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Key to the Stars

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

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

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > GeneralCordyfanFR1322266,6403127558,35414 Mar 1124 Jul 14No

Diplomacy and the Dogs of War - The Home Front

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 Vidicon, my ever-patient beta and sounding board.

 

 

Rooftop Gardens, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 22nd February 2001 (Earth Date)  

Drayana found her father standing motionless on the palace roof, watching the Talluran sun slowly sinking below the eastern horizon, the moons coming out and the first stars appearing in the darkening sky.  She took his hand and simply stood beside him, neither saying anything for some minutes.  The Empress knew her father would be sorely mourning the loss of one of his oldest, yet unlikeliest, friends, Captain Etrusius Canaa, killed when the Battleship he commanded, the Apollonius Major, was destroyed in battle near the planet Zaggarrak. 

The fact that this had been a major Talluran victory over the Khkerrikk Star Empire – actually, more of a one-sided war-winning slaughter – didn’t really make her feel much better.  The Empress was all too aware that any war inevitably resulted in casualties on both sides.  As a terrible reminder of that undeniable fact, over a quarter of a million Talluran troops had died the previous day in Khkerrikk nuclear strikes on Akkhorrazz, but it nevertheless felt very different when one of the fatalities was so familiar.  Canaa had, after all, bounced her on his knee when she was a mere baby, before her parents had died.

As an affable man who’d been very fond of, and kind to her as she was growing up, Drayana would miss him, too. He had been singularly unimpressed with the Regent and his ever-so-respectful remarks, that had always carried that extra edge, ultimately led to his being demoted, then reassigned to a desk job he was very good at, but utterly despised. Even Fen Ilarius had been unable to have one of Tallura’s most highly decorated soldiers drummed out of the service.

She would remember him for that courage when so many had merely fawned or bided their time. But mostly Drayana would remember him for his roaring laugh, first hearing it when he saw her then-Imperial Guardian’s, now mother’s, face after the two of them had returned from a very successful fishing trip on the largest of the palace gardens’ decorative lakes. She had been eight and neither fishing rod, nor boat, nor waders had been involved.

At length, her father sighed. “I suppose this is partially my fault…”

“How so?” Drayana demanded – she carried enough guilt for the whole family right now, without him going down the same path.

“Etrusius was weary of his administrative duties and desperate for a ship-command.  He asked if there was anything I could do to help, so I recommended him to people in all the right places.  He had only expected to be given a supply vessel, maybe a Patrol Cruiser at best, but instead they gave him a newly refitted Battleship,” Arius Myrnn replied, voice heavy with self-reproach. “Of course, Etrusius could not believe his good fortune.  Only twelve Battleships in the entire Imperial Fleet and he was given one of them.”

And his friend still would have been alive today, if the Fleet Staff had only given him a replenishment vessel, Myrnn reminded himself.  At least he’d played no part in Etrusius’ specific assignment.

Drayana fixed her father with her soft, but intense grey eyes. “With all respect, father, while you are rightly highly regarded as an educator and have some influence as my parent, Etrusius would only have been given such an important command on the basis of his service record, which I understand - and you very well know - was exemplary.  So you cannot accept the blame for this, just as I am beginning to realise that war with the Khkerrikk would inevitably have come, regardless of my own decisions and actions.”

The plans, captured on Zaggarrak due to an enormous Khkerrikk security breach, were extremely detailed. The Emperor apparently had a habit of carelessly tossing copies of the most secret battle-plans, ship designs, and notes on how to subjugate the Tallurans and their neighbours under his incredibly over-decorated bed, in his favourite palace on his birth-planet.  And knowing him, he then no doubt executed some guiltless servant for mislaying them.

Kharrillion and his War Leaders had worked up plans to attack and conquer most of the Khkerrikk Star Empire’s neighbours, with the Tallurans seemingly scheduled for the next few years.  Her own failings and bad luck might have precipitated that war, but on balance it now appeared to have been a fortuitous miscalculation.  Given time to prepare, and the element of surprise, the Khkerrikk might have assembled sufficient resources that the Talluran Imperial Fleet, no matter how superior in technical and tactical terms, would have been swamped.  Kharrillion’s rash decision to go to war prematurely had, however, effectively given her a chance to pre-empt his plans and victory for the Tallurans now seemed all but assured. 

Myrnn nodded reluctantly. “I suppose you are correct.  And Etrusius would certainly have preferred to pass on to the Goddess in this way, defending our people and giving his life to save that of others.”

“According to after-action reports, his actions saved the flagship and entire Fleet Command Staff from destruction.  We would still have won – by that stage of the battle, the Khkerrikk had lost too great a portion of their force – but probably more of our ships would still have been lost.  I am told that loss of the flagship would, at least briefly, have caused considerable confusion amongst our forces, until local command could be transferred to another vessel.   So I will mourn the loss of Etrusius and his crew with you, but we can at least be comforted that their sacrifice most likely saved others in this battle.  And potentially in others, given that the Fleet Command Staff includes some of our finest strategic and tactical minds,” Drayana offered, hoping that she didn’t sound too glib.

Everyone had been preaching at her in similar ways for days and she hoped it wasn’t beginning to rub off.  Drayana never wanted to be the type of ruler who could send her troops off to fight, without keenly feeling the loss of every single one who died. She’d continue to use the military instrument when necessary, but becoming disconnected from the reality of war might make it just too easy to employ at times.  The tricky part, she increasingly realised, was to balance an awareness of that reality, with an ability to take hard decisions.

“So we can win?  Many of your advisors were saying something different only a few days ago,” Myrnn pointed out.

“Indeed they were.  We have had – and will continue to have – some discussions on that matter…” the Empress’ grey eyes were positively flinty for a moment.  Her father suspected someone, perhaps several someones, would be facing at the very least a major reprimand, possible transfer to other duties – maybe even dismissal – when this war was finally over. 

“I am now assured, however, that Khkerrikk losses are such that - combined with our technological and strategic edge - they cannot recover.  Now we merely have to convince their idiot Emperor of that fact,” Drayana continued.

“And you must also win the peace,” her father pointed out quietly.

Drayana nodded.  Some of her closest advisors had already suggested that their cloaking capability might be a double-edged sword at the war’s end.  Derived from ancient Talluran and Alteran technology, none of the other powers could hope to either copy or defeat the cloaking system, and it therefore represented an entirely new element in the current power balance.  No one could say for certain how the other powers, even the Tallurans’ allies, would react to such a war-winning capability being in the hands of only one power. So unless they could keep the cloaking capability secret, which was unlikely, there might be massive unrest and fear even among their staunchest allies, especially after the unexpected victory over what had been one of the most feared and largest powers of the Vedda Galaxy. 

The Empress, therefore, was aware that she had to avoid even the slightest appearance of territorial ambition at the war’s end, else they’d be calling her Boudicca the Second and – at worst - declaring war before she knew it.  At the same time, while playing peacemaker, Drayana also had to ensure that the Talluran Empire’s military capabilities were maintained at a level where no foreseeable combination of enemies could pose a threat, while allowing whatever rump of the Khkerrikk Star Empire remained at least some defensive capability. 

One thing was certain, however.  Ilarius’ and his cabal had almost fatally weakened the Imperial Defence Force and a perception of vulnerability, however misplaced, had probably persuaded Kharrillion that it was safe to move against the Tallurans in advance of his plans.  Such a state of affairs couldn’t – and wouldn’t - be allowed to happen again.

“I could win the peace right now by challenging Kharrillion to single combat!” Drayana abruptly growled.

A number of the Vedda Galaxy powers still had rather archaic laws, allowing a leader or representative to challenge another in a fight to the death.  In Talluran law, it was certainly one of those holdovers from ancient times.

“Even if Kharrillion was agreeable, which I doubt he would be, given what I have read of his character, you will do no such thing!” her father told her sternly and also somewhat worriedly.

“You may be my father, but you cannot make decisions for me on matters of state,” the Empress reminded him mildly. “Besides, do you doubt my ability to beat him?”

She’d been taught to use a sword and dagger from a very early age and was expert in their use.  Imperial Guard tutelage and intensive practice had seen to that.  Nor had she merely learned the formalised duelling styles common to other species.  Drayana was trained in no-holds-barred close-quarter combat, Talluran style.  With edged weapons - sword in one hand, dagger in the other - and a set of razor-sharp, spiked knuckle blades on each hand, while also using her feet, shoulders, elbows, knees and head to good effect.  She’d literally carve up someone trained in any effete formal duelling system in a matter of seconds. 

Myrnn folded his arms. “I do not doubt your ability – Centurion Vesarian keeps me regularly updated on your progress, which has been remarkable, especially since you started to spar with young Diana…  I do, however, doubt your judgement, if you consider such a thing.  Skilled or not, accidents can happen.  And in the aftermath of this war, the Talluran people will need their Empress.  Or do you really want Sulvia to suddenly have all the burdens of rule thrust upon her?”

The thought of her unprepared little sister, even if she’d only be a figurehead, forced to assume the throne made Drayana wince.

She shook her head. “I would not. But even if I were suddenly overcome by insanity and you and mother failed to talk sense into me, Kharrillion would never agree to such a thing.  Certainly not on a personal basis and it would probably be unwise for him to nominate a ‘volunteer’ – if such a concept even exists within the Star Empire.”

On balance, Drayana suspected that no head of state, from any of the Vedda Galaxy powers, would acquiesce to single combat.  It was a great pity – things were so much easier in ancient times, when wars could be ended with a well-placed sword stroke.

She took one of his large hands in hers, playing with the calluses left by the old fashioned styluses and pens he preferred to use, much like she had done as a toddler. “But the Khkerrikk Star Empire is embodied as much by Kharrillion as I - reputedly - embody Tallura. Despite his insanity, there are still millions - if not billions - who would die for him if he called upon them.  Or worse, perform atrocities in his name.

“To say Kharrillion is mentally unstable is a massive understatement, and he is a leader of fanatics. And that is why I would challenge him, if I thought I could bring an end to this war. Because I am afraid of what he may do once he realises that his forces are facing utter defeat, that the Star Empire can no longer win.  As some of my advisors have suggested, while what is left of his fleet is far from here and unlikely to pose a direct threat, there are other less overt means of attacking us at home.  Perhaps involving fusion warheads and biological agents…”

“That is why we maintain a posture of deterrence against such attacks…” Myrnn began.

“I know our calculus of deterrence all too well, father,” Drayana grimaced. “Deliberate attacks on civilian targets with nuclear or biological weaponry will be cause for fourfold retaliation, at a minimum.  If such an attack occurs, it means that our declared deterrent posture has failed.  But if we do not then carry out our threat, we leave ourselves open to further attacks.  And if we do respond, then the potential for escalation is enormous, not just in this war, but every war that might follow.”

Her classes in deterrence strategy, delivered in cold, calculating terms at the Talluran War Academy, still gave her nightmares.  As ruling monarch, Drayana had final launch authority for a retaliatory response that could destroy entire worlds, and it entailed little more than a DNA and retinal scan and a few keystrokes.

“We can hope that it will not be necessary.  The Fleet’s current rate of advance – if the news reports are to be believed – might bring this war to an end before Kharrillion can retaliate, if he is indeed so foolhardy,” her father suggested hopefully.

