she asked.

“It is mostly a ceremonial title, Captain. I am the fourth-born in my family, and since I am unlikely to succeed my father, I’m expected to find another way to make myself useful. Military service is a traditional alternative, but of course Kashmir’s navy is almost nonexistent, so my father had me sent to Aquila’s naval academy instead.” Sikander offered a small shrug; as much as he might have resented being sent away at first, idleness wasn’t really in his nature. Pursuing a competitive and engaging career helped to make up for ten years of virtual exile. “There are also diplomatic benefits. The Aquilan alliance is vital to Kashmir’s development and will certainly remain so for many years to come. Serving alongside Aquilan officers helps me to appreciate Aquilan interests and traditions, and perhaps meet those who will play an important role in Kashmiri affairs in the future.”

It might also demonstrate to the Aquilan Commonwealth that, while Kashmir was a backward system, it would not always be so, and Kashmiris were every bit as capable as native-born Aquilans if given the education and opportunity . . . but Sikander didn’t feel that he needed to point that out. Many Aquilans held little respect for the peoples who were native to the colonial possessions of the Commonwealth, and harbored a sort of unthinking bigotry toward them. It was not founded on race, since Aquilans themselves represented a mix of many different Terran phenotypes, but there was no doubt that most Aquilans were quite convinced of the superiority of their culture. He hoped that Elise Markham wouldn’t turn out to be that way, or it would be a trying tour of duty for him.

The captain quickly recovered her Aquilan aplomb. “I see,” she said. “For what it’s worth, Mr. North, I look forward to learning a thing or two from your assignment on Hector, too. Carry on.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sikander replied, and left to get settled in his new home.

Copyright © 2017 by Richard Baker

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