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

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

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > General(Current Donor)CordyfanFR1324297,1153229463,42014 Mar 115 Nov 14No

A Safe Haven?

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).

 

Aelina’s Tavern,  Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 31st December 2000 (Earth Date)

A Ch’Hanis moved leisurely towards a cornered Dawn, who was continuing to scream her lungs out.  Unfortunately, in this warren of alleyways between apparently unoccupied buildings, there didn’t appear to be anyone to hear her.

Or almost no one.  A door suddenly opened nearby and a middle-aged Talluran momentarily stuck his head out to see what was happening, then hurriedly pulled it back inside once more. 

So much for helping damsels in distress, Dawn reflected sourly.

“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way!” One of the Ch’Hanis smirked, as Dawn slithered further along the wall.

“Same lame-ass lines as back home!” the youngest Summers complained, before resuming her yells for help.

She had a sudden pang of relief as the Talluran re-emerged, wielding a stout wooden pole.  Her would-be rescuer swung the makeshift weapon at the nearest Ch’Hanis, only for the alien to easily avoid the stroke, pluck it from his hands, and backhand him across the side of the head.  The hapless Talluran hit the wall with stomach-churning force, then slid to the ground unconscious.

Suddenly Dawn remembered her one little ace in the hole.  Fumbling desperately in her pocket, the youngster’s hand closed around the switchblade Sato had given her only that morning.

“Don’t come any closer!” She warned, inexpertly brandishing the knife – which suddenly seemed pitifully short – in the direction of the closest Ch’Hanis.

“Put that ridiculous trinket away, before you hurt yourself, little one...” the reptilian advised with a smirk.

In mortal danger or not, Dawn hated being patronised.  And though she might be far from fully grown and immeasurably weaker than her sisters in physical terms, their blood still flowed in her veins.  

In a flash, her arm came back, then she thrust the knife as hard as possible under the Ch’Hanis’s ribs – or where they would be, if he was built remotely like a human.

The alien shouted with pain as the blade sank into his tough hide.  Unfortunately, his species was optimised for combat and his scaly exterior was more than up to the job of protecting him from a flimsy switchblade.  The knife had, therefore, barely penetrated half-an-inch when the blade snapped in half.

With a roar of anger, the Ch’Hanis lashed out, sending Dawn flying through the air, slamming into the wall near the comatose Talluran.  The youngster screamed in pain as her arm and collar bone audibly snapped and she landed hard in a sobbing pile of pain and terror on the alley floor, bleeding from a long gash on the cheek where the alien’s claw had caught her.

“That hurt!  I told you we should just take her for a snack,” the mildly injured Ch’Hanis complained to his companion.

The other reptilian wasn’t even remotely sympathetic.  On the contrary, he seemed to find Dawn’s pathetic display of resistance quite amusing.

“You should have been more alert.  These mammals can be devious – even dangerous - when cornered...  But this one is not only a rare specimen, she also has real spirit, which means she should be worth even more at the market,” he suggested avariciously.

“Help!  Diana!  Help!  Please!”

 

Inside the Tavern, an increasingly worried Slayer and Imperial Guard were still searching for their missing charge.

“Shit!  She ain’t in the bathroom, or any of these rooms!” Faith had so far drawn a blank.

“Nor is she down any of these other passageways,” Aquiliani observed gravely.

“I believe she must have gone the wrong way and perhaps taken an exit into the city,” she continued.

Faith jerked a thumb at one heavy-looking door, with a symbol she couldn’t identify. “Something like that?  What’s it mean, anyway?”

“ “Emergency Exit”.  If Dawn went through there, she will not be able to return that way.  There will be no means of opening it from outside,” the Talluran observed.

“Okay... Let’s take a wild stab in the dark.  Little D’s gone the wrong way, gotten herself locked out, and is now fricking lost in an unfamiliar city?  If anything happens to her...” the Slayer reflected worriedly.

Suddenly she heard an all-too familiar scream, albeit in the distance and at the very limits of her hearing.  Faith had heard it several times before, the last time when she had a knife to the youngster’s throat.  Aquiliani, for her part, couldn’t hear anything, but she was quite prepared to trust her companion’s vastly superior hearing.

“Shit!  Dawn’s in trouble!” The Slayer took off through the emergency exit as though the hounds of Hell – or an enraged Buffy and Cordelia – were snapping at her heels, leaving Aquiliani in her figurative dust.

 

“We must leave this place, before others appear.  Can you handle the child, or should I take her?” the uninjured Ch’Hanis needled his companion, as the latter picked up a kicking and struggling Dawn and flung her over his shoulder.

The other alien ignored the barb and kicked the unconscious Talluran. “What should we do with this one?  Rather too old to eat and probably worth very little on the slave market.”

“I will make sure he never wakes up...” the first Ch’Hanis began.

“Put her down right the hell now, ya fucking big ugly!” Faith warned ominously, without even her usual Slaying humour present.

“Another one?  She also smells like the little Terran,” the unencumbered Ch’Hanis noted.

“Matching pair?” his companion temporarily dumped Dawn in a damp corner.

“I’ll turn you into a fricking matching pair...  Hand bag and shoes, maybe,” the Slayer responded with a growl.

It had been a long time since she’d been able to Slay anything.  These two might not be of the demonic persuasion, but the crack about eating someone – let alone the fact that they’d harmed Summers Junior - put them on more or less the same level, in Faith’s estimation.  And her inner Slayer was just itching for a good brawl with the bad guys.

The two Ch’Hanis sneered, clearly not seeing anything remotely threatening about the Terran newcomer.

Faith’s response was a blindingly fast and hard kick to the head.  The Ch’Hanis staggered backwards but, to Faith’s surprise, maintained his footing.  Clearly, these aliens were every bit as physically tough as vampires, perhaps more so.  As one, the two reptilians snarled and moved towards her, clawed hands outstretched.  The Slayer easily avoided them, sweeping the legs from under the nearest, then stunning him with an almighty kick to the head as he hit the ground.  At least they weren’t nearly as quick as vampires, she noted.

They were, however, just as tough.  The Ch’Hanis she’d believed stunned was on his feet almost immediately, launching into a series of vicious punches and kicks.  The Slayer was able to avoid or deflect most, but the creature was at least as strong as she was.  It was also, she realised, extremely solid – all muscle, leathery hide and heavy bone - and hard to hurt.  There was a time when she’d liked to play with her prey, but right now Faith wanted to end the battle as quickly as possible.  Seven-foot tall and probably not far short of four hundred pounds, given their sheer sturdiness, these weren’t newborn vampires to toy with, she decided. 

Abruptly changing the direction of her assault to concentrate on the other side of the alien’s body, she took advantage of vastly superior speed and reflexes to slip inside its defences.  One good twist and the Ch’Hanis’s neck snapped with a satisfying crack, its body landing beside Dawn.

Faith immediately spun around to deal with its enraged companion.  The second Ch’Hanis came at her with a knife, his boot smashing into her solar plexus with astonishing force and momentarily doubling her up in pain.  The alien swiftly moved in for the kill, just as the Slayer suddenly remembered something.  Three 9mm rounds from her M11 caught the Ch’Hanis in the forehead, at a range of under ten feet, and he obligingly collapsed on the spot.  Faith had never used firearms in the course of her Slaying and, as she holstered the weapon, reflected that it might take some getting used to.  In fact, she’d also forgotten the Sentinel Blade sheathed across her back.

