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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 > GeneralCordyfanFR1323281,0563128461,04314 Mar 116 Sep 14No

Assassins and Other Monsters

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).

 

Central Civic Patrol Hub, New City, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 24th January 2001

“Those are my Melila’s clothes,” the grieving father’s face crumpled briefly, before he forced it back into a stone-like mask.

There would be time for grief, Ursian Tsakonias reminded himself.  The Chief Secretary to the Proconsul for the Treasury would do his weeping in private, but only after the Civic Patrol had captured his daughter’s murderer.  He’d always said that her boyfriend was no good for her, and he’d been proved all too right, with Melila’s illicit liaison ending in tragedy.  On the other hand, if he could only have her back, then she could date whoever she liked.

“Melila’s body?” Tsakionas ventured, not sure he wanted to know. “May I see it?”

The Civic Patrol officer shook his head and placed a kindly hand on the man’s shoulder.  How did you tell a father that his daughter had been half-eaten, with the remains unidentifiable, except through DNA testing.

“I cannot permit that,” the officer replied quietly. “It is truly not a sight for a father’s eyes.”

DNA testing had confirmed the remains of both the younger Tsakionas and her boyfriend.  At first, with the two teenagers and a Gravity Car missing, it was thought they might have eloped.  A thorough search of the area around Lake Eloria had, however, located the empty vehicle at a depth of over one hundred metres.  Raised to the surface, its Nav-Computer was coaxed back into life, and the crime scene located.  Ch’Hanis DNA was soon recovered, in minute amounts, from the area around where the Gravity Car had been parked.

Volunteer citizens from Yaherin Var, already scouring the city just in case the youngsters hadn’t absconded, promptly redoubled their efforts, only to make a grisly discovery in an abandoned warehouse.  Once again, the evidence pointed to the same Ch’Hanis.

In theory, given that there weren’t many of that species on the planet, finding the guilty party ought to be relatively easy, especially since the Security Directorate currently only had one such fugitive on its lists.  In practice, it wasn’t so simple.  Yaherin Var was a huge city and Jugrub had spent his life staying two steps ahead of the authorities, on a range of planets.  Indeed, until the pursuit of personal wealth had come to dominate the reptilian’s priorities, he’d been one of his people’s crack agents, an expert in sabotage, assassination, and all the tools of the covert operative’s trade.  He had a hundred tricks to outsmart the Security Directorate, let alone the Civic Patrol, whose usual problems in Yaherin Var centred on traffic violations and petty larceny.

“You will bring the guilty party to justice?” Tsakionas asked the senior officer, who was dealing with the case.

“We will try to do just that,” the officer promised.

The Security Directorate had passed along all their current data on Jugrub, on the basis that he was probably the most likely candidate.  In the absence of a specific DNA match to the pirate, it might, of course, be another Ch’Hanis.  For all the investigators knew, it could even be their ambassador.  If it was the pirate, however, they were all too aware that locating and capturing him wouldn’t be easy.  Furthermore, there was no telling what else he might be doing right now.

The officer slowly shook his head in sympathy, as Tsakionas walked away, a broken man.  It was too late to save his daughter, but the Civic Patrol investigator was pretty certain that the nocturnal activities of a whole Talluran generation were likely to be somewhat curtailed, until the killer was caught. 

 

Throne Room, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 24th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“There are so many people inside and it is so big…  What if everyone laughs at me?” Sulvia asked fretfully, as she waited outside the massive gilded double doors of the Throne Room.

“No one will laugh at you,” Drayana promised, taking her newly adopted sister and Imperial Ward by the hand.

No one would dare, the Empress told herself.  She remembered her own Inauguration Ceremony, alone and fearful in front of the crowd.  This time, things would be somewhat different.  Sulvia was both young and inexperienced in the ways of Imperial etiquette and ceremony, so she needed someone beside her, regardless of whatever the Master of Protocol might have to say.

“Do I look nice?” Sulvia asked anxiously, for the third time in as many minutes.

It was the first time she’d been dressed in the dark red and gold robes and jewels of a Princess Imperial, the same ones worn by Drayana at that age.  There was even a miniature ceremonial sword to go with the garb.

Drayana made a minute adjustment to Sulvia’s diadem. “You look perfect!”

“Are you certain?” the little Princess Imperial chewed her bottom lip nervously.

“Absolutely,” Lucillia, one of Sulvia’s Amazons, as they’d been dubbed by Lam, assured her.

A fanfare from inside the huge chamber signalled that it was time to begin, the doors swinging open from the inside.  The Empress gave her sister’s hand a reassuring squeeze and led her inside, at the prescribed pace, followed by the Princess’s bodyguard in full dress uniform.

“Isn’t she the cutest little thing…?” Dawn whispered to her mother, as the assembled throng rose to their feet.

Drayana’s Terran visitors had excellent seats in the spectator’s section, unlike Sulvia’s former foster parents.  The Empress had manoeuvred that part quite carefully.  An invitation to the Inauguration couldn’t be refused, not without it being seen as a clear snub to Drayana, with all the social consequences that would follow.  On the other hand, they were deliberately seated some way from the great and good of Talluran society, all of whom already knew that they’d been lousy foster parents.  The Nervallus family were very rapidly feeling the cold draught of ostracism from the upper echelons of Talluran society, including from many they’d once considered to be close friends.

“Not so long since you were that age, Pumpkin Belly,” Joyce reminded her daughter.

She also had to admit that Sulvia looked as endearingly regal and solemn as an eight year old could be in her position.

The ceremony, broadcast across the Empire, had two basic purposes.  First to introduce the new heir to the Talluran people.  Secondly, to secure an oath of allegiance to the Princess Imperial from the Proconsulate, Imperial Advisory Council, and representatives from each of the Consular Houses.  Joyce had no doubt either that Ilarius would be squirming inside, or that Drayana would make the most of his discomfiture.  It certainly appeared as though the Empress was growing weary of playing games with her treacherous Regent.

“If I was Sulvia, I’d be shaking all over!” Dawn shook her head sympathetically, herself somewhat overwhelmed by the atmosphere.

“Poor thing probably is,” her mother whispered back. “But at least she has her new sister with her.”

The Throne Room was an immense chamber, one wall lined with floor to roof windows, the opposite wall with banners symbolising the Talluran Empire and the Imperial family, interspersed in each case with classical-style ornamental pillars.  The ceiling was extremely high and ornately painted with designs from Talluran and Alteran mythology, while the floor was polished like a mirror, a dark blue and gold carpet leading from the door to two thrones at the far end of the room.  One was full-sized, for the Empress, the other of dimensions more suited to the Princess Imperial.  In addition to the spectators, there were numerous high officials from the Talluran government, legislature, judiciary and military, all summoned to swear an oath of loyalty to the latest member of Drayana’s household.  A full troop of Imperial Guard musicians stood with the local equivalent of fanfare trumpets, while several times as many, in ceremonial dress, formed an honour guard.

