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Key to the Stars

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

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

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > GeneralCordyfanFR1323281,0563128360,30414 Mar 116 Sep 14No

Unintended Consequences

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).

The Faceless One’s Lair, Vedda Galaxy – 10th February 2001 (Earth Date)

The demon was puzzled and slightly alarmed by a repeated failure to contact its mighty creator.  In the far-distant past, the Faceless One had always been able to sense the presence of the God King of the Primordium, no matter what universe or time period he was currently occupying.  The demon wasn’t naturally telepathic – nor able to move across time and the Multiverse at will - but the ability to remain constantly aware of his presence was one Ilyria had purposely designed.  The God King had needed that ability in order to direct and control minions like the Faceless One, intended as the first of a new and unstoppable army.

Now, however, Ilyria wasn’t replying to its calls, nor could the creature sense his presence on any plane.  There had to be a reason, the Faceless One decided.  The God King was indestructible and immortal and no enemies existed – either in the distant past or now - which could even begin to threaten him. 

The demon performed a shoulderless version of a shrug.  It would continue trying to contact its master, but there were also other pressing matters.  Feeding was the first one, of course.  The low-level Hellmouth directly beneath its body provided regular nourishment but, by itself, insufficient to allow the creature to grow.  That needed either living flesh and life energy, or – ideally -that of other demons.  Since the latter were largely absent from this corner of the universe, mortals in large quantities would just have to suffice.  A small or medium-sized city would suffice, the Faceless One decided.

It was also eager to test its new abilities.  The Faceless One might not have Ilyria’s power to traverse realities and time periods at will, but it did have certain inherent abilities, which had now returned.  For instance, the demon could move forwards and backwards in time to a limited extent.  Not far, just a matter of seconds or minutes, but that power might be valuable in avoiding attack, if one of this galaxy’s species actually succeeded in mustering sufficient force.  The Faceless One was quite confident that it would, indeed, face a heavy attack sooner or later – it might not have a discernible body, but it was far from stupid.  Given that its restricted time travel capability was supplemented by an equally limited – and unpredictable – precognitive ability, the creature was confident it could evade any life-threatening countermeasures.

Last, but by no means least, the Faceless One was still intent on vengeance against the Old Enemy.  Thus far, it hadn’t located an Alteran-inhabited planet, nor any useful intelligence leading to one, but it was only a matter of time.  Carrying on the ancient war was, after all, its duty.  And until it received instructions from the God King, the creature would continue to do what it was designed for.  Namely, to feed, destroy and ultimately – when it was sufficiently large and well-nourished – to reproduce.

In any case, the Faceless One had a target for today.  Not every address it had memorised in the House of the Heavens led to a meal, of course.  A lot had happened in the millennia the demon had been asleep, after all.  But it was a patient creature, content to work its way through the list until it found something worth eating. Moving without any particular haste, the Faceless One changed its shape accordingly and began to ooze from the mouth of the colossal cavern it had partially excavated itself, and towards the waiting Stargate.  Wormhole travel was immensely uncomfortable for the demon – it didn’t like squeezing itself through the tiny apertures on each world – but in the absence of Ilyria to transport it, the demon had no alternative.  At least its hunting trips tended to be short, limiting both its exposure to a major attack and also the time it had to spend contorted into an unnatural form.  

 

Negotiating Chamber, Imshai Homeworld – 10th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Former Regent Ilarius was sorely tempted to find a Plasma Pistol and shoot himself in the head.  Full-power, the muzzle placed against his temple, then a blissful oblivion.  Anything would be better than these interminable negotiations.  Of course, with his frozen fingers and constant shivering, he’d probably be unable either to squeeze the trigger or hold the weapon on target.

What was particularly galling was the fact that the Imshai seemed to spend most of the time arguing with each other, largely ignoring the Talluran delegation.  Or pre-delegation, as the Empress – damn her to the innermost of the Fifteen Hells – had not-so-subtly reminded him before leaving.  The proper business of negotiating would be left to others, it seemed.  Give the brat her due, Ilarius considered wryly, she knew how to both hold a grudge and implement an exquisitely uncomfortable, lingering and humiliating form of revenge.

Ilarius mentally groaned, as the Imshai began arguing amongst themselves once more.  Negotiating with these formidable ice-creatures could take a very long time and he might be here for months before even a preliminary agreement could be reached. 

Admittedly, they did actually seem to be getting somewhere today.  The tediously slow talks had veered off in a totally different direction to that which the Regent had anticipated, though that wasn’t exactly unusual.  Any minute now, a disgruntled Ilarius reminded himself, they’d probably return to matters of the correct interpretation of ceremony and protocol.  If the argument took a religious turn again, it might be two days before they regained focus.  Surely, he decided, the Ch’Hanis deserved these people as allies.  A few months of this, and the Freehold would probably implode.

There were, as usual, three different schools of debate at the table.  The eldest Imshai was positively snarling at his fellows and the Regent was only amazed that their deliberations hadn’t ended in bloodshed.  Ilarius fervently hoped it wouldn’t come to that.  He was seated between two of the massive aliens and they probably wouldn’t even notice him being stomped into a bloody mass when they pounced on each other.  Over seven foot of solid muscle, dense fur and very sharp teeth and claws made him nervous – and nor was daily familiarity making him feel any more at ease with a species which could take on a full-grown Ch’Hanis and win.

“I believe that the possibility of complete union with the Empire would be best left until after the first meeting,” the first Imshai growled.

Ilarius’ ears pricked up in surprise at that. “Complete union”?  He’d been sent here to lay the groundwork for an alliance conference, not one of political union.  Given the relative size of the two powers, it would also be a very one-sided union indeed. 

“On such an important matter, the complete surrender of our sovereignty to the Tallurans, it should be discussed at the earliest opportunity.  Unlike you, I do not believe in procrastinating over such issues!” a second Imshai snarled back.