At least her hand to hand skills hadn’t gone rusty, but the fact that she’d overlooked two lethal weapons in the midst of a battle meant she needed more practice, just to get back in the saddle.  It wasn’t, Faith reminded herself, classic Sunnydale combat.  Anything she fought out here might have various physical surprises in store, not to mention the possibility of using technology more than her usual foes.  Hell, the dead lizards might’ve been carrying ray-guns, but she’d still gone at them hands and feet flying.

The Talluran was groaning softly and beginning to regain consciousness, his head moving weakly from side to side, as Faith knelt down beside her charge.

“I’m really sorry, Fai – Diana.  Just got lost is all...” Dawn said quietly, clearly in pain.

“Didn’t do it on purpose.  Else I’d already be whupping your ass...  But this one?  My fault.  I really oughta get my butt kicked for letting you go alone, squirt,” the Slayer admitted apologetically.

“’S’not your fault... I was being all independent and stuff...” Dawn responded weakly.

“Don’t move an inch ‘til the doc gets here.  What hurts?  There’s a lotta blood...” Faith decided she needed Lam on the spot, and fast.

The youngster winced. “Arm and front of my shoulder.  Blood’s mainly from my face, where the thing scritched me.”

The Talluran civilian opened his eyes and lifted his head. “I alerted the Civic Patrol.  They should arrive at any time.”

“Thanks,” Faith acknowledged – for once in her life, she’d be glad to see the cops.

“You alright there?” she ventured, looking around for Aquiliani, who she’d send to collect Lam.

“I think I will just sit still for a while.  My head struck the wall rather hard,” the civilian offered.

“He tried to help me,” Dawn chimed in, trying to ignore the pain in her arm and neck.

“Kinda guessed that, squirt,” Faith smiled, turning to the Talluran. “There’ll be a doc here soon.”

Suddenly, the apparently dead Ch’Hanis lifted its head and lunged at the Slayer.  Kneeling beside Dawn, she only had time to hear a shouted warning from a newly arrived Aquiliani, then a spray of something hit her square in the face.  Faith was instantly blinded, grabbing at her face as the burning liquid took effect.

Aquiliani didn’t waste even a second more.  Her big plasma pistol, resembling a Desert Eagle on steroids, fired once on a medium setting.  The EM-cased plasma bolt caught the Ch’Hanis in the abdomen, blasting a saucer-sized hole clean through its body and vaporising the creature’s heavily protected heart, which resided in a bone and muscle-protected cavity between the spine and stomach. 

“Fuck!  I’m blind!” Faith yelled, lurching to her feet and clutching at her eyes.

“Steady...” Aquiliani gently took her by the shoulders and helped her into a sitting position. “Ch’Hanis have a defence mechanism.  They can spit venom quite a distance.  It should wear off in an hour or less, though.”

“You sure ‘bout that?” the Slayer asked worriedly, trying to stay calm.

“Absolutely,” the Decurion answered in reassuring tones, checking over Dawn and the still dazed civilian. “Best way is to remain still and allow the irritant to dissipate, rather than spreading it.  And try not to rub your eyes.”

“You say so...  And not so easy to avoid the rubbing.  But how come those fricking things are so hard to kill?  Coulda sworn I heard that one’s neck snap...” Faith muttered.

Aquiliani was carefully wiping the blood from Dawn’s face.  The torn flesh wasn’t a pretty sight, but Talluran medicine would leave her without a facial blemish.  Bone fractures were equally easy to repair and the young Terran would be back to normal inside a week.

“The Ch’Hanis come from a planet with heavier gravity than ours.  As such, their muscles and bone structure have to be stronger.  They are also exceedingly resilient.  The Ch’Hanis evolved on a planet with a harsh environment and many very powerful predators and their bodies have massive redundancy.  You thought that you had broken its neck?  An adult Ch’Hanis can deliberately dislocate its neck and rotate its head only a few degrees short of a full circle.  And their spinal cords are very flexible and strong – even if you break the surrounding bone, the cord may remain intact,” the Imperial Guard recalled her combat training.

“We were always taught to use weapons whenever possible, with hand-to-hand combat only as a last resort.  You have huge advantages compared to us, in speed and strength,  but perhaps the sword or projectile weapon might have been a better option,” Aquiliani suggested gently.

Faith shook her head. “Won’t have to tell me that one twice, sister!  But I could really do with a heads-up on all the bad guys we might meet.  What doesn’t work, what Slays ‘em dead, how they fight, that kinda thing.”

“We will talk soon, I promise,” the Imperial Guard responded.

If truth were told, they hadn’t expected their Terran visitors to be in any danger from Tallura Prime’s alien residents.  The latter were few in number, with attacks – even by the Ch’Hanis - almost unheard of.  Indeed, even the chances of meeting most of the species were vanishingly small, outside the spaceport and main trading areas.  Up until a few minutes ago, Aquiliani – like her CO, Vesarian – had therefore regarded Ilarius and his co-conspirators as a much greater danger.

Not that the Empress would likely see it that way.  At the very least, Joyce’s personal guard expected to have Drayana’s boot-print on the seat of her pants.

“How can you talk about stuff right now?” Dawn whimpered, trying hard not move her arm or shoulder. “It hurts too much!”

“Help will soon be here,” Aquiliani promised the two Terrans. 

Heavy footsteps echoed down the alleyway and four officers from the Yaherin Var constabulary, or Civic Patrol, appeared at the run.  One look at the situation – two dead Ch’Hanis, three injured civilians, with a member of the Imperial Guard on the scene, bearing the shoulder flashes of the elite Protective Division – and a dull afternoon’s patrolling suddenly became a little too exciting.

“There is a party of Terrans in Aelina’s Tavern.  One is a physician.  Can you bring them here?  Also, alert the Imperial Physician.  Two of Her Excellency’s guests have been hurt,” Aquiliani told the startled law enforcement officers.

“ “Terrans?”” the senior officer’s eyes almost bugged out, as she despatched one of her officers to fetch Lam and the others, then contacted her headquarters for advice.

“As I said, guests of the Empress,” Aquiliani repeated slightly  impatiently, as the three remaining officers helped deal with the casualties.

Now, the Civic Patrol officer decided, the afternoon was definitely getting interesting, and just slightly too complicated.  Dead aliens generally meant diplomatic repercussions and a heft dose of administrative work.  Involvement with the Empress’s personal guard usually led to even more of the same and, potentially, a jurisdictional disagreement which the Civic Patrol would inevitably lose.  And now they apparently had visitors from another galaxy.  In this case, the officer decided, she’d probably be relieved to turn over the investigation to the Imperial Guard Protective Division and the Security Directorate.

     

Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, En Route to Thenatrix – 31st December 2000 (Earth Date)

It was a ten hour journey in hyperspace from Tallura Prime to Thenatrix.  The Heavy Cruiser could travel somewhat faster, but the Empress wanted to arrive in the system just ahead of the supply convoys, in order to deal with any pirate activity.  Drayana wanted to catch them by surprise and timing, therefore, was everything.

Aboard the Imperial flagship, Logan was trying to get his head around the political and military situation as it currently existed between the Vedda Galaxy’s various powers.  A huge 3-d holographic image floating above his head provided a baseline for the multifarious regimes’ holdings, relative to each other, while Vesarian had briefed him, as concisely as possible, on the complicated relationships between them.  By comparison, the Milky Way was a model of simplicity, he decided.  The constant infighting and intrigue between the Goa’uld System Lords was child’s play compared to this galaxy’s balance of power politics.

