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Key to the Stars

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This story is No. 7 in the series "A Different Future". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: On Tallura, Dawn and the others may be safely out of Glory’s reach, but their adventures are only just beginning. And safety is always a relative condition - sequel to "Fate's Little Plaything Volume One".

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > GeneralCordyfanFR1321247,3662825953,79614 Mar 1114 Mar 14No

Shopping and Other Horrors

Summary: On Tallura, Dawn and the others may be safely out of Glory’s reach, but their adventures are only just beginning. And safety is always a relative condition.
Pairings: None.
Disclaimer: I don’t own Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stargate SG-1, or Stargate Atlantis.
Notes: Continued from Fate’s Little Plaything Vol.1 (it will only make sense if you’ve read that story).

 

Somewhere out of time and place...

“You know what the Tallurans have awakened on that world?” Oma Desala demanded.

“I am quite aware.  Though how that abomination came to be in the Vedda Galaxy remains a mystery...  What do you propose to do about it?” Ganos Lal asked her fellow Ascended being.

There were ways of hiding from the other Ancients, if only for a short time, and it was always advisable to use them when talking with her friends.  In Ascended terms, Oma Desala was a disaffected radical minority, one the somewhat stuffy majority barely tolerated.  It didn’t help, of course, that her readiness to interfere had caused disasters on a planetary scale, and more.

“I am not sure that I can do anything...” a somewhat chagrined Oma Desala admitted. “Though the warning is already there, the specifics are not.”

Ganos Lal almost snorted. “It has never stopped you in the past.”

She might often have distinct reservations about the Ascended Alterans’ views on non-interference, but had refused to act on them up to now.  Her semi-outcast friend, on the other hand, frequently had no such reservations.  Oma Desala had also paid dreadfully for what the others regarded as meddling, she reminded herself cautiously.  Now the other Ancient only tended to dabble around the edges of the rules, rather than breaking them.

There were times when Ganos Lal was, nevertheless, sorely tempted to follow her example.  To deal with the Ascended Alterans deluded “cousins”, for instance.  They couldn’t interfere in that far distant galaxy for now – unfortunately for its inhabitants – but if their evil counterparts ever reached other galaxies, then she wasn’t at all sure if she’d be able to follow the rules.

Sometime, she wondered if it would have been better for the universe if the Alterans had never Ascended.  The Vedda Galaxy wouldn’t be a hotbed of tensions, with rival powers ready to wipe each other out at the drop of a hat.  The Milky Way certainly wouldn’t have been largely under the sway of the Goa’uld, not with the mighty alliance of the Alterans, Furlings, Nox, and Asgard ready to crush those parasites.  Ganos Lal also knew she could say the same about half-a-dozen other galaxies touched by her people in the past.

“This is more complicated.  It involves some of the Others.  Not our “others”, but...” Oma Desala responded carefully.

Ganos Lal nodded thoughtfully. “The Powers That Be.  I suppose that makes sense, given the worrisome element in question...”

Unlike the Alterans, the PTB had always been non-corporeal beings.  They were immensely more powerful and dealt primarily with the supernatural and so-called balance between good and evil.  They also had a strange idea of what constituted “balance”, as in some parts of their realm, good and evil were seriously out of kilter.  The PTB did sometimes intervene, in any number of ways, but their rules of engagement were difficult for even the Ascended Alterans to follow.  The latter, moreover, were distinctly wary of stepping on the Powers’ toes, especially where the demarcation line was somewhat blurred, as here.  Oma Desala was, therefore, rather less willing to risk crossing the PTB, than her own fellow Ascended beings.

“It is likely to be weak, almost certainly unable to leave that planet, and lacking its former magical powers,” Ganos Lal suggested hopefully.

“And if it is not, then it will be the duty of the Powers to deal with it,” she continued.

It was Oma Desala’s turn to snort derisively. “Can we ever be sure what they will do in any circumstances?  I suggest you take a look at the threat currently facing Terra.  Fortunately, the Terrans had the presence of mind to remove the Key from the planet, else the result might have been catastrophic for us all.”

“Perhaps we should consult with the others – our others, that is,” the other Ascended suggested nervously.

Oma Desala rolled her eyes. “You know what the answer will be, especially where it concerns the Tallurans.  Too many of the others still hold them in contempt for having rejected the opportunity to Ascend.” 

There were times, she reflected, that it might have been better to follow the same path.  The powers of the Ascended could be very frustrating, when it was not permissible to use them for the good of those less privileged.

“If this creature should lay hands on the Key...” Ganos Lal warned.

“Then it would have a young girl and nothing else.  The Key has but one purpose, in one place, at one time, and under a specific set of circumstances,” the other Ancient replied.

“But you are still worried?” Ganos Lal quizzed her friend.

Oma Desala nodded. “Ironically, back at home certain of the Terrans would be better able to deal with this creature.”

“One of them is here, is she not?” Ganos Lal offered with a suggestive smile.

“A formidable warrior, perhaps.  But without knowledgeable support? Those they call Watchers...  And without magic users?  The Slayer would stand little chance,” her companion responded.

“But like it or not, she is the closest person the Tallurans currently have to an authority on the supernatural.  And she would also stand a better chance than a Talluran demon-hunting team.  Their services are somewhat underused these days...” Ganos Lal suggested.

The Tallurans maintained a few Imperial Guard Special Operations units with a vampire and minor demon-hunting remit, at least in theory.  Such creatures were extremely rare in the Vedda Galaxy, however, and the hunting teams’ skills were probably very rusty.

“I do have one option...” Oma Desala suddenly smiled.

She wanted to at least nudge things along, especially since this planet contained a great opportunity, as well as immense danger.

Ganos Lal looked at her suspiciously. “Whatever it is, I am not sure that I wish to know, though you have my blessing.  But please be careful – I would not wish to see you punished again by the others.”

“This will not be a direct intervention,” the Ascended semi-rebel assured her.

