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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 > GeneralCordyfanFR1322266,6403127156,97914 Mar 1124 Jul 14No

The Road to Armageddon

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).

 

Drayana’s Chambers, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 13th February 2001 (Earth Date)

The Khkerrikk Ambassador struggled to keep pace with the four Imperial Guard surrounding him.  Selected for their height in addition to their abilities, the elite Protective Division were intended to intimidate and so far as the Ambassador was concerned, they were succeeding right at this moment.  The diminutive reptilian, small by his people’s standards, barely came up to their chest in each case.  And no doubt the Empress would shortly be looking down her young nose at him, too.

The Ambassador had mixed feelings about this assignment.  His young monarch might well be moving too quickly, given the Khkerrikk Star Empire’s current state of readiness.  He also wasn’t wholly convinced by the Emperor’s argument that the destruction of Parthak had been a deliberate act.  The Tallurans were certainly denying it and, so far as could be ascertained, weren’t preparing to back up the monster’s attack with any military action.  There was also no evidence that the Tallurans had the technology to bio-engineer such a hideous monstrosity.  Nor, indeed, did such an action fit the normal Talluran profile.

His Emperor, however, wasn’t accepting any of that logic.  Kharrillion had long lusted after this particular region of the galaxy and it really didn’t matter which of the local powers gave him an initial opening.  To that end, the Ambassador had been sent with a list of basically impossible demands.

Of course, he followed the Emperor’s stance that the Vedda Galaxy would be better off under the benign – or not so benign – rule of the Khkerrikk Star Empire.  But no one else accepted that principle and certainly not the Tallurans.  There were, admittedly, far fewer of them and their military strength, at least in theory, was only a fraction of the Star Empire’s.  On the other hand, the whole balance of the galaxy had to be taken into consideration, not just a straight comparison between the two biggest powers.

The Tallurans were also a tough, advanced and militarily formidable power.  A warrior race aeons older than his own, who’d demonstrated an ability to bounce back from any number of civilizational disasters and threats.  No, it would not be wise for Emperor Kharrillion to underestimate either the Tallurans, or the young female currently on their throne.  She’d already proven that on more than one occasion, against both internal and external threats.

Yet another Imperial Guard impassively opened the door to the Empress’ chambers, where she waited with her Proconsul for Alien Affairs.

“Ambassador Skraad of the Khkerrikk Star Empire,” Drayana’s aide announced.

The Empress knew what was coming, but forced herself to be impassive.  She’d already reached out to the Khkerrikk, offering reparations and sincere apologies, only to be rebuffed.  Emperor Kharrillion clearly had his own agenda and the Faceless One was simply an excuse.

That, of course, wouldn’t make her task any easier.  Drayana was all too aware that this was her greatest challenge yet, with the future of twenty-two billion citizens resting on the decisions she and the Proconsulate would shortly make.

“How may I help you this morning, Ambassador,” the Empress asked from the heights of her throne. “May I offer you a chair?”

“That will not be necessary, Your Excellency,” Skraad replied politely.

It would only serve to make him feel even smaller next to the tall Empress he decided.  Besides, he’d only be here for a few minutes.  At least he’d leave alive.  The Tallurans respected the laws of diplomacy, but the message he would be delivering could easily have him killed on the spot in other places.

“His Majesty, Emperor Kharrillion, has instructed me to deliver the following message, in relation to the recent attack on the city of Parthak and other such incursions into Khkerrikk Star Empire space.  It is, in addition, a response to recent hostile activity by Talluran Imperial Fleet units, in close proximity to Khkerrikk space and in an area earmarked for future colonisation,” Skraad began.

He warily eyed the sword at Drayana’s waist.  According to intelligence reports, she not only knew how to use it, but had actually done so to protect her own life.  Hopefully, it would remain in its sheath after he’d finished.

“The Khkerrikk Star Empire hereby makes the following demands,” he cleared his throat.

“Firstly, the Talluran Empire will admit full responsibility for the attacks on Parthak and elsewhere.

“Secondly, the Talluran Empire will admit full responsibility for the unprovoked attack on – and destruction of – three Khkerrikk military vessels.

“Thirdly, as the Khkerrikk Star Empire considers that the Talluran Empire is a threat to the peace of the Vedda Galaxy, the Empress will hereby abdicate and begin negotiations for the full and autonomous incorporation of its people and territory into the Star Empire,” Skraad finished.

Drayana just looked at him for a few long moments, the Ambassador shivering slightly, though he knew he was probably safe here.

“And if we refuse these terms?” she asked finally.

Intelligence had already predicted what the Khkerrikk demands would be.  There was no room for negotiation – there never was – and to submit was unthinkable.  The Proconsulate, who’d met in emergency session earlier, were in full agreement.  The Khkerrikk Ambassador could, as Drayana had already told her Proconsuls, insert his demands and spin on them.

“Then I regret to say that the Khkerrikk Star Empire will declare war on the Talluran Empire forthwith, Your Excellency,” Skraad replied.

“Then I tell you now, Ambassador Skraad, that we refuse,” Drayana told him quietly.

The Khkerrikk tilted his reptilian head slightly. “Are you certain of that, Your Excellency, given the consequences for your people?”

“Most certainly, Ambassador,” the Empress responded firmly. “And if I may, there are certain things I wish you to convey back to your Emperor.”

She looked him straight in the eye. “The Talluran Empire completely refutes any allegations by the Khkerrikk Star Empire – or anyone else – that we were deliberately responsible for instigating these attacks on your territory.  The creature was accidentally disturbed during an archaeological dig, on an ancient Alteran city, in an area which is clearly within unclaimed neutral space, according to all existing treaties and agreements.  Secondly, we did not initiate hostilities with your ships.  This is a brazen and unacceptable falsehood.  Attempts to communicate were ignored and your commanders fired first.”

Drayana shook her head. “Your Emperor’s intent is very thinly disguised, Ambassador.  But the Talluran Empire will not bow down before his expansionist tendencies, nor will we allow this unfortunate incident to give him an excuse to gain a foothold in this area of the galaxy, from where he can easily attack our neighbours.”

She stood up and the Khkerrikk took a half-step back. “You may tell your Emperor this, Ambassador.  My people are historically a warrior race and do not take well to being blackmailed or bullied, and will defend themselves against all enemies.  You may outnumber us, but our teeth are still sharp.  Bear in mind that we are far from being your only enemy…  We still have the capacity to tear off a limb, even as you try to destroy us.  Believe that you will bleed for every part of our space.  And those bleeding wounds may well attract others to an easier meal.”

There was an uneasy silence. “If that is your response, Your Excellency, I will take my leave.  The Star Empire’s Embassy on Tallura Prime will be evacuated within the hour.  If you wish to use diplomatic channels for any reason, my counterpart based in the Ch’Hanis Freehold will speak for the Khkerrikk.”

Drayana nodded curtly and the guard swiftly escorted him out.  Though she’d been expecting exactly this, the Empress still felt as though she’d been kicked in the guts.  War with one of the galaxy’s superpowers hadn’t even entered her mind when she was crowned.

“I could be looking at the effective destruction of my people as a functioning civilization.  And it is all my fault,” the Empress quietly told Bruccian.

