Crime and Punishment
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:
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). Joyce’s Apartment, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 4th February 2001 (Earth Date)
Joyce and Dawn had finally found Talluran breakfast foods they both enjoyed. Unlike the food typically eaten at other meals, they’d found local morning fare distinctly unappetising. A little searching and experimentation, however, and Joyce was now able to produce a reasonable facsimile of what they both considered to be a tasty and nutritious breakfast.
Wade Logan had again joined them this morning, as he had each day since the Gathering. The Colonel had also taken Joyce for dinner two nights previously and they were now planning their next date. For her part, Dawn was delighted with this turn of events and certainly wasn’t averse to sharing her mother with the big USAF officer. Maybe he might even be her dad at some point in the future.
The youngster scooped another spoonful of the cereal Joyce had created from sugar, local dried fruits and toasted grains into her mouth. One thing was certain, she thought darkly. Logan couldn’t be a worse father than Hank. He’d four-timed her mother, left Cordelia with parents who hated her, locked Buffy away in a mental institution, and hadn’t even called his daughters when their mother was ill with a brain tumour. Dawn was with her oldest sister all the way, when she said that Hank wasn’t her father any more.
But it was nice to see her mother with a guy once more. Logan made her smile a lot and laugh, and even a twelve-year-old could see that they enjoyed each other’s company.
“I’ve been thinking, mom…” Dawn began hesitantly.
“Always a bad sign,” Joyce declared with a chuckle, smearing the local butter equivalent onto her first attempt at home-made bread.
The youngster pouted slightly. “Hey! No fair! I do a lot of thinking…”
“That’s what makes you so dangerous,” Logan ventured, with a grin, only to receive a patented Dawn glare.
“Is this official Insult Dawn Day?” she asked the two adults.
“I was just gonna say that this is a big apartment, right?” Dawn continued.
Joyce nodded, wondering where this was going. “Yes dear, I suppose it is. You even have your own suite of rooms.”
Dawn nodded. “And Colonel Logan comes for breakfast every morning, right?”
“Uh, yes…” her mother’s guard went up.
“Why doesn’t he just move in here, then?” Dawn suggested.
Joyce paused in mid-bite, while Logan almost choked on his local coffee equivalent.
“That’s a little fast for both of us, honey,” Joyce offered, reddening slightly and exchanging glances with her new boyfriend.
“Fast? But… Oh!” Dawn suddenly turned bright red. “I just meant he’d be closer for breakfast, is all.”
“Not that it isn’t a tempting idea,” Logan teased, looking her mother up and down.
“I never should have had that talk with her,” Joyce shrugged.
“ ‘Talk’?” the Colonel responded as though mystified.
Joyce raised her eyebrows. “You know… The Talk…”
The youngster realised she’d just obliquely suggested that her mother and Logan move in together. Perhaps leading to mom-sex, which was a horrible thought, especially as she was the one who’d accidentally brought up the topic. The two adults were laughing gently – at her - and Dawn just wanted the floor to open and swallow her up.
“I’m just down the corridor. It’s not a hundred miles away. And your mother knows where to find me… Uh…” Logan realised he wasn’t making things any better, judging by the mischievous twinkle in Joyce’s eyes.
“Shutting up now…” Dawn promised, reaching for her juice.
Maybe she ought to make her matchmaking a little less blatant, she decided. After all, there was no need to rush this. Breakfast and dinner dates were fine, but old people sex a few rooms away from hers, she preferred not to think about for now. Drayana’s Office, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 4th February 2001 (Earth Date)
The wheels of Talluran military justice turned much more rapidly than those of the civilian variety, Drayana reflected glumly. While the trials of Helia Tren and ex-Governor Pyriam – together with the escaped prisoners on Thenatrix – weren’t due to begin for another six weeks, the Military Tribunal had started two days previously and had already reached a verdict and sentence.
Admittedly, the evidence against the five officers had been conclusive and damning and, in a High Treason trial, the charges were quite straightforward. Attempts to claim the temporary insanity defence had failed miserably for each of them, especially since all Imperial Defence Force personnel were regularly subjected to physical and psychological health testing. In the face of overwhelming medical evidence, each officer’s defence case therefore collapsed in a matter of minutes. Guilty verdicts were inevitable, as was the sentence, and all had decided not to appeal. In such instances, Talluran justice moved rapidly to the penalty phase.
“You must sign, Your Excellency,” the senior Military Justice told her gently, indicating a pile of official documents.
Death Warrants for five IDF officers – two women, three men. Her signature was all it would take to seal their fate and, indeed, under the law she had no option but to sign the papers.
Sitting at the desk, head in her hands, the Empress had been hoping that her own legal advisers would find a loophole, but so far the search had been fruitless. With another thirty-three convicts facing the same charges, plus Pyriam and Helia Tren, Drayana had a sinking feeling that she’d be signing a lot of warrants in the coming months.
Hopefully her legal advisers would find a way to save at least some of them from the block. The Empress knew her opinion was a minority one amongst the population, especially those who’d lost family members to the Xicavvar on Thenatrix, but she was firmly of the opinion that a society which retained the death penalty couldn’t call itself truly civilized. Not that Drayana could blame the citizens of Thenatrix. She suspected her own principles might not stand the test if someone were to harm her adopted little sister or parents. And High Treason was always regarded as a particularly heinous crime because it threatened the state with chaos, anarchy, and the potential for mass death in societal breakdown. That was the theory she’d learned, anyhow. In actuality, Drayana seriously doubted that Talluran society would have imploded had Helia Tren succeeded in killing her.
