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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 > GeneralCordyfanFR1322266,6403127257,07814 Mar 1124 Jul 14No

Let Sleeping Demons Lie

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).

 

Ruined City, Unnamed Planet, Vedda Galaxy – 26th January 2001 (Earth Date)

The Faceless One had sensed the intruders but, for the moment – and out of pure curiosity - decided to let them leave the cavern.  Two previous representatives of the Old Enemy hadn’t been so lucky, being left to the demon’s lackeys.  This time, however, the Faceless One felt something different.  The magical aura from one of the newcomers was definitely redolent of home, albeit in a slightly different form from that which the creature remembered.  It had been millennia since it was brought here as a stunted infant for study, then abandoned when its captors became fearful of its growing size and powers.  With luck, the demon thought with relish, it would have an opportunity to show its historical foe exactly why they should be terrified. 

But first, there was the puzzle of the alien presence, similar to the Old Enemy but also different, and with definite mystical powers.  The Faceless One would wait and watch for the moment, reaching out with its many different senses.  None of them would leave this place alive, of course, but what were a few more hours – even days, weeks, or months – after thousands of years on this desolate world.  Nevertheless, it might be prudent to make sure that its minions were suitably positioned, ready for action when the time came.  Drawing its energy directly from the Hellmouth, the Faceless One had long since evolved past the need for solid nourishment of that type, but its warriors – newly awakened from centuries of sleep – were still partial to a fresh kill.

 

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

The research team were pretty certain they’d finally located the elusive House of the Heavens.  Its builders had even been kind enough to identify it with a Latin inscription.  A small and insignificant-looking building on the edge of town and previously ignored in favour of more promising-looking objectives, it wasn’t exactly the anticipated astronomical observatory or even, as some had suggested, a centre of astrological study.  Instead, the building had a single chamber, three walls covered in Stargate addresses, and the fourth with somewhat stylised star maps.  Several holographic projectors, with typical Alteran longevity, were still in full working order, each with an embedded data crystal either containing more star maps, or messages in Latin text.  A number of the ubiquitous message pillars also bore Latin inscriptions, interspersed with Alteran text.  Joyce Summers’ high school and college education in the language was, it seemed, about to be tested once more.

For the moment, the research team were busily capturing images of everything in the room, while also trying to figure out some means of copying or removing the data crystals in the projectors.  If there were clues to some priceless hoard of Alteran technology in these maps and inscriptions, the archaeologists were also pretty sure it wouldn’t be a straight set of directions.  Previous experience with Alteran messages and archaeological sites had always led to complex and convoluted solutions, especially where the final prize was of value. 

Still, if such a massive technological treasure trove did indeed exist in the Vedda Galaxy, the Ancients’ innate caution probably meant that none of the Talluran Empire’s competitors was likely to find it first.  That was just as well, since the potential advantages could just as easily accrue to any species which uncovered the prize.  In very real terms, winning this race – or rather, keeping the others unaware that there even was a race in progress – could ultimately be a matter of life or death for the Empire.

The archaeologists’ enthusiasm was rapidly cut short as Faith and Centurion Arcturian rushed inside, having hurriedly pulled the troops back from the Cliffside caves.

“You gotta pack up and get your asses back to the Stargate!” the Slayer told them urgently, pulling off her helmet.

The Senior Researcher shook her head. “It will take us at least another two hours to remove or record everything within this building.  And there may be other…”

Faith cut him off in mid-sentence. “Don’t think you’re getting’ the picture here!  There’s a big-ass demon back there.  City-block-size big – and if it decided to come and play?  We won’t be able to stop the fricking thing for two seconds!”

“This is vital work and we cannot leave until it is completed,” the Researcher replied stubbornly. “Surely there is something you could do to slow it down, if it emerges.”

“You want to take a look?  Far as we can make it out, it already made a meal of two Spear guys.  Or something else did…  This planet has a fucking Hellmouth – it’s anyone’s guess what’s out there!” the Slayer wanted to grab the stubborn academic by the lapels and shake her.

Admittedly, the scientist had a point.  They weren’t here on a monster hunt and, by all accounts, what was discovered might be crucial to the future of Talluran Empire.  Moreover, this might be the only place where certain essential clues could be found.

On the other hand, no matter what the egg-heads found, it wouldn’t benefit anyone if that nightmare back in the cave decided it wanted a snack.  Faith hadn’t been particularly attentive during the early part of her training, but her first Watcher had once told her about the Old Ones.  Truly ancient demons of monstrous proportions and unbelievable power, of which little was known – and the creature in the cave might just fit that description.  At the very least, it was probably a close relation, and right now she wished Giles was here for advice.  Or even Wesley, for that matter. 

Faith took a breath and only just stopped herself from tearing the archaeologist a new one.  She wasn’t convinced the horror was going to stay where it was, but maybe – with some help - they could at least slow the thing down.

“Can you get us more firepower?  A shitload more firepower?” she turned to Arcturian.

The Slayer was tempted to order a truckload of toilet paper, too.  After seeing the gigantic horror in the cave, she felt close to crapping herself.  All her previous experiences as a Chosen One had never brought her face-to-face with anything of that sheer size, which she didn’t have a hope in Hell of Slaying using conventional means.

“Ideally, I would most like a battleship or two in orbit,” the Centurion replied with some feeling. “But as that is impossible, at least for some days, I can perhaps request some armoured support.  A squadron or two more of armoured Gravity Cars is probably the most I could bring through the Astria Porta at short notice.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Faith agreed grimly. “And while you science-types are playing with your little trowels, best have the rest of your people pack up their trash, keep close together, and get ready to drive like Hell for the Stargate.  ‘Cause it’ll be getting dark soon – and that’s when the fricking nasties out and eat your ass…”

At least the research team and its supporting security units had sufficient transport, in the shape of a number of Gravity Cars, to rapidly move everyone back to the Gate.  From what the Slayer could gather about the SGC teams back home, they always went through the Stargate on foot.  To Faith’s mind, riding out of trouble definitely beat a mad dash for safety, with something from the depths of Hell nipping at their heels.

“And – uh – have all The Spear and Imperial Guard guys form a perimeter,” Faith suggested.

She was still uncomfortable that Arcturian seemed to be deferring to her.  Never having encountered anything on this scale, plus the fact that military rather than slaying expertise seemed to be the order of the day – at least in her opinion – Faith felt rather uncomfortable at having leadership suddenly thrust upon her.  On the other hand, The Spear’s supposed supernatural specialists hadn’t exactly run up against anything like this creature before, so they were all on a potentially very steep learning curve here.

Arcturian hurried away to arrange what reinforcements he could summon.  The fact that any equipment would have to fit the Stargate limited the Centurion’s options, but it could only be an improvement, Faith reflected worriedly.  At present, the expedition had three armoured Gravity Cars, each with a heavy Plasma Cannon and a couple of lightweight missiles launchers, as their only reasonably heavy support.  On the ground, there were about three-dozen troops from The Spear and a dozen more Imperial Guard Special Operations, all with Personal Combat Weapons.  It beat a wooden stake, Faith thought wryly, but against something the size of several football fields or more, not by much of a margin.    

