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Key to the Stars

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

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

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > GeneralCordyfanFR1323281,0563128360,29614 Mar 116 Sep 14No

Diplomacy and the Dogs of War: an Empire's Wrath

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.

 

Talluran Battleship “Tarquinia Imperatrix”, Vedda Galaxy – 26th February 2001 (Earth Date)

“Sit down there and be quiet for a moment,” Joyce ordered curtly, as Dawn flung herself into the chair, folded her arms and pouted as only a twelve-year-old could.

She’d been in a colossal snit ever since leaving Tallura Prime and her mother aimed to put a stop to it, by whatever means necessary.  For that reason, Joyce had dragged her off to the small cabin they’d been allotted for the short journey.  They’d be aboard the Battleship slightly more than a day, until it delivered them to a minor planet where - unlike the one on Tallura Prime - the Stargate wasn’t currently in continuous use for military purposes.  From there, the rest of the trip to the Imshai homeworld would just be a matter of stepping through a wormhole.

Some of Dawn’s attitude was doubtless down to fear, Joyce knew.  Fear of what was happening, with the nuclear and biological attacks on Talluran space – and her daughter was intelligent enough to understand the ramifications, at least to a limited extent – and fear of the unknown. 

Still, that didn’t give her the right to sulk and snarl at all and sundry.  Heck, eight-year-old Sulvia, frightened and taken from a place she was just getting to know, then thrown into upheaval for the second time in months, was dealing with the situation better than Dawn, and the Princess Imperial hadn’t received her older sister’s training.

“It’s not fair!” Dawn whined. “Why should we have to leave Tallura Prime and go to this – this North Pole-type dump in space?”

California born and bred, she wasn’t used to the cold, and while snow might be okay in the right place and at the right time, a permanently frozen planet didn’t exactly sound fun.

Then there was the main cause of her annoyance.

“Because Drayana wants to help keep you – all of us – safe,” Joyce repeated for the tenth time, beginning to weary of this debate that had lasted since they had been told they had to leave.

Dawn rolled her eyes and tightened her arms in front of her chest. “Everybody always wants to keep me safe and wrapped away in a nice padded box.  You, Buffy, Cordy, Diana, Doc Lam – everybody.  And now Drayana, too.  Maybe I don’t want to be kept fricking safe!”

It was the same back home in Sunnydale, where her mother and Buffy had their precious Rules.

“First of all, language, young lady!  Secondly, fortunately that isn’t your decision to make.  You’re only twelve years old and sometimes you’ll just have to accept that other people know what’s best for you,” her mother countered.

“Everybody’s always telling me that I’m really smart for my age,” Dawn smirked.

“Maybe you are.  If so, maybe you should be thinking very hard about Drayana’s reasons for deciding that it’d be best if you left Tallura Prime for a while” Joyce replied smoothly.

Dawn abruptly flared and stamped her foot. “’Cause she thinks I’m just a kid, with nothing useful to offer!  Wants me out of the way, just like everybody else…  And I thought she was my friend.  Guess it was just all crap…”

She felt bad as soon as the words were out of her mouth, but was nevertheless still annoyed at being pushed out of the way.

“Dawn…” Joyce warned, raising a finger.

“Well, it totally sucks!  And it blows, too!” she growled petulantly.

Her mother’s eyebrow rose. “One more outburst like that, Dawn Marie Summers?  My options here – and probably on Imsha – are limited.  Probably not much chance to ground you, when we’re all shut up inside against the weather, or maybe even to find suitable chores.  But I can still take you over my knee.  And I will, right now, if I hear much more of that!”

“ ‘Much more’?  How about just a little more?” Dawn responded snidely, aware that she was walking the thinnest of lines, but for a moment not caring too much.

“Cheek will get you extra, as you well know…  There’s only one word I want from you right now.  And if I don’t hear it, or hear anything else…” Joyce replied severely, mentally counting to ten, while aware that her youngest wasn’t usually wilfully impudent. Or at least not this much.

Dawn glared at her mother for a millisecond or two longer, then wisely decided to back down.  It had been a while since she’d had her butt tanned, eight or nine months, actually.  Joyce’s ratio of threats to execution of sentence was about twenty to one and both of them knew that most of the time, the threats were just that, a warning.  This time, however, Dawn knew the look and the tone.  If she didn’t dial back the attitude, then at least one part of her would be too warm, even on the Imshai homeworld.

“Well?  I’m waiting…” Joyce’s tone was still slightly ominous.

“Sorry, mom,” Dawn replied quickly.

“You don’t owe just me an apology.  You’ll also say sorry to Doctor Lam and Diana.  As for Drayana? She’s treated you as more than a friend, Dawn.  More like a cousin she’s very fond of, even a little sister.  She offered you a place of safety on her world and then did her best to make sure you and all of us were happy and well-looked after.  So for you to say such things?  Not only is it ungrateful and disrespectful, but I think she’d be very hurt if he heard them,” Joyce continued sternly, as her daughter looked suitably guilty.

“But if I was there…  I mean, she probably needs a friend right now,” Dawn reasoned.

“I think Drayana probably needs space to do what she has to, honey,” her mother’s voice softened. “And that’s to lead her people and wage a war, at a very difficult time.  She wouldn’t have much time to spare for you right now.”

Like all the Earth contingent, Joyce had been horrified by the latest twist in the dreadful war between the Talluran Empire and the Khkerrikk Star Empire, with the latter’s sneak attacks killing at least tens of millions of civilians and probably more.  She guessed that Drayana’s motives were mixed.  To safeguard her family and visitors was certainly one strand, and to protect the line of succession through Sulvia was another, but Joyce also knew that there was probably yet another reason.  Namely, that the Empress wanted them all out of the way, so that she was free to do whatever needed to be done.

Joyce wasn’t an expert in politics back on Earth, let alone the intergalactic variety, but she did understand the fundamentals of deterrence.  If you were attacked, it meant deterrence had failed.  But if you then failed to respond, you were inviting further attacks. 

And right now, Drayana would be considering the most appropriate form of retaliation.  It would be harsh and lethal, extremely harsh and perhaps world-ending levels of lethal, and would no doubt horrify the young Empress even as she issued the orders.  Joyce reckoned she had a good handle on the latter’s mental processes.  While she’d do her duty, Drayana would think she couldn’t afford to be emotional at this time and it would, therefore, be best to surround herself with advisors, rather than family and friends.  In her own mind, she’d undoubtedly hate herself later and probably wonder if everyone else would despise her, for having ordered the deaths of millions as seemed inevitable.

“Drayana’s only sixteen, Dawn,” Joyce tried to think of a way to explain this. “And she’ll hate having to order the deaths of innocent women and children…”

“Why?  They started it.  And killed lots of Tallurans,” her daughter replied spiritedly.  She liked almost every Talluran she’d met on this trip.  Apart from the ones that kept trying to kill her, of course.

“ ‘Vengeance thy name is Dawn Summers’.  Anya eat your heart out…” Joyce smiled sadly. “And ‘they’ didn’t start it, dear.  No more than we have anything to do with causing the wars our country gets involved in.”

She pointed towards a small viewport in the hull, where a pair of brand new Heavy Cruisers were accompanying the massive Battleship. “And if you think Drayana doesn’t care?  She doesn’t have many ships to go round at the moment, but she cares enough to spare some very powerful ones to protect us.”

Actually, they were there to defend the most valuable people aboard, namely Sulvia and the members of the Proconsulate who were intended to form the core of a new government, if need be.  But Dawn didn’t need to hear that right now.

“Do you think she’ll be okay, mom?  I mean, not just okay as in, not hurt, but okay with herself?  And will the Tallurans win this?” Dawn asked in a small voice.

“I think Drayana will be just fine,” Joyce replied, hoping that was true in all ways. “And from what I’ve been told, the Tallurans will certainly win.”

If there could be a winner at these casualty levels, she thought to herself.

  

Emergency Command Post, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 26th February 2001 (Earth Date)

The Imperial Emergency Command Post was all but impregnable, buried five thousand metres below Yaherin Var, carved out of extremely dense bedrock, and protected with multiple layers of heavy armour and force-fields, accessed by a multiple series of Asgard beams.  At this moment, as she contemplated her options for retaliation against the Khkerrikk, Drayana swore she could feel the entire weight of all that rock pressing down on her.  And yet it still felt lighter than duty.

The mood in the command post was sombre, to say the least.  Anything else would have been unnatural, considering the circumstances.  The casualty figures on Sarrakium were constantly being revised upwards, currently standing at eighty million.  Valos Rein was even worse, if that was even possible to quantify at these levels.  A population of two hundred million, trapped on a planet with a rapidly spreading and fast acting plague that would have infected the entire planet by the end of the next day, and which appeared to have a one-hundred-percent mortality rate. 

A death toll fast approaching three hundred million civilians.  Now it was her duty, as Lady Empress High Defender of all the Tallurans, to order the slaughter of an appropriate number of Khkerrikk in response.

At least she’d calmed down slightly, Drayana noted to herself.  An hour before, she’d been sixteen years of vengeance incarnate, ready to plough a bloody path through the galaxy.  Now she was in a slightly calmer place, the need for harsh retaliation remained, but at least she’d be doing it with a measured, yes, even reluctant, head. Horrible though it was, decisions like these should not be taken in anger, but in cold blood, she reasoned.

The Empress looked at the four people seated with her around the table in the small room, sealed off from the main part of the command post.  The Proconsuls of War and Alien Affairs, and the commanders of the Imperial Guard and Imperial Defence Forces, respectively.  Five people to decide the fate of the entire Khkerrikk Star Empire and its inhabitants.

Paulius Vertain cleared his throat nervously.  Seemingly elected as chief spokesperson by the Empress’ four advisors, on this occasion – and he certainly didn’t recall volunteering for the honour – he’d seen Drayana’s fiery temper only a short time before, as aide after aide had his or her head metaphorically chewed off.  The Proconsul for War knew she’d apologise to each and every one of them later, she always did if her attacks were unwarranted, but that didn’t mean he relished being the Empress’ next scalp today.

“A probe sent into Valos Rein’s atmosphere has relayed some data on the virus, Excellency.  It is as bad as we feared, possibly worse,” Vertain told her.

“Is there any chance of developing a cure from the data?” Drayana asked, without holding out much hope.

The Proconsul shook his head. “Not without a closer study of the virus itself, Excellency.  The scientists also say that while an antidote can be developed, a cure is unlikely.  And neither could be produced before the virus has infected every part of Valos Rein.”

He paused for a moment, as though fearing the reaction. “Initial genetic scans have revealed gene-splicing techniques exclusively associated with Forvon practice…”

Drayana’s face darkened and she turned to the Proconsul for Alien Affairs. “Is there any evidence, either from your department or any of the intelligence organs, that the Forvon are actively cooperating with the Khkerrikk?”

If there were, the Forvon would pay an unimaginable price, she silently vowed.

Bruccian shook his head. “Most likely the bio-agent was supplied by pirates, almost certainly Ch’Hanis, as discussed earlier, Excellency.”

“Double-check the scientific data and your intelligence on this,” Drayana ordered coldly. “I wish to be certain of the facts when I talk with the Forvon Ambassador.  Set up a meeting with him first thing tomorrow, after we have delivered our answer to the Khkerrikk…”

“In the Command Post, Your Excellency?” Bruccian asked.

Drayana shook her head. “Aboard the Filia or the Imperatrix.  And bring him there by shuttle, not by transporter.  I want to send the clearest possible message.”

A close fly-by of the Sulvia Filia Imperialis or Drayana Imperatrix, the Tallurans’ two newest Battleships. either of them capable of demolishing most of the Forvon fleet single-handed, before laying waste to every one of their planets, would certainly be a potent message, she judged.  Subtlety had its place, but not right after her people had just sustained nuclear and biological strikes.

The Empress clasped her hands tightly on the table in front of her, to stop them from shaking.  She was ready to do what had to be done, but she was still flesh and blood, not an automaton, and the prospect of unleashing even a fraction of the Talluran Empire’s most powerful weaponry was still a huge step.

