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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 > General(Current Donor)CordyfanFR1324297,1153229463,38614 Mar 115 Nov 14No

Diplomacy and the Dogs of War - Part Two

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).


Many thanks to my beta and sounding board, Vidicon.


 

Valler’yoth, Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 21st February 2001 (Earth Date)

The village was still burning.  Only hours before, Kharrillion’s Black Guard had passed this way, indiscriminately killing and destroying in retaliation for resistance activities.  Such ruthless reprisals were being reported from all over the planet and other Ler’yoth worlds.

Colonel Logan glanced sadly around at the dozens of bodies strewn haphazardly in the street, where they’d been callously gunned down.  The sickening odour of burned flesh suggested that some hadn’t even had the mercy of that quick end, dying trapped in their blazing homes.  There didn’t seem to be a single villager left alive, regardless of age.  Perhaps a few had escaped into the scrubby woodland around the settlement, but it was most likely only a handful.  And the trigger, at least in part, had been the raids in this area carried out over the last two days by a Ler’yoth resistance cell, SG-15 and a Talluran SpecOps team. 

Such atrocities were not uncommon when a conqueror faced armed resistance from the population.  Human history was replete with examples of equally vicious reprisals, aimed at sapping the will of those who opposed them, while also making the local population chary of offering further support.  Logan had certainly seen the Goa’uld employ similar, often even worse, measures.  Sometimes it worked for the occupiers, sometimes it simply stiffened both civilian and resistance resolve, but always it was the innocent civilians who suffered most.  Guerrilla warfare and counter-guerrilla operations were invariably amongst the most bloody and unpleasant forms of warfare.

The Talluran CO, Centurion Amullius Falx, was currently engaged in an energetic conversation with his Ler’yoth counterpart.  Falx was clearly reluctant to risk further operations if this was the result, especially as – at least in the Talluran’s view – the rising would benefit his own people more than the natives.  His Ler’yoth opposite number, a tall and rather gangly representative of his species – who were purplish reptilians usually tending towards a stockier build – disagreed entirely.  This was the best chance in years for the Ler’yoth to strike back against the Khkerrikk and his people would understand the price.  With only five in his own team and a much less personal stake in this war, Logan didn’t feel qualified to comment on either viewpoint.

“Khkerrikk patrol approaching!  Company strength, with light armoured vehicles, and Black Guard insignia,” a Talluran scout just outside the village suddenly reported, his voice crackling in Logan’s helmet earpiece. “About five minutes out…”

The debate was abruptly cut short, as the Tallurans deployed counter-measures to jam and otherwise confuse Khkerrikk sensors and both the native resistance and their alien allies rapidly quit the desolate village.

Falx turned to Logan. “If the Khkerrikk are following normal patterns, this will be the Black Guard returning to deal with any civilians they missed.”

The Ler’yoth leader – identified only as Kru – growled, his turquoise eyes burning with anger. “This time they will not be facing harmless civilians…”

Falx agreed. “We will seal off the village at both ends of the main street, seed the village with smart mines, and hit them when they deploy from their vehicles.”

On balance, Logan decided that they probably had enough personnel and firepower to deal with a force primarily equipped and trained for internal policing duties.  It would most likely be the same body of Black Guard who’d perpetrated this massacre.  Sometimes, the Colonel reflected coldly, a fight just felt right.  And this was one of those times.

Kru, meanwhile, fitted a twin-pronged and viciously barbed bayonet-type attachment to his Personal Combat Weapon.

“No quarter!” the Ler’yoth proclaimed, his fellow resistance fighters snarling their agreement.

 

Darnellia’s, Yaherin Var Old city, Tallura Prime, Vedda Galaxy – 21st February 2001 (Earth Date)

Darnellia’s was a popular and lively evening meeting place for old and young Tallurans alike, albeit that they tended to frequent different sections of the establishment.  In Terran terms, it was akin to a combination ice cream parlour, wine bar, and high-class restaurant, with Talluran teens only hanging out in the first of these.

Camullus Tiburtian and Dawn occupied a table near a fountain in the middle of the floor, where the application of multi-coloured lasers to the water created ever-changing patterns.  Not that the two twelve-year-olds were paying much attention to the spectacle.

“…So we were all under this sleazy guy Ethan’s Halloween spell and I was dressed in Buffy’s old Power Girl costume, totally beating the crap out of Spike, when the spell ended.  Leaving me and all the other kids in the place like normal…” Dawn was busily relating the Halloween incident, from her own point of view, to a thoroughly rapt Camullus.

“So you were actually in danger of being killed by this vampire?” Camullus put in helpfully, with not a little horror.

Dawn nodded. “Only for a second or two.  Then Buffy got her powers back…  And how! Went from being this scared, useless noblewoman, who was nearly peeing her 18th century granny panties, back to Slayer – quicker than you can blink.  Spike was so lucky to get out of there without getting his ass dusted!”

“Your world sounds very dangerous,” the Talluran boy shook his head.

“Not all of it. At least, not with the vamps and demons.  That’s only around the Hellmouths and a few other places…  Well, the scary things are everywhere, I suppose, but not so many of them,” Dawn clarified.

Camullus took a long pull from the straw in his iced fruit drink. “I think I would be much too afraid to live in such a place!”

Dawn shrugged. “You get used to it.  And we aren’t like you…  Just the one planet and we can’t decide not to live on worlds with Hellmouths.”

“Only one planet,” her Not-Date – as Dawn had insisted to everyone this was – repeated with a laugh. “Guess that makes my sister and Licinia Vertain look rather stupid, with their theory about you being the Terran Princess Imperial.”

“I wish!” Dawn chuckled.

Then she looked thoughtful. “Actually, I so don’t.  Not when I see the kinda things Drayana has to do.  Diplomacy and wars and stuff…  She’s so busy these days, I don’t see much of her.  And all this killing – I know she hates it, but she has to do all these things she hates, you know?”

“It is her duty, but not one I would ever like,” Camullus agreed.

“So is your sister still grounded for the rumour thing?” Dawn asked.

Her Talluran friend nodded. “For another week – at the very least – and mother also nearly wore out a sandal on her behind, when we arrived home from the Gathering…  Licinia, I believe, received exactly the same.”

Dawn winced sympathetically.

“It is no more than they both deserved,” Camullus shrugged. “Though I think Licinia might welcome a visit from you.  She is still completely fascinated by all things Terran.  My sister?  Perhaps less so…”

“I’ll find out if she’s allowed visitors.  Know I’m not allowed friends to visit when mom grounds me, but this would be kinda educational, maybe the only chance she’ll ever have to meet one of us Earthlings...  ‘Sides, I feel really bad for her and your sister,” Dawn replied.

Camullus dutifully nodded his agreement, though hard-pressed to see why his Terran friend ought to feel sorry for either Palinia or Licinia.  It wasn’t as though she’d forced the two older girls to start spreading rumours, which had even caused some diplomatic problems with the Tallurans’ closest allies.

“My parents would like to invite you and your mother for dinner this time next week, by the way,” he added.

“That’ll be nice.  I’ll ask mom,” Dawn replied.

She glanced towards the neighbouring table, where several Imperial Guard, all in plain clothes, were trying to look inconspicuous and failing miserably.

She sighed. “It’d be nice to meet one day when it’s only you and me, without the guards.  I mean, mom can date Colonel Logan without half the world listening in…”

When he wasn’t fighting Khkerrikk, Dawn reminded herself.  She hoped the Colonel was okay.

One of the Imperial Guard briefly turned towards them, frowned and tapped the timepiece on his wrist.  The meaning was clear – time to call it a night and head home to bed.  Even SpecOps troops acted like a normal pain-in-the-butt sitter, it seemed.  It made her realise that Buffy wasn’t so bad, after all.  Her eldest sister at least always let her stay up late when their mom wasn’t around.

Dawn scowled. “This totally sucks…  I’m nearly thirteen, but everyone follows mom’s bedtime.”

She was almost used to the omnipresent security detail whenever she left the Imperial Palace.  Sometimes, however, it still annoyed her – especially when she was trying to have something approaching a date.  After all, how much more danger could there be in Yaherin Var?  Sure, she’d been attacked by a pair of aliens and almost shot by a would-be assassin.  The first, however, had been an accident and unlikely to happen in a public place, such as Darnellia’s.  Dawn also wasn’t entirely sure that the full entourage of security didn’t actually attract trouble and was pretty sure the Terran-hating sniper wouldn’t even have noticed her, if she’d just looked like another Talluran youngster. 

Camullus leaned forward and whispered. “Why do we not arrange to meet one evening without them?”

“We’d so be in a whole heap of trouble if they caught us,” Dawn temporised in a whisper. “And kinda hard to dodge the bodyguards…”

“Unless you can slip out of the palace.  You told me that you do not have guards following you around in there,” Camullus suggested.

His mother was a dangerous woman to defy, of course.  The recent example of his sister was ample evidence of that.  The Talluran boy, nevertheless, prided himself on his ability to break the rules without his mother finding out.  Nine times of ten, he was successful, whereas his sister’s failure rate was almost the exact reverse.

Dawn pondered that for a moment. “They don’t follow me around, but there’s still a lot to avoid.  Still, I guess they’re pretty much there to keep the bad guys from getting in, not to stop little old me from getting out…” 

Then she grinned slyly.  Since arriving on Tallura Prime, the younger Summers had been too well-behaved by half.  It would be nice to break the rules for once.  If they were lucky, no one would be any the wiser.  Otherwise, the consequences surely wouldn’t be too bad.

She momentarily wavered on that thought.  There would still be consequences, if she was caught, and her mother was now much more knowledgeable about teenage sneaking-out tactics than she’d been when Buffy was younger.  Dawn still reckoned she could outfox her mother - and charm her way around the Imperial Guard – but it was a risky business, so there would have to be a major payoff to justify provoking maternal ire.

“So what d’you have in mind?” Dawn whispered cautiously.

“I was thinking about the Night Festival, which starts in fifteen days.  It is only held once a year, for three nights, and the authorities considered cancelling it, on account of the war.  Instead, they have decided that not only should it go ahead, for morale reasons, but it should be bigger and better than normal,” Camullus replied.

“ ‘Night Festival’?” Dawn asked.

“The biggest public event of the year in Yaherin Var.  It begins late at night – after we are supposed to be in bed – and continues until just before dawn.  The Festival has everything – a huge market, selling objects from all over the Empire, an enormous fun fair, great music, the best food from all over the sector…” Camullus explained enthusiastically.

It sounded like fun, Dawn conceded, and probably worth risking her mother’s wrath.  Besides, if she planned carefully, no one would ever know.

She nodded eagerly. “Okay, how are we gonna do this?”

 

Joyce’s Apartment, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime –21st February 2001 (Earth Date)

Joyce sank back into the armchair, kicked off her shoes, and gratefully rested her feet on a padded stool.  It had been a mentally strenuous day, as she tried hard – together with Sulla and his team – to make some sense of the Latin translations she was churning out on a daily basis.  She only hoped her translations were sufficiently precise – after all, it had been a while since she used her Latin skills.  Still, if she hadn’t been in this galaxy at a fortuitous time, the Tallurans might have taken years, if ever, to decipher the language.  Which was somewhat ironic, given its Alteran roots.

Not that it was exactly a fortuitous time from every angle, Joyce forcefully reminded herself.  Just a small matter of being in the midst of a major intra-galactic war, between powers with sufficient firepower to annihilate entire planetary systems, making the Cold War US-Soviet nuclear standoff seem like a penny ante grudge match. 

Added to that, she had the added worry that while the overwhelming majority of the Tallurans were thoroughly welcoming, a tiny minority had attitudes towards outsiders to match those of the Ku Klux Klan.  And some of the local extremists had already demonstrated that they were ruthless enough to target her twelve-year-old daughter, even surrounded by SG-15 and Talluran Imperial Guard Protective Division personnel.