In Logan’s view, it was a nightmarish mixture of pre-1914 Europe and the Cold War, seemingly just awaiting a spark to set the whole Vedda Galaxy ablaze.  The keyword, however, was “seemingly”.  There were many more advanced space-faring races in close proximity here, compared to his own locality in space, and connected by an often tenuous system of alliances, treaties and agreements.  From time to time, localised disagreements – usually territorial in nature – broke out between competing powers but, on the whole, fear of an apocalyptic conflagration kept an uneasy peace.  There hadn’t been a full-scale war between any of the major players in over a hundred years.

The two big players in the Vedda Galaxy – at least to the best of anyone’s knowledge, given that large areas hadn’t been properly explored since before the Ancients Ascended – were the Khkerrikk Star Empire and their ideological opponents, the Jarrasi Empire.  Each was at least as technologically advanced as the Tallurans, possibly more so, with eight or nine times the resource base.  The local equivalent of superpowers, either could probably conquer most of the Vedda Galaxy without too much of a problem.  Each, however, acted as a counterweight to the other and, furthermore, it was the threat posed by these two giants which had led the Tallurans, and several other races, to sign the equivalent of the Protected Planets Treaty with the Asgard.

Neither the Khkerrikk nor the Jarrasii occupied space contiguous to the local powers, with their domains largely confined to the other side of the galaxy.  The situation around Tallura was, nonetheless, even more complex.  The Talluran Empire shared borders with no less than five potentially hostile powers.  The Ch’Hanis Freehold and Zaharte Alliance were somewhat less advanced than the Tallurans, though they occupied more planets, were more populous, and could access more resources.  Fortunately, they were as mutually antagonistic to each other, as to the Tallurans, so there was little chance of an alliance between them.

Smaller than any of the regional “Big Three”, with each occupying only a handful of worlds, but at least as technologically sophisticated as the Talluran Empire, were the Haamarii Protectorate, the Forvon Imperium, and the Xicavvar Concordium.  Each disliked and mistrusted the others in equal measure and periodically engaged in a game of shifting alliances with the Ch’Hanis and Zaharte – even, on occasion, the Tallurans.

Two similarly sized powers, the N’Gluk Alliance and Triannite Kingdom, located on the far side of the Talluran Empire, were also permanently allied with the latter.  In addition, there were nine or ten neutral powers, most even smaller, who tried their utmost to keep out of the deadly game of intra-galactic chess.  In most cases, these had only avoided being annexed by larger and more aggressive neighbours on account of their strategic position, any invasion and occupation being unacceptable to other antagonistic powers.

If this was the safest place the Asgard could find for Dawn, Logan decided he didn’t want to know about the rest of the universe.  As a safe haven, the Vedda Galaxy was verging on a joke – and not a particularly funny one at that.  On the other hand, Hammond had asked their allies to find a solution at very short notice, so perhaps it was best not to complain too much.  After all, the Milky Way didn’t offer many safe havens for a whole range of reasons – only one of which was the Goa’uld – while the Ida Galaxy had the major downside of Replicator infestation, plus various other threats only hinted at by the Asgard thus far.  Besides, there probably wouldn’t be a war while SG-15 and their charges were in the Vedda Galaxy.  If the peace had held for over a century – and Vesarian assured him that relations were no worse than they’d been for decades – there was no reason to suppose it would suddenly fail.

Logan also reminded himself that the Asgard weren’t necessarily acting out of Dawn’s best interests per se, but simply to protect all of existence.  To their logical minds, if there was the slightest – even an infinitesimal - chance Glory might pursue her young intended victim through the Stargate network in the Milky Way, then the only valid solution was to remove her from the galaxy.  It wouldn’t really matter to them if the human child was dropped into the middle of a diplomatic nightmare, plus a tricky internal power struggle.

As with Cold War Earth, the whole system was based on a balance of terror, of course.  The US and Soviet Union had the ability to destroy all life on a single planet between them, but that paled into insignificance when set aside the power of a ship such as the Tallura Regnatrix.  This Heavy Cruiser could level a planetary surface unaided – and Vesarian had told him that even the smaller powers had similar capabilities.

“It worries me, Colonel Logan.  It worries me a great deal...”

Logan turned, startled.  He hadn’t heard the light-footed Drayana entering the Observation Room.

“Empress?”

She swept her hand across the holographic display. “This gives me sleepless nights, Colonel.  The Empire has so many potential enemies, so few friends, and such a huge expanse of space to protect.”

“You have a powerful fleet, Empress.  And more importantly, loyal people,” Logan suggested.

“The Imperial Fleet?  Yes...  Twelve Battleships, each over five times the size of Tallura Regnatrix.  Seventy-five Heavy Cruisers, one-hundred and eighty Light Cruisers and many more smaller ships...” Drayana nodded pensively.

Logan’s eyes widened slightly.  The Imperial Fleet was much larger than he’d expected and, given the technical information Vesarian had supplied, the USAF Colonel was pretty certain the Asgard were seriously underestimating Talluran technological capabilities.  Tallura Regnatrix was a match, in every respect, for a Goa’uld Ha’tak and a fleet that size could take on and defeat the forces of multiple System Lords.

“But is it enough?” the Empress sighed. “I have ten full colony worlds to protect, with billions of lives.  I also have twelve minor colonies, those with only three or fewer cities, but they still must be defended.  Our frontiers are very long – as you can see – and we face potential enemies on many fronts.”

She shook her head tiredly. “So many crises recently.  I think many of our neighbours are trying to test me...  A young and inexperienced Empress, only four of your years older than Dawn.”

If the truth were told, Drayana had inherited a situation which would have horrified her parents.  Under the Regency, Tallura’s diplomatic relations with too many powers had seriously deteriorated or, at best, stagnated.  Similarly, during Ilarius’ Regency, the Proconsulate had allowed the Imperial Defence Forces to decline.  Her father had always followed the principle of a strong sword in one hand, and the flowers of peace in the other.  But under the Regent, that sword was worn down to a dagger, while the flowers were distinctly withered. 

Drayana was working hard to rebuild both the Imperial Defence Forces – especially the Fleet – and Tallura’s diplomatic position, but she couldn’t accomplish either overnight.  And she wasn’t entirely sure time was on her side.

“I’m new to your world, Empress...  But everyone I’ve spoken with since I arrived?  They’re more than happy to have you as a ruler.  They trust you to make the right decisions and...” Logan paused, wondering if he should be saying any more.

Drayana might be young, but she was well-trained in reading hesitation, no matter how brief.

“And what, Colonel?”

“It’s probably not my place to say, Empress...” the Colonel temporised.

Drayana pursed her lips, then smiled thinly. “As an outside observer, your opinion is particularly important to me.  I can confide in you, precisely because I know you have no personal agenda, beyond protecting Dawn...  And collecting as much technological data as possible.”

“Compared to your predecessor, Empress?  Your people will follow you anywhere,” Logan replied as diplomatically as he could.

Drayana just smiled at that.  The antipathy between herself and the ex-Regent was not secret within the Empire, but it was obviously also apparent to a complete newcomer, wholly unfamiliar with the Talluran political system.

“Even if I have to lead them into a war?” the young woman asked rhetorically.

“If there’s a war, Empress, it’s my understanding that it’ll be due to the situation you inherited, not one you created,” the Colonel pointed out.

“But I’m puzzled by one thing.  If Regent Ilarius was such a dreadful ruler and responsible for so many bad decisions – plus the fact that he hates every fibre of your being and is probably intriguing against you...”