“I think you will find that it is far from the case.  The Proconsulate – including myself – agreed that we should not tell the other powers how the Faceless One came to be loose, on the basis that it would compromise the Alteran Cultural Survey.  With hindsight, that was a serious miscalculation, but I find it hard to believe that the Khkerrikk Emperor would have acted in any other way, even if we had admitted this at the time.  His agenda, after all, is quite clear,” the Proconsul for alien affairs replied.

The Khkerrikk Star Empire included a dozen subject species, none of which had joined of their own free will.  On the contrary, seizing an opportunity for war and conquest on a thin pretext – such as this one – was normal procedure for the Khkerrikk.  If they couldn’t find an excuse, engineering a suitable provocation wasn’t beyond their intelligence services.

“Perhaps, but that does not solve our predicament now,” Drayana pointed out dolefully.

“We are not defeated yet, Your Excellency.  I would suggest contacting the Asgard, as the first priority.  Our treaty with them was made precisely to deal with threats of this magnitude and the Khkerrikk declared war on us, not the other way around, so the defensive provisions most certainly apply,” Bruccian responded.

The Empress nodded. “I can only hope that the Asgard will respond in time.  At times, I wonder if the Protected Powers’ Treaty is backed up by any more than bluff and reputation.”

“Our own military should not be underestimated, Your Excellency.  They have planned against such an eventuality for many years,” the Proconsul added.

It was, admittedly, difficult to see what could be done in the face of ten-to-one odds – at least without major outside assistance - but he was no military thinker of note.  Tallurans, on the other hand, had been renowned as innovative strategists and tacticians as far back as the days of Alteran rule and the four-power Great Alliance.  More than one ostensibly superior enemy had discovered that over the millennia, some to their permanent detriment and downfall.

“I will be meeting with the War Council in an hour,” the Empress replied. “Your presence would be greatly appreciated there, in the Emergency Command Post.  I would like to know what my diplomatic options are – if any.”

She hated the claustrophobic Command Post, carved out of solid rock five-thousand metres below Yaherin Var, to ensure the survival of government and military command in the event of an attack on the Talluran homeworld.  During a crisis of this magnitude, it was manned at all times.  The Empress was also quite certain that she wouldn’t be scuttling down there, leaving her people to die, if the capital came under direct attack.

“I may have a few ideas, Your Excellency,” Bruccian assured her.

Drayana turned to Vesarian, a silent, looming presence all through her meeting with the Khkerrikk Ambassador.

“Centurion, would you please bring Joyce Summers from the museum and Dawn from the classroom, together with Diana and Colonel Logan?  In the light of what is happening, we may have to take certain decisions,” she said pensively.

 

Pavement Café, Mursia Imperial City, Sanopolis – 13th February (Earth Date)

The wine was from an excellent vintage and should have slipped down with ease.  Today, Caelius Tren thought it tasted like ashes, mixed with the sourest vinegar.  It was bad enough to have his youngest daughter facing execution, his son and heir dead, and his wife undergoing treatment in a psychiatric institution.  That, however, faded into insignificance with today’s news.  The Empire was facing all-out-war – and potentially destruction - and he could do nothing to help.

If he hadn’t disgraced himself and his family name, not only would all his children be looking at bright futures, but Tren would have still in all likelihood have been part of the Proconsulate and, therefore, in a position to do something useful, now that the Empire faced a crisis unparalleled for a millennium. 

Instead, he was reduced to sitting in the sunshine, drinking wine and watching the news programmes on a public viewer.  Tren had few real friends on Sanopolis, having left most of them behind when he was forced to sell his home on Tallura Prime.  While his past crimes were common knowledge on this planet, though not to the extent of his children’s, at least the local inhabitants were friendly enough, even somehow sympathetic.  Admittedly, that was purely in character for the inhabitants of Sanopolis, a vacation and retirement spot famed for its friendliness and hospitality.

Now, even here, treason seemed to be rearing its ugly head once more.  The three strangers who’d sat at his table this morning hadn’t said anything wholly subversive, but the hints had nevertheless been there.  These included suggestions that this latest crisis might be just another sign that the Empire needed new leadership, with the slyly added comment that such a change at the top might spare his daughter.  There was a definite undertone of sedition in their words, enough to set alarm bells ringing that this was more than disaffected political murmurings.  As a former Proconsul, well-versed in political manoeuvrings, Tren was experienced enough to read between the lines, especially when they’d proposed meeting again.  He could also tell that the trio weren’t ringleaders of a major conspiracy and might even just be messengers.  The vagueness of their message could, after all, just as easily be ascribed to lack of knowledge, as subtlety and a need for security.

They could, of course, have been Security Bureau undercover agents, testing his own loyalty.  That was doubtful, however, given the clumsiness of their approach, not to mention that entrapment wasn’t really the Bureau's style.  There was, in any case, a simple way to find out.

 

The Schoolroom, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 13th February 2001 (Earth Date)

A worried Dawn was barely able to concentrate on her schoolwork today, though she was hardly alone in that.  Everyone seemed to be wandering around, nervously conversing in low voices, as though she didn’t know there was a war about to start.  A war with a very much larger power.  Dawn didn’t even begin to understand the balance of power in the Vedda Galaxy, but even she knew that was a very bad thing.  Drayana missing classes for meetings wasn’t exactly unusual, but there were double the number of guards in the palace.  Dawn also noticed a greatly increased number of officials – many in military uniform – hurrying to and from the Empress’ chambers.

She tried to force herself to concentrate on the task at hand.  Today’s lesson was basic physics, which Carolyn Lam was vainly trying to impart.

“So can you give me two examples each of sources of Potential Energy, Kinetic Energy, and Chemical Energy?” the doctor asked patiently.

If she had her way, they’d be breaking out that emergency transmitter and contacting the Asgard for immediate evacuation.  Much as Lam liked the Tallurans, she didn’t give two cents for their chances, not against an enemy who outnumbered them to such an extent.  At the same time, she was trying hard not to seem nervous in front of Dawn.  Unfortunately, the youngest Summers had seen too many crises and easily picked up on everyone’s uneasy vibes.

“I don’t know…  Can’t seem to think…” Dawn admitted, ,with a sigh.

“Come on.  You know the answer to this one,” Lam offered encouragingly.

She was interrupted by the arrival of Drayana, Joyce, and Logan, all wearing grim expressions.

“The Khkerrikk Star Empire just declared war on us,” the Empress said flatly.

“Oh fuck!” Faith muttered from the rear of the room, where she was having similar problems concentrating today.

“What does that mean?” Dawn realised it was a stupid question, as soon as it left her mouth.

Drayana sat down and took her hand. “It means that I cannot begin to guarantee your safety, Dawn.  I need you and Aunt Joyce to pack, as quickly as possible.  I will provide a fast transport, to take you out of our space and into a quiet, neutral area, and ask the Asgard to rendezvous as soon as possible.”

“But…  I don’t want to leave!  You’re my friend!” Dawn protested in dismay.

“It isn’t safe, honey…” Joyce offered quietly.

“Aren’t the Asgard supposed to protect you guys?” Faith put in.

The Empress nodded. “We have a defensive treaty with them and have asked for assistance.  But whether they will respond in time – and with a suitable force – remains to be seen, especially if they are otherwise occupied.  It is likely that they would be able to find a single ship for you, but otherwise…”

“I’m not going!” Dawn’s voice rose.

“Honey…” her mother began.