“The news reports are to be entirely believed,” the Empress assured him – and there were things the news recorders knew nothing about, such as cloaking devices. “They may even be somewhat conservative in their estimates.  And Kharrillion is certainly sufficiently foolhardy.  Why else declare war on us before his fleet was concentrated within striking range of the Empire?”

She shook her head and stamped her foot. “Like I said, that is why it would be so much easier just to personally chop him into little pieces.  It is all the fault of that infernal demon creature!  Why could the fucking thing not decide to feast on his capital city, with that bastard Kharrillion as the main course?”

Myrnn chuckled. “I think that going from a duel to ‘chopping him into little pieces’ is quite a step. And it seems you’ve been doing more than sparring with Diana Prince, using those Terran terms. While I am all in favour of our language and its vocabulary expanding through contact with other cultures, there are limits.  And I would certainly suggest avoiding them around your mother, as you are already in a great deal of trouble with her…”

Drayana laughed nervously. “On account of everything that has happened today, my hindquarters were granted a stay of execution, until after breakfast tomorrow.  But then, as my youngest Terran friend would probably say, ‘I am so going to get it’…”

“I might be able to talk your mother into a reprieve.  You have been under a great deal of strain recently,” her father suggested.  He might be strict in the classroom, but at home he was much more lax.

Drayana smiled and shook her head. “The best Advocate in the Empire could not persuade mother to be lenient this time.  And I would not expect her to be, either.  Yes, I have been under immense pressure, but that is part of my role, one for which I have been trained, and also for which I receive a great deal of support, not least from my parents.  Crawling inside a bottle was no way to deal with it, as well as being foolish and dangerous on a number of levels.  Besides, being on the receiving end of my mother’s displeasure makes me feel comfortingly normal, in an odd sort of way…”

Myrnn wrapped an arm around his daughter and ruffled her long, black mane with the other. “You have always remained refreshingly ‘normal’ – whatever that means – my dearest daughter, but have always performed in an exceptional way when called upon to do your duty.”

“Does that mean I do not have to attend my next Pure and Applied Mathematics class?” Drayana asked hopefully, more sixteen-year-old Talluran schoolgirl than Empress of billions.

Myrnn wagged a finger under her nose and tried to sound stern. “It most certainly does not, Your Excellency!”

He broke into a smile. “But I could be persuaded to cut the lesson short.  As your mother has suggested, you need not spend so much time in the Command Centre.  You should spend more time with Dawn and your little sister.  Leave the battle-planning and the overall conduct of the war to the experts.  You should concern yourself primarily with the political and diplomatic aspects.  And leave at least some time to enjoy yourself.”

How much Myrnn wished he’d given her that last piece of advice when she was much younger, before taking the throne.  It was too late now, but as her father, he’d do his best to make life a little easier for her. He smiled up at the stars and remembered the look on Drayana’s face when she rode, dripping wet, on the shoulders of Etrusius Canaa, victorious over the fish in the Great Lake.

 

Joyce Summers’ Apartment, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

It was the Talluran equivalent of a weekend and purely out of habit, Joyce was thoroughly cleaning the apartment.  Strictly speaking, it wasn’t necessary, given that a small army of robotic vacuum cleaners and other apparatus swarmed through her temporary home every day.  Nevertheless, Joyce persisted in doing at least a little, lest she get out of the habit before returning home.  And the Talluran domestic ‘bots were also prevented from performing certain chores, so that Dawn similarly wouldn’t forget how to do them, either.  The youngest Summers, of course, would have been very happy to embrace the technology to its maximum.

Joyce was absently flipping the duster across a shelf lined with distinctly Graeco-Roman looking figurines, while simultaneously thinking about Buffy’s wellbeing, Logan’s safety, the latest news from the frontlines in general, various aspects of her fascinating – if sometimes mentally arduous - work with Sulla, and what to cook for dinner.  Who said a woman couldn’t multi-task, she thought wryly, as the door-chime sounded in the background.

“You know we have machines to do such things, Aunt Joyce,” Drayana pointed out, as she entered with her little sister skipping along by her side.

“Maybe here you do, but not back home on Earth.  Besides, it’s hard to ignore the habits of a lifetime.  It feels lazy – and just generally wrong - to completely give up on the housework,” Joyce shrugged.

“Is Dawn around?” the Empress looked disappointed that her young friend/cousin wasn’t anywhere in sight, especially since they’d spent little time together recently.

“She’s at the shooting range with Diana and Carolyn.  They ought to be finished blasting holes in things in the next twenty minutes or so,” Joyce offered, with a slight sigh. “Dawn’s actually getting quite good with a gun.  Given our situation – both here and back home – I’m not sure whether or not to be happy about that.  Because part of me doesn’t want my little girl to need any degree of expertise with weapons, of any kind, but circumstances appear to have rather forced our hand…”

On the other hand, using modern weaponry and techniques might just give Buffy and Cordelia a better chance of surviving under some circumstances, than would have been the case with the old Council formula of obsolete, often second-hand, sharp and pointy.  And anything that gave her other daughters a fighting chance at a longer lifespan than the Slayers who’d gone before was to be welcomed.

She shook her head and forced a smile.  “She was up quite early to practice.  Funny thing, but I can never get her out of bed in the morning when it’s a school-day.  Weekends, though?  She likes to be up early to best fill her time.”

Drayana grinned at her Terran ‘aunt’. “Excellent, as I have several interesting ways to fill her time today…  Possibly also yours, depending if you already have plans.”

Sulvia, meanwhile, was beaming and almost bouncing on the spot, clearly energised about something. “I hope you have no plans, Aunt Joyce!  Dawn and I will be doing something really cool!”

“ ‘Cool’?” Drayana raised an eyebrow at the Terran word inserted into her sister’s conversation, obviously one she was yet to encounter.  Hopefully, it wasn’t some Terran profanity she hadn’t yet heard.  For her to use such words, albeit carefully, at age sixteen was one thing, but if Sulvia started uttering the same, to say that their mother wouldn’t be pleased was a huge understatement.

Given the other terms the Empress had picked up from her daughter – and much worse from Carolyn Lam and Diana – Joyce was, meanwhile, vaguely surprised at the omission. 

She tried to think of a definition.  “It’s generally – but not exclusively – a word used by the younger generations.  Can mean all sorts of things – popular, nice, great, fashionable, laid-back, awesome – you get the picture?”

“I like it,” Drayana decided, with a nod.

“Please take a seat,” Joyce waved a hand towards the sofa. “Maybe a fruit drink while we wait for Dawn?  And a cookie for Sulvia…”

“Do I not get a cookie, Aunt Joyce?” the Empress mock-pouted.

“I might just manage that,” Joyce chuckled.

In her humour and general mannerisms, the young Talluran Empress, ruler of over twenty billion souls, could almost be like a younger Buffy at times.  In fact, twenty-year-old Buffy could also still sometimes deliberately not quite act her age.  Joyce was pretty sure they’d get along like a house on fire, if they ever had a chance to meet.

Drayana winced slightly as she sat down on the thickly upholstered couch.

Joyce raised an eyebrow. “Been a naughty girl, by any chance?  Not that it’s any of my business…”

Sulvia nodded vigorously, seemingly horrified, before her sister could reply. “Drayana got punished!”

“That is because Drayana behaved very foolishly and earned it,” the Empress told her sister. “Just as you have sometimes been punished when you have misbehaved.  And no doubt will be again in future…”

“But you are my sister!” the Princess-Imperial scowled, as if there was some massive difference.

Joyce smiled to herself at the almost familiar exchange.  When Buffy was younger, Dawn used to work mightily to get her into trouble, only to then be horrified when her efforts resulted in her older sister being grounded or otherwise punished.  Joyce only had to yell at Buffy for a young Dawn to burst into tears.  Similarly, Buffy still inevitably and swiftly made herself scarce, as only a Slayer could, when Joyce so much as raised her voice at her little sister. 

“Empress Lady Protector of all the Tallurans in law,” Drayana placed a hand on her little sister’s head. “But also sixteen-year-old Talluran girl by law and custom.  So if I do something wrong?  The usual custom… I get a spectacular view of the floor and mother’s feet, while her hand or sandal meets my rear rather vigorously.  And squeal in a most un-sovereign-like fashion.  Unlike others my age, I am very fortunate to miss the worst part, however.  My duties mean that I cannot be confined – ‘grounded’ in Terran terms, I believe - though mother can sometimes be otherwise inventive to make up for it…”  

Copying out lengthy tracts from archaic Talluran texts, for example. Lately her mother preferred using parts of the Constitution.  Somehow, she’d escaped that boring – but admittedly sometimes instructive – fate this time around.

“Can I ask what you did?” Joyce ventured.  Outwardly, the life of the Empress seemed too structured and full to permit much in the way of misbehaviour, but her Imperial ‘niece’ still seemed to find plenty of opportunity to get herself into trouble.

“Feeling sorry for myself and deciding that alcohol could best solve my problems.  Of course, I forgot a few things…  As monarch, I cannot afford to drink myself into a stupor, especially when we are at war, and I have enemies – both alien and domestic – who could capitalise on such weakness.  It also helps if I learn to read a label.  Cooking liquor is not beer or wine, after all.  In fact, it is rather toxic in its raw form and – ah – well…” Drayana blushed with embarrassment at the memory of her blunder and cringed at the after-effects.

“I’d guess that’s why you weren’t in lessons yesterday?” Joyce smiled sympathetically.

“Someone set off a planet-buster fusion warhead inside my skull and detonated a Naquadah warhead in my stomach, Aunt Joyce.  How can someone continue to vomit for six hours after there is nothing left?” The Empress was pretty sure she’d throw up next time she even caught a whiff of cooking liquor.  If someone had offered to shoot her in the head the previous morning, she’d have urged them to hurry up and squeeze the trigger.

“It was really horrible, Aunt Joyce!” Sulvia shuddered, as if she’d somehow symbiotically shared the experience with her sister. 

Hopefully, Drayana mused, listening to her communing with the Supreme Goddess of the Plumbing might persuade her sister not to do anything so stupid in future.  However, she suspected that every Talluran around her age – maybe every sentient species, in fact – had to relearn the same lesson.

“Then, I’d guess that was a much bigger lesson than any your mother could teach you, young lady,” Joyce recalled her own first hangover and shuddered.

“Anyhow, what’s this ‘cool’ thing you have planned for Dawn and I today?” she hurriedly changed the subject.

“Can I tell her?” Sulvia bounced on the edge of the sofa.

“I am not sure I could stop you, even if I wished to,” the Empress acknowledged tolerantly.

 

Imperial Palace, Khkarriak City, Khkerras, Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

Emperor Kharrillion scowled at his fearful military staff, the incompetent fools all but fouling themselves in their fear, he noted with satisfaction.  And well they might be.  Thanks to their incompetence, the Tallurans were systematically taking his forces apart a segment at a time.  What was worse, the number of major planets and minor colonies lost to their swiftly advancing fleets and armies was steadily rising by the day, as indicated by the red flashing dots on the war map.  He didn’t have to be a senior War Master to see that the twin-track Talluran offensive was steadily drawing closer to Khkerras from two different directions.