She’d been well-trained in deterrence theory and was thoroughly versed in the high security procedures required, before the Imperial Fleet could unleash its planet-killing arsenal.  Nevertheless, Drayana had never taken part in any exercises related to its use, so that a would-be enemy couldn’t be sure how she’d react.  Nor was she wholly familiar with many of the retaliatory scenarios.

“So how should we retaliate against the Khkerrikk?” she asked. “Obviously, no response at all is not acceptable.  If we fail to respond in kind after an attack of this nature, we invite future attacks by others.”

Of course, it might also raise the bar on escalation in any future war, as any would-be enemy might pre-empt to forestall a Talluran reaction.  On the other hand, perhaps the lesson Drayana was about to teach the Khkerrikk would deter any future aggressor.  She offered a silent prayer to the Goddess that it would indeed be the case.

“My first instinct was to do to the Star Empire what we did to the Xicavvar, though employing nuclear weaponry…” Drayana began, lifting a hand as Bruccian opened his mouth to say something. “I am, however, also aware that this is not really an option with an Empire of this size.  We would simply be creating a power vacuum and the potential for numerous wars as the various powers vied for control.  So I need a middle option.”

Vertain nodded. “As you know, we have a declared strategy of Escalated Deterrence.  In other words, a limited strike – if such a term can be used – incurs a five-fold response.  Our foes and would-be foes are well aware of this.”

The Empress visibly flinched.  A five-fold response would mean killing over a billion-and-half  Khkerrikk, mainly civilians.  The cold calculus of Escalated Deterrence was as stark as that.

A holographic display appeared in front of each of them, with a list of flashing icons.

“Targeting options and strategies, Your Excellency,” Vertain explained.

“What, exactly, is Project Bio-Vore?” Drayana indicated an icon at the bottom of the list.  A terrible suspicion began to cross her mind.

“If I discover that someone has been running an illegal bio-weapons programme, they will spend the rest of their lives in a penal colony.”

On the basis of initial scientific reports, the Empress was about to have a very full and frank discussion with the Forvon Ambassador.  If his own people had knowingly supplied bioweapons to the Khkerrikk, then it would also be the very last conversation she had with him.  If her current enemy had merely gotten hold of them by accident, then she’d want to know why the Forvon were stocking weaponry specifically designed to kill her people.  In the latter instance, however, it would be rather difficult to take the moral high ground about deploying weaponry banned by treaty, if her own people were also secretly developing such a hideous capability.

“I do not believe so, Excellency” Vertain replied quickly, accessing a linked file.  He really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Drayana today – he’d seen all too much of her fiery temper today, to want to face even a glimmer of it - and sincerely hoped that some idiot hadn’t been running a covert bioweapons programme.  But if they were, why include it in the list of retaliatory options available in the event of a WMD attack, if it was a covert experimental project?

He scanned a few lines, swallowed and paled slightly.  The Empress was staring at him, arms folded, lips pursed and tapping her foot under the table. 

“Uh…” the Proconsul for War was sure she wouldn’t like his answer, even if it wasn’t what she might have anticipated.

“Spit it out, Proconsul,” Drayana demanded impatiently. “I need to know if it’s a fancifully named project, or if I need to order people arrested.”

She carefully examined the faces of those present, but there was no sign of guilt amongst them.  Just the usual slightly nervous expressions worn by her officials whenever she engaged what her Proconsuls privately referred to as full Imperial Voice.  The one that tended to lead to senior figures being fired.

Vertain grimaced. “This is not a bio-weapon, but perhaps just as bad, Excellency.  It is a nanotech-based weapon, with extreme biophagic tendencies.”

“Explain!” the Empress was pretty sure she didn’t like the sound of that.

“Before your father was Emperor, a project was initiated to build upon certain failures we had suffered in early development of nanotechnology, especially that related to self-replication…” the Proconsul hesitated.

The Tallurans had suffered a number of catastrophic failures in that area, the most serious involving the loss of a small colony world.  On that occasion, the two hundred thousand civilian population were devoured as the fail-safes at the planet’s major research facility, and with it the ten thousand scientific staff and their highly trained military guard, were overrun by malfunctioning, self-replicating nanobots.  Someone had, nonetheless, evidently thought that it might be a good idea to use them as weapons.

“Scientists developed a few prototypes of a nanobot that could be deployed in a weaponised form, into an enemy’s atmosphere, Your Excellency.  Once there, it would self-replicate at a rapid rate, by using all forms of biological matter as an energy source…” Vertain’s voice trailed away, as Drayana stared at him in horror.

“You are saying we have a weapon that can eat its way through an entire world?” the Empress gasped, wondering what other horrors lurked in the Talluran arsenal.

The Proconsul quickly shook his head. “The prototypes were destroyed – it was deemed too dangerous to keep samples, even for experimentation - but the blueprints have been retained here in case they were ever needed for rapid production.  Your father actually ordered those destroyed, too, but someone seems to have disobeyed.  There were good reasons for not proceeding with its development, of course…”

“I can think of several, Proconsul,” Drayana interrupted angrily. “I may be young, but I am not stupid.  Such a weapon might have the ability to spread indefinitely, far beyond the initial target planet.  Or it might be copied by an enemy, if used even once.  And storage would be problematic, at best.  Aside from the issues of developing a weapon that might be considered worse than either thermonuclear or bio-weaponry…”

It was almost certainly not the fault of anyone sitting around this table, but she was seething that her father’s orders had been ignored, especially for such an obscene weapon.  The Empress vowed that she’d root out the responsible party and make him rue the day. 

Of course, the nuclear arsenal she was about to reluctantly deploy was only slightly less obscene, but something about this one really horrified her.

“Those reasons exactly,” Vertain admitted.

“Then I want that file deleted.  And all possible copies tracked down and destroyed,” Drayana commanded. “And find out who kept it when my father ordered it destroyed. This is a time when I need to be able to know that my orders will be obeyed!”

“If we should need it in future, as a response, Excellency…” Severan ventured, entering the conversation for the first time.

“Fleet Admiral Severan, every Heavy Cruiser in active service carries sufficient fusion bombs to level at least five planets entirely.  Five large planets.  Our Battleships at least three times as many.  With multiple reloads on our replenishment ships and at depots throughout the Empire.  In other words, the Imperial Fleet has enough firepower to annihilate every planet in the Khkerrikk Empire.  And every other fucking world in the sector!” the Empress’ voice rose, as she briefly broke into Terran profanity. “Do we really need another way to do it?  If any power deployed such things against us, they would be facing extinction either way.  And I think I would prefer even our enemies to be vaporised in a nuclear blast, than eaten alive by nanobots!”

“Besides, are my scientific advisors wrong, or are we still a long way ahead of our rivals in this field?  I believe many have slowed their own nanotech development and restricted it to materials production, due to similar – and worse – disasters to those we suffered decades ago?  I do actually pay some attention to those who advise me.  And also in my science lessons…” Drayana told the assembled group sternly.

Talluran nanotech was hard-wired not to turn rogue.  Each one of the tiny molecular-level machines had quadruple safeguards, built into its core programming, a core programming that literally held the devices together.  If it deviated even slightly from its programmed role, or even began to lose efficiency, then it would self-destruct at the molecular level.  Every Talluran nanobot ended its life that way and up to sixty percent even self-destructed at the outset, due to tiny imperfections.  Only certain types could self-replicate – to a very limited extent - and those did not use bio-matter for fuel.  Again, rigorous programming prevented an accidental nanotech ‘mutation’.

The Tallurans also had the capability for defensive nano-warfare, deploying their own nanobots specifically to attack and destroy those of other powers, if anyone else ever employed them in weaponised form.  Thus far, they remained on the drawing board, but could be very rapidly produced in large quantities if need be.

She glared once more at the Proconsuls and senior military officers. “If I discover that my orders are being ignored, as someone ignored my father’s in this case…”

“Your orders are always carried out to the letter, Excellency,” Vertain assured her.

Drayana exhaled. “I am delighted to hear it, Proconsul.  It is bad enough that I am about to burn and blast our enemies to atoms, without having their planets eaten from under them.”

She turned to Severan and Piretus, who’d be responsible for carrying out any strike. “On the basis of a fivefold response, how quickly can we mount a retaliatory strike, given our forces’ current position?”

“Do you wish the retaliation to be centred on a single world, or spread out, Excellency?” Piretus asked.

“I wish the pain to be shared, General,” Drayana winced as soon as the words left her mouth. “And the strikes to be mounted concurrently by both fleets.”

Severan and Piretus called up a holographic map of the Khkerrikk Star Empire, displaying every planet and charting the progress of the two wings of the Imperial Fleet offensive.  As they conferred in low tones, Drayana shivered.  Scientifically measured and applied slaughter, that was exactly what she was about to authorise.  The walls of the deep bunker suddenly seemed ever more oppressive.

“Each fleet will be within range of several major Khkerrikk systems within eight hours, Excellency.  Including the second largest and most populous planet in Khkerrikk space.  We can hit five planets simultaneously,” Severan told her, rattling off the proposed targets on each world, as the Empress paled even further.

“What about the Khkerrikk homeworld?” Piretus put in. “Our forces will converge there, probably with a Jarrassii presence, within four days.”

“We need that world intact, General.  Given the centralisation of the Khkerrikk Star Empire, whatever authority we install to replace Kharrillion will need the infrastructure to exercise control,” Bruccian responded.

Drayana nodded, a snarl evident in her voice at the mere mention of the enemy Emperor’s name. “I agree.  However, we do need to land an overwhelming force on Khkerras, to demonstrate that we have won.  And before I personally toss Kharrillion out of the airlock of one of my warships.”

The Proconsuls and senior officers were certainly convinced that she meant to carry out that threat, too.

“Is it feasible to mount a raid, in order to capture or kill him?  I would hate it if he was to flee at the last moment,” the Empress cracked her knuckles, a habit her parents deplored even more than her fingernail chewing. 

The thought of wiping out unimaginable numbers of enemy civilians appalled her, but she’d quite happily stick Kharrillion in the guts with her own sword.  Psychological profiles of her Khkerrikk opposite number suggested, however, that he’d fight to the last of his own forces – after making arrangements to escape.

Also, channelling her fury against Kharrillion personally made her forget, at least momentarily, about what else she’d have to do.

“Unfortunately not, Excellency,” Severan replied. “We have already studied the possibilities of such an operation, but his palace is too well-defended for a small force to penetrate.”

“A pity.  But just so that our retaliation has some personal impact on Kharrillion?  His favourite planet and birthplace, Zaggarrak, which we still occupy?  Have our troops expel the populations of the five largest cities, then burn them to the ground.  And especially the palace he was born in,” she ordered ruthlessly.

It was a cruel and perhaps unnecessary touch – one that Boudicca would probably have been proud of – but Kharrillion had chosen to escalate and this was part of the price he’d pay.

 

Talluran Battleship “Tarquinia Imperatrix”, Vedda Galaxy – 26th February 2001 (Earth Date)

Seated in a crew lounge, Aquiliani gave her Terran charges a brief rundown on their Imshai hosts.  A much chastened Dawn, sitting between Carolyn Lam and Faith, had made her apologies to both.  Faith hadn’t been particularly bothered by her attitude in any case, given that Dawn was a saint compared to herself at that age.  Lam had, needless to say, also been equally sanguine, forgiving and sympathetic, given the psychological pressures the twelve-year-old was currently under.  Dawn was naturally still scared of course, no one in the party wasn’t, but her mouth was now well and truly under control.  Right now, she was quietly listening to the Centurion’s lecture, head resting on Lam’s shoulder, which was the closest head-rest.  As ever, the tactile Dawn was happy to use the nearest friendly shoulder as a cushion.

“So only two planets?” Joyce knew she’d been here for too long, when planets by the score became her normal baseline.

“Two full size worlds, two smaller colony worlds only recently established,” Aquiliani replied.

“And they all make Alaska seem warm,” Lam grunted.

The Centurion knew nothing about Alaska, but shook her head. “Only Imsha – their homeworld – has the colder extremes.  Maybe a third of the planet is covered with permanent ice-caps, slightly more than a third is open ocean, and the rest is divided between a narrow tropical equatorial belt, a desert zone and a temperate zone.  Their second world – Samsha – is somewhat cooler than Tallura Prime, but without the extreme cold. 