Overall, between the extravagant décor, the uniforms and other clothing, and the general pomp and ceremony, Joyce decided that the Inauguration was a mixture of classical Rome and late 19th century Central Europe.  It was one more unique experience for the art dealer from Sunnydale to treasure and record in her memory.

“Thing it’ll take long? ‘Cause I kinda need to pee…” Dawn muttered, shuffling her feet.

They’d already been waiting here for a while and the youngest Summers was wishing she hadn’t had that third glass of Talluran fruit pop before the ceremony.

“You’ll just have to wait, young lady,” Joyce responded not unsympathetically. “Now be quiet and listen!”

“I know how she feels…” Faith grumbled in an undertone from the other side.

Joyce shook her head and chuckled. “You’ll just have to cross your legs, too, missy!”

Having reached the end of the huge room and turned to face the assembled crowds, it was Drayana’s turn to speak first, and in a highly formal and stylised manner.  There were only so many changes the Empress could make to tradition and protocol, and this wasn’t one of them.  She might be a superlative public speaker, but that didn’t prevent her from always being nervous during formal occasions.

“I, Drayana the First, Lady Empress High Defender of all the Tallurans, bid welcome to my loyal fellow citizens, in every corner of the Empire.  It is both my solemn duty and pleasure to present the Imperial Ward and Princess Imperial, Sulvia, for her Inauguration,” the Empress began.

Drayana dropped to one knee in front of the wide-eyed younger girl, who looked as though she was about to bolt, and took both of her hands.

“Before all the people of the Empire, I swear upon my honour and upon my life’s blood that I will protect the Princess Imperial and prepare her for the duties of sovereign, to the best of my ability,” the Empress intoned solemnly.

Then it was Sulvia’s turn, Drayana ignoring protocol and remaining at the child’s side.  The youngster didn’t have a long speech to make, but it had still been challenging for her to memorise.

“I Sulvia, Princess Imperial, from this moment forward do offer my life in service to the Talluran people…” the youngster began nervously, the Empress leaning over and silently mouthing the words alongside by way of encouragement.

“It’s a fricking shame,” Faith muttered from alongside Joyce.

“It’s the way they do things here, Diana,” Joyce murmured back. “And at least she’ll be loved and well cared for.”

Faith considered that for a moment.  There might be a great weight of expectation placed on the child, but at least she’d still have a loving childhood, with the heaviest burdens mitigated as far as possible.  Drayana had been exceptionally firm on that point and no one seemed willing to contradict her.  It hadn’t been so long since the Empress herself was in the same position and she knew exactly which parts of her training had been excessively burdensome, for no real reason, and also how unnecessarily severe some of her own upbringing had been.  Similarly, Arius and Livia had also learned from the experience and were not about to suggest the same approach and methods second time around. 

In fact, compared to the Slayer’s own dreadful experiences at that age, at the hands of a drunken mother and a succession of abusive boyfriends, Faith decided that it might not be so bad to be reincarnated as the Talluran Princess Imperial.  If only she could fix it so that she then didn’t have to grow up and rule the whole darned Empire.  Which, if Sulvia was lucky, would never happen to her.

Her attention was drawn back to the front of the room again.  Drayana and her little sister were now seated on the twin thrones, as groups of dignitaries approached, dropped to one knee, and made their own oath of fealty.  No doubt to the Empress’s secret pleasure, Regent Ilarius was amongst the first group.

“I pledge to protect and serve Sulvia, Princess Imperial and heir to the Talluran Empire, against all enemies and threats, from alien invader to treasonous subject…”

Faith could almost feel the tension between Ilarius and Drayana at that moment.  The Empress’s eyes briefly bored into a momentarily discomfited Regent’s, then her expression returned to normal.  But there had unquestionably been a silent warning there, and both Drayana and Ilarius knew it.  If the latter’s shenanigans harmed a hair on Sulvia’s head, Faith had no doubt whatsoever that the Empress would quite literally have his guts, regardless of any personal scruples she might have about the most severe penalty under Talluran law.

The Slayer had never trusted the treacherous bastard from the moment she set eyes on him.  It wasn’t so much her innate Slayer-sense, as the sort of sixth-sense that was necessary to survive in a prison environment.  Ilarius was rotten to the core, everyone around the Empress and the Terran party knew that.  But right now, there wasn’t enough evidence to give him a parking ticket.

Killing people in cold blood was utterly anathema to Faith nowadays, though she’d reluctantly do it to protect herself or someone under her care.  Still, if they were back in Sunnydale, the Slayer reckoned that she wouldn’t exactly be averse to encouraging the Regent to take a midnight stroll through a few cemeteries.

“Are you alright?” Joyce asked quietly, noticing that Faith had suddenly tensed.

She followed the Slayer’s cold stare back to its target.

“There’s nothing you – or any of us - can do about him, Diana.  But I’m sure he’ll slip up sooner or later,” she replied in an undertone, as the first of a series of lengthy speeches by assorted politicians began.

Like Faith, she didn’t trust the Regent as far as she could throw him.  Up to now, however, he’d treated the Terrans with courtesy, albeit cold.  The only sign that the mistrust was mutual was the constant presence of one of his spies every time any of the visitors were in the city.

“I’m tryin’ to forget the sonofabitch!  It’s the kid’s big day – first official day as a princess and all that…” Faith sighed.

She just hoped that they’d nail the Regent before he harmed someone she cared about.  When all was said and done, the majority of Tallurans seemed to be a nicer people than a lot of humans she’d met, which made Ilarius seem all the more unpleasant.

The Slayer forced herself to forget about Ilarius.  Once the official part was out of the way, the rest of today was a big deal for the Empress’s new kid sister and no one ought to be allowed to spoil it, Faith decided.

“There’s a honking big feed after this, isn’t there?” she asked Joyce.

“A meal and a party, just for people close to Drayana and her family,” the older woman confirmed. “The Empress has invited Sulvia’s new friends from school, so it’ll be like a birthday party for them, I suppose.”

“Sounds cool.  Just so long as I get my cake,” Faith replied.

“Just so long as these guys stop yapping and I can go to the bathroom,” Dawn whined.

 

Faith’s Apartment, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 24th January 2001 (Earth Date)

The Slayer was sleeping soundly, stomach well-filled, after what had turned out to be a very pleasant day.  Plenty of tasty food, entertainment for both the adults and children, and general fun and games.  In the past, Faith had never been wholly comfortable around children, but now she had to admit that she’d truly enjoyed herself, willingly taking her turn to amuse Sulvia and her young classmates.  Later in the evening, she’d wandered into town with Joyce, Lam, Aquiliani and Tarquinia, for a rare girls’ night at Aelina’s Tavern.  A few local ales, and the SGC psychiatrist had quickly shown herself to be a master of the dirty limerick, much to everyone’s – even Joyce’s – amusement.  Lam would, however, probably have the mother of all hangovers in the morning.