Just to add to the Star Empire’s woes, four of their ungrateful subject species were now in various stages of revolt.  It had started with the Ler’yoth, before spreading to the Ra’ulmi and the Qarraj, aided and abetted by Talluran special operations forces and, he suspected, similar elements from the ostensibly neutral Jarrassii Empire.  Now the Aklunt were showing signs of revolt, with sporadic acts of terrorism and even direct assaults on several Khkerrikk bases.  His armed forces, assisted by the Black Guard, would no doubt eventually snuff out the first three revolts, but they had already advanced too far for an instant solution.  The Aklunt on the other hand, had only started to rebel.  If he made a salutary example out of them, other species might think twice before rising in support of his enemies.

He turned two vindictive eyes towards War Master Breemakk and zoomed in on a section of the holographic map. “Do we have any ships within range of the Aklunt home system?  Or have you already squandered those, too?”

Breemakk only barely prevented the crest on his head from rising in anger. “Your Majesty, there are four ships within range, but they have insufficient ground troops aboard to suppress unrest on three planets…” he began.

Kharrillion sneered and waved a clawed hand in dismissal. “I am not proposing a ground invasion, War Master.  Order these three ships to close with the second planet of the Aklunt and have them raise every city, every town and every village from orbit.  That should be a sufficient message to their main planet and all of their craven species, as well as dissuading others from acts of treason.”

“We have many troops and officials on that world, Your Majesty,” Breemakk protested, suspecting that his Emperor would regard them as wholly dispensable.

“Give them two hours to evacuate by ship or gate,” Kharrillion countered. “Then lay waste to that planet, regardless.  If they had performed their duties correctly in the past, the Aklunt would not now be mounting this doomed rebellion.”

None of the assembled War Masters dared protest, as Breemakk transmitted the attack order.  The impassive Black Guard who lined the each of the four walls were a sufficient deterrent against disagreeing with the young Emperor, especially as many of the senior officers’ closest family members were currently held hostage on Kharrillion’s orders.

“Now I would like an explanation for the debacle on Zaggarrak,” Kharrillion ordered. “We should have had sufficient ships and troops to remove the Talluran filth from my world.  Yet somehow, you managed to lose the entire force, without any noticeable effect on the enemy fleet’s progress.”

Breemakk knew that the Emperor had spent the best part of the previous evening stomping, shouting, screaming and tearing his garments in fury at the scale of the defeat, especially as Zaggarrak was his birth-world and of tremendous symbolic importance.  To him, at least.  The War Master was more concerned with the loss of some of his best officers and a large force, what that loss meant for the conduct of the war – and it meant the worst, as far as he could see – and the means by which the Tallurans had so easily been able to ambush and utterly annihilate his fleet.

“We believe that they must have some new form of stealth technology, allowing them to close with our forces without being detected.  Combined, perhaps, with new weaponry.  Or perhaps their forces are much larger than we anticipated, Your Majesty,” Breemakk suggested.

He’d been aware that Talluran warship technology was several generations ahead of the Star Empire in all significant areas, but hadn’t thought it was sufficient to compensate for overwhelming numbers.  Of course, those overwhelming numbers – and no longer even slightly overwhelming - meant nothing when the Tallurans were able to destroy them a portion at a time.  Which was exactly what they’d been doing from the beginning of this war, due to Kharrillion’s haste, pride and strategic and tactical stupidity.

“Or perhaps our forces are simply more cowardly and incompetent than you give them credit for,” the Emperor hissed, moving into his usual default mode, namely to blame his officers and everyone but himself.

Breemakk summoned sufficient courage to defend his now dead fellow officers. “Your Majesty, I would remind you that not a single Khkerrikk returned alive from that battle.  I would consider that to demonstrate the courage of our forces.”

“Perhaps,” Kharrillion replied scornfully. “But it does not remove the charge of incompetence and failure.  Failure with self-sacrifice is still failure, is it not?”

He turned to one of the Black Guard. “I want the families of every War Master who died at Zaggarrak to be taken to the Great Square in Khkarriak City and shot at midday.  My officers will no longer be permitted to use death as a means of shielding their families from the consequences of failure.”

Breemakk snarled inwardly at his sovereign’s savagery, base ingratitude and utter disdain for the lives of those who served him.  He’d been raised on the necessity of utter and unquestioning loyalty to Empire and Emperor, no matter the cost.  Now he was beginning to have second thoughts and a plan was forming in his head.  Someone had to act soon, or the Khkerrikk Star Empire would only be a footnote in history.  Empress Drayana might not be Empress Boudicca, but her forces were proving just as formidable.  And if she were pushed too far, who could say that she might not use some of her fearsome ancestress’ methods?

“And the defences of this planet?” Kharrillion glared at Breemakk, who cursed his fellow War Masters for their complete silence and lack of support this morning.

“Within six days, there will be a hundred Heavy Cruisers and twice as many smaller Destroyer-class vessels available for our defence, Your Majesty,” Breemakk reported.

He left aside the reality that the Tallurans, at their current rate of advance – and they’d shown an ability to move much faster than anticipated – would be there in ten.  Given what had happened above Zaggarrak and against what would be the combined wings of the Talluran offensive, he also knew that his forces didn’t have a hope of stopping the enemy.  It was also too late to send them on a counter-offensive into Talluran space.  The Star Empire would already be firmly under the Talluran heel by the time they crossed the frontier, the richest parts of it most likely to be brought into the Talluran Empire.  And no doubt their neighbours would be squabbling over the scraps.

Kharrillion nodded. “We will make our stand here.  Impress upon your forces the importance of destroying the invaders, War Master.  Also emphasise the consequences of weakness and failure…”

If Khkerras fell, Breemakk reflected, the Black Guard’s firing squads would be the least of their problems.  The personal risks were high, but if something was to salvaged form this disaster, extreme measures might be required.  He began to compile a list – distressingly short – of those he could count upon to help him, discreetly for now, and without question.  

The Emperor languidly waved a hand. “You are all dismissed.  Master Khklin?  A word please…”

Breemakk, together with his fellow War Masters, bowed and hastily made for the door.  He wondered what Kharrillion wanted with Khklin, head of the Black Guard covert section.  The possibilities weren’t exactly comforting.

As the door closed, Kharrillion turned to his assassin-in-chief.  “As my War Masters are consistently failing me in military matters, I want some alternative means of taking the war directly to the Talluran people, Master Khklin.  I do not care what measures you have to use, who you have to bribe, threaten, or otherwise use to help you achieve this mission.  The Tallurans must be made to pay a heavy cost for daring to threaten the Star Empire.  I want them dying in large numbers within four days.  Then we shall see how long their Empress takes to come crawling to me with a peace proposal!”

Even Kharrillion’s faithful and utterly amoral chief killer was somewhat taken aback.  With the Talluran Fleet deep inside their space and heavily armed with weaponry capable of destroying entire planets, he wasn’t sure how advisable these orders actually were.  It was not, however, his place to argue.  If he did, his successor would no doubt be more compliant.

“I have some contacts who may be able to help, Your Majesty,” Khklin acknowledged, a plan already forming in his head. 

If Kharrillion wanted the Tallurans to suffer, he could certainly arrange that in the short term.  Even if there was a high probability that his actions would result in a Talluran Battleship appearing over every major Khkerrikk world and raining down fiery and irreversible vengeance. 

 

Imperial Shuttle, Heading for Imperial Defence Force Shipyards, Tallura Secundus – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

“This is so cool!” Dawn stared out of the shuttle observation dome, fascinated by the scene before her.

“I knew you would say that,” Sulvia chirped perkily by her side, equally awed.

Admittedly, for anyone not familiar with the facility, the Imperial Defence Force Shipyards could be a breath-taking sight.  Mile upon mile of semi-automated construction docks, dedicated to assembling and maintaining the most powerful ships in the Imperial Fleet, and currently operating at full wartime capacity.  Earth’s largest maritime shipyards would have fitted in a corner of this one.  It was also only one of five such facilities currently operational within the Empire, with a sixth being brought out of mothballs.

Flying into the huge observation dome aboard Drayana’s personal shuttle – they could have transported directly aboard, but the Empress decided the experience would be more impressive the old-fashioned way – Dawn was speechless at the sheer size of the two brand-new Battleships.  The shuttle was tiny by comparison with the massive warships, biggest, fastest and most powerful in the known Vedda Galaxy, armed to the teeth and capable carrying thousands of troops and their equipment, plus two hundred fighters and a sizeable transport shuttle complement.  Resembling a considerably scaled-up Heavy Cruiser, the stingray-shaped Battleship was the very epitome of Talluran military power and technology. 

“Damn,” Diana muttered as she looked up at the deceptively gentle curve of the ships’ hull. “That’s a big motherfu-”

She gulped at Joyce’s cough and glare, looking back over her shoulder to see if anyone might have heard her whisper.

But where Faith was entranced by the sight of the ships, to Dawn it was the view of the blue and green globe of Tallura Prime and its four pale moons in the further distance and the brown-yellow planet of Tallura Secundus, below them, the latter orbited by its somewhat smaller sister planet, Tallura Tertius. 

They weren’t, Dawn mused, very original in choosing names, but the view of these worlds was so awe-inspiring, the very notion that she was in space so marvellous, that it was almost impossible for her to sit still. She completely loved space travel.  Even if her flight in a Comet-class fighter had been way more exciting than the more sedate Imperial shuttle. Then the shuttle banked, initiating the approach protocol, granting the occupants a clearer view of the two worlds, Secundus brown, arid and almost uninhabited, and Tertius, lush and almost covered entirely in green.

“Omigod, this is so cool!” Dawn repeated.

“I knew you would say it again,” Sulvia said, rolling her eyes slightly. She might have even less experience of space travel than her adopted cousin, but she had lived with the idea of it her entire life.  

“Actually, so did I,” Drayana smiled knowingly. “And it is only about to get even more cool…”

Almost as one, Sulvia and Dawn turned their heads towards the Empress, wondering what else was coming their way.

“These two ships need someone to launch them.  So I thought you might enjoy the honour,” Drayana continued.

Dawn blinked. “Don’t know much about this stuff, but back home I think it’s usually important people who launch ships.  There’s usually a bottle of champagne and flowers and speeches and things…”

“We usually ask the children of important people to conduct the launch,” the Empress replied.

In this case, she’d been asked to launch the Battleships, but she’d already officiated at plenty of such ceremonies in her young life and protocol allowed her to nominate others in her place.  It would, therefore, be another step in familiarising Sulvia with some of her official duties, even if Drayana fervently hoped she wouldn’t ever have to take over the full range, while it would also be another memorable experience for Dawn to take home with her.     

“We’re not important…” Dawn protested, suddenly and irrationally afraid that she’d ruin the entire ceremony. “Well, Sulvia’s really important, with the whole Princess Imperial, but I’m just…  Well, I’m just me!”

Drayana pursed her lips mock-sternly. “You are important to me, young cousin.  A guest of the Imperial Household.  Do not ever forget it!  And why do you think you both have new dresses today?”

Dawn had awakened this morning, delighted to find a brand new dress by her bed, from the same dressmakers who’d made her beautiful gown for the Gathering.  This was somewhat less flamboyant – actually, it was one she could almost wear formally back home on Earth – and she loved it immediately.  Drayana had been vague about the reasons for the gift, but now Dawn understood.