She didn’t like the terrain, either.  Assuming there were other, smaller demons out there – and the Slayer wasn’t willing to take bets any other way – the ruined city wasn’t a good place to fight.  Several parallel streets followed the line of the canyon floor, criss-crossed with narrower streets and alleyways, plus the numerous buildings built into the cliff walls, and the caves beyond those.  Not much light entered the canyon at the best of times, but with the sun slowly dipping towards the horizon, the city felt darker and more claustrophobic than ever. 

Still, they were as ready as they could be, at least until more help arrived.  Arcturian had positioned the three armoured Gravity Cars at intersections, where their turret-mounted Plasma Cannon could cover multiple approaches.  These were effectively a futuristic hovercraft, riding on an electromagnetic cushion.  For brief periods, they could leave the immediate ground-effect area and fly at heights of up to a hundred feet, but that was energy intensive.  Heavy armoured Gravity Cars didn’t have the power-to-weight ratio of other lighter types, which could fly or hover for longer periods.  Nevertheless, every now and then, one of the three vehicles popped up above the rooftops and scanned the city, trying to provide some sort of early warning.  Additionally, the ground troops had deployed their own ultra-light micro-drones, which were criss-crossing the area, and monitoring the city with a range of sensors.

Reluctantly, Faith replaced her helmet and hunkered down beside two Spear troopers.  She didn’t like wearing it, but the visor was integrated with both night vision sensors and the targeting system for her Personal Combat Weapon’s smart grenades, in addition to communications.  There were a myriad of other functions, too, but she hadn’t had time to learn those.  At least the Battle Armour was much less cumbersome than it looked, permitting almost complete freedom of movement, for which Faith was eternally grateful.  The Slayer was convinced she’d have to sprint for her life before the night was out.  Maybe she’d throw the Mega-Blob a few scientists on the way, she thought darkly.  After all, it was their fault everyone was still hanging around an active Hellmouth, with the sun about to set.  Even Sunnydale residents had more sense than that.

 

Below the city, the Faceless One was finally getting bored.  So far as it could tell, the interlopers were concentrating on the contents of a single building.  There was little of interest to the demon there, though the Stargate addresses on the wall might prove useful.  After all, it couldn’t – and wouldn’t – stay bound to this lifeless planet for another fifty millennia.  Amusingly, the Old Enemy were setting up improvised defensive positions.  They didn’t have anything that could do more than sting it, certainly not on the planet right now, and from what it could gather, their technology had either not changed from so long ago, or even regressed somewhat.  The Old Enemy’s weapons could hurt and even kill its witless servants, of course, but there were many of them and they could easily be replaced.  Still, with a single brief telepathic message, now it was time to set them loose.  The Faceless One would follow at its own leisure.

 

Faith abruptly felt the familiar demon tingle, a few moments before one of the micro-drones detected movement and sounded the alarm.  Much more than a tingle, but very different from the one she’d felt in the cave.  This time there were a lot of demons headed their way – smaller, but in huge numbers.  An instant later, a series of panicked yells and wild PCW firing from the outermost guard pickets confirmed her Spidey Senses.

All at once, they were popping up everywhere.  From ruined buildings, caverns in the cliff-sides, burrowing their way up through the ancient paving beneath their feet.  The demons were all about ten foot long, vaguely resembling giant eight-legged scorpions, covered in thick chitinous armour, with two massive pincers and a huge circular mouth lined with formidable teeth.  In place of a stinger, their tails ended in two coiled whip-like tentacles.

Faith cursed, swallowed nervously, and dropped to one knee, sighting her PCW on the nearest demon.  The first and second plasma rounds simply seemed to annoy it, so she quickly switched to full auto and fired a long burst, blasting two legs clean off one side.  Screeching with pain and rage, the creature flopped onto one side, and Faith immediately finished it off with another burst.  Three more were already heading straight for her, pincers opening and closing and tentacles probing.  A long burst took down another, while the third temporarily decided discretion was the best part of valour, darting down a nearby alleyway.

Before she could count her lucky stars, two more crashed through the front wall of a nearby house.  In a flash, one of The Spear troopers was snared by a tentacle and dragged towards the waiting mouth and pincers.  The unfortunate Talluran was literally torn apart and devoured in less time than it took him to scream, his companion succumbing the same way an instant later.  

Helpless to save either, Faith decided to get serious.  A quick voice command and her PCW’s grenade launcher activated.  The holographic cross-hair of her helmet sight immediately was immediately projected onto her retina.  All she had to do was look at the target and squeeze the trigger.

The Talluran Personal Combat Weapon had a six-round grenade magazine.  Each was actually more of a miniaturised missiles, with a small propulsive motor and a multi-mode sensor, wrapped around a powerful warhead that could blow a hole in a main battle tank back on Earth.  Faith’s first shot flew straight into the open mouth of the nearest demon and exploded, showering the surrounding area with semi-cooked guts and dismembered body parts.  Its companion went the same way two seconds later, the smart grenade pursuing the creature around a corner as it tried to take avoiding action. 

Elsewhere, things didn’t sound as though they were going so well, the tactical communications channel choked with the urgent shouts and screams of hard-pressed Talluran troops.  More than a few abruptly went off the air and the Slayer suspected they wouldn’t be heard from again.  Faith was yelling into her communicator, ordering everyone to pull back, when yet another two rose up out of the ground, just feet away.  With her Slayer’s reflexes, she barely avoided a slashing tentacle, but the writing appendage swept the PCW out of her hands and smashed it against a nearby wall.  Hand-to-hand with these things wasn’t a recipe for a long life in Faith’s book, but she didn’t have any option.  She had no confidence in her sidearm to stop one of these things, but the Sentinel Blades sheathed across her back could cut through just about anything short of solid armoured plate.

The demon’s tentacles lashed out again, Faith jumping over one and ducking under another, then retaliating with interest.  Magically-tempered Varrini steel sliced through both tentacles, the creature recoiling in pain and shock for a second, as the two now-useless stubs flailed weakly.  Then it dashed forward, intent on snapping her in half with its oversized claws.

The Slayer was ready for that, dodging the first swipe, then chopping the claw clean off.  Avoiding the other, she rolled right under the creature, using both swords to slice it open from end to end, ignoring the resultant stream of demon blood and guts.

Faith scrambled clear, only to find herself face-to-face with yet another one.  The demons were fast and persistent, and this one had a tentacle around her ankle, dragging her towards its waiting claws and gaping maw, before she could react.  Once again, a Varrini sword slashed down with deceptive ease and an economy of movement, and the creature abruptly found one of its means of attack severed and bloody in the dust.  The Slayer, meanwhile, jack-knifed into a back-flip, regained her footing and prepared to meet the next attack, weapons held low and ready.

While she knew that this could end badly, given the sheer number of demons, Faith was nevertheless enjoying herself.  It had been a while since she’d had the opportunity to Slay something, and she’d never faced anything so large and formidable, let alone in such numbers.  Her Inner Slayer was positively snarling with pleasure, frustrated at having been out of the fight for so long.  And while the sophisticated Talluran Personal Combat Weapon was excellent for dealing with demonic enemies, the Sentinel Blades felt just right, like an extension of herself.

The wounded and angry demon charged straight for her, claws levelled to stab and tear.  Warming to her task, Faith deflected the initial thrusts with her swords then, whooping like a madwoman, somersaulted onto the creature’s back.  This enemy might be big and dangerous, but they made the dumbest newly-risen vamp seem like a member of Mensa.  Not that Faith was complaining – big and stupid demons were preferable to the big and smart version, any day of the week.