“No!  Everyone’s so determined to protect me, but what if I don’t want to leave the people I care about?  I mean, I get that it was important to, like, everything that I left Earth.  But there still might not be an Earth to go back to – I heard Diana and the Colonel talking about it – and if I leave you and everyone here, Drayana…  I mean, I’m not all that important, now that Glory can’t use my blood to destroy everything, am I?” Dawn replied.

Drayana’s eyes narrowed. “I made a promise to keep you safe, Dawn.  Admittedly I have not been entirely successful, but this is different.  The danger is much greater and I always keep my word.”

More than anything, the Empress wanted to keep her young friend around.  In the coming days and weeks, however, they would likely see little of each other.  Furthermore, given that this would be all-out war, Drayana knew she might have to act in ways that the Terran shouldn’t have to see.  Lastly, there was the matter of her safety.

“Do you know what a full-scale war means in this galaxy, Dawn?  It can mean whole planets wiped out – every living thing destroyed - in a few hours’ orbital bombardment.  Less time if fusion weapons are used, with worlds turned into burned-out cinders.  Entire civilizations – whole species – annihilated.  It could happen here.  I might have to do it, then what would you think of me, as a mass killer?” Drayana spelled out the hard realities.

“You’ll only do what you have to do.  And the Asgard are gonna put us somewhere safe?” Dawn didn’t sound convinced.

Joyce, to her own surprise, found herself partially agreeing with her daughter.  It was an odd sensation – she’d never considered herself even slightly heroic – but they’d made so many friends here and been welcomed unconditionally, it just seemed wrong to cut and run.  On the other hand, her mother’s instincts wanted to protect Dawn at all costs.  But leaving her friend to an uncertain fate might well destroy her daughter.

“It would likely be somewhere that is considerably safer than here,” the Empress argued.

“I’m not so sure, Drayana,” Joyce surprised everyone. “Keeping all of reality safe was their top priority.  As a small group of pretty average humans?  Not so much.”

If the Asgard weren’t immediately available to help their ally, she doubted that they could spare a valuable warship just to pick up a small party of Terrans.  Take away the supernatural element which had brought them here, and they were worth exactly zero in the calculus of galactic politics.  Even if Drayana thought otherwise.

“Uh, you do know what B and Queen C will do to me, if anything fricking happens?” Faith pointed out.

She was just looking for some way to persuade her charges to leave.  Admittedly, protecting Dawn and Joyce in the midst of a huge galactic war was slightly out of her comfort zone.

Logan raised his hand. “Me too…”

“So if we all get blown up, Buffy and Cordy won’t be able to do anything to you…  And that so didn’t come out the way I wanted!” Dawn retorted.

“You were there for us, Drayana.  The least I can do is continue to work on the project, especially since you may need it to succeed more than ever,” Joyce reminded.

There was still a great deal of Latin to translate, including a few more inscriptions recently collected from other sites.  The translation was only one part of the project, moreover.  Joyce also had to put the various semi-cryptic clues together, hopefully leading to a mother lode of Alteran technology.  In other words, just what the Tallurans needed right now.

“ ‘Project’?  I thought you were just looking at old remains,” Logan interjected.

“And me,” Lam added.

“Me three,” Faith agreed.

Joyce winced.  The Alteran Cultural Survey was still highly classified and none of the others in her group knew about it.

“Secret for now,” Drayana replied firmly, in her most regal tones.

The Terrans subsided for the moment.  Sixteen or not, she was still the Empress.

She glanced from Dawn to her mother and back again, then at Logan and Faith. “You are all visitors to my world.  This decision has to be about all of you.”

“Part of me sure as Hell doesn’t want to get my ass blasted into a million pieces,” Faith admitted. “But the other half?  The part that wants to make a difference and do the redemption thing?  That kinda wants to stay.”

She grinned at Dawn. “But if I get nuked, I’m tellin’ B that it was all your fault!”

Logan nodded.  Every SG-team had fought for people on other worlds less-deserving than the Tallurans.  It might not be their war, but he could think of worse ones to fight back on Earth.

“I’ll talk to the team, but if they’re like me, they’ll want to stay for the moment,” the Colonel announced.

“This part of the team certainly does,” Lam agreed, albeit nervously.

“Very well,” Drayana told them, after a long pause. “I will allow you to stay for the present.  By our worst estimates, it will be a few weeks before the Khkerrikk fleet can reach our space.  If the war begins to go badly for us, however, I reserve the right to make you leave.  Even if I have to pick up my foolish young friend and carry her bodily to the ship…”

“Friends stick by each other,” Dawn insisted.

All at once, the Empress felt herself welling up, and at a loss for words.  It was all she could do to hug her young friend, then each of the others in turn, without breaking down.  It was a small thing, but with friends like this, she felt just a little better about the war she now had to plan.

 

Emergency Command Post, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 13th February 2001 (Earth Date)

The Emergency Command Post was actually quite spacious, with accommodation for several hundred on multiple levels.  Drayana still found the structure, with its stark, heavily-armoured walls, intensely oppressive and almost suffocating.  Banks of monitors displayed data from all over the Empire and advanced communications system allowed her to run everything from down here, but she still hated the place with a passion.

With an effort, she tried to ignore her surroundings and concentrate on the complex business of making war against a much larger opponent.

“It is not as gloomy a picture – at least in the first instance – as might be apparent,” General Piretus insisted.

“I have spent many years studying the Khkerrikk as a potential enemy.  Alone, we cannot beat them in the long term.  Twenty-two billion of us, to five hundred billion of them.  I will grant you that much,” the commander of the Imperial Defence Forces paused.

“But they have weakness – significant weaknesses – and we can certainly outmanoeuvre them in the short term.  And after that?  Force a stalemate for a time.  Hopefully, the Asgard will respond to our requests, in any case, but we must make our own preparations,” he continued.

“ ‘Weaknesses’ you said?” Drayana asked hopefully.

“The biggest weakness is in their leadership, Your Excellency.  Emperor Kharrillion is young and inexperienced and, unlike yourself, is not inclined to listen to advice.  Our specialists consider that he suffers from something of a narcissistic personality disorder – and considers himself to be an expert on military strategy.  He is likely to interfere with their preparations and conduct of the war at all levels,” Piretus assessed.

The Proconsul for War concurred. “The numerical disparity is considerable.  In theory, they have a ten-to-one superiority at the outset, which will only grow as the war goes on.  There are, however, certain qualifying factors.  Firstly, we are far from their only enemy.  A considerable portion of their forces will always be tied down, facing the Jarrasii.  That is a permanent given – under no circumstances can we see their relationship improving.

“Secondly, to field their forces at that ten-to-one strength, they must fully mobilise their first line of reserves.  Their system is, however, cumbersome – partially because of its structure, partially because of the sheer size of the Star Empire.  Also – and bear this in mind when Admiral Severan introduces her plan later – their morale is poor.  Desertion amongst reservists is common, in spite of severe penalties.  Our reserve mobilisation, on the other hand, can be completed within two days,” Vertain explained.

“Then there is also the fact that, at its closest, we are ten days from their space at its closest point.  And our ships are one-thirds faster than theirs in hyperspace.  Taking these factors together, it is likely to be around two weeks – at a minimum – before they can launch an attack of any magnitude.”

So they at least wouldn’t have thousands of Khkerrikk ships descending on them immediately, the Empress allowed.  Two weeks would also give the Asgard time to do something, she hoped.  Still, the Talluran Empire could only rely on its own resources for now.