Her eyes widened. “But what if I totally mess this up?”

“You had best not make a mistake, Dawn.  It is considered exceptionally bad luck if a ship-launch goes wrong…” Drayana responded, straight-faced, while winking slyly at Joyce.  The Empress didn’t take such things particularly seriously.

“It’s bad luck back home, too.  If the bottle doesn’t break, if the ship’s name is changed, if it doesn’t launch properly – all sorts of ways.  So you’d better listen carefully, young lady,” Joyce played along.

She was every bit as impressed as her daughter by the panorama outside.  The gargantuan dock floating in space, with the desert planet below and verdant Tertius just passing out of sight behind its larger, inhospitable sister.  Then there were the innumerable stars and unfamiliar constellations.  And somewhere out there was the key to the classified project she was now so deeply involved in.

“It is really quite simple,” Drayana was assuring both Sulvia and Dawn. “And I do not believe in all that foolish talk about bad luck, either.”

Joyce chuckled to herself.  In Buffy’s absence, the Empress had easily assumed the duty of low-level Dawn-teasing.  The youngest Summers still looked like a rabbit caught in the headlamps, but she was relaxing already.  Drayana was very good at that, partly due to her own nature, partly no doubt due to her training.  Joyce also had no doubt, however, that incompetent members of the Proconsulate and armed forces rarely saw that side of their Empress.

She turned her eyes spaceward again.  The Empire might be at war, but Drayana was making sure that Dawn had a wonderful set of memories to take home with her.  Joyce also had no doubt whatsoever that her daughter would be interrogated mercilessly about her experiences by everyone from Buffy and Cordelia, to Cassie, to Daniel Jackson.  At least Dawn was beginning to appreciate that she really ought to make the most of her experiences, as no one else back on Earth could say that they’d enjoyed the same privilege.  Of course, her daughter also couldn’t ever share those experiences with most of those others nor, indeed, could she ever know the real reason behind her being transported several galaxies away with such urgency.

“So what are these ships going to be called?” Dawn asked.

“I name this ship the ‘Don’t fuck with me…’’’ Diana muttered, then noticed a positively scary, warning expression in Joyce’s eyes.

The message was clear.  Not in front of the kids.  She glanced away and decided never to make fun of B and Queen C again, when they said their mom could be almost as frightening than anything they met in the night

“What are all those cute little one-man pods?” Joyce’s instinctive glare was quickly replaced by a pleasant smile.

Drayana followed the others’ eyes. “Oh, those are just Personal Movement Pods, PMP’s, used for hull inspections and repairs, but mostly in safe locations, though they are also used for Extra Vehicular Activities.”

“And races,” Diana heard herself add.

“Races?” Drayana asked. “What sort of races?”

“Ummm…” Faith wondered how she would get out of this one.

“I believe engineering students and young pilots sometimes use them to test their reaction times by seeding an area of space with small, soft obstacles and running a gauntlet through them, Your Excellency,” Vesarian, who had kept silent until now, told her.

Drayana looked intrigued. “Really? Would it be considered good practice for emergency drills?”

Vesarian winced. “It has been used as such, yes Your Excellency.”

“Hmmm,” Drayana exchanged a look with Dawn, who was grinning widely at the possibilities. “How did you know, Diana?”

The Slayer didn’t meet the Empress’ eyes. “Helia told me.”

Drayana let out an ‘ah’ of understanding. “Did she win?”

Diana looked up, slightly surprised at the understated reaction, having expected a little more unhappiness at her revelation. “She said she won the College Cup or something for like, a few years running.”

Vesarian frowned. “That would take considerable skill.” 

Diana shrugged. “You’d have to ask her. I thought she was joshing me.”

“But what are the ships going to be called?” Sulvia asked impatiently, having become bored with watching the slow progress of the PMP’s as their occupants checked the Battleship’s hull once more before launch.

Drayana smiled. “We will know only when the ceremony begins.  Warship names are most often selected by public ballot, but the chosen name is traditionally kept secret until that time.”

Two more Battleships for the fleet were a valuable addition, she considered.  Three more brand new ships of that type plus seven Heavy Cruisers were currently being readied for their first operational cruise, while another nine Heavy Cruisers would be completed within the next two weeks and six more inside a month.  Drayana silently thanked the Goddess that she’d initiated a rearmament programme about a year previously.  These were the first results of that programme, with many more ships due to be built as a result of the new Rearmament Law put into force after the Address, and even more would result from the emergency programmes introduced with the outbreak of war.  While the latest ships had been ordered and built at a somewhat leisurely pace, the Tallurans could, in an emergency, produce a Heavy Cruiser-sized vessel in just under three months, working around the clock and exploiting their advantages in nanotech-assisted construction. 

Ultimately, the Imperial Fleet would emerge considerably larger, with major qualitative improvements.  Of course, therein lay her quandary.  With the end of the war with the Khkerrikk in sight, did she continue the reconstruction plan, thereby potentially making the neighbours wary of Talluran intentions?  Or did she continue, on the basis that a larger fleet would mean no one in their right mind would attack the Empire?  The Imperial Fleet certainly had to grow to a certain extent.  Just about every major warship the Tallurans possessed was at present engaged in Khkerrikk space, so the ability to fight more than one enemy at a time was currently almost non-existent.  The offensive against the Khkerrikk had relied on reliable allies – the N’Gluk and the Triannites – providing at least a modicum of protection for the major Talluran planets.  In doing so, they’d also dangerously weakened their own security.  And that was too much to ask of any ally more than once and for anything but the shortest possible time, in direst of emergencies, in Drayana’s opinion.

At least she had yet another ally now.  More than an ally, actually, if the Imshai had their way.  That species didn’t just want an alliance, they wanted to join the Talluran Empire – and in spite of the current war situation.  She’d awakened this morning to the news that the Imshai had declared war on the Khkerrikk Star Empire.  To prove their credentials, the Tallurans’ formidable new friends were providing three-dozen of their most advanced heavy warships to reinforce the Empire’s defences.  At the same time, a large force of Imshai troops were currently being transferred to Talluran-held Khkerrikk planets, using the Imshai’s Astria Porta network.  A fearsome warrior race, they were keen to demonstrate their abilities as shock troops.  Having met a few of them, Drayana almost – almost – felt sorry for the Khkerrikk. 

 

Imperial Defence Force Shipyards, Tallura Secundus – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

The powerful voices of the massed and be-robed Imperial Defence Force choir faded away into the background, as Sulvia and Dawn nervously took their places at the suitably-dimensioned podium/control panel.  Each had been fully briefed by the Shipyard’s Port Admiral and had privately rehearsed several times, on a mock up that had been prepared in a small room next to the Reception Chamber, and the Empress had assured them that there was nothing to worry about.  Nonetheless, both were still somewhat edgy, especially in front of a crowd of Talluran civilian dignitaries, alien diplomats, and senior military personnel, and in the full glare of the Empire’s news media.  Such spectacles were, after all, excellent for morale in time of war.

Dawn and Sulvia anxiously glanced over their shoulders to where assorted parental figures were watching with pride – and not a few nerves of their own – and to where an Imperial Guard honour party was presenting arms.  Drayana simply nodded slightly, a small smile on her face, encouraging them both to proceed.

Sulvia was first, voice wavering only slightly at first. “In the service of the Talluran Empire, Her Excellency the Talluran Empress, and the Talluran people, I am greatly honoured to name this Battleship, Drayana Imperatrix.  If the Goddess is willing, may she give long and worthy service, protecting the Empire and all the gallant warriors who will serve in her.”

For a seven year-old, Joyce reflected – in fact, for someone of any age, given the audience of an entire Empire – it was a very creditable performance.  By her side, she heard Drayana and her parents gasp quietly with surprise.  They hadn’t known the name of the ship until now.  To Joyce, it made perfect sense, however.  What other name would the Talluran people, in time of war, choose for a powerful new ship, other than that of their beloved Empress?  More than that, it was a very powerful statement of Imperial unity. 

A powerful statement that had even the Ch’Hanis representative looking suitably nervous, though as usual it was impossible to gauge what the Zaharte was thinking.  For now, they were temporarily assisting the Tallurans, but neither were exactly friendly species.  At least they were getting a close view of the ship-class that was currently taking the Khkerrikk Star Empire’s fleet apart, with what presumably would appear to be disconcerting ease if you weren’t a friend of the Tallurans.  Or perhaps even if you were.

There were certainly a number of friendly ambassadors present, too, of course.  Triannite and N’Gluk – both more alien than any of the species Joyce had yet seen – and a very impressive-looking Imshai, who resembled a bipedal polar bear on steroids and even seemed to make the Ch’Hanis nervous.  She wasn’t overly surprised at that.  The huge furry mammalian had much larger teeth than its reptilian counterpart and also the edge in size and bulk. And it tended to grin with all its teeth whenever it looked at the Ch’Hanis ambassador, too.

It was just a pity that Wade Logan wasn’t here to see this, Joyce thought.  The latest version of the Tallurans’ most powerful warship class, one which the Colonel was convinced would cause most Goa’uld ships to cut and run.  And one which apparently had more than enough ‘big honking space guns’ to satisfy even O’Neill.

Dawn was next to deliver her speech. “In the service of the Talluran Empire, Her Excellency the Talluran Empress, and the Talluran people, I am greatly honoured to name this Battleship, Sulvia Filia Imperialis.  If the Goddess is willing, may she give long and worthy service, protecting the Empire and all the gallant warriors who will serve in her.”

Sulvia Filia Imperialis.  Sulvia, daughter of the Empire, Joyce noted.  She wondered how many top-of-the-line warships back on Earth – or puny little patrol boats for that matter – had been named after a seven-year-old.

Sulvia, meanwhile, promptly squeaked in surprise, embarrassment and delight, the sound and spectacle of the flustered youngster being transmitted across every Talluran world, as the audience tried hard not to laugh too loudly.  The Empress, meanwhile, left the assembled group and joined her little sister and friend/cousin, placing a supportive hand on each of their shoulders, whispering congratulations into their ears.

The pair nevertheless almost jumped out of their skins, as the band once more began to play and the choir once more broke into song, a somewhat louder, more upbeat and martial air compared to the relatively sombre piece – a supplication to the Talluran Goddess - they’d started the ceremony with.

The two younger girls, meanwhile, leaned over and each pressed a button.  The two enormous Battleships, still secured to the even larger dock by physical mooring clamps, were suddenly bathed in a spectacular display of coloured lights, hundreds of variations of every colour of the rainbow sparkling off their reflective hulls.  Simultaneously, lasers traced the ships’ names and registration numbers, revealed for the first time, and squadron after squadron of Comet-class fighters swooped past in ceremonial flypast formation, releasing clouds of exo-atmospheric fireworks behind them.  A Triannite Heavy Cruiser, protecting the yard, also flew past slowly, dipping a wing in that species’ salute to a new warship.

A few moments later, the docking clamps on the two ships smoothly retracted into the dock superstructure and the new pride of the Talluran Imperial Fleet slowly moved away from their berths, surrounded by swarms of fighters and two squadrons of small Patrol Cruisers.