Now SG-15 had also embroiled themselves in the war with the Khkerrikk Star Empire.  Joyce had to admit that had she been a soldier, she’d probably have done likewise.  As a people, the Tallurans were certainly worth fighting for – probably more so than some groups back on Earth.  Still, she was undeniably falling for Wade Logan, and it was worrying, to say the least, to think of him and his men engaging in thoroughly dangerous covert activities deep within Khkerrikk space, no matter how much the Tallurans might appreciate the experience they brought to the table in such an environment.

Joyce sighed and decided she must be crazy.  Leaving aside Logan’s current little military adventure, he’d already told her enough blood-curdling stories about fighting the Goa’uld back in their own galaxy.  Falling for a man who regularly put his life on the line, while her two daughters did likewise – and perhaps to an even greater extent – probably wasn’t her brightest move either.  Especially since Dawn increasingly viewed the Colonel as some sort of future father-figure and would be devastated if anything were to happen to him.  On the other hand, Joyce knew she couldn’t help her heart.

As a little aside, there was also a demonic, city-eating blob oozing its way from planet to planet.  And who knew where it might strike next?  She’d been assured by Vesarian that Tallura Prime’s Stargate was too well-shielded and defended, compared to those of some of the monsters previous targets.  On the other hand, such confident declarations seemed like tempting Fate.

Then, on top of every other anxiety, there was the nagging concern over Buffy and Cordelia’s well-being back on Earth.  And of course, the question as to whether there would even be a planet when they returned, or just a blackened hunk of rock.  Joyce shivered at the thought, then resolutely tried to push the diverse worries to the back of her mind.  Otherwise, she’d unquestionably end up as Carolyn Lam’s most neurotic patient on this trip.

Her mind was, however, still too active to even consider resting properly right now.  Besides, she couldn’t yet retire to bed, since Dawn was out on the town with love’s young dream.  With bed-times still in force and tomorrow a school day, they’d also better be back soon, or Joyce would be having words with their bodyguard.  Still, at least her daughter couldn’t be getting involved in too much mischief, not with a full Protective Detachment watching her every move.  Dawn was definitely maturing on this trip, she reflected, probably due to a combination of their circumstances, Drayana’s influence, and Lam’s careful guidance.  Not that Joyce was deluding herself completely.  Dawn was, after all, still just a lively twelve-year-old, with an infinite capacity for getting herself into trouble – sometimes by accident and sometimes not – just like Buffy at that age.  Joyce also noted that it had been a while since her youngest daughter’s naughtier side had surfaced.  Either way, it was surely just a matter of time.

At any rate, until Dawn and her entourage returned, Joyce settled back with a concise book of Talluran history, much less detailed and equally more readable than the ageing multiple volumes she’d bought on first arriving in Yaherin Var.  Right now, she wanted to find out a little more about Drayana’s infamous great-great-grandmother.  The young Empress had certainly balked at the slightest possibility of acting like her notorious ancestor.  Equally, the Tallurans were all also decidedly reluctant to talk about the fearsome previous Empress, to the extent that Joyce didn’t even have a name for her, and hadn’t reached that part of the book as yet.  Perhaps it was time to skip a few chapters and at least find out that much.

Given Tallurans’ greater lifespans, it wasn’t wholly surprising to discover that the great Empress Bogeywoman had ruled almost five centuries previously.  Her name, on the other hand, was something of a surprise.  Joyce had certainly become used to names which sounded as though they could have come right out of Ancient Rome.  This one, however, was different.  It might fit the Roman time period – she reminded herself that the latter received much of their root language from the Alterans and not vice-versa – but certainly not the usual naming conventions.  A visit to her friend, the antiquarian bookseller Hermenius Censorian, was definitely in order.  Maybe he could fill in a few blanks.

Joyce shook her head, reading aloud to herself. “ ‘Empress Boudicca the Bloody, variously known also as Boudicca the Dark and Boudicca the Damned, has the dubious distinction of being the sole monarch in Talluran history who can justifiably be accused of aggressive expansionism…’”   

 

Rendezvous Point, Khkerrikk Space, Vedda Galaxy – 22nd February 2001 (Earth Date)

The Tallurans had long understood the importance of logistic support in any successful campaign and their fleet, therefore, had a well-balanced teeth-to-tail ratio, as it was known on Earth.  Several squadrons of replenishment vessels had accompanied the Imperial Defence Force and Imperial Guard strike fleet into Khkerrikk space and were now operating from a number of secret locations. 

This particular group of eight fast replenishment ships, midway in size between Talluran Heavy Cruisers and Battleships, were currently concealed close to a magnetar, a highly energetic type of neutron star, which pumped out high levels of electromagnetic radiation across the spectrum.  This had a twofold effect, both making long-range communications problematic amidst the stellar background noise, but also rendering them almost invisible to enemy scanners, except at close range.  The magnetar itself was somewhat out of the way, so it was a useful rendezvous point from a range of perspectives.

The replenishment ships could keep a fleet in action for weeks, supplying everything from missiles to spare parts, and from food to replacement fighter craft and crews.  After two days of high intensity and fast moving combat, with missile magazines depleted and some battle damage requiring prompt repair, the first groups of warships were beginning to appear.  Using Asgard transport systems, replenishment was, needless to say, a very quick and efficient process.  Given that the Khkerrikk also seemed to have taken the bait – at least, according to Talluran, Ch’Hanis, Zaharte, and Jarrassii intelligence sources - and were assembling piecemeal a large force of ships to retake Zaggarrak and its surrounding space, the Admiral commanding the re-supply force expected the remainder of the fleet to be along shortly.  Then, with every system repaired and fully operational, magazines and fighter bays filled to capacity, the Tallurans would spring their trap.

The Admiral would, of course, much rather be commanding a combat force.  Nevertheless, he was also acutely aware of how essential his support units were in the overall scheme of things.  Timing was everything at this point.  The Khkerrikk had been hit hard in the first wave of attacks, significantly harder than anticipated by most in the upper echelons of the Imperial Fleet, with a not insubstantial - and growing - area of their space now under Talluran occupations and heavy strike forces poised to penetrate deeply into the Star Empire’s core systems.  A second offensive had also been opened today, in a distant sector and primarily using reserve units.  It was a calculated risk, given that the two arms of the Talluran offensive were too far apart to mutually support each other in a timely fashion.  On the other hand, this second attack was also being mounted against weak Khkerrikk defences, while the main body of the Talluran fleet drew the attention of the enemy’s surviving units.  But the reserves were also within range of a dozen important worlds, which were key industrial targets, and some would also serve as useful forward bases, from which to strike ever more deeply into the heart of the Star Empire.  The Khkerrikk would, therefore, soon have to make a decision as to how much of their fleet they could safely withdraw from potentially hostile borders, specifically those with the Zaharte and Jarrassii, and which of the two Talluran attacks was the most critical.  But such reinforcements would, of necessity given the size of Khkerrikk space, have to be deployed piecemeal as they became available.  As such, they could be more easily dealt with.

By the time the Khkerrikk had a chance to begin reconstituting their forces, if the Talluran High Command’s projections were right something approaching a third of their space would already be under Talluran control.  Not only that, Talluran forces would also be growing much more rapidly, given their construction technology.  If everything went according to plan over the next few days, then the Imperial Fleet would soon have the Khkerrikk by the throat.  

 

Drayana’s Office, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 22nd February 2001 (Earth Date)

Faith was vaguely surprised to be summoned from Dawn’s – and her own – lessons.  She wondered what the problem was this time.  Maybe another attack by the Blob Demon, or another threat against the Terrans.  This trip had certainly opened her eyes in all sorts of ways, and had developed into much more than the basic watchdog mission she’d been given by Buffy. She frowned slightly, She wouldn’t put it past her sister-slayer to have guessed that such an expanded worldview wasn’t part of her plan.

Drayana was seated behind her desk, her Chief Prosecuting Justice occupying another chair.  The Empress smiled in welcome and waved Faith towards a vacant seat.

“I apologise for disrupting your lessons, Diana, but we have a matter of some importance to deal with here, and you may be able to assist,” Drayana told her.

Faith shrugged. “Hey, no big deal…  Just a physics lesson from Doc Lam.  And I ain’t no Einstein.”

Of all the subjects she was studying for her High School Equivalency qualifications, physics and math were probably her least favourite, even if Lam was admittedly a pretty good teacher.

“I have only an hour before I must return to my own mathematics lesson, so you have my sympathies,” Drayana laughed, while wondering who Einstein was.

“So what can I do to help you folks?” Faith asked.

The Empress indicated her other visitor. “May I introduce Chief Prosecuting Justice, Tribune Opiter Gracchius, who is responsible for the forthcoming treason trials.  Tribune?  This is Diana Prince, one of our Terran visitors – to whom I have enormous reason to be grateful – and who has had considerable contact with Helia Tren.”

Gracchius bobbed his head in recognition. “Ah, yes.  The Terran warrior who saved our Empress’ life…  The Talluran people – myself included – cannot ever thank you enough.”

Faith shrugged, feeling herself blush a little. “I couldn’t do anything else...  It’s –uh – just what I do…”

Normally, it took a great deal to faze the Slayer, but this kind of open gratitude always made her feel uncomfortable.

“So what’s the problem?” she asked quickly, trying to change the subject.

“As you probably know, the Empress has been seeking an alternative to the death sentence in a number of forthcoming trials for High Treason.  Including that of Helia Tren,” Gracchius replied.

Faith nodded. “Yeah, ‘cause there’s no escape from the axe, unless the poor dude pleads Not Guilty, on grounds of being a complete nutcase.”

Gracchius took a few seconds to process ‘complete nutcase’ in Talluran terms. “Indeed.  Or, obviously, if there is insufficient evidence to prove the charge against someone who has pleaded Not Guilty, though in this case that is extremely unlikely.”

So far as Gracchius was concerned, all the accused’s heads should be decorating the bottom of a basket – and even that would be merciful in his book.  He agreed wholeheartedly with the law in regarding High Treason as the most heinous of all crimes, especially given its potential to destabilise an entire society.  The Empress wanted an alternative, however, and she’d issued her orders, so he was duty bound to obey them.  To the Tribune, it was simply rather ironic that a Prosecuting Justice should be tasked with finding a way to ameliorate a sentence.

“Been tryin’ to persuade Helia that time in the funny-farm is way preferable to dying.  Not much luck so far, though,” Faith reluctantly acknowledged. “Kinda got a bad attack of guilt and reckons she deserves it.”

“Not if we can find a means of avoiding the mandatory death sentence, Diana,” Drayana responded firmly.

“The main problem with the insanity defence is that while a Tribunal may try its utmost to grasp at the slightest evidence of mental illness under normal circumstances, rather than pass a death sentence, these are by no means normal circumstances,” Gracchius explained.

“The war?” the Empress’ lips tightened.

“The war, Excellency,” the Tribune responded. “A Tribunal would have to be presented with very convincing evidence of mental illness in order to accept such a defence under current conditions.  Having traitors escape on dubious grounds is simply not viewed as acceptable in times of crisis, such as this.  Not to the Judiciary, nor the Consular Houses, and certainly not to the populace in general.  There are thirty-five individuals awaiting trial, including Helia Tren and Governor Pyriam.  Of these, eight are, at present, intending to submit a Guilty plea, including Helia Tren.  Also former Governor Pyriam – but there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that he might not be mentally stable, so his plea would be set aside.”

“Great.  The guy who started that whole fricking thing on Thenatrix turns out to be a few cards short of a deck, so he escapes…” Faith grunted.

“Nineteen others intend to submit a Plea of Mercy, on grounds of insanity, while the remainder have simply pled Not Guilty, in the rather vain hope that we have insufficient evidence,” Gracchius continued.

Drayana frowned. “So what, exactly, is new, Tribune?  I have been regularly updated on this matter.”

“We may have found a loophole – or rather, a sentencing alternative – for some of the accused,” the Tribune replied.