The Empress held up a hand. “I cannot yet prove the latter part.  As for the rest?  When I came to power, I dismissed or retired three-quarters of the Proconsulate, those appointed by Ilarius.  Also half the senior officials in the Imperial Civil Service, five Generals and seven Admirals.  Some are probably plotting my downfall and death even as we speak, others have reluctantly moved on to other things, and a few are serving sentences on a penal colony for fraud and other crimes during their period of office."

Drayana made a face, as though she’d just bitten into something sour. “Ilarius, however, is a master of evasion and redirecting blame.  Odd as it may seem, I have been unable to directly charge him with any failures of government while he was in power.  Only a general charge of failing to keep adequate control of the various Proconsulate Departments and, under our constitution, that is not sufficient excuse to dismiss a former Imperial Regent.  For now, I must - however reluctantly - keep Ilarius involved in the day-to-day running of the Empire, through the Advisory Council.  Fortunately, I can also limit his influence, reducing him to little more than a token presence.  Of course, that merely makes him even more bitter and determined to bring about my downfall – but ultimately he may supply the axe for his own neck...”

Moments of self-doubt notwithstanding – and these would be understandable in a ruler with fifty years’ experience, given her responsibilities – Logan was increasingly aware that this teenager had a formidable political mind.  Drayana might be amiable enough, but there was also a necessary undercurrent of ruthlessness.  He had no doubt that the Empress would move swiftly and mercilessly if Ilarius misplayed his hand.  Furthermore, she was quite capable of manoeuvring him into just such a position.

Logan nodded towards the shimmering holographic display. “So why does the Empire have so many enemies.  Or at least potential enemies?  You don’t seem to be a particularly expansionist power.”

From what the Colonel had been able to discover so far, it had been a very long time since the Tallurans attempted to expand into even disputed zones, let alone other people’s territory.  Which was more than could be said for some of the neighbours.

“We do not actively seek confrontation, Colonel.  Nor have we done so for many years and, in any case, our need for additional territory and resources is likely to be quite small for the foreseeable future.  Unfortunately, the Talluran Empire has not always been the best of neighbours – and the other powers have very long memories,” Drayana admitted.

“My grandmother’s grandmother was our last ruler with considerable, perhaps insatiable, territorial ambitions and the will to follow them through.  She was constantly – and quite successfully - at war with all the neighbouring powers at one time or another, when most of them were considerably weaker.  They have never forgiven our people for that time,” she continued.

She was also quite sure that her pre-Ascended Alteran ancestors would not have approved of such predatory practices.

The Empress shrugged. “There is, of course, also the mistrust of anything that is alien.  And simple jealousy of the oldest known civilization in the galaxy...”

Admittedly, the Talluran Empire had fallen and rebuilt itself any number of times over the past few millennia, its people forced to relocate en masse to other parts of the Vedda Galaxy in response to anything from a supernova to a devastating plague, from alien invasion to an open Hellmouth.  The current Tallura Prime was the sixth planet to bear the name.

“Do you see any solution?” Logan asked.

The Empress seemed to think that the situation facing the Talluran Empire was somewhat graver than Vesarian had intimated to him.  The Centurion was a highly experienced soldier, of course, but he wasn’t necessarily cleared for all the diplomatic and security intelligence which crossed his sovereign’s desk on a daily basis.

“Our current position is not sustainable,” Drayana replied. “And while I have introduced a programme of military reconstruction, the arithmetic would suggest that is only a short-term solution.  Nor can we count on Asgard assistance against powers regarded as our peers.  That leaves me three options.  First – to launch a pre-emptive strike against two or more of our opponents.  Not only is it morally reprehensible to me, but it might not even succeed, leaving us with a full-scale war. 

“Secondly, my preferred solution is a diplomatic one, improving relations with at least one or two of the Empire’s potential enemies.  Unfortunately, such an approach requires willingness on both sides.  Still, if I combine it with even a moderate programme of military expansion, they may respect the combination of diplomacy backed by strength,” the Empress continued.

“You said there were three options?” Logan ventured, certain the third one simply wasn’t to roll over and surrender.

“Option three is the most unlikely to succeed, but also the one with the greatest potential rewards if it succeeds.  Some of our scholars have recently discovered papers, suggesting that the Alterans left behind vast amounts of technology.  Everything from ships to advanced power sources and – perhaps most importantly – repositories of their knowledge.  These were apparently hidden away in various parts of the galaxy, their whereabouts lost during the early post-Ascension disasters.  I now have many of my most experienced scholars working on locating these...” Drayana suddenly realised she might have said too much.

“I must swear you to secrecy on this, Colonel.  Few of my own people know about this project.  Searching for these hidden caches of Alteran technology may be a futile effort, but if they are still out there, the benefits to my people would be incalculable and we would certainly have little to fear from our neighbours.  But if our enemies were to get there first, then it would be disastrous,” she averred grimly.

“I’m used to keeping secrets.  You can rely on my absolute discretion, Empress,” Logan assured her.

And if he ever needed to borrow Daniel Jackson from SG-1, now was the time, he decided.  The archaeologist had a definite knack for solving problems such as this one.  Of course, Logan also wanted to question the Empress further on this, but realised that she was unlikely to divulge any more.  With her entire civilization potentially hanging in the balance at some point down the road, the Colonel could hardly blame her.

Drayana shook her head. “In any case, my enemies this time are somewhat closer to home.  No messages have been received from any official body on Thenatrix for two days, including the Imperial Defence Force garrison, the Consular representatives, and any Proconsular Departments.  Those we did receive prior to the communications blackout indicated that some Consuls and Defence Force officers feared that the Governor was preparing to seize power or, at the very least, stamp down hard on protests over his handling of the famine.”

Given that communications over such vast distances relied on a limited number of channels, it was relatively easy for someone to take control of them and, conversely, difficult to establish exactly what was happening on the distant planet.  Initially, Drayana had considered sending a small recon patrol through the Astria Porta, but the Governor no doubt already had it well-guarded.  In any event, she decided, subtlety would be of little use here.  Certainly, a thorough appraisal of all the evidence had convinced the Empress that she was now facing a great deal more than criminally negligent mishandling of a famine and heavier than normal pirate activity.

Logan shook his head in disbelief.  For one Imperial Governor, without even popular support behind him, to rebel against the Empress seemed like a good means of committing suicide.

“Why would he want to seize power?  He would have to know that the people wouldn’t support him and that you’d react with force.  Besides, how would he actually do it, without military support?” the Colonel couldn’t see the logic.

“It is possible that the Governor has successfully suborned a few senior officers from the Defence Force.  On the rare occasion we have malcontents, they tend to be from the frontier regions.  But intelligence reports also suggest that he has built up a personal militia – a small one, admittedly – and is also likely to use alien mercenaries,” Drayana responded.

“As for the “why”?  It could be that the Governor is somewhat unstable – such things have occasionally happened in the past.  If he has been in contact with disgraced former Proconsuls on Tallura Prime, they may have given him a wholly false impression of the level of resistance I face at home.  Such an impression may have been created by accident, but most likely by design.  Ilarius, or one of the others, would quite happily sacrifice one of their number, either to settle a personal issue, or for other reasons.  Most likely, simply to create or intensify a crisis, either to draw my attention away from something else, or to test my ability and resolve to deal with such an emergency.  Either way, the consequences will be the same,” she added coldly.

Machiavelli, Logan decided heavily, could have taken lessons from some of these people.

 

Waiting Room, Medical Clinic, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 31st December 2000 (Earth Date)

Hospitals and waiting rooms seemingly looked and smelled the same, no matter where you were, Joyce decided with a sigh.  The technology might be several centuries ahead, but doctors and nurses also had common characteristics.  One of them being a tendency to keep relatives waiting an inordinately long time, or so it seemed to her.