Even in her sleep, Faith knew it was a Slayer dream almost instantly.  They always felt different from the normal variety, though this one wasn’t quite like others, either.  It was, for one thing, much less cryptic. 

Faith was standing on a cliff, on a barren, windswept alien world, a dying red star overhead.  Far below, Talluran archaeologists were hard at work in an otherwise deserted city and there was no apparent visible threat.  Nonetheless, the place simply felt bad.

“Chosen of another people, another world and another galaxy…” a voice said behind her.

Faith spun around, instinctively looking for a weapon.  The woman didn’t appear threatening at first glance, but a Slayer knew better than to trust first impressions.  She looked human, or Talluran, or Alteran – certainly something from one of these evolutionary lines, at any rate.  Faith also wasn’t receiving any vampire or other demonic vibes, though as this was a dream, that hardly counted for much.  Ordinarily, people didn’t glow in that way, however.

“Who the Hell are you?” the Slayer demanded defensively, at this total stranger popping up in her dreams.

“That does not matter for now.  Know only this, that you must come to this place.  The future of the Talluran people – of every sentient race in this galaxy – may hang in the balance.  Your knowledge and skills will be critical to the fight in the months ahead,” the woman told her.

“I don’t even know where “here” is…” Faith responded tightly.

Oma Desala was being much less cryptic than normal.  It had been tricky simulating a Slayer dream, then inserting herself into it, and if she tarried too long, someone might notice.  Either the other Ascended, or the PTB.  And she wasn’t sure how the latter would react to her meddling, but that was no excuse not to try.

“You must go to the Empress – and only the Empress.  She will make such arrangements as you need,” Oma faded away.

Faith awoke with a start, sitting straight up in bed.  As Slayer dreams went, this one had been more vivid than normal and less mysterious, but still told her nothing.  For a moment, she wondered if it had just been an ordinary dream.

“By the way, you snore!” the guest from her dream was standing at the end of her bed.

“Fuck!  How the Hell did you get in here?” the Slayer rolled over and grabbed for the M11 automatic and stake on her bedside cabinet, flipping on the light on the way.

“Just ensuring that you did not mistake my presence for a figment of your imagination,” Oma responded lightly, apparently unconcerned by the 9mm automatic pointed at her head.

The Slayer, butt-naked as usual in bed, flung the bedclothes aside.   Still keeping the intruder covered, she advanced towards her.

“You might at least cover up…” Oma smiled.

“Rather wear nothing than sleep in a fricking nightshirt like that!” Faith retorted, pointing to the Ancient’s white gown.

Oma shrugged. “All that matters, is that you contact the Empress first thing, tell her about this dream, and ask to be cleared for the Alteran Cultural Survey and its current off-world operations.  Then you will be ready for your first encounter with the abomination that resides there.”

“ “First encounter”?  You gotta be shittin’ me!  I don’t even live hereabouts normally…  And what sorta creature are we talkin’ here?” Faith didn’t like the idea of what sounded ominously like an extended battle.

The Ancient simply chuckled and morphed into a glowing blob, which floated across the room and straight through the wall.

Faith cursed volubly, then pinched herself hard, just to make sure this really wasn’t a dream.  Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be.

 

Jugrub’s Hideout, New City, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 24th January 2001

The Ch’Hanis had been working all night, but his task would soon be completed.  Terran minds weren’t always easy to work with, unless there was at least some common ground.  Fortunately, there had been in this case.  Idruhn Austus was a xenophobe of the first order, which rendered him highly vulnerable to temporary mind alteration, a favourite tool of the Ch’Hanis intelligence services, and one which Jugrub had long since mastered.

The first part involved administering a certain drug – nameless and highly classified – which the reptilian had obtained from the Ch’Hanis Embassy intelligence officer.  It was incredibly expensive and difficult to obtain, but even harder to trace, and worked by amplifying sophisticated hypnotic programming buried deeply in the subject’s psyche.  The drug and associated hypnotic programming, the latter based on use of electrical impulses delivered into the brain, certain light frequencies and a variety of visual and aural stimuli, would wear off in a few days, but that was all Jugrub needed.

Austus would be back in his comfortable bed by sunrise, unaware that he’d been briefly abducted, or even that he had a very specific task implanted in his head.  When the time was right, Jugrub’s temporary puppet would act.  Austus wouldn’t necessarily have been the Ch’Hanis’ first instrument of choice, but his allegiances – and the potential trouble they might cause - made up for the lack of suitable skills.  In any case, Jugrub had little choice, lacking access to a Talluran with both the appropriate expertise and the right mind-set.  Of course, Ilarius’ servant/spy might not even succeed, given his lack of specialised training, but the task was a simple one.  Moreover, even if the Talluran failed in his task, the impact might still cause all manner of consternation.

 

Central Civic Patrol Hub, New City, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 25th January 2001

On recounting Oma’s nocturnal revelations, vague though they were, Faith had received an immediate request from the Empress to assist The Spear.  On that basis, Faith felt honour-bound to agree.  Nevertheless, she was still decidedly unimpressed.  Not only had The Spear force on the spot decided to wait for several days after losing two of their people, to an as-yet unknown cause, but they were decidedly amateurish to the Slayer’s way of thinking.   This might be the Talluran Empire’s crack demon-hunting unit, but she reckoned they’d last about five seconds in Sunnydale.  Including about one second after the bad guys stopped laughing.

The Slayer had no doubts about their courage or individual combat ability.  Each was as tough and physically well-trained as you could make someone who wasn’t Chosen.  It was their inexperience – and the lack of opportunity to expand their familiarity with the supernatural – combined with a very sparse knowledge-base which worried her.  Centurion Lysander Arcturian might have a grizzled, battle-hardened air about him, but the white-haired Imperial Guard officer was still a virtual babe in the woods at this game.

“Your library sucks,” Faith told The Spear’s commander quite flatly. “This is the best you can pull together?  Shit!  Giles had a better book collection in the school library.  Hell, B probably has more on her bedside cabinet...”

She’d never had to work as a Slayer without the support of a Watcher before, or a decent demonology collection.  That, in turn, meant that she actually had to think things through very carefully.  In the bad old days, Faith would have shrugged that off as an inconvenience, and then demanded something to Slay.  These days, she was much more circumspect.  Nevertheless, now she was possibly supposed to fight something, with unknown powers and abilities, of unknown size, with only a bunch of inexperienced boy scouts to help out.  The old Sunnydale Scooby Gang might have been mere school-kids, but they’d been much more knowledgeable and professional than the Imperial Guard’s special unit.