“Ride ‘em, cowboy!” the Slayer grinned, balancing on the demon’s back, as it bucked and thrashed in an effort to throw her off.

One quick thrust of a sword just behind its eyes, and yet another scorpion-demon bit the dust and Faith jumped clear of the carcass to face the next one.  With the growing pile of dead demons and their component parts stacked around her, the Slayer reckoned she’d earned bragging rights over B and Cordelia for at least a year.

Two minutes later, however, she was feeling somewhat less confident, backed against a wall as four of the creature closed in on her. 

“Could really use some help here…” Faith reluctantly yelled into her mike – asking for help still went against the grain when she was slaying.

Unfortunately, the city was sufficiently large and the Tallurans’ numbers small enough, that they might not get here in time.  Swallowing her fear, Faith picked out the closest attacker and prepared to meet it head-on.

Suddenly, two of the demons noisily and messily expired in a hail of plasma bolts, while a third exploded in all directions as a grenade pierced its tough hide, blasting body parts in all directions.  Slow-witted or not, the fourth demon had the presence of mind to flee, though not quickly enough, as another grenade blew it to pieces.

Arcturian and half-a-dozen Spear troopers stepped into view, surveying a gore-spattered Faith’s handiwork with amazement and appreciation.  Now they really knew what a Slayer could do.

“Shit!  I like my fun, same as the next Slayer – but I’m fricking glad to see you guys…” Faith admitted.

“I do not think we are finished yet…” the Centurion responded tightly, pointing down the street.

There were at least forty of the creatures bearing down on them, claws extended to rip their prey apart, tentacles uncoiled and ready to grab the nearest victim.

“I think we require some heavier assistance,” Arcturian conceded, as the group backed away, weapons levelled.

“Something like this…” he continued, as two Gravity Cars skimmed along, just above the road. “And I suggest we take cover!”

The Talluran light tank equivalents sped straight towards the demons, turrets rotating into place and Plasma Cannon locking onto the creatures, which were now turning tail and running, jostling each other in their haste to flee.  A third Gravity Car emerged from a side-street, to block their line of retreat, then the three Talluran vehicles opened fire.  Five seconds of rapid fire, and the road was littered with the smoking, dismembered remains of the scorpion-demons, not one having escaped.

“Now that’s what I call a bug-zapper,” Faith remarked nonchalantly.

“Do you think we should withdraw?” the Centurion asked, warily scanning his surroundings for additional threats.

The Slayer blinked. “You’re asking me?  I wanted to get the Hell out of Dodge nearly two hours ago.  But for what it’s worth?  If these are the Blob’s minions, chances are it’ll show up to finish the job.  Personally.”

Arcturian nodded. “We will return to the House of the Heavens, and try to persuade these obstinate scientists that it is time to leave.  Their stubbornness has already cost us seven dead.”

At close range, the Faceless One’s foot soldiers had quickly proven themselves capable of overpowering and killing the Tallurans, despite the latter’s sophisticated weaponry and personal armour.  The Centurion certainly had no stomach for a repeat encounter, especially since the trio of Gravity Cars couldn’t be everywhere at once and his reinforcements had yet to arrive.

Faith raised a blood and guts-splattered Sentinel Blade. “Want me to do the talking?”

The Slayer and Arcturian arrived back at the House of the Heavens just as reinforcements arrived.  Sixteen more armoured Gravity Cars, plus half-a-dozen of the personnel carrier version with a dozen more Imperial Guard troopers apiece.  An army it wasn’t, Faith decided, but it should suffice to deal with any more attacks by the scorpion-bug-demons, at least until the archaeologists finished packing.

At least they seemed to be making progress in that direction, with most of the team waiting by the Stargate and only a handful of diehards completing their surveys. 

A team of combat engineers was also busy, but their task was somewhat different.  Faith’s nuclear recommendation had apparently been taken on board by Arcturian’s superiors, in the shape of the Imperial Guard high command, back on Tallura Prime.  The engineers were currently preparing a monstrous fifty-gigaton fusion warhead, with a Naquadah blast-enhancement shroud, as a parting gift for the Faceless One. When that exploded, it would leave a massive crater miles across, while producing a shockwave powerful enough to essentially level the cliffs below which the demon was hiding.  Such devices were rarely, if ever, used by the Tallurans.  Detonated in multiple, the fifty-gigaton devices effectively gave them a planet-busting capability, and even singly they could take out enormous tracts of a planetary surface, potentially triggering earthquakes and volcanic activity if the target area had even the slightest geological instability.

“I would have liked more time to explore the city. There must be so much more to find…” the Senior Researcher ventured wistfully, as her team dismantled the last holo-projection system.

Faith snorted.  “Knock yourself out, Professor.  Get up close and personal with that mega-bomb.  Or wait on that demon waking up…  Rest of us?  I’d sure as Hell rather not be here!”

The Researcher glanced nervously at the Slayer.  With her Integrated Battle Armour liberally coated in demon guts and gore and, according to the Centurion, having left a trail of bodies behind her, she wasn’t about to argue with the terrifyingly competent Terran.

“We will be finished momentarily,” she assured the Slayer.

Faith’s eyes meanwhile wandered over the walls.  Hundreds of Stargate addresses, leading who knew where.  The co-location of Hellmouth and Stargate made her uneasy – the addresses were practically an invitation to dine for some of the things that might emerge from the former.

“D’you recognise any of these?  I mean, you got this fuckin’ great bomb ready to blow the shit out of everything, but what if something goes wrong?  That Faceless One – if that’s what it was – might be able to squeeze its ass through the Stargate,” she suggested.

“It is rather big…” Arcturian pointed out.

“Looked kinda soft.  Like jello…  And I’m guessin’ it might just be able to pop through a Gate, like toothpaste through a tube.  So every confidence in your guys getting’ that bomb ready in time…  But shouldn’t we be taking out any address that might lead somewhere friendly?” Faith replied.

“This construction predates any of our currently inhabited planets, so I do not believe that the Empire is at risk.  One or two of these lead to neutral worlds, the others I am not so sure about,” Arcturian admitted.

Faith shook her head. “Blast the ones you recognise.  Maybe I’m bein’ paranoid on the Watcher scale…  But if the nuke doesn’t go off, I don’t want to give some demon a free lunch, y’know?”

The Centurion quickly decided that was excellent advice, drew his sidearm and methodically shot away every Gate address that even might lead somewhere inhabited.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to erase them all.

One of the engineers handed him a control and pointed out a short sequence of buttons to press. “Depress these three keys when you reach the Astria Porta.  You will then have two minutes to leave this planet, before this whole area is vaporised.”

If the blast didn’t destroy the Stargate, then the chances were that it would either be buried under tons of rubble at the bottom of the crater, or flung miles from its mounting by the blast.  The DHD certainly wouldn’t survive the experience, in any case.

Suddenly, the ground began to shake alarmingly, accompanied by a thunderous roar from outside.  Ordering the last handful of archaeologists to their Gravity Car, Arcturian and Faith rushed outside to investigate, both fearing the worst.

“Guess who’s coming to dinner!” the Slayer again felt a massive surge of demonic presence.