He turned to Faith. “It means, however, that your attempts to make her accept a Plea of Mercy must cease immediately.  Otherwise, there is the risk that she will accept your advice.  This alternative is only open to those who are willing to unconditionally admit their guilt.”

“So what’s the alternative to the axe or the asylum?” the Slayer asked. “’Cause if it’s life without parole, some might just prefer the haircut...”

Drayana winced at the imagery.  She’d already been present at the execution of five military prisoners for their actions on Thenatrix and the experience had almost made her sick to her stomach.

Gracchius passed the Empress a faded scroll. “On your orders, the legal archives were searched very thoroughly, while the exact wording of the law was also scrutinised extremely closely.  In regards of the latter, our Constitutional Law is written particularly tightly, so we did not expect to find any ambiguities – nor did we.  Nevertheless, this is not to say that certain Constitutional Clauses have not been mislaid – or buried – in years past.  As was the case here…”

The Empress frowned. “How could such important material be misplaced or deliberately concealed?”

“I will explain that presently, Your Excellency.  I believe this discovery may save the lives of at least some of the prisoners, should they choose to admit their guilt.  I would, nonetheless, also warn you that the alternative dates from around the time the High Treason clause was written into Constitutional Law, around twelve thousand years ago.”

“So?” Faith asked in puzzlement.

The Empress looked pained. “I suspect that the alternative penalty also reflects the values of an age which accepted beheading and evisceration as acceptable legal penalties.”

She loosened the ties on the scroll, unrolled it, then quickly and silently scanned the contents for a moment.

“That is utterly barbaric!” Drayana burst out in indignation, voice rising. “What makes you think I could agree to this?”

“To the accused, it may be preferable to the alternative, Excellency,” Gracchius shrugged.

“What’s it say?” Faith demanded.

Drayana sounded as though she’d bitten into something sour. “ ‘Where a person accused of High Treason has freely admitted Guilt and this has been accepted by the Tribunal and sentence passed accordingly, then the Sovereign may exercise clemency.  At his or her discretion, where the accused is judged to have sufficient remorse, the alternative sentence of one hundred lashes may be inflicted, to be accompanied by exile from the Talluran Empire for a period of between twenty-five years and life.

“ ‘The flogging may be carried out either in private or public, at the Sovereign’s pleasure, to be administered with full force, using a judicial whip.  Any early return from the prescribed period of exile will result in the original sentence of execution being immediately carried out.’”

Drayana had always fondly imagined that the Talluran Empire was an island of civilization, surrounded by species who were often quite barbarous in their practices.  Now it seemed as though her own people still had some way to go.

“Shit!” Faith exclaimed, forgetting her usual restraint in the Imperial presence. “One hundred fricking lashes?  Might as well go with the axe…  Least it wouldn’t hurt so damned much!  Sounds more like fucking torture, actually!”

“I would tend to agree with Diana’s assessment, Tribune.  This is no alternative at all,” Drayana concurred.

Gracchius raised a greying eyebrow. “I would remind Your Excellency that such penalties were not uncommon even in normal Criminal Law, when this was drafted.  But it may not be quite so extreme as you think…”

“And would you care to explain by what convoluted reasoning you reached that conclusion?” the Empress demanded in icy tones, wondering if the Tribune had completely lost his own moral compass.

“Nowhere does it state that the lashes must be inflicted in a single session.  A physician would also be present to ensure that the penalty was carried out safely…” Gracchius began.

“ ‘Safely’?  This could leave the prisoner permanently scarred!” Drayana’s outraged voice almost cracked.

The Tribune shook his head. “With modern medical techniques, immediate treatment would minimise – possibly even completely remove – all risk of scarring.”

“It’d just hurt like Hell,” Faith growled.

She hated the idea of Helia facing that sort of painful ordeal.  On the other hand, at least the woman she increasingly regarded as a friend would survive.  Penalties for Treason back home weren’t exactly lenient either.  She wasn’t an expert on the law, but execution or extended prison sentences were probably the standard penalties.

“So Your Excellency - and you, Diana Prince - would both rather leave it to the Headsman, for simple public decapitation or evisceration?” The Tribune had just a trace of impatience in his voice.

The Empress glared at him. “I would seem to have little choice in the matter, if even some lives are to be saved…”

Drayana might have limited freedom of manoeuvre in Treason cases, but she could at least always commute a sentence of disembowelment to one of beheading.  She was determined that no one would ever be gutted like an animal while she was on the throne.

“I would also caution Your Excellency that this alternative is only available to those who have already submitted a Guilty plea, accepted by the Tribunal, and sentence passed.  It is not intended as a form of bargaining prior to the trial,” Gracchius indicated several further paragraphs at the base of the scroll.

Drayana sighed. “So it would seem that I must still sign some death warrants…”

“I am afraid that is the case, Your Excellency.  The Tribunals are due to sit next week, so I would advise that we record final pleas as they currently stand,” the Tribune suggested.

The Empress turned to Faith. “No doubt, details of exile can be worked out in due course.  In the case of Helia Tren, however, I believe that she is a talented engineer?  Would your Stargate Command be able to make use of such talents, even for the shortest period of exile, of twenty-five years?”

“Twenty-five years of engineering help, from a Talluran ship designer?  Hell, the folks back home would damn near bite your fricking hand off,” Faith predicted, imagining Carter’s reaction, in particular. “Though you’ll have to check with Colonel Logan, with the whole criminal record.  Still, I’m kinda like the last one to throw stones…”

She’d never forget that General Hammond had given her a second chance, at not inconsiderable risk and effort.  With luck, the SGC might do the same for Helia.  The possible pay-off, after all, was considerable.

The Empress sighed. “Very well, Tribune.  Record all current pleas as final and I will commute those sentences which can be set aside on this basis.”

Drayana was also determined that the death penalty should be completely removed from Constitutional Law and had, indeed, already set such a proposal in motion.  That, however, would be too late to save some of the current group of accused, as any such proposal would take some years to pass through the Consular Houses.  Moreover, as Gracchius had already suggested, any such proposal had little chance of support in time of war.

Gracchius bobbed his head. “As you wish, Your Excellency.  Given the weight of evidence against the accused, appeals are most unlikely, in any case.”

“It is not ‘as I wish’, Tribune, but simply that my choices are almost non-existent.  And I do feel somewhat pained that such penalties remain on the statutes, for a supposedly civilized people,” Drayana folded her arms, clearly far from content.

She fixed the Tribune with a glare which wouldn’t have disgraced an angry Slayer. “And now I would appreciate an explanation as to how an item of Constitutional Law can remain lost or hidden and unknown…”

“The exact combination of circumstances are difficult to piece together, Your Excellency…” Gracchius began carefully, aware that Drayana was now probably looking for someone to fire, given her present mood.

“Was it due to the actions of anyone currently employed by my government?” the Empress asked bluntly.

“Most emphatically not, Your Excellency,” the Tribune replied. “The blame can most likely be laid at the feet of one of your predecessors…”

The blame might also partially be placed on those responsible for staffing his department for the last few centuries.  The massive above and below-ground storage allotted to the Justice Directorate ran to no less than thirty levels, with countless subsidiary chambers, many of which hadn’t been visited in decades or longer.  The entire storage building needed a wall-to-wall audit and a new filing system, but that was unlikely with a ludicrously small staff. 

Still, right now that might sound like making excuses, and the Empress still had a definite ‘ready to fire someone’ glint in her eye.

Drayana rolled her eyes. “Let me guess…  My grandmother’s-grandmother, perhaps?”

The old warmonger and despot had long since gone to dust, but she was still a pain in the Imperial butt when it came to relations with some neighbouring powers.  And, it seemed, certain issues of Constitutional Law.

“As you know, Your Excellency, Empress Boudicca did not tolerate the slightest opposition to her rule.  In the course of her reign, she had around thirty thousand opponents executed, often for the mildest of disagreements.  She also had large segments of the Constitution unlawfully rewritten or simply dropped.  Including, it seems, this particular codicil,” Gracchius explained.

“Doesn’t seem like the sort to commute a sentence anyway,” Faith remarked, having come to realise that the Tallurans probably felt about Empress Boudicca much the same way as modern Germans felt about Adolf Hitler.

“She was most assuredly not,” the Tribune confirmed. “But this was most likely simply an exercise in tidying up the Constitution, so far as she was concerned.  As it was, the codicil – and many others - was removed from all works on Constitutional Law.”

“But as I understand it, Tribune, Boudicca’s unlawful changes were reversed after her death,” Drayana pointed out.

Gracchius nodded. “The Constitution was restored as far as possible.  But it was an enormous task, Your Excellency.  The basic Constitution may only run to one hundred pages, but there are hundreds of thousands of codicils and addenda.  Bear in mind that it has evolved, in this form, for over twenty-thousand years.  While some may try to assume the mantle, in truth there is no such thing as a genuine expert in all aspects of the Constitution and Constitutional Law.  And who do you think Boudicca had eliminated as part of her purges?  Those who hold the freedoms of the Constitution most dearly are also some of the most knowledgeable about its contents – and were amongst the first to oppose her…”

“So when it had to be reconstructed, much of that knowledge had been lost,” Drayana assessed.

“That would seem to have been the case, Your Excellency,” the Tribune agreed.

“So how d’you know how much more of this stuff might be laid around in some dusty old cellar?” Faith queried.

“We do not, is the simple answer,” Gracchius admitted. “I have ordered a full audit of all archives, but it could be a work of years.  In the meantime, there could – for example - be aspects of the Constitution granting Your Excellency much greater powers under some circumstances, which have simply been lost…”

“Or, if I’m lucky, abolishing the office of Empress,” Drayana suggested dryly.

Right now, it was possibly the best thing that could happen to her, she ruminated.

“Your Excellency!” the Tribune sounded scandalised at the mere suggestion.

 

Antiquarian Book Shop, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime - 22nd February 2001 (Earth Date)

Hermenius Censorian’s cluttered little office/workshop at the rear of the store could have belonged to many such premises back on Earth, Joyce mused.  The shelves and workbench were stacked with old books, awaiting rebinding or simply the owner’s assessment before taking their place in the shop.  Even the smell was similar, a combination of dust, paper and glue.

Censorian handed her a cup of steaming spiced Talluran tea, a beverage Joyce was slowly, if unwillingly,  growing accustomed to, in place of her usual coffee.  Probably the absence of caffeine would do her some good, she reasoned begrudgingly, recalling the uncomfortable first two weeks on the planet without her daily fix.

“So what can I help you with today, my young friend?” the book collector asked.

Joyce smiled to herself.  She loved it when Tallurans like Censorian and Sulla called her ‘young’.  It happened so rarely back home.

“I was wondering if you could answer a few questions on Empress Boudicca…” she ventured.

Censorian made a face, as though he’d just bitten into a lemon. “You are perhaps wondering why we do not talk much about her?”

“The books are quite clear on that,” Joyce replied. “An aggressive tyrant, who was equally hated by her own people and every alien race.”

“Not quite.  Many of our historians have had something of a gift for denial in this matter.  I must find you some more recent and learned works than that one…  May I?”

Joyce nodded as the book-dealer picked up her abridged Talluran history and regarded it with some distaste.  He clearly didn’t approve of the history she was currently reading.

“You would, I believe, be much better served by reading those volumes you purchased when we first met.  They may be dated, but they are still much more detailed – and balanced – than this,” Censorian told her.

“I have actually started to read them,” Joyce replied, slightly defensively. “But sometimes I need a more condensed version…”

Both Censorian and Academist Sulla often made her feel like a schoolgirl, challenged by some crusty old teacher.

“Then I will provide you with a more appropriate text,” the Talluran promised. “But for the moment, you wish to know more about Boudicca the Damned?”

“Actually, it was her name I was curious about,” Joyce admitted.

“Her name?”