“The Imshai prefer the cold, but they are a very adaptable species.  As a mammalian species, they can survive a wider range of temperatures than any of the insectoid or reptilian species.  Only the highest desert and tropical temperatures require them to wear a cooling suit,” Aquiliani continued.

“What about their society?  I found a few books on Imshai politics and sociology, but I haven’t had much time to read them,” Joyce asked.

“Quite egalitarian, pack-based structure, which is more stable than their somewhat confrontational mannerisms would suggest.  They can be sarcastic and argumentative in dealing with each other…” the Centurion began.

“Sounds kinda like Buffy and Cordy,” Dawn piped up.

“Hush you…  Or I’ll tell them you said that,” Joyce smiled.

Faith smirked. “Squirt’s got a point.”

“I’m not a squirt!” Dawn protested.

“Beside a ten foot Imshai?  Better believe you’ll be a squirt.  Hell, I’ll be a frickin’ squirt, too!” Faith shot back.

“Argumentative with each other, you said.  What about others?  Visitors like us?” Lam put in.

“They might give the impression of being belligerent with outsiders, but they are actually quite welcoming.  Just that many species do not see beyond the teeth, claws and sheer size.  Fortunately, we know slightly better.  The Imshai have been our friends for a long time.  Since we first encountered them during Boudicca’s reign, actually.  And they were just about the only species that regarded us even remotely favourably, after her war-making spree across the known galaxy,” Aquiliani explained.

“They were friendly to that old warmongering bitch?” Faith exclaimed, having only recently encountered that particularly unpleasant part of Talluran history. “How’s that work, then?”

“The Imshai put up such a fierce resistance, even against hopeless odds, that Boudicca was actually impressed by their courage and determination.  It would have been well within her capabilities – and character – to have exterminated them entirely, but she decided that they had earned their freedom.  And that conquering one icy wasteland of a planet was hardly worth the effort.  She most likely hoped to cultivate good relations with them, as a source of shock troops, of course…” Aquiliani replied. “In any case, Boudicca initiated a programme of scientific assistance, with helping them to locate and activate their Astria Porta being the most important part.  Subsequent sovereigns continued the practice, with assistance in developing new energy sources and space travel technology.”

“Kinda ironic that they want to give up their independence.  Not that you ain’t great folks to join,” Faith shrugged.

The Imperial Guard Centurion nodded. “I do not think that the Imshai have come to this decision lightly.  They are, after all, fiercely independent and proud.  But they realise - as our recent war with the Khkerrikk Star Empire has shown - that this is not a stable part of the Vedda Galaxy and it is arguably growing steadily worse.  Nor is it a desirable place to be a small and relatively weak power, with few resources.  Not that the Imshai would be an easy target for anyone, but they would rather join with a long-standing friendly power, retaining some say in their future, than ultimately be subsumed by force.  And they are likely not the only ones. As the various enslaved powers break away from the Khkerrikk, it is likely that some will wish to join with us or the Jarrassii.

“It will be interesting to see how the new balance of power unfolds in the Vedda Galaxy, once the Khkerrikk have been defeated,” she noted. “The Jarrassii, have always been on good terms with us, but they are improving their relations ever further.  And hostile powers like the Ch’Hanis and Zaharte?  I have no doubt that they will now be reconsidering their future strategy.  The Talluran Empire has, after all, taken a superpower to the brink of collapse.”

“Yeah, but I’m guessin’ you don’t want the Star Empire to break up totally,” Faith noted. “Always been bad news back on Earth, when empires suddenly break apart.  Looked at that in history – power vacuum, I think they called it.  Not good for anyone and just causes more wars.”

Joyce smiled approvingly.  Faith had come a long way since they first met in Sunnydale.  During her time in prison, in the SGC, on the long journey to the Vedda Galaxy, and since arriving on Tallura Prime, the Slayer had put a great deal of effort into her studies, intent on catching up all those missed years in High School.  Joyce hoped that she’d find herself a college place when they returned to Earth and even Faith herself was now entertaining the possibility, signalling a new confidence in her own abilities, to match the new identity.

Aquiliani nodded her agreement with Faith’s analysis. “A complete collapse would indeed be a disaster, of course, as a power vacuum on that scale would rapidly have all of the smaller powers at each other’s throats, squabbling over territorial spoils.  The Star Empire will, therefore, have to be left at least partially intact, with an acceptable government installed, and security arrangements put in place to protect them from their neighbours.  Which is rather ironic, given that even as we speak, the Empress is most likely planning to destroy several of their planets…”

There was a moment’s silence, before the Imperial Guard Centurion continued.

“Many of the powers in this region admittedly have very good reason to fear and hate the Khkerrikk and especially Kharrillion.  All in all, a large area of the Vedda Galaxy will be facing a very uncertain and untidy situation.  I would imagine that the Empress will want to hold a multi-power conference, as soon as possible.  I would also imagine that she will be dreading the prospect of lengthy diplomatic negotiations, but it is important that we enter those from a position of strength.”

Which, of course, had its own drawbacks, especially for those species who still remembered Boudicca’s depredations.  At least they’d hopefully soon see an end to the killing, especially as it had now reached planetary levels of destructions, Aquiliani winced.

Joyce looked thoughtful. “That sounds rather similar to some moments in Earth history.”

“And not always some of our best moments, either,” Lam chimed in, rather gloomily.

Faith nodded, recalling recent readings on the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars. “Yeah.  Some of these post-war carve-ups were more successful than others.  I wonder how this one will compare to Vienna, Versailles, Potsdam and Yalta?”

“Studying to be a history professor?” Lam teased, though impressed by Faith’s growing body of knowledge.

The Slayer shrugged. “Maybe, dunno yet.  Depends how I do with the High School equivalency.  But it is kinda interesting to see how things work out here and then compare them to history back home.”

Dawn groaned. “Are we gonna talk about the Imshai some more, or just more boring history and politics stuff? Or can I go and play with Sulvia?”

Joyce smiled, looking at Aquiliani. “If Princess Sulvia is done with her lessons, you can go and play.”

Her daughter grinned and scampered off to cause mischief elsewhere, as Joyce sighed.

“It’s bad enough that she’s exposed to so much danger back at home, from vampires and other demons.  I would rather have kept her away from a full-scale galactic war, with everyone tossing nuclear weapons around like so many firecrackers…” she grimaced.

The longer she stayed in the Vedda Galaxy, the more convinced she became that the Milky Way was much safer.  At least there was only one predatory alien species back there, so far as she knew, whereas this one sector of the Vedda Galaxy was teeming with advanced powers who were perpetually at each other’s throats.  And so far as she knew, despite their admittedly shudder-inducing habits, the Goa’uld neither ate humans, nor laid eggs inside them. Though being taken as a host for a power-mad alien snake didn’t appeal much, either.

“She’s very resilient, Joyce,” Lam assured her, having spent many hours with the youngster. “Astonishingly so, considering what she’s been through, actually.”

“We will keep you all safe,” Aquiliani assured them. 

Her orders were clear.  The Empress’ parents and sister, designated members of the governmental succession, and her Terran friends were to be kept out of harm’s way – as far as possible in such a wide-ranging conflict – until the fighting stopped and a workable peace plan was in place. And the latter part, Aquiliani conceded to herself, could take a very long time indeed. 

“More than capable of looking after my own ass, sister.  But why can’t the Imshai live on a fricking tropical planet?” Faith complained. “I’m not even there yet and I can already feel my boobs freezing off.”

 

Rhogamma, Jarrassii Empire – 26th February, 2001 (Earth Date)

While he currently considered the Talluran Empire his main enemy, Emperor Kharrillion also had an axe to grind with both the Jarrassii, for intervening in his war, and the Zaharte for permitting the Talluran fleet to transit their space, thereby facilitating their offensive.  He’d therefore also ordered his Black Guard right-hand, Master Khklin, to retaliate against these two species.  Had Kharrillion known that the Ch’Hanis were also sharing intelligence with the Tallurans, he would no doubt have insisted that a fourth front be opened against them, too. 

As it was, Khklin had less time and even fewer covert resources and opportunities to mount strikes against the Zaharte and Jarrassii than he’d had against the main enemy.  This time, there was no convenient pirate to arrange for innocuous-looking ships to be in the right place.  Nevertheless, given the location of the next two targets, he did have certain overt options this time around that hadn’t been available against the Talluran Empire, perhaps even permitting a more robust operation than the one he’d previously thrown together.  There was still a thin screen of warships along those frontiers and Kharrillion had ordered that Fleet Command cooperate fully with the Black Guard, on pain of death.

To strike at Rhogamma, a large and populous planet very close to the frontier, Khklin had assembled no fewer than thirty-six Kh’drennek and Kha’drahk-class Heavy Cruisers, a reasonably potent fighting force but also leaving this sector of the border effectively defenceless.  The Khkerrikk senior officers, despite the very real dangers inherent in questioning an Imperial order, had pointed this out.  Also the fact that the ships could be better employed elsewhere, given that the Star Empire’s fleet was shrinking by the hour, as the Tallurans and Jarrassii swept across their space.  He was painfully aware that the former would already be in a vengeful mood, following biological and nuclear attacks against their civilian population.  Now the Emperor wanted him to strike against the Jarrassii Empire using similar means.  It might be sacrilegious to even think such a thing, not to mention contrary to the tradition of utter obedience with which he’d been raised and trained by the Black Guard, but he was beginning to think that perhaps Kharrillion might not be in full possession of his faculties.  It was an unusual – not to say almost heretical - thought for a Black Guard and, indeed, wouldn’t have occurred to most of them.  In his role as a semi-autonomous covert operations specialist, however, some of Master Khklin’s conditioning had weakened slightly over the years.  Still, the near-heresy only lasted in his mind for a few seconds, before he returned to the mission at hand.

Khklin himself was under no illusions about the outcome either of this attack, or the fate of the Khkerrikk Star Empire.  These thirty-six ships, even if they’d been close enough to strike at the advancing enemy fleets – which they weren’t from this distant sector – were insufficient to turn the tide of the war for even a brief period.  The chances were that none of them would survive the strike against Rhogamma, either, but some might last long enough to fulfil the Emperor’s wishes.  Namely, to kill as many of his hated enemies as possible.

He also wasn’t optimistic about his own chances of survival when the Empire fell.  Khklin knew he was Kharrillion’s most-hated official and if the victorious Tallurans and Jarrassii didn’t execute him, an angry Khkerrikk population – or what was left of it, depending on the level of retaliation the Tallurans and Jarrassii used – would rend him limb for limb, then dance on his bloody remains.

In any case, so long as the Emperor reigned, his word was law so far as Khklin was concerned.  Protests from senior fleet officers were, therefore, swiftly silenced with the usual threats and the small fleet dispatched to attack Rhogamma.  Overly optimistic orders gave them a whole list of targets to strike after the first planet had been obliterated and the force was expected to keep going, so long as a single ship was still operational.

 

A matter of hours after striking at the Tallurans, the Khkerrikk strike force dropped out of hyperspace as close as possible to its target.  Even as the thirty-six crescent-shaped Khkerrikk ships moved into an attack formation, they found themselves facing over twice as many Jarrassii Strike Cruisers, plus a concentrated orbital defence network.  The combined Talluran-Jarrassii-Ch’Hanis intelligence gathering effort had long-since penetrated Khkerrikk ciphers and Rhogamma’s defences had been quickly reinforced, as soon as the likely target was determined.

Khkerrikk Heavy Cruisers and Jarrassii Strike Cruisers were quite evenly matched in technological terms and even with the massive numerical advantage, the desperate and more experienced attackers were able to give a good account of themselves.  The bulk of the Khkerrikk force was employed to distract the defenders, while two squadrons – six ships – tried to manoeuvre into bombardment position.  Only one needed to succeed, after all, in order to devastate vast areas of Rhogamma’s surface.