“That is as may be, but we must leave now, before the others become suspicious,” Ganos Lal replied apprehensively.

“One day, my friend, you will have to show the power of your convictions, however deep these may lie hidden from the others,” Oma Desala told her sadly.

 

Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, Vertium, Vedda Galaxy – 16th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“Why should it be such a daunting thing to spar with this Terran, Diana Prince?” Fleet Centurion Vopiscus Coruncanias asked in puzzlement, as his still-disgruntled Empress disappeared in a flash of Asgard transporter beam, surrounded by Imperial Guard

Vesarian knew he was in disfavour with Drayana for the moment, quite possibly for the next few days.  The Empress had quite pointedly left him on the ship while collecting her young cousin from the planet below.  Since she had a more than adequate Imperial Guard detail along with her, the Centurion couldn’t even protest.  In future, Vesarian decided, he’d be especially careful not to do anything to upset Drayana’s Terran friend.  Besides, he did actually feel guilty about frightening the youngster.

The Imperial Guard Centurion regarded his compatriot with a pitying glance. “Because, my friend, we will feel the after-effects for days.  Diana Prince is a mystically enhanced warrior, intended to fight supernatural elements, which are apparently quite prevalent in her home galaxy – and especially on the Terran homeworld.  I suggest you read some of the Alteran histories about that planet.  You will not sleep easily for several nights.”

The stories he’d been told of the Terran homeworld by all the visitors, but especially Faith, were blood-chilling, especially since they were backed up by historical accounts held by his own people.

“Exactly how “enhanced”?”  Coruncanias asked warily.

Tallura Regnatrix’s commander was quite aware that he wasn’t in the same league as an Imperial Guard from the Protective Division when it came to unarmed combat.  If Vesarian was cautious, then Coruncanias certainly had reason to be.

“Diana has the speed, strength, reflexes and situational awareness to single-handedly defeat half-a-dozen Imperial Guard – including me – in a matter of seconds.  It was not a fluke, as she has repeated the exercise several times.  In unarmed combat, with fighting staffs, and with swords.  Everyone who faced her was comprehensively outclassed.  And I suspect she was not even trying particularly hard,” Vesarian replied ominously.

“It was also a highly educational experience,” he had to admit. “She pointed out a number of flaws in my fighting style and taught me how to eliminate them.  The bruises, however, took some time to fade.”

Coruncanias winced. “It sounds like a learning experience my body could do without.”

“I fear we will not have that choice, my friend,” Vesarian poked him in the stomach. “Besides, the exercise will be good for you.”

The cruiser’s commander eyed him sourly. “Is there anything else we can do?  Obviously the Empress’ wrath will not be satisfied until this Slayer has pounded us both into the dirt, but perhaps if we do something for the Terran child...”

“I already have to go shopping with Dawn,” Vesarian announced, as though he was about to be stood in front of a firing squad. “And I will also buy her a suitable piece of jewellery, by way of personal apology.  I do have one idea, however...”

 

The Nervallus Estate, Vertium, Vedda Galaxy – 16th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Neras and Iphigenia Nervallus certainly didn’t lack wealth, Drayana mused, as she stepped out of the shuttle.  Set in truly massive grounds, the family home was larger than some Imperial palaces and she also knew that they owned a number of such residences, spread across the Empire.  That wealth, however, apparently hadn’t made much of a difference in how they treated her young cousin, if her own previous observations and reports from other sources were to be believed.  Part of the Empress wanted to verbally eviscerate them, but it would be best for little Sulvia if they simply left the planet with a minimum of fuss.  A flaming argument between her ex-foster parents and her cousin wouldn’t be a cheerful start to her new life as Princess Imperial, especially if Drayana lost her temper, which she freely admitted sometimes happened too easily.  But if the Empress had one objective, it was to ensure that Sulvia was happy, if also supremely well-prepared for the throne.  And if the child was lucky, the heavy responsibilities of Imperial power might never come her way.

The family – Sulvia and her foster parents, plus the latter’s three extremely overweight and bored-looking children – met her at the door.  Drayana noted that her cousin’s bags, only three and not overly large, were already packed and ready.  Almost as though they wanted rid of the inconvenience as soon as possible.

“Would you care to come in, Your Excellency?” Neras Nervallus asked politely, as the Empress and her security detail approached down the driveway.

He glanced up nervously as Drayana’s usual fighter escort circled overhead.

“I think, perhaps, we should make this as brief as possible,” Drayana replied, smiling at her cousin and holding out a hand.

A beaming Sulvia squealed with delight and dashed forward and into the Empress’s arms.

“And how is my favourite little cousin?  And are those new clothes?” Drayana noted almost casually.

“Yes.  Mother and father bought them only yesterday...” Sulvia hugged her tightly.

That didn’t surprise the Empress in the slightest.  In the past, the Nervallus clan had been somewhat parsimonious with their foster daughter, as compared to their own thoroughly spoiled offspring.  She was, of course, well enough fed and wasn’t physically abused, but nevertheless tended to be ignored or treated as a tiresome addition that could never truly be family.

“Only three bags?” Drayana was willing to bet that these were also packed with split new clothes and toys, in an effort to hide the fact that her cousin actually had very little of either.

Iphigenia and Neras glanced uncomfortably at each other. “Sulvia has never really required very much and...”

It would be a mistake, they realised, to treat someone who had been raised from a very young age to rule the Empire as just another sixteen year-old.  The Empress was shrewd, calculating and extremely observant.  They just hoped that she wasn’t vengeful, too.  There were any number of ways she could make them unpopular within their usual rarefied social circles.

“I understand,” Drayana nodded, her voice merely hinting that she understood all too clearly.

By this point, Sulvia’s foster parents were all but kicking themselves.  They couldn’t have foreseen the day when her brother would unilaterally abdicate his title of Prince Imperial, the position of heir therefore falling on his young sister.  Had they treated Sulvia with any real kindness and made her a real part of their family, right now they could be basking in the warmth of Imperial approval, with all the advantages that might bring.  As it was, they could almost hear Drayana’s teeth grinding.