Ilarius blinked in surprise.  The Imshai were a proud people, but by the sound of things they didn’t want an alliance, rather they wanted to be a full part of the Talluran Empire.  There hadn’t been a similar situation since the current Empress’s grandmother’s grandmother had been on a throne – and then the subject races hadn’t exactly been given a choice in the matter.

The Regent decided he’d best clarify matters.  This would have to be reported directly back to the brat, in excruciating detail, and very swiftly indeed.  Her flunkies from the Diplomatic Directorate would ensure that nothing was missed or misrepresented.

He raised a nervous hand. “Please forgive my interruption, but did I hear you correctly?  You mentioned a treaty of union?”

The nearest Imshai regarded him as though he were a particularly tough and stringy piece of meat.  It was nothing personal – that particular Imshai looked at everyone that way.

“You heard correctly,” the alien snapped. “Under current conditions in the galaxy, we can no longer afford to pretend that retaining any meaningful sovereignty and independence is a real option.  The major powers and their alliance systems are too polarised and there is no place for neutral worlds, who cannot defend themselves against any meaningful threat.  For the security of our people, we are therefore entirely prepared to place ourselves under the authority of the Empress and to play a full role in the political life of the Empire.”

Ilarius’ eyebrows almost climbed off his wrinkled forehead.  He was quite sure someone must have drugged his breakfast.  No one on Tallura Prime had seen this coming.

“Of all the major powers in this region of the galaxy, only the Talluran Empire has a model of governance with which our people would be content,” the second Imshai told him curtly.

The Regent considered the implications.  Bringing the Imshai into the Empire had certain strategic benefits, in terms of location, access to resources and a small but technologically advanced fleet.  On the other hand, it would also stretch Talluran military resources further, by adding more space to be defended.  Then there were the major cultural difference between the two peoples.

The third Imshai was equally brusque. “It is our respect for your Empress, in particular, which has led us to this decision.”

Ilarius almost gagged at that declaration.  Well, he’d just have to find a way of making that insufferable upstart somewhat less palatable to the Imshai.  Though that would be a difficult task, with the Security Bureau and Diplomatic Directorate looking over his shoulder every minute he spent on this benighted lump of ice they called a planet.

Then he almost felt like laughing.  Why even bother to sabotage the Imshai efforts?  The Empress wasn’t known for her patience, even with her own government and officials.  The fact that he was sitting here, freezing off his rear and other valuable parts of his anatomy, was ample testament to that fact.  The Regent could see several possible outcomes to such a union.  Firstly – and his personal preference – she’d antagonise one of the intractable and aggressive Imshai, and he’d tear her head clean off.  Secondly, Drayana would lose patience and send an invasion fleet to the Imshai homeworld.  In a less extreme scenario, dealing with the belligerent Imshai on a day-to-day basis would undoubtedly place further pressure on the young Empress.  And ultimately, making that infernal child crack under the strain had become one of his life’s aims, not to mention the frequent subject of his most pleasant dreams.

 

Helia Tren’s Cell, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 11th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Faith hadn’t been kidding when she’d threatened Helia Tren with daily visits.  The Talluran had become her personal redemption project and the Slayer was determined not to give up.  Eventually, Faith vowed, she’d convince the woman to plead insanity.  The Justices might, or might not, accept the plea – it certainly wasn’t a sure thing – but even a slim chance was better than no chance at all.

“You again?” Tren glanced up from her book. “I still have not changed my mind, you know.”

She had to admire the Terran’s tenacity, even if she still had no intention of entering a Plea of Mercy.  The woman simply didn’t understand her code of honour, though she was well-meaning.  And given her comparative lack of company, Tren was quite content for the daily visits to continue.

“I know,” Faith smiled and sat down on the bed beside the prisoner. “Sure as hell won’t stop me tryin’ though.”

She would try a different tack today.  Carolyn Lam had suggested building a more personal rapport with Tren, before trying to undermine her defences any further.  So today, Faith would talk about anything but the other woman’s sense of guilt and the upcoming trial.

“So…  Whatcha want to talk about today?” the Slayer asked breezily.

“You are not going to preach at me today?” Tren eyed her in surprise.

Faith shook her head. “Guessed you’re gettin’ kinda tired of that old tune.  Doesn’t mean you don’t need a visitor, though.  A cell’s a cell, even if it’s a comfy one.”

Tren nodded thoughtfully. “Then I would like it very much if you told me a little about your world.”

“Jeez, narrow it down a tad, why don’t you?” the Slayer laughed. “Hell, where to start?”

She talked for an hour, about everything and anything that came into her head, the prisoner listening with rapt attention.  If nothing else, Faith considered, she was helping keep Tren’s mind off her predicament.  For someone who was now living under the shadow of the axe, the woman was remarkably poised.  Perhaps too poised to see sense.

At length, she stopped and looked expectantly at the Talluran woman. “So now it’s your turn.  What did you do, before…”

“I was training as an engineer, a spacecraft designer,” Tren replied, with a hint of pride. “I had completed my initial period of university study – five years – and was halfway through the Advanced phase.

“The Advanced phase has two parts.  Two years studying warship design, two further years on civilian vessels.  When my studies were complete, I had hoped to specialise in the latter – helping to design luxury liners…” she continued wistfully.

Tren shook her head sadly. “But that will never happen now.  Even if the Empress were to find a way to pardon me tomorrow, I would never be accepted into such employment.”

“That’s a pretty valuable skill and I kinda get the impression that your people are, like, forgiving of most stuff,” Faith pointed out.

“For most crimes, I would agree.  The Talluran people are generally willing to forgive and forget, if they believe that the criminal has learned his or her lesson.  But some crimes…  Murder, rape – and High Treason?  Those are not so easily forgiven by my people, if at all.  And why should they be?” Tren shrugged.