“Your Excellency?” the Justice pressed once more.
“You will wait. I will not be rushed when people’s lives are at stake,” Drayana told him sternly, lifting her head.
She read the papers again, then once more, hoping to find an error which might allow her to order a stay of execution, or even a retrial. She had no such luck. The IDF Procurators were too good at their jobs. Slowly, the Empress reached for her pen and Imperial Seal, then slowly began to write. I Drayana the First, Lady Empress High Defender of all the Tallurans, hereby confirm the aforementioned sentence of death for High Treason Against the Empire, to be carried out by means of beheading.”
Tomorrow, aged sixteen and not yet legally an adult in all respects, she’d nevertheless be expected to stand on the scaffold erected in Vis Aren, where the still-angry population would watch as she personally ordered the Imperial Headsman to do his duty. Already Drayana felt dirty and she dreaded the next day.
She wearily completed the last of the Death Warrants, plus five duplicates for her own records, the Military Justice taking his leave.
Drayana turned to Vesarian. “You can go home, Shar. It is getting late and I wish to be left alone for a while…”
Her bodyguard knew what she must be going through. While he personally disagreed with her stance on how to deal with traitors, Vesarian nevertheless felt considerable sympathy for his Empress. She regarded him as a friend every bit as much as her bodyguard, and few others in Imperial service were as sensitive to her changing moods and feelings. Tonight, Vesarian knew Drayana was deeply unhappy, though admittedly it didn’t take a genius to figure that out, he reflected wryly.
“Is there anything I can do?” he offered.
“Unless you can change the Constitution overnight? Not much I am afraid. You might as well leave me to wallow in self-pity…” Drayana chuckled bitterly.
“Never self-pity, Your Excellency,” Vesarian returned softly, as he closed the door behind him.
Not self-pity, he repeated to himself. Just a terrible weight of responsibility for one so young, with an archaic Constitution allowing – even demanding – that a girl little more than a child should be responsible for matters of life and death. Vesarian suspected that if Drayana hadn’t been so honourable, she’d have abdicated on this particular point of principle. But the Empress had always said she was there to serve the law and her people, not the other way around. And if she abandoned her post now – quite apart from the sense of personal dishonour she’d feel – it would mean putting Sulvia in the throne. That was one thing Drayana would never countenance, so long as she drew breath.
On the other side of the door, Vesarian could hear his sovereign and friend start to sob. He sadly shook his head and walked away down the corridor.
Half-an-hour later, Joyce was heading back to her apartment after a very enjoyable evening coffee with Logan. Passing Drayana’s Office, she could hear the young Empress crying quietly to herself. Hesitating for a moment, she knocked on the door.
“Yes?” Drayana tried to sound more like an Empress and less like a troubled child.
“It’s your Aunt Joyce. Is everything alright?” Joyce asked, hoping she wasn’t overstepping her bounds.
“Not really… Please come in,” Drayana answered tearfully.
The Empress’ face was red and her eyes puffy with crying, in marked contrast to her usual composure.
“Honey, what’s the matter?”
Drayana pointed to the duplicate Death Warrants on her desk. “I did not want to, but the law gives me no choice. Tomorrow, I will be present at the executions. And now – may the Goddess forgive me - their blood will be on my hands…”
Not much more than the two million dead on Xicammar, a treacherous voice inside her head reminded her. Of course, it was easier when the victims were light years away, rather than facing a brutal death by axe right in front of her eyes.
Joyce didn’t know what to say, but it seemed like a time for action rather than words, and Drayana certainly knew what she needed. The Empress practically launched herself out of her chair and into her new Aunt’s arms, buried her face in the older woman’s neck, and cried her eyes out.
“P-please do not tell Dawn,” she hiccupped. “She will think I am a t-terrible person!”
“Dawn will think nothing of the sort,” Joyce assured Drayana, gently rubbing her back. “She knows that as Empress, you sometimes have to do things you don’t want to.”
“But…” the Empress was about to protest.
“ ‘But’ nothing,” Joyce told her firmly. “If I know my daughter, it’ll take more than some ancient law to harm your friendship. Still, if you don’t want me to tell Dawn, then I won’t. Though perhaps you should at some point, before she finds out.”
She paused. “But have you told your parents how you feel about this? Maybe there’s nothing you can do, but I’m quite sure they’d still want you to talk to them.”
“But they will think I am a weak Empress…” Drayana replied miserably.
Her parents had softened noticeably in their attitudes since she actually took the throne, but as her Guardian, Livia – assisted by Myrnn – had always taught her that weakness was never a good thing in a sovereign. She wasn’t sure how they’d react to this display of sentiment for convicted traitors. On the other hand, given the number of enemies she seemed to be collecting, perhaps a little steel in her backbone might not be such a bad thing.
“Oh piffle! You’re a young woman with a terrific weight on her shoulders, not some emotionless old tyrant! You go and talk to your mother,” Joyce used her most effective maternal tones, while masking the anger she felt at a system which placed a girl only four years older than Dawn in such a dreadful position.
Just like the cruel fate who’d decided that Buffy would be the Slayer. The age was similar, the responsibilities enormous – if radically different – and the weight of expectations likewise heavy.
“Yes Aunt Joyce,” Drayana said quickly. “Will you come with me?”
“I’ll walk back with you, but I really think this is something just the two of you need to share,” Joyce replied.