“What is the strength of the Imperial Fleet at present?” Drayana asked.

“Between the Imperial Guard contribution and Imperial Defence Forces?  Twelve Battleships, seventy-five Heavy Cruisers, two-hundred Light Cruisers.  We can also mobilise another twenty-five Heavy and fifty Light Cruisers from the Reserve.  And there are three further new Battleships and seven Heavy Cruisers currently on shakedown operations, fresh from the construction yards, and around the same number nearing completion,” Piretus replied.

“For an Empire of twenty-two billion, it is an utterly inadequate fleet.  As I have been saying for many years,” he grunted in frustration.

Vertain broke in. “Enough, General.  It is not the Empress’ fault.  She inherited the forces we have and has already passed a Rearmament Law through the Consular Houses.”

The war had come upon them just a little too early.  The Rearmament Law allowed for a tripling of Battleship strength, plus a one-for-one replacement of all Light Cruisers currently serving in the Imperial Fleet with Heavy Cruisers, providing a massive qualitative boost.  The Light Cruisers thereby displaced would be transferred to the Frontier and Customs Directorate, replacing smaller ships and providing a very effective secondary combat force.  That, in any case, had been the theory.

“My apologies, Your Excellency,” the old General replied.

Drayana waved them aside. “I will be proposing another law by the end of the day, to triple the size of the fleet.  That, however, will not help us in the short term.”

An unrivalled mastery of nanotechnology allowed the Tallurans to build ships much more rapidly than their neighbours, but not nearly at the rate required to match the numbers deployed by a superpower like the Khkerrikk or Jarrasii.

“Admiral Severan has, I believe, developed a plan,” Vertain offered.

“We must buy ourselves time, Your Excellency.  In that regard, we have certain advantages.  Our forces are faster-moving, better-trained and have somewhat superior – though not decisively so – technology.  The key is to sow confusion and disrupt their logistic and mobilisation structure.  For that, we will require the bulk of the fleet…” Severan began.

“That will leave most of our planets undefended,” The Empress pointed out.

“A purely defensive strategy will see us defeated in short order,” Severan countered. “Spreading our ships across the Empire will leave us weak everywhere and at risk of being overwhelmed.  It is also what the Khkerrikk expect us to do.”

“Even if the Khkerrikk cannot arrive in strength for some time, it will also leave us open to attack by others,” Drayana objected.

Bruccian wasn’t so sure. “The Ch’Hanis and Zaharte may not be our friends, but our analysis suggests that they would regard the dangers of the Khkerrikk overrunning our space – and establishing a major base in this region – to far outweigh any small-scale gains they might make by attacking when we are vulnerable.  I would suggest that they will adopt a defensive posture, while trying to improve their own forces.”

“It is a major risk,” Drayana didn’t like to consider the potential consequences if she was wrong.

“It our only chance, however small,” Vertain persisted. “Otherwise, do we simply sit and wait for the Khkerrikk  to overwhelm us?  There may be some danger of the smaller powers trying their luck on a local basis, but then we will simply crush them.”

Bruccian agreed. “We do have the Triannite and N’Gluk fleets at our disposal, Your Excellency.  They take the position that if we fall, they will be next.  That gives us another three-dozen Heavy Cruisers and seventy Light Cruisers, of our own design.  We can use their forces to free up our own for offensive missions.”

At least they weren’t alone, the Empress thought.  Her long-term allies had offered assistance, even without being asked, and regardless of the consequences.

“So what is your plan, Admiral?” Drayana knew she had to rely on their expert judgement in the final analysis.

“First, we make full use of our cloaking devices.  No one knows we possess such technology and it will only be employed when we can do so with maximum advantage.  Secondly, there are four targets close to the edge of Khkerrikk space – and a long way from reinforcement.  Intelligence suggests they do not expect us to attack, in any case,” Severan brought up a holographic map.

“These two worlds have large-scale mobilisation facilities and considerable numbers of mothballed ships.  By the time our ships arrive, they will be crowded with inexperienced reservists – tens of thousands.  To be brutal about this, we slaughter them and it puts a further dent in their reservists’ morale.  Taking down the logistics facilities on this third planet will cause further disruption – they would be critical in forward-deploying a large force.  This fourth world?  That is our trap…” the Admiral had a predatory gleam in her eyes.

“How so?” the Empress wanted to know every detail.

“Emperor Kharrillion’s birth planet, of which he is extremely proud.  It is moderately well-defended, but not sufficient to repel the forces allotted by the plan.  We will not simply attack this planet, Your Excellency, but invade and occupy it.  Only long enough to humiliate their Emperor.  Kharrillion will undoubtedly order the largest possible counter-attack within the shortest possible time, diverting forces from those being concentrated against us.  That is when we will introduce them to Alteran cloaking technology and the firepower of our Battleships…”

Piretus smiled coldly. “And Phase Two has several more surprises for them.  But all dependent on the success of Phase One, of course.”

His smile quickly faded.  No matter how successful the Imperial Fleet was in the opening stages, without major external assistance they were merely buying time.  He and Severan might have some of the most gifted strategists, logisticians and tacticians in the Vedda Galaxy, but eventually the sheer weight of the Star Empire’s population and industrial capability would wear down the Tallurans.  The Empress knew it and the Proconsuls for War and Alien Affairs also knew it, but today wasn’t the time to discuss worst case scenarios.

“You must be ruthless, Your Excellency.  Any weakness will be thoroughly exploited by our enemies,” the General added, to the agreement of all the others around the table.

“I will bear that in mind – and you are not the first to have told me that today.  In any case, the fate of the Empire is in your hands,” Drayana told him and Severan. “But I have every confidence.”

“One thing, Your Excellency…” Bruccian ventured.

“Yes Proconsul?”

“The Faceless One also attacked a Jarrassii world.  It might be a useful point to talk with them – admit our fault.  They are not remotely like the Khkerrikk and unlikely to attack us, but at this time, it would wise to ensure our diplomatic relations are as solid as possible everywhere,” the Proconsul for Alien Affairs suggested.

Drayana groaned.  She’d forgotten all about the Jarrassii.  The other superpower, surprisingly enough, hadn’t reacted to the news about the Faceless One, which the Khkerrikk propaganda machine was trumpeting from the rooftops.  It seemed as though they might be waiting for a personal admission from her.

 

Liner Patrius, Talluran Space – 13th February 2001 (Earth Date)

War with the Khkerrikk had erupted out of seemingly nowhere over the last few days.  Bad news, however, travelled fast and seemingly no one in the Talluran Empire hadn’t heard the tidings so far.  Worried travellers were, therefore, returning to their homeworlds all over the Empire, mainly by ship given that the Stargates had all been requisitioned for military use.

Patrius was returning to Thenatrix, with two thousand Talluran civilians on board.  It had briefly stopped at Corvus Minor, a small mining colony – no more than a moon, in the orbit of a huge gas giant – when the attack occurred.

The two Xicavvar War Cruisers had been lurking within the gas giant’s ring system, evidently having anticipated this arrival.  It was breeding season and, as ever, hosts for the insectoids’ larvae were in short supply.  With the Talluran Empire apparently in turmoil and facing much greater threats, it appeared to be an excellent opportunity to harvest a good number of mammals for the purpose.