“It’s my fault,” she repeated guiltily to Sato and his team, for about the tenth time.

“You ain’t the bodyguard, Joyce.  Shoulda gone with her, no matter how much she bitched about it...” Faith was also having a major attack of conscience.

The Slayer’s eyesight had returned within a few minutes, no doubt on account of her innate healing powers.

“With the Colonel away, it’s my responsibility,” Sato noted grimly. “And my ass he’ll put in a sling.”

Faith shook her head. “’Less you’re some short of a perv?  Couldn’t exactly take her to the fricking bathroom, could you!  Plus you’re maybe here on the General’s orders.  Mine?  Straight from B and her sister...  And I know who I’d rather have pissed at me.”

Aquiliani sighed. “I will also have to answer to both Centurion Vesarian and Her Excellency.  Aelina’s Tavern has always been regarded as a safe place, where we can relax slightly, even around the Empress, and I allowed that to lull me into a false sense of security.  Of us all, I was the only trained bodyguard present.  The odds of Dawn meeting that sort of trouble after getting lost were vanishingly small, but I still broke protocol.”

The fact was, if it wasn’t for concern about what Ilarius and similar types might be planning, no one would have anticipated their guests even needing a permanent guard.

“More than enough guilt to go around,” Lam offered. “And at least no serious injuries – apart from the two Ch’Hanis...”

“I’m all over crying my fricking eyes out about them!  And what’s with letting man-eating, slave-dealing aliens wander around?” Faith demanded.

“Because it is better that we meet the Ch’Hanis – and other neighbouring races – in trade, than in war.  You perhaps do not yet understand how delicately power is balanced in this region of the galaxy.  Dawn is also the first recorded instance of such an attack,” Aquiliani replied.

Joyce rolled her eyes and shook her head. “That’s my daughter...”

Most of her memories of Dawn in trouble were, of course, artificial.  But perhaps recollections of her youngest daughter’s misadventures were a deliberate means of making those closest to her extra-protective.  The memories certainly felt utterly real, both to Dawn and everyone who knew her and, as far as Joyce was concerned, nothing else mattered.

“Any idea what the Ch’Hanis were doing there?” Sato enquired, Aquiliani having been in contact with the Civic Patrol.

The Imperial Guard nodded. “They have some evidence to suggest that these two were involved in gem smuggling, with a N’Gluk trader.  The meeting had either already taken place, or the other party failed to appear.”

“N’Gluk?  Sounds like someone clearing their fricking throat,” Faith muttered, pronouncing the alien name with some difficulty.

“One of our closest allies.  Usually very law-abiding, but as with all species...” Aquiliani responded.

“A few bad apples,” Lam nodded.

“The other guy?  The one who tried to help?” Faith wondered.

“Academist Maximius Sulla.  He is a curator and scholar of note, from Yaherin Var University’s museum.  The buildings around the alley contain the reserve collection and are usually unoccupied.  Fortunately, he only suffered a minor concussion.  It could have been much worse, given his advancing years,” Aquiliani replied.

She’d already subtly checked, just to make sure Sulla wasn’t on Ilarius’ team, or involved in some other nefarious business. 

“Didn’t look so old...  Fifty-ish, maybe?” the Slayer shrugged.

“Tallurans have longer lifespans than Terrans and do not usually show their years.  Academist Sulla is one-hundred years old,” the Imperial Guard smiled.

“Hope I look so good when I hit the century,” Sato whistled, as everyone looked suitably impressed.

“Whatever his age, I owe him my thanks for at least trying to help my daughter,” Joyce said.

Aquiliani chuckled. “An Academist of his standing, meeting his first Terran?  He will have so many questions, you might never be able to leave.”    

“Mrs Summers?  Doctor Lam?  I have completed my examination.  If you would like to come this way?” Healer Gaius Valarien, the Empress’s personal physician appeared in the doorway.

Lam, Joyce and Faith each immediately and privately decided that the Imperial Physician was prime beefcake material.  As a Talluran, Valarien’s age was difficult to gauge, but he was around six-foot tall and perfectly proportioned from head to foot, with rugged looks and a fall head of jet-black hair.  The Empress, they decided, was one lucky young lady to have him at her personal beck and call.

Swiftly ignoring such thoughts as utterly inappropriate at this time, Joyce rose anxiously to her feet. “Will Dawn be alright?”

Valarien nodded reassuringly. “Her injuries are minor and nothing we cannot completely heal in a matter of days.  My examination simply took slightly longer than anticipated, as I had to carry out a full body scan and analysis.  Terran physiology is similar to ours, so we can use most of the same treatments, but there are slight differences, requiring adjustments.”

“I was guessing fractures of the upper and lower left arm and also the left clavicle – though it’s a while since my last field diagnosis,” Lam admitted.

“Mid-bone fractures of the humorous, radius and ulna, in addition to the clavicle,” Valarien confirmed. “Relatively clean fractures, though the upper arm will require minor surgery to reset the bone.  The laceration on her face will not leave a permanent scar after treatment.”

Joyce swallowed and nodded.  Surgery was surgery, even if it was minor, after all.

“How do you treat the fractures?  Back home, a broken bone takes weeks to heal properly,” she told the Imperial Physician.

“The fracture site is injected with a mixture of an organic cement, nutrients – based on the ingredients of the bone – and basic nanobots.  The organic cement initially anchors the fractured bone, while the nanobots then transform the nutrient compounds into bone.  The process is usually complete within four-to-five days, after which your daughter will have perfect function in her arm once more.  Then the inert nanobots are absorbed into the bloodstream, carried to the stomach, and excreted in the normal fashion,” Valarien explained.

“The surgery will be very brief, but we would prefer to keep your daughter unconscious until tomorrow.  During the first few hours of the process, the nanobots will hyper-stimulate the nerves in the surrounding tissue and this is excruciatingly painful for the patient,” he cautioned.

Lam nodded thoughtfully. “And these nanobots and compounds are fully compatible with our physiology?”

“As is the regenerative compound we have applied to her face.  It was simply a matter of recalibrating the device which produces the healing compounds and nanobots.  Ensuring that we had a compatible anaesthetic was slightly more tricky – our drugs work directly on the sleep centre of the brain, while also inhibiting movement.  A brain-mapping scan allowed us to slightly modify the anaesthetic agent,” Valarien explained to his fellow professional.

“But you haven’t treated any of us before...” Joyce pointed out worriedly.

The Imperial Physician smiled tolerantly. “Mrs Summers, I have successfully treated species with utterly alien physiologies.  By contrast, applying Talluran medicine to Terrans is the simplest exercise in Xenobiology I have ever undertaken.”

He paused. “So do we have your permission to carry out the surgery?”

“Of course.  But can I see her first?” Joyce asked, still anxious.

She told herself there was nothing to be worried about.  This, after all, was the Imperial Physician, trusted by the Empress herself. 

And, part of her mind was still saying, in another time and place she would be very interested in this fine specimen of a man.

“This way,” Valarien directed them along a corridor, to a small private room, seemingly oblivious to two pairs of female eyes scrutinising him quite appreciatively.

Aquiliani was taking no chances, Joyce observed.  Two of the Imperial Guard Protective Division’s finest, hastily summoned from the palace, stood guard by the door.

“Your daughter may not be quite as you expect...” the Imperial Physician smiled knowingly.

“What d’you mean?” Joyce demanded, frowning.