This galaxy, Faith decided, just didn’t know when it was well off.  The Spear’s lack of experience was directly attributable to a lack of demonic activity.  Sunnydale probably had a hundred times more supernatural incidents in a year, of much greater severity, than the entire Vedda Galaxy – at least the Talluran part of it – faced in a century.

Not even the name of the demon she might be facing, if that’s what was waiting on this unnamed planet, gave much of a clue.  Oma’s description of “the creature” told her absolutely nothing.  Joyce’s translation of “the Faceless One”, taken from yet another cautionary message in Latin, might indicate some amorphous thing like the Blob – she remembered seeing that movie – or a drifting cloud of vapour, or a shape-shifter.  The books were no help whatsoever in that direction.  For some reason, though, Faith reckoned it was probably big.  You didn’t just leave warning plaques on a planet for something the size of your average vampire.

“This is the sum total of knowledge on the supernatural available to my people,” Arcturian replied apologetically, with as much dignity as he could muster.

Faith sighed, counted to ten to stop herself from teaching the officer Terran words he really didn’t need to know, and realised that bitching wasn’t going to accomplish anything here.  It might work for Queen C back on Earth, but only because she knew the people she was fighting alongside – and they were painfully aware of her default setting.  On the God-forsaken planet they were shortly heading for, Faith and The Spear reinforcements would have to watch each other’s backs.  There was, therefore, no sense in antagonising them.

“Not your fault you’ve inherited crap for a research collection,” the Slayer conceded. “And I reckon you’re all kindsa lucky this galaxy’s light on the scary…  Which doesn’t mean there ain’t a shitload of Big Bads out there, just waiting for some poor slob to wake ‘em up!”

She also knew she couldn’t not accept the request to help out.  Quite apart from the fact that the Tallurans seemed to be on the verge of a critical discovery – or at least to finding clues in that direction, according to her classified briefing - it was a long time since Faith had been offered an opportunity to Slay anything.

“There is, as yet, no indication that we have awakened anything,” Arcturian pointed out.  “For all we know, our men could have become trapped by a rock fall in the caves behind the city, or something equally innocuous from a supernatural perspective.”

“Look, if your gut’s telling you something’s there – and mine certainly fricking is, with all the damn warnings and these disappearances – go with it.  None of the pot-scrapers, or your own guys, reported anything about unstable caves or buildings,” Faith retorted dismissively.

“Plus there’s the part where I get an uninvited spook-woman poppin’ into my dreams.  Your expert folks – like that Sulla guy - say she sounds like an Ascended Ancient.  And she wasn’t stopping by just to say hello!”

Arcturian couldn’t rebut that.  Though rare, Ascended Alterans had been known to visit selected individuals over the centuries.  By all – admittedly sparse – accounts, it was a dangerous thing for the Ascended to interfere on this plane, as it violated certain paramount rules of their cross-dimensional, non-corporeal existence.

“So what d’you say?  Let’s load up with everything you’ve got and go kick some demon ass!” the Slayer suggested, adjusting the two Varrini Slayer Blades across her back, and checking the charge levels on her Personal Combat Weapon.

Arcturian decided he could quite happily go into combat alongside this fearsome Terran.  It was no secret within the Imperial Guard that her physical abilities were in a wholly different league even to those in the elite Protective Division.  The Slayer might be eccentric and, by her own admission, somewhat less experienced that her counterpart back home, but she still had a lot more familiarity with the mystical and supernatural than either himself, or anyone in his force.

It was, nonetheless, a huge task.  Two dozen men, plus himself, and a Slayer, in addition to those still on the planet, to search an entire city.  Of course, the enemy, if there was one, might find them first.  The Centurion nervously wondered how he’d perform against something that wasn’t a vampire – his sole experience in that direction to date. 

Still, no one lived for an eternity, Arcturian reminded himself philosophically.

 

Imperial Research Division, Unnamed Planet, Vedda Galaxy – 25th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Faith felt it as soon as she stepped through the Stargate.  It had been a long time since she was in Sunnydale, but the faint background sensation was just the same.

Arcturian noticed her wincing and shaking her head. “Is something the matter, Diana?”

“Oh you bet!  This place is bad…  I think you’re standing on a fricking Hellmouth!” the Slayer responded tersely.

Perhaps not so active as Sunnydale’s, or maybe there weren’t so many assorted bads on this planet to be drawn here, but there was a Hellmouth, nonetheless.  Faith glanced around the apocalyptic landscape.  Somehow, this place seemed like a far more appropriate home for a Hellmouth than the outwardly pleasant surroundings of Sunnydale.

Arcturian paled slightly.  He’d read of such things and the Tallurans actively avoided planets where Hellmouths were even reputed to be located, but he’d never actually encountered one.  Or, for that matter, anyone with the ability to detect one just by a general localised sensation.

The presence of a Hellmouth might also, he mused, explain why the planet was deserted in the first place.

“What does that mean for us?” the Centurion ventured tentatively.

There had been some argument as to Faith’s status on this mission.  Arcturian wanted to give her overall command of The Spear units, on the basis that she had more knowledge and experience than all of them combined.  The Slayer had, in turn, protested that she had absolutely no experience of fighting the Vedda Galaxy’s types of demon and, moreover, she’d never led anything or anyone in her life.  The Talluran Centurion, nonetheless, seemed determined to defer to her at every opportunity.  Faith just hoped that she wouldn’t be blamed if this mission turned into a disaster.

“Means you keep one hand on your stake and another on your gun.  And ‘cause there’s nothing else alive here – apart from the expedition - treat anything you meet as a demon,” Faith responded.

She shook her head and growled. “If the Empress wasn’t so damned certain that there’s important stuff here, I’d be telling you all to move your asses back through the Gate and flatten the place with your biggest fucking nuke!”

The Spear’s troops were fanning out, as they moved toward the archaeologists’ camp.  A trio of lightweight Gravity Cars, just small enough to fit the Stargate and armed with heavy plasma cannon, took the lead.  If there was a Big Bad here, Faith reckoned they might just need the added firepower.  Arcturian had also raised the possibility of heavy support from an Imperial Fleet cruiser, but the planet was on the other side of the galaxy, a good ten days’ journey in hyperspace for current Talluran technology.  Besides, this close to Khkerrikk space, they didn’t want to risk detection – which effectively also deprived them of Faith’s nuclear solution.

“At least most of your people are still alive.  If there’s a major-league demon here, it ain’t in a hurry.  That’s kinda comforting and kinda not…  If it’s taking it’s time, that means it has a plan.  And it ain’t worried about anything we can do,” the Slayer assessed.

“So we’ll link up with the digging guys and your people, then start looking for the two missing folks.  But I gotta say, I’m not holding my breath ‘bout finding them alive!” she added grimly.

