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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 > GeneralCordyfanFR1321247,3662825953,72914 Mar 1114 Mar 14No

Diplomacy and the Dogs of War - Part One

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).

 

Ambassadorial Reception Room, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 16th February 2001 (Earth Date)

The Empress was already fearing the worst, even before meeting the two ambassadors.  Messages delivered at this unsociable hour, after all, rarely contained good news.  Still, Drayana had taken time to compose herself, trying hard not to look as though she’d just jumped out of bed, dreading the latest piece of bad news.  As her people’s head of state, it was incumbent on her to look her best, even if – as seemed likely – the Ch’Hanis and Zaharte ambassadors were probably here to kick her people when they were already down.  At any rate, she’d made them wait until she’d showered, dressed, and assumed what she hoped was a calm and collected expression.  That, Drayana decided firmly, was only fair, given that the two aliens had roused her from an admittedly fitful sleep at such a ridiculous hour.

The Empress decided it might be best if she had a quick consultation with her Proconsul for Alien Affairs, before meeting the Ch’Hanis and Zaharte diplomats.  Bruccian, similarly roused from his sleep, might not have all the answers, but Drayana wanted to be at least partly prepared.

“What do you think they want?  This cannot be good,” she declared nervously.

“Might they be planning to join the Khkerrikk?” That was her greatest fear right now.

Bruccian shook his head. “I do not believe so, though I could be wrong.  The Ch’Hanis Freehold and Zaharte Alliance have never had a comfortable relationship with the Khkerrikk – and usually a worse one than us.”

“Then what could possibly be the reason behind a visit from both of them, at this hour?” Drayana was far from convinced.

The Ch’Hanis and Zaharte might dislike the Tallurans, but their aversion to each other was much more intense.  The former two powers still kept the largest portion of their forces along their mutual frontier, rather than facing the Tallurans.

“If this is a declaration of war, I will make sure that they rue the day.  There is no way we could prevail against a combination of the Khkerrikk, Ch’Hanis and Zaharte, but our two visitors have to know that we are very much closer to their home worlds and core systems.  And the Talluran Empire will not be the only power to fall.  If necessary, I will turn the fleet around and burn their planets from pole to pole,” the Empress growled.

If the two neighbouring powers wanted a doomsday scenario, then she would give them one.  By the time the Khkerrikk arrived in this sector, there would be precious little left for them to conquer.  The Ch’Hanis and Zaharte had to know that even if the Tallurans couldn’t defeat the Khkerrikk in the long run, they could certainly bring the whole regional balance of power crashing down, in a mutual holocaust.  If they didn’t recognise that fact, there was no point in maintaining the current deterrent posture.

Part of Drayana was horrified by her own threats.  It was only a matter of hours since she’d been pouring out her woes and guilt complex to her parents, the High Priestess, Dawn – anyone who’d listen, in fact.  Then she’d been guilt-stricken about the devastating strike against the Xicavvar, but now she was threatening thermonuclear annihilation against entire species.

Still, if that level of response was what it took to safeguard her people against yet more alien threats, then so be it.  Her conscience would have to take second place to protecting her people or, if necessary, at least avenging the destruction of the Talluran civilization. 

The Empress knew that having the Ch’Hanis as a genuine enemy – as opposed to a bellicose, unfriendly neighbour – wasn’t much better than letting the Xicavvar loose on her population.  The only upside was that the reptilians would eat her people quite quickly, rather than using them as hosts for insect larvae.  They were also much more powerful than the ill-fated Xicavvar Concordium and potentially much more dangerous.  As for the Zaharte, history suggested that they were most likely to speedily exterminate the population of conquered worlds, allowing smoother colonisation by their own species.

None of which was acceptable to Drayana and, if pushed, she’d take them down.  A single Heavy Cruiser carried sufficient multi-megaton and multi-gigaton Naquadah-enhanced thermonuclear warheads to level a planetary surface.  The Zaharte Alliance and Ch’Hanis Freehold had to know that, but in the event they were tempted to declare war, the Empress would have to assure them – whether diplomatically or less subtly – that she was fully prepared to use her full arsenal.

“I trust it will not come to that, Your Excellency,” Bruccian replied.

He’d hate to see the three neighbouring powers annihilate each other, simply because two of them sought some short-term advantage, or misjudged the will of his Empress.  The latter mistake could certainly be a fatal one, as the Xicavvar had recently found out to their cost.  If her back was really against the wall, the Proconsul hadn’t the slightest doubt that his young sovereign would give the release order for the Empire’s horrifically powerful planet-busting arsenal.

Drayana chewed her bottom lip. “So what else could possibly be the reason behind this unscheduled visit?”

“It could be something as innocuous as a fact-finding visit,” Bruccian suggested.

“At this hour?” the Empress was sceptical.

“The Zaharte are nocturnal, Your Excellency,” the Proconsul patiently reminded her. “They would not see this as unusual.  And the Ch’Hanis have a day and night cycle twice as long as ours, so this also would not be an unusual hour.”

Drayana nodded slowly.  Such differences between species were easy to overlook and could lead to unwarranted inferences – as she’d just proven – and equally unwarranted responses.  Clearly, she still had a great deal to learn about diplomacy.

None of which exactly made her much more comfortable about the motives of the Ch’Hanis and Zaharte.

“What else?” the Empress folded her arms.

“They could be attempting to use our current difficulties to extract concessions from us,” the Proconsul proposed.

Drayana’s eyes narrowed. “Then they will be sorely disappointed.  The Talluran Empire – and this Empress – will not stand still and be ass-fucked like someone’s bitch!”

“Doctor Lam or Diana Prince this time?” Bruccian asked, recognising elements of Terran profanity.

Such crudities always sounded utterly incongruous – and just plain wrong -coming from Drayana’s young Imperial mouth.

“Diana.  She did not think I was listening,” the Empress admitted sheepishly.

The Proconsul chuckled. “Then I suggest you do not make a habit of using the phrase, especially around your mother.  I would imagine it is much easier to rule the Empire – and conduct a war – when you can sit down properly, Your Excellency.”

“Your advice is noted,” Drayana allowed herself a smile, even if she didn’t really feel like it.

The Empress squared her shoulders and tried to affect a calm and neutral expression, determined that she’d receive whatever message the two aliens bore with the utmost equanimity. 

“We had best not keep our visitors waiting any longer,” Drayana decided.

“But if this is a threat to the Empire, then my response is likely to be of the one-hundred gigaton variety,” she added grimly.

Bruccian winced. “Try to keep such threats in reserve, until you actually need them.”

Despite her training, the Empress still had sufficient diplomatic rough edges, plus something of a temper, to bring him out in a cold sweat at times.  Up to now – with the exception of the current war – she’d actually been quite adept at averting or otherwise dealing with crises, whether that was down to luck or skill.  But right now, the Empire was walking a slippery, narrow path, with an abyss on either side.  All it took was the slightest misstep on someone’s part – Talluran or otherwise – and the consequences could be dire for all involved.

 

The two alien ambassadors were seated comfortably inside the reception room, the Ch’Hanis sipping a glass of Talluran spiced tea, while the Zaharte sucked water through a drinking tube inserted into his breathing apparatus.  Drayana had to admit that both seemed entirely at ease, unlike the distinctly nervous-looking Khkerrikk Ambassador, who’d delivered the Star Empire’s declaration of war.  On the other hand, body language was particularly difficult to read with these two races.  Ch’Hanis invariably appeared utterly unfazed by anything, often to the point of smugness, while the Zaharte – always swathed in a billowing cloak and their face concealed apart from two large bright green eyes – were utterly inscrutable.

Both Ambassadors rose to their feet and bowed slightly as she approached.  As ever, Drayana had the uncomfortable feeling that the Ch’Hanis was considering how best to eat her, but she quickly buried that idea.  It wasn’t conducive to clear-headed diplomacy.

“Please be seated,” the Empress slipped into diplomat mode. “And how may I be of assistance?”

The Ch’Hanis Ambassador smiled in his usual unpleasant manner. “We apologise for awakening you at this hour.  Sometimes our species’ different needs can be overlooked.”

“I am sure that you would not be here, without a very good reason, Ambassador,” Drayana replied politely, while trying to get to the heart of the matter.

If this duo were about to declare war, or make some outrageous territorial demand, the Empress was determined that they wouldn’t waste any time skirting around the issue.  At the same time, she nevertheless still found herself tensing in expectation of the predicted bad news.

“I am instructed to inform you that the Freehold wishes you every success in this unfortunate war and that, moreover, we are willing to offer support in certain areas,” the Ch’Hanis replied impassively.

The Zaharte representative concurred, voice as usual distorted by the breather. “The Zaharte Alliance also wishes to express its support for whatever action you may take.”

Drayana blinked, her carefully cultivated diplomatic mask almost slipping.

“That is – ah – most appreciated.  And also completely unexpected…” the Empress managed to force out a reply.

“I can see how this might be unanticipated on your part, Empress.  Despite existing treaties, we have never exactly been the best of friends,” the Ch’Hanis acknowledged in masterful understatement.

“Nor have my people – with either of your species,” the Zaharte noted. “And that state of affairs, at least so far as the Alliance is concerned, is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.”

“So your purpose in telling me this is…?” Drayana already trying to predict possible hidden traps.

“Mutual and enlightened self-interest, Empress,” the Ch’Hanis responded, with a flash of frighteningly large teeth.

“A Khkerrikk victory over the Talluran Empire would not be in the interests of any power in this region of the Vedda Galaxy.  If the Star Empire were to establish base facilities in this area, then it would place both the Freehold and the Alliance at a major strategic disadvantage and at risk of being attacked on multiple fronts,” he continued.

Of course, there was nothing the Ch’Hanis would relish more than to see their mammalian neighbours – and every other power in the sector – crushed.  However, they would obviously prefer it was at their own hands, rather than those of a powerful external species.

“There is also the fact that neither the Ch’Hanis nor ourselves perceive the Talluran Empire as posing the same kind of expansionist threat as the Khkerrikk.  Your ancestor’s predilections notwithstanding…” the Zaharte Ambassador added.

Clearly the mysterious Zaharte had long memories, even if Drayana’s grandmother’s grandmother hadn’t actually encountered that particular species.  The Empress wondered how long that particular legacy would continue to affect relations with other powers.

“That is refreshing to hear,” Drayana acknowledged. “But you do realise that the odds do not exactly favour the Talluran Empire in the long-term.”

She winced inwardly, realising that wasn’t the sort of admission of weakness a head of state should be making to potentially hostile neighbours.  Clearly Bruccian also thought so, as he momentarily grimaced.  It might have been better to let the Proconsul speak for the Tallurans, Drayana reflected uncomfortably.  That, however, wasn’t normal protocol for a situation like this.  The Ambassadors had come specifically seeking an audience with her and anything else would be unacceptable, perhaps interpreted as an insult, and certainly as a sign of weakness.

“We believe that the situation may not be as grim as you suggest, Empress,” the Ch’Hanis suggested. “Else this would be a pointless conversation.”