The unarmed Patrius barely had a chance to send off a distress signal, before the first War Cruiser’s troops were boarding the liner and rounding up terrified Talluran civilians for processing.  The second cruiser, meanwhile, was busily engaged in capturing those on the mining colony below, loading them aboard several barges brought along specifically for the purpose.  Outnumbered, the tiny colony security force was rapidly overwhelmed, the lucky ones being shot rather than captured.

By the time a squadron of Talluran Light Cruisers arrived on the scene, the Xicavvar had already made good their escape, with a large haul of terrified and doomed civilians.

 

Killing House, Imperial Guard Barracks, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 14th February 2001 (Earth Date)

“If we’re staying here for the time being, I want to make sure you’re all combat ready.  Too much good living in that palace might just take the edge off,” Logan explained to his troops and Faith, as they gathered in the training area.

The Imperial Guard, just like SpecOps forces back on Earth, used the idea of a “Killing House”, to train troops in urban hand-to-hand combat.  As back home, it looked just like a normal house, but it was filled with booby traps, fake targets and decoys, and a web of sensors, all designed for such things as hostage rescue training.

Vesarian had insisted that, aside from the danger of being blasted into radioactive particles with the rest of the planet, the Terrans were in no more danger than before as a result of the war.  Threats to Dawn had been internal up to this point and the Khkerrikk probably didn’t even know she existed and, if they did, most likely didn’t care.

Logan, nonetheless, wasn’t about to take any chances.  Not only did his men need the practice, it was also time to introduce Faith to the concept of team combat.  The Slayer might be unbeatable one-on-one, but there were scenarios where she would be expected to fight as an integrated member of SG-15.  The Colonel had no doubt that Faith would pick up the necessary skills very rapidly, but also possibly not as quickly as she might think or wish.  Especially as they were all still wrestling with the intricacies of Talluran Integrated Battle Armour and its complex electronic functions.

Claims by SG-15 that they could perform better without had been firmly squashed by the Imperial Guard several weeks before.  A soldier wearing Battle Armour had a wealth of functions available – integrated communications and computer system, built-in laser ranger and designator, full connectivity to the Personal Combat Weapon, a variety of optical systems, a navigation display, and so forth.  A similarly sized Imperial Guard team, led by Aquiliani and wearing the gear, had made chipped beef out of Logan’s team in five consecutive exercises, just to prove the point.

Up to now, Faith was the only one who’d actually used the Battle Armour/PCW combination in earnest, against the Faceless One’s minions.  Even then, she’d only used a few of the functions.  However, in combination with her Slayer’s gifts, it promised to be a winning combination.

Sato, meanwhile, was busily showing Faith how to use the Talluran C4 equivalent on the door.  That, several members of SG-15 mused, certainly couldn’t end well.

“Sure that’s enough, dude?  ‘Cause in the movies, they always have a fricking huge lump of the stuff…” the Slayer pointed out.

“That’s plenty,” the SG-15 Exec assured her. “We want to blow the door off, not the whole front of the building.”

“Shit, why the Hell not?  If the bad guys are in there, doesn’t it save time, with the room-to-room shootin’ crap?” Faith protested from inside her helmet.

“Because,” Sato explained patiently, “the ‘bad guys’ aren’t just cardboard cut-outs.  I’m pretty sure the Imperial Guard don’t want to be blown up, just so you can prove your pyromaniac credentials.”

“That was B!  Never burned anything down in my fricking life, man,” Faith almost sounded offended, as she ducked out of the anticipated blast radius.

“Ready?” Logan asked, each of the team replying in the affirmative.

“Five-by-five,” Faith acknowledged in her own way.

“Hit it,” he ordered calmly, as Sato’s finger depressed the detonator switch.

The explosion, at least to Faith’s way of thinking, was anti-climactic.  Just a sharp crack, blowing out the old-fashioned low-tech lock and leaving it swinging on its hinges.

“Said ya shoulda used more,” Faith remarked, kicking the door in with more strength than necessary and plunging inside.

Logan had given her the point, on the basis that she had faster reactions than everyone else.  He also wanted to see if, given her ability to maintain situational awareness while moving at a much higher pace than anyone else in the team, she’d quickly leave them behind.

Inevitably, it was dark inside, the helmet visors automatically compensating for the fact.  Like its typical Earth equivalent, the Talluran Killing House’s rooms and corridors were strewn with broken furniture and typical debris, to hamper movement.  Moving as quietly as they could, SG-15 slowly made their way through the building, no targets presenting themselves on the first floor.

The second floor was somewhat different, from the moment they stepped onto the landing.  Someone – they’d argue who for a while – tripped a wire, activating four armed mini-drones, about the size and shape of Frisbees.  They skimmed just above head-height down the landing, heading straight for the group, firing as they came.

Swiftly lining up the drone with the holographic cross-hairs on her visor, Faith brought down the first, with a well-aimed shot, but the next one scored a direct hit Mustin.  The Lieutenant dropped like a sack of potatoes, writhing with pain, as the beam activated a simulation device in his suit.  The Slayer and others dived for cover, deciding they clearly didn’t want to experience what a groaning Mustin was clearly feeling.

Taking advantage of the team’s momentary confusion as they tried to bring down the three remaining manoeuvring drones, a trio of Imperial Guard emerged from a semi-hidden doorway up ahead, firing as they darted across the corridor.  Sato promptly went down in the same way as Mustin, while Faith picked off two of their assailants this time.

“Diana?  Ashborne?  Follow the last one, but be careful,” Logan ordered, as he and Henriksson investigated another room.

“Sounds like a trap to me!” Faith muttered. “Smart grenade?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Ashborne agreed, using the voice-command system to activate his PCW’s grenade launcher.

The guided weapon blasted straight through the door, the stun warhead detonating on the other side, Faith and her partner charging in after it.  A long burst of gunfire and an agonised yell on the comm-system meanwhile suggested that Logan and Henriksson had just bought the farm.

“Dropping like fricking flies!” Faith growled, sweeping her weapon around the empty room. “Must’ve gone thataways…”

She indicated another door with her tactical light.

“Or that one…” Ashborne pointed out a hatch in the ceiling, probably leading to some sort of attic space.

“Door?” the Slayer suggested, if only for comparative ease of entry.

The Lieutenant agreed, but suspected there were probably more Imperial Guard lurking behind.  Or was that in the attic?  With a buddy system, they could only check one at a time.  Cautiously, Faith and the SG-15 officer approached the door, wondering what approach to use this time.  

Suddenly, a trapdoor opened behind them.  Faith more sensed than saw the movement and, spinning around, dropped the Imperial Guard back through the hatch with a short burst from her PCW.  But not before he’d rolled a grenade towards them.  Neither had a chance to react, the grenade exploding with similar effects to a stun grenade back home.  The visor automatically compensated for the flash effect, at least in part, though both were still dazzled, while the helmet blocked out most of the sound.  Unfortunately, the weapon signature also activated the Injury Simulator attached to their Battle Armour.

Faith found herself rolling on the floor screaming, feeling as though she’d been shot with a dozen Tasers at once.  Having been zapped by one while in prison, that was bad enough.  This was many times worse and completely disabled her for a second.

“Sonofabitch!  What the fuck was that?” she yelled after a few moments, breathing hard as the effect dissipated.

“Worse than a Zat or an Intar shot, that’s for sure!” Ashborne groaned, as Logan’s voice came over the comm-channel, ordering them both outside.