After a few more minutes of display, the ceremony came to a close, and the inevitable official reception began.  Joyce was gazing out of the window as Drayana appeared alongside her.

“Dawn did extremely well, before so many people, and at such short notice,” the Empress noted.

Joyce nodded her agreement and glanced over to where Dawn and Sulvia were surrounded by assorted Talluran officials.  She hoped Dawn wouldn’t say the wrong thing and blot her copybook, but the locals seemed quite enchanted by the two youngsters and fascinated by the young Terran.  For the moment, the latter was doing her best butter-wouldn’t-melt act and fluttering her eyelashes disarmingly.  It also worked very effectively, Joyce reflected, with just about everyone except Buffy and herself.

“So how does it feel having such a ship named after you?” Joyce asked, pointing to the huge Battleship now floating in the distance.

“I am very pleased and proud that the people would choose to name a warship after me.  And after Sulvia, too.  Especially as I have not been on the throne for very long – perhaps insufficiently long to deserve their favour,” she hesitated for a moment. “In truth, I would rather they had named a luxury liner after me…  The tone of the ceremony seems a little inappropriate with us at war.  This is, after all, how we normally celebrate a launch in peacetime.  But the morale of the people is all important.  And with the news of the victory on Zaggarrak – which has overshadowed our dreadful casualties on Akkhorrazz – their morale is currently good, so it seemed advisable to do everything possible to maintain it.”

She sighed. “The optimistic part of me hopes that the mere existence of such mighty ships might mean that my new flagship need never be used in anger.  But from what I have learned of diplomacy and warfare, especially of late?  I should probably not be foolishly naïve.” 

“From what Wade – Colonel Logan – tells me, my home planet could really use a few of those to defend us from these darned Goa’uld,” Joyce offered, unfortunately not able to contradict her on the naivety point.  Warfare, it seemed, was as endemic in the Vedda Galaxy as it was in the Milky Way.

The Empress nodded. “If we can solve the problem of swift inter-galactic travel, Aunt Joyce, then your planet will be under our protection.  I have not forgotten that it was one of you who saved my life, nor have the people.”

Unlike the Asgard, Drayana thought darkly, she kept her word in such things.  While the Empire didn’t currently need their help, their mere presence might have sufficed to end the war almost before it began.  On the other hand, maybe they were testing her – and the Talluran people in general – to see if they could stand on their own two feet against one of the two regional superpowers.  Or perhaps they had problems of their own, even if the Empress couldn’t imagine who, or what, could begin to threaten the Asgard.   

“You sheltered my daughter.  It was the least we could do,” Joyce replied, slightly uncomfortably.

“I am forever in your people’s debt, Aunt Joyce, and Diana’s name will always be an honoured one,” the Empress repeated solemnly.

Not only had the Slayer taken down one of her would-be assassins, but she’d also provided a source of life-saving anti-venom.

“You may just have changed my life, too, Drayana.  I don’t think I can simply return to selling art, not after everything I’ve experienced here,” Joyce admitted.

“If you assist us in tracking down a significant quantity of Alteran knowledge or technology, then we will never pay off our debt to you!” Drayana chuckled.

“But I’m learning so much, it’s nothing but a pleasure,” Joyce assured her. 

Working for the so-called Alteran Cultural Survey had awakened an appetite for learning she hadn’t felt in a long time.  The Master’s degree in Art History she’d been considering before coming out here no longer seemed quite enough.  Perhaps she ought to think about a graduate degree in Astronomy or Archaeology instead, she mused.

A liveried waiter, bearing a tray of wine glasses, quietly approached them and Drayana and Joyce both quickly switched the topic of their conversation away from the still-classified project.  Joyce accepted a glass of an excellent Talluran vintage, but noted that the Empress politely declined and almost seemed to go slightly green around the gills.

She smiled. “Still feeling slightly queasy?”

“Not as such, Aunt Joyce,” Drayana replied with a shudder. “But it will take more than a few days to forget!  Now I know what the Fourteenth Circle of Hell actually means…  An eternal – ah - ‘hangover’, I believe you called it.”

 

Zamarrakk, Khkerrikk Star Empire – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

“All ships assume attack formation and engage as soon as we are within range,” Centurion Volesian Damasius ordered crisply, as the Talluran strike force emerged from hyperspace and closed with its target, his Heavy Cruiser Falconius in the lead.

“Targets acquired and weapons locked,” the Weapons Officer confirmed from his console, the Heavy Cruisers maintaining full battle-spread.

The second prong of the Talluran offensive was now deep inside one of the most densely inhabited regions of Khkerrikk space, its continuing mission primarily to target enemy war-making capabilities.  The bulk of the Talluran Heavy Cruisers were engaged in devastating raiding tactics, dropping out of hyperspace without warning, overwhelming paper-thin enemy defences, then knocking out assigned targets, before moving on.  Behind them, ground forces advanced more steadily, mounting a series of assault landings to occupy territory, or destroy enemy forces and facilities, as required.

This time, the target was an enemy construction dock, a dozen Heavy Cruisers tasked with its destruction and that of any other orbital structures in the system, plus a logistics hub on the surface.  Intelligence had also identified a large enemy troop convoy, no fewer than two-dozen transports packed with Khkerrikk ground forces, assembling here and a sitting target.  Against their attackers, the Khkerrikk could field a pair of Heavy Cruisers of their own, plus three elderly Destroyers, the latter over-sized and under-armed craft halfway between a Talluran Light Cruiser and Patrol Cruiser in capability.  Standing orders said that the Tallurans weren’t to cloak for a force of that meagre size and strength, keeping the still-secret capability for when they were heavily outnumbered or outgunned, or when surprise was absolutely paramount.

“Firing now,” the Weapons Officer confirmed, as Falconius and her consorts opened fire with their Particle Cannon in EMP mode.

The Continuous Wave Neutral Particle Cannon was a unique system in the Vedda Galaxy. Until the development of the cloaking technology, it had been the pride of the Imperial Research Laboratories and the Imperial Defence Forces’ most secret weapon. Particle Cannon were designed specifically to be more effective against normal energy shields than standard Plasma Cannon.  Typical shield systems were most effective against charged particle impacts – such as plasma blasts – and large projectile impacts.  The Particle Cannon had two modes available.  The first employed a very high-powered Non-nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse to weaken shields.  In the second mode, it was essentially a very high-powered particle accelerator, powered directly from the hyperdrive and projecting a very narrow beam of neutrons – largely from heavier isotopes of Naquadah – at close to the speed of light.  Using the second mode, the beam was very effective at penetrating even slightly weakened shields, opening up the unprotected hull below like a knife through butter.

“They’re turning towards us,” another officer checked his readouts, as the Khkerrikk defenders vainly tried to close the range.

“Shields collapsed on the Destroyers and down by thirty percent on the Heavy Cruisers.  Destroyers showing major signs of EMP disruption to major systems,” the Weapons Officer reported, as the three older vessels dropped out of formation.

The two remaining Khkerrikk warships – a new Kha’drahk-class Heavy Cruiser and a similar but older and slightly smaller Kh’drennek-class – doggedly closed, releasing a salvo of missiles apiece.

“No one can say that they are not brave,” Damasius acknowledged with a sigh.  Given these odds, no one could have blamed the enemy for turning tail and running, but few Khkerrikk had fled the field of battle so far in this war.

 “Weapons?  Destroy them now,” he ordered.

As point-defences knocked down the Khkerrikk missiles, the Tallurans returned the favour tenfold.  First the Heavy Cruisers were torn apart by Particle Beams and plasma bursts, then the trio of crippled destroyers were similarly reduced to floating scrap.

Half of the Talluran ships then peeled away to deal with the Khkerrikk troopships, which were desperately trying to get underway, while the other half headed straight for the massive dock and an orbital relay station, swatting the enemy orbital defence platforms like so many irritating flies.

“So what do we have?” Damasius asked, as Falconius’ sensors probed the primary target.

“Five Kha’drahk-class ships under construction, three Kh’drennek-class and four transports in refit and maintenance, sir,” his aide replied, checking the data from the sensors, even as the other division tore into the vulnerable Khkerrikk troopships and their helpless cargoes.

Damasius nodded. “Engage at will and launch fighters to hit assigned surface targets.”

The unfinished enemy ships and those undergoing maintenance – all immobile, unshielded and unarmed – were gone in a blink.  Then the Talluran ships almost leisurely began to demolish the miles of complex lattice framework that made up the construction dock.  Simultaneously, swarms of Comet-class fighters surged from their launch bays to strike at specific precision targets on the planet below.

“At least it cannot be said that we are indiscriminately targeting civilians,” Damasius remarked grimly to his aide. “But it all just seems so terribly merciless…”

Even with his twenty-eight years of active service, the Centurion was still shocked at how one-sided this war actually was.  Of course, that was how wars ought to be waged.  Short, sharp, and without giving the enemy any chance at all.  Valiant last-stands against helpless odds made for good war stories, but they generally meant someone had made a grave error.

“I believe that is the general idea, sir,” Damasius’ aide replied, as a sensor sweep revealed that every target in orbit had already been swiftly and ruthlessly destroyed. “They should not have started a war if they were unprepared for the consequences and ill-equipped to fight it.”

The Centurion smiled wryly at the impossibly young woman he’d been assigned as aide, though he didn’t say a word.  Fresh out of War College and utterly self-confident, she and others like her were the future of the Imperial Fleet.  This was her baptism of fire and he just hoped that she wouldn’t become too confident and complacent.  At some point in the future, the Talluran Imperial Fleet would encounter an enemy just as capable, if not more so, as themselves.  He hoped that it wouldn’t be in his aide’s lifetime, but she’d have to learn to at least consider the possibility.

 

Drayana’s Apartment, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

“You are most certainly not leaving this palace looking like that, Drayana!” Livia told her daughter firmly, while casting her eyes disapprovingly over Dawn.  Or rather, over Dawn’s make-up.

“I think it looks kinda neat…” Dawn muttered defensively, glancing in the mirror, then at her mother, the latter privately wondering what would happen if the miniskirt was ever introduced to the Talluran Empire.

“I don’t think I’d be letting you dress up like that in public, either, if you were a head of state, honey,” Joyce replied quietly, as Livia folded her arms and the Empress Lady Protector of all the Tallurans affected a mighty pout.

It had been one heck of a day, Dawn reflected.  Not only had she had a space flight – which was always ten kinds of awesome – but she’d also launched a ginormous Battleship, named after her friend’s little sister.  The day wasn’t even nearly over, either.  Tonight was the long-awaited Crimson Supernova concert, being held despite the war, as yet another morale boosting effort.

Joyce had politely but firmly refused an invitation, pointing out that she was actually quite attached to her hearing.  According to Faith, who’d enthusiastically listened to some of the band’s music, their distinctive sound was quite close to Terran Death Metal.  The accepted look associated with their music was, however, somewhat closer to Goth, with dark colours predominating.  Admittedly, typical gig outfits, as opposed to those worn by individuals who subscribed to a particular lifestyle look, seemed to blur on Tallura Prime.  Joyce had grudgingly given her daughter permission to dress up accordingly, and Dawn was now clad in a long midnight blue dress with faint silver stitching, hair styled and streaked with dark blue highlights, white make-up and dark blue lipstick.  Faith wasn’t usually one for dresses, either – especially at a concert - but after making the point that she was a rock chick and most emphatically not a Goth, she’d made an exception for tonight.  Dressed in the same way, she looked uncannily similar to her young charge.  And also unnervingly like someone else from certain angles.