The reptilian actually had a somewhat optimistic opinion of the Talluran military’s chances and had risked saying as much in conference with some of his more cynical colleagues.  It was a perilous decision – making mistakes in the Ch’Hanis Freehold was frequently fatal – but the Ambassador had studied the Talluran political mind-set and military capabilities for much longer than any of his contemporaries.  He just hoped that the feisty young Empress – and he was still certain she’d make a very succulent meal – wouldn’t let him down.  He had, admittedly, already lost some credibility, with the Terran Princess-who-wasn’t debacle.  And for making him a laughing stock, the Ambassador swore he would nail Jugrub’s flailed hide to his bedroom wall.

In the Ch’Hanis view, the Tallurans were actually in quite a strong initial position.  Given their superior hyperdrive capability and mobilisation procedures, he was quite certain that they’d be able to bring considerable combat power to bear on key Khkerrikk targets, while his distant reptilian relations fumbled around trying to amass a significant force from around the Star Empire.  With substantial forces arrayed along the Zaharte and especially the Jarrassii frontiers – not to mention units tied down keeping subject races in check – Ch’Hanis intelligence was estimating at least a month before the Khkerrikk could mount an effective offensive.  That timetable might well be further disrupted if initial Talluran attacks were carefully selected for maximum damage and disruption to their enemy’s mobilisation system and closest military forces.  And lurking in the background, no one could tell what the Asgard’s intentions might be, even if they clearly hadn’t responded to the Empress’s request for assistance as yet.

Of course, if the Tallurans assumed a purely defensive posture, then the Khkerrikk would be able to build up their forces and hit the Empire with overwhelming numbers.  The Ch’Hanis Ambassador didn’t think that was a likely course of action.  Drayana was a decisive leader, surrounded by highly talented military strategists, and a defensive mentality didn’t quite fit.  Intelligence also suggested that the bulk of the N’Gluk and Triannite fleets were already taking up defensive positions around Talluran space, releasing Drayana’s ships for other duties.

The Khkerrikk Emperor, Kharrillion, similarly lacked a defensive outlook, but he was more impetuous and frequently disinclined to listen to his experts.  The result could well be that he’d waste significant forces in premature actions against a Talluran fleet, which was better-organised and trained – and according to some intel sources – somewhat technologically superior.

“Your confidence is very much appreciated, Ambassador, but you also mentioned support in certain areas?” Drayana tried not to sound too eager.

The Ch’Hanis nodded, an awkward gesture with his short stubby neck and enormous head.

He handed over a data-pad. “This contains all of our latest intelligence on the Khkerrikk Star Empire, especially the current locations and estimated readiness levels of their fleet units.  Also our analysts’ interpretation of their likely intentions.  Obviously, you will wish to check with your own sources, but it will hopefully prove useful.”

“I am certain that it will, Ambassador.  Please relay my thanks for this,” the Empress replied.

Her own intelligence services would no doubt have gathered much of the same information, but this would be a useful means of verifying it.

“We also recently broke several of their supposedly unbreakable key ciphers.  The details are also there,” the Ch’Hanis Ambassador continued. “In certain areas, their communications security is less than exemplary.  Especially that between their Emperor and his subordinates.  Kharrillion is inclined to bypass the normal communications protocols when issuing orders.”

There had been fierce debate within the Ch’Hanis Freehold regarding the wisdom of revealing their cryptographic capabilities to a rival power.  Eventually, it had been decided that it was preferable to divulge a little information to the Tallurans, than to help the Khkerrikk win by doing nothing.  Besides, the Talluran code system had so far proven invulnerable to any form of attack.

“You are sure that he is not deliberately spreading misinformation?” Bruccian asked cautiously.

“We are quite certain that the information is genuine, having used other methods to check its veracity.  And Emperor is sufficiently arrogant that this behaviour would be totally in character,” the Ambassador assured him.

Bruccian and Drayana exchanged glances.  Such information could be invaluable.  By itself, it wasn’t a war-winning panacea, of course.  For example, transmissions at Kharrillion’s level wouldn’t reveal the movements of every fleet unit and, moreover, the Tallurans probably lacked the forces necessary – both in size and position - to exploit every piece of intelligence gleaned.  Nevertheless, any indication of Khkerrikk strategic intentions was priceless.

“We are in your people’s debt, Ambassador,” the Empress told him.

That was a difficult admission to make.  The Ch’Hanis and Tallurans could never co-exist comfortably, not while the former continued to regard just about every other sentient life-form as a source of protein.  Drayana was also pretty sure there would be a price attached to this gift.

“And at some point we will collect that debt, Empress.  But you are already repaying it by fighting the Khkerrikk.  As I said earlier, this is enlightened self-interest.  At some point, Kharrillion would have moved against one of us,” the Ch’Hanis replied.

He’d actually been told exactly what the Freehold expected in exchange.  Two uninhabited but mineral-rich planets in contested space.  The Ambassador thought that was a ridiculously small price to demand.  Personally, he would have held out for a share in whatever secrets the Tallurans uncovered in their ongoing archaeological activities.  It didn’t, after all, take a genius to work out that they weren’t merely searching for antiquities in that ancient city.  The exploration had been covert and dangerously close to the Khkerrikk Star Empire, so it stood to reason that the Tallurans had something to hide and were probably searching for something valuable – such as Alteran technology.  Instead, they’d awakened a monster and started a war.

In any case, while agreeing with his analysis, the Ambassador’s superiors had decided that any such demand would probably be rejected.  Instead, they’d mount a major intelligence effort to uncover as much as possible about the secret Talluran programme.

“I believe my esteemed colleague also has some assistance to offer…” the Ch’Hanis only barely succeeded in sounding diplomatic – if the reptilian disliked the Tallurans as a species, he positively loathed the Zaharte.

The other Ambassador’s opinions remained impossible to read, though Drayana was well aware of his insular race’s paranoia about almost every other power in the galaxy.  The Zaharte traditionally kept external relations to a minimum, with the Xicavvar their only allies until the previous day.

“There is a price for our help,” the Ambassador was more direct than his Ch’Hanis counterpart.

“Which is?” Drayana’s tone was guarded.

“Your will recognise our claim to the Xicavvar colony worlds.  Not the core planets you attacked yesterday, but the three colonies you destroyed in the first strike,” the Zaharte responded.

The Empress decided she could live with that.  Not that the Tallurans were in any position to stop the Zaharte right now, in any case.  Still, there was one thing she just had to know.

Drayana raised a curious eyebrow. “I was forced to effectively destroy your ally yesterday, yet now you are offering us assistance?”

“An alliance does not signify mindless acquiescence in acts of aggression.  Or perhaps, in this case, suicide.  The Xicavvar were foolish enough to attack a stronger power not once, but on two occasions, while undoubtedly – and foolishly - believing that we would come to their assistance.  There was no advantage for the Zaharte Alliance in either assisting them, nor in continuing with the relationship.  It is why my people tend to avoid such connections as far as possible,” the Ambassador replied.

With allies like that, there was little need for enemies, the Empress reflected sardonically.  Still, she wasn’t complaining one iota about either of the two rival powers’ idea of self-interest right now.

“On behalf of the Talluran Empire, I can say that we have no interest in extending our authority into Xicavvar space.  I would only ask that the Zaharte Alliance ensure that the Xicavvar remain planet-bound for foreseeable future,” Drayana said.

“The Xicavvar have proven themselves to be a menace to space-faring civilization.  We will ensure that they remain confined to – and isolated on – their core home-worlds in perpetuity.  Any attempt to break the quarantine and our forces will finish what your fleet started,” the Zaharte assured her, in his usual flat tones.

“As for what we offer?  By following a hyperspace corridor across our space, your forces will be in a position to strike the Khkerrikk two days earlier than would have been the case, assuming you are planning such offensive action,” the Ambassador continued.

Normally when planning hyperspace travel, military vessels avoided transiting another power’s space.  While they could generally do so without being detected, if they had to drop out of hyperspace for any reason, it wasn’t exactly diplomatically sound for a battle-fleet to arrive uninvited in someone else’s territory.

There was still time to divert the strike forces across Zaharte space and the Khkerrikk certainly wouldn’t expect to be attacked so rapidly.  An extra two days might also allow them to attack a wider range of targets.  Between them, the Zaharte Alliance and Ch’Hanis Freehold had given the Talluran Empire a wholly unexpected advantage, at least in the opening rounds of this war.  Now Drayana just had to trust her forces not to waste the opportunity.

“We would also ask that you do not squander this opportunity,” the Zaharte told her.

At the very least, the two Ambassadors were counting on the Tallurans to both delay and deplete the Khkerrikk, allowing the Zaharte and Ch’Hanis to assemble their own combined fleets.  Fighting the Tallurans wouldn’t be a cheap exercise for the Star Empire and even in the event of the former losing the war, the Khkerrikk fleet might be too weakened to maintain a credible presence in the sector.  Assisting Drayana’s people now would only increase the damage they could inflict on the superpower.

Of course, even if the Asgard came swooping in belatedly, the Talluran Imperial Fleet would itself probably have suffered considerable losses, leaving both the Zaharte and Ch’Hanis in a relatively stronger position in this sector.  But either way, it was in their interest to help prevent an early Talluran collapse.

“We will take maximum advantage of the assistance provided by both the Zaharte Alliance and Ch’Hanis Freehold,” Drayana assured her visitors. “And please pass along our most sincere thanks.  The Talluran Empire will not forget those who helped us in our hour of need.”

Not that she liked being in the debt of two potentially hostile powers, but the Empress could use any help at present.  Even if some of it came from a race who viewed her people as part of a balanced diet.  Diplomacy was, she mused, a very unsettling and unsavoury business at times.

“You will, I trust, show some discretion in revealing our assistance,” the Ch’Hanis said.

There was some small risk involved, given Kharrillion’s tendency to declare war first and ask questions later.  Probably even he wouldn’t be so foolish as to take on the three local powers simultaneously, but there was always the element of uncertainty, and given sufficient time to organise the Khkerrikk certainly had the resources.  The Zaharte, with worlds much closer to Khkerrikk space, were at somewhat greater risk – and it wouldn’t take the Star Empire long to figure out why the Tallurans were attacking them ahead of schedule – but that proximity was a double-edged sword.  At any rate, both powers had made their calculations and now would have to live with them.

“You have my full assurances, Ambassador,” the Empress replied.

“All that matters is that you show the Khkerrikk no mercy.  In a war of this kind, that is a weakness you cannot afford,” the Zaharte representative put in.

“I would agree one hundred percent with my counterpart,” the Ch’Hanis smiled, revealing rows of pointed teeth.

“But depending how this war progresses, we may have further assistance to offer at a future date,” he added tantalisingly.

“It is also the duty of the Talluran Empire to deal with this creature your scientists so carelessly unleashed on the galaxy,” the Zaharte noted.

 

Ten minutes later, the two Ambassadors had finally taken their leave.  Drayana exhaled deeply and shook her head, still unable to believe this turn of events.

“If someone had suggested that the Ch’Hanis – and especially the Zaharte – would be offering us help at this stage, I would have asked if they had been drinking,” the Empress said.

Bruccian agreed. “Now we must make maximum – and speedy - use of it.  The code information can be passed along to our own cipher specialists immediately.  And when the various Fleet components check in, a few hours from now, we can relay course corrections by burst transmission.  Of course, it is still critical that they strike the Khkerrikk simultaneously.”

“I hope this is not some sort of elaborate trap,” Drayana still had some residual concerns.

The Proconsul shook his head. “Given our current position, they would have nothing to gain by subterfuge.  All they would have to do is stand back and wait for the Khkerrikk to grind us down.  Or else offer their services to the Khkerrikk.”