“Well, it’s a bit of an anomaly…  Nearly every Talluran name I’ve encountered sounds like Latin, or ancient Greek in a few cases.  I know the alphabet is different – utterly different - but people’s names and a lot of other words sound the same as Latin…  Anyway, Boudicca was the name of a warrior Queen at the time of the Roman Empire, one of the ancient Britons, who were conquered by the Romans.  When her husband died, the Romans refused to allow her to assume leadership of her tribe.  Instead, they publicly humiliated her, raped her two daughters and whipped all three of them.  Then her tribe – the Iceni, with some of their allies - rose against the occupying Romans.  Successful at first – it was a pretty bloody revolt - but they were eventually defeated and slaughtered.  So it’s a little odd that the name should be used by a Talluran Empress,” Joyce explained.

Censorian rubbed his chin. “What do you know about the fate of this Queen Boudicca?”

“Not a whole lot,” Joyce admitted. “Not really my area of history.  I read a little on the Iceni revolt – years ago – and I watched a television documentary once.  From what I remember, two Roman historians – Tacitus and I can’t remember the name of the other one – gave different accounts.  Tacitus said that she committed suicide after the final battle, while the other account claims she fell ill and died, then was buried with great ceremony,” Joyce recalled.

“What if I was to tell you that neither of these historians were correct?” Censorian asked.

“Then I’d be really, really interested to know the truth,” Joyce replied eagerly.

Unfortunately, it was yet another truth she could never share with most people – just like the truth about Atlantis – but she still wanted to know.

“The Alteran Ascension took several centuries from beginning to end,” the book collector told her. “And in the intervening period, they continued to monitor the situation in your home galaxy – and, indeed, on your own planet.  The record is very patchy from that time, but we do have a few accounts of this particular episode.  It is actually reasonably well known within Talluran society, unlike most our knowledge of Terra.”

Censorian paused and took a sip from his cup. “The Alterans were not wholly pleased with the expansionist activities of the people you call Romans, those they had perhaps influenced the most.  On one expedition to Terra, they arrived in the aftermath of the revolt you have described.  Contrary to the non-interference beliefs held by many Alterans, several thousand were saved from death in the Roman purges which followed, and returned to the Vedda Galaxy.  Including their formidable Queen and her daughters.”

“They must have thought the Alterans were gods!” Joyce shook her head, wondering how much more she’d discover about Earth’s past on this trip.

She couldn’t begin to imagine the shattering impact, on a somewhat primitive society, of suddenly being whisked away from the jaws of death and transported to another world.

“No doubt,” Censorian replied rather dryly. “The Alterans were, however, too busy preparing for their grand exit from the physical plane to worry about a few thousand, rather primitive, refugees.  So Boudicca and her people were handed over to the Tallurans, who had already decided not to shake off the physical coil, unlike our cousins.

“Unfortunately, as you can probably imagine, the newcomers experienced considerable problems in adapting to our way of life, our technology – just about everything, in fact.  After a few years, a group of Talluran citizens, who were disenchanted with our society and wanted a simpler way of life, offered to help them settle on a new planet.  So they were provided with a few colony ships and, taking most of the Iceni, headed out into an unexplored part of the galaxy.  They were supposed to contact the Talluran authorities when they located a suitable world, but were never heard from again.  Only a few hundred of the Iceni opted to stay here and were eventually completely absorbed into our society.  So their names are very rarely encountered these days.”

“So they could still be out there somewhere,” Joyce mused.

Censorian shrugged. “Possibly…  Though given the tribulations we have experienced, it is equally possible that a colony – if they even successfully established one – did not long survive.  Expeditions were sent out for many years in an effort to find them, but without success.”

“And Empress Boudicca?  I presume it hasn’t exactly been a popular name since…” Joyce said.

“It was not even a popular name before she adopted it,” Censorian grunted. “Empress Septima did not think that her name had sufficient warrior overtones for her purposes at the time, so she changed it.  After trawling through history, she decided that Boudicca would suit her needs admirably.”

As far as he was concerned, that was just another of the Empress’ crimes.  Queen Boudicca of the Iceni had been a warrior, fighting valiantly against an overwhelmingly superior enemy for the freedom and honour of her own people.  Empress Boudicca had besmirched the name by waging constant aggressive war against the weaker species in the Vedda Galaxy.  And many of them had never quite forgiven the Tallurans, even centuries later.

“But why was she so aggressive, compared to just about every other Talluran Emperor or Empress I’ve read about?” Joyce asked. “And surely someone tried to stop her.  I mean, it isn’t your people’s way…”

Censorian sighed. “When the Alterans finally departed, there were nearly fifty billion of us left behind in this galaxy, at a far higher state of technological development than we currently enjoy.  Today, there are around twenty billion, on perhaps half the number of planets we once occupied.”

Joyce blinked. “So your population declined by sixty percent?  What happened?”

“It is more a question of what did not happen,” Censorian replied. “Two virulent plagues killing several billions, an unpredicted super-volcano rendering our most important world uninhabitable, an asteroid impact, a gamma-ray burst from an unexpected supernova that wiped out three entire planets, and a whole host of other disasters, often in rapid succession.  We actually reached a point where our society devolved technologically by a thousand years or more.”

Given that several of these disasters had occurred without warning, when there should have been at least some indication, he often wondered if the Alterans had been behind some, or even all, of them.  The two branches of the race hadn’t parted on the best of terms.  The Alterans had accused the Tallurans of being short-sighted, by rejecting the possibilities offered by Ascension.  They’d also warned against interfering in the development of less-advanced species.  The Tallurans, meanwhile, had called the Alterans cowards, cowed by defeat at the hands of the Wraith and demoralised by plague.  Had the Alterans remained, Censorian was convinced that several galaxies would now be much more peaceful than they currently were.

“Empress Boudicca came to power at a time when our people had just vacated the previous Tallura Prime – having only settled there for four centuries, after being forced to abandon the original planet of that name - and were at a particularly low level in terms of morale.  She overcame that by embarking on a massive campaign of reconstruction on this and other worlds and, through propaganda and pointing to our diminishing numbers, insisting that our people had to expand outwards in order to survive.  If other species happened to be in the way, then it was only natural that they would have to submit to the oldest, most advanced, and – in her estimation – the superior species of the Vedda Galaxy,” Censorian continued.

“And people listened to her,” Joyce nodded, the pattern sounding unpleasantly familiar to anyone who knew even a little about Earth’s history.

“People did, indeed, listen to her.  In the beginning, she was popular, as our forces secured victory after victory.  At the same time, they ignored the very gradual tightening of rule back at home.  A little here and a little there, a change of laws here, a reduction of Judiciary and Consular powers there…  Until one day, the people awoke to find a tyrant on the throne, who crushed any dissent ruthlessly.  Eventually, her opponents succeeded in bringing a substantial part of the Imperial Defence Forces – even some of the Imperial Guard – over to their side and we faced civil war.  At that point, her own personal guard ‘persuaded’ her that she ought to abdicate, for the good of the Empire.  She appeared to agree and said that she would address the people.  Then, in the middle of the broadcast – and in one last melodramatic gesture – she cut her own throat,” the book collector replied.

“Her most ardent supporters were swiftly removed from office and our forces pulled back to pre-Boudicca lines, but the damage had already been done amongst our neighbours.  Our attacks served as motivation for other species to develop their technology – especially military technology – and the whole balance of power and accompanying arms races in the Vedda Galaxy can, to a great extent, be traced back to her actions.”

Joyce examined the bright red liquid in her cup. “No wonder you don’t like to talk about her.”

“The Talluran people supported Boudicca at her worst,” Censorian smiled crookedly. “Today we still like to think we are the most civilized – whatever that means – species in the galaxy.  Boudicca, however, remains as an uncomfortable reminder to both us and our neighbours of what we are capable of.”

“I think Drayana has nightmares about becoming like Boudicca,” Joyce told him.

Censorian shook his head. “Of course she does.  Our Empress is young and is still learning the arts of rulership.  I have known her since she was a squalling infant.  I have also watched her develop and the need to be ruthless at times, in order to protect our people, will not sit easily with her, but she has a well-developed conscience and a deeply held set of values…  Admittedly, also something of a short temper – so woe betide those who would attack us - but she will never be like Boudicca.”

 

Talluran Forward Reconnaissance Unit, Akkhorrazz, Khkerrikk Star Empire – 22nd February 2001 (Earth Date)

The Talluran secondary offensive was being conducted on a shoestring.  With the bulk of the Imperial Defence Force and Imperial Guard regular forces massing near Zaggarrak, the second element was much smaller.  It had nevertheless been given a number of key objectives and seemed well on the way to securing these.  The small Reserve Fleet had easily swept aside the scattered Khkerrikk warships in this area, then pushed on ahead to half-a-dozen important economic and military targets.  As the strike fleet drove deeper into enemy space, a huge force of troop carriers followed in its wake, tasked with launching major assault landings on no fewer than five sizeable Khkerrikk planets.

Akkhorrazz was one such world, an industrial planet with plentiful mineral resources and an important part of the enemy war machine.  The Tallurans had tasked a full field army – nearly a quarter of a million troops – with its seizure.  The initial landings had taken place against not-inconsiderable resistance.  Unlike in previous offensive operations, there were insufficient warships to spare for a lengthy preparatory bombardment, beyond removing orbital platforms and the heaviest ground-based defences.

Nevertheless, the assault landings had been largely successful and well within the margins of acceptable losses.  The outnumbered, though still well-armed, Khkerrikk ground forces had quickly fallen back, obviously to regroup, while leaving behind several small rear-guard units to harass the Talluran heavy armoured formations.

The tip of the Talluran spear was a handful of small reconnaissance units, tasked with destroying their Khkerrikk scouting equivalents, while also locating and fixing major enemy formations, and calling in heavy support to deal with them.  Centurion-Quartus Iphigenia Nervallus was amongst their number, now rueing the day she’d crossed the Empress.  Though it was likely that her Reserve commitments would eventually have caught up in any case, given the recent mobilisation.

With young Sulvia now a member of the Imperial family, Nervallus found herself regretting a great deal.  She should have treated the youngster much better over the years – and not only because of the social consequences of having failed to do so.  During the long journey to Akkhorrazz, she’d had ample time to consider the many mistakes she’d made and had composed a letter of apology to the youngster.  Sulvia might not ever forgive her treatment, but at least she’d know that her foster mother did have some regrets.

Nervallus forced herself to focus on the mission in hand.  Given that she’d dodged training for many years, her CO had her shadowing a more experienced officer for the moment.  Right now, she was lying on her belly amongst some long grass-like plant, surveying a low ridge ahead through high-powered vision equipment.  The unit’s eleven Gravity Cars had halted in a rough semi-circle, well-spaced and with their weapons covering all possible approaches.  Far ahead of them, drones scanned the landscape for signs of a suddenly elusive enemy, with fighter craft circling overhead.

“It is too quiet,” Centurion-Quartus Tripitter frowned. “I would have expected some resistance at this point.  And the main force is badly spread out.  If I were the Khkerrikk, I would counter-attack at this point.”

“I hope not.  Until the main force clears those cities…” Nervallus shook her head.

Even after years of avoiding her training obligations, she still remembered a great deal.  This area was far from ideal in terms of terrain.  A long, wide valley containing several major cities, with hills on each side.  To avoid being potentially drawn into a costly battle in urban conditions, the eighty thousand troops of the main force were effectively channelled into predictable routes, where it would be hard to manoeuvre effectively.  In addition, by avoiding the cities, they were forced to deploy units to protect their flanks and rear in case of attack from these areas.  Apparently the other two wings of the field army were in a similar position, on their routes of advance.

“They seem to have vanished into the ether,” Tripitter pointed out.  “So they are not forming up for a counter-attack.  But there is no communications traffic, either…”

A burst of Plasma Cannon fire from a nearby vehicle caused both officers to look up.  A Khkerrikk drone had come in very low, stealthy enough to avoid detection until the last minute.  Now it was burning on the ground.

“They certainly know we are here…” Nervallus began.