“Do you wish to say goodbye to your – uh – family?” the Empress offered.

Sulvia almost shrugged, before giving her foster parents and brothers and sisters the briefest of hugs.  There was nothing in her body language or expression to suggest that she’d miss them for one second.

Drayana beckoned to two of the security detail, who collected the child’s meagre belongings.

“This is Junia and Lucillia.  They will be two of your bodyguards,” the Empress introduced two of the new female Imperial Guards, specially transferred with six others from Consular security duties.

Sulvia, small for her age but unmistakably related to Drayana at a mere glance, nervously glanced up at the two tall women, each over six foot tall, only to be met with gentle smiles.  The youngster immediately relaxed, as her two bodyguards certainly looked very kind.  They were also, the child noted, extremely pretty.

“We will be your friends, too!” Junia announced, easily hoisting the child onto her shoulders.

It was essential that Sulvia swiftly became accustomed to being surrounded by guards every time she ventured outside the palace walls.  To that end, the best and quickest way to make the child feel at ease with her security detail was to play with her.  All of the Imperial Guard on Sulvia’s detail, male and female, understood that.  Besides, they all suspected it would be difficult not to grow extremely fond of the tiny gap-toothed Drayana look-alike, with her shy smile and long black hair.

Of course, Sulvia could still turn out to be an intolerable little monster, but they doubted that.  Being raised by both Drayana and Livia would ensure a balanced upbringing.  In any case, many of Drayana’s guard had known the Empress herself when she was younger, and a touch of Imperial mischief often brightened up their duties.  Actually, the Empress still retained some of that impish streak and they suspected it would soon be transferred to the youngster in due course.

“Have you ever been in a spaceship, Sulvia? Lucillia asked, as they walked away towards the waiting shuttle, without further ado.

“Never!” the Princess Imperial responded eagerly.

Drayana made a mental note of that, too.  The Nervallus family could easily afford to run a personal shuttlecraft, fitted out in the most luxurious fashion.  She was also pretty sure that their own children were no strangers to space travel.

Sulvia and her new guardians disappeared inside the shuttle, the child not even glancing backwards.

“It might be the best thing for all concerned...” Neras suggested uncomfortably. “With her brother effectively abandoning the poor child...”

“And Sulvia never quite fit into our family...” his wife began, before realising she’d most likely said the wrong thing – and to the wrong person.

Drayana’s eyes narrowed and she hastily bit back the torrent of abuse which threatened to emerge.  Financially, the Nervallus family had done very well indeed from fostering Sulvia, and the Empress openly wished she’d had the legal authority to remove her cousin from their care long ago.

“I am sure my cousin is sorry for any inconvenience she may have caused you,” the Empress responded acidly.

“We have, of course, cared for her just like our own children.  I am sure she will remember that,” Neras said hastily.

There was a great deal Drayana wanted to say, but she was tired of being angry with people today.  These days, she spent too much time in that frame of mind, and while it might be an occupational hazard, the Empress disliked having to throw her rank around.  She’d already bitten the heads off Centurions Vesarian and Coruncanias this morning, and especially disliked falling out with the former, who she regarded as a friend as well as a bodyguard.

No, it would be for the best if she simply left these people in her shuttle’s metaphorical exhaust gases, stewing in their own juices.

The Empress nodded and smiled thinly. “She – and I – will remember everything, you may be sure of that.”

Drayana turned on her heel, leaving Sulvia’s former foster parents feeling the cold winds of Imperial disapproval.  A tax audit might not go amiss, she noted.  There was also, as a former junior officer in the Imperial Defence Force, the small matter of Iphigenia Nervallus’ reserve obligations.  Under Ilarius’ rule and the associated corruption and mutual appreciation society run by his friends, she’d successfully evaded reserve training obligations for nine years.  Perhaps it was time someone in the IDF personnel section checked her records. 

 

Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, Vertium, Vedda Galaxy – 16th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“This has got to be the coolest thing that ever happened to me!” Dawn grinned like a crazy person as technicians strapped her into the rear cockpit of a Talluran Comet-class fighter.

Colonel Logan would be really jealous, she thought gleefully.  More than once, she’d heard the SG-15 CO talking about these spacecraft.  Apparently they were faster, more agile and better-armed than a Goa’uld Death Glider – whatever that was – in both atmosphere and space.  Maybe Drayana would let him fly in one, too.

“Are you certain this is what you want?” the pilot asked from the front seat, as the canopy lowered into position and the cockpit pressurised with a faint hiss.

She hadn’t expected a passenger on her training flight – and certainly not a twelve-year-old Terran.  Normally, the deadliest fighter in the Vedda Galaxy was considered no place for children.

Vesarian had made the suggestion to the flagship’s commander, having heard how much Dawn enjoyed various vertigo-inducing rides in Yaherin Var’s funfair.  Coruncanias hadn’t been so sure, having no wish to incur Drayana’s wrath once more, but the young Terran was instantly entranced by the whole idea.  The Empress, surprisingly, had agreed wholeheartedly, suggesting that the two Centurions might even have earned a partial reprieve for their resourcefulness.

“Oh yeah.  Being a fighter pilot’s about number four on my careers list – maybe number three,” Dawn assured him. “One of the things that makes mom totally wig out...”

The pilot chuckled.  She had no direct translation for “wig out”, but the general gist was apparent.  Her own parents hadn’t exactly been overjoyed when she announced her intention to enter the Imperial Guard Academy and train as a fighter pilot, though they were now immensely proud of her.

“I won’t yark, will I?  My sister, Buffy?  One time she flew in a fighter jet and puked all over the cockpit.  And my other sister, Cordy?  She once told me – when Buffy wasn’t listening – that she gets seasick.  I don’t get any of that, ‘cause I’m way tougher, but I’ve never flown in a star-fighter before...” Dawn asked, in slightly concerned tones.