“I am also concerned about the Jarrassii response.  It has been two days since we admitted our part in setting the Faceless One loose.  There has still been no formal reply from the Elders’ Council,” Drayana reminded him.

The Jarrassii Empire, one of the oldest established powers in the known galaxy – though still newcomers compared to the Tallurans – were of equivalent power to the Khkerrikk.  They were also bitter rivals of the latter and their position might be crucial.

“We can only wait and hope.  Their decision-making process is notoriously slow – and I do not think we need worry about them allying themselves with the Khkerrikk, given their record of mutual dislike – but we cannot afford to lose friends,” Bruccian replied.

The Talluran Empire had always enjoyed quite amicable relations with the Jarrassii, or at least as amicable as they could be with a power located so far away, on the far side of Khkerrikk territory.  Hopefully, such a history of good relations would count for something.

“I suppose you are right,” the Empress yawned. “And as I am now fully awake, I might as well visit the Command Post…”

“ ‘Fully awake’ is rather debatable from where I am standing.  I would respectfully suggest that you return to bed, Your Excellency,” Bruccian countered. “There is little, if anything, that you can do down there for the moment.  An exhausted leader can be a liability in time of war and I suggest you rest at every opportunity.  This war has not yet started in earnest and it would be best if you saved your energy for the days and weeks ahead.”

Drayana acquiesced without any argument.  Her experienced Proconsuls knew what they were talking about – she’d selected them very carefully – and it would be foolish to ignore their advice.  That kind of idiocy, she’d leave to her Khkerrikk counterpart.  And hopefully, Kharrillion would fatally trip himself.

 

Aelina’s Tavern, Old City, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 16th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Persuading Dawn to submit to another little interview hadn’t taken too much bribery on Carolyn Lam’s part.  A shopping trip and lunch, in return for the youngster’s cooperation for an hour or so, seemed like a fair exchange.

Dawn was currently and enthusiastically demolishing a huge Talluran dessert – basically a huge stack of sugared fruit and the local cream and ice-cream equivalents.  Meanwhile, Faith and SG-15 – minus their CO today - were sitting nearby, warily watching for any threats.  The Colonel and his men, Lam noted, had been quite restive over the last couple of days, though it wasn’t too difficult to figure out the reason.  People they’d come to regard as friends and allies were at war but SG-15, for all their own military experience, couldn’t play a useful part as yet.  At this moment, playing bodyguard had to be immensely frustrating for them, Lam decided.

The tavern itself was quite busy, with its usual cheerful atmosphere only slightly muted by the uncertainties of their current situation.  A few regulars were missing, having been recalled for Reserve duties with the Imperial Defence Forces, but otherwise life went on as normal for now.  It was basically the same elsewhere in Yaherin Var.

Lam turned her attention back to Dawn.  While her first responsibility on this mission had been to provide medical care for Joyce Summers, the Asgard had quickly rendered that duty unnecessary.  The second was both to provide psychological back-up for both SG-15 and the civilians, given that they were off-world in an alien environment for an extended period, and also to study the impact of that experience on the group.

Faith, fresh out of prison and with a horrendous list of potential emotional baggage, had been of particular concern at the outset of the mission, but thus far the psychiatrist’s fears had been wholly unfounded.  The Slayer and, indeed, all the humans in the group, had proven remarkably resilient up to now.  Of course, the environment was a fairly benign one - aside from the odd assassination attempt – and they’d all fitted quite comfortably into Talluran society.

Dawn, ultimately the only reason they were here in the first place, was also demonstrating a surprising emotional robustness.  A twelve-year-old child, forced to flee from her planet because a Goddess apparently needed her blood for some arcane ritual, finding herself on another world, where she was promptly attacked by carnivorous aliens, and the subject of an attempted assassination.  Yet the girl was still remarkably level-headed and showing few – if any – signs of excessive stress.

Lam suddenly realised that the youngest Summers was studying her intently.

“So, you want to do your shrink thing now?” Dawn licked her spoon.

“I’m not here to give you therapy – or my ‘shrink thing’, as you put it, young lady,” the psychiatrist retorted, trying hard not to laugh.

“So what d’you want me for, then?” Dawn shrugged. “’Cause no more crazy upstairs than the last time we talked…”

Lam sighed good-naturedly.  Her sessions with the girl always started out like this.

“I’m just keeping tabs on how you are, that’s all,” she replied. “And wouldn’t you rather talk somewhere more private?”

Dawn shook her head and grinned. “Nothing embarrassing or personal to talk about.  Too young to have a sex life…”

The psychiatrist almost spluttered at that one.

“…And I’ll want another one of these when we’re done,” the youngster added, pointing to her now-empty plate.

“Promise me half-an-hour of your time and we’ll go try some shoes,” Lam proposed, unwilling to return a totally sugar-hyped Dawn to her mother.

Faith, trying hard not to listen to what was supposed to be a private conversation, rolled her eyes.  Unlike Buffy, she didn’t aspire to a shoe collection to make Imelda Marcos jealous.  After all, a Slayer only needed a few good pairs of boots and sneakers.  The doctor and her young protectee were, however, nightmares around shoe and clothing stores, both of which Yaherin Var had an unfortunate abundance.  This mission certainly beat hanging around Cheyenne Mountain – let alone a prison cell – but Faith still yearned for the occasional vampire to stake, just to break the bodyguarding routine.  

“Neat…  So what d’you want to know?  Want me to tell you about my dreams?” Dawn offered. “ ‘Cause I get some real doozies…”

“I’m not surprised – and maybe later,” Lam said. “But a few things before that…

“You haven’t exactly had an easy time here.  Being attacked by the Ch’Hanis, the attempted assassination of Drayana – your friend – someone trying to shoot you, a war,” she probed.

Dawn paused for a moment. “Kinda hard to explain, but these things are scary at the time, then I let them go.  Living in Sunnydale makes you like that, y’know?”

“Not really,” Lam had to admit.

Until a few months previously, her involvement with the SGC had been quite uneventful.  Since coming to Tallura Prime, on the other hand, the doctor and the rest of the Earth contingent had been exposed to more raw danger – and she had to admit – excitement, than at any other time in her life.  She therefore didn’t really have a common frame of reference to share with Dawn.

“Sunnydale’s – uh – like, really dangerous all the time. ‘Specially at night and even more if you’re the Slayer’s sister.  Which is like the whole reason I’m here, but also means the bad guys try to use me to get to Buffy.  Been kidnapped a whole bunch of times – kinda wiggy at the time, but not so much later,” Dawn tried to explain.

“Aren’t you frightened of what might happen when you get kidnapped?” the psychiatrist asked.

“Maybe a teensy bit.  But it always works out okay.  Bad guy captures me, ties me up, tells me all the horrible things he’s gonna do to me.  Then Buffy and the Scoobies come to the rescue.  And now I’ve Cordy to rescue my butt, too.  So no big deal…” Dawn replied with a nonchalant shrug.

Lam wasn’t sure how to respond to that.  On the one hand, some might say that the girl was showing astonishing courage, especially for someone her age.  On the other, the attitude might be seen as dangerously naïve.

“Maybe not all kidnappers will be so kind in future.  Or there might not be a convenient someone to rescue you,” she pointed out.

Dawn folded her arms defensively. “Isn’t this therapy supposed to be all about the positive stuff?”

“I told you, this isn’t therapy.  Besides, in a regular session it would be my job to question risky attitudes,” Lam replied.

“Haven’t been kidnapped here, have I? ‘Cept for the Charnosaur things, and that worked out okay.  Same with the really bad shot in the Old Town that day,” the youngster told her.

The psychiatrist decided not to pursue this any further for the moment.  Given their circumstances, it might be unwise to puncture Dawn’s current invulnerability bubble, however illusory.  It was, nevertheless, a topic that might need to be revisited.  Lam also wondered if Joyce knew how blasé her daughter was becoming about the numerous threats she faced, especially back at home.  Perhaps, she mused, it had something to do with her siblings, both Slayers.  But Lam was pretty sure that even Slayers didn’t have an immunity complex.  In fact, from talking to Faith, she was quite sure that the opposite was the norm.  Slayers, if anything, had a very sober recognition of their own mortality.

“And I’m being really careful,” Dawn quickly added. “I don’t go anywhere without protection. ‘Cause there could still be some wacko out there who wants to hurt me.  Even if it’s kinda annoying having guards around when I’m with Camullus.”

That gave Lam another handle for her interview.  Namely, borderline teenage interactions between a Terran and a Talluran girl and boy.  Probably the observations would never be of any use to anyone, but it might be an interesting study.

“So you’re seeing the boy?” the psychiatrist smiled and leaned forward slightly.

“Only one date so far.  If you can call it a date, with SG-15 and the Imperial Guard playing – uh – what d’you call it?  Yeah, third wheel…  But we talk every night on the comm-channel and his mom’s asked me round for dinner with the family.  Which is a bit scary,” Dawn admitted.

“Still, you seem to like him,” Lam noted.

Dawn blushed slightly. “He’s nice, but it’s only for a few months.  Then I’ll have to go home…”

“How d’you think you’ll feel?” the doctor asked.

“How d’you think I’ll feel?” the youngster replied with some asperity. “Not just leaving Camullus, but everyone I’ve met here.  And Drayana…  I’m gonna miss her more than anything.”

It was good that her charge was already thinking about such things, Lam decided.  Hopefully, it would help to ease the pain of parting, however slightly.

“I’m sure Drayana will figure out some way to keep in touch,” she suggested, as optimistically as she could.

“Not unless they invent some super-fast ship or find a way to make the Stargate here connect with the one on Earth.  Not great on the science, but I know that the Tallurans can’t do that right now.  Just like we can’t on Earth,” Dawn sighed.

She lifted her chin. “So I’ll just have to make the most of it – and hope I don’t get blown to itty-bitty pieces…”

“You wanted to stay here,” Lam reminded her.

“So I did,” Dawn admitted. “And still not sorry.  Real friends don’t run out on each other, just because things are tough.”

The glint in her eye persuaded Lam not to explore that particular avenue for now.  Pausing for a moment while she considered another line of questioning, the doctor was surprised when Dawn identified one herself.

“What d’you think of mom and Colonel Logan together?”

“I didn’t know they were…” Lam tried to play innocent, but she’d observed the growing relationship between Joyce Summers and the SG-15 CO.

“Sure you have,” Dawn told her disbelievingly. “Everyone else has noticed.  Just like you and the cute Talluran doc.”

Lam refused to be drawn on that one.  Gaius Valarien might be sex on legs, but she was also pretty sure the Imperial Healer was a serial womaniser.  None of which she was about to discuss with a twelve-year-old.

“What d’you think about them?” the doctor turned the question around.

“It’s kinda their business, I suppose, but…” Dawn hesitated.

“ ‘But’ what?” Lam pressed gently.

“I really like the Colonel.  He talks to me, spends time with me, even when he’s not doing the bodyguard thing.  I’m sorta hoping him and mom…  Well, I think he’d be a great dad.  But they haven’t known each other for long and I don’t want to interfere…” Dawn’s voice trailed away helplessly for a moment.

She folded her arms again. “Mom deserves a good guy in her life.  And I want a proper dad, ‘cause mine’s a total asshole…”

“Dawn Summers!”