“If Buffy saw either of us right now, she’d be reaching for a fricking stake!” Faith snickered, twirling in front of the mirror. “We look like Drusilla and her kid sister, but with most of the sanity.”

She shook her head.  “This place is really getting bad for the image.  Dressing up for the Gathering, making with the pseudo-Goth look…  Just as well B and Queen C aren’t here, ‘cause they’d be laughing themselves silly.”

“No one else here who knows you, Diana,” Joyce reminded her. “Besides, tonight is all about you having fun.”

She very carefully refrained from telling Diana that she’d already taken a number of  surreptitious photos of them while they were changing and doing their make-up, and while they were admiring the finished product in the huge mirrors in Joyce’s dressing room.

“Damn right I will…  Haven’t been to a good rock gig in so long…  Last time was when I snuck into a Megadeth concert in Boston,” Faith smiled sadly, remembering Diana Dormer’s horrified reaction.

“Are you sure Dawn really ought to be going to something like this?” Joyce still had some residual doubts.  After all, back home, it would be a number of years before she allowed her youngest to go to a rock concert.

“Mom…” Dawn started to protest, afraid her mother would change her mind.

“Oh yeah.  This has gotta be an important part of little D’s education – cultural whatsit and all that.  ‘Sides, she’ll be in safe hands, Joyce.  Half the fricking Imperial Guard are coming along, even Vesarian…  Hates the music – says it totally isn’t his thing – and it isn’t even his shift, but he’s tagging along.  Plus three other guys, five of the Amazons from Sulvia’s detail, and Laelia Tarquinia from yours.  And little ol’ me – who can take any three of them - so I think it’s kinda overkill, but Vesarian reckons it’s just enough for a big public gig like this.”

For the first time since the reign of Boudicca the Damned, there had been near-mutiny in the ranks of the Imperial Guard.  Apparently Crimson Supernova and their music provoked extreme emotions.  People either loathed it with a fiery passion, or were fanatical devotees.  Within the Protective Division, the latter were a definite minority and while a number of fans were ecstatic at having secured this duty slot, a few others had to be pressed into service by drawing lots.  Or, according to Vesarian, a fully-charged PCW held to a ‘volunteer’s’ head was a great motivator.

Drayana and her mother, meanwhile, were engaged in high-level and intense diplomatic negotiations.

“It is not fair!” The Empress all but stamped her foot, then decided she ought to dial back the snit slightly, as otherwise she’d probably end up going nowhere and being sent to bed early.  In front of Dawn and her Aunt Joyce.

“It is entirely fair.  You can wear the dress, but certainly not that dreadful make-up, or those unsightly highlights in your hair…  And you can also spend some extra time in the city afterwards, if you wish.  Is that a reasonable compromise?” Livia proposed, cutting her more slack than normal.

Perhaps it was just as well that the Empress’ enemies couldn’t see their feared opponent like this, she reflected with some amusement.

Joyce rolled her eyes and tried hard not to laugh.  The argument was uncannily like so many she’d had with Buffy at Drayana’s age.  Some mother-daughter disagreements were universal, regardless of the galaxy, it seemed.  Probably right at this moment, Ch’Hanis mothers were ineffectively forbidding their teenage offspring to have their ears pierced, or teeth filed, or whatever.  Maybe it was a cosmic law – just like the one that said some youngsters, of whatever species, would always be attracted to similar types of loud and discordant music.

Drayana, meanwhile, slowly nodded her agreement, unwilling to push too far.  After all, important policy decisions might be entirely the Empress’ own responsibility, but fun nights out in Yaherin Var?  Her mother had an absolute right of veto, which she was more than capable of exercising.

“More than reasonable, mother,” Drayana replied with a huge grin, before dashing off to change her clothes.

Livia smiled at Joyce and shrugged. “Ship launches, speeches, state occasions…  All of these are rather routine for her.  A chance to simply enjoy herself, like other young Tallurans, and while not being the centre of attention?  Such opportunities do not arise in her life very often.  And with the added responsibility of being a war leader, she needs this right now.  Dawn may be back at the palace somewhat later than you anticipated – there are many popular haunts for the young in Yaherin Var - but if you have no objections, I assure you they will have no opportunity for mischief.”

Vesarian might be her daughter’s friend, in addition to the commander of her protection team, but Drayana knew that he wouldn’t hesitate to tell Livia about any wrongdoing, especially if it was even mildly risky.

“Of course, I could ask some of the guard to bring your daughter back earlier, as I suspect that dawn will only be a few hours away when Drayana finally rolls into bed…” Livia continued.

“That’s okay!” Dawn piped up hastily. “I can stay up really late, can’t I mom?”

Joyce hesitated, but Faith stepped in. “S’okay, Joyce.  If she looks like crashing, I’ll bring her home myself.”

“But I might cramp your style, if there’s a guy…” Dawn blurted out, then blushed.

Faith just smirked. “You’re my priority tonight, squirt.  That and showing you how to be a proper rock chick.  And if there’s a guy, then I’ll just take his address and we’ll meet up later for the – uh – cultural exchange…”

 

Great Arena, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

With space for almost one hundred-thousand rabid Crimson Supernova fans, the spectacle inside the Great Arena was like nothing she’d ever seen or heard, Dawn noted, still trying to get used to the massive assault on her eardrums.  Just like back at home, the Tallurans were keen on laser displays and flashing lights for such occasions, but their mastery of holographic display techniques made for a performance that – at least in technical terms – couldn’t begin to be matched back on Earth.  She almost ducked once more as a massive holographic Talluran bird of prey swooped low over the audience, with dozens of others gliding around fake clouds and a ceiling and walls that had suddenly turned sky blue.  Ten minutes previously, the theme had been an underwater one, cunning lighting giving the impression that they were under the sea, complete with fish and massive oceanic reptiles swimming around.  Dawn wasn’t keen on giant sharks or their Talluran equivalents, even fake, so she’d preferred the outer space theme, just before that, with planets, stars, comets and holographic spacecraft whizzing around.  The effects, she decided, were way more cool than the music.

Not that Crimson Supernova weren’t on form tonight, introducing – according to an excited Drayana – very little new material, while carefully selecting their fans’ favourites.  Dawn admittedly wasn’t sure whether she could easily tell one track from another, even if she was given months of exposure to the music, but the band certainly knew how to entertain their followers and the whole Arena was positively bouncing.  For her part, the Empress was completely lost in the music, bouncing around like a crazed jack-in-the-box, head-banging until it seemed as though her head might drop off, arms wind-milling in all directions, her long hair coming loose from its braids.  Her eyes were closed and there was a beatific smile on her face.  Clearly, she was glad to forget about the war and the pressures of rule, even for just a few hours.  Nearby, Faith was likewise uninhibited, albeit also keeping a very close eye on their surroundings and the crowd that hemmed them in.

Conversation of any sort was, needless to say, quite impossible.  Dawn turned to Camullus and grinned, her Talluran friend merely raising an eyebrow and looking utterly bemused.  Apparently, the local Death Metal equivalent was as much an acquired taste as such things were back on Earth.  It was much more fun than Dawn had expected, though perhaps not entirely her thing.  NSync and the Back Street Boys were much more her style and that of her friends, but her mother wouldn’t yet let her go to one of their concerts.

At least at a gig back at home she wouldn’t have the omnipresent Goon Squad following her around, Dawn thought, momentarily disgruntled.  She glanced around at the omnipresent Imperial Guard, some – such as Vesarian - managing to maintain a neutral countenance, even if they were hating the whole thing, others not even bothering to conceal their discomfort.  Still others, such as Junia and Lucillia from Sulvia’s usual detail, were quite clearly in their element.  Nevertheless, whether they liked or loathed Crimson Supernova and all their works, the Imperial Guard were as attentive as ever.  Perhaps even more so than normal, given the crowded surroundings, confusing visual effects and the noise level, though dealing with such things was also a key part of Protective Division training.

There was probably no one around who didn’t recognise the Empress.  She wasn’t disguised by the Supernova fans’ trademark makeup for one thing and she had a striking appearance, recognisable to every Talluran Imperial subject, for another.  Her guards, even in plain clothes, were also easily identifiable for who they were.  As a result both of the recognition and off the attempts by her guards to clear a little space around the party, they had marginally more room to move than the rest of the packed masses.  Vesarian had also been firm that they wouldn’t be standing in the Talluran version of a Mosh Pit, around the stage and in the centre of the Arena, much to Faith and Drayana’s chagrin and Dawn’s relief.  She really didn’t want to be caught up in those seething masses of hysterically enthusiastic fans. No matter how good Talluran medicine was, she was sure losing a couple of teeth wasn’t fun and her mother might just let her walk around without her front teeth for a week, to teach her a lesson.

Moving rhythmically to the beat, though somewhat less frantically than Drayana or Faith, Dawn prodded Camullus sharply on the arm, to encourage him to loosen up.  He moved – or didn’t move – like a lot of guys, she decided, watching the occasional self-conscious movement from one foot to the other, or feeble arm gesture.  Her Talluran date made Xander look like king of the dance floor, at least according to Buffy, Cordy, Anya, and Willow’s descriptions.  If it had only been Buffy, Dawn might not have believed that about her former crush, but there was just way too much evidence.

She ducked abruptly, as the Talluran idea of a bright red dragon-like creature swept overhead, holographic wings spanning about one hundred feet and unsettlingly realistic fire issuing from its fanged mouth.  Only a few feet away, the Imperial Windmill was really getting her groove on, to the danger of anyone within flailing range, Dawn noted.  Maybe Xander wasn’t such a bad dancer, after all. At any rate the space created by the Imperial Guard was in this case protecting both the Empress and her subjects.

 

Arena Park, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 23rd February 2001 (Earth Date)

“Woman need food…” Faith announced in her best cave-woman voice, spotting a long line of vendors, with a range of freshly cooked food.

With the end of the concert, the Crimson Supernova fans were spreading out all over Yaherin Var, where various taverns and cafes would be doing a roaring trade.  Drayana’s party so far hadn’t moved far beyond the beautifully landscaped park around the Great Arena.

“Woman always need food,” Dawn replied, rolling her eyes and talking rather more loudly than normal, her ears feeling as though someone had filled them with thick liquid.  That concert had definitely been loud.

“Whatcha sayin’?  I’m nearly frickin’ deaf here!” Faith vigorously pounded her ears. “That’s better.  Bitchin’ gig, but that kinda volume and Slayer hearing?  Totally don’t mix.”

“Old people…  Just can’t take the sound!” Dawn suggested mischievously to Camullus.

She smirked. “No staying power.  She should probably be home in bed by now, with a good book and a cup of tea…”

“I heard that, squirt!  I got way more stayin’ power than anybody, even your big sis’…” Faith growled.  Moving Slayer-quick, she grabbed her young charge, tucked her under one arm, and applied a vigorous noogie that soon had her squirming and shrieking for mercy.

“Need any help?” Vesarian ambled over and calmly took in the scene, as Faith moved from noogie to extreme tickle.  