Livia would give her a sympathetic hearing and another shoulder to cry on, of that Joyce was sure. She’d spoken more than once with Drayana’s mother, and the older woman now deeply regretted her inflexible approach to raising and training the young Princess Imperial. Now Livia – and Arius Myrnn for that matter - just wanted to be as supportive as possible. Imperial Guard Shooting Range, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 5th February 2001 (Earth Date)
The sharp crack of Terran firearms mingled with the quieter, flatter thud of Talluran plasma weapons on the shooting range. With Myrnn absent, Drayana on undisclosed Imperial duties, and Dawn more than up to date with her schoolwork, the latter had been allowed a day away from her studies. Joyce was still hard at work on her translation duties, but Faith had offered to entertain her daughter for the day, an arrangement Dawn was more than happy with. Faith might not be quite the soft touch she’d imagined, but the Slayer was still great fun, like a combination big sister and eccentric Aunt.
There had been one condition set on Dawn’s freedom, however. The assassination attempt was still fresh in everyone’s mind, so the youngster had to spend an hour with Faith on hand-to-hand combat, and another half-hour on the shooting range. Given that Dawn was quite attached to the idea of staying alive, plus the bonus of being able to return to Earth and show her sisters how capable she now was of taking care of herself, she hadn’t been unhappy with the arrangement.
Dawn’s abilities with a handgun were, at best, still patchy. Today, however, Lieutenant Henriksson had decided to try her on something different. With its shoulder stock and relatively low recoil, Dawn was able to handle the compact MP5K-PDW submachine-gun reasonably well, so long as she kept to semi-auto or two-round burst modes. Firing over iron sights, she was actually hitting the target silhouette in vital areas about two-thirds of the time, with about half of the remaining shots at least striking less important areas. Since SG-15 fitted laser aiming spots to their weapons when on duty outside the palace, there was a very good chance that she’d be much more accurate in an emergency.
Now Dawn was exceptionally pleased with herself. Every one of her last ten shots, fired in pairs, had struck a critical area. Even Cordy would have to take her shooting seriously now, she grinned to herself.
“Good shooting!” Henriksson told her approvingly, from his safety overwatch position behind the youngster.
He’d drawn Dawn Duty today, while the rest of the team observed an Imperial Guard assault landing exercise. The most junior officer in SG-15 wasn’t complaining, however. This assignment had proven to be the most varied and interesting of his career, not words which were normally associated with bodyguarding duties. Besides, the kid - and, for that matter, the Slayer – were genuinely fun to be around. Going through the Gate would almost seem routine after this mission was over, he mused.
Dawn beamed at the compliment and suddenly turned around. “D’you really think so? ‘Cause I think I’m really…”
Henriksson froze on the spot, as he found himself looking into the muzzle of her weapon. With the safety catch still off, live rounds in the magazine, and her finger alarmingly close to the trigger. In other words, a potentially lethal situation with an inexperienced shooter.
“Dawn? Don’t move a muscle…” Faith ordered quietly and calmly, reaching out and pushing the weapon down and to one side, simultaneously flipping the safety catch on.
Henriksson exhaled with relief. He wasn’t sure how to deal with this. In the armed forces, carelessness with firearms was dealt with very severely indeed. Dawn had just committed several cardinal sins of range safety. Failing to keep her weapon pointed down-range, sweeping friendlies with the muzzle, leaving the safety catch off, and keeping her finger inside the guard. The rules had also been regularly drummed into her head since her first day on the range, and this was the kind of slip that killed people.
He wanted to ream her out on the spot, but reminded himself that she wasn’t a soldier, just a twelve year-old kid, learning to use firearms for the first time in her life. Still, range safety rules had to be inviolable, and she had to made to understand that.
Dawn was staring sat him with wide, horror-filled eyes. “I’m really, really sorry…”
Henriksson took a deep breath and took what he hoped was an appropriate scolding tone for a girl that wasn’t his daughter. “I’m sure you are, Dawn, but that was a very dangerous…”
Faith put a hand on his arm. “Okay if I deal with this? And can we maybe keep it between the three of us? Just this once?”
The Lieutenant was quite happy to let the Slayer deal with the problem. After all, he found it really hard to be mad at the youngster, even if she’d come within a hair’s breadth of blowing his head off.
“Fine by me, so long as she doesn’t make a habit of it…”
Faith handed Dawn’s MP5K to the Lieutenant and took her firmly by the arm. “Right missy… Me and you are gonna have a talk!”
Henriksson suddenly had the distinct feeling that the miscreant might have been better off if he’d been the one to reprimand her. Diana Prince could be one scary woman when she was pissed about something. He was also pretty sure that she wouldn't just be talking.
Dawn, meanwhile, gulped as the Slayer resolutely marched her towards the currently empty range office, pulled her inside, and slammed the door. A “missy” from Faith was unheard of and probably didn’t bode any better than when her mother used the term in that tone of voice.
Before she could blink, the Slayer had pulled up a chair, sat down, and dragged the shocked youngster over her knee, delivering two-dozen rapid-fire slaps to a squirming backside. Dawn barely had time to squeal. With Slayer strength – even dialled back - behind each slap, the hand felt more like her mother’s slipper, while her jeans offered no protection whatsoever.
"Ooowww! I'm really sorry, Diana!" the youngster squeaked, still held firmly down.
"What you just nearly did? Let's just make sure..." the Slayer grunted.
Her hand landed on target another two-dozen times, this time drawing a series of yelps and a muffled sob.
"Quit with the sniffling," Faith ordered crisply. "That was just a warning, but I can easily get Arius' switch from the classroom and make you cry properly. Now get up!"