“Well, he is so a cheating, poop-head, asshole!  Cheated on mom and doesn’t care about any of us.  Just ask Buffy and Cordy – and mom.  Actually, you’d have to tell Cordy which asshole you were talking about, ‘cause the guy she called dad that wasn’t really?  He was like a hundred times worse,” Dawn blurted out angrily.

Much as she wanted to explore the youngest Summers’ daddy issues, Lam was aware that the whole tone of the conversation had suddenly changed.  More importantly, they were veering away from the original intent.  It was perhaps time to wind up the session.  After all, she could always set up another interview with Dawn.

“Okaaay…  Think it’s time for some shoe-shopping,” Lam announced calmly.

Dawn had been about to continue the diatribe about absent, cheating fathers, but found herself caught off balance by the psychiatrist’s sudden change of tack.  All at once, she didn’t feel like sharing the Summers’ family dirty laundry.  But perhaps, Dawn thought slyly, she could really use this trip to advantage.

“I saw this awesome pair of shoes – all silver and gold, with just a teensy bit of heel…” she said hopefully.

Probably five-inch stiletto, Lam mentally translated, of which Joyce Summers no doubt strongly disapproved.  She didn’t really want Dawn’s rather formidable parental unit to kick her butt.  On the other hand, the doctor also didn’t want to disappoint the youngster.  Some people might call it spoiling, of course.  Lam, however, reckoned that having been dragged from her home planet across the universe, nearly eaten by aliens, shot at, and dropped into the middle of a galactic war - all in the space of a few months - Dawn deserved a little spoiling.

 

Space Station, Vrymtz Nebula, Demilitarised Zone, Vedda Galaxy – 16th February 2001 (Earth Date)

War, Jugrub reflected, was good for business.  Or at least potentially so, he cautioned himself.  It was all a question of having desirable commodities at the right time.

With the Tallurans and Khkerrikk at each other’s throats, the Ch’Hanis pirate was busily assessing how he could use the situation to best advantage.  In one way, he’d just made a major loss.  Having invested in five shiploads of weapons-grade Naquadah for a Xicavvar customer, the latter had suddenly found himself both unable to return to his ruined home planet and, more importantly, without funds to pay for the merchandise.  Jugrub had, needless to say, promptly added to the recent insectoid death toll, but now had a valuable cargo with no buyer.  Of course, there would always be buyers for Naquadah, but the pirate was also mindful that it could be used for his own purposes.

Jugrub also had one other product, again useable for his personal ends, or potentially priceless on the clandestine markets.  A recent raid on a secret Forvon research facility had brought certain viruses into his possession.  Deadly viruses, specifically tailored to every major species in the galaxy, and contrary to treaties against biological warfare signed by the same species.  Given that they were dabbling in a forbidden field, it occurred to Jugrub that the Forvon Imperium might even pay handsomely for his silence and the return of the bio-weapons.  He’d also taken the antidotes for the various agents – the prospects for very profitable blackmail weren’t inconsiderable, after all – before blowing the research station into very small pieces.

The reptilian picked a piece of half-chewed meat from his teeth and began to list the potential buyers for the case of biological nightmares now in his possession, such as the two currently warring powers.  The Tallurans were too soft to buy his merchandise and he had several scores to settle with the mammalians, in any case. 

On the other hand, the Khkerrikk Star Empire might be a more promising buyer.  Unlike many others on the station, Jugrub wasn’t convinced that his distant genetic relations could easily beat the Tallurans.  He could easily see a stalemate developing, in which case the Khkerrikk might seek a way to decisively weaken their enemy.  Of course, throwing bio-weapons around was also a certain way of attracting retribution in the form of the largest nuclear weapons, but they were also deniable if used carefully.  And in this case, analysis of the bio-agents was likely to identify Forvon genetic-manipulation methods.

Jugrub licked his lips – he could almost taste the profits already.  As an added bonus, the various bio-agents killed in a rather gruesome fashion.  He’d extracted that piece of information from a Forvon scientist, who’d later proven surprisingly tasty.  Now all he had to do was discretely offer his product on the market and wait for the offers.

 

Imperial Palace Gardens, Old City, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 17th February 2001 (Earth Date)

“You should have told us,” the Jarrassii Elder’s voice was gently chiding, as he wandered through the palace gardens with the Empress. “Your silence was both foolish and unbecoming, from the leader of a power with which we have always endeavoured to remain on cordial terms.”

Drayana hadn’t been expecting a visit from one of the Jarrassii Elders’ Council, their ruling body.  While still titled the Jarrassii Empire, there hadn’t actually been a monarch in a thousand years and the title was merely a historical throwback.  Instead, they were ruled by an elected council of seven of the oldest and most respected figures in Jarrassii society.

A mammalian species – marsupial, to be exact – they were extremely long-lived.  All of the current Elders’ Council were well over two hundred years old, with experience to match.  At the same time, the Jarrassii were still a democracy, as the Elders reported directly to an elected legislature, in many ways similar to the Talluran version. 

“I know, and for that I can only apologise and offer such reparations as you may demand,” Drayana replied quietly.

Not that she had the first idea what could begin to make up for the destruction of an entire city, by a monster released – albeit accidentally – by archaeologists on a mission of her own devising.  A monster which was still on the loose.

“We will discuss financial compensation – if any – much later, when you have less pressing matters to deal with,” the Jarrassii assured her sympathetically.

It was difficult for him to regard Drayana as anything other than a child.  His own species could live for up to three centuries and in Jarrassii terms, she was scarcely halfway through her childhood.  It would also, he reminded himself, be immensely foolish to regard her as anything of the sort.  Her extreme youth notwithstanding, the Talluran Empress was becoming one of the most formidable political figures in the Vedda Galaxy.

“The Elders’ Council are, however, fully aware that this was unintentional and would never seek to make political capital out of it.  We are not Emperor Kharrillion,” he continued. “Anyone could have accidentally awakened the demon, not just your people.  You had every right to explore an ancestral holding, even if I do have my own theories on what your people were doing there…”

The alien’s soft brown eyes twinkled and he smiled.  Drayana, meanwhile, winced inwardly.  The Alteran Cultural Survey obviously wasn’t a very convincing cover, and no doubt yet another species would now be scrambling to uncover her people’s ancient technological secrets.  She would just have to motivate her research teams to work harder – especially as the Empire could really use some concrete results at present.

The grey-furred Jarrassii shrugged his age-stooped shoulders. “That is, however, immaterial right now.  The Elders’ Council sent me to deliver both a reproof for your silence, and an offer of covert assistance.”

Diplomacy never ceased to amaze Drayana.  The Faceless One had devoured an entire Jarrassii city and now one of their rulers was offering help, after little more than a gentle verbal rap over the knuckles.  At least the meeting felt slightly more comfortable this time.  The Tallurans and Jarrassii had generally enjoyed good relations and their assistance was somehow more natural than that given by the Ch’Hanis or Zaharte.

What the Empress really wanted, of course, was someone to lend her a large battle-fleet, but she was content to grasp any offer of support with both hands.  Only the N’Gluk and Triannites had actually provided direct military support, in the shape of their entire – if small – fleets.  Others seemed happy to help from the background, but only so long as they weren’t required to put their heads above the parapet.

Not that Drayana could blame them.  In a galaxy where the major space-going powers all had the ability to wipe out entire planets in short order, becoming embroiled in someone else’s war was a dangerous step, especially against a somewhat unpredictable leader like Kharrillion.

The Elder stopped to study a particularly delicate flower. “You really have a most beautiful world here.  It would be shame were it to fall into the hands of the Khkerrikk Star Empire…  So we must, therefore, do everything possible to avoid that.”

Aside from the fact that the Tallurans were the one race in the galaxy his own people could at least partially identify with, there was also an element of self-interest in the Jarrassii position.  If the Star Empire overran this whole sector – the Tallurans, Ch’Hanis and Zaharte, plus numerous smaller races – then the balance between the two superpowers might be unacceptably tipped in the direction of the Khkerrikk.  The Elders’ Council had already decided to offer assistance on that calculation alone, quite apart from any other reasons they might have.

He cleared his throat and clasped two large and furry paws, with six digits on each, behind his back, just above a coiled prehensile tail.

“You probably cannot beat the Khkerrikk in the long run with military force alone.  Even the most carefully devised strategy can only forestall the inevitable.  This you will already know, of course.  But there are other approaches you can take,” the Jarrassii paused.

“My people and the Khkerrikk have long been engaged in a war of sorts, at the level of espionage, secretive diplomacy, the occasional act of deniable sabotage.  But what you must understand is that the Khkerrikk Star Empire is, in some critical ways, a hollow edifice.  Emperor Kharrillion is rash, inexperienced, and distrustful of those around him.  His constant meddling has left many areas of governance – not just the military – deeply inefficient and almost chaotic.  And the last three Emperors have been little better,” he continued.

“So you must meet the Khkerrikk wherever they are weak.  That means exploiting divisions within the Star Empire, sowing discord, and inciting the slave races to revolt.  To assist you in that, the Jarrassii Empire are willing to offer access to a disused base on our frontier with the Khkerrikk, full access via the Astria Porta, and the use of several Khkerrikk freighters we use for covert insertion.  In addition, a number of our foremost intelligence specialists have accompanied me here, and should be put to work with your people, as soon as possible.  There is much we can tell you about the Khkerrikk,” the Elder told her.

Drayana had no doubts about that.  As the Star Empire’s closest neighbour and greatest rival, the Jarrassii would be an invaluable source of intelligence.  Employing Special Operations forces on covert missions, as a distraction and means of weakening the Khkerrikk, was certainly an appealing suggestion.  It also occurred to the Empress that she had some specialists on Tallura Prime right now.  SG-15 were used to waging unconventional and asymmetric warfare against a much larger and more powerful opponent, the disparity between the Terrans and Goa’uld being even greater than that between the Tallurans and Khkerrikk.  After her meeting with the Jarrassii Elder, another with Lieutenant-Colonel Logan might just be in order.

“We will also reinforce our forces at several points along the Khkerrikk frontier.  Our experiences with Kharrillion suggest that even if he doubts our intention to attack, he will still feel compelled to increase his own forces in the sector.  Or, at the very least, cease withdrawing units for service against you,” the Jarrassii concluded.

The Empress was actually beginning to see a glimmer of hope and opened her mouth to thank him profusely.  The Elder merely held up a paw and shook his grizzled head.

“Your thanks are unnecessary.  The best way to thank us would be to kick Kharrillion’s teeth down his throat, literally or metaphorically,” he smiled.

Drayana blinked in surprise.

“We may be vegetarians, but that does not necessarily make us pacifists, Empress,” the Jarrassii explained dryly.

“And a word of advice.  Against this enemy, you can only win if you are completely…” he began.

The Empress smiled thinly. “Let me guess…  Ruthless?  Because that is what everyone else has been telling me for days.”

The Elder chuckled. “Precisely.  But as a daughter and leader of the Talluran Empire, I need not remind you of this.  Your people were accomplished warriors when my people were still dangling from the trees by their tails, and have always demonstrated a capacity for ruthlessness when necessary.  And I am not merely referring to your infamous ancestor.”

Drayana almost rolled her eyes.  Her grandmother’s grandmother would seemingly never be forgotten by the other Vedda Galaxy species.