The Slayer shook her head, slapped a hysterically giggling Dawn firmly on the butt, then released her. “Day I need any help dealing with the shrimp?  That’s the day I hand over my stake.”

Dawn rubbed her ass and stuck her tongue out, grinning like the Cheshire Cat, before grabbing a bemused Camullus by the arm and dragging him towards the Talluran version of an ice-cream stand, Laelia Tarquinia inevitably following on their heels.

Dawn suppressed a sigh.  They were perfectly safe, she was sure of it.  She hadn’t witnessed a single ugly incident tonight and everyone was just happy.  Besides, all this security was a waste of time – for her at least – because probably no one recognised her under the makeup. 

“Next time, it’ll just be the two of us, free to do whatever we want,” she whispered to Camullus.

The Talluran boy nodded. “I have a list of events for the Night Festival.  We should plan what we want to see and do, to make the best use of…”

Dawn looked askance at him. “Planning, schmanning!  You really are a great big geek, aren’t you!  Do me a favour and look up the word ‘spontaneous’.  We’ll just go and hang out – see what we want to do on the night…”

“Perhaps, but we will have to plan our ‘escape’ properly,” Camullus pointed out sensibly, in an undertone.

“Suppose you’re right,” Dawn acknowledged, eyes drawn to the list of flavours. “One hundred varieties, most of them don’t even exist back home…  So what d’you recommend?”

Faith, meanwhile, was watching Drayana and chatting with Vesarian.  The Empress was utterly relaxed, laughing and chatting with groups of Tallurans of her own age, under the protective gaze of her detail.  It was, the Slayer reflected, a complete change from the sometimes rigid formality of Imperial events and Drayana was taking the opportunity to let her hair down.

“This is good for her,” Vesarian noted. “The last few months have been hard for Drayana, especially since the war started.  If this can take her mind off such unpleasantness for a few hours, even a few minutes, then it will have been worth it.”

He watched as the Empress posed for a holo-video with a small group of Talluran teens, who couldn’t believe their luck. “She should be given the opportunity to do such things more often, but duty takes up so much of her time…”

As a loyal Talluran citizen and a member of the Imperial Guard, he knew a great deal about the importance and meaning of duty.  As Drayana’s friend, however, there were times when he wished her obligations weren’t so onerous, even if she rarely complained.

“Beginning to learn about the duty and responsibility thing myself,” Faith acknowledged wryly. “Wasn’t so good at it – and that’s a fricking understatement - when I first became a Slayer, but I’m learning a whole lot just by watching Drayana.  And you guys, too.”

Assuming there was an Earth left when they returned – and she trusted Buffy to make sure that there was – Faith also suspected that she’d be learning a whole lot more about responsibility when they returned.  Before she left for this inter-galactic adventure, Buffy had been quite clear on that.  The blonde Slayer apparently had all sorts of roles in mind for her, as part of the organisation she was building as a Council replacement.  At least Buffy trusted her now, else she certainly wouldn’t have placed the safety of her mother and little sister in her hands.

“I think we may be in for a long night,” Vesarian smiled, with a twinkle in his eye, as Drayana bounced over, an arm around Dawn and Camullus’ shoulders.  The young Terran was protesting that she hadn’t been served yet, but the Empress was quite adept at defusing her complaints.

“I have reserved a table at Darnellia’s for us all.  Though for some reason, the manager did not initially believe that I was the Empress when I called…” Drayana frowned in momentary confusion – restaurant bookings weren’t a part of life she was accustomed to. “Anyhow, the desserts are much better there.  As is the rest of the food.  And afterwards, we might go to Aelina’s.  There will be live music there tonight!”

“Oh great, there goes the last of my hearing,” Dawn muttered.

“What? Did you say something, Dawn?” Drayana asked.

“I said, ‘There goes the last of my-” Dawn started to say, then noticed the expression on Drayana’s face and groaned. “I can’t believe I fell for that!”

Drayana let out a peal of laughter. “I cannot either!”

Dawn gave her a slight push. “It’s only because my brain started leaking out of my ears after half an hour.”

“Really? What an interesting physiognomic phenomenon,” Drayana’s grin widened. “Maybe you should be the next subject in Biology class.”

Dawn rolled her eyes and sighed.

Faith smiled at Vesarian. “Seems to be working, Shar.”

Vesarian nodded. “It seems it does.”

“So what are you gonna remember most about this trip?” Faith asked Dawn, as the Empress bustled about ‘organising’ their party, the long-suffering Vesarian behind her, with two additional members of the detail whispering into their com-links. Since the party now seemed to include several other young Tallurans she’d insisted on inviting, the detail had to run very quick security checks on all of them, in as unobtrusive a way as possible.  At times, the Slayer mused, Drayana must be a total nightmare for her protective detail.

Dawn’s eyes shone. “All sorts of things.  This is one of them.  I mean, there’s been bad stuff happened, too, with the war and aliens wanting to eat me, and crazy people trying to shoot me…  But growing up in Sunnydale?   You kinda learn to focus on the good things.  So making new friends, seeing new planets, flying around in space-ships, all that…  Heck, I might even go home with a new dad, if mom and Colonel Logan get it on!”

And to have a new dad who cared about her and her sisters and their mother, that alone would make this whole trip worthwhile.

 

Akluntar Two, Aklunt Home System, Khkerrikk Star Empire – 24th February 2001 (Earth Date)

With the population now in open revolt and insufficient forces available to crush the rebels, those Khkerrikk troops and functionaries remaining on the Aklunt planets had withdrawn to a number of enclaves, concentrating their firepower until reinforcements could arrive.  On Akluntar Two, however, the plan had only been partially successful, with the rebels taking and holding both a major space port and the Star Gate.  Orders from Khkerras were to withdraw, but two principal routes of escape had already been cut off.

The order itself made some of the Khkerrikk uneasy.  Kharrillion never authorised withdrawal from any territory he called his own, no matter how worthless.  Now, however, he was apparently telling them to abandon an entire planet.  And on that basis, some of the Khkerrikk were beginning to reach a terrible conclusion.  There was only one reason the Emperor would apparently surrender territory.

 

Three Kh’drennek-class Heavy Cruisers emerged from hyperspace close to the planet and settled into a high orbit, employing emergency shutdown codes on the orbital defence platforms.

“Are the targets locked in?” the commander of the lead cruiser asked his Weapons Officer, trying to ignore the Black Guard covering key areas of the bridge.

He wanted to carry out this thoroughly distasteful mission as swiftly as possible.  The Aklunt might be a slave race – and a rebellious one at that – but there were still three-hundred-thousand of his own people down there.  And very shortly, every one of them would be dead.

The Weapons Officer looked up and nodded, his normally bright red skin slightly paler than normal. “The planet has been divided into three sectors, Master.  Missiles and Plasma Cannon are locked on inhabited areas.”

The plan was dreadfully simple.  High-yield nuclear warheads and plasma bursts – the latter up to fifty megatons equivalent in ground-attack mode – directed against every city and town.  Immediately after, more sparsely populated areas would be hit.  Then the fighters would be launched, to deal with any survivors.  Kharrillion’s orders were clear.  Akluntar Two would cease to exist as a habitable world, becoming a deterrent to the remnants of both the Aklunt and any other species that might be considering rebelling.

“Very well.  Instruct all ships to open fire,” the Khkerrikk commander ordered.

His Weapons Officer hesitated, over the sheer enormity of what he was being asked to do.  To exterminate an entire planet, including many of his own kind who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And for every Akluntar rebel, there were probably a thousand who just wanted to be allowed to live their lives in peace.

“I gave you an order,” the commander repeated quietly, fully understanding his officer’s qualms.

“I-I cannot do it, Master…” the Weapons Officer stammered.

An instant later, the nearest Black Guard casually shot him in the back of the head, the dead Khkerrikk toppling sideways from his chair and crashing to the floor, a gaping wound in his skull.  The cruiser’s commander looked up in shock, to see that the Black Guard contingent had a weapon trained on every member of his bridge crew, including himself.

“Relieve that officer of his duties,” the lead Guard directed in his usual emotionless voice. 

Furious that Kharrillion’s automatons thought they could just kill his crew at will, the commander considered the plasma pistol on his belt for a moment, but knew it would be a futile gesture.  He’d be gunned down before it even cleared the holster.  The Black Guard were chemically and psychology conditioned to obey Kharrillion’s orders without question and they’d kill every member of his crew if necessary.  Then they’d turn on his crew’s families, back on their various home planets, to encourage the others.

Wordlessly, the cruiser’s commander gestured to another officer to take the place of the Weapons Officer.

When the Khkerrikk squadron left orbit an hour later, the entire surface of Akluntar was charred and radioactive, with every living thing exterminated.  If Emperor Kharrillion carried on at this rate, more than one horrified Khkerrikk reflected, the Tallurans would just have to wait until he’d killed all of his own people.

 

Uninhabited Planet, Neutral Space - 24th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Master Khklin looked around uneasily, as his protective Black Guard detachment took up defensive positions.  There was, he noted, absolutely no cover on this backwater planet, with its thorny plants and plains stretching as far as the eye could see, and a watery-looking sun overhead.  He didn’t even know exactly where it was, having simply dialled a set of Gate coordinates left at the previous rendezvous point.  Emperor Kharrillion’s favourite assassin and specialist in the most covert of operations was desperately trying to find a way to carry out his orders, but it wasn’t an easy task, with an enemy who was so far from Khkerrikk space.  He’d nevertheless found a potential collaborator, one who was already on the Talluran Empress’s most-wanted list, and more than happy to help kill the mammals in large numbers.

Still, even with a well-armed Black Guard escort, no one in their right mind ever took dealings with Ch’Hanis pirates lightly.  Especially on ground of the latter’s choosing.  Khklin had eight picked troops with him, but the Ch’Hanis still outnumbered his party by four, and they looked a dangerous and unsavoury crew.

“Master Khklin?  I believe you wished to talk business with me,” the lead Ch’Hanis addressed his potential customer.

“I am informed that you control a network that extends into Talluran space and are willing to take on most tasks,” Khklin replied.

Jugrub smirked, showing his teeth. “Only if the price is right.”

It was, the pirate mused, difficult to accept the scientists’ belief that the Khkerrikk and his own species were related.  The contrast could scarcely have been more marked, after all.  The Khkerrikk were relatively small and weak, on average even slightly smaller and notably weaker as individuals than their current Talluran enemies.  Unlike a Ch’Hanis, their hide wasn’t particularly thick, nor did they have effective fighting claws and useful teeth, the ability to spit paralysing venom, or a significant degree of internal bodily redundancy.  In fact, they were herbivorous, in contrast to their strictly carnivorous distant cousins.  Jugrub wondered how they’d managed to become one of the leading powers in this part of the Vedda Galaxy.

A leading power that was currently losing heavily to their mutual mammalian foes, the pirate reminded himself.  Clearly the Khkerrikk were getting desperate, which suited him just fine.  Desperate individuals and regimes paid extremely well.

“If the Khkerrikk Star Empire supplies you with three or four fusion warheads, can you deliver them to targets in Talluran space?  We have no warships within range and the enemy have interned those few civilian craft that were within their territory when the war broke out.  The Emperor wishes to show them that they cannot operate with impunity in our territory,” Khklin explained.