“We suck,” Faith said flatly, taking off her helmet, as SG-15 regrouped outside.

“No, we suck,” Logan corrected, indicating the others. “None of us scored a single hit.  You got three of ‘em.”

“Guess it helps that I’ve worn this crap before,” the Slayer offered.

“That and your super-powered reflexes,” the Colonel shrugged. “But now we know kinda what to expect – and those armed Frisbee things really caught me out – we’ll beat them next time.”

“If we remember the hidden hatches everywhere,” Henriksson added helpfully.

Faith wasn’t impressed. “I’ll bet lunch that it’s completely fucking different next time.  These are tricky bastards.”

“You’re doing real good, kiddo,” Logan assured her. “We’re the people who do this for a living.”

 

Emergency Command Post, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 14th February 2001 (Earth Date)

“Do we have an update on the situation with the Xicavvar, Proconsul?” Drayana asked.

Bruccian nodded. “The deadline ran out four hours ago.  Their Ambassador is ignoring all attempts at communication.”

Following the attacks on two Talluran passenger vessels and a small mining colony, and the abduction of several thousand of her citizens, Drayana had demanded their safe return.  The Xicavvar had brazenly ignored her demands and were, apparently, preparing to join with the Khkerrikk in declaring war.  It was a grave miscalculation on the insectoids’ part, if they thought that the alliance could protect them.  It would be days, more likely weeks, before the Star Empire’s warships would arrive in Xicavvar space.

“My people?” the Empress ventured, dreading the answer.

“Most likely already used as living hosts for Xicavvar larvae, Your Excellency,” Novian Drago, an intelligence specialist from the Security Directorate, replied.

Everyone around the table grimaced.  At least the Ch’Hanis killed their prey quickly, which was preferable to being paralysed and slowly eaten alive from the inside by insect larvae.

“Do we give them any longer to reply?” Drayana replied coldly, her voice betraying her own opinion.

This was twice the Xicavvar had attacked her people without provocation or warning, with civilians always the targets.  The first time around, they’d assisted the treacherous Pyriam in his failed coup on Thenatrix, while at the same time killing every man, woman and child on its two subsidiary colonies.  Clearly, the last round of retaliatory action against the Xicavvar Concordium hadn’t delivered the message sufficiently.  This time, with their backs against the wall, the Tallurans had neither the time nor patience for finesse.

“There is nothing wrong with our communications systems, or with links to the Xicavvar Embassy or their home system, Your Excellency.  They obviously believe that we will be too busy with the Khkerrikk – and perhaps worried about a Zaharte reaction – to respond,” Bruccian assessed.

“If we fail to respond decisively, it will be a signal to the smallest of powers around our borders that we can be attacked with impunity,” General Piretus suggested.

The commander of the Imperial Defence Forces had a reputation as a hardliner, but in this case, the Empress agreed with him.

“Proconsul Bruccian?  Send a message directly to the Xicavvar government.  If my people are not safely delivered home, by way of the Astria Porta, within an hour, then the Empire will respond with all means at its disposal.  This is their final warning,” she directed.

“It will be ignored,” Drago predicted.    

The Empress nodded. “I know, but I wish to give them every opportunity to comply, before I indulge in what – and may the Goddess forgive me – might be classed as near-genocide.

“And if I am forced to that extreme, I want the following message broadcast to the galaxy at large. ‘Scavengers would do well to make sure their meal is at least wounded, if not dead, before they start nibbling.  Else it is likely to bite back.’  That should warn anyone else who might think we are suddenly helpless,” she continued.

“Is a Zaharte response likely?” Admiral Severan asked.

The last thing they needed was to have a medium-sized power, like the Zaharte Alliance, joining in this war.  Especially as they were within much closer striking distance than the Khkerrikk.

Bruccian shrugged. “Possible, but extremely unlikely.  Their relations with the Xicavvar Concordium have chilled considerably since the Thenatrix incident.  It seriously embarrassed them and put them in a difficult position, without having been consulted in the first instance.  According to our sources in Zaharte space – which are admittedly perilously thin – they are concentrating their forces in a defensive posture, clearly more concerned with Khkerrikk encroachment, than with anything else.  Of course, the Xicavvar are their only allies – even if very weak ones – in the region.  The answer, your Excellency?  I think they will stay apart from this, perhaps making a few threats or protests.  But I cannot be sure.”

“That is basically what Imperial Guard intelligence sources are also telling me,” Severan conceded.

The Empress nodded and exhaled. “Very well…  The Xicavvar have shown that they regard us with contempt and as nothing more than a food source for their young.  I propose that we remove them from the community of space-faring powers for the next few centuries.”

Everyone seemed to be suggesting that she would have to be ruthless, if the Talluran Empire was to have any chance of survival.  If that meant making a harsh example of the Xicavvar Concordium, then so be it.

“Their defensive posture is fairly weak,” Piretus acknowledged. “Perhaps two-dozen War Cruisers and twice as many smaller vessels, mainly concentrated around Xicattar and Xicazzar in their home system, with some units protecting the Xicammar system.  Though we did not leave much worth protecting on Xicammar last time they angered us…  Orbital defences are all relatively weak.  Overall, given an attacking force of suitable size, they would be able to inflict a few losses – but nothing decisive.”

“I cannot afford any losses in the fleet right now, General,” Drayana pointed out.

“Then I suggest we use the heavy battle-fleet assembled for use against the Khkerrikk.  They will be moving in approximately two hours in any case, and could divert via Xicavvar space, without unduly affecting the timetable.  The Battleships substantially outrange and outgun the best of their ships and orbital platforms, so there would be little or no risk of casualties.  They can be in position by the early hours of tomorrow,” Severan suggested.

Qualitatively and quantitatively, it would be like using a battery of Plasma Cannon to silence a class of rowdy schoolchildren.  Just as there was a huge difference between a superpower and a medium power like the Talluran Empire, so the latter dwarfed the smaller powers in capability.

“Very well.  The fleet will proceed to the Xicavvar home system and destroy every military and civilian vessel it encounters.  Then it will target every space facility – satellites, construction docks, spaceports – before moving onto military and industrial targets on the surface of their planets.  I want every major production facility, power generation plant, government centre and transport hub destroyed.  If necessary, land troops in their major cities to complete the work – and remove their Astria Porta.  For the foreseeable future, any Xicavvar civilian vessels encountered within our jurisdiction or neutral space are to be captured and interned.  I want them reduced to the most basic industrial state and confined to their homeworlds,” the Empress struggled to keep her voice level.

In truth, Drayana believed she was ordering an atrocity, and it went against every fibre of her being and belief system.  She could almost hear her infamous grandmother’s grandmother laughing in the background.  But right now she was engaged in a war for the survival of twenty-two billion Tallurans.  Allowing her attention to be diverted by an alien species, which apparently viewed her people merely as food for their grubs, might be fatal.  Aside from which, the Tallurans had never done anything to harm the Xicavvar in generations, and recent attacks were wholly unprovoked.  No, this time they would have to pay the price, if necessary at the expense of her own soul.

 

Xicavvar Home System, 15th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Every sentient race had its own mythology about how their world would end and the Xicavvar were no exception.  They could have been forgiven for assuming that it had started, when the vengeful Tallurans arrived in their space and, almost instantly, opened fire on everything in sight.