“It is most unlikely,” the pilot assured her. “These fighters are equipped with an Inertial Damping System and Gravitational Compensators.  You should have only the slightest sensation of movement, though the lack of a fixed up or down point may still confuse your brain.  There are bags in a slot by your right leg, should you need them.”

The pilot didn’t tell her that if the Inertial Dampening System failed at typical speeds, they’d both be mashed into bloody pulp by the G-force.

“Please do not touch anything,” she added hastily, having already locked down the rear cockpit controls.

There was, after all, no such thing as being too careful with an armed Comet-class fighter and a full suite of Plasma Cannon and missile fire-control buttons in the rear cockpit.

Dawn moved her hands away from the control panel as though scalded. “So not touching anything here...”

“Are you ready for the flight of your life?” the Imperial Guard grinned, as the bridge granted take-off clearance and the fighter moved smoothly onto its launch-cradle.

“You bet!” Dawn exclaimed excitedly.

An instant later, she was squealing with delight as the electromagnetic catapult accelerated the spacecraft from zero to six hundred miles per hour in one second, slamming it from the hangar into space in a blink.  As promised, Dawn felt only the faintest of jolts, though her eyes were telling her otherwise.

“A few times around the planet?” the pilot asked, spinning the delta-winged Comet through five complete 360-degree revolutions.

“Can we go really fast?” Dawn asked eagerly, craning her neck to watch the Tallura Regnatrix already disappearing to a tiny speck in the distance.

“Your wish is my command,” the pilot opened the throttles, accelerating to Mach 15 in under ten seconds.

 

Imperial Shuttle, Vertium, Vedda Galaxy – 16th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“You are not even a little sorry to be leaving?” Drayana asked her new young charge – effectively a little sister from now on, she reminded herself.

Comfortable in the crook of her cousin’s arm, Sulvia snuggled in tighter and watched the planet slowly receding behind them.

She shook her head. “None of them liked me – and I did not like them.”

At least she’d have no problems with separation anxiety, Drayana thought gratefully.

“But why did my brother leave me?  Did I do something to make him hate me?” Sulvia asked quietly.

The Empress grimaced.  That would certainly be a hard one to answer, though right now certainly wasn’t the time to fill the child’s head with the many ways in which Septimus Antonian was a disgrace to his family’s honour.

“You have done nothing to upset your brother, Sulvia.  He simply has too much else happening in his life...” Drayana explained somewhat feebly.

Such as whoring, drinking and gambling, the Empress thought sourly.

Sulvia nodded. “Too much going on to care for me, or to be Prince Imperial.  Will he ever come to visit me?  I have not seen him since I was very little...”

“Perhaps,” Drayana replied vaguely.

The youngster seemed to take that at face value, much to her cousin’s relief.  It might, however, be a different matter when Sulvia was older, or even after she’d had time to think.

“Am I really a princess now?” Sulvia smiled shyly.

“Not just any princess.  You are the Princess Imperial,” Drayana nodded emphatically.

“Will there be a coronation?  I watched yours on the news channel,” her cousin asked, recalling that glittering occasion when, for once, the family had gathered together for an event.

The Empress squeezed her shoulder. “Not a coronation, but there will be a special Inauguration Ceremony, when you meet all the Proconsuls and other important people.”

When she would warn the Imperial Advisory Committee – and Ilarius in particular – that Sulvia was not under their jurisdiction.  The universe would grow cold and dead before she allowed that, Drayana vowed.

The Inauguration would also be a way of introducing her cousin to Imperial pomp and ceremony, much as the Empress was vainly trying to reduce that particular burden right now.  As an eight-year-old, Sulvia would no doubt love dressing up in state robes and the coronet and official jewels which went with the title of Princess Imperial.  Drayana remembered her own experience, aged even younger than Sulvia then.  Of course, that day she didn’t have the slightest inkling of what it really meant to be Empress.

“Excuse me, Your Excellency, but you might like to take a look outside...” Drayana’s attendant grinned.

A Comet-class fighter was flying inverted – at least relative to the Imperial shuttle – as close as safety allowed, a small figure in the rear cockpit waving madly.  Though the features were hidden by a helmet visor, the Empress could guess her identity easily enough.

Drayana waved back and pointed to the spacecraft. “And that is another new cousin for you.  Not in the same way as us, but I think you will like cousin Dawn.”

“Will she like me?  And can I do that?” Sulvia waved back vigorously.

“I am perfectly sure that she will,” the Empress assured her. “Though you are too small to fly in a fighter – you would not be able to see out of the cockpit!”

Sulvia pouted a little at that, but it wasn’t a serious one, Drayana was glad to see.

“So what time do I have to go to bed?” the Princess Imperial demanded. “And will you make me eat horrid blue vegetables?”

Sulvia was nothing if not random in her line of questioning, Drayana decided.  She might need some motherly advice on those – and probably a hundred other questions.  Raising Sulvia promised to be more demanding than running the Talluran Empire, though she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Still, perhaps it might be best to draw a firm line right now.

“Bedtime when you are told – and never too late, Sulvia.  And yes, you will always have to eat your blue vegetables...  Else there will be no dessert,” the Empress sighed, laying down her first two rules and waiting for a genuine pout to form.

Outside, Dawn’s fighter flick-rolled and darted away from the shuttle.  Free as the wind, the Empress grunted.  Well, as long as her Terran friend was here, cousin Dawn was about to find herself employed as a part-time nanny.  It was only fair, Drayana told herself, reaching for a towel as Sulvia accidentally poured a cup of sticky fruit juice over her shirt.



Imperial Guard Training Facility, Outside Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 18th January 2001 (Earth Date)

It was, Admiral Severan groaned, utterly unfair.  Centurions Vesarian and Coruncanias had escaped rather lightly, making minor personal reparations to Dawn Summers, Drayana even having changed her mind about making them spar with the Terran Slayer.  The Empress’ wrath had, instead, been reserved for the operational commander of the Imperial Guard.

