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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 > GeneralCordyfanFR1323281,0563128460,35514 Mar 116 Sep 14No

Treason Most Foul and the Imperial Fist

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).

 

Former Regent Ilarius’s Residence, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 1st January 2000 (Earth Date)

The Governor of Thenatrix had to have taken leave of his senses, Ilarius decided, gazing out the window and into the Talluran night sky.  It was the early hours of the morning and by rights, he should already be asleep.  There was, however, too much to occupy his mind, most of it unsettling.  Shaking his head incredulously, the former Regent replayed the transmission once more.  Admittedly, the compressed burst transmission could only contain so much information, but he’d nevertheless received enough intelligence to decide that his ally on the Empire’s most distant colony had a profound death wish.

Embezzling funds from the illicit sale of emergency supplies was one thing, but at least the worst that could happen was a prison sentence.  This, on the other hand, was treason – and open High Treason at that.  Short of a successful insanity defence, Talluran law held only one sentence for those found guilty of that particular crime.  Depending on how merciful the Imperial Brat was feeling when she received the death warrant for signature – and the law gave her no choice, but to sign - the consequences could either be a swift death, or a lingering and agonising one. 

Ilarius knew he was also playing on the edges of that most serious of crimes but, unlike the Governor of Thenatrix, he was at least trying to be subtle.  Up to now, he’d simply precipitated a crisis to test Drayana’s will and capacity for action.  The Governor’s initial crime, which Ilarius had become aware of quite by accident, provided an opportunity to create a famine.  Simultaneously, the local commander of the Frontier and Customs Directorate had apparently also diverted his readiness budget for more profitable purposes, thereby grounding the bulk of his patrol vessels and opening the space-lanes around Thenatrix to the depredations of Ch’Hanis pirates, such as Jugrub.  All in all, a nice manageable crisis, sufficient to test the Empress’s mettle and possibly to cause her some political embarrassment, while Ilarius plotted his next little scheme.

The idiot Governor of Thenatrix, however, just had to mount a substantial and overt challenge to Imperial authority.  Namely, by moving against the Consular Houses on Thenatrix and the small Imperial Defence Force garrison, while also consorting with a potentially hostile alien power.  In the process, the moron could quite possibly even spark off a war.  Not that Ilarius was averse to the occasional limited conflict for clearly defined purposes, if it served the Empire’s interests but, in this case, there was a real danger of a wider and catastrophic conflagration.  Especially if the Empress mismanaged the diplomatic fall-out.

Ilarius wanted more specific information, but knew he was unlikely to receive it.  All major star-faring civilizations faced the same problem.  Conventional communications could not exceed the speed of light and, therefore, were useless for interstellar purposes.  The bulk of long-range communications were consequently routed through the Stargate network, which also permitted two-way real-time exchanges.  There were quicker methods, using faster-than-light tachyon particles to send a short, compressed message.  Often, this was little more than a “call me”, or “help” prompt, or else an encoded burst transmission, used by the military, spies, government agencies, etc.  The Governor of Thenatrix had, however, shut-down all official forms of communication – which would ring alarm bells, even if he wasn’t engaged in other forms of utter madness – so most of the colony was cut off from the outside world.

Ilarius, fortuitously, employed a deep-cover agent on that world, who was equipped with a portable tachyon generator, supplied by acquaintances from the Khkerrikk Star Empire, on the other side of the galaxy.  The spy was, therefore, able to contact Tallura Prime on a frequency unknown to either the Governor’s people, or the Imperial security forces. 

The Regent was tempted to send a message of his own, demanding further details of the Governor’s doomed coup, but it was useless now.  Drayana’s forces could be at the planet already – Ilarius had to admit that he was both surprised and impressed by her decisiveness – and then it would soon be all over.

Besides, if the Governor chose to gamble for the highest of stakes, then he would just have to face the consequences of failure.

He glanced out of the window into the darkness and took a sip of his herbal tea.  All-in-all, it had been a most unsatisfactory day.  First, the Empress had acted much more swiftly and resolutely than anticipated.  Secondly, the Governor of Thenatrix was turning a nice little localised crisis into a potential interstellar war, or at least a major propaganda victory for the upstart.  And thirdly, the Terran brat hadn’t even had the decency to get herself eaten by two Ch’Hanis criminals in a fortuitous, but ultimately wasted, encounter.

Ilarius grunted and shook his head once more.  He might as well retire to bed and see what other bad news the next day was likely to bring.  Thus far, Drayana was proving herself to be a trickier opponent than he’d ever anticipated, albeit that some of the opposition wasn’t exactly challenging.  And the Governor of Thenatrix – whom he’d once stupidly classed as a useful ally, if not a friend – was about to feel the full weight of the Imperial fist.