As the two main forces exchanged a furious hail of missiles and plasma bolts at each other, the designated Heavy Cruisers attempted to slip around the flanks of the Jarrassii.  Four of them were quickly detected and intercepted, the remaining pair manoeuvring clear of the main battle and setting a direct course for the planet, with a quartet of Strike Cruisers and several dozen fighters in hot pursuit, and orbital defence systems beginning to draw a bead.  Plasma blasts slammed into the Khkerrikk ship’s shields, weakening them with every impact, but they doggedly held their course.  All they needed was a few more seconds.

The fifth Heavy Cruiser’s Captain was about to order the release of its first missile salvo, when his shields abruptly failed.  Struck simultaneously by a dozen full-power plasma bolts and ten armour-piercing missiles, the ship exploded.

The Jarrassii were still desperately trying to take down the sixth cruiser, which was heavily damaged by now, when it reached firing position and released thirty five-hundred Megaton warhead missiles, each targeted on a different city below, plus a cloud of decoys.  Three seconds later, an orbital platform and two Strike Cruisers blew it apart, before a second salvo could be launched, but the lethal payload was already on the way. 

The orbital platforms and nearest Strike Cruiser, together with the latter’s fighter craft, now desperately tried to shoot down as many of the missiles as they possibly could.  Even hampered by the decoys, with their integral jamming systems, the Jarrassii managed to destroy twenty-eight of them, either before they entered the atmosphere, or before they reached detonation altitude.

Each of the two remaining missiles promptly exploded 5 kilometres above its designated target, in both cases sprawling Jarrassii cities. 

 

Elders’ Council, Jarrassit, Jarrassii Empire – 26th February, 2001 (Earth Date)

The so-called Jarrassii Empire hadn’t had a sovereign in a thousand years.  Instead, it had evolved into a democratic gerontocracy, rule being exercised at the highest level by seven of the oldest and most experienced figures in the Empire, with a complex governmental system below them.  It was a system that had served the Jarrassii well and brought long-term peace and stability within their space.

Regardless of political system, however, the events on Rhogamma were shocking by any standard.

“I did not think I would live to see the day,” the eldest of the Council, Erjit Furian, admitted as he sadly shook his three-hundred year old greying head.

He didn’t feel entirely comfortable here, stuck in a bunker carved out of the mountain that overlooked Jarrassit City and the nearby ocean.  Jarrassit was a warm world and the Jarrassii preferred to carry out as much business as possible outdoors.  The favourite location for the Council was in an ancient stone circle, in the midst of the jungle that surrounded the capital, lounging on soft grass and plucking the occasional fruit from a vine when they felt like it. Now they were deep underground, the smell of life filtered by the heavy air recirculation systems. To him, sitting around this table in a grey tomb, while their people were frightened and angry outside was a betrayal of everything he felt was right.

“Kharrillion is indeed a madman,” another agreed. “Not only has he incurred the wrath of the Talluran Empress, but now we will also be forced to retaliate in kind.”

“Talluran doctrine demands a retaliatory strike five times greater in magnitude and they have already indicated that this is their intention.  But does Drayana really have the will to do such a thing?  By the standards of most species, even her own, she is little more than a child and a decision of this magnitude will not be easy.  Except for a megalomaniac such as Kharrillion…” the Council leader turned to the colleague on his right.  “You have met her, Samoval.  Your opinions would be most welcome.”

Samoval Re’eskard rubbed his furry marsupial muzzle with a paw for a moment. “Empress Drayana might be young, but she is also very well-trained and educated, with excellent advisors for the most part.  She will recognise the importance of a swift and appropriate response, even if it will break her heart to give the order.”

“As it will break mine,” Furian replied heavily.

“But with an estimated forty-eight million dead and the count rising by the minute, we must send a message.  Do the Khkerrikk have the ability to repeat this attack?” He turned to a general who’d been sitting quietly, while the seven debated their next move.

The general paused. “The Khkerrikk drew upon every ship left in the sector facing Rhogamma.  We destroyed all of their ships, at the cost of fifteen of our own Strike Cruisers.  They may have another twenty ships within range of other planets, though intelligence has not indicated any signs of movement.”

Having outnumbered the Khkerrikk more than two to one, the general was rather displeased with the toll they’d been able to exact against the Jarrassii forces.  That displeasure, however, was nothing compared to his dismay that the military he’d served all his life had failed in their duty, leaving millions of his fellow citizens dead and dying.

“Destroy every Khkerrikk ship within striking range of our frontier planets, down to the smallest shuttle,” Furian ordered. “We cannot risk even a freighter getting through, as happened to the Tallurans.”

“And our response?” another Jarrassii elder asked quietly, wiping the tears from her eyes.

“We will assume the same calculus as the Tallurans and coordinate our response.  Choose an appropriate Khkerrikk planet and concentrate all our efforts against it,” Furian told the general, his reluctance palpable even as he issued the order.

 

Talluran Battleship “Tarquinia Imperatrix”, Vedda Galaxy – 26th February 2001 (Earth Date)

There were times, admittedly few, when Dawn felt some sympathy for her oldest sister.  Times such as now, when she was trying to hard to keep Sulvia entertained.  The Princess Imperial seemed to have a never-ending supply of energy, way more than Dawn was sure she’d had at that age.  Of course, Buffy would probably argue differently, as would her mother.

“Rrroooaaarrr!” Dawn tried to simulate a Godzilla roar and moved in a suitably ponderous manner, as she slowly chased Sulvia down one of the Battleship’s seemingly endless corridors.

“My fighter will stop you!” Sulvia spun around and charged at Dawn, her doll’s model Comet-class fighter held high above her head, emitting disturbingly realistic gunfire sound effects.  Certainly realistic enough that a passing Talluran crewman winced and almost ducked.

“Godzilla laughs at fighters and tanks and stuff like that!” Dawn smirked.

She wasn’t quite sure how the monster movies had come up in her conversations with Sulvia, but the youngster was fascinated.  Unfortunately, having also been given a highly censored version of Buffy’s fight against the supernatural, the Princess Imperial was sufficiently confused that she thought the Slayer fought against such creatures on a regular basis.

“My nuclear powered-heat-ray-fiery breath knocks your puny fighter out of the sky,” Dawn loomed over Sulvia and her plastic toy.

The Princess grinned triumphantly. “But I just dropped a Naquadah bomb and now Godzilla is in little pieces.”

“He always comes back,” Dawn sniffed.

The mention of Naquadah bombs suddenly put a damper on the whole game.  Dawn wasn’t a child of the Cold War, but she still remembered a rather old fashioned teacher in second and third grades, who used to teach ‘Duck and Cover’ to the class.  She knew what nuclear weapons could do and was far more aware of the seriousness of the situation than her mother and the others realised.  And right now, her friend was getting ready to fight a nuclear war with the Khkerrikk.

Dawn hadn’t known the Empress very long, but she reckoned she knew her well enough that she’d hate herself for it.  She recalled that night in the temple, after Drayana had sent her fleet to attack the Xicavvar.  Dawn knew this would be a lot worse.

Gamely, she turned back to Sulvia. “Think you’ll have fun on Imsha?”

The Princess Imperial grinned her big-eyed, gap-toothed smile and nodded vigorously. “Lucillia is going to show me how to use Snow Skimmers...”

Skis, Dawn translated, or a very close version of them.  Decurion Lucillia was one of Sulvia’s devoted pack of female Imperial Guards.  The princess adored them and not just because of the way they tried to spoil her in all sorts of small ways.

“And the Imshai,” Sulvia continued happily. “Did you know that they can move either on two legs, or all four?  They can walk as fast as us – maybe faster than me – on two.  But on four legs, they are much faster.  They have these claws that pop in and out, to help them cling to the ice.”

Dawn had to admit that she didn’t know that much about the Imshai.  She was also pretty sure that the retractable claws weren’t just for hanging onto the ice.

“Anything else you know about the Imshai?” Dawn was petty sure that some of he youngster’s factual titbits were probably more interesting than the history and politics her mother, Faith and Doc Lam were discussing.

Sulvia nodded. “If they have to protect someone smaller, or if they really like you, they will sometimes let you ride on their back.  But Lucillia said that I cannot ask for that.  I must wait until they ask me.”

The Princess paused. “Oh yes.  They are very good swimmers and can hold their breath for a long time under the ice.  They eat lots of fish...”

“I guess we’ll be eating a lot of fish, too,” Dawn mused, having become used to the Talluran diet, though she still missed some things from home.

“And mother and Drayana say that I have to keep away from that horrible man, and to tell my guards, or Diana, or the Imshai, if he comes anywhere near me,” Sulvia added.

“What ‘horrible man’?” Dawn wondered.

“The Regent Ilarius.  Did you not know that he is on Imsha?  My sister says that he is a bad man, but that she cannot lock him up or cut off his head just yet...  I do not like him.”

Dawn blinked and suppressed a groan, as her heart sank. Nobody had told her that the guy who hated all the Terrans and whose spies had, until recently, followed her everywhere, was on the Imshai homeworld.  For all she knew, it might have been Ilarius who tried to have her killed. 

All at once, Dawn fearfully resolved not to let Faith or Aquiliani out of her sight for two seconds. And to make sure she always carried the Zat that Colonel Logan had shown her how to use.  If Ilarius came with a half mile of her, she’d zap him – right in the nuts, though she’d never tell her mother that - and then scream her head off, until help arrived.

 

Khkerrikk Heavy Cruiser “J’Krennit”, the Khkerrikk-Zaharte frontier, 26th February, 2001 (Earth Date)

Junior War Leader Zephrakh had always hated the Black Guard.  He loathed them even more at the present time, when their invasive presence aboard every major fleet unit had been increased further than in living memory.  It was almost as though the Emperor didn’t trust his warriors which, to Zephrakh, was both wounding and insulting.  It wasn’t the drug-addled Black Guard who had built the Star Empire, nor put Kharrillion on the throne, after all.  The same Emperor who had brought the Empire and its people to the brink of destruction had been elevated with the full support of the army and the fleet, acclaimed by the citizens of two hundred planets.

There was a time when he’d have personally killed anyone who dared insult the Emperor, who was supposed to embody all that it meant to be Khkerrikk.  Like every Imperial Subject, he’d been raised to believe that his people had a destiny to rule the Vedda Galaxy, for the good of all lesser species, even if those races didn’t agree and that changing their minds often meant war.  It had been a long time since the Star Empire had lost a war and often the mere threat of military action had been enough to compel weaker races to cede territory, or even surrender unconditionally.

This time, his Emperor had clearly crossed swords with the wrong species, however.  For a long time, the Talluran Empire had been regarded as a decadent and declining medium galactic power, on a par with the Zaharte and Ch’Hanis, and militarily and technology no match for superpowers such as the Jarrassii and Khkerrikk.  Indeed, for almost as long, the Tallurans even appeared to believe that themselves, and when Kharrillion went to war with the mammals, no one had expected it to last for long.

That impression had scarcely survived the first few encounters, as the Talluran Imperial Fleet quickly demonstrated its tactical and technological superiority over every Khkerrikk force it encountered, despite being heavily outnumbered in a crude quantitative comparison.  The Tallurans had picked their battles, concentrated their forces, then won quickly and decisively.  There again, Zephrakh had to remind himself that the Tallurans had been a formidable warrior society for untold thousands of years, indeed an even more effective and advanced one than they were now, when his own species were only just emerging from their burrows and still living in fear of a hundred species of predator. 

 

Not that the Khkerrikk official broadcasts were admitting anything of the sort, with daily proclamations of victories and heavy Talluran losses.  According to propaganda, the enemy fleet and ground forces had been wiped out.  Repeatedly, easily and about ten times over, Zephrakh thought sardonically.  Those in the military knew differently, of course, and it was only a matter of time before the populace knew the truth.  Most likely when Talluran and Imshai shock troops were marching through the capital. 

Now the enemy were deep within the Star Empire’s territory, seemingly unstoppable in their rapid advance towards Khkerras, the sacred homeworld, and all Kharrillion could do was shoot his most experienced officers and issue suicidal orders forbidding withdrawal.  And in the latest act of supreme folly, he’d ordered a nuclear and biological strike on the Tallurans, in the hope of intimidating their young Empress into surrender.  Zephrakh had no such hopes and could only pray to the non-existent gods that Drayana wouldn’t simply opt to completely obliterate his people.  It wasn’t as though the Tallurans didn’t have a previous record for such actions, though admittedly their Empress had been somewhat different back then.  He did wonder how far this one could be pushed, nonetheless, considering what she’d already done to the Xicavvar.