Dawn was off her lap like a scalded cat in an instant, blinking back the tears. Faith allowed her to jump around for a moment, rubbing a stinging backside, and aware that she wouldn’t be able to sit properly for the rest of the day. The Slayer then stood up and indicated the now vacant chair.
“Sit down there, young lady… And pin those ears back!” she said crisply, as Dawn winced and gingerly lowered herself onto the seat.
A “missy” and a “young lady” from Faith, of all people. Now Dawn knew she was in real trouble. Faith might have threatened to cut her throat, way back in her bad days, but she’d never been angry with her.
The Slayer forced herself not to let fly with the multitude of profanities on the tip of her tongue. “What the heck were you thinking? No, scratch that! Were you even thinking? Do you know how dangerous that was? The rules are there for a reason, Dawn. You don’t get a second chance when you make a dumbass mistake with weapons! They aren’t toys. It can be all over before you could blink. D’you know what it feels like to kill someone by accident? It never goes away. And I really don’t want that for you…”
Her voice trailed away. Only one thing was worse than killing someone by accident, and that was murdering an innocent on purpose. Faith didn’t want the youngster to have even the former on her conscience, not at twelve years-old, and preferably never.
Dawn nodded, voice tiny and tears still stinging the corners of her eyes. “I was really stupid. But it won’t ever happen again. Diana, Pinkie swear….”
The thought of what might have so easily happened was actually making her feel sick.
“Are you gonna tell mom?” she asked hesitantly.
Faith eyed her balefully and folded her arms. “Any reason I shouldn’t?”
Dawn sighed and shook her head. “None. You probably should, ‘cause it coulda been really bad… And mom has this rule, kinda the only rule she’s totally strict about. If I put myself or someone else in danger - like on purpose or ‘cause I was dumb - then she tans my bare butt. No argument. This time, I guess I deserve it.”
“I guess you really do,” Faith agreed. “But hey? God knows if anyone ought to be all for second chances, it’s me. So I’m not gonna tell her, and neither is the Lieutenant. Have to say, I’m with your mom on that one, though. And if you ever pull anything like that when I’m around - and I mean anything that's dangerous to you or someone else? I swear I’ll take you over my lap again, pull ‘em down and make like your mom. And I won’t stop at a couple of dozen swats next time. After I'm done with you, I'll hand you over to your mom for another dose. Then you'll really feel it. No ifs or butts… Understand?”
"Like I'm not really feeling it now..." Dawn muttered.
Faith flashed her a warning glare. "That was kinda the plan. But if you think the lesson needs a bit more work, I'll start over..."
Dawn shook her head hurriedly and sniffed, keen to avoid a proper Slayer spanking after her brief taster. “Lesson really, really learned here! I’m really - really, really - sorry, Diana… And guess I have to tell Lieutenant Henriksson that, too.”
“Guess you do. But you and me? We won’t talk about it again,” Faith hugged her warmly, feeling a little bad herself, but also completely justified.
“So what d’you want to do for our girls afternoon? Just you, me, Doc Lam and a couple of the Imperial Guard girls. Your choice, squirt…” the Slayer smiled.
“Can we go to the Crafts and Artists Guild? The lady who gave me the jewellery the day that bozo tried to shoot me? Said she’d show me how to work with gold and silver. And help me make something special to take home to Buffy and Cordy…” Dawn asked hopefully, rubbing her hindquarters.
Faith shrugged. “Sure, if that’s what you want. And we’ll maybe grab a bite of lunch in Aelina’s Tavern. Pretty soft cushions on the seats there… Actually, think I saw a couple of tattoo artists in the Guild – reckon I might get another one. And I’ve been thinkin’ about gettin’ me a new piercing, too…”
“Your ears, right?” Dawn ventured.
Joyce had forbidden her even to have her ears pierced for a few years yet, while anything else was anathema to her mother. For the moment, Dawn was inclined to agree. The same went for tattoos. She just didn’t get the whole pain for ornamentation thing.
“Not my ears, Little D,” Faith smirked.
Dawn grimaced. “Do I want to know?”
The Slayer sniggered. “Probably not. And I’m not gonna tell you anyways, ‘cause your mom wouldn’t like it!” Central Square, Governor’s Palace, Vis Aren, Thenatrix – 5th February 2001 (Earth Date)
It was a beautiful sunny day on Thenatrix. Drayana wondered what the condemned were thinking right now, seeing a blue sky for the last time.
The scars of battle were still visible all around, though repairs and, where necessary, reconstruction was well underway. The Empress still occasionally had bad dreams about that day, pinned down under fire from the Xicavvar in the middle of this very square.
Now the spot was occupied by a large, temporary scaffold, the first such structure to be erected on Talluran soil for this purpose in centuries. A nice way to be remembered in the history books, Drayana reflected dryly. Not only the youngest Empress in memory, but also the one who started chopping heads off again. And maybe it would have been better to hold out for the full dose of infamy by ordering a public evisceration instead, she told herself sarcastically. But no one was interested in her self-flagellation today. The square was packed with the relatives of those who’d been callously shot down in this very place, or elsewhere in the city, on the orders of Governor Pyriam, aided and abetted by sworn officers of the Imperial Defence Force. They weren’t just traitors. The Empress kept reminding herself, but also accessories to mass murder. That – and the pills she’d been given by the Imperial Physician – made her feel ever-so-slightly better.
So had her father and mother’s kind words last night. Neither had judged her decisions or reactions, they’d just been sympathetic and supportive. Her father had even travelled with her today, by Astria Porta, to offer what support he could.