 

Crafts and Artists Guild, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 26th January 2000 (Earth Date)

Dawn and her mother, loosely flanked by an assortment of SG-15 and Imperial Guard, moved slowly down one of Yaherin Var’s oldest streets.  This area housed the Crafts and Artists Guild and their shops and workshops, many with stalls erected along the edges of the covered passages which ran down each side of the street.  Today, the jewellers were out in force, and Vesarian had a promise to keep.

“Our shadows appear to have multiplied...” Aquiliani remarked to Ashborne.

The SG-15 Lieutenant didn’t turn around, but merely nodded.  It had almost become a game, spotting Ilarius’ spies.  Identified by the Tallurans as being on the Regent’s staff, they were all thoroughly amateurish.  A total of six regulars had been identified, though they usually only appeared singly, and were childishly easy to spot.

“The weasel-faced beard and the hatchet-faced woman,” Ashborne nodded slightly. “With the short ginger guy up ahead.  Trying to mount a mobile surveillance box.”

“Ambitious, are they not?” the Imperial Guard agreed with a contemptuous snort.

The Lieutenant smirked. “Yeah.  They should stick to baby steps...”

None of the escort group really anticipated any danger, though they were alert and fairly well-armed.  Vesarian, Aquiliani and Tarquinia all had their standard-issue sidearms and short swords, while Ashborne and Henriksson were toting compact folding-stock MP5-PDWs in discrete carrying cases, in preference to their longer, more cumbersome M4 carbines.  In other words, enough firepower to deal with most eventualities, at least until reinforcements arrived.  In spite of the apparent absence of any threat, immediate or not, the bodyguards were nevertheless constantly scanning their surroundings, and immediately noticed when one of their shadows – the one in front – disappeared.

“Ginger guy just disappeared,” Lieutenant Henriksson noted to Tarquinia.

The most junior member of Drayana’s detail nodded. “Probably he moved too fast and was caught up in the crowd.”

She nevertheless continued to watch for the spy.  While Ilarius’ agents hadn’t done anything other than sporadically observe – and badly – that wasn’t to say they didn’t ultimately have more untoward intentions in mind.  After a few minutes, there was still no sign of the missing spy and they decided he’d given up early for the afternoon.  Since Ilarius’ agents had little staying power, that wasn’t really a surprise to anyone.

“This really isn’t necessary, you know,” Joyce told Vesarian, as her daughter browsed the various wares on display.

“Yeah, ‘cause that whole thing with the ship was ages ago.  I wasn’t even really mad at you then,” Dawn pointed out, largely because she thought it might be expected of her.

At the same time, she hoped the Imperial Guard would totally ignore both her and her mother.  New jewellery was always nice and if Vesarian wanted to buy her some, who was she to argue?

“It is my pleasure,” Vesarian insisted stubbornly, to Dawn’s delight.

By the standards of Earth, gems and precious metals were extraordinarily cheap.  It was, as Arius Myrnn had pointed out in an earlier conversation, not exactly surprising.  The Talluran Empire was composed of ten major settled planets, plus a dozen minor colonies, in addition to two score of moons with mining facilities.  Just about any mineral was plentiful, leading to a situation where gold, silver and platinum and all sorts of gemstones were worn simply for their beauty, rather than any scarcity-linked value.

“How about this one?  It matches your eye colour,” the market vendor suggested, holding up an exquisitely-crafted gold necklace, inlaid with dark emeralds at intervals.

She recognised Dawn as one of the Empress’ guests.  A Terran, no less, with the usual squad of Imperial Guards and soldiers from her own world.  The jeweller wondered just how important these people actually were on their homeworld.  

“Your dress will be green,” Joyce reminded her daughter.

“And there is a matching bracelet and ear-rings,” Vesarian pointed out.

“Clip-on...” Dawn hurriedly told her mother, before the latter could object.

She was forbidden from getting her ears pierced for at least another two years and, as far as Joyce was concerned, from ever having any other part of her anatomy pierced.

 

Austus slowly and carefully placed the sight reticule of his plasma rifle on Dawn’s chest.  One squeeze of the trigger and a deadly threat to Talluran culture – their very civilization - would be eliminated.  The Terrans were a menace and bent on dominating the Vedda Galaxy, hidden behind the mask of a pretty young girl’s face.  Surely the Empress could see that.  If she couldn’t, then this loyal subject would deal with the threat.

The infra-red laser dot, used for targeting and ranging and visible only through the rifle’s scope, settled on her breast bone.  Austus took a breath and prepared to shoot – it was a tricky angle, but not impossible, even for a non-expert like himself.

 

The market vendor was just fastening Dawn’s necklace, when an ear-splitting screech erupted from the depths of the latter’s clothing.  Vesarian reacted in a split second, pouncing on the youngster and throwing her to the ground, body covering her own, just as two plasma blasts slammed into the ground where she’d been standing seconds earlier.

In a galaxy where many personal weapons employed a targeting system based on some kind of energy beam, warning devices were standard issue on Talluran battle armour.  A miniaturised version was also issued to VIPs considered at risk and Dawn’s Talluran bodyguards always checked she was carrying one before she went outside the palace.  It wasn’t a panacea, as experienced snipers often used passive optical systems for aiming, but the personal warning device could still save lives.

Aquiliani and the two SG-15 members had their own weapons drawn, scanning the windows and rooftops for the assassin.  Joyce was also on the ground, shielded by Tarquinia, even though her own warning system hadn’t registered.  She was also reaching for her M11 automatic, despite her inexperience.  It only took a few seconds to register that someone was shooting at her little girl – and that just couldn’t be allowed.  Not that Joyce was in a position to do anything with her weapon, as Tarquinia was firmly holding her down behind a pillar, out of the line of fire. 

Dawn, meanwhile, was whimpering with fear, pinned under Vesarian’s bulk.  The Centurion wouldn’t let her move, however.  He was trained to take the shot or the blade for whoever he might be guarding, and the helpless Terran child was no exception.  Having already activated an emergency beacon, he also knew that back-up forces from the palace Imperial Guard barracks would be arriving in under three minutes.

Vesarian’s own warning system suddenly went off, suggesting that the sniper was trying to shoot through him.  The Imperial Guard promptly rolled behind the jewellery stall, again only just avoiding fire from a window across the street.  Even while someone was trying to blow holes in him and his charge, the professional part of Vesarian decided that this had to be a rank amateur.  Not only using active targeting devices, but also slow to fire when he had a lock.  If it had been an Imperial Guard behind the weapon, half or more of the group would already be dead.

“Up there!” Ashborne spotted a slight movement by a curtain, his eyes zeroing in on a figure crouched behind a short-barrelled plasma rifle.

Aquiliani and Henriksson sprinted and weaved across the road towards the entrance to the apartment, Ashborne returning fire with his MP5K-PDW, in a bid to keep the sniper’s head down.  Everyone in the street was now taking cover, behind stalls, or in shop doorways.  The sudden harsh rattle of sub-machine-gun fire was a wholly new experience to all the Talluran civilians, momentarily causing even more consternation than plasma bursts.