To make matters worse, according to orders he’d just received from the senior Black Guard aboard – ‘orders’ on his own ship, delivered by that self-satisfied creature, Zephrakh growled to himself – Kharrillion had ordered nuclear strikes against Jarrassii and Zaharte civilian targets, as a response to their interference.  The War Leader didn’t know much about the Zaharte, in fact no one did, but he did know that they had a well-deserved reputation for being merciless in war.

And now he was being ordered to lead two squadrons of Heavy Cruisers – a mighty fleet of six vessels – on an attack into a heavily defended part of Zaharte space.  It could only end with their rapid destruction and a deadly Zaharte backlash against five nearby Khkerrikk planets, which were all but undefended.  Nor might they stop there, if provoked to that extent.

Or that would have been the result.  Zephrakh was determined otherwise.  He’d been based in this sector, usually a quiet one, for a very long time, along with a large number of officers who’d been consistently passed over for more glamorous and sought after postings.  Over that period, he’d become very well-acquainted with his fellow ship commanders and other officers, and in a sector where the Black Guard were normally slightly less active, the talk had occasionally turned to topics that might be called seditious in some quarters.  Rumblings of discontent had turned to alarm as the war progressed and many of his fellows became increasingly worried for the future of their species.  Dissatisfaction had turned to treasonous thoughts and plans in a surprisingly short period of time.

Now Zephrakh and three of the other ships were ready to make their move, plans carefully, covertly and methodically drawn up under the very noses of Kharrillion’s arrogant stooges.  As of this moment, reliable junior officers and experienced crewmen were now on duty in essential areas, ready to overpower the hated Black Guard and those who, however misguidedly, still unthinkingly followed suicidal Imperial dictates.

Others might call him and his fellow mutineers cowards and traitors, but Zephrakh knew they’d all have been perfectly willing to lay down their lives, if by doing so they helped to protect the general population, or contributed towards eventual victory.  However, if they carried out their orders now, far from protecting civilians, they’d actually be the cause of massive Zaharte retribution falling upon Khkerrikk worlds.  And final defeat would be no less certain.

“Are you ready to move, War Leader?” the Black Guard almost sneered at Zephrakh.

The War Leader bit back his response for the moment and merely nodded. “We are prepared for action.”

There were currently a dozen Black Guard on the bridge, monitoring his officers at their stations.  A similar number watched the engines spaces and a few other key locations.  Zephrakh had plans for them all.

The Black Guard never even comprehended the double meaning, as Zephrakh activated a tiny transmitter in his glove and started a mental countdown, fervently hoping that the others were prepared to do their part. “Excellent.  I want both squadrons moving within ten minutes.

“I think we will be ready to move before then…” the War Leader’s hand suddenly went for his uniform dagger and in one swift motion, drew it and cut the senior Black Guard’s throat.

At the same instant, the bridge door slid open and a squad of heavily-armed marines, kitted out in full body armour, stormed inside, overpowered the Black Guard sentinels and led them away, to be dealt with at leisure.  Four of them unwisely chose to resist, only to be shot down where they stood.  It was, as the marine squad leader noted, just as easy to toss a dead body out the airlock, as a living one.

A miniature transceiver on Zephrakh’s belt chirped three times, each with a different tone, signalling that the other ships in the conspiracy had also been seized.  That left two, where the senior officers had been judged to be too wedded to the existing regime.  It was a pity, especially for their crews, but they had to be destroyed before anyone became aware of what was happening and sent out an alert signal.

“Weapons?  You know what to do!” Zephrakh turned to his Weapons Officer, whose skull-crest had paled somewhat.

The four rebel ships opened fire simultaneously on their unsuspecting erstwhile fellows.  Shields lowered and unprepared for attack, the effect was instantly catastrophic, and the two Heavy Cruisers literally disintegrated without their crews ever knowing what hit them.

Minutes later, the four former Khkerrikk Imperial Fleet ships entered hyperspace on a course well away from Zaharte territory.  They’d find a quiet space to hide out, perhaps in one of the many local nebulae, until the war came to a conclusion.  Hopefully, there would still be a Khkerrikk species around by then.

 

Diernum, Vedda Galaxy, 26th February, 2001 (Earth Date)

Anyone familiar with the planet Mars would have felt at home on Diernum.  Arid and dominated by reddish sandy deserts and mountain ranges, with most of its water frozen into polar caps, the planet’s atmosphere wasn’t all that different in composition, either.  An unbreathable mixture of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and argon, with the merest traces of oxygen, meant that the small population of miners were largely confined to a series of pressurised domes, linked by underground tunnels, Talluran transportation beam systems, and ageing Maglev railways.

Diernum was one of the oldest inhabited Talluran worlds and had been mined for several millennia, its small population of mostly transient workers meaning that it wasn’t generally counted amongst the Empire’s major worlds, or even secondary colonies.  The planet was rich in metals, many rare and all useful. Since the population was small and lived under domes and in subterranean habitats due to the absence of a biosphere, the mines didn’t have to pay close attention to the environment beyond the most basic level.   

The Faceless One chose an opportune moment to pay a visit.  Diernum’s Astria Porta was in almost constant use, supplementing a steady stream of freighters, to transport semi-refined ore elsewhere.  About once a week it was used to bring in supplies and rotate personnel.  Right now, in the midst of the war and with higher demand than normal for the planet’s metals, especially for warship construction, the miners were working double-shifts, and Astria Porta use was more intensive than ever. 

It was during the few minutes between dialling cycles that the creature struck.

The Faceless One was rather hungry.  Most of the Astria Porta locations it had memorised on being awakened had led to long-abandoned worlds, though sufficient numbers of animals also provided some nourishment.  Only occasionally had it encountered sentient species, its favoured food. It craved both the mass of their bodies and the fear of their souls.  Its goal had not, however, changed.  Somewhere in the galaxy, the Old Enemy still lived, and the demon’s lust for revenge remained unfulfilled, its primeval hunger for their bodies unsated.

At least until it arrived on Diernum.  The Old Enemy had obviously forgotten to erase that address from the list in the House of the Heavens.  And hermetically sealed domes or not, the Faceless One could sense their presence.  It eagerly oozed its way towards the nearest dome a few kilometres from the Astria Porta, mainly used for habitation purposes.

The walls of the pressure domes were thick and multi-layered, both to prevent accidental breach and leakage and to protect against the incredibly powerful sandstorms that could sweep the planet for weeks on end.  They weren’t, unfortunately, constructed to deal with the demonic creation of an ancient God-King.  Capable of melting Naquadah at will, the Faceless One flowed easily onto a large part of the surface of the dome and started to force its way inside.

Alarms blaring to signal a massive structural rupture, sections of the dome were automatically sealed off by massive bulkheads and force-fields.  The miners weren’t even yet aware that it was an attack, until the demon appeared in their midst.  Those that died of suffocation, unable to reach their emergency breathers or a shelter, were perhaps the lucky ones, as it flowed like water around the structure, digesting every Talluran it could find and relishing the taste of the Old Enemy.    

It took a few minutes for Central Control, located inside another dome, to realise that they were under attack.  And it wasn’t either pirates or an alien race.  Fortunately, there was help close at hand.

 

Talluran Patrol Cruiser “Hasta”, Orbiting Diernum, Vedda Galaxy, 26th February, 2001 (Earth Date)

Centurion-Quintus Marcius Polymades hated this duty.  Circling a miserable backwater mining planet in an obsolete ship, with minimum chance of action, while the bulk of the Imperial Fleet was away dealing out just retribution to the Khkerrikk Star Empire.  Retribution that was all the more just, as the reports of attacks using biological and nuclear weaponry against helpless civil populations continued to filter in.  It was all that Polymades could do to handle his own rage, let alone that of his crew.

“Centurion, we are receiving a Priority One Emergency message from Mining Settlement Alpha,” his Communications Decurion alerted him.

“Khkerrikk?  Pirates?” Polymades asked, hoping it was the latter and not Khkerrikk ships of the line, unlikely though that was at such a distance from their space. hopefully.  A sneak attack by pirates was more altogether likely and it wouldn’t be the first time, he considered.

The other Patrol Cruiser assigned to this system was some distant away, intercepting an asteroid that seemed likely to impact on Diernum, the system having an unusual density of asteroids.  In Polymades opinion, it might actually improve the desolate dust-ball.  But if this was just a pirate attack then, Hasta was more than capable for dealing with them. 

“No, sir.  Distress signals indicate that this might be the creature we were warned about some time ago,” the Decurion replied.

“Battle-stations!” Polymades ordered crisply. “Helm?  Take us into low orbit, above Settlement Alpha, and scan the area.”

He’d been fully briefed on the Blob Monster, as he mentally termed the Faceless One.  Supposedly, it was demonic in origin, though the Centurion wasn’t sure that he believed in such things as demons.  Either way, it was a threat to the civilian population below and his Patrol Cruiser could deal with anything that wasn’t a larger warship.

“Sir!  What is that?” The young crewman on visual sensors couldn’t quite believe his eyes, as his screen displayed a magnified view of the Faceless One, oozing from the wreckage of a pressure dome that had housed three thousand miners, and steadily and purposefully making its way towards a much larger structure containing Central Control and many of the processing facilities.

It was only metres away from the main dome, where it would wreak even more havoc, and Polymades knew that he only had seconds to react.

“That is the enemy, Crewman.  Though the Goddess knows what it is…  Weapons?  Lock Plasma Cannon One and Two on target and fire a low-yield salvo,” Polymades instructed.  He had to be careful, as his Patrol Cruiser – though the smallest class of cruiser in Imperial service – could easily destroy the three remaining domes by accident.

“Firing now, sir,” the Weapons Decurion confirmed, as two of the ship’s forward-firing Plasma Cannon locked onto the amorphous blob and each released a bolt of superheated plasma that swiftly penetrated the atmosphere and descended towards the target.

 

Diernum, Vedda Galaxy, 26th February, 2001 (Earth Date)

The Faceless One sensed the danger only an instant before it was struck.  The God-King in his infinite wisdom and generosity had granted it certain abilities, namely partial precognition and the power to manipulate time within its immediate vicinity, albeit to a limited extent.  Those powers were either somewhat random or unpractised, from centuries of slumber.  Both might be improved slightly through continued practice and exercise, but only by small increments.

An instant after it felt a sudden, overwhelming sense of danger, two plasma bursts tore into the Faceless One, each scorching a house-sized hole straight through the huge demon.  The creature screeched in rage and pain, as it instantly considered its options.  Tempting though it was to destroy the remaining Old Enemy here on the ground, the sense of danger persisted and even grew, and the demon knew that it couldn’t survive many more such strikes.  Better that it retreat to a safe haven and heal, than risk destruction now.  The Old Enemy, whether here or elsewhere, could wait, even if it was galling to briefly be the hunted rather than the hunter. 

Forward in time seemed the only option, it considered, since staying here clearly wasn’t an option.  Going the other way might expose it to attack, while the time-span across which it was able manipulate was also limited.  A fraction of a second’s concentration and the Faceless One easily – albeit painfully, given the rapidly healing plasma wounds – transferred itself to a point close to the Astria Porta.  Telekinetically dialling an intermediate address, to throw off pursuers, it narrowed and elongated its form and squeezed into the wormhole with astonishing rapidity.

 

Talluran Patrol Cruiser “Hasta”, Orbiting Diernum, Vedda Galaxy, 26th February, 2001 (Earth Date)

“Direct hit!” Polymades grunted with satisfaction, as Hasta’s first two shots struck home, leaving large smoking holes in the writhing blob.