The Faceless One had finally run out of patience.  A formless purple-brown mass, the full width of the canyon, was rising out of the ground and oozing from the cliffs on each side.  Even at the other end of the city, it appeared much bigger than had been the case in the cave.  At about one hundred feet high, the demon towered over the ruined buildings.  Then it began to move, surprisingly swiftly for something that size.  Easily flowing over, around and through everything in its path, the Faceless One was advancing towards them at a rapid jogging pace.

Arcturian’s armoured Gravity Cars were already engaging, pumping shot after shot and a veritable hail of missiles into the creature.  Where warheads detonated or plasma bolts struck, there would be a brief smoking hole, which would simply seal over in a blink.  The demon, meanwhile, suddenly turned from purple-brown to bright red, whether from anger, pain, hunger, or sex drive, no one knew.  The Centurion didn’t even bother to deploy his ground forces, instead ordering them aboard the nearest transport and to dash for the Stargate.  The Gravity Cars, meanwhile, retreated slowly ahead of the advancing demon, still firing to no apparent effect.

Then the creature lashed out.  Most of its powers had still to return after such a long period of slumber, but a few were still intact.  A wave of intense telekinetic energy slammed into three Gravity Cars, which had foolishly allowed themselves to get too close.  The well-armoured vehicles were tossed end over end for hundreds of metres, eventually coming to rest in some of the city’s ruins, crumpled like broken children’s toys, their crews killed by the sheer force of impact. 

Again the Faceless One decided to show its power.  Two more Gravity Cars were caught in a telekinetic grasp and pulled straight into the mass.  On contact, they simply melted into metal slag.

“Don’t know about you, but I’m really not stopping to see if my stake works against that fricking thing!” Faith shuddered, then turned and dashed towards a waiting personnel carrier, Arcturian at her heels, as the remainder of his forces withdrew in disarray and sped off to safety.

The final vehicle to leave this God-forsaken former Alteran colony, the Gravity Car stopped at the wormhole’s event horizon just long enough for Arcturian to activate the bomb.  Then the vehicle shot into the Stargate, with one shaken Slayer and a dozen downright terrified Spear and Imperial Guard Special Operations troops huddled in their seats. 

“Do you encounter this type of demon often on your homeworld, Diana?” Arcturian breathed, feeling as though a decade or so had just been taken off his life.

“You shittin’ me?  Seen more vamps than you could shake a shitty stick at.  More than a few other kindsa demons, too.  But nothing like that.  I really need a Giles-type here!” Faith shook her head.

Slayer or not, sometimes you had to know when to run, she told herself.  While she hated to leave a living demon behind her, this one wasn’t in an immediate position to kill innocent civilians, and there were no living Tallurans remaining in the city.

 

Alone once more on the planet, the Faceless One succumbed to its curiosity.  A tiny part of it slithered and oozed inside the House of the Heavens, to find out what the Old Enemy had been so interested in.  They’d left some sort of weapon, it realised in amusement, examining the fusion weapon as its timer silently moved towards zero.  Perhaps even something that could harm it, the demon considered.  That was easy enough to deal with, however.  One touch of its body and the bomb was reduced to a bubbling pool of Naquadah and various other metallic compounds.

The Faceless One then turned its attention to the many Gate addresses.  It had no idea where most of them led, nor were the star maps of much help in that regard.  It hardly mattered, the creature reminded itself.  On at least some of these, there would be mortals of some species, to be hunted and devoured at leisure.  It had been created to serve the great God King of the Primordium, on a faraway world, but Ilyria had left that reality when it was but a newborn.  Perhaps in this galaxy, it could grow and regain its powers.  And here it might be the master, not the servant.

Such things could, however, wait.  For now, it was time to explore the many worlds so casually left open to attack by the Old Enemy.  With luck, some of their own people would reside on at least some of these planets and its revenge could begin.

 

Joyce’s Apartment, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 27th January 2001 (Earth Date)

It was the early hours of the next day when Faith finally made her way back to the palace, more shaken than she’d care to admit.  For once, she was neither hungry nor horny.  Right now, all she really wanted was her bed, and hopefully the nightmares would stay away, especially as she now had another nasty addition to them.  First, however, the Slayer had to check in with Joyce.  She’d been most insistent on that, after learning that Faith would potentially be facing a demon, or demons, of unknown type.

“Are you okay, Diana?  I heard a few things, but…” Joyce’s voice trailed away.

In truth, she felt slightly responsible, if only because she was part of the team investigating the ruined city. 

Faith sighed and sank down onto the sofa. “It was bad, Joyce.  Really bad.  We lost people – a lot of people.  And the planet has a Hellmouth, just to make things interesting.  Halfway across the universe, just to find another one!  First batch of demons weren’t so bad.  Totally slayable, if you were careful.  But then this fricking huge thing – like, about the size of a small town – came to the party.  Couldn’t do much – or anything – to stop the damn thing…”

“The Faceless One,” Joyce nodded.

“Not just faceless.  No arms, legs, head….  Nothing but a big blob, that can melt anything it touches and throw stuff around with magic or some kind of weird mind power.  Slayer training never covered anything like this,” Faith replied.

“But if you hadn’t made with the Latin translation, the scientists wouldn’t even had a warning, and they’d all be demon chow.  I just hope you can make something out of the stuff they brought back, ‘cause everybody thinks it might be kinda important,” she continued.

Faith sincerely hoped it was.  A lot of Spear troopers and Imperial Guard had died pretty horribly, so that the research team could complete their work.

“Thing is, we left a humungous nuke behind, but the fricking thing didn’t explode.  Don’t know if the timer failed or the blob got to it first, but the Imperial Guard sent a probe through, ‘bout an hour ago.  No big hole where there should have been – and no sign of the Faceless One.  So it’s either ducked underground again, or gone through the Stargate.  Ground around the Gate was worn smooth, so I’m guessing it’s gone on vacation somewhere…” the Slayer winced at the thought – she had a feeling that it wouldn’t be the last time she came face to face with that horror.

“We haven’t exactly been having fun here, either,” Joyce admitted tiredly. “Someone tried to kill Dawn.”

“Fuck!  Is Little D okay?” Faith’s mystical imperative to protect the Key at all costs suddenly flared into life.

“Not harmed physically, but pretty shaken up.  She’s only just fallen asleep – kept getting flashbacks.  Carolyn eventually gave her something to help her sleep.  I dare say she’ll be over it in a day or two.  This isn’t the first time something’s tried to kill her, though it’s usually a vampire…  Still, can’t blame her for being terrified,” the other woman allowed.

Faith cursed inwardly. “Shit!  I get sent all the way out here, just to protect Little D.  Then what do I do?  Run off to another fricking planet, to play at monster hunting and someone tries to kill her!  Did they get the bastard?  If not, I’m gonna get my Slayer on…”

“He’s dead.  One of Ilarius’ staff – he apparently gave his people orders to follow us whenever we left the palace.  This one took his instructions a little further…” Joyce began.

“Then the fricking Regent is a dead man!” the Slayer growled.

“There’s no proof that he was directly involved in the attempt, Diana,” Joyce replied hastily.

“Yeah, like we’re supposed to believe that…” Faith was still ready to kill Ilarius on sight.