Drayana really wasn’t happy about the exercise orders.  While she was sanguine about the need to test herself – or so she claimed, at least – subjecting Dawn to what must have been a terrifying ordeal for the child was another matter.  Even if Severan’s sources suggested that the young Terran had recovered very rapidly – sufficiently, in fact, to enjoy a flight on a Comet-class fighter.  Livia Vispensia had already spoken her mind on the matter, in typically forthright terms, while Dawn’s mother had simply glared unnervingly, but Drayana was determined to make her Admiral pay.

In her defence, Severan hadn’t expected Dawn to be aboard Tallura Regnatrix.  On the other hand, the Admiral also knew she was already on thin ice – with a number of others - over the Thenatrix intelligence debacle.  It was, therefore, best just to accept Drayana’s retribution and move on.

“Yo, Admiral!  Gonna lie there and fricking snooze all day?” Faith loomed over her, smirking.

The Empress was both sadistic and inventive, Severan realised.  The Admiral had been due for her annual physical assessment, which normally wasn’t unduly taxing.  Drayana, however, had placed the Slayer in personal charge of the assessment, with orders to make it both thorough and rigorous.

“I just need to breathe for a moment...” Severan protested, sitting in the dirt with a huge pack on her back.

“Shit!  You’ve only been running for two hours...  And if you don’t pick that fat ass off the ground, I’ll shove my boot so far up it, your teeth are gonna rattle!” Faith had secretly always wanted to play Drill Instructor and now she had a perfect opportunity.

“’less you wanna spar some more...” the Slayer suggested ominously.

One bout with the formidable Terran had been more than enough and Severan was dragging her battered body off the ground and puffing her way along the track in an instant.  Faith trotted alongside, seemingly unaffected by her own enormous pack, which the Admiral reckoned was probably about four times the weight of her own burden.

“You oughta meet Little D’s half-sister...  She’s a kick-ass Slayer too, but a paratrooper – so she’s had a shitload of Army training.  Bet Queen C would soon beat your sorry ass into shape!” the Slayer suggested with a grin.

An Imperial Guard composed of Slayers had Severan positively salivating at the possibilities.  They were as strong as a Ch’Hanis, but much faster and with seemingly limitless stamina.

“Know what we need?” Faith asked, recalling every military film she’d ever seen.

“I would hate to guess...” Severan wheezed, wishing someone would just shoot her in the head now, but also aware that if she survived a week of this, she’d be in the best shape ever.

“A Jody...”

“A what?” the Admiral stared at her blankly.

Faith nodded. “A Jody – a cadence...  Kinda like a song or rhyme for marching and running.  All you gotta do is repeat the stuff I say.”

An ex-Marine in prison had taught her a few of the rudest ones – after she’d painfully taught said ex-Marine exactly who was the meanest girl on the block.

A Yellow bird...

On my window sill...

To see him there...

Gave me a thrill...

I lured him in...

With a crust of bread...

And then I crushed his fucking head...

 

 

Drayana’s Chambers, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 18th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Preparations for the first Talluran High Treason trials in centuries were underway and one of Drayana’s more unpleasant tasks was to receive regular updates on any progress made.

“As you know, our forces captured thirty-three escaped convicts, who had seemingly chosen to fight for Thius Pyriam’s rebel forces, alongside the Xicavvar mercenaries.  To a man – or woman – they have all opted to plead not guilty, despite the evidence against them,” the Chief Prosecuting Justice noted.

“Given the mandatory penalty, that is not exactly surprising,” the Empress responded dryly.

“There were also five members of the Imperial Defence Force, who have similarly decided not to admit their guilt.  They are, however, outside my jurisdiction and will face a Military Tribunal,” the Justice continued.

Drayana nodded and winced.  The rebellion on Thenatrix was adding up to a lot of death warrants.

“Orman Cherius’ claim to have had no prior knowledge of Pyriam’s plans has, however, been supported by a number of independent sources of intelligence and information.  We have, therefore, decided to charge him with Theft, Fraud and Criminal Dereliction of Duty, rather than High Treason,” the Justice told her.

The Empress was relieved that at least one person would be spared the axe. “And ex-Governor Pyriam?”

“The former Governor intends to enter a guilty plea, in the rather vain hope of drawing mass sympathy.  Our psychologists are not, however, convinced that he is actually fully sane.  And if there is any such doubt in a case of High Treason, given the penalty...” the Justice made a face.

“Then he cannot be charged with the crime,” Drayana finished for him.

It would be supremely ironic if the one individual responsible for the deaths on Thenatrix, the annihilation of two colonies - and a near full-scale war with the Xicavvar Concordium - escaped execution, while his followers all had an as-yet unscheduled appointment with the Headsman.

“Which brings us onto Helia Tren...  Who fully intends to plead guilty and refuses to even consider accepting a plea of temporary insanity,” the Justice sighed.

He cleared his throat. “I know that Your Excellency has legal experts seeking a way to avoid the imposition of the death penalty in her case...”

“In all cases,” the Empress clarified firmly. “Firstly, I regard the existence of such a penalty in our system of law as thoroughly barbaric.  Secondly, I now have responsibility for raising the Princess Imperial and I do not wish one of her earliest lessons to be on the signing of multiple death warrants, if there is any way to avoid it.”

“I understand your reluctance, but in my view the law as it currently stands is too tightly written, and this may be a futile exercise, Your Excellency,” the Justice warned.

“I will consider it futile on the day the sentences are carried out.  And not one second before,” Drayana retorted.

 

 

Dressmakers’ Street, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 19th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“You guys are so cool!” Dawn acknowledged. “My dad back home?  Never took Buffy or me shopping, not like this.”

Vesarian and Logan exchanged disapproving glances.  The more they heard about Hank Summers – and it was only snippets so far – the less they liked him.

She grinned at Vesarian. “Even if Drayana made you do it.  I think she was way more pissed...”