Faith cursed inwardly.  She’d hoped to steer the conversation away from such things today, but evidently it wouldn’t be so easy.  Admittedly, back on Earth certain crimes were also regarded as being beyond the pale – probably a wider range than on Tallura Prime – and most people weren’t granted a completely clean slate, as she’d been.  Faith had a new identity and responsibilities, and a lot of people – even some she barely knew – were putting a great deal of trust in her.  Hell, B had even been willing to entrust her with Joyce and Dawn’s safety, the Slayer reminded herself.

This was a totally different case, however.  If Tren was convinced that she’d be an outcast from Talluran society, and even her own sister had already disowned her, then she was even less likely to allow herself a fighting chance.  Faith knew she was fighting an uphill battle but, like an good Slayer, she didn’t know when – or how - to give up.

 

City of Parthak, Gakrellista Colony, the Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 11th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Hovering high above in a well-escorted shuttlecraft, Emperor Kharrillion the Eighteenth surveyed the remains of Parthak with a mixture of dismay and seething anger.  A city of two hundred thousand, wiped out by some sort of unknown monstrosity in a matter of minutes.  Perhaps a tenth of the population had managed to escape.

In the greater scheme of things, of course, the loss of a minor city on an inconsequential colony was no great blow to the material strength of the Khkerrikk Star Empire, Kharrillion reminded himself.  It was the blow to his Empire’s pride and prestige which really infuriated him.  This was the second such attack in a matter of weeks and the Emperor was convinced that the monster had been genetically engineered by one of his rivals.  His automatic first impulse had been to blame the Jarrasii, the only power in the known galaxy that rivalled the Khkerrikk, and who were his people’s long-term deadly rivals.  Intelligence reports, however, seemed to rule that out.  At least one Jarrasii colony had allegedly been similarly attacked in recent weeks.

That left someone else, the Emperor thought grimly.  And that someone else would pay dearly for this underhanded attack.  Not that such things were unexpected, he considered.  Other powers were simply jealous of the Star Empire.  It merely reinforced his most deeply-held conviction that the Khkerrikk would not be safe until the entire Vedda Galaxy came under their sway.

He cast one more eye over the devastation.  In places, the creature had crushed buildings with its sheer size and weight, elsewhere it had flowed over and around them without causing any damage, while wearing the ground smooth.  It must, he reasoned, have an extraordinary physical composition to cause such widely differing effects.  The attacker was also astonishingly fast moving, giving most of the population no time to escape, before the shapeless form engulfed them.

Kharrillion turned to his supreme military commander, War Leader Prime Breemakk.  There was only one proper course of action to be taken and the Khkerrikk Star Empire would be perceived as weak – and himself as indecisive – if he didn’t take appropriate action.

“I want this creature located and destroyed, War Leader Prime.  And I want those responsible for this cowardly attack identified.  Then they will feel the full wrath of the Khkerrikk Star Empire,” the Emperor rumbled angrily.

The crest on Breemakk’s head automatically stood up in a gesture of respect.  A reptilian species of similar size and physique to humans, the Khkerrikk were also a vivid scarlet colour, and noted for their aggressively expansionist policies.  Kharrillion was, nevertheless, sometimes too much even for Breemakk.  The Emperor’s policy was that all contiguous space was simply future Khkerrikk territory, a stance that had come close to causing all-out war with the Jarrasii in the past.  The War Leader was often convinced that there had been too much in the way of brother-sister relationships within the royal family.  Given that the Emperor’s mother was also his father’s sister, Breemakk wondered what the genetic profile looked like.  Certainly, Kharrillion the Eighteenth was also Kharrillion the Most Unstable at times.  Not that it paid to say such things aloud.  Others had ended up in front of a firing squad for much less.

“By your command, Your Majesty.  At present, however, we do not have any proof that this is an engineered attack...”  Breemakk carefully pointed out.

Kharrillion regarded his underling with slight disdain. “There is no record of such a creature existing in the known galaxy, War Leader.  It is my belief that we are dealing with an artificially created life-form, specifically designed for war.”

The other reptilian wanted to respond that none of the other powers had the bioengineering capabilities to create such a monstrosity, but he was quite adept at telling when the Emperor had already made up his mind.  It was, nevertheless, worth one more try.

“It could be demonic in nature, Your Majesty.  The monster’s capabilities would be difficult to create artificially...” he began.

Just because the Khkerrikk had very little experience of the supernatural – aside from the odd vampire – there was no reason why this creature shouldn’t be demonic in origin.  In truth, the War Leader was quite certain no one could create a monster with telekinetic powers in a laboratory.

Then there was the other power it had demonstrated.  Having made short work of Khkerrikk ground forces, even a heavy formation with armoured vehicles and artillery, a full wing of fighters with powerful air-to-surface ordnance had been sent in.  The creature had easily avoided almost all their attacks, by apparently phasing back and forth through time, until it was able to escape through the Stargate once more.  Breemakk didn’t have the first clue how to deal with a creature which could not only apparently anticipate attacks, but also avoid them via temporal manipulation.

If one of the other Vedda Galaxy species did, indeed, have the ability to engineer such a formidable creature, then it might be better if the Khkerrikk surrendered right now.

“Nonsense!  Demons on this scale and of this power do not exist – and the lesser variety are virtually extinct in our dimension.  We will leave such superstitious to the other powers,” Kharrillion sneered.

“It could be an entirely new species from another part of the galaxy.  Much of it remains unexplored, after all,” Breemakk proposed. “A small fragment of the creature was dislodged by our weapons fire and it has been sent for analysis.”

It was a very small fragment, about the size of his hand, but it might just hold the key to the mystery attacker’s identity.

The Emperor considered that suggestion for a moment. “It is possible – and I await the test results with interest - but for the moment we cannot overlook the likelihood that a power closer to home is responsible.  Therefore, our initial investigations will proceed on that basis, War Leader.”