“My workshop...  You will be safer in there!” the jeweller offered fearfully, crouching alongside and pointing to an arched doorway, just a few metres away in the covered section of the sidewalk.

It might be a trap, Vesarian realised, but equally it could offer a place of refuge.  As another burst of plasma fire tore up the street only a metre away, he decided to take the chance.  Quickly grabbing Dawn, he moved at the crouch behind a pillar, out of the line of fire, then down a short flight of stairs into the workshop

“This isn’t another drill, is it?” Dawn’s muffled voice asked querulously from behind Vesarian, as he made sure he was between her and any potential threat.

“I am afraid not,” the Imperial Guard responded.

“That means...  That means someone’s trying to kill me!” Dawn wailed, bursting into tears.

She’d faced death and kidnapping before, but somehow it was different with the Hellmouth’s denizens.  Being shot at was more mundane – and all the more frightening for it.

“Not while I am on duty,” Vesarian assured her, plasma pistol in one hand and short sword in the other.

“Nor me,” the jeweller replied firmly, taking a jewelled-hilted dagger from a case, and crouching by the door.

The woman’s logic was simple.  These were the Empress’s guests and Drayana was a wonderful ruler.  Ergo, the Terrans were friends of the Empire and anyone who wanted to kill them was an enemy.  Besides, there could never be any excuse for trying to murder a child.

Only two minutes had elapsed since the first shots were fired.  Already, Imperial Guard reinforcements were beaming into the public transporter pad on a nearby street corner, while a detachment of the local Civic Patrol were approaching from another direction.  A Civic Patrol Gravity Car was, meanwhile, hovering overhead.

Austus came face to face with Aquiliani and Henriksson halfway up the apartment stairs, as the would-be assassin – even through his drug-induced hypnotic state – realised that he wouldn’t be able to hit the target this time and, therefore, it was time to flee the scene.  He was still bringing his rifle to bear when Aquiliani put two plasma blasts into his torso, blowing away most of his chest cavity.  The eight 9mm rounds from Henriksson’s MP5, striking in the same area, were almost redundant.

“It’s Ginger Guy!” Henriksson exclaimed in surprise.

Aquiliani made a face.  Taking this one alive might have given them a valuable source of information – potentially even giving them something to use against Ilarius.

“I should have used the stun setting...  Then we could have interrogated this creature,” she growled angrily.

“I’ve a Zat in my belt,” Henriksson agreed. “But when someone’s trying to kill us, we’re kinda trained to react the same way...”

“As are we. The Imperial Guard are not the Civic Patrol – a lethal response is standard practice when we are fired upon,” the Centurion confirmed grimly.

She consoled herself with the problems this would still cause Ilarius.  They’d now have no alternative but to confront him with evidence of his staff’s spying activities, which he would find very difficult to deny.  Aquiliani also wondered if this one had been acting under the Regent’s orders.  Young though she was, the Empress’ wrath would be dreadful.  And if any link could be proven, Drayana would have his head on a spike.

 

Ilarius’ surviving two spies, with no more forewarning of the assassination attempt than anyone else, would have been well-advised to run the moment the first shot was fired.  Instead, they’d taken cover with the rest of the frightened civilians.  Now, having been identified by Tarquinia, they were swiftly placed under arrest by the newly arrived Civic Patrol, then handed over to the custody of the Imperial Guard.  The civilian constabulary had no doubt that the Empress would want her own people to deal with this incident.  It was certainly within Imperial Guard jurisdiction and the commander of the Civic Patrol was quite glad to let Drayana’s own security run the case.

“Maximum security,” Vesarian directed tersely, as the two spies were led away, volubly protesting their innocence, Aquiliani having just passed on the identity of the dead sniper via her secure communicator.

An angry crowd was already drawing their own conclusions, however, and the rumour mill had Ilarius’ agents already pegged as two more would-be assassins before they stepped onto the transport pad.

The Centurion gently passed over a still sobbing Dawn to her shaken mother. “She is unharmed, but very frightened...”

And someone was going to pay, the Imperial Guard vowed.  Someone beyond the assassin with the gaping hole in him.

“Why does everyone keep trying to kill me, mommy?  No matter where I am?” she sniffed, reversion to “mommy” being the clearest sign that the youngest Summers was unusually distressed.

“I don’t know, honey...” Joyce replied helplessly, holding her daughter in close.

“He will not do it again,” Aquiliani pronounced confidently, as she emerged from the crowd with Henriksson.

Joyce wasn’t so sure.  This assassin might be dead – and good riddance, she thought vengefully – but there had to be a bigger plot behind the scene, maybe involving that bastard Regent who was such a thorn in Drayana’s flesh.

“Let’s get you both the Hell out of here,” Ashborne pressed, Vesarian nodding firmly.

“Please wait!” the jeweller tried to force her way through a thick ring of Civic Patrol officers and heavily armed Imperial Guard.

Vesarian gestured to the security force to let the woman through.

“This almost makes me ashamed of my own people,” the jeweller told Joyce. “I would not like you to leave our planet, thinking we are all callous killers...”

“I’ve made many more friends than enemies here,” Joyce assured her.

The jeweller smiled sadly. “That is as may be, but I would still like your daughter to have these.  Consider them a gift, as some small consolation for this terrible thing...”

She passed over the necklace, bracelet and earrings Dawn had been admiring earlier, neatly wrapped in a presentation case.  Joyce was about to protest, but something told her that would be considered downright insulting.  Besides, it was a lovely gesture.

The woman waved aside Joyce’s thanks and Dawn’s grateful sobs. “I would also consider it my honour, if you would both return to my workshop at some point.  I would very much enjoy making something special for both of you.”

“It’ll be our pleasure,” Joyce assured her.

Every society had its bad elements, she considered.  Yaherin Var was far safer than any major city on Earth and while the Tallurans could be volatile, with their age-old warrior streak, the vast majority were much friendlier than many city dwellers back home.  To most, Dawn, Joyce and the others in their group simply tended to elicit an affable curiosity. 

Obviously, however, a few felt otherwise.  Joyce grimly decided that both her and Dawn would be increasing their weapons and unarmed combat training somewhat.  Attempts on their lives might not keep them shut up in the palace, especially as this might just be a lone crank, but she wanted to be at least a little better prepared. 

 

Drayana’s Chambers, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 26th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“They what?” Drayana’s voice lowered several dangerous octaves, as she scanned the message which had just been passed to her.

Someone had just tried to kill her friend.  That someone was employed by Ilarius, one of the spies he’d had quite blatantly following Dawn and her mother – and SG-14, Faith and Lam – each time they ventured outside the Imperial Palace grounds.  She had evidence of that – the Imperial Guard had a full record of every single trip, including images – and the Regent would be made to explain his actions.  For the moment, Ilarius’ less-than-savoury acquaintances could be left out of the picture, since for now she was happy to simply make him squirm.  Of course, if there was any evidence he’d ordered this assassination attempt, the Regent would rue the day.