She never finished the sentence.  Thirty miles behind the recon group, the desperate Khkerrikk planetary garrison commander played his only remaining card.  The first of dozens of nuclear demolition mines, with yields of up to 200 Megatons apiece, exploded right in the middle of a Khkerrikk city.  The sacrifice of a million civilians or so had seemed a small price to pay for a victory over the invaders, at least according to the senior Black Guard overseer, who’d installed himself in the garrison CO’s HQ.

Talluran Integrated Battle Armour only protected its wearer so far.  Sensors picked up the precursor EM surge from multiple nuclear detonations and immediately alerted the wearer to take cover, while also dropping a protective visor into place.  The suits also protected the wearer against the initial deadly blast of neutrons and x-rays.  It couldn’t, unfortunately, protect them against temperatures that briefly rivalled the interior of a star, or the devastating blast over-pressure, which pulverised bodies and vehicles alike.

Together with most of the Talluran landing force and fifteen million Khkerrikk civilians, Nervallus was dead within seconds of her Battle Armour sensors detecting the nearest blast.

 

Drayana’s Office, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 22nd February 2001 (Earth Date)

The Empress just couldn’t believe the message in her hand.  Not just the fact that she’d lost an entire field army in a few cataclysmic minutes, but also that the Khkerrikk could so callously sacrifice the lives of so many of their own civilians.  Actually, that they could effectively sacrifice a whole planet, given that counter-attacking Khkerrikk forces, having emerged from cover, had then attempted to engage a pitiful few Talluran survivors. 

From his orbiting troopship, the acting commander on the spot – the entire army staff having been immolated – promptly ordered immediate and massive retribution.  His large force of fighter craft were promptly rearmed with nuclear weapons and the favour returned in the same coin.  Drayana doubted if Akkhorrazz would be useful to anyone for a very long time.

She tried to forget the horrendous death toll, if only for a few minutes.  Drayana’s command staff could deal with the war for now, but her next task would be much more difficult.

“What will I tell her, mother?  I know they did not part on the best of terms, but…” Drayana’s voice trailed away.

“Sulvia will be upset.  Regardless of her feelings for Iphigenia Nervallus, she was the closest thing your sister had to a mother for most of her life,” Livia gently massaged her daughter’s shoulders. “But if you wish me to tell her…”

Drayana shook her head. “Sulvia might be part of the family, but she is still my Ward under law.  Besides, I sent Centurion Nervallus to her death.”

“You did no such thing, Drayana,” her mother replied sternly. “She would have been mobilised and sent there with her unit, regardless.”

“What if she hates me?” Drayana asked plaintively, for a moment the loving sister rather than the Empress.

“I am quite certain that could never happen,” Livia assured her.

The door opened and Sulvia bounced in, accompanied by several of her usual retinue of female bodyguards.  At her age, she was still innocent enough not to ascribe sinister motives to suddenly being summoned from school.

The Princess Imperial was, nevertheless, sensitive enough to atmosphere.  One look at her adoptive mother and sister’s face was enough to tell her that something was seriously wrong.

“What is the matter?” Sulvia stiffened.

“Why not come and sit on my knee?” Drayana asked, in her kindest tones, as Livia silently dismissed the bodyguards.

The youngster obediently took her place on her sister’s lap, staring up at her with wide, nervous brown eyes.

Drayana swallowed and took her hands. “I am afraid I have some bad news, Sulvia…”

 

Drayana’s Apartments, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 22nd February 2001 (Earth Date)

Drayana stared at the half-empty bottle of liquor on the table by her chair.  It was supposed to help with the guilty feelings, but there was only a generalised fuzziness in her head and a slight numbness around her extremities.  Besides, she didn’t like the taste at all, she grumbled to herself.  That wasn’t the point, however. 

The Empress shrugged.  Perhaps she just needed a little more.  After all, a lot of guilt maybe needed more alcohol to smother it, and Drayana reckoned she had guilt to give away.  The day’s casualty figures had been horrendous, with the best part of a quarter of a million troops lost in the Khkerrikk nuclear strikes on Akkhorrazz.  She tried to tell herself that war meant losses on both sides and – even with occasional localised reverses - the Tallurans were still winning, but it rang hollow.  The painful fact was that according to cold military logic, the mass casualties on Akkhorrazz wouldn’t make a difference to the offensive in that region.  Not only had a prompt series of retaliatory strikes cleared Khkerrikk forces from the planet – while rendering large areas of it uninhabitable – but every other objective had been achieved in the sector, with minimal losses. 

‘Localised reverses’ indeed.  There would be too many grieving parents, spouses and children tonight.  Those losses had reached out and touched her little sister, too.  Iphigenia Nervallus had been amongst those lost when her division was totally destroyed in an instant.  Sulvia might not have been happy living with her foster parents, but the young girl had been more upset than she – or anyone else for that matter – would have predicted.  In a display of minor Imperial wrath, Drayana had been responsible for ensuring that Nervallus was recalled to her unit for a period of reserve service she’d been dodging for years.  Of course, the current emergency meant that the woman would have been called back to the banner in any case, but the Empress was in a mood to blame herself for just about anything right now.

The future conduct of the war was another grave concern.  If her forces and the Khkerrikk constrained themselves to using nuclear weapons against each other’s military formations and bases, then it would continue to be bad enough, but the risk of escalation to deliberate targeting of civilian populations had hovered over the Vedda Galaxy since the Star Empire declared war.  And tomorrow, Drayana knew that her senior staff were planning a major fleet action against the Khkerrikk Fleet off Zaggarrak.  If all went as planned, Khkerrikk major offensive capabilities would be emasculated for some time.  If the battle went badly, however, the best of the Talluran Imperial Fleet could potentially be lost.

Drayana took a long pull from her glass, grimacing as the bitter-tasting spirit burned its way down her throat.  She had to trust her Generals and Admirals, the Empress reminded herself forcefully, and so far they hadn’t let her down.

Then there was the ongoing process of the High Treason trials.  Drayana could spare some – those who’d indicated an intention to enter a Guilty plea – but others would face the axe, and she’d have to give the order once more.  And even where she could commute the sentence of death, part of the alternative penalty was backward and brutal to her mind.  It was better than execution, of course, but the Empress still cringed at the prospect.

Drayana recognised Livia’s soft footfalls behind her, but didn’t turn round.  No doubt she was in serious trouble, but potential parental displeasure somehow didn’t even rate on her list of problems right now.

“What exactly do you think you are doing?” Livia demanded, looming over her daughter, arms folded and lips tight.

The Empress just about managed a shrug. “So much going on and I feel bad about most of it.  Or wonder if I am doing the right thing.  I thought this might help…”

Livia picked up the bottle, still almost two-thirds full, examined the label and shook her head. “And has this helped?”

“Not really...” Drayana sighed. “Actually, not in the slightest.  Perhaps I just need more?”

“I think not, daughter!  And can you think of any reason why I should not turn you over my lap, adjust your underclothes, and apply the sandal right now?” her mother growled.

“Only that I probably would not really feel it,” Drayana admitted.

“But you would punish me because I am feeling uncertain?” she almost whined.

Livia shook her head. “No…  For that, I will offer as much support as you need.  The punishment will be for a very foolish solution to your problems.  And can you tell me why this is such a bad idea?”

“Apart from the fact that it does not work and tastes horrible?” Drayana wished she’d been more careful in selecting the type of liquor to purloin from the kitchen.

“Yes, apart from that,” Livia replied. “Let me give you a few hints…  The last I checked, we were at war, and you are our Empress.  What if you were needed urgently, to deal with a crisis, but had drunk yourself into a stupor?”

The Empress looked mortified and clapped a hand to her mouth.

Her mother, meanwhile, continued. “Or if your enemies – alien or domestic – were to hear of this?  It would be a major propaganda coup.”

Drayana winced.  She really hadn’t though this through.

Livia shook her head. “And despite a very extensive education, you apparently cannot read a simple label.  Perhaps there is a good reason why the bottle is labelled ‘Solely for Cooking Purposes’….”

“I guess you should punish me in the morning then, mother,” an abashed Drayana responded, guiltily eyeing the carpet.

Livia chuckled dryly and sat down beside her. “I believe we may have to postpone that meeting until after dinner.”

“Why?” her daughter asked in puzzlement.

Livia picked up the bottle again. “Your choice of spirit.  This is used only for cooking.  The liquor must be cooked in order for the body to tolerate it.  In its raw form?  It makes the body numb quite rapidly, but takes somewhat longer to befuddle the mind.  And do you remember how you felt on the previous occasion when you drank too much ale?”

“Terrible,” Drayana recalled with considerable foreboding.

She hadn’t even considered the potential hangover, before pouring herself the first shot.

“You will feel one hundred times worse.  Even a small amount of this spirit, at least in uncooked form, will make anyone extremely ill.  I believe I will spend most of tomorrow morning holding your hair out of the way, while you empty the contents of your stomach.  Not to mention a headache beyond description,” her mother explained.

She was at least moderately sympathetic.  As a youngster Livia had once indulged in a little cooking liquor and to this day could barely stand the smell.  Given the newly broken seal lying on the table and the quantity missing from the bottle, Drayana had clearly sampled more than a little.  The young Empress would certainly suffer the following morning.

Drayana, belatedly recalling the results of her last drunken escapade, buried her face in her hands and groaned theatrically. “May the Goddess have mercy upon my head!”

“It is too late to invoke divine protection.  Your head will suffer all the torments of the damned,” Livia replied. “And nor will the Goddess herself be able to protect you tomorrow evening...”

She decided not to say any more on the matter.  Now was the time to address her daughter’s issues.  Livia was scarcely surprised that her daughter was feeling overwhelmed at this time, not when the very fate of the Empire and the lives of billions hung in the balance.  Up to now, Drayana had seemed to be coping incredibly well with both a galactic-scale war and treasonous undercurrents within the Empire, despite her youth and inexperience.  The fallout from both was, however, clearly beginning to have some impact on the Empress’ morale.

“Do you wish to talk about it?” Livia asked gently, as her daughter snuggled closer.

“Not really – at least, not tonight.  If I feel better tomorrow – once I have stopped vomiting, if what you say is true – then perhaps we can talk.  But tonight I would just be happy for you to be with me for a while.  And perhaps, despite my age, you might tell me a story before I go to sleep?” Drayana asked hopefully. “Maybe one which made me feel better when I was young?”

“Are you regressing?” her mother chuckled.

“I wish I was,” Drayana replied wistfully. “Then I could not be Empress…”

Livia kissed her on the forehead. “For better or worse, it is your duty.  But if I can help to ease the burden, even by telling you some children’s tales, then I’ll gladly do so.”

The Empress’ legs were beginning to get a little shaky as her mother helped her from the sofa.  The youngster really was going to regret this tomorrow morning, Livia mused, with a pang of sympathy.

 

Classified Research Area, Yaherin Var University Museum, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

Academist Sulla shook his head somewhat wearily.  There were times when this project was like drawing teeth from a dead Ch’Hanis.  Too many teeth and all of them firmly anchored.  He ran his hands through seriously thinning hair and returned to the problem at hand.

“I think we are all agreed that these translated inscriptions refer to constellations.  With seven of them identifiable as such, the coincidence is too great to be anything else,” Sulla told the others.

Aquiliani nodded.  Joyce’s chief bodyguard had also been co-opted into this project, given her background in research.

“Yes, but our initial thought that they could provide us with specific coordinates in space?  It does not work – we would need dozens more such reference points to provide an accurate location,” she replied.

Astronomy, mathematics and physics might not have been her strongest skills, but she’d been able to perform sufficient calculations – backed up by those of Sulla’s own assistants – to recognise that the original plan was a non-starter.

“Seven coordinates make an address for the Astria Porta,” she suggested, knowing what the answer was likely to be.

“Yes, I am well aware of that fact.  I also know that these seven constellations are not used by our existing address system,” Sulla retorted, beginning to show some signs of impatience.