Logan cleared his throat, half-expecting Joyce to pop up with a bar of soap.

“I mean, way more annoyed than me.  And apart from the whole scary bit, it wasn’t so bad,” Dawn told them.

She swiftly reminded herself to be on her best behaviour.  Joyce hadn’t quite approved of Drayana’s method of dealing with Vesarian and she didn’t want her daughter tormenting the poor man any more.  Dawn had, therefore, been threatened with not being allowed to attend the Imperial Gathering if she stepped out of line, with a two-week grounding thrown in for good measure.  In Dawn’s mind, such a grounding was by far the worst thing her mother could do to her while they were on Tallura Prime.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, with new things to see and do every day, but only a short time available.  Two weeks shut up in the palace would be unbearable, so she was determined not to risk it today.

“I have a daughter only slightly younger than you,” Vesarian allowed. “And my wife makes certain that I accept a share of the shopping burden...”

This was the fourteenth shop they’d visited, with the young Terran failing to find anything that she liked thus far.  The Centurion glumly reminded himself that there were another thirty-nine similar shops on Dressmakers’ Street.  Then, of course, they’d have to start looking for shoes.

Logan, meanwhile, looked pensive for a moment.  Then Dawn remembered their conversation aboard the Sleipnir.  The SG-15 CO couldn’t go shopping with his daughter, because she was dead.

Dawn quickly grasped his hand. “I’m really sorry...  I forgot about your little girl...”

The SG-15 CO ruffled her hair. “For the record, kiddo, I’m always quite happy to go shopping with you.”

Actually, that was a little white lie.  He hated clothes shopping, even for himself, with a vengeance.  Volunteering for this trip had, nevertheless, seemed the right thing to do, with his Talluran friend and fellow-bodyguard needing moral support.  Besides, he was very fond of Dawn and the shopping was a small price to pay for the simple pleasure of having her around.

Dawn smiled uncertainly at him. “So...  You gonna ask mom to the Imperial Gathering?”

Logan took a mental step backwards – he hadn’t been expecting that one. “I beg your pardon?”

“Not trying to fix you and mom up – ‘cause that’d be wrong – but I asked around and it’s usual for guys to ask ladies to the Gathering.  Just thought it’d be nice if you asked mom, that’s all,” Dawn wondered if she’d gone too far.

Her logic was simple, however.  Logan had no one to ask to the Gathering and neither did her mother.  The SG-15 CO was a nice guy and her mother deserved a nice guy to escort her, so it made perfect sense, Dawn-style.

Vesarian waded in. “Dawn is quite correct.  You already have an invitation from Her Excellency, after all, and it is a tradition.”

He also had an invitation, along with most of Drayana’s usual security detail.  It was the first time and probably the Master of Imperial Protocol was thoroughly scandalised.  No doubt Drayana had firmly put the pompous old fool in his place.  Of course, now the Imperial Guard Centurion would have to repeat this shopping nightmare with his own wife.

“I guess I could do that,” Logan considered.

Joyce Summers was pleasant company and he could think of worse people to share an evening, at an unfamiliar formal gathering.

“Cool!” Dawn grinned.

“Okay...  Let’s have a look at number fourteen...” the SG-15 CO stifled a sigh.

It wasn’t a particularly big store, though like most others in the Old City it was also deceptive.  Dawn was already making a beeline for the nearest rack, as Vesarian and Logan resignedly settled down for another extended period of browsing.

“How about this one?” the assistant asked hopefully after half an hour, withdrawing another garment from the rack.

“Nope.  I’d look like a big puffed-up thing,” Dawn replied firmly.

Every one of the dresses she’d seen so far was quite beautiful and would have easily been suitable for a production of Cinderella.  Some, however, were just too much for the youngest Summers, who had very fixed ideas.

“This one?” the assistant tried again, holding up a dark-red velvety creation.

“Uh, uh...  Kinda dark for me.  Sorry...” Dawn was sure she’d know exactly what she was looking for, when she eventually saw it.

“This one is very nice...”

Dawn shook her head. “Great if I was, like, seven foot tall.  Kinda think it wouldn’t look the same after it was shortened...”

Unfortunately, none of the previous thirteen shops had been able to provide that elusive dress-in-a-million.

The assistant rummaged around and extracted yet another contender.

Dawn sounded offended. “Maybe if I was a size 16...  Which I am totally not, by the way!”

“This is the Empress’s favourite shop,” Vesarian confided to Logan, as the assistant took Dawn over to view yet another rack.

“But it still often takes Her Excellency days to choose,” the Imperial Guard added gloomily. “There is something to be said for facing down a whole legion of angry Ch’Hanis..”

The assistant paused, hands on her hips, and frowned thoughtfully.  Given that the young Terran had an open-ended budget for this purchase, courtesy of the Empress, perhaps they were approaching this the wrong way.

“Perhaps the best solution would be if we were to make something especially for you...” the assistant suggested optimistically.

“Really?” Dawn’s eyes lit up.

“We have someone who claims to be able to meet any need, no matter how awkward – I mean, challenging,” the Talluran promised with a smile, calling for her most senior colleague.

A few minutes later, every part of the youngster had been measured to the tiniest fraction of an inch, the newly arrived dressmaker using a sophisticated laser-based measuring wand.  Dawn was soon leafing through a stack of catalogues, choosing a style and her preferred fabric.  Buffy and Cordy, she thought with a grin, would be so jealous.  Apparently this wasn’t just any dressmaker – she was the Imperial Dressmaker.

Logan and Vesarian were, meanwhile, promptly installed in comfortable chairs and provided with tasty spiced drinks and the local cookie equivalent, while Dawn oohed and aahed excitedly over the various possibilities.  The SG-15 CO decided that this was a comparatively painless way of shopping, which some stores might do well to emulate back on Earth.  Hopefully, they’d also find a shop offering custom-made shoes. 