“I’m afraid we have to, at least for now.  If it helps, he’s facing action by the Proconsular Tribunal and I believe the Empress has certain plans for him.  Also, he’ll be watched a lot more closely from now on,” Joyce told her.

Faith’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “He’ll be watched, sure as Hell!  And if he even looks at Dawn the wrong way? I swear I’ll shove my stake where the sun don’t shine…” 

She turned to Joyce, expression hard and unyielding. “And we’re really gonna step up your training.  Next time, you might be the only one between Little D and some psycho assassin.”

Joyce audibly gulped.  Faith’s training was inevitably a painful experience for a mere normal-powered human.  She already had more than ample familiarity with the ground during sparring matches, whether with SG-15 or the Imperial Guard, but the Slayer was positively merciless.  On the other hand, if being black and blue for a few days was what it took to protect her baby, then Joyce would submit to whatever training was necessary.

 

Proconsular Chambers, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 28th January 2001 (Earth Date)

The agenda for today’s Proconsular meeting was, Drayana noted, a particularly dispiriting one.  The presence of ranking Imperial Guard and Defence Force officers was ample indication of that.  Not that it was ever anything other than dry, but she’d have preferred a little less doom and gloom. 

“Intelligence on this creature, this “Faceless One”, remains rather sparse, Excellency,” Severan admitted. “Probes despatched to its planet indicate that it may have left.”

“Do we have any idea where it may be?” Drayana suppressed a shudder.

“We intercepted fragments of a distress signal from a small Khkerrikk colony world.  The message was garbled, even before decoding and translation, but it referred to something coming through the Astria Porta and consuming everything in its path, with their weapons having no effect,” Severan replied.

General Flaviar Piretus, commander of the Imperial Defence Forces, rolled his eyes.  He was never on the best of terms with his Imperial Guard counterpart, but the Empress had recently made it clear to both, and in no uncertain terms, that failure to cooperate fully would have consequences.

Piretus shook his head. “I think that sounds like our demon.  At least it is eating Khkerrikk for now, and not our people.”

“If you would permit me to continue, I will complete my report,” Severan replied dryly.

“Two Khkerrikk War Cruisers were sent to investigate and found that something had rampaged across the main city, leaving it in ruins – and there were no bodies remaining,” she continued.

“Our own security measures?” the Empress demanded.

She didn’t want any of the Talluran Empire’s worlds to be attacked without warning by this new enemy, totally different from anything her people had faced in millennia.

“Every Astria Porta can now only be accessed using the highest level security codes, with force shields activated.  Fleet units are on standby across the Empire, ready to respond immediately to any incursions,” Vertain, Proconsul for War, replied.

Given that a Talluran Heavy Cruiser or Battleship could level a small town with one or two salvoes, even without resorting to nuclear weaponry, he was confident that an orbital bombardment would suffice to deal with this particular threat.

“Should we inform the other powers as to the nature of this threat?” Drayana asked.

The Empress felt guilty that it was a Talluran expedition which was responsible for unleashing this creature on an unsuspecting Vedda Galaxy.  Especially since it was part of her own pet project.

Proconsul Bruccian, with responsibility for Alien Affairs, shook his head firmly. “The impact on our relations with the other powers might be irreparably damaged.  Especially the Khkerrikk, given that we disturbed the creature just outside their frontiers.”

Vertain agreed. “They would certainly be asking why we had an expedition operating so close to their space.  And that is not a question we could answer…”

“But if they discover that we were responsible for accidentally releasing this demon…” Drayana left the sentence unfinished.

A particularly paranoid leadership – and the Khkerrikk Star Empire had paranoia to spare – might simply consider this to be a deliberate attack, and respond accordingly.  And the Talluran Empire was in no condition to take on one of the Vedda Galaxy’s superpowers.

Technically, of course, that was exactly why they had an alliance with the Asgard.  Drayana, nevertheless, sometimes wondered how much of the Asgard threat was based on bluff.  She just hoped they wouldn’t have to put it to the test.

“We will simply have to address that problem if it arises,” Bruccian suggested, glancing around the table.

None of the other Proconsuls, nor the Empress herself, was entirely happy with the situation, but there were no other options available at present.  Sometimes in government, decision-making simply came down to choosing the best of a range of bad options.

“Anything else?” the Empress asked, hoping no one had any other bad news today.

“The matter of this phantom alliance, which Your Excellency is supposed to be signing…” Bruccian ventured.

Drayana groaned and shook her head. “Right now, I could happily make a pact with this mighty, but unknown, alien power.  If only it existed!”

The rumours spread around the local powers by Jugrub’s network of contacts were decidedly short on detail. Without any specifics on this phantom empire to deny, there was little Drayana and her Proconsuls could do to quell the resulting alarm amongst their neighbours.

The Talluran Empire’s main allies, the N’Gluk and Triannites, were somewhat frosty of late, maintaining that they were being deliberately excluded.  The Zaharte, blunt as ever, had promised unspecified consequences if Drayana did anything to upset the current balance, with similar threats from the Ch’Hanis. 

“We will continue to try to trace the source of these rumours, but they have a way of spreading and taking on a life of their own…” Marcius Restiniar, Head of the Security Bureau told the Proconsulate.

“Please do so.  We have more than enough real problems to deal with.  The diplomatic fall-out from negotiations with a non-existent alien empire?  I can live without those!” the Empress replied, with some feeling.

“Any more business?” she asked, hoping the answer would be in the negative.

One by one, her Proconsuls shook their heads.

Drayana nodded and dismissed most of them for the moment.  Only the Proconsul for Alien Affairs remained, together with the obligatory bodyguard.  Now it was time to deal with Ilarius.  The Proconsular Tribunal hadn’t taken long to reach a unanimous verdict on his behaviour.  For now, they were simply firing a warning shot, having issued a formal Note of Censure, rather than stripping him of his title.  A more honourable man would probably have opted to resign at this point, but Ilarius was too stubborn. 

That suited the Empress just fine.  His dubious activities were much easier to monitor – and potentially manipulate - while he retained an official post.  In any case, she had a myriad of official ways to make his life miserable, and every intention of using as many as possible.  Starting in the next few minutes.

“Would you please summon our esteemed Regent, Centurion?” Drayana asked Vesarian.

“It will a pleasure, Your Excellency,” her senior bodyguard replied with undisguised relish.

Watching his Empress dealing with the Regent, in her increasingly skilled fashion, was a delight.  The only thing that would be even better, in Vesarian’s ruthless opinion, would be to see the old traitor on a scaffold, waiting for the Imperial Headsman.  One step at a time, he reminded himself.

“Your Excellency wished to see me?” Ilarius acknowledged, dipping his head and desperately trying to hide the loathing in his voice.

The Proconsular Tribunal, where the Regent had few if any allies, had thoroughly examined his various alleged misdeeds, before delivering a humiliating rebuke.  Ilarius also knew he’d been lucky.  The charge of Gross Disrespect to the Imperial Throne could have resulted in loss of title, and his very comfortable stipend, plus the estates to which he was entitled as Regent, consigning him to political and social oblivion.  Ilarius was also very aware that one more slip and Drayana’s allies would pounce.