While the creature had impressive resistance to most of the weaponry that had been employed against it so far – hand-held Personal Combat Weapons, fighter craft light Plasma Cannon, and the similar weapons fitted to armoured Gravity Cars – it was apparently more vulnerable to heavier space weaponry.  A Patrol Cruiser’s Plasma Cannon could, after all, reach out for hundreds of kilometres, penetrate at least the thinner types of energy shields, and punch through light armour.  And unlike other weapons systems, a cruiser could orbit well outside the influence of the Faceless One’s powerful, but short-ranged, telekinetic abilities.

“Weapons, prepare to…” He stopped in mid-command, as the view-screen seemed to blink for an instant.  All at once, the Faceless One had somehow moved itself, back towards the Astria Porta.  At least two minutes of slithering from where it had been about three seconds previously, the Centurion considered.  Three-quarters had already vanished into the wormhole.

“What in the name of the Goddess….?  Rapid fire!” he shouted desperately, shaking his head and wondering if the creature had some sort of teleportation capability.

Hasta’s second hasty salvo caught the trailing edge of the demonic blob just as it disappeared into the Astria Porta, leaving Polymades grinding his teeth in extreme frustration.  Not only was he sent out here, into the middle of nowhere, to defend not very much, but when he did get to fight something, it was a weird teleporting blob, not even some pathetic pirate ship.  And the thing, for want of a better term, didn’t even have the decency to hang around and get itself properly plasma-cooked.

Right now the Talluran Empire could also do without random attacks by shapeless blobs of alleged demon, Polymades growled inwardly in frustration.  The war was more than enough to handle for the moment.  Of course, the Talluran-Khkerrikk War also meant that most major targets were very well defended right now.  If the creature attacked one of the larger planets, chances were that an orbiting ship would fry its hide within moments of its appearance through an Astria Porta.  Still, having seen what it had done to one of the habitation domes on Diernum, and its uncanny apparent self-teleportation capability, the Centurion wasn’t about to underestimate the Faceless One’s capacity for death and destruction. 

“Sir?  Settlement One is asking for immediate assistance,” the Communications Decurion told him.

Polymades forced himself to deal with the job in hand. “Assemble an engineering and medical team and prepare to transport them to the surface.  And send a full report of this encounter to Tallura Prime.”

There were days he really wished he hadn’t flirted with the Vice-Admiral’s daughter, the Centurion grimaced, before turning his attention back to the devastation that had been a major portion of Mining Settlement One.  

 

Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 26th February 2001 (Earth Date)

“Are you sure that you wish to proceed with this, Excellency?  At this time, I would prefer if you did not expose yourself to danger,” Vesarian tried one last time, as the Empress checked her appearance in a gilded, full-length mirror.

“You mean the same type of danger as twenty-two billion Tallurans currently face?” Drayana replied rather dryly.

“I mean the danger of assassination, Your Excellency. And you will not be the only tempting target for an assassin – Khkerrikk or otherwise – though you are the only one for whom I am responsible,” the Centurion replied as patiently as he could.

“Have you done your best to assure my safety and that of the others?” the Empress asked.

Vesarian nodded. “Security is unsurpassed, but I am still concerned that some things may have been unforeseen, Excellency.”

“I cannot go through life worrying about things that cannot be foreseen.  And even those that can, may not always be avoided, Centurion,” Drayana forced a slight smile, despite being as far from a smiling mood as she possibly could be.

How she felt right now didn’t matter, the Empress forcefully reminded herself.  The people were frightened, angry and uncertain and badly needed her reassurance at this critical time.  Offering some appropriate words of encouragement, with the addition of some appropriately fiery wartime rhetoric, was her duty.  Preventing panic and boosting morale were crucial and fears about her own safety therefore had to be put to one side for now.

It would be a proper public appearance.  The population of Yaherin Var had been steadily filling the huge plaza outside the Imperial Palace for some hours now, patiently waiting for their Empress to appear, as had been the tradition for centuries in times of grave emergency.  In an age of instant broadcasting to all parts of the Talluran Empire, they still sought that personal appearance and even those who couldn’t be here, would still feel reassured by the fact that she wasn’t hiding in an impregnable shelter, leaving the others to the mercy of Khkerrikk fusion bombs and viruses.

The plaza was also a major security headache, Drayana conceded.  At full capacity, the area in front of the palace walls could hold around three hundred thousand people.  As Vesarian had just reminded her, she wouldn’t be the only tempting target.  On the dais beside her would be the senior officers of the Imperial Guard and Imperial Defence Forces, representatives from the Proconsulate and Consular houses, two senior justices, and a representative of the High Priestess.  The assembly was meant to show the cohesion of the Imperial throne, executive, legislature, judiciary, the military, and religious authority.  It also made a nice fat target for some assassin.

Vesarian had been given little time to organise security.  A full battalion of Imperial Guard, in plain clothes, had been infiltrated into the crowd, with two more battalions, plus Yaherin Var Constabulary, in clear sight.  Rooftops overlooking the plaza had sharpshooters positioned, keeping a watch for sudden dangers, and almost invisible micro-drones criss-crossed the sky, sensors trained on the civilians below.  Every part of the area had also been swept for explosive devices, but the commander of the Imperial Guard Protective Division wouldn’t breathe easily until Drayana had finished her speech.

The Empress’ maid carefully placed a diadem on her immaculately coiffured head.  It was a piece of the Imperial regalia that was seldom used. The War Crown was an ancient, plain metal band set with three cabochon cut black stones. Legend had that it had been carried by the Tallurans all the way from their first planet, the first Tallura Prime. No one in living memory had worn it, or seen it beyond its case in the Museum of the Empire’s jewellery collection. And that was a fact that Tallura’s enemies and friends knew as well.

“How do I look?  I was going to wear the uniform, but somehow it looked silly on me.  It is designed for real soldiers and I looked like a dressed doll…” Drayana asked Vesarian.

“You are our commander and entitled to wear it, Excellency,” Vesarian pointed out diplomatically. His eyes uneasily flickered towards the crown. Boudicca hadn’t been the last to wear it, but she had tainted it in the minds of many.

Still, the war had escalated to the point that, at least until it was won, Drayana might have to be a little more like Boudicca and a little less of the fun-loving, warm-hearted sixteen year-old he knew so well.  He just hoped that there would be something of the latter remaining, by the time she'd dealt with the Khkerrikk. 

“That is as may be.  But I have never fought, nor have I been through the training.  And with my forces now at war, I will not insult them – or you - in that way,” the Empress replied.

“I do not feel insulted, Excellency.  Nor do I believe that your warriors would be offended, either.  We have all sworn allegiance to you both as commander and Empress,” the Centurion replied, though he actually agreed with her choice.

Drayana had selected a long, plain, very dark-blue dress, unadorned except for the single star of mourning, on her left shoulder.  Her sheathed sword of state, another heirloom of the Imperial House, rested on her right hip, a matching dagger on the left, both hanging from a plain belt.  For centuries, in times of war, Talluran Empresses had appeared before their people dressed this way and she saw no reason to change the tradition now.  For once, she was in agreement with the Master of Imperial Protocol.

Besides, Drayana didn’t care if she appeared before the populace as naked as the day she was born, so long as she made a suitably encouraging and rousing speech.  That part the Empress was definitely worried about.  While she could usually come up with a suitably impressive speech if she was given days – or preferably weeks - to work on it, spontaneous rhetoric didn’t come naturally to her.  There hadn’t been time to bring in an expert to help and tradition, in any case, insisted that she write the bulk of it herself, so everyone would have to make do with her hurried scribblings.  And she knew full well that poor rhetoric could have the opposite effect from that which she intended.      

 “I can only hope that my words do not fail me, Shar.  Too much rests on the impression I make,” the Empress told her friend and bodyguard in candid tones.

“They never have yet, Excellency.  Except when you are trying to talk yourself out of trouble with your mother.  Then you are usually better off saying nothing at all…” Vesarian chuckled.

Drayana smiled half-heartedly, then sighed.  “I really wish my mother and father were here right now.”

 

Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 26th February 2001 (Earth Date)

“I do not have time to play order of precedence games, Shar,” Drayana complained to Vesarian, as she made her final preparations to move out onto the dais by the palace gates. “And the Master of Protocol can protest as much as he likes.  His interference is about as welcome to me right now as an itch in my...”

The aforesaid official had been fussing around, trying to ensure that everyone emerged in the correct order and assumed exactly the correct position on the platform.  For her part, Drayana regarded it as more important that the assembled officials and representatives were simply present, as a gesture of solidarity with her and the Talluran people.

Besides, the old fool was the least of the Empress’ problems at this moment.  The day had only gotten worse when she’d received reports of an attack by that damned blob monster-demon thing.  Apparently it could be injured – and hopefully killed - by heavy weapons fire, but it was also very difficult to target. She hadn’t received  full analysis of the report yet, but those who were studying the data were worried.

She squinted into the blazing sunshine, bathing the palace gardens in its warm light.  It was, Drayana mused absently, far too pleasant a day to deliver bad news to her own people, and dire genocidal warnings to the Khkerrikk.

Vesarian meanwhile cleared his throat, interrupting before she finished her sentence.  He could imagine a few alternative endings, and none of them were exactly polite.

“Diana Prince or Doctor Lam this time, Your Excellency?” the Centurion asked smoothly, as Drayana glared at him. “And it might be wise to avoid the anatomical references when you address the people...”

“And you may kiss whichever part you choose, too.  Especially my ass...” the Empress retorted testily, as several august heads turned a few millimetres in moderately scandalised surprise.

And to borrow from several of the Terrans, they could all go take a flying fuck too, the Empress growled silently to herself.

“I will tell your mother,” the Centurion threatened, with an amused glint in his eye.

Drayana pouted. “Just what I need...  A treacherous informer!”

Actually, the Empress told herself dolefully, she’d more than willingly face the consequences, if only her mother was here.  Or her new Terran friends, with their different perspectives on things.  Especially Dawn, who sometimes had a wise head on her for one who was completely untrained.  Just experienced in supernatural horrors that Drayana couldn’t begin to contemplate, she reminded herself.

At that moment, there was a slight, surprised murmur amongst the ranks of the assembled dignitaries, who respectfully gave way to a group of new arrivals.  Drayana felt her jaw drop in surprise, as the High Priestess and her retinue came into view at the measured and sedate pace that seemed to be drilled into every senior priestess.

The supreme religious authority within the Empire typically only appeared in public outside the principal temple on such occasions as coronations.  As the most sacred Talluran holy place was attached to the Imperial Palace, the Empress saw her a lot more than most, and had in fact sought her out as she struggled with her wartime duties, but in common with the rest of the Empire even Drayana still only knew her as the High Priestess.

The appearance of the High Priestess wasn’t the only surprise, however.  She was accompanied by the two Facets of the Goddess, senior priestesses who represented respectively, the aspect of warrior, law-giver and protector, and the second aspect of peace, healing, learning and prosperity.  They were rarely seen together in public and never as a group with the High Priestess.

The three most senior holy figures, in turn, were escorted by twelve Priestesses, six of them in the simple cloaked garb of the healers and teachers, bearing the symbolic scrolls of those callings, and six in the archaic armour of the sterner aspect.  The gold lacquered armoured tunics of interlocking metal scales and the plumed helmets, together with swords, spears and circular shields bearing the twelve-pointed star symbol of the Goddess spoke of a time when the priestesses had been a feared part of the Talluran war machine. 

Nowadays, their martial tradition was largely theoretical, some of them teaching in the Imperial War College, but they were nevertheless responsible for the security of the Talluran holy sites and fully trained in the use of modern weaponry and special operations tactics, part of their training running alongside that of elite units of the Imperial Guard. 

Vesarian, not easily impressed by warriors who weren’t of his beloved Imperial Guard, had even admitted -very privately and only to his Empress - that the best of them were probably the equal of the Protective Division, though fewer in number.

Since the millennia ago disastrous theocratic rule by the sister of an Emperor who had craved her brother’s throne, the High Priestess kept far from the tumult of politics, most of the time.  The last priestly foray into politics had been during the overthrow of Empress Boudicca, when the High Priestess of the time had reluctantly been persuaded to help persuade the Empress to abdicate after ordering, even more reluctantly, some of her personal guards to disarm some of the more recalcitrant members of the despot’s personal guard, thereby probably preventing a full-blown civil war.