“I will make you a dress fit for the heir to the Terran Empire,” the woman vowed an hour later, gathering up her measuring wand and several rolls of cloth, and disappearing into the workshop.

Dawn giggled delightedly at that image, as Logan placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Would Her Excellency care to move onto Shoemakers Row?” the SG-15 CO enquired with false gravitas and an affected bow, and just grateful that bespoke dressmaking would spare him another thirty-nine shops.

“That would be acceptable...  Lead on, my faithful General,” Dawn allowed imperiously.

 

As Dawn, Vesarian and Logan left the shop, a curious head emerged from the curtained alcove of a changing room. 

“ “Heir to the Terran Empire”?” Licinia Vertain repeated to herself in delighted surprise.

The daughter of Drayana’s Proconsul for War, she knew that the Empress had Terran visitors.  The reasons for the delegation being on Tallura Prime, however, were shrouded in secrecy, and the teenager only had rumour to work with so far.  She was the same age as Drayana, but neither she nor any of her compatriots had much contact with the Empress, given the traditional methods of raising the heir.  Vertain herself had only met Drayana on a few occasions, but admitted that she liked the young Empress.  In fact, she actually felt sorry for Drayana, deciding that it must be a very lonely job at times.

There were a few rumours circulating about the young Terran, plus at least one established fact.  In school, the Terran Princess Imperial – Vertain assumed she’d have that title or something similar – had dealt with the Proconsul for the Treasury’s obnoxious son in short order.  Several years older than Dawn and taller and heavier, she’d nevertheless knocked him flat on his back.  It had allegedly taken her target a few minutes to get back up, which spoke volumes about her training.  Vertain wondered if the idiot had even realised who he was antagonising.  Many of the others at the school had been on Dawn’s side – Spurian Bantius Rufio was not the most popular individual – but the young warrior princess quickly been whisked away to be schooled with Drayana. 

That made sense, Vertain decided.  She prided herself on high scores in Political Studies and this was easy to analyse.  Educating two young sovereigns, or one sovereign and one heir, together.  It had to be the beginnings of an important political alliance.  Given her father’s position, she was all too aware of how many enemies the Tallurans currently had.  It, therefore, didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on here.  Basic history lessons told Talluran children that the Terrans were the Second Evolution of the Alterans.  Obviously, they’d evolved into a powerful space-faring race – able even to cross the inter-galactic divide – and were offering to ally themselves with their distant cousins.  Her father had more than once described Drayana as a formidable leader and now Vertain could see why.  The Talluran Empire’s enemies would be shocked to the core, finding themselves face to face with a fearsome new race, who had the power to make alliances across such distances.  Perhaps the entire balance of power in the Vedda Galaxy was about to change.  After all, unless the Terrans were an extremely powerful force, why would the Empress be allying herself with them?  And unless inter-galactic travel was a matter of routine, why would the Terrans put themselves to the inconvenience?  It all made perfect sense in the Proconsul’s daughter’s mind. 

With what she now knew, Vertain was eager to meet the young Terran as, no doubt, her friends also would be.  As children of the senior political figures in the Talluran Empire, they’d all be attending the annual Imperial Gathering, so such an opportunity would undoubtedly arise.  There could certainly be no harm in making friends with the younger girl.  Vertain had long wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, perhaps specialising in Alien Affairs.  At some point in the future, once she’d completed school and university, the Empress would no doubt be looking for diplomatic staff, to serve in an embassy on the Terran homeworld.   

Vertain also grinned to herself at the social possibilities.  She’d never been particularly good at collecting and exploiting gossip, tending to be the last amongst her peers to hear such things.  Her parents generally didn’t approve of rumour spreading in any case, as they’d demonstrated to her discomfort on more than one occasion.  This time, however, the teenager was certain she’d stumbled onto a real nugget.  It wasn’t just rumour – she’d actually heard the words - and Licinia Vertain couldn’t wait to pass it around. 

 

Imperial Research Division, Unnamed Planet, Vedda Galaxy – 19th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“I have an extremely bad feeling about this planet,” the Centurion commanding the security team told his 2nd-in-command as they slowly made their way through the abandoned city.

“Scanners have not detected any life more complex than the moss growing on the rocks.  Not so much as an insect.  And these scanners have a ninety-eight percent accuracy rate,” the other Talluran pointed out.

A swarm of sensor-equipped micro-drones, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, had criss-crossed every part of the city, even before the patrol entered.  None had picked up even the slightest signs of life.

The Centurion grunted and methodically illuminated each patch of shadow with the tactical light on his Personal Combat Weapon. “It is the other two percent which concerns me.  I feel as though I am being watched.”

“There is no sign of anyone – or anything – living here,” his subordinate pointed out. “And there probably has not been, since the Alterans abandoned this place.”

He had to admit that this was, indeed, an eerie place.  The total lack of life was disturbing, for one thing.  Also the flat, reddish light cast by a dying sun added to the slightly sinister feeling.  Then there was the near-constant sound of the wind in the distance, thought they were well-protected in this canyon.  It was, the Talluran considered, also too cold for his liking.  There were a hundred assignments he would have preferred over holding the hands of the scientists from the Imperial Research Division, but orders were orders.

The Centurion shook his head. “But what made the Alterans leave?  There is no sign that the city was attacked...”

The city had withstood several millennia extremely well.  This canyon was deep and narrow enough to protect the buildings from most of the weather, not mention keeping out what passed for daylight on this world.  The stone used in construction was also extremely dense, and there were no natural or industrial pollutants in the air.  As a result, most of the structures – only one or two blocks deep on either side for the whole length of the canyon, with others carved into the rock walls themselves – still had roofs and appeared habitable.

The Talluran executive officer shrugged. “No records, of course, but my guess is that had something to do with it.”

He pointed in the direction of the red sun.  No doubt the climate had changed, making agriculture impossible and the climate distinctly uncomfortable.  For a star-faring race like the Alterans, with holdings across the galaxy and beyond, there would have been no sense in attempting to maintain a foothold on a dying world.