“That, however, is sufficient diplomacy for one day.  In two-hundred-and-sixty-eight of your years, I have never ventured beyond the frontiers of the Jarrassii Empire.  I will not be returning for two days, so perhaps you might show this old alien a little of your beautiful palace and city?” the Jarrassii offered his arm in an almost Talluran/Terran way.

“That is the very least I can do,” the Empress replied, taking his soft-furred arm.

Sometimes diplomacy wasn’t so bad.  At least not all the galaxy’s species frightened her on a genetic level, such as the Ch’Hanis, or just plain creeped her out – to use a Dawnism – like the Zaharte.  The grandfatherly Jarrassii was extremely likeable and she made a mental note to strengthen her people’s ties, distance notwithstanding, if the Empire survived this war.

 

Rooftop Garden, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 18th February 2001 (Earth Date)

As galaxies went, the Vedda Galaxy was densely populated with stars.  Tonight, the sky was particularly clear, the stellar view helped by the fact that only a small segment of three of Tallura Prime’s moons was currently visible, thereby reducing the glare.

“All this space, so many worlds and stars, but no one can live in peace here, either.  It’s just like being back on Earth…  Doesn’t matter whether the supposedly intelligent species is mammal, reptile, insect, or whatever.  Just can’t seem to resist the temptation to go all macho and declare war on each other,” Joyce sighed mournfully.

She turned to Logan, who was sitting on the bench beside her. “So you and the others have decided to go?”

“I hold up these two macho hands and say yes, Joyce,” the SG-15 CO confirmed, in slightly guilty tones.

Drayana had only asked for their advice, but having established that they actually had more experience in the type of SpecOps missions envisaged against the Khkerrikk than the Tallurans themselves, SG-15 had promptly volunteered to assist.

“I hope General Hammond doesn’t court martial the whole bunch of us,” he added.

“You’re doing what you think is the right thing,” Joyce replied reluctantly. “And I hate to admit it, but I think it’s probably the right thing, too.  If anyone is worth fighting for, it’s the Tallurans.  Well, most of them – not so sure about Ilarius…”

Logan nodded. “Basically that’s what drove us, too.  Also the part where the Tallurans might yet turn out to be one of our most valuable allies, if we can just fix that pesky distance problem.  But even if that wasn’t the case?  Hell, we’d still all be shipping out to kick some lizard butt.”

He looked uncomfortable for a moment. “It means leaving you and Dawn here.  We’re supposed to be protecting you, after all. But…”

Joyce shook her head. “I can’t even go to the bathroom, without the Imperial Guard throwing a cordon around it!  Drayana tripled our guard the second war was declared.  Besides, we still have Diana to watch our backs.  And when the enemy could drop a nuclear bomb on this city at any time, worrying about another random assassin isn’t really top of my list.”

She knew Faith would have quite happily accompanied SG-15, but the Slayer was also firm in her determination to protect the Summers’ women at any cost.

Joyce leaned in closer to the man she was now tentatively calling “boyfriend”, at least in her own mind.  Whirlwind romance didn’t quite cover this situation and she’d always considered herself cautious on the relationship front.  Before the Gathering, they’d been friendly, but that event – a scant few weeks previously – seemed to have really set things in motion.  She’d never quite seen herself being attracted to anyone in the military, but here she was, falling badly for six-foot-seven of extremely buff USAF SpecOps trooper. Heaven only knew what some of her colleagues in the art world would say.  And Joyce would certainly have a few choice responses, if any of them dared criticise her.

“Just come back safely, Wade,” she murmured, taking his hand.

The Colonel squeezed her shoulders. “For the first time in a while, I really have a good reason to come back…”

Suddenly, there was a faint rustling noise from the middle of a large nearby shrub.

“Anyone there?” Logan was on his feet, instantly on guard, one hand hovering over his omnipresent sidearm.

A childish giggle answered his question and Joyce sprang to her feet, hands on her hips.

“Feel the passion…” Dawn laughed, merging from the undergrowth.

“Feel my hand on your bottom, Dawn Marie Summers!  What have I told you about eavesdropping?  Too many times, as a matter of fact…” her mother growled.

“Not really eavesdropping, mom,” Dawn replied lightly, despite apparent maternal displeasure. “Just that you and me often come up here at night…”

“Then you should have just shown yourself.  We wouldn’t have minded,” Joyce replied.

“Yeah, but I thought you were gonna make with the kissing – and stuff…” her daughter replied innocently.

Joyce felt herself blush and struggled for a response.

“Well, we might have gotten around to kissing – and stuff – if you hadn’t been playing peeping tom in the bush,” Logan winked at her.

“It’s all beside the point, young lady.  We’ve had this conversation too many times…  The next time – the very next time – you’ll be across my knee.  And that’s definitely your last warning.  D’you hear me?” Joyce folded her arms.

“Yes mom…  Won’t happen again,” Dawn replied quickly, the Colonel suspecting they’d had this conversation many times.

“Are you really going away to fight?” She turned to Logan, voice suddenly very small.

“I’m afraid I am.  Leaving in a few hours, because Drayana needs everyone she can get to help her,” the Colonel explained.

“I understand all that…  But you can’t be my dad if you get yourself killed,” Dawn blurted out.

“Dawn!” Joyce gasped, as Logan could only splutter.

“Well, it kinda makes sense.  He likes you, and you like him – and I think he likes me…  Plus he’d be a way better dad than dad…” her suddenly flustered daughter babbled.

“Dawn logic,” Joyce assessed with a chuckle. “But things aren’t always quite so easy, honey.”

“Maybe they should be,” Logan offered quietly.

“Later, Wade,” Joyce replied, with a warning glance.

She turned to Dawn. “I certainly know that someone ought to be in bed by now.  Say goodnight to Colonel Logan and I’ll be down shortly.”

Usually, her daughter didn’t need anyone to tuck her in, but tonight she obviously had another worry on her mind.  Now Joyce had to reassure her – as far as was possible – that the man her daughter liked so much would come home safely.  Even if she had to lie through her teeth.

“Goodnight, Uncle Wade,” Dawn hugged him tightly, the tall Colonel forced to bend down so she could reach. “Mom’s done the ‘be careful’ thing, but I’m gonna say it again…”

“Uncle Wade” - that was a new wrinkle, Joyce noted with amusement and not a little concern.  If Logan were killed or injured, it would have a terrible effect on the youngster.  And, she had to admit, probably herself.

“You just be sure and behave.  And look after your mom,” the SG-15 CO gave the youngster a peck on the cheek.

Bottom lip trembling ominously, Dawn nodded and bolted for the stairs.

“Oh dear,” Joyce sighed. “I think there might be tears at bedtime…”

“What she said, Joyce…”

“I think we should tread very carefully, Wade.  I don’t deny that there’s attraction on my part – and I think yours.  Plus my daughter thinks the sun shines out of your – thinks you’re wonderful.  See, that’s what comes of being around Diana too much…” Joyce chuckled nervously.

“But we should definitely take our time, make sure we aren’t rushing into anything for all the wrong reasons.  I mean, two people on an alien world…” she pointed out.

Logan nodded. “I’m with you one hundred percent, Joyce.  We’ll talk more when I get back from playing honorary Talluran commando.”

He’d fallen for this woman all too easily and had no wish to hurt either her, or her daughter.  Given that her two older daughters were Slayers, the price of doing so might well be a painful one.  His less cautious side had its own take on the relationship.  It might be an unrealisable dream or overly optimistic, or hopelessly romantic, but the part of him that dearly wanted a family of his own once more, that part fervently hoped things would eventually work out the way Dawn hoped.

“So the eavesdropping thing?  Common occurrence?” he decided to change the subject for a moment.

Joyce glared. “My sweet little daughter has at least one major flaw.  She’s a world-class snoop and has been for years.  Listening to other people’s conversations, reading Buffy’s diary – I even caught her trying to eavesdrop on two Proconsuls in the Palace a few days ago.  Had to remind her that being given the run of the Palace was a privilege – and that it made us all look bad if she abused it.  Then I gave her another ‘last warning’.  But after this time, if I catch her again, I swear she won’t sit down for a week!”

Logan laughed. “If anything does – uh – develop between us, you’ll have to be the disciplinarian, Joyce.  Those big, blue eyes?  They make me utterly helpless.  I was the same with my Alice.  Melissa – my ex-wife – called it ‘Daddy’s Little Princess Syndrome’.  I could never raise my voice to Alice, let alone ground her.  Those big eyes – brown in her case – were always my undoing!”

“Just like Hank – back in the days when he actually behaved like a father,” Joyce grunted.

She turned to Logan and grinned.  “So what did Dawn say? ‘Kissing and stuff’…  Not so sure about the ‘stuff’ right now, but I’m quite happy with the first part…”

 

Emergency Command Post, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 20th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Five thousand metres below the Imperial Palace and virtually invulnerable to attack, the atmosphere in the Emergency Command Post was slightly tense but also confident.  The most powerful elements of the Imperial Fleet were within minutes of their initial targets, proceeding according to schedule, while the Khkerrikk mobilisation continued to be a chaotic and protracted process.  Given the disparity in forces, Drayana thanked the Goddess that her opposite number was so impetuous.  If Kharrillion had only bided his time and quietly mobilised and concentrated his fleets before declaring war, it was likely the Talluran defences would have been overwhelmed in short order.

His foolishness would cost him a great deal, the Empress mused.  On the basis of both Talluran intelligence service reports and also intercepted Khkerrikk signals traffic, her command staff knew where the bulk of the enemy forces were currently located and their state of readiness.  If today’s strikes were successful, the greater portion of Khkerrikk forces intended for the first wave of attacks against the Talluran Empire would either be destroyed, or neutralised by forcing them onto a defensive posture.  The Star Empire would also, if her advisers were correct, be prematurely forced into a main fleet action they were still ill-prepared to win.

It was a huge gamble, of course.  If anything went wrong today, the cream of the Imperial Fleet would have been wasted, leaving her people wide open to attack.  Days of debate, however, had convinced her that an aggressive posture was the only option.

“Four minutes out, Your Excellency,” Proconsul Vertain told her.

On a huge screen, the seconds ticked down to the four initial and simultaneous strikes.  Talluran forces hadn’t been committed to battle on this scale in living memory.  Aside from the bulk of the Imperial Fleet’s Battleships and Heavy Cruisers, the operation also required a significant portion of the Empire’s ground forces.  Drayana was grateful that even under Ilarius and his neglect of the Imperial Defence Force, her senior officers had always ensured that training standards were consistently upheld.

“You have all performed superbly,” the Empress told him and the assembled senior staff. “And please pass on my personal gratitude to your own staff.”

Praise should always be given where it was due, Drayana told herself.  There wasn’t a single unit which hadn’t met its mobilisation and readiness targets.

Admirals Severan and Piretus bobbed their heads in acknowledgement, while still intent on multiple screens and readouts.  They’d passed the final abort point and when the fleet came out of hyperspace, it would be in action moments later.  The Tallurans weren’t just counting on the initial attack causing immense physical damage, but also dealing a significant blow to Khkerrikk over-confidence.  Multiple targets struck, with much greater force than the Star Empire expected, days before their arrival could have been anticipated.  And there was a good chance that their arrival hadn’t been anticipated at all.  Talluran counter-intelligence – covertly supported, Drayana suspected, by their Jarrassii and Ch’Hanis equivalents – had been busy for days, creating the illusion that the Imperial Fleet was concentrating for defensive action around the core worlds.