Just like that, his senior military adviser considered.  No evidence or proof, just a somewhat paranoid hunch.  Next would come some ridiculously unfeasible military order.

“I want every inch of the unclaimed space around our territory searched.  If this creature is being controlled by another species, then they are likely to have established a base of operations nearby,” Kharrillion ordered.

Breemakk was aghast.  Given that the monster was using Stargates as a means of travel and attack, it could be living on the other side of the galaxy.  And given the extent of the Khkerrikk Star Empire and the number of uncharted and unclaimed systems in close proximity, any such search would take up a large proportion of the fleet, which could be better employed protecting populated worlds against further attacks.

“By your command,” Breemakk bobbed his head. “Though the resources will be not inconsiderable and the results uncertain...”

“Just do it, War Leader,” the Emperor growled. “Or I will find someone who can.”

The War Leader bowed as respectfully as he could, eyeing the Emperor’s personal guards/assassins nearby.  One wrong word and he’d be dragged away and, as likely as not, thrown out of the hatchway.  But Kharrillion would only push him so far.  The military, after all, could rule the Star Empire as well as – probably better than – the latest in a long-line of dangerously inbred and strutting absolute monarchs.

 

Sulvia’s Playroom, the Imperial Apartments, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 11th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Drayana approached this task with not a little trepidation.  She might now be Sulvia’s older sibling, but the young girl was also still her Imperial Ward.  With that title came certain responsibilities for educating and raising the youngster, even with assistance from their parents and a hand-picked committee of tutors.

The Empress hadn’t been looking forward to this day, but also knew it had to come eventually.  Today, she’d start to teach Sulvia about Talluran politics, and specifically the place of the monarchy.  Of course, it couldn’t be overly complicated – Drayana recalled an information overload on the subject at that age – but it was still essential.  After all, tomorrow one of her enemies might get lucky.  That, of course, wouldn’t make Sulvia the Empress overnight, but the Princess Imperial would then have to learn the complexities of rule at a greatly increased pace.  To put that terrible weight on such young shoulders didn’t, in Drayana’s book, even bear thinking about.

She recalled her father’s words.  Arius Myrnn had reminded her to keep it simple and short, then insisted that she first present the lesson to him.  Her tutor had certainly seemed satisfied with the initial attempt at a lesson plan.  Probably that made it too complex, Drayana told herself wryly.

Of course, the Empress thought grimly, she wouldn’t be passing on certain political lessons just yet.  Such as the rule of unintended consequences.  She’d only just learned that the Faceless One had struck yet again, this time destroying a large Khkerrikk city.  The Khkerrikk Emperor, moreover, was convinced that this was nothing less than an orchestrated attack by another power – he wasn’t even considering the possibility of a demon, since nothing in his people’s culture even hinted at demonic creatures the size and power of the Faceless One.  As a result, the Khkerrikk Star Empire’s supreme ruler was threatening bloody vengeance against anyone and everyone involved.  Drayana didn’t think it would be a good idea to tell the Emperor that her archaeologists had unwittingly disturbed the ancient terror.  But even without knowing the truth, she suspected that the Khkerrikk were likely to lash out at someone, even if was the wrong target, and that wouldn’t be good for galactic peace.

And if the Emperor did make a connection between the demon and the Tallurans?  Right now – and for the foreseeable future – the Talluran Empire wasn’t in any condition to take on the superpower that was the Khkerrikk Star Empire.  The fact that their huge fleet was at the other end of the galaxy would only buy her people a week or two to prepare. 

It was rather ironic, in a horrifying sort of way, she mused.  Future projections had suggested that the Talluran Empire was fated to fall further and further behind many of the larger and more populous powers in the Vedda Galaxy.  Acquiring advanced Alteran technology was seen as one of the few ways of postponing or preventing a time when her people would be dangerously exposed to attack, hence the Alteran Cultural Survey – and it had been one of her own pet projects.  Moreover, the Empress knew there was a good chance that her handling of the news about the demon was quite possibly the biggest mistake she’d made since her coronation – and it might yet prove to be a fatal one for all her people. 

Drayana had already taken some steps to address the problem.  For the last ten days, an Imperial Guard Heavy Cruiser had been en route to the Faceless One’s former lair, with orders to eradicate any trace of the Talluran expedition.  The ship was due to arrive the following day, carry out its assigned mission, then leave the sensitive area as soon as possible.  Probably it was an underhanded tactic, but if Drayana admitted that her scientists had awakened the Faceless One, then she’d have to explain what they were doing in the first place.  At best, that would have every power in the galaxy feverishly searching for the Ancients’ legacy.  At worst, some of them might go to war with the Tallurans, for having set the nightmare creature loose.

The Khkerrikk, given aggressively expansionist tendencies that had seen species after species absorbed into their Empire, would probably need little encouragement.  Only distance had, so far, kept them from this end of the galaxy, but they’d certainly cast covetous eyes in the direction of the Talluran Empire and its neighbours for a long time.

Drayana sighed and shook her head.  Sometimes it seemed as though her life was one long crisis, though this one undoubtedly had the potential to dwarf any she’d yet faced.  A rapid and large-scale military build-up was the last thing the Empress wanted, since she knew only too well that others would follow suit, but it might yet be the only way to buy the Empire some time.  Her grandmother’s grandmother – aside from her insatiable territorial ambitions and habit of regularly executing people who disagreed with her – possibly had the right idea, in terms of permanent military preparedness.  Perhaps the Tallurans might not be able to match the Khkerrikk or Jarrasii in terms of numbers, but just maybe the threat of massive damage – even at the cost of ultimate defeat – might prove to be a sufficient deterrent.  After all, the Khkerrikk weren’t on good terms with a number of powers and the Talluran fleet might just tear off a limb, leaving them more vulnerable.  In any case it was, she decided reluctantly, time to convene a meeting of the War Council, just to make appropriate contingency plans.