“ ‘Our existing address system’, you said,” Aquiliani shot back. “If we believe that the Alterans and our own ancestors went to great efforts to hide something, perhaps a cache of technology or an archive, to the extent that they used an obscure Terran language as a means of concealment…  I am also thinking that a separate system of access might have been employed.”

Sulla could see where she was going with this. “A separate Astria Porta, dedicated to reaching a single address, or a small number of addresses?”

“Probably with the Astria Porta itself concealed somewhere,” the Imperial Guard continued.

“But where?” Sulla didn’t feel too optimistic about the chances of finding a single, hidden gate – which might, or might not, even be within Talluran space.

“Maybe the clue is this reference to the ‘Mouth of the Underworld’,” Joyce suggested. “But there’s a fragment of the text missing.  I still think it sounds more like a Hellmouth than anything else…”

She fervently hoped that the next step wasn’t going to be visiting worlds with active Hellmouths.  They were bad enough on Earth, but demons in this galaxy seemed to include shapeless blobs capable of devouring an entire city.

“It is not a term ever used in our past to describe a Hellmouth,” Sulla replied. “But I suppose we cannot dismiss the possibility.  Much as the prospect frightens me, we perhaps need to search all worlds known to have such a phenomenon.”

“Of course, we cannot be sure that we are aware of them all,” Aquiliani reminded him. “And it could refer to those which are currently inactive.  Or it may be something else.”

“Yes, but what might that be?” Sulla exhaled.

“We should perhaps look to astronomy.  Placing such an important device close to a Hellmouth would not, I believe, have been our ancestors’ most logical course of action,” the Imperial Guard pointed out.

“Nothing our ancestors have done would seem to be particularly logical in this case!” Sulla growled.

Aquiliani abruptly had a flash of inspiration. “A black hole?  These Latin accounts seem to have been written in a deliberately non-scientific form.  If we are looking for poetic descriptions of a black hole, then ‘Mouth of the Underworld’ fits as well as any.”

“Not a great expert in astronomy – or any kind of expert at all, really…  But don’t black holes just – uh – suck everything in?” Joyce ventured, determined to be of at least some use today

“Only within a certain proximity,” Aquiliani replied. “What does the text say, exactly?”

“I can’t say exactly, only my closest translation,” Joyce squinted at the inscription once more. “There’s a piece missing…  Then it says, umm, that would have be ‘guarding’ or ‘protecting’, I guess.  So ‘guarding the Mouth of the Underworld’?”

“A planet or system in close proximity to a black hole, but distant enough to be safe from its effects?  Not too many of those within our space, but we’ll also have to look outside, too.  Bear in mind that this would have been written at a time when the Empire had twice as many worlds and a much greater area of space under its control,” Sulla cautioned.

They might be wholly mistaken, but at least it was a start, he reflected.  Besides, Aquiliani’s suggestion made the most sense to date.

“So what do you expect to find?” Joyce enquired. “Another Stargate, more Latin puzzles, or what?”

Sulla smiled for the first time that morning. “We have no idea.  And that is what makes this all so fascinating.  Are you not curious?”

Despite his age, the Academist remained every bit as addicted to the thrill of discovery as when he was a young student.  The so-called Alteran Cultural Survey might be vital to the future of the Talluran Empire, but it was also crucial in terms of pure scholarship.

Joyce had to admit that she’d never been so curious about anything in her life, now that they were delving ever deeper into this enigma.  She also had an uneasy feeling that the Academist would want to do a little fieldwork and might ask her to accompany them, into who-knew-what dangers.  Joyce considered herself to be relatively courageous, so long as she knew the risks and what she’d be facing, but this might be a step into the unknown.

On the other hand, it would certainly boost her credibility with the SGC when she returned.  Because while Joyce enjoyed working in the art business, she was increasingly considering asking General Hammond if he had any research openings.  After all, she’d be returning to Earth with possibly a greater knowledge of the Ancients’ history and language than anyone currently working for the SGC.

“So what’s the next step?” she asked brightly.

 

Khkerrikk Heavy Cruiser ‘K’Vatriss’, Zaggarrak, Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

The Khkerrikk fleet emerged from hyperspace as close to the planet as possible, to reduce the amount of warning time available to the Tallurans.  War Leader Khkrannas was relatively confident that he had the forces required to accomplish this mission, but given that the Tallurans had repeatedly demonstrated an unpleasant ability to surprise and outthink their opponents over the last few days, he wasn’t taking any chances.  Besides, with the Black Guard holding his family – and that of every other senior officer – as hostage to his success, he was even less inclined to take any unnecessary risks.

His orders were perfectly simple – to destroy any Talluran ships in the system and then remove their ground forces from Emperor Kharrillion’s birth planet.  Personally, Khkrannas thought that his sovereign’s priorities were somewhat skewed.  In the greater scheme of things, Zaggarrak was relatively unimportant and could wait until the bulk of the Talluran Imperial Fleet had been destroyed.  Kharrillion, unfortunately, believed otherwise, and disagreeing with the Emperor was frequently fatal.  So here he was, leading 134 Heavy Cruisers – every major warship within range and the last Khkerrikk reserves in this part of the Star Empire – against a tiny Talluran force.  According to his sensors, there were a mere four Heavy Cruisers and six Light Cruisers facing his armada.  That made sense, the War leader conceded.  Over the past few days, the bulk of the enemy fleet had dispersed and was busy elsewhere, attacking Khkerrikk shipping lanes, shipyards and other industrial facilities, communications installations, and military bases with little or no opposition.  Intelligence believed they were now massing for another sweep even deeper into Khkerrikk space.  In Khkrannas’ estimation, he should be moving to prevent such an eventuality, not salving the Emperor’s ego.  Orders, however, were orders, when the Black Guard could execute his family at a second’s notice.

In any case, even given the individual technological superiority of Talluran ships, the imbalance was just too great on this occasion.  The enemy outclassed Khkerrikk ships in every major way – speed, protection, weaponry, sensors – but numbers had an advantage all of their own.  Not that he didn’t expect casualties.

His people – and never mind the Emperor – needed a victory soon, nevertheless, and Zaggarrak presented the best possibility of securing one at this time.  Kharrillion was certainly correct in that respect.  The record had been abysmal up to now.  In space, seven of Khkrannas’ Heavy Cruisers were the only major Khkerrikk ships to have escaped destruction after encountering Talluran units.  They’d been fortunate to survive, limping away with varying degrees of damage to be hastily patched up for this action.  Apparently their badly shaken crews required even more recovery time than their ships after the experience, but Khkrannas didn’t have time for that.  On the ground, things were little better, the nuclear strike on Akkhorrazz failing to even delay the Tallurans’ second offensive and notable only for several million Khkerrikk civilian dead. 

No, the War Leader knew he definitely had to win here and now.

There was no need for an overly complicated plan of action, Khkrannas reasoned.  Use one-third of his forces to close and destroy the enemy squadron, while the second third moved on the planet itself and commenced an orbital bombardment on Talluran ground forces, while the remaining portion was kept in reserve against any attempt at relief.  Only once resistance had been severely weakened, would Khkerrikk ground forces then begin landing to deal with any survivors of the intense bombardment.

“Do sensors indicate any other ships in the area – Talluran or otherwise?” Khkrannas turned to his Operations Officer.

After all, it still paid to be cautious, he reasoned.  There were ways to conceal ships, after all, even if they couldn’t be made invisible.  High polar orbits, hiding in the rings of gas giants, staying close to the system’s star, and so forth - all could be employed by the Tallurans, who also had impressive stealth technology built into their warships.

“None at all, either on active or passive scans, My Master,” the other Khkerrikk responded. “No indications on probes, either.”

The War Leader nodded stiffly. “Then begin the attack.”

He watched from bridge window as forty-six of his crescent-shaped Heavy Cruisers broke away and moved swiftly towards the Tallurans, who were also turning to engage.  He expected the latter to open fire first, given their superior long-range fire-control, but the distance would be closed rapidly.  Meanwhile, another forty-four of his ships were poised to move on the planet.  Khkrannas hoped to conclude matters here as swiftly as possible, to free up his fleet for more critical operations elsewhere.

 

Talluran Heavy Cruiser ‘Tallura Regnatrix’, Zaggarrak, Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

“My brave and esteemed warriors of the Imperial Defence Forces and Imperial Guard, you are about to engage in the most important battle yet of this war.  As such, it is my great honour and duty to offer a few words at this time.

“To all those serving under distant suns and gazing upon unfamiliar stars, know that I and all the Talluran people are immensely proud of you, our defenders, at this time and always.  You are not fighting a war of aggression, but merely for the simplest and most noble of motives, to defend our homes, our people, our families.  Our cause is just, but I do not expect that you will be fighting for such lofty ideals as the Constitution, Justice or even the Empire when you risk your lives in battle today.  Instead, as with all warriors from time immemorial, you fight to protect the lives and liberty of your family at home, your comrades-in-arms, your friends beside you.

“I do not doubt that each of you will do his or her utmost in the fight ahead.  The Imperial Guard and Imperial Defence Forces have proved their courage, resilience, ferocity in battle, and capacity for sacrifice innumerable times, since the Empire was founded. And in these recent days, in these weeks of struggle against a numerically superior foe, you have shown yourself worthy heirs to your predecessors and the noble traditions of the Guard and the Imperial Defence Forces.

And know, my brave and valiant troops, that on this you have my word, the unbreakable pledge of your Empress.  If any of you should fall today, then your sacrifice can be made in the knowledge that I will personally ensure that those closest and dearest to you will be protected and cared for to the end of their days. 

“I wish you success and through all the trials and dangers you are about to face, may the Goddess protect every one of you and bring you safely home.” 

The Empress’ message, relayed to every ship in the fleet, was inevitably composed in the usual, somewhat stilted Imperial style.  It might not rank amongst the greatest of pre-battle speeches, but she was young and still learning the rhetorical style.  Besides, in such circumstances, protocol and style were quite clear and even the Empress would have limited freedom of manoeuvre.  Drayana’s emotion and nervousness were certainly quite clear, the holographic imager and recorder having captured the slightest tremor in her voice, the tiniest little body cue.  There was certainly no doubt in anyone’s mind about her sincerity and the short speech inspired a spontaneous cheer on more than one ship.  Including aboard Drayana’s own customary flagship, Tallura Regnatrix.

As the cheers died away aboard the Imperial flagship, Admiral Naevia Sabinus allowed herself a humourless smile of professional satisfaction.  The Khkerrikk were in her trap and its jaws were about to close on their scrawny reptilian necks.  Cloaked and completely invisible to enemy sensors, the Talluran fleet was poised ready to pounce.  On its first operational outing, the Talluran Empire’s greatest military secret, the Alteran cloaking device, had proven itself beyond a doubt.  The Khkerrikk had cruised straight past a huge concentration of Talluran warships – a dozen Battleships, sixty-six Heavy Cruisers, eighty Light Cruisers – without even being aware of their presence.  Half-a-dozen more Light Cruisers were also maintaining an invisible close formation with the Khkerrikk, waiting to perform their own critical mission.

This battle was the culmination of several days careful planning and deception operations.  Sabinus had another sixty Light Cruisers still causing havoc far from here, creating – in conjunction with carefully targeted communications deception – the impression of a Talluran fleet build-up in yet another sector.  While her diversionary force continued to attract Khkerrikk attention, the bulk of the Imperial Fleet and Imperial Guard Fleet had quietly moved back into position here.  The only issue had been whether Kharrillion’s ego would persuade him to take the bait.  Her superiors, Admiral Severan and General Piretus, had been convinced that the Khkerrikk Emperor would feel compelled to counter-attack and destroy the Talluran forces occupying his birth-planet, purely for the sake of honour and prestige.