She silently watched as the symbols on a 3-d holographic display closed steadily with their first four targets, the secondary and tertiary targets blinking in different colours.  Speed and surprise was of the essence here – hit one target, then move on to strike the next one. 

Drayana briefly closed her eyes.  The battle-plans and images on the screens around her might all seem very clean and clinical, but within minutes hundreds of thousands would be dead or dying.  Mainly the enemy if all went according to plan, but this really wasn’t how she wanted to be remembered as a ruler.  Even if everyone – including her own mother - was urging her to be utterly ruthless.

“ ‘Empress Drayana the Bloody’,” she muttered under her breath. “Or maybe, ‘Empress Drayana the Butcher’…”

“You said something, Excellency?” Vertain asked.

The Empress shook her head. “Nothing that matters, Proconsul.”

Vesarian momentarily placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.  The Imperial Guard Centurion had both overheard and understood.

“This is not your fault, Excellency.  Think of your own people right now – Kharrillion alone is responsible for bringing this down on his,” he whispered.

Drayana nodded her thanks and watched the final seconds of the countdown.

“All Task Groups emerging from hyperspace in five… Four… Three … Two … One…” a Centurion at a nearby bank of monitors intoned.

“Engaging now…”

 

Saarvek, Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 20th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Saarvek was a veritable hive of activity, both on the planetary surface and in near-orbit.  One of three key mobilisation bases in this area, the forces assembled here were expected to spearhead the invasion of the Talluran Empire.  A small and sparsely populated planet, Saarvek was little more than a garrison world.  At present, nearly three-quarters of a million reservists were on the surface, drawing and testing equipment, receiving hasty refresher training, and awaiting the order to move out.  There wasn’t any particular degree of enthusiasm amongst them.  Service in Kharrillion’s forces was unpopular, harsh and unpleasant and the Emperor wasn’t particularly adept at stirring up patriotic fervour, even in the face of alleged alien aggression.  Most simply wanted to get the job done and return home alive.

In orbit, maintenance crews were in the process of reactivating sixty Heavy Cruisers kept in mothballs, together with over one hundred troop transports of varying sizes.  Defences were somewhat thin right now – only ten more Heavy Cruisers and a thin screen of outdated orbital defence platforms – but no one really expected the Tallurans to strike anytime soon.

Admittedly, the Talluran Empire was by far the largest power that Emperor Kharrillion had picked a fight with.  Usually, individual worlds or much weaker powers were more his style, enlarging the Star Empire a little at a time.  Lack of enthusiasm wasn’t necessarily matched with a lack of confidence, however.  The Khkerrikk on Saarvek knew that they were just the vanguard of a mighty force, powerful enough to crush the latest enemy.  It was also a change from service on isolated frontier worlds, dealing with increasingly restive rebel groups.

Task Group One came out of hyperspace at the minimum safe distance from the planet, catching the Khkerrikk defenders completely off-guard.  A dozen Talluran Heavy Cruisers and twice as many Light Cruisers completely outnumbered the opposing force.  The former swiftly pounced on their outgunned opponents, while the smaller ships took on the helpless mothball fleet and any orbital defence platforms in range.  It only took a matter of minutes, well-placed nuclear-tipped missiles destroying the bulk of the currently unshielded, uncrewed and unpowered Khkerrikk vessels.  Those which survived the nuclear blasts were rapidly targeted and knocked down with conventional weaponry.

Talluran casualties were more or else as anticipated.  Outnumbered and outgunned, the Khkerrikk Heavy Cruisers only succeeded in inflicting minor damage on two of their counterparts.  The defence platforms were somewhat more successful against the less well-armoured Light Cruisers, with one blown to pieces, another crippled and abandoned by its crew, and two more with light damage.  Given the losses they’d inflicted so far, even before turning their weaponry on the planet, it was an acceptable loss rate for the Tallurans.  Task Group One was now also completely unopposed as it turned its attention towards Saarvek itself.

On a planet with virtually no civilian settlements of note, the Empress had felt free to take the gloves off her forces. A dozen widely dispersed major bases held the bulk of the Khkerrikk ground forces, who were now sitting targets.  The reptilians were still scrambling for shelter when a five-hundred kiloton Naquadah-enhanced nuclear warhead – small by Talluran standards - detonated directly above each.  Eighteen massive underground storage dumps were also vaporised by similar-sized weapons in ground penetration mode.  Meanwhile, a score of smaller facilities, having escaped the hellish nuclear bombardment and deemed of only secondary importance, were demolished in a hail of conventional warheads and plasma bolts.

Task Group One didn’t hang around to watch the mushroom clouds rising.  Having completely erased the Khkerrikk military presence on Saarvek and pausing only to destroy their abandoned Light Cruiser, the Imperial Fleet warships formed up and disappeared into hyperspace once more.  They had another five targets – communications relays, listening posts, and construction and repair docks – to destroy over the next twelve hours and the clock was still running.

 

Valler’yoth, Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 20th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Logan couldn’t quite believe he and his men had volunteered for this.  As if fighting the Goa’uld wasn’t enough, SG-15 just had to stick their necks out and join in someone else’s war.  A very big war at that.  It had seemed like the right thing to do at the time – and it still did – but the Colonel only hoped his superiors would see it that way.

The journey to this planet had been relatively uneventful, Jarrassii-supplied identification codes having satisfied a Khkerrikk patrol.  Sneaking around was the SG teams’ usual modus operandi, given that they were always outnumbered, and if they’d exchanged their Khkerrikk transport for a captured Goa’uld Tel’tak, it could be any normal mission back in the Milky Way.

The objective was a relatively limited one.  With the local rebels eager to strike their own blow against the Star Empire, but poorly equipped and organised and somewhat inexperienced, SG-15 and an Imperial Guard Special Operations unit had been tasked with helping them take the first step.  Valler’yoth was one of five scattered planets from the former Ler’yoth Confederation, with the latter only one of several subject races ready to rise against the Khkerrikk.

SG-15 had some experience in the type of guerrilla warfare envisaged by Drayana’s War Council and Valler’yoth offered a plethora of potential targets.  According to Jarrassii sources, a rising here would quickly spread to other Ler’yoth worlds, with a strong possibility that other subjugated races would also quickly pick up the torch.  The Khkerrikk relied heavily on alien slave labour for manufacturing and raw material extraction, so a series of revolts would both deprive them of a large proportion of their workforce and also disrupt vital war production.  More directly, each world which rebelled would also divert Khkerrikk forces.

Not that an all-out rebellion was likely to begin spontaneously.  Initially, the aim was to organise small groups, with resistance gradually spreading amongst the population.  Logan was under no illusions what the initial consequences would most likely be for the Ler’yoth and others.  An absolute ruler like Kharrillion would undoubtedly inflict severe reprisals on the civilian population, for even the smallest acts of defiance.  On the other hand, heavy-handed tactics on the part of an oppressor could also reinforce the impulse to rebel.

In any case, SG-15 and the Tallurans were here to light the fuse, with similar groups en route to two other worlds also regarded as ripe for revolt.  To that end, the transport had been packed with crates of light weaponry, explosives, secure communications equipment, and night vision gear, sufficient to equip several hundred resistance fighters in the first instance.  The Talluran SpecOps CO also had a list of relatively easy targets.

The mission had another dimension, moreover.  Rivalry and mistrust were rife amongst the higher echelons of the Star Empire, and the Tallurans were intent on maximising that weakness.  A series of faked signals between the Valler’yoth Planetary Governor and the local resistance, coupled with the discovery of Talluran weapons and explosives in the former’s official residence, combined with some carefully planted leaks and other intelligence tricks, would likely lead to mass arrests amongst the local Khkerrikk leadership.  Existing divisions would, in turn, be further reinforced and a paranoid Emperor made even more suspicious.

Logan checked his watch and looked around.  His team, plus two-dozen experienced Talluran SpecOps troopers and perhaps fifty Ler’yoth rebels, were concealed at the edge of the jungle, preparing to hit a Khkerrikk communications and supply facility.  Forty other targets across the planet would be simultaneously attacked, to coincide with the Talluran fleet’s offensive on the opposite side of the Star Empire.

The Colonel froze and ducked his head into the foliage, as a Khkerrikk micro-drone skimmed past, on a security sweep.  Supposedly, its sensors were being duped by Talluran jamming systems, but it was safer not to take any chances.  The Tallurans’ own stealthy micro-drones had, meanwhile, fully mapped the complex, down to the last sentry.  Their real-time data-stream was available to any of the Talluran SpecOps troops or SG-15 wearing standard Integrated Battle Armour.  While he’d initially looked somewhat askance at the complex system, Logan was rapidly coming to appreciate the extremely detailed tactical view of his surroundings.

Nearby, a Talluran mortar team was preparing to open fire, smart munitions already locked onto a Khkerrikk Plasma Cannon installation.  SG-15 were, meanwhile, tasked with eliminating several sentry posts, before clearing a communications bunker.  Hopefully, the Khkerrikk wouldn’t know what hit them.  Just like those on the Imperial Fleet’s initial target list, which would also be struck hard in the next few minutes.

It was almost time.  He carefully sighted his Personal Combat Weapon on the two closest guards in SG-15’s assigned sector and began a mental countdown from ten.

 

Zaggarrak, Khkerras, Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 21st February 2001 (Earth Date)

Zaggarrak, birth-place of Emperor Kharrillion and one of the most important worlds in the Khkerrikk Star Empire, was the biggest and toughest objective entrusted to the Talluran Imperial Fleet.  As such, Task Group Four was much larger than its counterparts, with double the number of Heavy and Light Cruisers assigned, and every available Battleship for added teeth.  In addition, dozens of fast transports carried the two field armies necessary for a full-scale invasion.

The Zaggarrak space defences were fortunately no more prepared than those elsewhere.  With the massive firepower of the Battleships available, Task Group Four knocked down every one of the thirty defending Heavy Cruisers with almost childish ease, the Tallurans’ heaviest warships then moving in to take down the orbital defence platforms. 

Then it was the turn of the Khkerrikk ground forces.  With the planetary defences overwhelmed, the entire Talluran force moved in for a swift, but deadly efficient missile and plasma bombardment of every major military facility on the surface.  Assault troops were simultaneously transported down to the planet, seizing key landing areas and other important objectives.  The Tallurans’ Asgard transporters also had another, much more lethal, function – one which wasn’t available to ships equipped only with ring-type transporters.  Against ground targets, they could be employed in a very precise manner to dematerialise anything from individual soldiers, to armoured vehicles, to buildings.

The Zaggarrak Planetary Governor, hitherto luxuriating in one of the most prestigious posts in the Star Empire, was shocked to find the Emperor’s homeworld under sudden and violent attack.  Watching from a window in his official palace residence, he watched in dismay as an entire regiment, deploying in good order, simply disappeared before his eyes.  He’d never seen anything so mercilessly efficient.  The same Asgard beams then promptly delivered over a battalion’s worth of combat-ready assault troops in a matter of seconds, covered by waves of fighters overhead, while large shuttlecraft swiftly began delivering heavy equipment to support the infantry.