His commander snorted. “Possibly, except that the star has been that way for perhaps fifty thousand years.  Long before the city was even built, let alone abandoned.  And it will probably be stable for another fifty thousand.”

He turned to his subordinate. “I want a full watch kept tonight, regardless of what the sensors may tell us.  We will set up camp in a building close to the edge of the city – I would prefer not to spend another evening in a tent, with those winds.  Check it for structural integrity before moving in, of course.  And make sure those infernal scientists do not wander off after dark!”

His fears were probably groundless, but years of service in the Imperial Guard Special Operations Division had also taught him to trust his instincts.  And right now, these instincts were screaming danger.

 

At the very edge of the city, a trio of thoroughly rapt scientists had made their first major discovery of the day.  It was a simple stone pillar, hexagonal in form, each side inscribed with worn writing.  Having gently brushed the dust away, the lead scientist leaned in close with a light, the details of the pillar difficult to make out in the deep shadows of the canyon.

“That is not Alteran script,” he announced in surprise. “In fact, it is not the script of any language I know.”

Another, a language specialist, had to agree. “I have never seen anything like it...”

“Record it fully and send the images back to Tallura Prime.  Perhaps they can decipher it,” the lead scientist instructed, as an underling reached for an imaging scanner.

This planet was throwing up more mysteries than answers.  From existing records, they’d only been able to even establish its existence after painstaking effort.  The Tallurans didn’t even have a name for either the planet or city, nor any reason for it being abandoned.  By the architecture, it was undoubtedly Alteran in origin, but that didn’t explain the mysterious writing on the pillar.  Nor, indeed, the purpose of the pillar.

Perhaps, he considered, the pillar hadn’t been around as long as the city.  Or perhaps even longer.

“Try to date that pillar.  Erosion rates on the writing, as compared to the other buildings, might give us a clue,” he suggested.

The pillar, he reminded himself, was only a start.  Most probably a minor discovery at best.  With an entire city to explore, albeit a small one, and limited resources available, he’d have to prioritise.

 

The creature was content to bide its time, even if its servants were keen to torture, kill and feed.  Eventually, they would be permitted to do what came naturally, but it had slept for thousands of years and there was no need for impatience now.  Only after discovering what the Old Enemy wanted in this forsaken place would it strike.  Then perhaps there might be a way off this miserable planet, light years from its home, and further vengeance to wreak.  The Old Enemy, after all, had to have a home planet, most likely many of them.  And they would all burn, the creature vowed.

 

Classified Research Area, Yaherin Var University Museum, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 20th January 2001

As cover names went, Joyce mused, the Alteran Cultural Survey wasn’t a particularly inspired choice.  On the other hand, only those who were cleared for the programme had heard the name.  The ACS was based in a small corner of the museum, entered via a secret door, which only added to the whole cloak and dagger atmosphere.  It was, Joyce reflected, quite exciting.  To think that she, a mere art dealer, had been asked to participate in such a classified and important project.  It wasn’t even that she had much – or anything – in the way of expertise to offer the Tallurans.  Academist Sulla, however, was quite aware of that.  He wanted someone from a completely different cultural background, on the basis that she might offer a radically different perspective and interpretation of some key piece of data or artefact.

Aside from that, Sulla regarded Joyce as a very low security risk and, even if she couldn’t contribute enormously to the whole programme – she’d only be around for a few more months after all – the Terran woman was quite happy to occupy her time cataloguing and classifying objects for the main research team.  For her part, if she wasn’t missing her two older daughters, Joyce almost wished she could stay here for another year.  There was just too much to learn.

As it was, she hoped some of this work might be useful to Earth.  While much of the available historical record was concerned with the Alterans in the Vedda Galaxy, some also detailed their activities elsewhere, including the Milky Way.  Of course, large chunks of the narrative were missing – hence the need for the ACS programme in the first place -  but the Tallurans had promised to copy all the Milky Way-relevant material for her to take back to the SGC.  And Joyce was now definitely planning to use it as a potential means of bargaining her way into a part-time post in the Mountain.

“You must be mistaken.  It is not possible!” one of the ACS team was arguing with his colleague.

“My eyes do not deceive me, my friend.  I have seen similar characters before,” another Talluran persisted, waving a printed image in the face of his associate.

“Is there some problem?” Sulla raised an eyebrow.

The Academist had a reputation for eating unruly subordinates alive and the two researchers quickly calmed down.

One of them passed over the image to the head of the project. “We just received the first batch of images from the P65 expedition.”

“ “P65”...  I wish we had some proper names for a few of these excavation sites,” Sulla grunted, scanning the picture.

“An Alteran Record Column.  Not uncommon...” the Academist began, examining a wide-angle image.

One of the researchers passed over another image. “This is a close-up of the symbols on the column.  My colleague is not so sure, but I think we have seen these before.  Perhaps a different language, but the characters are identical.”

“By the Ancestors, I believe you are right!” Sulla exclaimed, beckoning to Joyce.

This, he reflected, was definitely an unanticipated turn of events, one which would open up entirely new avenues of investigation.

“Would you take a look at these, my young friend, and tell me if they appear familiar in any way?” he asked.

Joyce smiled.  The centenarian Sulla was the first person in a very long time who regularly described her as being young.  Of course, in Talluran terms, the Academist probably still had many years of life, and she was barely a young whippersnapper by comparison.

“The writing on this pillar?  The characters resemble those in some of your books and on your computer,” the researcher told her eagerly.

“I believe my excitable colleague is correct,” Sulla acknowledged, giving her the scanner images.

Joyce took a step back and blinked.  She almost couldn’t believe her eyes, though the evidence was there.  But what was it doing on a pillar in the middle of the Vedda Galaxy?

She turned to Sulla and shook her head. “Don’t know where you found this, but that’s definitely Latin script.  I’m a tad rusty – it’s been a long time – though I can translate parts of it.”

 
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