On a completely separate issue, there was the unexpected news from the Imshai homeworld.  Absorbing an alien race – especially one as independent and argumentative as the Imshai – into the Talluran Empire hadn’t even been remotely anticipated.  Drayana wasn’t sure if she liked the idea or not.  In their view, the Imshai were paying her a great honour, but it also smacked of imperial expansionism in the Empress’ eyes, and that made her somewhat uncomfortable.  Her advisers weren’t even sure whether the benefits outweighed the disadvantages.  On the other hand, if she turned them down, experts suggested that the Imshai would take it badly and, as likely as not, ally or join with a power that was less than friendly to the Empire.

Drayana rubbed her temples, trying to ignore the blinding headache that was threatening to erupt.  Problems on problems.  She wondered what the next day would bring.  Nothing good – or certainly nothing simple – of that she was quite certain.

The door opened and her eight-year-old adopted sister bounced in, followed by Junia Galliena and Lucillia Theadra, from her usual close-protection element.

Sulvia bounded into her sister’s arms for a hug, for all the world acting as though she’d been gone for months.  The youngster always acted this way, Drayana reflected, delighted to be with a family who actually cared about her.

The Empress resolutely banished all thoughts of galactic crises from her head and summoned a smile.

“So will you tell me all about school today?” Drayana asked.

Her little sister pouted. “My Tutor says I talk too much.  She made two of us stay in the classroom at lunchtime and write out our names fifty times!”

“How many times did she tell you to be quiet?” Drayana enquired sagely.

Her little sister was an incorrigible chatterbox, both in and out of school.

“Only four…” Sulvia replied. “Mother just laughed when I told her.”

Livia, the Empress considered with a chuckle, was somewhat more lenient with her younger adopted daughter than she remembered at that age.  Which admittedly was no bad thing.  Drayana just wished she’d had a chance to attend a normal school, as Sulvia did on a daily basis, and even felt a little envious of the youngster for a moment.

“Drayana…?” Sulvia paused for a moment, as though unsure of what to say next.

“Yes?”

“How can you tell if people are really your friends, or just pretending to be, because you are the Empress?” the Princess Imperial looked pensive.

Drayana blinked for a moment.  It was a surprisingly insightful question for an eight year-old.

“I cannot always tell immediately, Sulvia.  Indeed, I have had very little opportunity to make real friends and only have a few.  Though you will make many more at school,” she replied carefully.

The Empress doubted if there were many would-be political manipulators and favour-seekers in her sister’s age group.  Their parents, however, were possibly another matter.  Some would undoubtedly be eager to list the Princess Imperial amongst their offspring’s circle of friends.  At least the youngster was already beginning to spot the difference between real and pseudo-friends.  That level of discrimination would, moreover, continue to grow with time.

“I cannot really help you with that one, Sulvia.  I can only suggest that you choose the people you wish to have as friends, rather than those who simply join your group and are always trying to gain your attention,” she was, Drayana reflected, singly ill-equipped to advise the eight year-old on this particular topic.

Sulvia nodded solemnly, then changed the subject. “You were going to tell me all about being an Empress today?”

“Not so much about being an Empress.  More about how – ah – our ruling system operates,” Drayana replied awkwardly.

The Princess looked confused. “I thought you told everyone what to do, because you are the Empress.”

Drayana laughed. “It is not quite as simple as that.  What I may and may not do is laid out in a special set of rules – our most important laws – called the Constitution.  I rule the Empire, but I must also choose others to help me do this.  Have you heard of Proconsuls?”

Sulvia nodded cautiously so, taking that as a positive sign, Drayana continued with her simplified version of Talluran politics, eventually drawing a large diagram to show the relations between the Proconsulate, Planetary Governors, Planetary Consuls and their Consular House, Regional Consuls and their House, and so forth.  By the end, the Empress had almost confused herself and the Princess Imperial looked thoroughly mystified.

It was, Drayana reminded herself almost defensively, only the first lesson, as Sulvia folded her arms and shook her head.

“I still think it would be much easier if you made all the rules,” the Princess Imperial declared stubbornly.

If she was solely responsible for taking all the decisions and making all the rules, the Empress thought glumly, the entire Vedda Galaxy would probably already be at war.  Still, a lesson on the downsides of absolute monarchy could wait for another day.  There was only so much political science a child of Sulvia’s age could handle in one dose, as Drayana knew all too well from her own younger days.  Except, of course, no one was about to make her younger sister sit through a day-long Consular debate.  Even back then, Livia and Myrnn admitted that had been a mistake, she recalled wryly.

“It would mean much more work for me.  And much less time to share with my favourite sister,” Drayana pointed out.

“Does this mean we can play?” Sulvia asked eagerly, bouncing onto her lap.

The Empress nodded.  An hour or so with her sister wouldn’t make any difference.  She could still spend hours tonight, agonising over the latest impending crisis.

“I can play with you for a little while before dinner,” Drayana allowed with a smile. “What would you like to do?”

“Can you show me how to use a sword?” her sister asked.

The Empress frowned slightly. “That is not playing, Sulvia – and swords are not toys.  Besides, perhaps some of your protection team could teach you better than I.  They are from the Imperial Guard, after all.”

Given the way events were unfolding, the last thing Drayana wanted to do was teach her sister how to fight this afternoon.  It was, nevertheless, an essential part of the Princess Imperial’s training regime, and today was as good a time as any.

“They have started to teach me, but I would also like to learn from my sister...” Sulvia wheedled.

Drayana sighed. “Very well.  Fetch your practice sword and I will show you some of the exercise moves I use to keep in practice.  I will not fence with you just yet, though!”

The Princess Imperial needed no further telling and darted from the room, to return a few moments later with her perfectly balanced and sized – if blunt – practice blade.  The Empress, meanwhile, fetched her own razor-sharp sword from a locked closet, where it was kept on a high shelf away from small hands.

“Can I try yours, please?  Just for a moment...” Sulvia asked.