Not that this setback would change his plans.  The Regent decided that he’d simply have to be more circumspect in future, and perhaps bide his time until conditions were more favourable.  He also needed to surround himself with more competent accomplices.  With hindsight, employing his own servants as spies –especially without background checks of his own to make sure they had no embarrassing connections to groups such as the Hand of Purity – had been a grave error.  Next time round, he’d use properly trained individuals, who could avoid Imperial Guard counter-surveillance techniques. 

Ilarius was already considering his next move.  Nevertheless, for now it might be necessary to play the humble and chastened imperial flunkey.

It might, he realised, have been a good idea to slip away for a few days, to lick his wounds far away from Yaherin Var, the Imperial Palace and Drayana’s too-numerous followers.  That, however, would look like an admission of defeat.

Drayana nodded. “I have an important task for you Ilarius.  One of some delicacy…”

The Empress had put some thought into this.  First of all, she wanted the Regent removed from the Imperial court for a while – even a few weeks – so that she wasn’t continually looking over her shoulder.  It would also give her greater freedom to move against his supporters and purge them from positions of authority.  The mission Drayana had in mind would, moreover, keep him isolated from the Empire during his absence.  Finally, the task was anything but important – and he’d be thoroughly miserable.

“As ever, I am at your service, Empress,” Ilarius replied in fawning tones.

“I am sure you are, Regent,” Drayana responded smoothly, the words “and never forget it” implied, rather than said, but clearly understood on both sides.

A dozen retorts came to Ilarius’ mind, but he wisely kept them to himself.  For now, the brat had the upper hand and wasn’t averse to reminding him.

“Would you care to brief the Regent?” the Empress turned to the Proconsul for Alien Affairs.

Mettius Bruccian nodded. “I have need of a special envoy, to conduct negotiations with the Imshai…”

“The Imshai?” Ilarius almost choked.

Bruccian smiled faintly. “Yes, the Imshai.  They have recently expressed interest once more in strengthening diplomatic links with us, perhaps in anticipation of a trade and security pact?”

“Is that a problem for you, Ilarius?” Drayana asked innocently.

For a moment, the Empress thought he’d explode.  He was quite clearly seething and unable to conceal the hatred in his eyes.

“Of course not, Your Excellency,” the Regent answered, voice devoid of the animosity that was clearly oozing from every pore. “It would just seem to be rather a waste of resources to send a full diplomatic mission, given the comparatively minor significance of the Imshai in galactic affairs and our prior experiences with them…”

“Every sentient species deserves our respect, Ilarius,” Drayana reminded him.

Bruccian handed over a data-pad. “The Imshai occupy a location of some small strategic importance, close to the Haamarii Protectorate, and have suggested that they might be willing to permit us to construct a monitoring network and fleet basing facilities within their space.  In return, they would seek some assurances on protection and greater access to our trading markets.  It would seem a fair exchange.

“And we are not sending a full diplomatic mission at this stage.  It will simply be yourself, plus a few aides from the Diplomatic Directorate and a security detail.  Your purpose is simply to agree protocol for the full-scale talks,” the Proconsul continued.

That was a double slap in the face, Bruccian knew.  Not only was Ilarius being sent on a comparatively low-priority mission, albeit one which promised considerable benefits to both sides if an agreement was eventually reached, but he was also excluded from the main negotiating team.  Furthermore, as experts in diplomacy, it would be Ilarius’ aides who actually ran this mission.  The Regent was simply there to give the Talluran presence some heavier political clout.  Bruccian’s people, with the Imperial Guard and Security Directorate staff, would also ensure that he did nothing contrary to Talluran interests while off-world.

Then there were the Imshai themselves, and their bleak homeworld.  An ice-bound planet, polar caps covering eighty percent of the surface in summer, it was distinctly inhospitable to almost everyone except its inhabitants.  The Imshai were a carnivorous and bipedal mammalian species, their closest physical analogue perhaps being a Terran Polar Bear, albeit one that was even stronger and more aggressive if provoked.  They were the only known sentient species in the Vedda Galaxy which more than matched the Ch’Hanis for strength and potential ferocity.  Unlike the reptilians, however, they weren’t in the habit of eating other sentients, but were short-tempered enough to quite literally bite the head of anyone who crossed them.

Technologically, the Imshai were somewhat more advanced than most of their small neutral contemporaries, the problems imposed by their extreme planetary environment notwithstanding.  In some key areas, they were almost on a par with the Tallurans and, while restricted by a fairly small population restricted to only two worlds in a single star system, nevertheless operated a formidable fleet, able to inflict a heavy toll on any stronger would-be conqueror.

Temperamentally, the Imshai were also extremely difficult to deal with on a diplomatic level.  Their society was highly structured, with a specific protocol for just about everything in life, and pedantic to a degree that would drive an outsider mad.  As the Tallurans had discovered in the past, even agreeing the terms under which negotiations would take place could take weeks or months, then end in an impasse.  So Ilarius could look forward to many long days around a conference table, shivering in the chilly conditions favoured by the Imshai, discussing and arguing about inconsequential minutiae.

Then and there, Bruccian decided that he’d best never get on the wrong side of his Empress.  If crossed, she could quite clearly be extremely inventive in her retribution.

“You have only five hours to pack, meet your team, and attend a full briefing in my Directorate building.  The Imshai will be expecting you to exit the Astria Porta on their homeworld not a second early or late,” the Proconsul told him.

Ilarius nodded, wondering why he’d been dragged in here for such a perfunctory briefing.  Of course, he knew the answer to that question.  Drayana simply wanted to revel in his discomfiture.  Part of him was tempted to resign, if only to maintain some dignity, but he refused to surrender so easily.  Even if this mission to the Imshai homeworld was the last thing he wanted now, or ever.

“In that case, Your Excellency, I will take my leave,” Ilarius dipped his head and retreated towards the door.

“Do not forget to pack some warm underwear, or something might fall off…” the Empress added mischievously, unable to help herself.

The discomfited Regent didn’t dignify her gibe with an answer.  But revenge would be his, even if he had to live another two centuries.

The Proconsul shook his head and chuckled. “While I appreciate seeing our Regent cut down to a more appropriate size, that last part – and I am sure your parents would agree – was rather unkind and inappropriate…”

“So I am a bad person,” Drayana admitted, utterly unrepentant. “At least he now knows there are consequences even for his small-scale conspiracies…”

Vesarian cleared his throat. “If I were you, Your Excellency, I would also be worrying about consequences.  Since you are on the verge of being late for lessons…”

The Empress abruptly wiped the smile from her face and was out of her chair in a flash, grabbing her bag and books and nervously dashing from the room.  Reasons of state or not, her father didn’t tolerate a lack of punctuality for any reason short of a planetary emergency.

“Interesting transformation,” Bruccian remarked to Vesarian. “From Empress of twenty-one billion, who can make her Proconsuls and Regent do her bidding at a snap of her fingers, to a schoolgirl afraid of her tutor’s wrath.”

“Underneath the Imperial veneer, there is still some child remaining,” Vesarian agreed.

“And may she continue to enjoy it for a year or two yet,” Bruccian concurred.

 

The Schoolroom, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 30th January 2001 (Earth Date)

A paper pellet bounced off Faith’s head.  It was the second time in as many minutes and this pair were really beginning to bug her.

“I swear, if you pair don’t knock it off, I’ll skin your hides…” she growled at a giggling Drayana and Dawn.

“You wouldn’t!” the youngest Summers responded confidently.