“We have administered a painkiller and relaxant, prior to surgery.  The effect is sometimes slightly euphoric, removing inhibitions and so forth, but perfectly harmless and non-addictive,” Valarien replied, before taking his leave.

 

Dawn’s Room, Medical Clinic, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 31st December 2000 (Earth Date)

“Hey, mom!” Dawn was grinning from ear to ear, obviously not in the slightest discomfort, and waving her good arm.

“How are you, honey?” Joyce almost took a step back.

“They gave me this really good stuff.  My arm doesn’t hurt even a teensy bit and I feel like I’m floating...  Floating away on a big, big, big fluffy cloud...  Wooohooo!” her daughter giggled, rolling somewhat glassy and unfocused eyes in two different directions.

Back in her college days, Joyce had seen many of her fellow students shoot, sniff and smoke some pretty strange substances – even smoked a few herself – but Dawn’s chemical high was evidently on a different level.  At least it was non-addictive.

“As a doctor, I’m not sure if I should approve of this, or not,” Lam noted wryly. “Though part of me certainly wants to try it...”

“Where’s the sexy doc?” Dawn demanded at the top of her voice. “I could eat him whole!”

Joyce tried to keep a straight face.  “We’ll have less of that, young lady.”

“Out of the mouths of babes...” Lam muttered under her breath, appreciating the sentiment.

“Don’t wanna be a lady!  That’s boring...  Want my sexy doc!” Dawn proclaimed loudly.

“He’s making arrangements for your surgery,” Lam said gently.

“Surgery, schmurgery...  Cut me open and sew me up again.  Bet Diana – or Faith – or Gertrude – whatever she’s calling herself these days – is making out with him in a closet somewhere.  Just like Cordy and Xander used to...” the youngster sniggered and snorted.

“The sooner someone knocks her out, the better,” Joyce folded her arms, wondering what other embarrassing indiscretions were about to emerge from her daughter’s young mouth.

“Mom and Giles didn’t need a closet.  They just got down on the hood of a cop car.  With the handcuffs...  Twice,” Dawn instantly and gleefully confirmed her mother’s worst, innermost fears.

“Really?” Lam raised an eyebrow in Joyce’s direction.

It seemed an unlikely tale at first acquaintance - Joyce didn't seem to be that sort of woman, after all - but since moving into psychiatry, the doctor had heard much stranger things.

Joyce flushed noticeably. “Uh...  We live on a Hellmouth.  Weird things happen and...  It’s a long story and I’ll explain later.  And Buffy – or someone - is in deep trouble, for telling her about that little incident.”

“ “Hellmouth”?  I think that’s the original Hell Mouth lying there,” the doctor smirked, Joyce almost finding herself forced to agree.

Dawn leered at them both in disconcerting fashion. “Maybe the doc needs to get some, too.  Kinda uptight...”

“Fascinating psychological profile,” Lam remarked calmly.

“When we get home, I’m thinking convent school.  Somewhere far from her sisters and friends,” a mortified Joyce muttered, as her daughter broke into a thoroughly evil giggle.

“She’s on the verge of becoming a teenager, Joyce,” Lam pointed out reasonably. “I started to have guys and sex on the brain when I was that age.  All impulses and no action of course.  Not ‘til I finished High School, but it’s all there in the subconscious.  I’m sure you were pretty much the same.”

Fortunately, a nurse appeared at that moment, sparing Joyce the further indignity of talking about her own teenage years.

“Anaesthetic?” Lam asked.

The nurse nodded. “We will be moving her into surgery in a few minutes.”

“Oooohhh...  Not a big needle!” Dawn squeaked, though seemingly unperturbed at the prospect.

The Talluran shook her head in amusement. “Not a needle.  Just a timed-release patch.”

Joyce adopted a mock-severe expression. “Dawn deserves your biggest needle.  Right in her little tushie...”

“Mom’s a big meanie...” Dawn pointed out to her audience.

“And don’t you ever forget it, Missy!” her mother retorted evenly.

The timed release patch resembled nothing more than an over-sized band-aid, applied to the side of Dawn’s neck.

“Wooh!  That’s different...” the youngster exclaimed in surprise, just before her head hit the pillows and her eyes closed.

Joyce bent down and kissed her softly. “Sweet dreams, honey...”

She was still naturally nervous about allowing alien doctors to perform an unknown procedure on her daughter.  Lam, on the other hand, seemed to have every confidence in the Tallurans.  Thinking logically, Joyce realised that her fears were probably just like those of an 18th century human, suddenly faced with 21st century medicine, albeit that her intellectual jump wasn’t nearly so big.

Without further ado, a pair of medical orderlies entered the room and whisked her daughter – more asleep than anaesthetised in the sense of current medicine, according to Lam – away to the operating room.  There seemed little point in following, since it was only two doors down the corridor.

“Guess that’s it for now.  She won’t wake up ‘til tomorrow, so you might as well return to the palace with the guys.  I’m not going anywhere until Dawn wakes up, anyhow,” Joyce said firmly.

“I’ll stay with you,” Lam replied.

“You sure?  It’s New Year back home and I’m sure SG-15 have some sort of celebration in mind,” the older woman pointed out.

She was untold light years from home, on an unfamiliar world, with her youngest daughter in surgery.  And in truth, with Buffy and Cordelia still facing an insane Hell Goddess back home, with no guarantee of survival – indeed, no guarantee that Earth would still be there in just over five months’ time – Joyce saw precious little to celebrate. 

The psychiatrist shrugged. “Never was much of a New Year fan.  Probably ‘cause my father always said he’d be home and never was...  We can raise a glass of the local hooch tomorrow, once Dawn’s awake.”

Joyce nodded. “Toasting along the lines of “here’s to the New Year – can it be any worse than the old one?””

“Quite possibly much worse,” Lam offered perkily.

“Thanks doctor.  You’re a great source of comfort...” Joyce retorted sardonically.

 

Command Centre, Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, Approaching the Thenatrix System – 31st December 2000 (Earth Date)

Logan kept out of the way in the Flagship’s Command Centre, as bodyguard and protectee engaged in a battle of wills.  Up to now, aside from whining from Dawn about not being allowed a life, the SG-15 CO hadn’t faced that particular problem.  Which was probably just as well, since neither he, nor his team, had ever been trained in providing close protection.  From his Talluran counterpart’s long-suffering expression, however, Logan was guessing that this argument, or similar, had arisen more than once in the past.  He could also easily guess who’d win.

“I must protest, Your Excellency!” Vesarian exclaimed. “The planet may not be safe for some time – perhaps days.  You cannot risk yourself...”

“ “Cannot”, Centurion?” Drayana engaged stubborn mode and gave him the full Imperial stare.

“I do not believe that is your decision to make,” she reminded him, in slightly frosty tones.

“The Centurion is correct, Your Excellency...” Admiral Octavia Severan, commanding the First Squadron, ventured gently.

The Empress folded her arms and sighed. “I know you both have my best interests at heart, but I also have to look to the welfare of my people.  Those on Thenatrix have been suffering terribly and the least I can do is show that I care, by appearing in person.  I will hear their complaints in person, Admiral, not skulking on the flagship.  Else I might as well have remained on Tallura Prime.  And if that means putting myself at risk?  Then so be it.”

This was the first major crisis since Drayana had taken the throne.  And with the crown came vows, serious vows.  These included the obligation to not only rule the Talluran people to the best of her ability, but also to protect them against all threats.