She made a quick decision and turned to Vesarian. “Take a team and personally bring Ilarius in, to answer a few questions.  And let him perspire, alone in an interrogation room, for five or six hours first.”

The Empress paused. “I probably should not talk with him initially, should I?”

Vesarian shook his head. “That would most likely not be advisable, Your Excellency.  I would suggest Tharn Hyperius from the Security Directorate’s Counter-Intelligence section – he was very effective in making Helia Tren talk.”

“First of all, I would like to brief him and Centurion Aquiliani – and you – on a little intelligence operation I have been running on an unofficial basis.  If possible, I would like to run this in a particular way...” Drayana replied.

“Bring in Ilarius in pristine condition – I would not like him to claim he had been in any way brutalised.  I can, however, live with frightened.  Very frightened, if you get my meaning...” she smiled without humour.

Vesarian nodded understandingly. “I understand, Excellency.  And it will be a most pleasurable assignment!”

“Professionalism, Centurion...” Drayana chuckled, wagging an admonitory finger at the Imperial Guard.

She rose from her desk and walked over to the door, summoning her aide. “Felina, would you cancel my appointments for the remainder of the afternoon?  There is nothing that cannot be rescheduled and I have a friend who probably needs me.”

Her aide was a young student, in her first year at Yaherin Var university.  Drayana hadn’t wanted a career civil servant, stuck in their ways, as her personal aide.  Nor someone recommended solely on the basis of who they knew.  She wanted someone flexible and intelligent, without a pre-existing agenda, who wouldn’t quote tradition and regulation at her.  There were plenty of others who already did the latter on a daily basis.  So the Empress had decided to make the post a highly prestigious two-year work employment experience programme, with the added attraction of a proper salary, which was usually lacking in such appointments.  Felina Triannis had, so far, proven to be everything she wanted.  So much so, that Drayana was considering offering the student a permanent post when she completed her studies.

“Is anything the matter with Dawn, Your Excellency?” Felina asked in worried tones.

While she hadn’t spent a huge amount of time with the young Terran, Drayana’s aide nonetheless liked the sometimes eccentric girl.

“Someone tried to blow a hole in her with a plasma rifle.  Fortunately, they missed – and will not be danger to anyone again – but it remains to be seen whether they were working alone or not,” the Empress’ jaw set firmly.

Felina decided someone was in serious, potentially fatal, trouble.  Once Drayana had something between her teeth, one might as well ask a Ch’Hanis to drop its meat, as try to divert her.

 

Counter-Intelligence Section, Security Directorate, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 26th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Ilarius was both irate and nervous.  Irate that he’d been suddenly taken from his office, to “assist the authorities with their enquiries”, then locked in this interrogation room for hours.  Nervous, because one of his staff – one of those charged with keeping the Terrans under constant surveillance – had apparently lost his mind and tried to shoot the alien brat.  While Ilarius and Triconatus had discussed the possibility of an “accident” befalling Dawn at some point, he most certainly had not discussed any specifics with his incompetent spies.  It would be ironic, the Regent thought in disgruntlement, if he were implicated in an assassination attempt he hadn’t even planned yet.

Austus, meanwhile, had only succeeded in getting himself killed, while the other two members of the surveillance team were arrested on the spot.  Together with the other three personnel Ilarius regularly used for spying duties, they were no doubt currently occupying a room just like this one.  No doubt incriminating him, in all sorts of ways.  With the Empress circling like an angry bird of prey, just waiting for an opportunity to pounce, the Regent hoped his well-paid servants were shrewd enough to keep their mouths shut.

He glanced around the room.  Everything was white – walls, floor, ceiling, door, even the table and hard chairs – harshly illuminated with a bright overhead lighting strip.  The interrogation room would also be well-equipped with concealed surveillance devices, though he couldn’t spot any.  In common with all such places, the room was clearly designed to unsettle anyone left here for more than a short space of time.

The door opened suddenly and noiselessly, Chief Tribune Tharn Hyperius striding purposefully inside.  The Regent knew this man.  He was shrewd, highly intelligent and dangerous, and utterly loyal to the Empress.

“If you are going to charge me, then I demand that my Advocate is summoned.  Otherwise, I insist that you release me,” Ilarius went straight on to the offensive.

Hyperius took his seat opposite the Regent and laid down a thick file, before deigning to answer, in his most neutral tones.  The Empress had insisted that Ilarius be made to sweat, and that was exactly what he was going to do.

“As you are well aware, Regent Ilarius, in matters of high-level Imperial security, a person may be held for up to thirty hours without charge, and without access to an Advocate.  Both requests are, therefore, denied,” Hyperius responded, eyeing the Regent coldly.

“How dare you!” Ilarius thundered. “I am a sworn official of Her Excellency’s…”

“I am well aware of what you are, Regent,” the Chief Tribune responded, with just a trace of disdain.

His remit was more limited than he would have liked.  The Empress had given him clear instructions that he was not to refer to any intelligence gathered by Centurion Aquiliani, in the course of her unofficial investigations.  Hyperius was somewhat irritated by those activities.  He understood that Drayana wanted to keep the Security Directorate away from the Regent and his alleged circle of conspirators, until there was clear cause to investigate.  Indeed, from a legal point of view, she was probably correct.  Nevertheless, there might still have been grounds to commence covert surveillance on a less extemporised – and downright amateurish - basis.  After this, it would probably be all the more difficult for either the Empress or the Security Directorate to monitor Ilarius.

Unless, of course, Hyperius could tie him firmly into today’s assassination attempt.  There was little chance of that, the Chief Tribune judged.  Questioning of Ilarius’ men had, thus far, given no such indications.

Hyperius mentally shrugged.  He’d broken tougher individuals than the old Regent.  All it took was one misplaced word, then he’d move in for the kill.

The Tribune flipped open the binder and removed several rather graphic holographic images of Idruhn Austus’ corpse and autopsy.

“Your man?”

“Yes, but I had no idea that he was about to carry out such a criminal act…” Ilarius hedged.

“How about his political affiliations?” Hyperius tossed a badge, encased in a clear plastic envelope, onto the table.

Ilarius examined it closely.  The Hand of Purity.  He’d had no idea that Austus was tied up with those misdirected – if, in his mind, ideologically correct –fanatics.

“That badge was dug out of what remained of Austus’ chest, during the autopsy.  You should be careful who you employ, Regent,” the Chief Tribune mused.

“The organisation is not illegal,” Ilarius pointed out.

It was a thin line the Hand of Purity trod.  Freedom of speech was a fundamental part of the Constitution, but so was protection from hate-speech.