The then-High Priestess had felt so unsettled by her interference in secular life where she felt the Priestesses had no business to be, that she had withdrawn from her position and spent the rest of her life in prayer and contemplation and it had been her successor in the office who had anointed the next Emperor.

That had been the last such interference in centuries.  For the most part, religion remained out of internal politics.  External threats to the Talluran Empire were, however, another matter.  Again, it hadn’t happened in centuries, but the High Priestess could assign her small, but elite, force to assist the Imperial guard and Imperial Defence Forces as necessary.

Drayana dipped her head in a solemn gesture of respect to the wizened, but still formidable High Priestess, who was reputed to be one of the oldest women in the Empire.  Perhaps even the eldest, though even Drayana had never quite dared ask her about her age.

“This is an unexpected honour, Most Holy.  I did not anticipate that you would attend this gathering in person.  Nor the two Facets, for that matter.  But you are all most welcome,” the Empress assured her hastily, suddenly unsure about the protocol in this situation.

A quick look showed that the Master of Protocol looked about ready to have an apoplexy.  Which could only be a good thing.

“At times like this, all must share the burden and do what they can for both yourself and all our people, Your Excellency,” the High Priestess responded, with a slight smile as if she knew exactly what her young ruler was thinking. “If I did not stand shoulder to shoulder with you at this time, then I would not be worthy of the lowest branch of the Novitiate.”

She regarded Drayana, her face calm and confident, lined with age and wisdom. Her eyes were slightly sunken below her white brows, but they were still sharp and penetrating.  “We are but few, so in numbers we can do little to add to the formidable forces you have already arrayed against the Khkerrikk.  With Your Excellency’s permission, I will however, assign five hundred of our finest Warrior Priestesses to your fleet, to be used for such tasks as the commander sees fit.  Also one hundred more to reinforce what must be a hard-pressed Imperial Guard in defending Your Excellency.  And I assure you that the primary weapons will not be swords and spears, in either role.

“When the time comes to make peace, I likewise offer some of those who are trained in the ways of the other Facet,” the High Priestess offered. “Of course, you may or may not wish to call upon us.  We will not be offended, if you should decline.”

Drayana suppressed a smile. She knew better than most that the High Priestess offering assistance to the Empress might cause offence to certain vested interests within the usual organs of Talluran power. And if anyone objected, the High Priestess was famed as a constitutional scholar and probably able to out-argue any in the Consular Houses or the Proconsulate on the subject.

Which was probably the High Priestess’ point. Her people could most likely offer a totally different perspective from the civil servants of the various Proconsular Directorates.

Vesarian cleared his throat, prompting his Empress in case she was uncertain. “If Your Excellency approves, the Protective Division can readily use such assistance from the Most Holy, as soon as is possible.”

The Centurion was feeling distinctly undermanned at present and the warrior Priestesses were at all times cleared and considered suitable for Imperial protective duties.  He wished she’d come forward with the offer when the war began, but could understand the High Priestess might be reluctant to step outside her usual, ritual spheres.

Drayana nodded her assent and the High Priestess murmured into a microphone in her plain robes. “If you can warn your forces, Centurion Vesarian, my Priestesses will arrive momentarily by transporter and assist you in controlling the crowd.”

“I believe my frontline commanders can also usefully employ special operations trained troops.  They can be sent by Astria Porta, to rendezvous with the Fleet at an appropriate location, Most Holy.  As to the other part of your offer, we will discuss that later,” Drayana knew that selling the other part of the help to professional diplomats – never mind that a large proportion had been trained by the Priestess-hood – might not be an easy job.

“As you wish, Excellency,” the High Priestess nodded serenely, but her tone was approving. Not crossing bridges until you reached them was a good trait in a leader. As long as the leader thought about how they eventually wanted to cross them.

Drayana paused for an awkward moment and nibbled a fingernail. “At the Most Holy’s convenience, I would also ask your assistance in a more personal matter...”

The High Priestess lowered her voice. “You wish to talk?  You are perhaps afraid of what you must do?  Afraid of what you might become?  And have no one worth whom to confide?”

“Are you telepathic, Most Holy?” Drayana ventured nervously.

The High Priestess chuckled. “Just an old woman who has spent a lifetime listening to the angry, the frightened and the lonely.  As you are now, my child.”

She reached out and took both of Drayana’s hands in hers, squeezing lightly, ignoring the shocked gasp from the Master of Protocol. Whether at the fact that anyone laid hands on the august body of the Empress, or that the High Priestess was touching somebody in public she didn’t really care.

“I would be eternally grateful for a few hours of your time, Most Holy,” the Empress smiled thankfully. “Especially when I am about to imperil my soul yet again...”

“That remains to be seen.  Do not presume to know the will of the Goddess, Your Excellency,” the High Priestess responded gently. “I have lived longer than most have and chose this path and even I do not dare to say I know it. As for the first part?  I am always ready to offer my ear.  You merely make less use of the opportunity than you might, than some of your predecessors have.  And I will never force-feed you the holy books either, my child.  That is not what you need right now, in any case.”

She smiled reassuringly. “But right now I believe your people are waiting for your lead, Excellency.”

The Empress took a breath and turned to the assorted military, political and religious leaders quietly waiting on her lead and gestured towards the heavy doors in the palace wall.  There were a lot of them, the Empress reflected, including some she’d felt certain would have fled the planet in their personal shuttles by this time.  But the more people she had at her back, the more confident she’d feel in delivering the most important speech of her reign to date.

“Shall we proceed? The people are nervous enough and it will not do to keep them waiting.  In however many years the Goddess grants me, I sincerely hope that I will never have to address the Empire in such circumstances again.  But before we begin, I want to thank you all for your support here today.  You cannot know what it means to...” Drayana felt her voice beginning to quiver with emotion and cut short the pre-speech, as the High Priestess laid a calming hand on her shoulder.

She resolutely lifted her chin, smiling self-deprecatingly. “Shall we do this now, while I still have the nerve?”

At a nod, the two Imperial Guards swung the double gates open on noiseless hinges and Drayana and her entourage stepped forward onto the ancient stone platform outside.

 

Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 26th February 2001 (Earth Date)

It was a huge crowd and Drayana gulped slightly as she saw it when she stepped out, then readied herself for what she hoped would be a rhetorical masterpiece.  Or at least good enough to serve its intended purpose. 

The massed citizens of Yaherin Var were unsettlingly quiet, especially compared to the last time she’d met them in person. Clearly, they needed their morale boosted. The problem was that Drayana wasn’t sure if the truth would arouse their anger or send them spiralling into a state of panic.

Trying to take some comfort from the assembled dignitaries arrayed behind her, especially the High Priestess and Vesarian, the Empress took a step forward, towards the front of the stone platform, as far as she knew a direct replica of the platform used for that purpose on the First Tallura. Despite knowing that it was, and that there were half a dozen Palace officials charged with just that duty, she quickly made sure that her microphone was operating properly – the best oratorical training in the Empire couldn’t make her voice naturally reach a crowd this size – and began to speak.

“Tallurans, my fellow citizens of the Empire, my people. I come before you at time of crisis and calamity.  As Tallurans, I need not remind you we have been no strangers to all manner of hardship and suffering  in the past.  Rarely, however, have we been subject to a deliberate, unprovoked attack by an outside force, who seeks to destroy all that we hold dear. I had hoped to be able to rule you only in peace, and if I did not succeed in that, to protect you from the worst ravages of war. In both of these, I have failed.”

The crowd remained silent. But it wasn’t a peaceful silence, it was watchful, frightened and with a deep sizzling undercurrent of anger. She hoped that the anger wasn’t directed at her, that they didn’t blame her for these deaths even if she did.

Drayana controlled her breath like she’d been taught and continued.

“This is a tragic day for us all, for the galaxy,  and one that I hope will never be repeated.  As you are no doubt aware, the Khkerrikk Star Empire, in the person of Emperor Kharrillion, has launched devastating and cowardly thermonuclear and  - in defiance of all agreed treaties – biological attacks against the planet Valos Rein and the cities of Rescalion, Uventria Nova and Kyrium Var on the planet Sarrakium.  The combined death toll is currently estimated at two-hundred and eighty million, with the entire population of Valos Rein lost to a foul engineered plague.  

“At my coronation I promised I would protect you, and I failed. This bitter burden I shall bear as long as I live. But I promise you this, and in this promise I will not fail!  We did not start this war, but we will certainly end it! We will end it in victory and we shall end it in justice, justice for those whose lives were lost!” the Empress declared, surprising herself by how strong and unwavering her voice sounded, though her stomach was still turning somersaults.

The crowd took a second or two to respond, shocked by the sheer magnitude of the casualties.  Then a low rumble of anger, almost feral sounding, spread across the assembled populace. It appeared that the Talluran people were still at their core a warrior race, the attack uniting them in anger and a desire for bloody vengeance.

She waited a few minutes, while the people expressed their fury in a howling scream of combined rage, from three-hundred thousand throats on the square and from billions more on all the Talluran worlds. The fearsome sound made the hairs on the back of the Empress’ neck stand on end.

Then she raised her arms, pleading for silence and the crowd settled down, the angry calm spreading in a wave from the great stone platform.

Drayana continued, speaking more forcefully. “Emperor Kharrillion ordered the conquest of the Talluran Empire and enslavement of its citizens, despite the fact that we have never had any designs on the Khkerrikk Star Empire and its domains.  As you know, we are far from the first to suffer the aggression of this rotten Empire and its insane rulers.  According to detailed plans recovered, we were not to be the last, either.  His megalomaniac plans extended to the entire known galaxy.”

She paused for the barest of instances, organising her thoughts and words, trying to gather some sense of what the crowd was feeling.  So far, they were with her.  Now she had to keep them in the palm of her hand.

“This unprovoked assault has been a fatal error on Kharrillion’s part.  In every encounter in space, from fleet engagements to ship-to ship battles, our mighty Fleet has decisively beaten his forces, with minimal casualties to our own brave warriors.  Likewise, our determined ground forces have proved to be more than a match for his own, regardless of Kharrillion’s callous disregard for his civilian populations.    

“But let us not forget that we do not stand alone in this fight.  Our oldest allies, the Triannites and N’Gluk, have stood shoulder to shoulder with us from the beginning, their fleets protecting our worlds at the potential price of their own security.  The Imshai’s fiercest warriors are fighting alongside our forces even as we speak. 

“And the Jarrassii Empire is also now fully involved in this fight.  Like us, they now have every reason to wish Kharrillion overthrown, since one of their worlds has also been attacked by the Khkerrikk, with countless millions killed.  Even as I weep for my own cruelly slain people, I will cry bitter tears with our allies who have also suffered at the hands of this madman.”  

The Empress abruptly changed the emphasis of her speech, aware that the Imperial Fleet’s Psychological Warfare Division would beam it directly into the Khkerrikk broadcast system, a capability they hadn’t used up until this point. “But to you, Emperor Kharrillion, I tell you that retribution is at hand.  It is with a heavy heart that I have ordered the Imperial Fleet to respond with five-fold force to your cowardly attacks on Valos Rein and Sarrakium.  Even as I mourn for my own people, I also mourn for those innocent Khkerrikk civilians, who must pay the price for your horrible crimes, Kharrillion. 

“As soon as my speech has ended, we will strike targets on the planets Khimrazh, Zipparakh, Khlessat, Khavorash, and Zoarakh.  Our declared stance is that any attack of this nature will always be met fivefold and the Jarrassii Empire will also be engaging in retaliatory operations.”

Normally, she wouldn’t have announced targets in advance, thereby compromising security.  However, the Empress knew full well that there was absolutely nothing the Khkerrikk could do to avert the inevitable.

“To you again, Emperor Kharrillion, I also give fair warning that if you should attempt to repeat these attacks, the Imperial Fleet will burn the Star Empire from end to end.  My supply of patience and mercy is not inexhaustible, and I hear my people’s cry for vengeance ,” Drayana paused for a moment, then decided to add something to her own script.