“It is too big, but possibly not too heavy,” the Empress admitted, handing over the lightweight, but incredibly strong weapon.

She guided her younger sister through a series of practice cuts and thrusts, before retrieving the sword.

“I will show you some moves you can practice alone, with your own blade.  But if I ever catch you using a real one, without someone watching and before your guards tell me you are ready?  You know what will happen...” Drayana warned.

Sulvia nodded happily, using her own sword to hack, slash and stab at legions of imaginary foes of the Empire.  It wasn’t necessarily a skill the Empress wanted her sister to learn, but she had to admit that even in this era of plasma weapons, the ability to handle a sharp blade had saved her own life on one occasion.  Hopefully, Sulvia would never have to draw a sword in anger.

 

Joyce’s Apartment, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 11th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Dawn was unusually pensive tonight, her mother noted after dinner.  Most evenings, the youngest Summers spent time with the Empress, but the latter was noticeable by her absence tonight.

“Drayana’s kinda busy tonight, mom.  She seems pretty worried about something, but wouldn’t tell me when I asked.  Got kinda snappish actually – said sorry straight away – but Drayana’s never been like that with me before.  D’you think I’m starting to bug her, like a really annoying little sister?” Dawn asked worriedly.

Joyce shook her head.  She had a very good idea what was distressing the Empress, given the threats that were coming out of the Khkerrikk Star Empire.  None specifically directed at the Talluran Empire as yet, but Joyce wondered how long it would be before someone connected the dots.

It was that damned demon.  In a way, Joyce even felt guilty.  After all, she was directly working with the team responsible for accidentally awakening it.  From what Faith had told her – and the Slayer admitted she wasn’t an expert – this one might even be an Old One.  Apparently, demons didn’t get any worse than that.  Of course, it wasn’t even remotely her fault, the inner voice of reason countered.  She simply translated whatever Latin texts came her way.

Not that she was getting along very quickly.  Some of the writings were complex and difficult to translate, especially with only her memory to aid her.  Joyce was also acutely aware that accuracy was everything – a slight mistranslation could send an archaeological team to the wrong planet entirely.  What she needed was a Latin dictionary, but the nearest was in another galaxy.

“I don’t think Drayana’s tired of you, honey.  She just has a lot to worry about right now – and can’t tell you all of it.  We discussed this before, remember?  Some official business can’t even be shared with her own parents,” Joyce returned to the immediate problem at hand.

“Are you sure, mom? ‘Cause I can be really annoying at times.  Buffy thinks so – and we argue all the time,” Dawn replied in a tiny voice.

Joyce laughed. “Buffy loves you, dear.  And if you do annoy each other from time to time?  That’s just what sisters do.  Your Aunt and I used to fight like cat and dog – your grandmother sometimes had to pull us apart!  You and Buffy just yank each other’s chains from time to time.  But she’d do anything for you – and don’t ever think any differently.”

Dawn chewed her lip. “But what if I’m a really bad sister?  And if something happens to Buffy while I’m way out here, before I can tell her that I don’t mean it?  She has to fight that Glory Goddess-person-thing, to keep me safe and...”

Joyce wrapped a comforting arm around her daughter.  Safely here in the Vedda Galaxy – or perhaps not so safely – it was easy to forget what they were hiding from.  It was even easier to forget that Dawn knew at least part of the truth, the terrifying part that a real Goddess wanted her for a sacrifice, and the equally horrifying reality that her big sister would have to fight Glory in order to save the planet.  Perhaps it was inevitable that, at least sometimes, it would prey on the youngster’s mind.  Even if she had only had around six months of true memories.

“...I mean, I keep getting into trouble and she keeps having to rescue me and I never say ‘thank you’...” Dawn continued to babble, voice wavering slightly.

Her mother put a finger to her lips. “You are not a bad sister, Dawn.  A pain-in-the neck sometimes, but never doubt that Buffy loves you, and wouldn’t have it any other way.  And now you’ve two sisters to bug the heck out of!”

“Cordy’s way too scary to bug properly, mom,” Dawn managed a small smile.

Joyce ruffled her hair. “If Drayana’s busy tonight, why don’t you call that boy you met at the Gathering?  You do have his comm-link details – and I know you like him...”

Her daughter tried to affect a sophisticated expression. “I don’t want him to think I’m desperate.  I’m trying for the other thing – playing hard to get, Buffy calls it.”

“I wouldn’t suggest taking dating advice from either of your sisters – or Diana, for that matter,” Joyce decided that their record spoke for itself.

“But you go ahead and make that call.  Arrange to meet him and have a little fun,” she said firmly.

“Fun” in the traditional dating sense might be somewhat restricted with a security detail hovering around, but at least she’d know that Camullus Tiburtian wasn’t up to any unnecessary business with her youngest.  Or perhaps, given the differences in culture, it would be the young Talluran who’d need protecting from Dawn.

 

Above Unnamed Planet, Vedda Galaxy – 12th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Triarius moved in closer to the planet, assuming a synchronous orbit directly over the city below and preparing to release a storm of plasma bolts.  The landing party had completed their own specific work of destruction, now it was time for the Heavy Cruiser to level the whole area.  Centurion Lentulian Faustus had no idea why the Empress herself wanted this ancient city demolished.  He wasn’t part of the so-called Alteran Cultural Survey and had no idea of the planet’s significance, though it seemed a pity to arbitrarily destroy what must be an area of immense archaeological significance. 