The crowd were surprisingly quiet. Drayana had been dreading a baying mob, but they were as shocked by this turn of events as she was. The Imperial Guard detachments around the square certainly wouldn’t have any trouble keeping order. And hopefully the executioner would do the job quickly and efficiently.
The Empress suppressed a shudder at the grisly paraphernalia of death. A wooden block and mat to kneel upon, absorbent granules to catch the blood, a basket for the head, and a line of caskets ready for the dead. The hooded Imperial Headsman stood waiting, a razor-sharp specially-made axe resting in one hand. There were a number of such individuals paid a retainer by the Empire, but none had been required to carry out his or her duty for centuries. All were anonymous, but this one was clearly female in build.
A murmur ran through the crowd as the prison Gravity Car drew up, pairs of Imperial Guard hustling the blindfolded condemned up the steps. An officer read out the charges and sentence, then the first prisoner was led forward to the block and assisted, without even the slightest struggle, into position.
Drayana could hear her own heart beating as the Headswoman turned towards her, waiting for the signal. With the bile rising in her parched throat, the Empress nodded once. The axe swiftly rose and fell on an exposed neck, to a restrained gasp from the crowd. As the guards speedily removed the body, others were already hurrying the next prisoner to his doom. Jugrub’s Ship, Vrymtz Nebula, Demilitarised Zone, Vedda Galaxy – 5th February 2001
The Vrymtz Nebula sat squarely between Ch’Hanis and Zaharte Space, occupying a sizeable portion of the buffer zone between the two antagonistic powers. The Nebula itself was a highly dangerous area of space, peppered with stellar nurseries, uncharted planetoids and proto-stars. In normal space, navigation was a headache and a mistake could be lethal.
Which was why the Ch’Hanis and Zaharte authorities largely left the nebula well alone.
Actually, most sane individuals avoided it completely, but Jugrub hadn’t always been regarded as sane. The Vrymtz Nebula had, at least up to now, been a safe haven for his piracy and smuggling operations and the reptilian had an almost instinctive ability to navigate the gas cloud’s more treacherous areas. Few pursuers ever dared follow him or his associates in here – and many of those never emerged out the other side.
Jugrub’s ace-in-the-hole was a long-abandoned space-station. He had no idea who’d built it, or when – or even why, given the location – but it was a valuable base for all his operations. It was also very difficult to find, unless someone knew exactly where to look. In other words, even a braver than normal enemy was highly unlikely to stumble across the station accidentally. Even the frighteningly effective sensors the Tallurans seemed to have developed for their warships wouldn’t work too well, in this nightmarish patch of intense radiation, incredible temperatures, and gravitational fluctuations.
As Jugrub’s transport slowly picked its way through the treacherous, swirling gas clouds, he wondered what sort of reception might be waiting for him. Leading what was sometimes euphemistically referred to as a privateer fleet was a dangerous business, with ambitious underlings always ready to stab the leader in the back, safe in the knowledge that the law didn’t care. Conversely, any leader who wanted to keep his hide intact had to be ruthless with any challenger. The Ch’Hanis had been absent for a while and he was under no illusions that his return would be an easy one, especially with the authorities of two major powers expending a great deal of effort to track and capture or kill him. The rewards currently offered for his capture by the Talluran Empire – and dead or alive by the Ch’Hanis Freehold – were enough to attract every bounty hunter and pirate from here to the galactic core.
Jugrub knew he’d just have to convince them otherwise. Namely, by swiftly and efficiently killing the first few who tried anything, then organising a few profitable enterprises for the remainder. Remaining independent wasn’t, for the moment anyhow, a viable option for the reptilian. Both revenge and his continued survival required allies and resources and this was his only source. Fortunately, Jugrub’s ever-active mind had more than a few ideas sufficient to satisfy the greediest of pirates.
Taking navigational readings off two nearby proto-stars and a large metal-rich asteroid caught in the gravitational pull of the former, the Ch’Hanis made his final course change, his ship continuing to plough semi-blindly through the nebula. Sure enough, an hour later the station loomed out of a greenish cloud of gas.
There was always the chance that they’d open fire on sight, but the piratical instinct would be take his transport in one piece, just in case it had a valuable cargo aboard. He was also ready for any hostile reception committee, with a protective vest, a short sword sheathed against his thigh, and a heavy Talluran Plasma Pistol on the opposite hip.
The station was star-shaped, with half-dozen spokes radiating from a central hub, each spoke able to dock a number of ships. Seven of his fleet were currently attached to the station plus, to his surprise, a Forvon War Cruiser. The streamlined ship, resembling an elongated egg, was an older design but still quite effective. Evidently, judging by the colour scheme, this one had somehow come under new management. Someone was getting ambitious, Jugrub decided. And that might just be too bad for them.
Admittedly, however, the Forvon vessel might be useful. As a warship, it would be much more heavily armed than the converted transports currently making up his entire fleet. More than that, possessing an alien power’s War Cruiser also had the potential for endless mischief, and more than one previously abandoned planned excursion into Forvon space might now be revived.
Setting a docking trajectory for the most distance available docking port, on the basis that it would take any hostile welcoming party a few minutes to get there, the reptilian prepared for battle. His minions would, he vowed, quickly know that the boss was back, even if he had to kill half of them to prove it. The Triconatus Estate, Outside Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 5th February (Earth Date)
“I did not think she would have the stomach,” Marcus Triconatus remarked, sipping his wine as news of the day’s executions was broadcast across the Empire, to a somewhat bloodthirsty – if also muted – popular acclaim.