A dozen Battleships advanced in a solid phalanx, flanked by two dozen Heavy Cruisers and twice as many Light Cruisers, a murderous hail of plasma bolts and missiles swatting the outnumbered and outgunned defending forces aside before they could even engage.  As anticipated, it didn’t even approximate a fair fight.  And that was only the beginning.

The Xicavvar had been assured by their rulers that a new golden age awaited.  With the collapse of the Talluran Empire surely imminent, there would be worlds for the taking and plentiful food supplies, to enable a rapid population growth.  The Xicavvar would take their rightful place amongst the leading powers in the galaxy.  Moreover, with the Tallurans surely hoarding their ships against the inevitable massive Khkerrikk attack, they wouldn’t be in a position to respond to Xicavvar incursions.  It also seemed, at least to the insectoids’ rulers, unlikely that the Zaharte would fail to honour their treaty obligations a second time.

All over Xicattar and Xicazzar, the traditional midday meal was interrupted by the high-pitched warbling of air-raid sirens.  Then all Hell broke loose for the Xicavvar, their complacency evaporating in an instant.  A series of EMP warheads detonated high in the atmosphere, the high-energy pulse instantly burning out every electronic circuit across huge areas of the planets.  Moments later, the sky was raining missiles and plasma blasts, picking out and destroying key buildings and facilities with deadly precision.

The bombardment was followed by swarms of Talluran fighter craft screaming overhead, adding to the carnage, with Xicavvar choking the streets, desperately seeking cover as their cities went up in flames.  In places, small teams of Imperial Defence Force and Imperial Guard troops briefly materialised from Asgard transport beams, to take out specific targets and add to the panic, before disappearing once more.  For most of the insectoids crouching in basements and shelters, the overriding emotion was fear and anger.  Anger at the Tallurans for what they were doing to their planet, but also at the Xicavvar leadership for their incompetent meddling in galactic affairs far beyond their people’s ability to effectively influence.  Some were already swearing bloody vengeance against their mammalian neighbours, but the more perceptive amongst them suspected that revenge might be many lifetimes away.

A space-going civilization confined to a few planets was a surprisingly fragile thing.  Less than an hour was required to blast the Xicavvar back to a period not far removed from the agricultural age.  It was a sobering thought, even for the crews of the Talluran warships.  Also a chillingly possible look at the future of their own worlds, if they failed to stop the Khkerrikk. 

There was, however, no time to dwell on their deadly handiwork.  More pressing targets awaited, some days away, in the Khkerrikk Star Empire.  Orbiting Xicattar and Xicazzar, the battle-fleet paused only to retrieve its fighters and landing parties, then re-assumed formation and disappeared into hyperspace, leaving two ruined worlds behind.

 

Temple Complex, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 15th February 2001 (Earth Date)

The oldest temple on Tallura Prime also lay within the Imperial Palace grounds.  It was used comparatively infrequently, though it was open to the Talluran public on sacred days, and always available for anyone who worked within the palace.  Tonight, though, it only had one visitor, the High Priestess herself having prepared the ceremony.

“I believe Her Excellency has finished her devotions, young one,” the Priestess – a wizened old woman of incredible age, even by Talluran standards – told Dawn in kindly tones.

“Are you sure?  I mean, this is special for Drayana…  I should probably go,” Dawn felt distinctly uncomfortable in the Talluran holiest of holies.

The High Priestess put out a hand to stop her leaving.

“I hope that the Empress has found some peace this evening, but her faith alone may not be quite enough at a time like this.  The words – even the mere presence – of a close friend might also go a long way to helping heal her spirit,” she offered gently.

The Empress was convinced that her actions against the Xicavvar were probably unforgiveable, no matter how much she justified them in the name of the Talluran people.  While the Priestess had done her best to reassure the young sovereign that the Goddess had an infinite capacity for mercy, if remorse and repentance were true, she wasn’t sure if Drayana truly believed it.  Especially since the Empress knew it was quite possible she might have to order such actions again in future.

“Please…” the High Priestess ushered Dawn into the vast building, massive fifty-foot twin doors opening at the slightest brush of her hand.

The inner chamber of the temple, excavated from the hillside to one side of the palace, was of colossal proportions, perhaps two hundred feet high.  The air was heavy with the scent of incense, with bright flowers arranged here and there.  The chamber was mainly finished in white marble, decorated with images from the Talluran holy books, and dominated by twin immense statues, each half the height of the chamber.  They were identical, except that one bore a sword and shield, the other a book.  Dawn reminded herself that these represented the various facets of the Goddess.  On one side, the warrior, law-giver, and protector.  On the other, the bringer of peace, prosperity and learning.

Drayana was standing motionless between the two statues, just in front of a motionless pool of water.  She’d prostrated herself on the cold floor for a solid hour, but still felt no closer to forgiveness when she’d entered the temple.

Dawn cleared her throat. “Uh…  Our moms both decided I should come and talk to you.  The old woman – uh – I mean, High Priestess, thought it’d be a good idea, too.  But I can totally split, if you like.”

The Empress turned around slowly, eyes red-rimmed and haunted. “Why would you wish to talk with a mass murderess?”

Dawn shuffled uncomfortably. “Pretty sure you’re not one of those, Drayana.”

“You might try telling that to the Xicavvar civilians I had slaughtered,”  the Empress retorted sadly.

Her Terran friend shook her head. “Don’t know much – heck, anything – about politics, wars and stuff back home.  So these things in the Vedda Galaxy?  Whoosh – right over my head…”

“Then you are the fortunate one,” Drayana sounded wistful.

“Not finished yet,” Dawn continued. “What I’m trying to say is you’re the Empress and have to do stuff you don’t want to, just to keep your people safe.  So that kinda makes it alright…”

“If only that were true, Dawn.  One wrong cannot be counterbalanced with another…” the Empress replied.

Drayana knew she didn’t have time to play morality mind-games with herself, but she’d been brooding ever since the reports started to come in from the strike on the Xicavvar home system.  Regardless of what the High Priestess had said, or her parents for that matter, she was feeling extremely uncomfortable with her ethical choices.  The Empress had been raised to recognise the difference between right and wrong, but nothing was ever so clear-cut in politics – and especially in war.  In time of war, moreover, such self-doubts as she was currently suffering could be dangerous to more than her own mental health.

“Maybe not,” Dawn shrugged, also feeling somewhat out of her depth. “But on Earth we’ve sometimes had people who tried to take over the world and had to be stopped...”

She stopped talking for a moment, not wanting to make things worse, and not even sure how to make them better.  The youngest Summers normally liked to think that she was mature for her years and knew all sorts of things, if only people would ask her.  Now that she was being put to the test, however, Dawn wasn’t feeling quite so sure of herself.

It had been disturbing enough to learn why the Xicavvar wanted Talluran prisoners.  Being drained by a vampire – even eaten by a Ch’Hanis – paled in comparison to the horror of being a larva’s all-you-can-eat buffet.  Dawn shuddered at the prospect, then felt as though a flash-bulb had just gone off in her head. She – the “squirt” to just about everybody – had actually thought of a logical argument.

“You feel guilty ‘cause it wasn’t just the Xicavvar government and military who died in the attack?” she asked.

Drayana simply nodded miserably.