“On a more personal note, so far as you are concerned, Emperor, there is nowhere you can hide.  You will personally stand before the assembled rulers of every sentient species in this sector.  You will be tried and judged. And you will be ended, even if have to do so myself!” 

There was a roar of approval from the crowd at that one and this time the Empress had to wait a full five minutes, before they quietened down sufficiently for her to continue.

“So Emperor Kharrillion,” the venom in Drayana’s voice was obvious. “You wanted your war and now, as you look into the abyss, you can be reassured that we are ready to take this war to its conclusion.  From what you have shown so far, I doubt you have any regard for your own people, but I urge you to seek an end to this folly, before it costs them even more.  But do not doubt that the Talluran Empire, the Talluran people, are ready to do exactly what is necessary!”

As the crowd once again responded with its approval, the Empress drew her sword with a flourish and waved it high, followed after a moment by every one else on the platform who also carried one.

“You would be well advised to make peace with whatever deities you believe in, assuming that any will have you!  The sharp sword of Talluran justice is coming for you, Emperor Kharrillion.  And by the Goddess, I swear that the War Crown shall not leave my head until your Empire is crushed and you are dragged in chains before me!”

Drayana thrust her sword skywards once again. “My fellow citizens of the Empire, are you with me?”

There was a collective roar in the affirmative. “Then let us, as one, bring this war to an end.  Long live the Talluran Empire!”

“Long live the Empress!” the crowd bellowed in response.

 

Imperial Flagship “Tallura Regnatrix”, Khavorash, Vedda Galaxy – 26th February 2001

SG-15 watched from their viewport in the observation area, as the Talluran squadrons closed on their target.  Tallura Regnatrix and her consorts swept through a brand new debris field, composed of the Khkerrikk force that had been defending Khavorash.  Outnumbered and massively outgunned, they hadn’t stood a chance.  Nor were the Talluran crews feeling in a merciful mood, following Drayana’s broadcast.

“Sitting ducks.  Like shooting fish in a barrel,” Sato shook his head and whistled softly.

A dozen antiquated Destroyers and two Heavy Cruisers had been no match for a Talluran battle-group that included four Battleships, sixteen Heavy Cruisers and twice as many Light Cruisers.  The Tallurans hadn’t even employed their cloaking systems, simply opening fire at maximum range and overwhelming the enemy in a matter of minutes.  Then the Battleships stood off out of range and demolished Khavorash’s recently upgraded double-layer of orbital defence platforms.

“No need for the double metaphor,” Logan told his second-in-command quietly. “We all get it.”

The planet was now filling the viewport, a beautiful, shimmering Earth-like blue and green globe, streaked with cloud, only slightly obscured by the broken hull sections, power-plants and – most likely – parts of Khkerrikk crew that would be orbiting the world for years, if not decades to come.

The observation area’s PA system suddenly and incongruously chimed.

“We have received and verified launch codes from the Empress and commanders of the Imperial Guard and Imperial Defence Forces.  The attack will, therefore, proceed as scheduled,” Admiral Sabinus’ voice, always supremely self confident, sounded only slightly less so than normal.

She’d taken the decision that the flagship would carry out this attack and her own finger would personally be on the fire button.  With five planets being hit simultaneously, the Admiral knew she couldn’t spare every ship commander or Weapons Officer this terrible burden, but at least she could in this case. 

SG-15 collectively winced.  As observers, they’d already been given the full briefing on this strike.  Even as trained USAF officers, they’d come away shaken.  The primary targets were four sprawling Khkerrikk mega-cities, occupying several hundred miles of coastline on two of the main continental landmasses, and with a population estimated at four hundred million between them. All of them doomed.

The Talluran weapons of choice were monstrous fifty-gigaton warheads, multi-stage thermonuclear devices with a Naquadah-Caesium-based booster.  Each with a yield equivalent to fifty-billion tons of TNT.  And those were far from the largest devices in the Talluran armoury.  By contrast, Earth’s Goa’uld busters could just about manage one-gigaton.

“It’s times like this that I remember why I decided not to go for a career with Strategic Air Command,” Logan said soberly. 

He’d been courted by both SAC and Air Force Special Operations Command, amongst other service branches, on graduating from the US Air Force College, before opting for AFSOC, much to his instructors’ surprise.  Flying a B-52 loaded with nukes or babysitting a squadron of Minuteman ICBMs had never figured highly in his career plans.  And now he was seeing, at first hand, what happened when deterrence failed.

“A US President has to be thirty-five before he can nuke someone.  That poor kid is only sixteen...” Henriksson shook his head. “And gotta live with this for the rest of her life.”

“Yeah, but she had the balls to do what needed doing.  You saw the speech, you heard her.  Would you mess with her?” Sato asked rhetorically.

“Hell, no!” Logan responded flatly.

While Drayana was surrounded by advisors, most of them good ones since she’d fired the others, he’d seen on various occasions that she wasn’t afraid to make a decision, stick to it, and accept the consequences.

The ship’s PA system activated once more. “Weapons launch.  Repeat, weapons launch.”

There was no dramatic missile launch.  Instead, the warheads were delivered instantaneously by Asgard transporter, the initial effects visible in seconds from space, in the shape of massive and expanding fireballs momentarily rivalling the temperature of a star, which would quickly form enormous mushroom clouds. 

“Shit!” Ashborne muttered, shaking his head in fascinated horror.  The Khkerrikk might be the enemy of their new allies, but it was still a Hellish sight to behold, especially as the view from space didn’t give the tiniest hint of the effects on the ground.

The 50-gigation warheads flattened, incinerated and vaporised everything within a three hundred mile radius of the detonation point.  The fireball was actually so large, that a significant fraction of the released energy was vented outside the planetary atmosphere, punching through the various layers, scattering radiation that the atmospheric currents would carry all over the planet, causing more destruction in decades to come.

But right now immediate hard radiation effects would be devastating outside even the initial area of the blast, with a colossal amount of fallout released.  Fires and explosions on that scale were likely to throw sufficient debris into the atmosphere to create the conditions for a nuclear winter.  In other words, the surviving population would have to find another planet – and quickly.

Logan sucked his teeth. “Here’s hoping that Kharrillion gets the message.  If he doesn’t...”

If the Emperor persisted on his suicidal path, the Talluran Imperial Fleet was quite capable of hopping from planet to planet across the whole Star Empire, laying waste to every single one of them.  It just didn’t bear thinking about.

“Next stop the Khkerrikk homeworld,” Sato offered, as the assembled ships turned away and slipped into hyperspace, one after one.

At least that would be a conventional invasion, Logan reflected.  But what sort of fight would the Khkerrikk put up against the invaders?

One thing was certain.  SG-15 would be observing from space once more.  The Imperial foot had been put down firmly after his close-escape on Valler’yoth. Drayana had given strict orders that her guests were to refrain from direct ground combat.  And none of them thought it would be wise to play fast and loose with the Imperial orders. Not that any of the Tallurans would have helped them try.

He just hoped they wouldn’t have to watch any more planets being rendered effectively uninhabitable.

 

Asgard Battlecruiser “Sleipnir”, Khavorash, Vedda Galaxy – 26th February 2001

“This should never have happened,” Fleet Commander Baldur gazed at the view-screen, surveying the devastating aftermath of the Talluran strike, then turned to the two members of the Asgard High Council at his side.

“By that, I presume you mean this war, rather than this specific attack,” Freyr replied, as the Talluran warships tightened their formation then, as though someone had flipped a switch, disappeared into hyperspace, still unaware of their cloaked observer.

Baldur nodded, to the extent that his tiny neck allowed. “We could have stopped the war at an early stage.”

“But not at the outset, Fleet Commander,” Penegal reminded him. “As you know, we were otherwise engaged and hostilities were already fully underway by the time we could intervene.”

“We are bound to come to the aid of the Tallurans by treaty,” Baldur pointed out. 

Just because they were biologically clones, Asgard thought processes differed as widely as those of other species.  In this case, the Fleet Commander responsible for the Vedda Galaxy and neighbouring regions disagreed quite strongly, or as strongly as his rather unemotional race ever became, over their position on the Talluran Khkerrikk War.

“I would also remind you, Fleet Commander, that we no longer have the resources to support multiple treaty commitments in more than one galaxy,” Freyr told him, with just a hint of impatience.

“I appreciate that,” Baldur said. “But the Tallurans are our oldest allies.  Together with the Alterans, they were the founders of the Great Alliance.  While their technology and influence have waned, they are still the First Race.”

“Which is why the High Council took the decision not to interfere, when it became clear that the Tallurans were unlikely to lose this conflict,” Penegal replied.

“At the cost of countless lives,” Baldur answered curtly.

The Talluran and Khkerrikk populations might be somewhat greater than that of the Asgard, but it did feel like a rather ethically questionable decision.  After all, even Emperor Kharrillion would likely have thought twice, if faced with a small Asgard fleet orbiting his homeworld.

“The High Council did not come to this decision lightly, Fleet Commander,” Freyr assured him. “But the advantages of non-intervention were seen to outweigh the disadvantages.  The Tallurans had forgotten who they were and what they were capable of, but perhaps now they can reclaim their rightful place as one of the Four, and restore stability to this galaxy.  They would seem to be on the brink of secretly rediscovering certain Alteran technologies, that would put them in an unassailable position.”

The Asgard might not interfere over-much with the remnants of their oldest ally, but they did keep a close and covert eye on their activities, even of late when most of the fleet had been busy with the Replicators and other threats.

“Hopefully, they might then also undo some of the mess left behind by their Alteran allies,” Penegal noted.  “Bringing peace and stability to the Vedda Galaxy will be the first priority, of course.  But with a rediscovery of certain other technologies, notably inter-galactic hyperdrive capability, then they could perhaps reclaim Pegasus in a major offensive, as was planned prior to the Alteran Ascension.  And then, perhaps, the Goa’uld.”

There were also the Ascended Alterans’ volatile and aggressive counterparts, the Ori, who remained a dangerous and mysterious unknown in the background.  Currently they were rumoured to hold sway over a far distant galaxy, but with their vastly different attitude towards interfering with less advanced societies compared to the Alterans, no one could know what the future might bring.

Of course, the Ori might yet fall foul of one of the other incorporeal races.  The Asgard knew little of magic and the supernatural and preferred to avoid it whenever possible, but the rumoured abilities of the so-called Powers-That-Be – ageless, amoral and utterly capricious – were on a different level entirely to those of both the Ascended Alterans and Ori, never mind any of the corporeal races.

Freyr pushed them all to the back of his head.  The Asgard specialised in logic and the physically tangible and their minds didn’t deal well with such things.

“That is assuming they do what we wish and assuming they still want to be our allies, when they discover that we have stood by,” Baldur suggested. “They might be extremely unhappy at our part in this.  Also, why do we not simply supply them with the requisite technologies.  We have done so in the past.”

He knew that the Asgard had their own rules on limited interference – nothing like those of the Ascended Alterans – but sometimes the decisions of the High Council baffled him.

“We would prefer that they rediscover and reintegrate those technologies themselves.  The High Council is prepared to assist in rapid development of any finds.  But just as they must demonstrate a willingness to act as the First Race once more, they must also be prepared to invest time and resources in recovering their technological position,” Freyr replied. “They must also show that their intentions are non-aggressive, when not threatened by others, and non-expansionist.”

An aggressively expansionist Talluran Empire had been the exception rather than the rule in history.  Nevertheless, the High Council were still aware that there were over twenty billion of them, a cohesive, industrious and prosperous people, with excellent research skills.  Their fleet was several times the size of the most powerful Goa’uld System Lord’s – and currently growing – with a level of technology that, in the most important respects, was at least equal to that of the scourge of the Milky Way and in many ways surpassed them.

Penegal agreed. “When the war is over, we will visit the Empress and explain our position.”

Baldur simply nodded, though unsure whether the fiery and strong-minded young Empress might be so willing to be manipulated.  And most likely not overly forgiving, either.  In some ways the Tallurans were less predictable – and potentially more dangerous – even than the rather reckless, if usually well-meaning, Tau’ri. He had more direct experience with Drayana’s people than the High Council and wondered how the High Council would feel about being threatened with the Empress’ sword.
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