Dar Tiburion snorted at the disgraced former Proconsul to the Treasury. “You forget that the brat had no choice. Personally, I would have expected her to make some sort of futile protest, given her adherence to her precious principles…”
He paused and swirled his wine around, a thoughtful expression on his face. “You know, this might actually give us another opening… Caelius Tren must be desperately worried about his traitor of a daughter, especially after today.”
“Unless she pleads madness – and my sources tell me that she will not – then her pretty neck will feel that axe quite soon,” Triconatus replied.
“I wonder if her father might be persuaded to join us. It is unlikely we will be able to change his idiot daughter’s fate – even if we had a mind to – but desperation can make people do strange things…” Tria Flivius mused.
Tiburion nodded. “My thoughts exactly. Perhaps we should approach him cautiously and find out where his allegiances really lie.”
“With the Empress,” Triconatus replied dismissively.
Flivius shrugged. “Perhaps, perhaps not. He was bought before and with his daughter facing an ignominious end…”
“It would be a very risky proposition,” Triconatus pointed out. “I, for one, do not wish to try that block for that size!”
“We have not yet done anything treasonous, Marcus,” Tiburion pointed out. “Though some of us may have had thoughts to warrant execution a dozen times over… But Caelius could be approached subtly, by associates of associates with no direct link leading back to us.”
Flivius looked slightly concerned. “I would rather we consulted with Ilarius over this…”
The former Proconsul for Infrastructure had always tended to look to the Regent for leadership. Now, however, he was stuck on the Imshai Homeworld for an indefinite period, with instructions only to return when he’d completed his task. Ilarius was, quite unofficially, in Imperial disfavour right now. Which made him a risky ally at present.
Risky to the extent that they were eating around a table out on the lawn tonight, in a spot chosen at random just in case there were microphones planted. The group had also taken to varying the times and places of their meetings, just in case the Security Directorate was casting its eyes in their direction. After all, no one knew how much the Empress suspected, given that she wasn’t even hiding her dislike for Ilarius anymore. To that extent, Flivius could sympathise with Drayana. The former Proconsul might regard the Regent as the group’s natural leader, but she’d never really liked the him.
“The old fool has needlessly antagonised the Empress and since that has meant his enforced absence, we will just have to make decisions as we see fit. I move that we at least make initial – if indirect – contact with Caelius Tren,” Tiburion proposed.
Triconatus nodded slowly after a moment. “I second the proposal. Perhaps we might offer to break his precious daughter out of her cell, by way of inducement?”
Flivius spluttered into her wine glass. “Are you insane? She is being held in the Imperial Palace. Security is the tightest anywhere in the Empire! We would need a large special operations force to even consider it and the risks are too great.”
“I merely said ‘offer’, Tria,” Triconatus clarified.
“Very well,” Flivius concurred. “But only if you can demonstrate that such contact can be made without risk to us.”
“What is life without a little risk?” Tiburion laughed.
“Potentially much shortened, now that Drayana has taken to executing traitors,” Flivius retorted dryly. Space Station, Vrymtz Nebula, Demilitarised Zone, Vedda Galaxy – 6th February 2001
Jugrub was, to say the least, surprised at not being attacked the instant he set foot aboard the station. Quite the contrary in fact, as his subordinates had been particularly welcoming and cooperative, swiftly filling him in on their most resent activities. In itself, that was enough to set off the Ch’Hanis’ well-tuned danger sensors. No doubt, they were holding off on any takeover attempt, until he’d shared everything he knew.
The reptilian was keeping a particularly close eye on Efud, his former third-in-command, who’d deposed his ex-second-in-command some weeks before. Jugrub was pretty sure his ambitious underling was only biding his time. For the moment, he was happy to play along. If Efud so much as looked at him the wrong way, Jugrub would skin his scaly hide and nail it to the station bulkheads.
Right now, the pirates were in the midst of planning their next moves. Firstly, Jugrub had been concerned with arranging the promised shipments of weapons grade Naquadah to his Xicavvar client. Some of it would be tricky to source, but not impossible, and he already had an eye on several possibilities. As for why the insectoid wanted such quantities, given that he wasn’t either an arms manufacturer or part of the Xicavvar warrior class, there were only two possibilities. The insectoid either wanted to sell it on, as part of a deal of his own, or he wanted to demolish something. Weapons grade Naquadah, in sufficient quantities, could flatten most of a planetary surface, after all.
That was a secondary consideration, however. At this moment, Jugrub was particularly interested in the Forvon War Cruiser his people had acquired.
“We found it drifting just on the edge of the nebula,” Efud explained. “It was powered down and the crew were dead. We took a chance and boarded the ship. It seems that the life-support system suffered a catastrophic failure and, in the absence of any inputs from the crew, the systems automatically cut out.”
“Was it broadcasting any distress messages?” Jugrub demanded.
If not, there was an excellent chance the Forvon were looking in the wrong place for their missing ship.
Efud grinned, showing his teeth in an almost – but not quite – provocative manner. “There were no signals. We do not even know why it was in this area. Technically, that is a violation of treaties with both our people and the Zaharte.”
“It is my guess that the Forvon were in secret communications with the Zaharte. They were allies in the past and as they do not enjoy particularly good relations with either the Tallurans or the Freehold, they are seriously in need of a powerful ally once more,” Jugrub
It was difficult to confirm that assumption either way, Jugrub knew. The Zaharte had a reputation for insularity and secretiveness, but the Forvon made them seem positively open. Intelligence sources, both official and unofficial, were frustratingly thin in both cases, and opportunities for his own kind of business much more limited than elsewhere.