Vesarian wanted to tear his hair out and scream.  Sixteen-year-old Empresses with an overdeveloped sense of honour and duty - and underdeveloped self-preservation instincts – would probably eventually give him an ulcer.  He also knew there would be no changing her stubborn mind on this.

The Empress might be correct in her reasoning on this occasion, he admitted.  The Centurion was also, however, aware that this might be Ilarius’ strategy.  If the still-inexperienced Empress constantly pinned herself down micro-managing assorted crises, probably fomented by the former Regent and his followers, there was a real risk she’d lose sight of the wider view, with untold risks for the Empire.  Unfortunately, Drayana might have to learn that lesson for herself, as it certainly wasn’t one a mere Centurion of the Imperial Guard could impart.  Hopefully, the Imperial Advisory Council could persuade the Empress that she’d sometimes have to take a hands-off approach.

“I will not be landing with the first wave, Centurion.  Perhaps not even the second, depending on the conditions when we arrive there,” Drayana moderated her tone somewhat, not wishing to appear like a spoiled child.

“I am also wearing a protective vest under my clothing and – if necessary – I can look after myself in a fight, as you are well aware...” the Empress touched her sheathed sword.

She was extremely adept at using the weapon, somewhat longer and slightly more slender than the short swords employed by the Imperial Guard, having trained in its use since she was a young child.  There was also a small plasma pistol hidden away in her dress, but the sword was also a visible symbol of Imperial power and justice.

Vesarian still didn’t look happy.  Drayana might be wearing a protective vest, invisible under the long, flowing dress she wore on duty, but it could only be the lightest sort.  It would be proof against low and medium-power plasma blasts and bladed weapons, but not against a plasma rifle.  Nor did it protect her head and neck., or anything beyond the torso.

“I cannot change your mind, Excellency?” the Centurion tried once more.

“You cannot,” the Empress assured him firmly, albeit with a hint of amusement.

“Do you wish to accompany me, Colonel Logan?” she turned to their Terran Military Observer.

While hoping this Imperial intervention would proceed without the need for any more than sabre-rattling, the SG-15 CO was also intensely curious about Talluran operational tactics.  There would almost certainly be a brief and one-sided space-battle against the local pirates, but whether or not a major firefight would break out on the surface of Thenatrix was another matter.

“If that wouldn’t be an inconvenience, Empress,” Logan responded.

She smiled and shook her head. “Quite the contrary.  As Centurion Vesarian is so concerned for my safety, I am sure he will be pleased to have you by my side.”

“Of course, Empress,” Vesarian replied, a little stiffly. “Another set of eyes is always useful.”

If truth were told, while he trusted the Terran officer as an individual, and also to participate in routine security operations back on Tallura Prime, this could be somewhat different.  Logan didn’t know the first thing about Imperial Guard fighting tactics, but Vesarian was also reluctant to offend the visitor – and fellow professional - by excluding him from the group.  Having him act as close-in escort for the Empress was probably, therefore, the best solution all round.

“Excellent.  Please ensure that he is issued with adequate protective equipment and weapons,” Drayana nodded approvingly.

 

Maximius Sulla’s Room, Medical Clinic, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 31st December 2000 (Earth Date)

“I am perfectly well and do not require to be asked my name, address and birthday at twenty-minute intervals,” the Academist crossly informed a nurse.

Clearly, Joyce realised, the monitoring procedure for suspected concussion was the same, regardless of galaxy and level of technology.  She also had to remind himself that this individual, though one-hundred, was not extremely old in local terms.  Wondering how her visit would be received, she knocked gingerly on the open door.

Sulla sighed impatiently. “Another one?  I will tell you exactly the same as the others.  I merely suffered from a slight bump on the head...  Furthermore, I am neither senile, nor one-hundred-and-fifty years old!”

The clearly long-suffering Talluran nurse waited until he’d finished his diatribe. “If you are quite finished being a most ungrateful and irritable patient, I can assure you that this is not one of my colleagues.”

The Academist frowned and scrutinised his visitor carefully. “Indeed.  And who are you, young woman?”

Joyce uncomfortably recalled a particularly crusty old professor from her own college days.  Maximius Sulla didn’t just look like him, the mannerisms were also uncannily similar.  Under his intense gaze, she suddenly felt like the awkward young freshman, whose ideas had been swiftly and comprehensively trashed in her first philosophy seminar.

“Uh...  Joyce Summers.  You tried to save my daughter from those two Ch’Hanis.  I just wanted to thank you...” she said nervously.

The Academist smiled ruefully. “It did not help either of us very much, unfortunately.  Though I am far from old, perhaps in my younger days I could have offered a little more resistance.  Or perhaps not...”

“You at least tried.  And maybe even that few seconds delay made all the difference,” Joyce pointed out.

Sulla nodded thoughtfully. “Perhaps...  Help did arrive at the last possible moment, so perhaps my feeble delaying tactics were effective, after all. It is certainly a boost for my self-esteem to believe as much, in any case.”

He pointed to a chair. “Please sit down.  If I must stay here – and my medical jailers insist as much – I might as well enjoy a little pleasant conversation.”

“You should be resting,” the nurse disapprovingly reminded him.

The Academist glared at her. “You cannot have it all ways.  If you will not allow me to sleep, there is no harm in some light conversation, is there?”

“You may have thirty minutes.  Let me know immediately, if he suddenly become drowsy or incoherent,” the nurse tutted, shook her head and left the room.

“I have been accused of many things in my career...” Sulla chuckled. “Pomposity, arrogance, and impatience chief amongst them.  Even, according to certain of my students, of inducing suicidal levels of boredom.  But never incoherence!”

The Academist paused. “But how is your daughter?  She seemed to be in some pain when I last saw her.”

“Dawn has a broken arm and collarbone, but she’s otherwise unharmed,” Joyce allowed.

“Painful, but a relatively simple matter to repair.  She is also in the best of hands here,” Sulla agreed.

So, for that matter, was he.  The Academist had been astonished to find himself assessed by none other than the Imperial Physician.  Whoever they were, this woman and her daughter enjoyed connections at the very apex of Talluran political life.

He studied Joyce for a moment again. “Forgive my curiosity, but I do not recognise your accent.  And I am quite familiar with all the most common dialects and inflections used across the Empire.”

“Maybe because I’m not from the Empire.  My daughter and I – and several others – are Terrans, guests of the Empress and brought here by the Asgard.  And the accent?  Totally artificial, I’m afraid, courtesy of an Asgard translation implant,” Joyce explained.

Sulla face lit up with interest. “Really?  One of our Second Evolution?”

“Your Second Evolution?” Joyce hadn’t heard that one yet.

“A conversation for another day, perhaps, when we have much more time.  But why would the Asgard bring you all the way out here?” the Academist probed.

“A long story...” Joyce paused.

The question had, surprisingly, rarely been raised since they arrived on Tallura Prime.  She was quite prepared to give him the half-truth version about Dawn, though not the one mentioning The Key.  Certainly, the Tallurans might lack Slayers and magic users, but they still periodically encountered malign supernatural foes.  Vampires and demons were rare within the Empire – worlds with Hellmouths were actively avoided for colonisation purposes – but not unknown.  Apparently, a small unit of the Imperial Guard was tasked with demon hunting and, as on Earth, the work was extremely hazardous.

“My world has serious problems with the supernatural,” Joyce admitted. “Bringing Dawn out here was the only way to keep her and our world – and much more – safe from certain evil forces...”

Ten minutes later, Sulla was shaking his head sympathetically.  Joyce had given him a brief overview of Slayers, Hellmouths and Glory’s plan to use Dawn as a blood sacrifice, and the Academist was more than a little stunned.