 

Dawn’s Room, Medical Clinic, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 1st January 2001 (Earth Date)

Counting down the seconds, Carolyn Lam checked the digital watch on her right wrist, the one she’d kept to remind her of times and dates back home, given the differences in time here.  A local version was strapped around her other wrist, by some coincidence, the Tallurans and humans having arrived at more or less the same solution to timekeeping.

“Happy New Year, Joyce!” the SGC psychiatrist tried to sound sincere and in high spirits, as befitted the occasion.

Of course, the other woman had precious little to be happy about.  This whole mission might be a fascinating learning experience for the doctor, but it had to be a very different one for Joyce.  Forced to flee across several galaxies to keep her youngest daughter safe from an indescribably powerful force of evil, while leaving the rest of her family behind to face the threat, Lam decided that the older woman was bearing up remarkably well, all things considered.

“And you...” Joyce forced herself to smile, as her companion kissed her on the cheek.

“And you, when you finally wake up,” she whispered to Dawn, as though afraid to awake the thoroughly anaesthetised youngster.

Her daughter had, as expected, come through surgery without any complications whatsoever.  Now it was just as matter of keeping her under sedation until the nanobots had completed the first stage, the Talluran medics having assured Joyce that she really didn’t want Dawn awake and in screaming agony as the healing devices briefly hyper-stimulated every nerve ending in the affected areas.

In any event, Dawn’s arm – currently encased in a rigid foam-like tube – together with her broken collar-bone, would have both healed within a few days.  Similarly, the deep slash on her daughter’s face was now no more than a livid red line, the Imperial Physician suggesting that it would disappear without a trace in a day or two.

At present, it was just the two women in Dawn’s room.  Faith had reluctantly returned to the palace, when the secondary symptoms of the Ch’Hanis venom kicked in.  Aching muscles from head to foot and the mother of all headaches weren’t conducive to mounting an effective guard, the Slayer had been forced to concede.  Usually, the symptoms could take up to forty-eight hours to recede.  Given how quickly the blindness had disappeared, Faith was expecting to recover in much less time, but also reluctantly admitted that she was useless right now.

Aquiliani was also absent, returning home to her husband and children with the end of her duty shift.  Security, nevertheless, remained tight in the absence of Joyce’s personal bodyguard and Faith.  Half-a-dozen Imperial Guards had arrived from the Palace and both Joyce and her daughter were, therefore, quite safe from either politically inspired danger or vengeful Ch’Hanis.

Lam eyed her for a moment. “I don’t know how you do it, Joyce.  You’re really quite remarkable.”

“What d’you mean?” Joyce asked in puzzled tones.

“The mother to a pair of Slayers, aware of the danger they’re constantly exposed to.  Knowing that the world’s constantly threatened by supernatural forces most people think are myths – or only found in bad horror movies...  Forced to run across the galaxy because your youngest daughter, the one who doesn’t even have any special powers, is still at risk from a Hell Goddess.  A Hell Goddess of all things!  You’re holding up much better than I would,” the psychiatrist admitted candidly.

Dawn didn’t just have special powers, Joyce told herself wryly.  In actuality, she was nothing but an awesome source of energy.  However, Joyce had no problems pushing that knowledge to one side.  In her mind, she could remember every minute of Dawn’s life, from her birth onwards.  And those memories were all that mattered – indeed, the only reference she had for her youngest child.

“I haven’t always been the best of mothers to Buffy,” Joyce confessed.

“When she first became the Slayer and burned down her old High School gym in LA?  Buffy tried to explain what she was, about vampires, and such like...  Guess what her loving mother did?  Had her committed for psychiatric evaluation – and then conveniently forgot everything she told me, after we moved to Sunnydale,” she winced at the memory.

It wasn’t even as if she’d been forced to have Buffy committed.  The local District Attorney had reluctantly decided that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the Slayer and, on that basis, Joyce probably could have forced Hemery’s Principal to reverse the expulsion.  But with a daughter apparently rambling insane nonsense about vampires and, regardless of the legal position, with the shadow of arson always hanging over her, she’d decided to have Buffy’s mental health checked, then to move somewhere away from LA.  The pressures of the divorce hadn’t exactly helped either, of course, but with hindsight Joyce still felt guilty.

“If I hadn’t been made aware of Buffy’s world, Joyce?  And thanks to some of the files General Hammond supplied, I now have regular screaming nightmares...  Anyway, if I’d heard much of this without knowing the truth, I’d have had major doubts about the mental health of a whole lot of people – not only Buffy,” Lam assured her.