“Wouldn’t I?  I’ve got permission from both your moms, to do what needs to be done when you step outa line.  So maybe I’ll make with the whuppin’ – or even better, just tell ‘em both you’re actin’ up,” the Slayer threatened.

“You’d fink on us?” Dawn sounded outraged.

“Treacherous informant!” Drayana folded her arms.

Faith smirked. “Hell, yeah!  So do yourselves a favour and hit the frickin’ books.  And give me some peace to do my stuff.  ‘Cause it’s hard…”

Still working towards her High School equivalency tests, Faith had already decided that Physics wasn’t for her.  She wasn’t exactly strong at Math, either and there was way too much of that involved in this particular science.  Nevertheless, the Slayer was determined to do the best she possibly could in everything, if only to give her the widest possible range of options later.  General Hammond had raised the possibility of her attending college in Colorado Springs, an idea enthusiastically backed by Buffy and Cordelia.  At first, she’d been somewhat dismissive of the idea, claiming that she wasn’t intelligent enough.  Lam had countered that particular argument by saying that lack of a previous education didn’t equate to lack of intelligence, then proceeded to show Faith just how smart she actually was.

Which wasn’t making the Physics crap any easier, the Slayer reminded herself.  She needed every ounce of concentration and Myrnn’s two students weren’t helping at all.

The Imperial Tutor looked up from his books and fixed the two offenders with a glare.  They’d spent the entire morning whispering, giggling, and irritating their older classmate.  Anything but work.  It was partially his own fault for being excessively tolerant today, but a line had to be drawn.   

“I agree wholeheartedly with Diana.  This will be my fifth warning this morning and I am only being excessively lenient because I understand that you are both somewhat excited and diverted by the prospect of the Imperial Gathering this evening.  Nevertheless, if I have to warn you again, I will not merely assign a written punishment exercise, nor tickle your hands with my rod.  Instead, Drayana, I will ask your mother to warm both your behinds.  And that warning will continue to stand in lessons for all of next week.  Do I make myself clear?” Myrnn warned ominously.

In any mainstream Talluran school, the pair would have been yelping already.  The Imperial Tutor decided he was growing softer with age.  And perhaps fatherhood also had something to do with it.  He was increasingly finding it difficult to be cross with his adopted daughter, in or out of school hours, while Livia was adamant that she wouldn’t be the sole voice of parental authority in the family.

“Sorry…” Dawn and the Empress chorused meekly, before hastily returning to their allotted tasks.

“And hooray!” Faith muttered, returning to the complexities of falling bodies, friction, velocity, mass, acceleration and half-a-dozen other variables.

Eventually, she’d have to give up and start readying herself for this Imperial gig tonight.  The Slayer had finally resigned herself to wearing a dress, getting the hairdo, and all the accoutrements, even if she still reckoned she’d need help from Joyce and Lam to put it all together.  Hell, she even had a cute guy to take her to the party, and Bill Sato was admittedly quite pleasing to the eye.  Plus the food was apparently enough even to satisfy a Slayer’s appetite.

The downside was all the brown-nosers she expected to encounter at a function of this type.  Faith was pretty sure she’d rather go head-to-head with that monstrosity back at the ruined city, than mingle with the Talluran great and the good.  Heck, even spending a night wrestling with Physics problems might be preferable.

Still, Drayana was eager that she should attend, along with all her new Terran friends, and Faith didn’t want to upset or offend her Blood-Bond sister.  It might even be a little fun, the Slayer conceded.

Myrnn, meanwhile, quietly walked over to the double desk shared by his two students.  The two girls looked up nervously, as his shadow fell across them, but he didn’t seem overly cross.

“Perhaps you should both simply finish what you are doing, then take some time to relax before you get ready for the Gathering,” the Imperial Tutor offered.

Myrnn realised he was perhaps being overly indulgent, but also reminded himself that neither had exactly been having an easy time of late.  Both girls had narrowly escaped with their lives from assassination bids, and Dawn from a Ch’Hanis kidnapping attempt, while Drayana had been forced to order military action for the first time in her life.  Not to mention the shock of discovering that there were a few individuals out there who wanted her dead.  The Gathering, therefore, might be just what they both needed to unwind.  In fact, he’d discussed this with his wife just the night before, and they were more than ever convinced that their new daughter desperately needed at least a week away from the pressures of Empire-spanning government and the overgrown bureaucracy of Yaherin Var.

“Maybe you also ought to finish your studies early, Diana?” Myrnn suggested to Faith.

The Slayer nodded. “Just gonna kill this part.  Don’t want the frickin’ thing waiting for me after the weekend.”

“I would assist you,” Myrnn said. “But my skills in your language are less than rudimentary.  I cannot even read the question…”

“That’s ‘cause you don’t have one of these Asgard gizmos in your neck,” Faith tapped herself just below one ear.

“But not much point in doing this, if I have to ask the answers, is there?” she pointed out reasonably. “I gotta do it myself, or it isn’t worth squat. ‘Sides, I understand the stuff, just takes me a while, is all.”

The Slayer grinned at the Imperial Tutor. “Looks like the two Ds have shut up shop for the day, Arius…”

Myrnn turned around, only to find the girls’ desk empty and their work incomplete.  They’d taken off with an impressive degree of stealth, the moment his back was turned.

“I could have sworn that I said they could only leave after their current work was completed…” he growled good-naturedly. “They are rather pushing the limits today.”

“Just playing hooky.  Not like they make a habit of it.  And compared to me at their age?  They’re fricking paragons,” Faith assured him.

 

It was a pleasantly warm day in the Imperial Palace gardens, Drayana and Dawn lying on the grass soaking up the rays, while the former idly strummed and plucked at a lute-like instrument she was learning to play.  Clearly, the Empress had a lot of learning to do, at least to Dawn’s ears.  Tone-deaf didn’t quite cover it, as Livia had also previously confided to her daughter’s friend.  Still, it wouldn’t do to tell Drayana that she couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

“We gonna be in trouble for sneaking out when your dad’s back was turned?” Dawn pulled the petals from a daisy-like flower one at a time.

Drayana shook her head. “Most likely not.  I think today we have something of a free pass.  Next week, however?  I would suggest that we are on our best behaviour.”

“One angelic Dawn coming up…” Dawn replied with a giggle.

“More like demonic, from what I have seen,” the Empress averred.

Her Terran friend snickered. “Guess I’m just a bad influence.  You must’ve been a proper goody-two-shoes before I arrived!”

“On the contrary, I can be mischief incarnate, when I am so-minded.  I have enjoyed playing tricks on father – and my various specialist tutors – for many years.  Being educated alone did not mean that I was completely uninventive,” Drayana assured her with an impish grin, producing a particularly unpleasant high-pitched screech from her instrument.

She pursed her lips. “I just cannot manage that cord, not without losing a finger…”

“Maybe you should stop?” Dawn suggested innocently.

The Empress paused. “You are saying that, in your language, I suck?”

“Kinda…” her friend admitted with a shrug and an embarrassed smile.

“It has been suggested – on numerous occasions and by many different people – that I should acquire a proper instructor,” Drayana admitted.

Dawn nodded enthusiastically. “Sounds like a plan…”

She decided to change the subject, in case Drayana was sensitive about her musical skills.