The Centurion, however, had other things to worry about.  His ship was a long way from friendly space and perilously close to one of the two most formidable powers in the known galaxy.  The Khkerrikk Star Empire wasn’t known for its restraint, typically considering any unclaimed space adjacent to its own as future territories, and reacting accordingly.  Strictly speaking, according to accepted tenets of galactic law and a range of treaties, Triarius had every right to be here.  Nevertheless, Faustus was also all too aware that the Khkerrikk regularly and vigorously patrolled the edges of their frontiers.  If they detected a far-distant power’s warship so close to their own space, they were likely to come in firing first and ask questions after.  As the Centurion lacked the answers to these questions, he’d be forced to react in kind, potentially causing the sort of incident that could lead to war.  And given that the Khkerrikk Imperial Fleet was nearly ten times the size of its Talluran counterpart, that wouldn’t be a good thing.

“We have target acquisition and sensor lock,” the Weapons Officer declared.

Not that he could miss a target the size of a city, without actively trying, he considered.

“Bring the landing party back aboard and standby to open fire,” Faustus ordered crisply.

It was a ten-day hyperspace journey back to Talluran territory.  The Imperial Guard officer and his crew were eagerly anticipating seeing their families again.  This had been an unexpected and somewhat unwelcome extension to an already lengthy patrol, which should have already been completed.  Faustus, therefore, wanted this mission concluded as swiftly as possible, with a quick and unobtrusive return to hyperspace, before Khkerrikk warships or long-range sensors detected their presence.  Only the possibility of the latter was preventing the Centurion from employing a large-yield Naquadah-enhanced fusion device.  That was the best way to ensure there were no traces left of anything, but the blast signature could also be picked up at a considerable distance.

“Centurion, I am detecting a hyperspace window…  Three Khkerrikk Heavy Cruisers approaching, sensors in acquisition mode, and assuming attack formation,” a junior officer suddenly announced.

“How close?” Faustus demanded.

“Firing range in two minutes,” the other officer replied tersely.

Faustus cursed. “Raise shields and standby all weapons.  Engineering?  Prepare to engage the Hyperdrive, on my mark.”

Their mission would have to remain incomplete, the Centurion decided.  Getting his ship out of here in one piece and maybe preventing a major crisis between the Khkerrikk and the Talluran Empire had a higher priority.

“We are too close to the planet’s gravity well and moving too slowly,” the Engineering officer replied. “We need more time to leave orbit and accelerate.”

“Open communications,” Faustus ordered, leaning forward in his command chair.

Maybe he could bluff his way out of this, without becoming embroiled in a firefight, unlikely though it seemed.

“No response…” the Decurion on the Communications station reported, after trying several times.

“They are launching fighters and powering weapons...” the ranking officer at Tactical added.

The Centurion nodded grimly.  That left only one option – stand and fight.  The odds weren’t good, but a Talluran Heavy Cruiser was more than a match for any other single Vedda Galaxy warship in its class.  In all three performance categories – firepower, protection, and speed – the Talluran ship had the edge.  On the other hand, they were facing three Khkerrikk vessels, of not inconsiderable capability themselves.  Also, Triarius was alone and unsupported, whereas half the Khkerrikk Fleet could show up at any moment.

He mentally shrugged.  Imperial Guard ships had faced off against worse odds than this in the past and their crews lived to tell the tale.  Sometimes, at any rate.  If their luck and training held – and the Goddess was in a merciful mood – he might yet live to see his family again.

“Launch fighters.  Clear missile tubes and decoys for launch, and lock Plasma and Particle Cannon on the lead ship.  Helm?  Prepare for evasive manoeuvres, full combat power,” the Centurion ordered calmly.

“Communications?  Prepare a flash transmission.  Inform Tallura Prime that we are engaging a Khkerrikk battle-group,” he added.

If this escalated, it was imperative that his people had at least some forewarning.  However the battle ended, Faustus vowed, the Khkerrikk would know they’d butted heads with the Imperial Guard.

 

Aboard the Khkerrikk Heavy Cruiser J’Karnass, Senior War Leader Saraznak considered his options.  Perhaps this hadn’t been such a waste of time after all.  Scanners were registering a Talluran Heavy Cruiser orbiting the unnamed planet, a very long way from where any Talluran warship would normally be found.  Perhaps the Emperor had been correct in his assessment, that the hideous creature which had obliterated Parthak a few days before was, indeed, artificially created as a means of attack.  The Tallurans, admittedly, seemed unlikely suspects in that regard, but the evidence was apparently right in front of him.

Weapons were already locked on the interloper, with all three of his ships also launching fighters.  The Khkerrikk squadron might outnumber the alien vessel three-to-one, but he nonetheless had a healthy respect for Talluran warships.  They were extremely tough and armed to the teeth, employing a quality over quantity approach to design and construction.  If this was a one-on-one engagement, Saraznak would have been running for safety by now, especially since the cruiser’s marking identified it as an Imperial Guard vessel, crewed by the Talluran military elite.

“They are attempting to contact us, My Master,” an underling piped up at his elbow.

“Ignore them for now,” Saraznak ordered.

The time for talking would come when he’d crippled the intruder’s engine and seized their ship.  No doubt, the Tallurans hoped to bluff their way out of this, or to buy time.  But when facing prey that could bite very hard indeed, it was better to draw its teeth first.

“Hold course and prepare to engage,” the War Leader instructed. “Concentrate fire on their shields and engines…  I want them crippled, not destroyed.  Unless absolutely necessary.”

 

Triarius headed straight for the lead Khkerrikk ship, shields soaking up its initial plasma salvo, manoeuvring so that the other two cruisers couldn’t easily fire without hitting their leader.  The Talluran Heavy Cruiser initially responded with a sustained EMP burst from its Particle Cannon, seriously weakening its adversary’s shields, before hammering them with a series of blasts from its own Plasma Cannon and releasing a cloud of missiles.  Two more EMP bursts and the Khkerrikk cruiser’s first line of defences were down.  Compared to its Talluran equivalent, the crescent-shaped Khkerrikk ship also had little in the way of armour protection, and it was already suffering grave damage.