Several of the pirates laughed loudly and dismissively, the nervous Black Guard almost reaching for their weapons.  Ch’Hanis would quite happily eat Khkerrikk alive and screaming.  And just about anything else that moved, for that matter.  Their dietary habits were common knowledge amongst their neighbours and none of Khklin’s men wanted to be on the dinner menu.

“The Emperor wishes to be destroyed utterly?” Jugrub sneered. “In case he has not noticed, the bulk of the Talluran Imperial Fleet is poised within range of nearly every major planet in Khkerrikk space.  Destroying four Talluran cities will not win the war for Kharrillion, it will simply mean the utter destruction of your people.”

“We have our own plans to follow-up,” Khklin assured him, while knowing that it was a lie.

Jugrub’s assessment was unfortunately extremely accurate.  The Emperor might exact a small amount of revenge, but the most likely outcome would be the end of Khkerrikk civilization.  There was just an infinitesimal chance that the retaliatory attack might convince Drayana to accept peace on terms short of the unconditional surrender she’d most likely be seeking, but no one could count on that.

“Given time, we can hide your weapons aboard ships belonging to other species,” Jugrub allowed.  If the Khkerrikk wanted to doom themselves, while also killing Tallurans – and paying him for the assistance – then who was he to argue?

“How long?” Khklin tried not to sound too eager.

“Six or seven days, to identify suitable dupes,” the pirate replied, while busily calculating the price he’d demand for this service.

Khklin shook his head.  Not only had the Emperor given him a deadline, but in seven days, the war could be over.

“I need you to complete this mission within three days,” Khklin insisted. “If you can find suitably innocuous transport ships, I will assign crews willing to sacrifice themselves for the Emperor.”

Jugrub pondered that for a moment, plus another idea that was entering his head. “I can probably do that, plus give you a little extra something that might kill almost as many Tallurans as the nuclear devices…”

He knew there was only a remote possibility that one or two of the ships might get through.  Talluran orbital defences were multi-layered and much more powerful than their Khkerrikk counterparts.  Moreover, while the heavy warships of the Imperial Fleet might be far away, the Talluran Empire’s inhabited worlds were still well-covered against a sneak attack of this type, with large numbers of Patrol Cruisers, backed up by N’Gluk and Triannite Heavy Cruisers, soon to be joined by the Imshai.  The Tallurans weren’t fools and every merchant vessel was currently coming under intense scrutiny.  Still, they might be lucky and he’d also be well paid, whatever the result.

“Really?  What do you have in mind?” Khklin couldn’t hide his eagerness this time around. 

“We will talk terms first,” Jugrub smiled unpleasantly, showing too many teeth for Khklin’s comfort.

 

Valler’yoth, Khkerrikk Star Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 24th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Logan took a breath and quickly moved back from his position by the window, just in time to avoid detection by a Khkerrikk micro-drone.  They’d repelled the latest attack on the town, giving the enemy a decidedly bloody nose.  Four Khkerrikk personnel carriers were burning fiercely in the street outside, one of their gunships had been shot down, crashing into a nearby building, and the ground was littered with enemy corpses from four separate assaults.

It was the four separate assaults that worried the USAF officer.  Until the previous day, the main enemy the Ler’yoth insurgents had faced was the Black Guard.  Kharrillion’s personal guard might be expert at protecting their Emperor, local security tasks, intimidation, and slaughtering civilians, but against a well-armed, determined and organised opposition they were found seriously wanting.  Assisted by Talluran SpecOps troops and SG-15, the Ler’yoth had systematically destroyed every lightly armed Black Guard unit they encountered.  Given what Kharrillion’s death squads had done to many villages and countless civilians, the rebels hadn’t bothered with prisoners, either.

The combat shortcomings of the Black Guard now, unfortunately, seemed to have been recognised and the Ler’yoth and their allies now faced a somewhat different beast.  Namely, the Khkerrikk equivalent of a full mechanised brigade of regular troops.  It was their advance elements who’d attacked several times already, but the main force couldn’t be far behind.  And against a brigade-sized force of infantry, backed up by heavy armour of various types, gunships and heavy artillery, there was no way a rag-tag bag of insurgents could hold this town for very long.

Together with the Talluran CO, Centurion Amullius Falx, he’d tried to persuade the Ler’yoth commander that taking this town from a handful of Black Guard might be a very different thing to holding it, but the guerrilla leader had refused to listen.  SG-15 and the Tallurans were largely here as advisors, but what happened when the advisees suddenly decided they knew better?  The rebels might have turned back the last four Khkerrikk assaults, but in the process Kru had lost half his forces, Falx a third of his own small team.  Logan was amazed that, so far at least, SG-15 had escaped unscathed.  He also knew it couldn’t last.  Very shortly, this battle would degenerate into a desperate house-to-house battle against superior numbers and firepower, with the white hats low on ammunition.  Already, the enemy commander had filled the sky over the town with micro-drones, some armed, some purely for surveillance.  He no doubt already had every rebel-held building pinpointed.

Logan half-turned to see Falx, with three of his team in tow, enter the room.

“Kru did not survive the last attack.  His second-in-command is attempting to rally his troops, but they are beginning to slip away,” the Talluran CO said flatly. “They apparently have slightly more sense than their commanders.”

“They’d best slip away fast, then.  The Khkerrikk are throwing a cordon around the whole town.  If only the stupid bastard had listened to us…” Logan shook his head.

“I suggest we also withdraw.  Ammunition is low and there are only a few points where we could slip through their line.  One of my team has located a drainage pipe, leading directly to the river, and believes we might reach it without breaking cover.  We could escape that way, return to the rendezvous point and attempt to regroup with the Ler’yoth,” Falx proposed.

Ammunition was, indeed, low.  The indicator on Logan’s helmet HUD showed that he had only one smart grenade left in his PCW and the weapon’s power pack was also at ten percent – about ten shots worth.  He had one more power pack in his belt, then he’d be down to his M9. 

“When d’you think they’ll try to hit us again, sir?” Sato asked.

“If I was the Khkerrikk commander, I’d stand off and flatten the town first.  No sense risking more troops than I have to.  These aren’t Black Guard, Captain.  They mainly know what they’re doing, even if their recon unit was a tad over-enthusiastic,” Logan responded.

SG teams weren’t set up for heavy ground combat.  Reconnaissance and the occasional bit of covert sabotage, but nothing more.  Going head to head with a mechanised brigade was lunacy and in an all-out attack, the Khkerrikk probably wouldn’t even notice their presence.

“I want you to round up the guys, Captain, and as many Ler’yoth stragglers as you can find.  Centurion Falx and his guys have a way….” Logan was interrupted by a long, rumbling sound in the distance.

“Hit the deck!” he yelled, flinging himself on the floor.

The physics of indirect fire meant that old-fashioned shells and rockets were still the weapon of choice even in the Vedda Galaxy, albeit with sophisticated guidance packages.  It also sounded the same, Logan thought, crouching in a corner and making himself as small a target as possible.  Something like a cross between an express train and a football field-sized piece of linen being torn in half.

Then the first shells landed nearby, collapsing buildings, shattering windows, shaking the ground and the floor on which Logan and the others crouched.  The explosions were almost non-stop outside and getting closer.  One shell detonated only yards away from the house the Colonel was currently occupying, bouncing him several inches of the floor, the room filling with dust.

Logan had been in tight spots before, but now he seriously doubted if he’d get out of this one.  To his surprise, he was remarkably calm about the prospect.  It was just a pity that he’d never know if he and Joyce Summers could have had a future.  And young Dawn would be absolutely desolate…

There was a deafening explosion overhead, even with the helmet protecting his ears, and Logan glanced up to see a large section of the roof collapsing into the room.  He just had time to instinctively cover his face when a particularly large wooden beam struck his helmet and everything went black. 

 

Trelysean, Talluran Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 24th February 2001 (Earth Date)

There were times Joyce wished she’d kept her mouth shut.  Asking ‘what next’ after a particularly long translation session was one such instance.  Academist Sulla, intrigued by Aquiliani’s suggestion about a planet close to a black hole, had gleefully suggested a field trip.  His researchers had identified at least one planet, long-since abandoned by the Alterans, but perilously close to a black hole.  It was the latter part that scared Joyce and Faith, who’d been invited along in case they needed extra muscle.

Sulla’s team stepped out of the Star Gate onto Trelysean and looked around.  It was a fairly arid planet, warm but not uncomfortably hot, with small scrubby trees and bushes growing out of a sandy soil.  About half a mile from the Gate, they could see the ruins of a small city or town.  The DHD was barely visible, most of its plinth buried in sand, one of Sulla’s researchers quickly clearing it away.

Joyce glanced skywards, grateful for the sunglasses. The cloudless blue sky hid the fact that this planet had an extremely thin ozone layer. Her clothes and broad-brimmed sun hat were lightweight, but UV-resistant and her entire body, from head to foot, was smeared in nanobot-laden sunblock.

Of course, that same vivid blue sky - slightly darker than back on Earth - also concealed the fact that Trelysean was close, by astronomical standards anyway, to a small black hole. Sulla had assured her that if the planet was far enough away from the event horizon to maintain an atmosphere, then they were also safe from the black hole's various malign effects.

Faith and an Imperial Guard SpecOps team, meanwhile, fanned out across the flat ground, weapons at the ready.  The probe hadn’t revealed anything threatening, but Faith remembered the incident with the Faceless One.  Which was still out there, she reminded herself.

“Any big-ass blobs – anything that looks fricking demonic – we hightail it back to the Gate…  Right?” Faith tried not to sound plaintive, as she clutched her PCW like a security blanket.

The Imperial Guard Centurion chuckled. “We are not here to fight, Diana.  Merely to offer any protection required by the Academist’s team.”

“Kinda seem to remember that was the line they used last time, too,” Faith grumbled, scanning the perfectly flat ground, out to the horizon.  At least they’d see any bad guy coming, she consoled herself.

Joyce, meanwhile, was studying the worn inscription on a tablet sticking out of the sand. “Standard Alteran….  ‘Welcome to Trelysean’?”

She was learning to tell the subtle - and sometimes not so subtle - difference between Alteran and various Talluran dialects.

“Population zero?” Faith muttered.

“Close enough,” Sulla smiled. “I propose that we head straight for the city.  If there is anything to be found, it will be there.”

“But surely these ruins have been explored in the past?” Aquiliani pointed out.

“Indeed they have, but not for several centuries.  This city was abandoned fifteen thousand years ago.  And the records are…” Sulla began.

Joyce grinned. “Let me guess…  Somewhat sketchy.  For an advanced spacefaring civilization, your archival skills really need some work.”

“After a lifetime in this field, I need no reminders of that,” Sulla grunted.

“What’s that?” Aquiliani suddenly shouted, pointing to a mound that had suddenly appeared in the ground nearby.  Her PCW was at her shoulder in an instant. “And another…  And another…”

The mounds, about three feet high in every case, were appearing all around them.  Cracks began to appear in each one and as one, the Tallurans went for their weapons, even Joyce grabbing for her 9mm M11.

“What the fuck?” Faith growled, staring through the sights of her weapon as a head broke free from the sand.
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