Jugrub looked around the room, wondering which of the other Ch’Hanis were ready to stab him in the back at the first opportunity. Probably all of them, he decided, but for now they all seemed interested in his ideas.
“Any of you ever heard of the Drolovir Research Facility?” he asked slowly.
His former post with the Ch’Hanis Intelligence and Covert Operations department had given him the skills and knowledge to quickly rise to the top of this pack of cut-throats. Much of that knowledge he still kept to himself – and some of it might just be useful right now.
The others, for their part, looked completely blank. Including Efud, who wouldn’t know a good target if it bit him, Jugrub ruminated.
“Bioweapons development facility, quite deep in Forvon space, and not widely known. I uncovered its existence when I was in the service of the Freehold. It is actually in violation of several treaties, but our own people decided not to make diplomatic representation – or mount a pre-emptive strike – as I suspect we have similar facilities we would rather remain secret…” Jugrub explained.
Bioweapons were one of the few weapons systems controlled by treaty. Past experience had shown that, regardless of advances in specific genetic targeting and so forth, they were simply too random. Supposedly short-lived viral and bacterial strains had occasionally mutated to the point where they could jump species, while space travel sometimes brought the infection right back to its inventors. In consequence, the Vedda Galaxy powers tried to avoid using them, for the most part. Which didn’t mean that some weren’t developing ever-more deadly strains, just in case an enemy deployed them first.
Personally, Jugrub would rather just blast an enemy’s planet into molten slag, but in his current position, there was a small – if extremely profitable – market for bioweapons. Furthermore, properly and selectively employed, they might be perfect for his own revenge.
“I have considered raiding the facility. It is not particularly well-defended – the Forvon rely on secrecy for security – but still probably beyond our capabilities. At least, until we acquired the Forvon War Cruiser. That, my friends, gives us a whole range of new possibilities. The Drolovir Facility is only one of them,” Jugrub grinned expectantly.
He turned to Efud. “Is the ship operational? Engines, shields, weaponry?”
Efud nodded, slightly resentfully. He’d been the one who found the ship and restored it to full working order, only for Jugrub to return and claim it as his own.
“It is a slightly older design. The Forvon use them mainly for secondary duties. Internal defence, VIP transport, training. The ship is now fully operational, with a full load of missiles and functioning Plasma Cannon. Powerful enough to take down most powers’ border patrol vessels and very fast. The shields are not the strongest, but if we avoid going head to head to another first-line warship, they should be adequate,” the Ch’Hanis assessed.
Jugrub nodded. “Then this is what we will do…”
Two hours and a great deal of planning later, Jugrub was returning to his quarters. The huge station was largely empty – it had probably been designed to accommodate thousands – and the few hundred Ch’Hanis, therefore, had a wide choice of living quarters. Given the confrontational nature of their species, most chose to live as far from their fellows as possible.
The reptilian had often wondered who built this place. Clearly they’d been much taller even than his own people, given the size of the doors, and the eye-level of the viewports in the outside hull. Jugrub estimated ten feet tall, at least. Unfortunately, the mysterious builders had left no clues to their identity, just a stark, grey empty interior. Everything of value had been stripped out, aside from life support and the core fusion reactor, of a much more advanced design than the Ch’Hanis had ever seen. With his people’s current level of technology, it was also impossible to replicate, just like the advanced but unknown alloys used to construct the station.
Jugrub was still musing on the station’s mysterious builders when Efud decided to strike. He was alone in the middle of one of the seemingly endless corridors, when his second-in-command emerged from a doorway, together with three of his followers. The sword in Efud’s hand told Jugrub everything he needed to know.
“Not stabbing me in the back, or arranging an airlock accident, Efud?” Jugrub goaded, hand one hand poised over his Talluran Plasma Pistol, the other on his sword hilt.
“It is time for new leadership. We do not trust you, Jugrub. On the Talluran homeworld for so long, selling out Carthug to them… How do we know that you are not working for them?” Efud pointed out.
“Which ‘we’ might that be? These dolts with you?” Jugrub replied dismissively. “The Talluran Empress herself has put a price on my head. That fact alone ought to tell you everything you need to know.”
“It only tells me that you are too dangerous to keep around. Attracting such high-level enemies is unhealthy for us all,” Efud pointed out.
“Crossing me is also unhealthy,” Jugrub pointed out, suddenly drawing his pistol.
He was able to move atypically fast for a Ch’Hanis and took full advantage of the fact. Three quick shots and Efud’s followers were decorating the deck plating, each with a gaping hole in his chest. Only just avoiding the panicked slash of Efud’s sword, Jugrub drew his own blade.
“You should have brought a better weapon, Efud…” he easily deflected several poorly directed sword strokes.
Ducking under a fourth slash, which could have decapitated him, Jugrub drove his sword deeply into Efud’s abdomen, cutting upwards then sideways. His intestines and internal organs spilling out in a bloody mass, the Ch’Hanis dropped to the deck with a strangled scream.
Jugrub left him lying there, without another word. Ch’Hanis were extremely tough and he’d probably take an hour or so to expire, but no one would lift a finger to help. And Jugrub had better things to do than watch dying subordinates breathe their last. But whoever came upon Efud and his followers’ corpses would know exactly what had happened – and what to expect if he was stupid enough to mount a challenge. Helia Tren’s Cell, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 6th February 2001 (Earth Date)
As the guard unlocked the cell door, an uneasy Faith knew this would be an uncomfortable meeting. The woman who’d tried and failed to kill the Empress, whose brother Faith had killed with a well-placed arrow, and who was now refusing to take the one path which might – and only might – save her from the scaffold. The Slayer couldn’t believe that she’d actually volunteered for this, but if it would save Drayana from signing even one death warrant, then she’d accept a little discomfort. There was, Faith admitted, not much that she wouldn’t do for the Empress these days.