“Given my own people’s unpleasant past encounters with what you call Hellmouths, I cannot imagine living in a world where supernatural activity is so intense.  And as the mother of these Slayers – warriors for forces of good – you have both my utmost respect and sympathy,” Sulla offered quietly, all traces of his previous bluster suddenly gone.

“I try not to dwell it on it,” Joyce replied. “And most of Earth’s population are completely ignorant of their danger.  Which is probably for the best...”

The Academist nodded gravely, then his face suddenly brightened. “To change the subject entirely...  What is your profession back on Terra?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Do you have a particular skill or expert knowledge base?” Sulla pressed, the germ of an idea forming in his perpetually over-active mind.

Joyce nodded, not sure where the conversation was heading. “I own a small art gallery and can claim to have some knowledge of human cultures and history, I suppose.  Apart from that?  The complexities of motherhood – but you really can’t call me an expert there.”

The Talluran almost beamed.  He’d have to consider this in more detail, but the coincidence was ideal, if the Terran was agreeable. 

“The University Museum has a large section dealing with our Alteran heritage.  There is even a small exhibit on Terra, based on our rather thin surviving records of ancient times.  Would you be willing to help me construct an exhibit on your planet’s post-Alteran development?” Sulla asked eagerly.

This opportunity, the Academist reminded himself, wasn’t likely to recur in future.  After all, Terrans weren’t exactly regular visitors to the Talluran Empire.

“I don’t have much in the way of useful reference sources with me,” Joyce pondered. “But if you simply want a brief overview?  At college, I studied ancient and modern history alongside art – though it was some time ago – and could probably put together something fairly simple.  I also worked in a number of museums and galleries as an intern while I was a student, and as my first few jobs out of college.”

It was certainly an intriguing and tantalising offer.  Between her unexpected illness and being sucked into her daughters’ world, Joyce was missing her gallery work.  Helping to create an exhibit, in an alien world’s most renowned museum, would unquestionably be a fascinating substitute.  At one point in college, she’d considered majoring in classical civilizations and, indeed, had taken a number of classes in the subject, but history of art had ultimately seemed like a marginally more marketable subject.  In any case, she hadn’t forgotten everything she’d learned in the former classes.

“ “Something simple” as you put it, is considerably more than we currently have.  Terra was one of the most important Alteran worlds, when the civilization was at its height.  It is only fitting that the Museum should also include some material on post-Ascension Terran civilization,” Sulla replied.

“It would be a tad thin on visual aspects and artefacts,” Joyce pointed out, though they could probably copy some images from the mound of school textbooks Dawn had brought with her.

The Academist waved that aside. “We at least have the basis for a fascinating exhibit.  Could we possibly meet again over the next few days, to discuss this further?”

“Assuming Dawn’s okay after treatment?  I’d be delighted to help,” Joyce was looking forward to being semi-useful again for a few months, rather than merely a guest/tourist, who had to be constantly guarded.

 

Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, Approaching the Thenatrix System – 31st December 2000 (Earth Date)

Full ground combat rig for a member of the Talluran Defence Forces was, as Logan had rapidly discovered, an exceedingly sophisticated selection of kit.  Enough, in fact, to make the SG-15 CO’s mouth water at the possibilities.

Physical protection of the wearer appeared to be the first priority and this came in two parts.  The base layer was a padded one-piece suit, covering the limbs and torso and, at least in theory, proof against lower-level plasma bursts, edged weapons and so forth.  The main element, meanwhile, was what Logan had mentally dubbed Storm Trooper armour, given its vague similarity in appearance to that used in the Star Wars movies – albeit that the Talluran version was black and almost certainly offered genuine protection, unlike the Hollywood version.  From neck to foot, the wearer was fully encased in a lightweight hardened composite shell, with fully articulated joints allowing complete freedom of movement.  The head was completely enclosed in a helmet of similar material, with a full-face visor.  If necessary, the body armour provided complete protection in an NBC environment.  No doubt, the whole faceless ensemble was also quite intimidating to an opponent.

Protection was only part of the total soldier equation, however.  The helmet included a full Head-Up Display, presenting a variety of tactical information to the wearer, ranging from the positions of enemy and friendly troops, to digital maps, to targeting data, and recon images from micro-drones, all accessible by voice control, eye-movement, or a small keypad on the wrist.  The tinted visor itself could operate either in normal daylight mode, or a range of low-light modes.  Fully networked information could be exchanged between the various members of a squad and other formations, through a sophisticated internal communications system, with everything coordinated and controlled through hundreds of tiny computer systems, allowing massive redundancy, and embedded in the helmet and body armour.

Admittedly many – possibly most – of these advanced network, communications and targeting capabilities had been proposed for the infantry soldier of the 21st century, back on Earth.  To date, no one had succeeded in making more than a handful of them available with existing technology, nor did it seem likely in the near future.  The main issues had been related to weight, bulk and reliability.  Individually, much of this could be done back on Earth, but the long-suffering infantryman would have to carry around a large proportion of his own weight in batteries and computer systems.

The Personal Combat Weapon was also much more sophisticated than the short-barrelled plasma rifle typically carried by the Imperial Guard on normal protection detail.  This one had advanced sighting systems, tied into the helmet system, and accurate out to 2000 metres, if necessary.  It was comparable in power to a Goa’uld Staff Weapon, firing smaller plasma bolts, but at a much higher velocity over a longer distance.  A Staff Weapon, on the other hand, seldom needed to be reloaded, whereas the PCW’s power pack was only good for about one hundred shots.

There was also a stun mode, firing an electrical bolt, while the weapon addtionally included a launcher for a hybrid miniature grenade/missile, with a variety of smart sensor and fuse settings, and a similar range to the rifle element, fed from a six-round magazine.  All in all, the PCW was a formidable weapon system and Logan hoped to negotiate for a few examples, prior to returning to Earth.  Even two of these would increase an SG-Team’s firepower enormously.

“I wish you would reconsider, Wade,” Vesarian remarked, with a slight shake of his head. “Do you not think Her Excellency is giving me a sufficient headache?”

The Imperial Guard was currently helmetless, but otherwise in full Talluran battle rattle.  In spite of the array of high-tech equipment, he retained the ubiquitous short sword on one hip, balanced on this occasion with a shock baton on the other.

“Much as my self-preservation instincts would prefer to me to be wearing full armour, Shar, I’m not used to moving around in that stuff.  And, as you pointed out, I couldn’t use most of the built-in systems effectively, not without training.  Which might actually leave me at a disadvantage if I was suited up – kinda like going into a fight half-blind, with one arm tied behind my back... So I guess I’ll just have to settle for the same sort of vest as the Empress,” Logan conceded.

Vesarian nodded reluctantly and tossed him a PCW and tactical communications device. “What you say makes sense, but please do not dishonour us by getting yourself shot.”

“How much danger can there be?  You guys are going in there in overwhelming force, with a whole damned fleet overhead,” the USAF Colonel pointed out.

The First Squadron wasn’t going in alone.  Admiral Severus had also summoned another Imperial Defence Force Battle Squadron, with two more Heavy and four Light Cruisers, plus their full complement of troops.  Overwhelming force appeared to be the order of the day.

His Talluran counterpart eyed him sardonically. “You call yourself a soldier?  You have, in all probability, just challenged our spirit of unforeseen circumstances to do her worst...”

“Our one’s a guy - we call him Murphy,” Logan responded lightly.    

 

  

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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