“Their aims and methods are hardly those with which an Imperial official ought to be associating himself, even indirectly through his employees.  And killing non-Tallurans in the name of their political beliefs is certainly illegal,” Hyperius countered.

The assassination attempt puzzled Ilarius a little.  The Hand of Purity made a specific point of their absolute allegiance to the Empress, to a pathetic degree in the Regent’s view.  They were even somehow able to square treaties with alien powers with their beliefs, on the basis that the sovereign knew what was best for the Talluran Empire, and that she simply used and discarded inferior species as necessary.  It was highly unlikely, given their usual methods, that even the more zealous element of that group would attack personal guests of their precious Empress.

“Which brings me to my next question, Regent…” Hyperius leaned forward in his chair. “On whose authority did you order surveillance of the Terrans?”

“I did no such thing!” the Regent bridled.

The Chief Tribune smiled thinly. “The Imperial Guard are well-trained in counter-surveillance.  Especially against such incompetents…”

He laid out several dozen holo-images in front of the Regent. “These were taken each time the Terrans were in the city.  There is always at least one of your servants following them quite closely.  To the extent that even the Terran child recognises them.”

His grey eyes were suddenly even colder. “Then there is the small detail that each of your servants – questioned separately – claims that they were acting on your explicit orders.”

“As an official of the Empire, I have a duty to ensure that any visitors are not a threat to our people,” Ilarius responded hastily.

“Actually, you do not have the official authority to do such a thing, leaving aside the small fact that the Terrans are always accompanied by members of the Imperial Guard…  Which would make it somewhat difficult for them to act in any way contrary to the security of our people, would it not?” Hyperius responded.

“Even such dangerous individuals as a twelve year-old child,” he added sarcastically.

“I have personally broken no laws,” the Regent persisted.

“That remains to be seen.  There are laws on persistent harassment and nuisance, which may be applicable here.  That, however, is a matter for the Civic Patrol, not the Security Directorate.  But if I were you, Regent, I would be more worried about Her Excellency.  The Empress is threatening to convene the Proconsular Tribunal, for exceeding your authority to a degree which constitutes gross disrespect to the Imperial Throne,” the Chief Tribune told him flatly.

Ilarius couldn’t think of a reply.  The Proconsular Tribunal could strip him of his title, his stipend and much of his land.  He’d possibly created his own trap and walked straight into it.

“I have always sought only to serve Her Excellency…” the Regent protested.

“I believe that the Empress would argue otherwise.  But that is not a matter for me to address,” Hyperius cut him off abruptly.

He pointed to the holo-image of Austus once more. “Know any Ch’Hanis, Regent?”

Hyperius had to be careful here.  He was looking for a reaction, but didn’t want to reveal what they already knew about the Regent’s circle of dissenters.

“Not personally,” Ilarius somehow managed not to blink. “Why do you ask?”

The Chief Tribune knew he was lying, Aquiliani’s first report indicating that the Regent not only knew a Ch’Hanis, but the very member of that species who was suspected of murder.

“During Austus’ autopsy, the Physician noticed a small cut on his scalp, just beneath the hairline.  That cut had a tiny – almost invisible – crust on it, formed from Ch’Hanis venom.  Under DNA testing, it matched that found at Lake Eloria, where those unfortunate youngsters were murdered.

“The Physician once served with our Intelligence department and, acting on his past experience, had the body scanned much more thoroughly than normal in an autopsy.  He discovered traces of a Ch’Hanis hypnotic compound – very difficult to detect – at the cellular level.  This suggests that Austus was not necessarily acting entirely of his own free will.  I say “entirely” because the compound requires at least some predisposition to carry out the programmed task.  Austus was a bigot and, therefore, easy to programme,” Hyperius explained.

The Chief Tribune leaned back in his chair. “So what shall we talk about now, Regent?  Because I think we are far from finished here…”

Ilarius sighed.  He was quite certain that Hyperius wasn’t about to charge him with anything – at least, not for now.  At the same time, the Regent was also quite certain that he’d be kept here for the full thirty hours and questioned relentlessly.  Ilarius knew he’d have to maintain his guard every second of that time, in the face of this expert interrogator’s questioning.

 

Imperial Research Division, Unnamed Planet, Vedda Galaxy – 26th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Even with reinforcements, it had taken time to retrace the steps of the missing troopers.  It was early evening before Faith encountered a trace, at the mouth of a tunnel in the canyon wall.

“That is one of their combat knives,” Arcturian told her somewhat redundantly.

“Didn’t think it had been lying there since the city was abandoned,” Faith replied, examining the dust on the floor with her weapon’s tactical light.

The missing men’s boot-prints, the impression quite clear in aeons old dust, had stopped abruptly, in the middle of this chamber.  As they’d left their assigned patrol area and there had initially been few searchers available to cover a whole city, this was the first trace anyone had discovered.

“They got dragged thataways,” Faith pointed down the tunnel.

Part of her wanted to fire a smart grenade down there right now, to clear anything out of the way.  That, however, would simply alert the Faceless One – or whatever – to their presence.  Besides, the missing troopers might still be alive and it wouldn’t be very nice to fry them with a high-explosive incendiary grenade.   

“Okay…  We’re going down there…” Faith announced with some trepidation. “Tactical lights off.  Everyone use their thermal-imaging gizmos.”

Arcturian and the other three troopers fell into line behind her, activating the thermal imaging devices built into their helmet visors.  Faith hadn’t been too keen on wearing the all-enclosing body armour, but decided that it might just save her ass in an unknown situation.  The Slayer hadn’t been trained in all its functions, but right now she only needed the communications and visual sensors.

The tunnel continued downwards in a gentle slope, with other openings to either side at intervals.  None showed any signs of life, nor of the missing Tallurans, so they kept to what seemed to be the main tunnel.  Of course, if there were multiple enemies down here, Faith was all too aware they might be trapped like rats in a trap in the confines of the tunnel.

After about twenty minutes, the tunnel abruptly came to an end, opening onto a ledge.  Faith edged forward gingerly, then stepped back.

“Fuck me!” It seemed to be the only expression appropriate to the situation.

They were standing at the edge of an enormous cavern, the limits of which were beyond their thermal imagers to pick out.  It stretched hundreds of feet above them and probably the same below.  The floor of the cavern appeared to be moving, however.  As far as the eye could see, there was a pulsating, formless mass of something.  Faith could feel the evil – an ancient, powerful and unspeakable evil – emanating directly from it.  But that all-too familiar feeling was also present. In fact, she was guessing the Hellmouth itself might be underneath that shapeless mass.

“I think we just found the Faceless One, guys…” Faith breathed, quickly and quietly directing the others back up the tunnel.

And how the Hell was she supposed to Slay something that size? Proximity to the Khkerrik Star Empire or not, that nuke was looking like a better and better idea by the minute.
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