That decision might well have cost the Khkerrikk Star Empire the entire war.  A defeat here would mean that they had no substantial forces left between this sector and the Empire’s core worlds, meaning the Tallurans could strike almost at will.  Any risk on the Talluran side was, in Sabinus’ estimation, comparatively small.  Some of her superiors were understandably more cautious, but the Admiral had come here directly from the Talluran War Academy’s Advanced Tactics unit and probably knew more about how to employ her fleet’s weaponry and systems to best effect than anyone else alive.  They had the ability to inflict enormous damage on the Khkerrikk even before decloaking and her ships were utterly superior in every respect.  Both sides might employ similar basic technology – hyper-drives, shields, Plasma Cannon, missiles – but the Talluran versions were anything from three to six generations ahead of their counterparts.  The Khkerrikk didn’t even have an equivalent to the Continuous Wave Particle Cannon employed by the Tallurans, nor the latter’s highly developed Non-Nuclear Electro-Magnetic Pulse capabilities.  There were also one or two other innovations as yet untested in battle.

The effectiveness of the Talluran Imperial Fleet, even without using cloaking technology as a force multiplier, had been almost as much a surprise to her own people, Sabinus thought with some amusement.  Up until the war broke out, there had only been periodic clashes between Khkerrikk and Talluran warships, always in small numbers and usually at point-blank range.  The current fleet, however, had – partially for reasons of security – never demonstrated its full networked battle capability even in exercises.

Even the first engagement of this war had demonstrated that capability gap, Sabinus reasoned.  The Heavy Cruiser Triarius had been cornered by three Khkerrikk Heavy Cruisers and despite being unable to manoeuvre freely due to a planet’s gravity well, nor to accelerate to a useful combat speed, still destroyed all three in quick succession.  True, combat damage also resulted in the loss of Triarius, but the ship had been fighting at a severe tactical disadvantage and alone.  With Talluran ships operating in large numbers, as part of a cohesive fleet – and able to use their cloaking systems – Sabinus was convinced this would be less of a battle and more of an unequal slaughter.  In other words, exactly how battles and wars were supposed to be fought. 

No doubt the Khkerrikk commander was feeling supremely confident right now, Sabinus mused.  But in a few moments, those few Talluran ships he could see would disappear before his very eyes.  Meanwhile, her detached force of Light Cruisers was already laying several minefields intended, on activation, to channel the Khkerrikk exactly where she wanted them.  Then it was just a matter of shock, manoeuvre and raw firepower.

She glanced around Tallura Regnatrix’s bridge, bathed in subdued combat lighting, every station manned and the ship already at Battle Stations.  The crew of the Empress’ personal flagship were handpicked and the finest in the combined Imperial Fleet.  All were calmly carrying out their orders as if this was another exercise, rather than the prelude to a battle which could determine the future of the Empire.  High quality training, she reminded herself, was always worth several squadrons of cruisers in its own right.

A quick glance at a 3-d holographic image nearby displayed the exact position of her ships.  Strict command and control under cloak was critical, to avoid both danger of collision and of battle formations becoming disorganised.  Considerable effort and resources had, therefore, been poured into a communications and transponder system sufficiently stealthy to avoid detection by an enemy.

“The minelayers have completed their runs, Admiral,” an officer reported. “So far, the Khkerrikk show no signs of having detected them.”

“They won’t, not until the first detonations,” Sabinus predicted.

The mines might not be cloaked, but they were small – if extremely powerful – constructed from the most advanced low-observable materials, and with very sophisticated target acquisition and fusing.  Each Talluran Light Cruiser had also laid several hundred of them and the object was first and foremost to create confusion amongst the Khkerrikk.  Though as each mine either contained a low-yield nuclear warhead or a combination of a NNEMP warhead and a Plasma warhead, significant damage was also expected.

“Signal the minelayers to break off and the decoy force to prepare to cloak,” Sabinus took her place in the command chair. “And lock missiles on target.  Do we have any idea which is their command ship?”

“Affirmative, Admiral.  It is in the centre of the third formation.  Our most recent intelligence reports tell us that we are facing War Leader Khkrannas, one of their most experienced fleet commanders,” her Intelligence Officer reported, checking his display.

“Target and destroy his ship at the first opportunity.  No sense in allowing them the luxury of experienced leadership,” Sabinus ordered calmly.

 

Khkerrikk Heavy Cruiser ‘K’Vatriss’, Zaggarrak, Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

In a mixture of impatience and nervous tension, Khkrannas tapped his claws on the arm of his command chair, as the two lead Khkerrikk formations moved towards their assigned targets.

All at once, the Talluran force opened fire with a veritable hail of missiles, particle beams and plasma bursts.

“The enemy is engaging our ships, Master,” his aide announced, wholly superfluously.

Khkrannas shook off an urge to punch the idiot in the face for a statement of the blindingly obvious.  Firstly, he could see perfectly well what was happening.  Secondly, it wasn’t exactly unanticipated, given the Talluran superiority in sensor and targeting technology.

“I can see that,” the War Leader responded tersely. “Instruct the First Squadron to increase speed and close with the Tallurans.”

Khkerrikk numbers would prevail at close ranges, he decided.

The first Talluran missile salvo was swiftly approaching the opposing formation, each missile spraying a dense cloud of networked nanobots, designed to confuse and decoy Khkerrikk sensors and point-defence weapons.  The system was quite successful, with around eighty percent of the Talluran weapons successfully avoiding their targets’ defensive plasma bursts.

Khkrannas watched as a series of bright flashes lit up the Khkerrikk formation.  The Tallurans were using a mixture of tactical nuclear warheads and dual warhead NNEMP and plasma systems, designed to weaken shields and disrupt sensors and communications.  Nuclear weapons in space were somewhat less effective than within a planetary atmosphere, where their blast effects were accentuated by extreme air pressures.  Similarly, the heat effects were also wasted in a vacuum.  With its shields at full power, a vessel in the class of a Khkerrikk Heavy Cruiser could, therefore, ride out even a close-range nuclear blast.  Nevertheless, a series of such explosions would very rapidly overload its shield emitters, rendering it vulnerable to follow-on attacks.

And the Tallurans were using a high percentage of nuclear warheads in their opening salvo.  Caught in overlapping blasts, half-a-dozen ships were already dropping out of formation, heavily damaged, and prey to conventional weaponry.  One by one, the crippled Khkerrikk ships exploded, as the Tallurans released another salvo of missiles, while continuing to bombard their opponents with Particle and Plasma Cannon.

Khkrannas growled impotently, though he’d expected some losses.  He was impatient to intervene personally, but it was too late at this point.  He just had to allow his own attack plan to play out.  Finally, the Khkerrikk cruisers were within range and immediately unleashed a storm of missiles and plasma bolts in response.

Only for the Talluran ships to briefly shimmer, then vanish, enemy missiles and sensors immediately losing lock.

“Where did they go?” the War Leader thumped the arm of his chair.

“Our sensors cannot detect them…” one of his officers replied in mystified tones.

“First Squadron is reporting mines in close proximity!” another of Khkrannas’ command staff announced.

The Khkerrikk started to take evasive action, but it was too late.  A series of devastating nuclear and conventional blasts promptly reduced First Squadron by three more ships, damaging a further five.

“Second Squadron reports another minefield!” the bad news was coming in thick and fast.

In response to several losses, Second Squadron veered off its initial line of approach, the formation drifting towards a now-dislocated First Squadron.  With over seventy Khkerrikk Heavy Cruisers being driven dangerously close to each other, the Talluran Fleet struck hard.

Salvo after salvo of missiles suddenly appeared out of nowhere, never fired from the same position twice, as Sabinus’ fleet methodically demolished their opponents, a combination of effective countermeasures and sheer numbers rapidly overwhelming the Khkerrikk ships’ point defences.  Cloaking technology required considerable amounts of power, so Particle and Plasma Cannon couldn’t be used while the system was engaged.  Ultimately, it didn’t matter, as a storm of nuclear and NNEMP warheads stripped away Khkerrikk shields, leaving their lightly-armoured hulls open to destruction by the missiles’ plasma and Depleted Naquadah warheads.

Khkrannas could only look on in horror, as two thirds of his force was systematically annihilated by an invisible enemy.  It didn’t seem possible, but the only explanation was that the Tallurans had developed a viable cloaking system, impervious to Khkerrikk scanners.  Unless his people’s scientists could devise a counter-measure – and quickly – this war was already lost.

“It is a trap!” Now Khkrannas realised that he stating the patently obvious.

“Master!  What should we do?” his second-in-command was on the verge of panic.

The War Leader considered his two options.  They weren’t really options at all, of course.  Stay here and be wiped out, or try to save some of his fleet.  He and his family were already dead – the Emperor would doubtless have them all shot – but he could at least try to bring some ships home.  For the sake of the Khkerrikk people, not that idiot Kharrillion, who’d sent them into this disaster.

“Order all ships to withdraw…” he began.

The view-screen was suddenly filled with a dozen Talluran Battleships, decloaking and immediately firing everything they had, as several squadrons of Heavy Cruisers also materialised behind Khkrannas’ remaining group.  His route of escape was cut off, as ship after ship emerged as if from nowhere. 

“Now we can see them!  Open fire…” Khkrannas snarled, hoping to take at least a few of the Tallurans with them.

It was the last thing he said, as the nearest Battleship concentrated its firepower on the Khkerrikk flagship.  K’Vatriss’ shields collapsed as though made of paper and neutral particle beams sliced the Heavy Cruiser’s hull in half, its reactor exploding a fraction of a second later.

 

Talluran Heavy Cruiser ‘Tallura Regnatrix’, Zaggarrak, Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

The Talluran fleet slowly moved through the clouds of detritus – hull plating, reactor cores, even body parts – which were stark proof of the ferocity of the battle.  Even Admiral Sabinus, who’d been entirely confident about the outcome of the battle, hadn’t expected such a rapid and decisive result.  Not a single Khkerrikk ship had survived the engagement.  From the moment the first Talluran missile was launched, the entire encounter had lasted less than fifteen minutes.  That wasn’t untypical for a major space battle – any longer and someone on both sides hadn’t planned properly – but what was unusual was the utter destruction of one side.  In any large-scale fleet confrontation, usually at least a few ships escaped to fight another day.

Nevertheless, the Tallurans hadn’t escaped entirely without losses.  Khkrannas’ Third Squadron had lasted a matter of minutes, but they’d put up a desperately brave – if futile – fight. 

As with the Empress’ speech, there were certain protocols that had to be observed after battles and Flag Centurion Coruncanias was approaching with the after battle report. He saluted, his face sombre. Coruncanias allegedly had smiled four times in his life, once when he was married and once each at the births of his children.

Admiral Sabinus, who was quite close to her Flag Centurion, knew otherwise but she also knew that despite this great victory, he knew more about the nuts and bolts of the fleet, about the men and ships serving in it, than she did.

“Sir, reporting losses. The Heavy Battleship Apollonius Major, Captain Etrusius Cannaa commanding, with a complement of fourteen-hundred crew. We fear she was completely destroyed.”

Sabinus nodded, her face professionally impassive and grave while internally she winced at the loss of a good friend and mentor. Cannaa had been a senior and grizzled commander when she was a raw recruit, and had pulled every string he could to command a ship in the war. As he was one of the Empire’s greatest and most successful battle commanders in ship-to ship actions against pirates and in border skirmishes and having been a friend of the Empress’ adoptive father since their youth, the strings had succeeded in getting him not the small courier ship he was expecting, but the massive battleship after it had come out of the construction dock.

Of all the commanders in the fleet, only the old man had seen what whoever took command after the death of Admiral Khkrannas had almost instantaneously planned. The concerted rush by four of the newest and heaviest ships in the Khkerrikk fleet, Kha’drahk type Heavy Cruisers, had been poised to penetrate to the position of Tallura Regnatrix. And at Cannaa’s orders, the Apollonius Major had placed herself directly in their path, almost pulverising two of them with her weapons, ramming the third with her shields and at full speed had barrelled into the fourth, deploying full shields aft to deflect the blast away from the main body of the fleet.