“So the Imperial Gathering?  You really seem to be pretty psyched about it…”

Drayana smiled broadly. “It is tremendous fun.  I must at least play the part of the Empress, of course, but I leave the political gossip to others.  For me, it is an opportunity to meet new people, dance and listen to the music, eat fine food, and talk with others my own age…”

“Like, boys?” Dawn probed.

The Empress sighed. “Not yet.  When I come of age, I will be permitted to date whoever I wish.  Until then?  It is discouraged…  Any marriage – and I will be expected to marry – must, however, be approved by the Proconsulate.”

“You can’t date now?  Even at your age?” Dawn asked in horrified tones.

“I would not go quite that far.  It would be allowed, within limits.  But can you imagine a successful date, with Vesarian scowling in the background?  The bravest of boys would run for his life within minutes,” Drayana predicted.

“Guess I’ll be the same, when I’m old enough to date properly.  Cordy and Buffy will get all scary and make with the threats.  And I’ll die unmarried…” Dawn made a face. “Even the guys I have as friends – not boyfriends, just friends – get the Slayer treatment.”

“I am sure there will be numerous Talluran boys at the Gathering tonight.  And some might want to be your friend.  Your sisters are in another galaxy, after all,” the Empress suggested.

“Diana will probably take over as chief scarer-of-guys.  Then there’s the part where I might make friends with someone, only to leave in four months,” Dawn said wistfully.

“Just like I’ll have to leave you behind,” she added pensively. “You know, part of me would love to stay here.  If my sisters weren’t back on Earth…  And I think mom feels kinda the same way.”

The Empress put an arm across her friend’s shoulders. “I will think of some way to keep in contact with you, though I am a little short on specifics right now.  There is no problem that cannot be solved, after all.

“But try not to think of that tonight.  I want you and Aunt Joyce – and everyone from Earth – to enjoy yourselves tonight,” she urged.

At least there wouldn’t be Talluran supremacist idiots or traitors, lurking around every corner at this event, Drayana mused.  Perhaps they could enjoy themselves for just one night, without anything happening to spoil it.  Without someone trying to kill them, for example.

 

Qe’Exhava, Neutral Zone Between the Haamarii Protectorate, Forvon Imperium and Talluran Empire – 30th January 2001

There were places in the Vedda Galaxy which lay outside the jurisdiction of the established powers.  Often situated in the neutral space between the rivals, these were able to take full advantage of their autonomy, and seldom to good purpose.  Qe’Exhava was like many, a small world with a single settlement, run by an alliance of convenience between powerful criminals of various races, who oversaw and ignored – for a price – all manner of nefarious activities.  Occasionally such dens of iniquity pushed the boundaries too far, and the neighbouring powers would briefly ally to close them down.  On the other hand, neutral colonies such as Qe’Exhava had their uses, even to the major powers.  It was in such places that the various intelligence and security services received much of their most useful information.  Equally, there were any number of unsavoury characters willing, at an appropriately extortionate rate, to perform missions and services that were regarded as too sensitive, or just plain distasteful, for mainstream government operatives.

Qe’Exhava had so far avoided the attentions of its three neighbours.  Or if not avoided, it wasn’t yet regarded as too inconvenient to warrant an awkward alliance and a visit from several warships full of marines.  Jugrub was taking full advantage of that fact right now.  He needed a place to lie low, until the heat died down on Tallura Prime.  The Ch’Hanis couldn’t return home either, not if he wanted to keep his hide intact.  While the reptilian still had some friends in the Ch’Hanis Freehold, they were proving to be fewer than he might have expected, while the authorities wanted his head on a spike.  Right now, he was just too embarrassing to them.

Jugrub’s talents were, however, exactly suited to a place like Qe’Exhava.  He also still maintained a strong network of contacts across the region, often located in places just like this.  As a result, the reptilian could still arrange a wide variety of services for anyone who was willing to pay enough.

It meant, of course, that he spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around seedy joints like this one, disreputable even by Qe’Exhava’s unexacting standards.  The lighting was purposely dim and the atmosphere was thick, several of the Vedda Galaxy’s species having the – at least in Jugrub’s view – odd habit of inhaling the smoke of burning herbs of various types.  Some of the species present had quite a pungent bodily odour, while a full range of stale alien cooking smells added to the odour.

The usual range of suspects were plying their wares.  Prostitutes and so-called exotic dancers of several species, sellers of illegal narcotics, purveyors of information, assassins, thieves.  Just about every form of low-life was present.

This time, the client was a Xicavvar.  That was rather unusual, as the insectoids tended to avoid places like this.  There wasn’t much of a criminal element among the Xicavvar, since they were conditioned from inception to occupy a specific niche in society.  Still, there were always a few who went rogue.

“You wish my assistance?” Jugrub leaned across the greasy table and examined the four-armed insectoid sitting opposite him, while also looking around to make sure they weren’t being overheard.

He’d already checked the booth for listening devices and uncovered two.  One was no longer active and had probably been there for a while, the other was an amateurish-looking device, most likely planted by the bartender, in the hope of easy blackmail, or of obtaining information to sell.  Jugrub decided he’d have a talk with that individual later.  

The Xicavvar had the coloration of a relatively high-ranking government or military official and the reptilian decided that this might just as easily be politically motivated request, as one purely criminal in intent.  That of course increased the risks, but also the price.

The insectoid’s mandibles clicked together nervously. “I wish to purchase a significant quantity of weapons grade Naquadah.”

“How significant?” the amount would give the Ch’Hanis some idea as to whether the Xicavvar was simply indulging in a little arms dealing, or something bigger.

“Sufficient to fill the cargo area of five Gakrona-class cargo shuttles,” the Xicavvar lowered its voice.

Jugrub blinked.  That was a very large amount indeed, perhaps at the limits of what he could easily obtain.

“Planning to outfit a battle fleet?” the Ch’Hanis asked.

“Our intentions are not open to discussion, but I require absolute discretion,” the Xicavvar retorted.

Jugrub regarded the insectoid with a cold reptilian eye.  Discretion was all that made deals like this possible and if his would-be client had been anything but a Xicavvar, he would have found himself eaten for that insult.  As it was, most Ch’Hanis steered clear of the insectoids from a culinary point of view.  They just tasted too bad.

“Discretion is assured.  But obtaining weapons grade Naquadah in such volumes, without drawing attention, will be a very lengthy process.  The risks are also considerable, so I will require appropriate remuneration,” Jugrub told him.

“The costs are not an issue.  Nor, within reason, is the timescale.  We will, however, require proof that you can deliver the quantities and quality required,” the Xicavvar replied.

Jugrub took a long pull from his drink.  This seemed promising, though he’d run such background checks as were possible, to at least partially eliminate the chance that this was a trap.  That was always the risk of doing business in a location such as Qe’Exhava.

“What would you suggest?  And bear in mind that I have a certain reputation for dealing rather unpleasantly with those who attempt to cheat me…” the reptilian always opened his negotiations with a warning.  

The Ch’Hanis was determined to extract the maximum of profit from this deal.  Revenge, properly devised and executed, was an expensive business.  And he had plenty of revenge to take care of.  His own government, Regent Ilarius, and the Tallurans in general.  Five shiploads of Naquadah should earn him enough to wreak vengeance on all of them, three times over.

 

 

    
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