Three-quarters of the Talluran missile salvo were knocked down by point-defence fire, but several slammed into J’Karnass’ hull, venting compartments to the vacuum outside.  The Particle Cannon, now in Neutral Particle Beam mode, meanwhile lanced into the primary hull, slicing it open.  Then another salvo of missiles arrived, one Naquadah-tipped armour-piercing missile penetrating the bridge area and detonating, taking Saraznak and his command crew with it, another exploding in the main engine space, and a third and fourth impacting on the main weapons array.  Seconds later, half a dozen plasma bursts blew the Khkerrikk ship apart in a short-lived fireball as the internal oxygen was consumed.

Triarius’ shields were at just under half-strength when the Talluran vessel turned its attention to the second Khkerrikk Heavy Cruiser.  The two ships exchanged half-a-dozen full salvoes, while the third Khkerrikk ship manoeuvred to engage, the two sides’ fighter craft also meanwhile twisting and turning in a huge dogfight.  Once again, Talluran firepower had the edge, as missiles and plasma bolts tore the enemy craft to pieces. 

It had, nonetheless, inflicted severe damage.  As Triarius engaged the third Khkerrikk ship, it no longer had functional shields, though the ablative nanobot layer and protective Trinium armour below at least afforded some temporary protection to the Tallurans.  This time, the odds were more or less even, one nominally weaker undamaged ship versus a more formidable adversary, which had lost some of its weapons systems and main protective layer.

A few minutes later it was all over, the remaining Khkerrikk Heavy Cruiser having been reduced to an expanding cloud of tiny fragments as its main reactor exploded.  Triarius promptly turned its attention to the surviving enemy fighters, swatting the survivors out of space with ease, while its own craft – only twelve surviving out of forty – returned to their mothership.

“Status?” Faustus demanded.

His ship and crew had performed far beyond expectations, but he wanted to be out of here before the inevitable Khkerrikk reinforcements arrived.  Triarius had taken a pounding and certainly wouldn’t survive another engagement.

“Casualties across all decks, with a dozen fatalities,” the second-in-command reported.

“Major damage to power transfer systems.  We are losing atmosphere from four compartments and there is a fire in the shuttle-bay, though it seems to be under control.  Shield emitters are completely destroyed and ablative armour has been expended over eighty percent of the ship,” the Engineering Officer also responded.

“The missile magazines are also empty and half our Plasma Cannon were destroyed in the last engagement,” Weapons added.

“Can we survive a hyperspace jump?” Faustus asked.

Engineering winced. “It is a serious gamble.  My staff are working to restore systems as far as possible, but the ship really needs dock-level repairs.  Under normal circumstances, I would recommend against it, but…”

He left the sentence unfinished.  No one wanted to be around when the Khkerrikk arrived seeking vengeance.

Faustus paused for a moment.  It wasn’t much of a choice.  Risk the lives of his crew to a potentially lethal Hyperdrive malfunction, or face certain death at the hands of the Khkerrikk.

“Engage Hyperdrive and take us home,” the Centurion exhaled.

Triarius leaped forward as a hyperspace window formed ahead of the ship, only to collapse an instant later.

“Hyperdrive malfunction!” the Engineer yelled in alarm, as his instruments showed a critical feedback. “The reactor is going to…”

The inertial dampening system abruptly cut out, immediately catapulting the Engineering Officer across the bridge, then reducing him and everyone else aboard the still-accelerating ship to bloody mush.  An instant later, the uncontrolled reactor exploded, the tiny glowing fragments of the Talluran Heavy Cruiser joining those of its adversaries.

 

Ruined City, Unnamed Planet, Vedda Galaxy – 12th February 2001 (Earth Date)

No fewer than ten Khkerrikk warships orbited above as War Leader Prime Breemakk ringed down to the planetary surface.  Under the circumstances, it had seemed advisable that he respond to this incident himself.  The Emperor already was not a happy man, losing three ships against a single Talluran vessel.  The evidence which remained – and there wasn’t much – suggested that the alien vessel had succumbed to battle damage, but only after destroying the entire Khkerrikk squadron.  Breemakk wasn’t entirely surprised.  On more than one occasion, he’d criticised his people’s warship designs, but the industrialists and those who valued sheer numbers had always won.  It was also sobering to think that the Heavy Cruiser wasn’t even the largest or most potent Talluran design, though fortunately they only had a relative handful of Battleships in service.  Whatever the Emperor and his sycophants might say, if Breemakk had to take the Khkerrikk Fleet to war, there were powers he’d far rather fight before the Talluran Empire.

He glanced up at the red sun and doubted if his people would ever have any use for this barren world.  Nevertheless, the investigation was proving quite fruitful.  In places, especially approaching the Stargate, the ground had been worn smooth – just like that around the doomed city of Parthak.

The planet itself had already revealed a somewhat sinister side and most unpleasant surprise.  The initial landing party had been attacked by a number of multi-legged, clawed creatures, which were only driven off by fighter craft after inflicting several casualties.  There was the best part of a battalion now on the ground, positioned to deal with any recurrence of the threat, but Breemakk was uneasy and wondered with a shiver what else might be lurking on this dying world.

A junior officer approached him, carrying several articles. “One of our patrols found these in the city, My Master.  An arm-piece from Talluran body armour and a broken example of one of their personal combat weapons.  They – or someone - also seem to have been conducting a number of demolitions recently.  The surviving fragments are too small to piece together, but by the quantity we would estimate that a small building was blown up, together with some selected marker posts from those scattered around.”

Breemakk rolled the various facts around in his head, trying to make sense of them.  The Tallurans were definitely trying to hide something – and that monstrous creature had also been here.  According to the abbreviated reports received from the destroyed ships, their vessel had also been targeting this ancient Alteran city, though to what end he had no idea.

All he knew for certain was that firstly, three Khkerrikk ships had been destroyed, and secondly, at least some evidence currently pointed towards the Tallurans having some knowledge of that almost unstoppable creature.  And Breemakk had a pretty good idea how his Emperor would react.

 
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