The Apollonius was lost when the cruiser, ablaze from stem to stern but still moving at a tremendous velocity, smashed straight into the much larger, oncoming warship.  Multi-layered shields and heavy armour were no match for an impact of that magnitude and both the Talluran and Khkerrikk ships were instantly blasted to fragments in a massive explosion.

Coruncanias continued. “The Heavy Cruisers Livia Consortis and Julia Claudia Aprobatus were struck by multiple impacts of nuclear missiles, the Livia Consortis being destroyed and the Aprobatus severely damaged.”

Sabinus nodded again and held out her hand for the initial report. The Talluran Heavy Cruiser had been lost, with another heavily damaged, when two enemy vessels unleashed a full salvo of nuclear missiles apiece.  Enough of the missiles had leaked through Talluran point defences to do the job, though two Khkerrikk ships were also consumed by the overlapping nuclear blasts.

Between the Apolonius and the Livia being destroyed and the damage to Aprobatus, Talluran losses stood at two, maybe three ships and two thousand personnel.  Khkerrikk crew losses were anyone’s guess, but had to be many times that of their enemy’s.  Overall, in the cold calculus of war, the result could only be described as a decisive tactical and strategic victory for the Talluran Imperial Fleet. 

“Search and rescue operations were initiated according to standing orders as soon as it was safely feasible,” Coruncanias reported finally.

Considering the speed and ferocity at which the battle had been fought, both of them knew that it was likely that there were no survivors. But that could not be said without a search, and even if it wouldn’t be disastrous for morale to leave the battlefield without a full search, Sabinus knew that she couldn’t live with herself if even a single of her people was floating out there in a life pod.

But the worst part was that Sabinus also knew that she probably wouldn’t have lost a single Talluran, if it hadn’t been for her own tactical decisions.  She’d been forced to decloak her fleet in order to make certain that no Khkerrikk warship escaped, to spread the news about the crucial new Talluran development.  Not that the Khkerrikk were likely to produce an antidote anytime soon, even if they managed to obtain a copy of the device.  Ancient Alteran technology was difficult to reverse-engineer, even for the Tallurans, and it had required a massive effort to understand and copy the cloaking device.  By the time the Khkerrikk figured out how it worked and produced a counter-measure, a second-generation modification would already be in Talluran service.

Nevertheless, the longer the Khkerrikk, and as many of their enemies as possible, remained unaware of the latest twist in the constant Vedda Galaxy arms race, the better it would be.  And ensuring a tight cordon, to prevent any of the enemy cruisers from fleeing, had required a visible fleet.  With recently replenished missile stocks again running down, given the hundreds each Talluran ship had salvo-fired, it had also been necessary to decloak in order to employ their other weaponry.

“Did they succeed in sending a message?” Sabinus tore her eyes away from the vast debris field on the external viewer.

Her chief Communications Officer shook his head. “Jamming and EMP damage meant that they could only send a few brief signals.  Standard tactical code – easy to break – and what they did manage to send was vague and broken.”

In addition to the main fleet of warships, Sabinus’ force also included four Electronic Support Cruisers, modified versions of the Heavy Cruiser.  In addition to their own on-board jamming systems, these also deployed numerous mini-satellites and clouds of electronic countermeasures nanobots.  They could quite effectively block virtually all enemy signals in a system this size, especially when the opponent’s communications equipment was already heavily degraded by NNEMP blasts. 

“I would like to hear it,” the Admiral ordered, not willing to take any chances.

After unpacking the burst transmission, decrypting the signal, and translating the language, the high-pitched Khkerrikk voice was somewhat crackly and distorted, and punctuated by explosions in the background.  Nevertheless, it was clear enough for Sabinus’ purposes.

“Engaging bulk of Talluran Imperial Fleet…  Heavy losses…  Cannot…  Sensor lock is…”

“That is all?” Sabinus raised an eyebrow.

“There were no other signals of sufficient power to penetrate our countermeasures,” the Centurion assured her.

“Very well,” she turned to the Heavy Cruiser’s commander. “Are we detecting any life-pods?”

Fleet Centurion Coruncanias looked at the report on one of the monitors and shook his head. “There are no signs of life, Admiral.  It is possible, of course, that some pods could be hidden from her sensors by the wreckage, but doubtful,” thereby voicing what both Admiral and Centurion knew.

When their shields collapsed, Khkerrikk Heavy Cruisers seemed to have little staying power.  A few well-placed salvoes tended to blow them to pieces, leaving little opportunity for the crew to escape.  Talluran ships were much better protected, but Coruncanias knew that no one could possibly have survived the cataclysmic blasts that tore apart the Battleship and Heavy Cruiser.

“Detail two Light Cruisers to search for survivors on either side.  The rest of the fleet will proceed to our next target, as soon as we clear the debris and rendezvous with the Supply Fleet,” Sabinus ordered.

After her initial rush of elation at securing so decisive a victory, the Admiral was now feeling mournful.  It was impossible to maintain a feeling of euphoria for long, when so many had died, regardless of the side of the battle they fought on. She was sure that Cannaa, had he lived, would have gotten on splendidly with whoever had ordered that head on ramming attack on the other side. She hid a wistful smile that she would never get to see that meeting.

On the other hand, Sabinus firmly reminded herself, it was her job.  And now she had a war to win.  The next hyperspace jump would take the Imperial Fleet within striking distance of several Khkerrikk core worlds, now virtually unprotected, with the enemy home planet potentially within range in just over a week.  Then Emperor Kharrillion would truly see the results of his expansionist policies and rash declaration of war.

 

Emergency Command Post, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

“Just like the Federation versus the Borg!” Carolyn Lam muttered, awestruck by the one-sided finality of the Talluran victory.

“Geeking out much?” Faith smirked.  

Lam, as the only SGC member currently on Tallura Prime, had been invited into the Emergency Command Post as an observer.  Faith, as a bona fide Imperial hero, didn’t really need an invitation anywhere these days.  Somewhat bored, given that under wartime conditions, both Dawn and Joyce currently had more of a security detail than they cared for, she’d simply decided to hang with her shrink this afternoon.

“If you got the reference, it doesn’t say much for your TV habits,” Lam shot back.

Faith shrugged. “Locked up in a women’s jail, doc…  Kinda means you’ll watch any old re-run, even Star Trek.  ‘Sides, Jean Luc Picard really did it for me.  Some bald men just give me the full-on low-down tickle, if you know what I mean..”

“Yes, the tickle,” Lam noted dryly. “I’d best warn General Hammond when we get back.  But I’m pretty hard-pressed to find something that doesn’t have that effect on you.”

“Fricking great big meowww!”  Faith grinned and made a mock scratching gesture in the air with one hand. “Though if the General was as hot as Sam says when he was younger, I wouldn’t have minded a ride.”

Lam looked shocked and Faith smiled broadly at getting the reaction she wanted.

The smile faded and she grimaced. “I know it’s the bad guys, so this is good news... But dammit!  How the fuck did they win so easily?  Even with the whole invisible ship gig.  I mean, pretty much not what I’ve been hearing from everybody the last week or so.”

Drayana appeared beside them with sufficient stealth even to impress a Slayer.  She too seemed rather stunned, though obviously not unhappy, with the Talluran fleet’s victory.  She did, nevertheless, expect the impact to hit her at a later time.  There were a lot of dead on both sides.  Perhaps mainly Khkerrikk, but she was already vaguely uncomfortable and decided that a chat with Lam perhaps wouldn’t go amiss in a few days’ time.

“An excellent question, Diana.  And one for which I would like an answer…  Admiral Severan?” the Empress’ tones were soft, but impressively commanding.

The Imperial Guard Fleet Admiral was by her side in an instant. “Excellency?”

“I do not mean this as a criticism, but since this war began, I have heard nothing but doom and gloom from my senior military staff.  Namely, how we would be lucky to hold the Khkerrikk in the short-run and with a gloomy long-term outlook.

“Now, however, we are advancing on two separate fronts, the Star Empire’s fleet has virtually ceased to exist in the sectors closest to us, and our ships will soon be within striking distance of the most important Khkerrikk worlds.  According to General Piretus, they can neither reinforce fast enough to stop our fleet – if they could even see them – nor move a viable strike force within range of Talluran space.  Certainly not before we’re within range of their homeworld.  So what has changed, exactly?” Drayana sounded calmer than she felt, having nervously paced the floor of the Command Centre for the last two hours and only glad that the morning’s hellish hangover had finally abated.

Severan looked slightly sheepish, as one of the less optimistic of Drayana’s most senior officers.

“There are multiple factors involved here, Excellency.  Most important is the technological issue, of course.  The cloaking device proved to be a much more decisive factor than anticipated, given the enemy level of sensor technology.  Nor do we see a change in that for the foreseeable future, not against technology derived from that of the Alterans.  Our ships were also already markedly superior in all performance areas, but when your Excellency came to power, the increased funding for development allowed us to implement several upgrade programmes.  These came to fruition and reached the fleet just in time.  Our ships went into battle with vastly improved sensor and targeting systems, countermeasures, and weaponry,” the Admiral explained.

Drayana only looked partially convinced. “Anything else?  Because I am sensing that your uncertainty was based on more than a misreading of our technological lead.”

“Can’t pull the wool over her eyes,” Lam whispered to Faith, both of them also intrigued.

Severan nodded reluctantly. “There has been an – ah – how shall I put this?  Something of a perceptual gap.  Many of us have been in your service for many years, Excellency.  In that time – and for years before - the Imperial Fleet has not engaged in a major war.  Of course, our personnel were exceptionally well-trained, but they had not really been exposed to action on any scale.  In addition, since the time of Boudicca, we have watched the neighbouring races constantly advance technologically, while our own development slowed and has still never remotely recovered to anywhere near Alteran levels.  That created a certain uneasiness, perhaps exacerbated by the Regent’s defence economies, and the sheer number of enemies.  Enemies who seemed to be constantly in conflict with each other and were demonstrating a disturbing aptitude for warfare. There were only a handful who saw it otherwise.”

“And maybe the part where you didn’t think the Khkerrikk could possibly be so incompetent, or unprepared for a war they declared?  With an Emperor who’s a certifiable nutcase?” Lam hazarded a guess.

Severan nodded slowly and the SGC psychiatrist continued. “Had a bit of training in group psychology.  Can I hazard a guess here that only a handful of senior officers were actually involved in scenario planning?  I mean, you’ve had the intel on the Khkerrikk – and probably every other species – for years, so it’s got to be a matter of group insight.  Or lack thereof.  We call it Groupthink – where an experienced team of individuals can still make some monumentally screwed up analysis and decisions, because of skewed internal dynamics and perception.”

She could think of half-a-dozen examples from Earth, ranging from the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“If it is, then we must address the issue,” Severan agreed, somewhat soberly.

“Important though that insight is, for the moment we have a war to win,” Drayana reminded the commander of the Imperial Guard. “So what now?”

“Our twin offensives towards the heart of Khkerrikk territory should continue, perhaps at an accelerated pace.  We should, however, expect Kharrillion to find some alternative – and unpredictable - means of attacking us in our own space, given that he cannot successfully engage our forces in a fleet action – even if he had any warships left within range,” Severan replied.

“What we cannot predict, can still hurt us.  Perhaps badly,” Drayana noted. “Gather a team together – perhaps some fresh blood in addition to the usual experts – and try to get inside Kharrillion’s head, Admiral.  I want our security forces to be ready for all eventualities. Get some of those who saw it otherwise.”

Severan nodded soberly. “Yes, Excellency,” she hesitated. “Excellency? We have the preliminary report on our losses.”

Drayana suppressed her wince. She had asked to see the report. Like all the others she had seen the battle displayed and had seen the Talluran battleship explode, and the Cruiser. But there had been no names, just codes.

She held out a hand, into which Severan delicately placed a data chip, and then she fled the room.

Faith looked at the Admiral. “Bad? “

“The commander of the Apollonius, the Battleship destroyed, was a friend of her Excellency’s father. One of our more noted warriors. And the most vocal of those ‘who saw it otherwise’,” Severan said heavily.
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