Meanwhile, the Planetary Communications Net was jammed with pleas for help and attack reports from all over Zaggarrak, many of them abruptly ceasing in mid-sentence.  Attempts to reach the senior military commanders proved futile, communications channels either blocked by Talluran ECM, knocked out by targeted EMP pulses, or the intended recipients already dead.  Somehow, the Khkerrikk forces had to regroup and quickly, else the planet would be lost.  In the absence of contact with his commanders, all the Governor could do was send a distress signal to Supreme Headquarters on Khkerras. 

He just didn’t understand how this could have happened.  Emperor Kharrillion had personally assured him that the Tallurans were weak, decadent, indecisive, and militarily no match for the feeblest of the Star Empire’s forces.  But if this was the Tallurans being weak and indecisive, the Governor really didn’t want to see them strong and resolute. 

Suddenly, he heard gunfire from inside the palace, gunfire that was creeping closer by the moment.  He briefly considered grabbing his own personal weapon and going out in a blaze of glory – after all, if he survived Kharrillion would probably have him executed anyway – but decided against it.  Life – or his, at any rate - was too precious to be thrown away on a whim.

As he hesitated about his next move, the door abruptly exploded into fragments and half-a-dozen Tallurans, faces obscured by their helmet visors, stormed inside with weapons levelled.  The Governor promptly forgot any thoughts of resistance and hastily raised his clawed hands, in the universal gesture of surrender.

 

Emergency Command Post, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 20th February 2001 (Earth Date)

When she’d previously studied political-military relations, Drayana’s tutors always hammered home the key fact that war was a political tool, no more and no less.  The military were, therefore, always subordinate to the political authority.  Whenever the decision was taken to go to war, the latter laid out the basic objective and political boundaries, then ideally stepped back and allowed the military to do its job, while always retaining the right and ability to change objectives.  It might sometimes be an inconvenient relationship for the military, but anything else, the Empress had always been taught, was a recipe for a dictatorship.

At the same time, Drayana’s instructors had also been at pains to teach her that constant varying of objectives - and especially any attempt at micromanagement – was a bad thing.  As a result, she was keeping out of the way and her mouth firmly closed, trusting her senior officers to do what was best for the Empire.  It was, nevertheless, a nerve-wracking time, as countless burst transmissions arrived for decryption, analysis, and assembly into an accurate report of the war’s progress.

Whatever their many and frequent disagreements in peacetime, Admiral Severan and General Piretus worked together like a well-ordered machine amidst the quiet bustle of the Emergency Command Post.  The commanders of the Imperial Guard and Imperial Defence Forces, respectively, apparently performed at their best under the pressure of war. Now they were just adding the finishing touches to the initial summary.

For the Empress, the wait was thoroughly nerve-wracking, and she actually caught herself chewing her fingernails for the first time in years.  Her mother wouldn’t be pleased if she started doing that again, Drayana thought.  But who could blame her?  The bulk of the Imperial Fleet was now deep inside Khkerrikk space and if it was lost, then the Empire was finished.  Unfortunately, the demeanour of her Admirals wasn’t giving anything away.

“Stop that, Your Excellency,” an amused Vesarian whispered in Drayana’s ear, as she continued to chew on her fingernails, then grimaced as she tore a corner of skin and drew blood.

The commander of her protective detail had rarely been away from her side since war declared, even in a location as secure as the Emergency Command Post.

The Empress vigorously shook the now-throbbing digit. “I know – and mother would probably slap my behind if she caught me – but the waiting is driving me insane…”

“I know, Your Excellency.  I have many friends out there right now,” Vesarian reminded her, somewhat wistfully.

Serving with the Protective Division was a great honour, but also frustrating when the bulk of the Imperial Guard were light years away, fighting to preserve the Empire.  Even some of the Terran visitors were playing a more active role than he was right now.  Still, protecting the Empress was more important than ever in time of war.

“I know where you would rather be, Shar,” Drayana laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder.

“My place is always by your side, Excellency,” the Centurion responded.

The Empress’ eyes abruptly widened apprehensively, as Severan and Piretus strode towards her.

“So is it good news?” she asked nervously.

Severan smiled and nodded. “It is good news, insofar as there can be such a thing in war…”

“We have achieved every objective, at greater cost to the enemy than projected, and with substantially fewer casualties than anticipated, Excellency,” Piretus told her.

“To be exact, our forces have destroyed one-hundred and thirty Khkerrikk Heavy Cruisers, almost two hundred transport vessels, and wiped out the equivalent of four field armies.  We have successfully taken Zaggarrak, eliminated five major mobilisation depots, six communications hubs and listening posts, and four maintenance and construction yards. 

“In addition to the targets listed in the initial plan, we have also taken the colonies of Duvarokk and Khkarnath, which are important mineral processing centres for their shipbuilding programme.  At first, we only had a small force on the ground – assault troops from our warships – but reinforcements are arriving via the Astria Porta and we have also diverted several units from the Zaggarrak landing force,” Severan clarified.

“And our losses?” the Empress was about to chew on another nail, when she heard Vesarian quietly tut-tutting behind her and quickly removed the offending digit.

“Four Heavy Cruisers and eleven Light Cruisers.  No figures as yet for ground forces, but casualties are likely to be negligible, given pre-landing bombardment,” Piretus replied.

“Should I even wish to know what enemy casualty estimates are?” Drayana winced.

Severan shook her head. “Given that we employed nuclear weapons quite liberally against targets where there was no substantial civilian population?  I would suggest not.  Best if you concentrate on other matters.”

The underlying message was grim, but the Empress knew that she couldn’t worry about the enemy’s losses at this point.

“Why the disparity in ship losses?” Drayana asked.

“Virtually all the transports and around half the warships were still in mothball condition – not crewed, immobile and easy targets.  The others?  They were not expecting an attack and deployed in insufficient numbers in each case, out of position, and outgunned.  Remember that each of our Heavy Cruisers can, as a rule, handle two of theirs – more in the hands of an experienced crew.  As for our Battleships?  They had neither the numbers nor the firepower to even dent them, Excellency,” Piretus explained.

Even the grizzled old General couldn’t quite believe they’d escaped so lightly.  On the other hand, the fleet had accomplished exactly what a first strike was supposed to achieve, catching the enemy with his pants down and inflicting immense damage.

“So what do you propose now?” Drayana certainly wasn’t ready to add any suggestions of her own.

“I propose we make their eyes water, Excellency.  Firstly, we have most likely eliminated the Star Empire’s offensive options, at least beyond their own territory, for some time.  There will be a counter-attack against the forces holding Zaggarrak – Kharrillion cannot afford the loss of face otherwise.  It will still be made using substantial force, but we can maximise their losses and minimise our own by employing cloaking technology for the first time.  Effectively, Zaggarrak will serve as the bait in a trap.  Task Group Four, reinforced with Task Group One, will force them into a major fleet action.  Which we will certainly win, under current conditions,” Severan predicted.

“Secondly, they will also attempt to retake Duvarokk and Khkarnath.  We cannot afford to leave a major warship presence orbiting either planet, so this will largely be a ground battle,” she made a face.

“A ground battle that will probably be fought at some cost, given that we must concentrate our resources on Zaggarrak.  Given the critical importance of the industrial facilities on these planets, however, the Khkerrikk are unlikely to mount a major orbital bombardment.  They will want to retake their mines, factories and refineries intact, so our troops will dig in around these locations and force them to fight for every inch.  And in the final analysis, they will only recapture rubble,” the Admiral added.

Piretus nodded. “Thirdly, with Task Groups Two and Three still at large in Khkerrikk space and their attention divided between Zaggarrak and the other two colonies, we will also commit the Strategic Reserve in a neighbouring sector, where intelligence has indicated a number of virtually unprotected targets.”

The Strategic Reserve, consisting of twenty-five Heavy and fifty Light Cruisers plus fast transports for five heavy ground divisions, had been mobilised as soon as war was declared.  In contrast to the glacial pace of Khkerrikk mobilisation, the Talluran Reserves were ready for battle within two days of receiving the order, and would now play a vital role.

“Finally, we will also continue to support any and all rebel activity in the Star Empire.  The Khkerrikk were not unaware of unrest and were already facing a number of small rebellions.  The scale of the revolt has, nevertheless, taken them by surprise.  We expect these uprisings to grow exponentially, especially with support from our Special Operations forces.  Colonel Logan’s SG-15 has also proven most ingenious at extracting the maximum advantage from limited resources,” Severan noted.

“Risks?” Drayana asked.

If the war seemed to be progressing better than even her most optimistic advisors would have suggested, she was still worried.

“If we defeat the Khkerrikk counter-attack at Zaggarrak, then the danger of a major incursion into our space will have been all but eliminated for some time.  With Imperial Fleet units inside Khkerrikk space- and in strength – we effectively hold a dagger to Kharrillion’s throat.  There are numerous options for further and highly damaging strikes inside their territory and they cannot hope to defend against all possibilities.  Intelligence also suggests that Kharrillion will continue to commit his forces in haphazard fashion, which makes them easier to deal with,” Severan suggested.

“If I have a concern, it is Kharrillion’s petulant unpredictability.  I could see him sending individual ships on suicidal attack runs against our worlds, emerging from hyperspace close to the target and releasing a full payload of nuclear weapons against cities.  Even the thickest defences cannot adequately defend against that sort of attack.  Of course, we cannot be certain he would employ such tactics, but it is something to bear in mind,” she added.

The Empress folded her arms and frowned. “Then we will send a message to the Khkerrikk, by way of their Ambassador in the Ch’Hanis Freehold.  Any use of weapons of mass destruction against civilian targets and I will respond in kind.  It might be useful to remind Kharrillion that even now, my ships are very much closer to his core worlds…”

Piretus regarded his Empress almost with affection.  She might have a vulnerable side, but it didn’t get in the way of what needed to be done.  There was, he decided, a core of solid Trinium in Drayana’s spine.

Drayana exhaled. “Hopefully, such a warning will be all we need.  I can only pray that the Goddess will preserve us from mutual destruction…”

She turned to the Admiral and General and, to their surprise, hugged each of them tightly.  The old school might not approve of such displays of affection for subordinates, but Drayana could have cared less.

“You both have my eternal thanks – and those of all Tallurans,” the Empress offered with a smile. “I can see at least some hope now.”

“If all our plans come to fruition, then by the time the Khkerrikk are ready to face us again, our own shipyards will have produced substantial reinforcements.  For the present, we will continue with additional offensive operations, so long as these are prudent, Your Excellency,” Severan replied.

Piretus smiled slyly. “So these eternal thanks…  Do they extend to cancelling my retirement next year?”

“According to regulations, you should actually have retired years ago, General.  But if that is what you really want…” the Empress replied dubiously.

Piretus considered his current circumstances and nodded pensively.  This was the largest war of his career and it might just be time to hang up his sword when it was over, assuming the Talluran Empire survived.

Drayana, meanwhile, was now contemplating a battle map on a nearby screen.  There was, she realised, still a great deal to worry about.

“Your Excellency?” Vesarian said quietly.

“Yes…?” she replied, still concentrating on the map.

“Stop chewing your nails!” a Centurion, Admiral, and General chorused, breaking some of the tension.

 

Classified Research Area, Yaherin Var University Museum, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 20th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Joyce rubbed her tired eyes, then doggedly returned to her work.  She might not be able to fight aliens, but ultimately this research project might prove just as vital to the long-term survival of the Talluran Empire.