Helia Tren was lying on her bed, reading. She sat up in surprise, brow crinkling as she tried to remember if this visitor someone she ought to know.
“Who are you?” she finally demanded.
“Diana Prince,” Faith replied, quite at ease with her new identity these days.
“The Terran who killed my brother,” Tren nodded absently, with a surprising lack of antipathy.
Faith shuffled slightly. “Yeah… Kinda had no choice. Couldn’t let him kill Drayana…”
“I am not blaming you. The fault lies with Acamos and I,” the other woman replied.
She paused. “I do not suppose you might be persuaded to kill me as well? It would only hasten the inevitable…”
“That’d be a whopping big no. Don’t wanna see the inside of a cell, even if it’s a really nice one,” Faith gazed around – aside from the guard on the door, there was nothing to distinguish this from just another well-furnished and equipped Imperial Palace bedroom.
“Really, really neat cell. Way better than mine,” she assessed.
Tren’s eyes narrowed. “You were in prison?”
“Yup. Murder and manslaughter. Killed two people,” Faith admitted candidly.
“And yet here you are, free to walk around, even to visit another world,” Tren pointed out.
“That’s ‘cause I was given another chance, by folks who thought I deserved a chance at redemption. Just like the Empress wants you to have at least a fighting chance at your trial,” the Slayer replied.
The fact was, if Faith had been a little older, she might well have been occupying a cell on Death Row – one much less comfortable than this – and for an actual murder. This woman had only tried and failed to kill someone, but it was the wrong someone in the eyes of Talluran law.
“You were not a traitor,” Tren told her flatly.
Faith looked her straight in the eye. “No, I was a murderess.”
“Why did you do it?” the prisoner asked curiously.
“First time was an accident. Second time? Kinda complicated. Mainly, I did it ‘cause this guy asked me to. Really bad guy, but he was the only person who’d been like, nice to me, in a very long time. Well, B and her mom tried, I suppose… Anyhow this bad guy? Asked me to kill a friendly old professor, so I did. He wanted to destroy a whole town, slaughter its population – and wanted me there to make sure no one could try to stop him,” Faith explained awkwardly.
“Just so you know that I was a real badass. You? You don’t even register on the scale,” she finished.
Faith suspected that this pretty young woman, from a wealthy family, would have lasted precisely two minutes in the Southern California Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitative Institute.
“Were you sound of mind?” Tren asked.
The Slayer made a face. “Kinda depends on who you ask. Most people think I was nuts to one extent or another. And now? Can’t fricking believe what I did – and what I nearly did…”
“That is the difference between you and me. I was perfectly rational when I committed my crime,” Tren said in hollow tones.
“So why the fuck did you do it?” Faith demanded.
The Slayer knew the answer already, but her job was to talk the woman around to accepting a Plea of Mercy, on grounds of temporary insanity.
“I and my brother believed that the Empress had dishonoured my father and family name, by dismissing him from his post,” Tren replied.
“D’you still think that?” Faith asked.
The young woman shook her head. “If anyone has been dishonourable, it was Acamos and I. I see now that the Empress treated my father with leniency. He defrauded the people for years, but she did not imprison him, nor impoverish my family. Yet we tried to kill her. It is only right that I pay for my dishonour, just as my brother has already paid for his.”
“Honour my ass!” Faith exclaimed in frustration. “You can’t pay for fricking anything if you’re dead. And you say that you respect the Empress?”
“Of course,” Tren replied.
“Then why the fuck are you putting her through ten kinds of Hell? She doesn’t want you to fricking martyr yourself, by way of some kinda twisted apology! There’s a possible way out – and you know it. Admit that you were kinda nuts at the time and acting under your brother’s influence, and they tell me that you’ve a pretty good chance of getting’ off. Year or two in the funny farm, and that’s all. Then you’ve got the rest of your life to think about redemption. It’s a no-brainer,” the Slayer shook her head.
According to the Empress’ legal advisers, such a defence stood a pretty good chance of succeeding in Helia Tren’s case, unlike the IDF officers. There was no medical evidence to say that she’d been perfectly stable only weeks before the crime and, furthermore, her treason hadn’t killed anyone.
“It would also be untrue. I was perfectly lucid and, if anything, I was the one who influenced my brother,” the prisoner maintained stubbornly.
“Oh for fuck’s sake! So you lie a little. Happens all the time in court – lawyer damned well nearly rhymes with liar. Don’t give me any crap about your brother’s honour, either. You’ve already said that he acted dishonourably, so what’s the big?” Faith growled.
“You do not understand…”
“I understand that you’d rather fricking torture the Empress, who you claim to respect so much, to make some kinda lame-ass point that doesn’t even make sense. What the Hell d’you want? Drayana to beg on her Goddamned knees?” the Slayer almost shouted.
Faith decided she’d make a lousy shrink, but this idiot woman was driving her nuts.
“I would never ask that!” Tren protested.
“Then grow a fricking brain cell or two…” the Slayer turned away and knocked on the door, to ask the guard to let her out.
“And don’t think you’ve seen the last of me… If I have to visit every fricking day, to talk some sense into you, then I will. Right up ‘til the fuckin’ trial!” Faith vowed, as she strode out of the room.