“Then you’re not thinking straight!  Okay, the Xicavvar government people – bugs, whatever – ordered the attack.  But what happened to the prisoners?  I don’t mean the bit where they’re used as food…  I mean, who laid their eggs in your people?  And I can’t believe I’m even talking about this, ‘cause eeeuuuhhh…” Dawn grimaced.

“From what I can gather, Talluran prisoners were simply made available to their general population, alongside other – mainly non-sentient – species, considered suitable for breeding hosts,” the Empress answered with distaste.

“So they were all happy to eat your people?” Dawn asked, as her friend winced.

“And if they had the chance?” she continued.

“Then they would use us all as edible incubators for their eggs,” Drayana acknowledged.

“So the Xicavvar only think of your people in that way?  Kinda makes them all enemies, just like vamps back at home,” Dawn saw a faint similarity and milked it for all it was worth.

The Empress was now looking thoughtful, so she pushed the advantage.

“It’s kinda like when Buffy patrols cemeteries, for newbie vamps.  They’d rise, ready to drain the first person they meet, if she didn’t stake them.  Same thing with the Xicavvar.  If you didn’t take care of them now, they’d only continue – and probably much worse,” Dawn persisted.

The moral argument perhaps wasn’t quite so straightforward as her friend was making out, Drayana mused, but she was actually making some useful points.  Points which she, as Empress, should have figured out herself, if she wasn’t indulging in self-pity to this extent.

“You are actually making a frightening amount of sense,” Drayana acknowledged wryly.

“I am?” Dawn replied with some surprise. “’Cause sometimes I just let the mouth run away…  That’s what Buffy tells me, anyway.”

“For my benefit, please keep it running,” the Empress actually smiled. “And I am actually beginning to believe that I may escape at least the innermost of the Fourteen Hells…”

“Totally, because you’re a good person,” her friend nodded enthusiastically, with direct Dawn-logic.

“Feel better?” she continued.

“On that particular issue, without a doubt, for which I thank you.  If only you could do the same for the other hundred problems and worries in my head,” Drayana replied regretfully.

“Talk to Doc Lam – she’s good with all sorts of things.  And you could just talk to me.  I won’t have anything to say for most of them…  Because twelve-years-old with no political training!  But the doc and mom say it’s always good to talk about problems.  So I’ll just listen,” Dawn offered.

“You are a good friend,” Drayana almost whispered, as she sat down on the low stone wall around the pool.

Dawn shrugged and sat down beside her. “Told you before.  It’s what friends do.  So you talk and I’ll pin my ears back…”

“Your mother will be most unhappy if I give you nightmares,” the Empress pointed out.

“Nightmares?  I come from Sunnydale – goes with the Hellmouth.  ‘Sides, I can’t think of anything that’d give me more nightmares than being a fricking insect nest…” she rested her head on Drayana’s shoulder.

 

Pavement Café, Mursia Imperial City, Sanopolis – 15th February (Earth Date)

For the Security Bureau agents, it was a ridiculously easy task.  A quick background investigation suggested that these three were probably far-removed from the brains behind any plot against the Empress.  Too-far removed to make following them, or planting listening devices or homing beacons.  The simplest method was, therefore, to scoop them up for questioning.

As for cause, that was easily enough arranged.  At a second meeting, Caius Tren had been primed with a few suitable leading questions and provocative statements, then the agents simply waited for their responses.

Tharn Hyperius disliked such crude methods.  The Empire was, however, at war with a formidable enemy and internal conspiracies had to be ruthlessly stamped out.  Hyperius’ gut told him that this was related to the intrigue he’d been investigating on Tallura Prime, since the Empress’ assassination.  If these were merely messengers, then the next task would be to unravel the rest of the plot, through whatever convoluted chain led back to the top.  Where, he more than strongly suspected, Regent Ilarius sat with a few others.

The small fry sitting outside the café wouldn’t stay quiet under interrogation, not with the consequences of a treason trial so recently and graphically illustrated by the first round of executions.  Nor, Hyperius suspected, would the next level, especially given that in time of war, the whole judicial climate would be hardening against traitors.  It wasn’t, after all, simply a case of political dissatisfaction.  The right to properly exercised political dissent was enshrined in the Constitution.  This particular conspiracy, though, wasn’t operating openly in the light of day.  On the contrary, it was secretly active alongside the failed coup on Thenatrix and the attempt on the Empress’ life.  There had been too much treasonous activity recently, the Security Bureau agent decided and while most eyes were on the massive external threat posed by the Khkerrikk, someone had to keep watch on the potential internal variety.   

Approaching Tren had been a foolish move, obviously born out of opportunism, and a desire to broaden a core group of conspirators.  They’d made the mistake of assuming that his mistakes in the past, together with worry for his daughter’s future, would be sufficient to sway the former Proconsul.  Instead, he’d had gone straight to the Security Bureau with his information.  Hyperius found himself wondering if he would have had the same strength of character, if it was own daughter facing the axe.  He liked to think so, that his loyalty to the Empire was absolute, but a man could never tell until he faced a test of that sort.

These three were certainly confident, the agent noted, continuing to listen to the conversation on his earpiece.  Talk of “replacing the existing political order, by any means necessary” certainly didn’t equate to a legal challenge in the Consular Houses.  If anything, it demonstrated stunning over-confidence, especially on the basis of only two meetings with Tren, the first being little more than an introduction.

Now they seemed to be preparing to leave.  Hyperius had the café, on a popular public square in the centre of the city, under close surveillance.  If the conspirators left separately, each would be followed until he or she could be quietly picked up.  Similarly, if they left in a group, the Security Bureau was trying to avoid a public scene.

Tren got to his feet first, signalling the end of the meeting.  Following appropriate pleasantries, the trio ostentatiously left in separate directions, each with a surveillance and snatch team in tow.  Amateurs, Hyperius considered,  made the whole job so much easier.  And he really wanted to clear up the this whole nest of traitors, before someone remembered that he’d once worked with the Imperial Defence Force Intelligence Section, and whisked him off somewhere to gather information on the Khkerrikk Star Empire.

In any case, the agent decided he had time for some dinner, before his team gathered up the traitors – suspected traitors, he reminded himself – and dragged them back to the Astria Porta.  A waitress caught his eye and, glad that he’d finally decided to order something more than a glass of water, brought over a menu.  Sanopolis was famous for the quality of its food and Hyperius decided he might as well make the most of it.

 

Drayana’s Apartments, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 16th February 2001 (Earth Date)

It had taken the Empress hours to drift off into even a remote semblance of sleep, her conscience still pricking remorselessly, and a succession of bad dreams – mainly centred on a burning Yaherin Var, under Khkerrikk bombardment – making her wake up sweating.  Twice, her mother had been awakened by screams, and Livia had finally settled down for the night in a chair by the Empress’ bed.

Watching Drayana restlessly toss and turn beneath the bedclothes, at times whimpering, Livia felt desperately sorry for her daughter.  No one, let alone a sixteen year-old, should have to bear this horrendous level of responsibility.

The terminal by Drayana’s bed abruptly buzzed, jerking her out of a fitful sleep.  Rubbing her eyes and groaning, she turned towards the screen.

“I am sorry to waken you, Excellency,” the duty Imperial Guard communications officer told her. “But there are messages on the Diplomatic Channel requiring your immediate attention.”

“Who are they from. Centurion?” the Empress almost dreaded the answer.

“The Zaharte and Ch’Hanis Ambassadors, Your Excellency.”
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