The latest tablet was quite badly eroded and she was using an old-fashioned magnifying glass to read the faint Latin text.  It seemed to contain directions of some kind, though they were decidedly cryptic.

“ ‘The jewelled crown of blue and red’ – I think…” Joyce shook her head – she really needed that dictionary.

Aquiliani dutifully noted down the translation, having been deputised by the woman she was detailed to protect at all costs.  The Imperial Guard woman’s abilities were quite far-ranging, however.  Prior to her military career, she’d been a historical researcher, so this was an interesting change of pace – though admittedly, the Centurion would have rather been out in Khkerrikk space, fighting alongside her comrades right at this moment.

“And – uh – ‘the Mouth of the Underworld’.  Maybe…” Joyce continued uncertainly – some of the Latin forms were more archaic than she was accustomed to.

She sighed. “I really wish I could make more sense out of this, but I’m a little rusty and…”

“And you are the only person in this galaxy who can read that language, Joyce.  For our part, we are grateful for your assistance,” Aquiliani responded.

“But it’s all so damned cryptic!” the other woman growled in frustration.

“Perhaps not.  The reference to a crown may refer to a constellation – one made up of blue and red giant stars.  The Diamond is another constellation, as is The Sword…  Each is, however, only apparent from a different world.  The Crown from Tallura Prime, The Diamond from Thenatrix, The Sword from Currathras.  I am not sure about the Mouth of the Underworld, however…” Aquiliani was busily studying star maps.

“I’m not an astronomer, but even I know that constellations are just illusions.  The stars which make them up can be light years apart,” Joyce pointed out.

Aquiliani shrugged it is still a lead. “What if each of these constellations represents a point in space – or the centre of each constellation represents such a point, in any case – and we extended an imaginary line from each, intersecting in the space between them?”

There had to be more, she knew.  In the vastness of space, that would be such an inherently inaccurate approach, the Alterans would have left more clues.  It was, nonetheless, at least a starting premise.  Whether it was a promising one or not, remained to be seen, but so far they hadn’t obtained any more leads from the Latin texts.

Aquiliani decided to try her suggestion on Academist Sulla, fully expecting the idea to be dismissed out of hand.  The scientist was, however, a pragmatist and willing to listen to almost any idea at this point.  The Empress was expecting the Alteran Cultural Survey to deliver and he had very little to show for their efforts so far, aside from a rampaging demon.

“You are suggesting that these imaginary points in space are corners of an equally imaginary three-dimensional shape.  Many more constellations would be required for such an approach to work – and the more points in space, the greater the degree of accuracy,” Sulla pinched his bottom lip.

“I’ve Latin to give away,” Joyce smiled and shrugged, pointing to a stack of tablets and pictures of inscriptions. “Most of it doesn’t seem to indicate anything, but there must be more clues in here.  I did find one term, which might be where this route – if that’s even what we’re looking at – actually leads.  There’s a reference to the ‘blood-red fortress’…”

“It does not register in this old head,” Sulla admitted. “But perhaps such terms might be found elsewhere in our existing Alteran historical records.  I will detail some of my researchers to the task.  Also any references to this ‘Mouth of the Underworld’…”

"Could be a reference to a Hellmouth. I mean, you do have these here..." Joyce suddenly suggested, tiredness having momentarily obscured the obvious clue right in front of her face.

She fervently hoped that wouldn't be the case, as it was bad enough having one enormous demon causing havoc in the Vedda Galaxy.

"We do," Aquiliani agreed with a shudder.

"Five are known within our own space, with the worlds in question under permanent quarantine and their Astria Porta removed. If the text does, indeed, refer to a Hellmouth, it does not necessarily follow that it means one of our own, however. There are almost certainly others, elsewhere in the galaxy," she pointed out.

Sulla nodded gravely. "We will at least send reconnaissance teams to these worlds within our space, though I trust they will be more careful than last time..."

He didn't relish the thought of unleashing the denizens of a Hellmouth in the furtherance of his project. Not only would operating in the vicinity of a Hellmouth - even an apparently dormant one - massively complicate Talluran efforts, but disturbing a demon had already precipitated a war, after all.

"I just wish I could give you more accurate information..." Joyce sighed, stifling a yawn.

Sulla smiled gently. “Up to now, you have been of incalculable help. But you look very tired, my young scholar.  Perhaps you should not spend much more time here today.”

“I’m perfectly fine,” Joyce assured him.

She suppressed an urge to chuckle.  Sulla always referred to her as “young”.  Now apparently she was his scholar, too.

“He is correct – and you know it,” Aquiliani pointed out, as the Academist moved away to check on another team’s progress.

“I haven’t been sleeping too well since…” Joyce’s voice trailed away.

“Since Colonel Logan and his team deployed with our forces?” the Centurion guessed.

“I’m just being self-centred, Ephichara,” Joyce replied. “The future of the Empire - and everyone in it – is at stake.  And here I am, pining after a man like a love-struck teenage girl.  While he has the courage to put his life on the line.”

“You cannot help your feelings, Joyce.  By staying here, you are risking your own life, if this war goes badly.  Yet you stayed for the same reasons as the others - not simply because your daughter wished to, but because you did not want to abandon friends in their time of need.  Especially when you could help.  Am I correct?”

“I guess you’re right,” Joyce acknowledged wryly. “It’s just been so long since I’ve felt this way about a man…  And now I’m terrified he won’t come back.  It’s all crept up on me so quickly, I barely saw it coming.”

“If you are planning a relationship with a soldier, Joyce, you will have to learn to live with such things,” Aquiliani replied.

Joyce grimaced. “Don’t I know it!  I’ll never get used to Buffy – and now Cordelia – putting themselves in danger every day, either…”

“From what you have told me about Slayers, they have little choice,” the Centurion noted.

The pressures of Imperial Guard duty could be distinctly onerous at times, she reflected, but compared to being a supernaturally gifted – or cursed – individual with a mystical duty to safeguard a planet, against unimaginable horrors, Aquiliani decided she ought to count her fortunes.  Besides, she’d volunteered for Imperial Guard service, not been drafted by some strange magical force.

“In any case, I think you should take Academist Sulla’s advice.  This project needs a clear and fresh mind, not a tired one, and you have been working at this desk for hours.  And the translations will still be waiting tomorrow,” she suggested firmly.

“But in the meantime?  I think a spell in the hot springs would be immensely beneficial for you – for both of us, actually.  And perhaps Dawn, Diana, and Doctor Lam might like to accompany us,” the Centurion added.

Joyce nodded, trying to work the knots from her neck muscle.  Perhaps her bodyguard was right.  A dip in the hot springs, which lay under one part of the Imperial Palace complex, was always pleasant and she really needed to unwind.

 

Imperial Palace, Khkerras, Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 21st February 2001 (Earth Date)

“Fire!”

A ragged volley of plasma bolts tore into the twelve blindfolded and kneeling figures, killing most of them instantly.  As the Black Guard firing squad lowered their weapons, the officer in charge calmly walked along the line, methodically shooting each of the victims in the head, just to make sure.

“I trust this will serve as an object lesson.  I will not tolerate failure, War Leader,” Kharrillion warned his most senior commander.

War Leader Prime Breemakk tore his eyes away from what had been some of oldest colleagues.  A dozen Senior War Leaders, most of whom had absolutely no responsibility for the previous day’s debacle, selected for execution on the Emperor’s whim.

“The lesson is extremely clear, Your Majesty,” Breemakk replied quietly, trying to hide his anger.

The main lesson, so far as the War Leader was concerned, was that his Emperor was an incompetent fool, willing to sacrifice experienced and valuable personnel to cover his own numerous shortcomings.

“I expect my loyal forces to redeem themselves, Breemakk.  Firstly, I want the Talluran forces within our space wiped out totally.  It is an insult to my honour – and that of all Khkerrikk – that they dared to set foot on my birth-world.  I want Zaggarrak retaken – and soon!  You will also remove the Tallurans from Duvarokk and Khkarnath,” the Emperor ordered.

“There will be a counter-offensive mounted within two days, War Leader.  Or I will know the reason why…” Kharrillion added menacingly.

Breemakk briefly wondered if his Emperor was in the pay of the Tallurans.  After all, right now, he seemed to be bent on losing this war.  Undue haste had already resulted in a disaster.  The War Leader’s pre-existing plan had called for up to half of the Star Empire’s full-mobilised forces to be concentrated against one or two sectors of the Talluran Empire, overwhelming the opposition through sheer weight of numbers.  Instead, he’d found himself in a position where only a fraction of the intended forces were available – and the enemy had just wiped out around half of the already reduced fleet and slaughtered his ground forces.  Furthermore, the loss of Duvarokk and Khkarnath, both of which were vital Naquadah and Trinium mining and processing centres, would hamper any attempt to rebuild his forces.  After all, even if they were forced from the two colonies, Breemakk was quite certain that the Tallurans wouldn’t leave the production facilities intact. 

Now Kharrillion was ordering him to counter-attack in a ridiculously short period of time, which meant using only the greatly weakened remaining forces in this area, and the War Leader was far from sanguine about the outcome.  Allowing the technologically and – though Breemakk was reluctant to admit it – tactically superior Talluran forces to take on the Khkerrikk fleet a slice at a time was, effectively, tantamount to suicide.  Unfortunately, so was disobeying the Emperor.

Like every Khkerrikk, Breemakk had been taught almost from hatching that his species were superior to all others, with a destiny to rule the Vedda Galaxy, and an absolute duty of obedience to the Emperor.  In spite of the latter, the War Leader suddenly felt a great urge to snap the despotic young upstart’s neck.

“Once the Tallurans have been removed from our space, you will commence offensive operations with all available resources.  For the present, I will order the Black Guard to mount covert operations within their space.  We must not allow the Tallurans to feel even slightly safe at home,” Kharrillion continued.

The Black Guard were the Emperor’s personal protective force and secret police.  Psychologically and chemically conditioned to eliminate virtually all emotion, and answerable only to Kharrillion himself, they were cold-blooded killers and specialists in assassination and sabotage, used against internal and external enemies alike.

“Your Majesty, I have additional concerns.  The only way the Tallurans could have attacked us within this timeframe was by using hyperspace routes across Zaharte territory.  In addition, we have reports of Talluran troops assisting the Ler’yoth rebels, which would suggest clandestine support from the Jarrassii,” Breemakk pointed out, dreading the prospect of a multi-front war.

As things stood, he was reluctant to move so much as one fighter craft from either the Zaharte or Jarrassii frontiers, especially as the latter had reinforced their presence in several key sectors.  Most likely, the Star Empire’s greatest rivals were simply playing mind games, but Breemakk couldn’t afford to take that chance.

The Emperor, however, was dismissive. “We will easily crush this feeble rebellion and once the Tallurans are dealt with, all the powers in that sector – including the Zaharte – will fall into our hands one by one.  And eventually, the balance will tip sufficiently in our favour that the Jarrassii Empire will also fall.”

He pointed to the line of corpses, plasma wounds still smoking. “If I do not see results within the next few days, I will replace my entire senior military staff.  There will be no more failure…”

“At your command, Your Majesty,” Breemakk stamped to attention, as Kharrillion strode away, followed by his fawning courtiers.

The War Leader was quite certain he was doomed.  Inadequate forces, orders which couldn’t be disobeyed, and an unattainable objective.  He just hoped the firing squad would shoot straight.
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