“It didn’t end there,” Joyce shook her head and sighed. “I chose to move to the Hellmouth – actually, I maybe didn’t choose, someone or something probably chose for me – and Buffy continued her Slaying in secret.  I mean, she was hardly likely to tell me anything, not after spending weeks in a psychiatric unit...  When I did eventually find out – by accident - what happened?  Buffy had an apocalypse to prevent, we had a huge argument, and I kicked her out of the house.

“Even after she came back, it was a while before I could get it into my own thick head that a Slayer can’t – ever - stop being one,” she continued sadly.

“I don’t think Buffy holds it against you,” Lam pointed out sensibly. “According to Janet Frasier, she almost had to be forcibly moved from your bedside back at the Mountain.”

The psychiatrist had another thought. “Yes, you made a mistake in LA, but an understandable one.  And while Buffy might have been reluctant to share her secrets when she first arrived in Sunnydale, what does that say about her Watcher?  An adult figure who seemed happy enough for a group of High School students to know the truth, but who couldn’t figure out a controlled way to reveal the information to you...  Or am I the only one who sees something a little wrong with that picture?”

In the course of their lengthy trip to Tallura Prime, Lam had been able to piece together a vague picture of the Slayer’s odd little gang of vampire hunters and their impressive record of apocalypse prevention.

“Rupert was probably acting under Council orders, until that awful test when Buffy turned eighteen.  The mere existence of the Slayer was supposed to be secret and they were probably afraid I’d take her away from the Hellmouth.  This was an organisation that was happy to kidnap little girls and which had its own assassination squads, after all,” Joyce pointed out in Giles’ defence.

“Hmmm,” Lam still wasn’t wholly convinced, but knew she wasn’t party to everything.

She shrugged and smiled. “Anyhow, those people are history now, so things can only get better for the Slayers.”

Joyce also smiled sadly. “Better in the sense that the old Council has gone.  As for the rest?  Buffy and Cordelia have a one-hundred-percent genuine Goddess to fight this time.  And if they manage to deal with her – and I pray they will – there’ll be another world-threatening monster this time next year.  That’s the way it works in Sunnydale – apocalypse of the year...”

She gestured towards her sleeping youngest daughter. “We’ve always tried to protect Dawn from the worst of it, but ever since Buffy was Chosen, she’s been a target.  A way for the vampires and demons to get at Buffy – and now Cordelia, too.”

“No doubt she wants to be like her big sisters, too,” Lam ventured.

She could easily imagine the feisty young brunette petulantly demanding that she be allowed to join the family business – and not Joyce’s art dealership, either.

Joyce feigned a scowl. “Don’t go there!  Dawn’s a trouble magnet and I know she can’t help that.  Often, it’s just an accident – like today.  But other times?  Not so much...  I’m not the strictest of parents - at least I don’t think so - but my rules on Dawn involving herself with Slaying are not up for negotiation.  And Buffy and Cordelia are with me one hundred percent.  Usually, I’m a grounding or extra chores type of mother, but one or two things will end up with Dawn earning herself an added bonus, across my knee.  Deliberately or stupidly putting herself, or someone else, at risk – supernatural or not - is top of that list.  And you probably disapprove...”

Joyce smiled to herself as she remembered a pre-Slaying Buffy who, even younger than Dawn, excelled at getting herself into dangerous scrapes - often quite unintentionally.  If Dawn was, indeed, partially made from her eldest daughter, that was something else they shared.

The youngster was also devoted to both her sisters, no matter how much she might squabble with Buffy and, increasingly, Cordelia.  As individuals, they might be good role-models for Dawn, but their calling as Slayers was another matter.

Lam held up her hands. “No judgement.  I’m the daughter of a self-made woman, who came to the States penniless after the Vietnam War, with a work ethic you wouldn’t believe, and which she passed on to me.  And an Air Force father, when I occasionally saw him...  I had a pretty strict upbringing, Joyce - and it hasn’t done me any harm.”

“Your father at least had the excuse of duty,” Joyce knew this was a sore point with the psychiatrist. “My ex-husband was busy working his way through a series of mistresses.  Which is where Cordelia came from.”

“That must have been a shock,” Lam suggested.

“You might say that.  Never expected to add another girl to the family at this point in my life, least of all a nineteen-year-old paratrooper and Slayer.  And I could care less, because - odd though it sounds – Cordelia really feels just like one of my own, even after such a short time!”

She vaguely wondered if that was partially a Slayer thing.  After all, Faith had also initially brought out her motherly instincts, when she first arrived in Sunnydale.  Either way, as far as Joyce was concerned, Cordelia was her daughter now.  And God help anyone who suggested otherwise.

“But d’you know what really makes me want to spit?  The wasted years.  Cordelia’s parents didn’t want her and she was emotionally abused for years – even if materially spoiled.  The poor kid could have grown up alongside Buffy.  It was Hank’s first fling and I’d have been quite willing to forgive the one slip – and even if I hadn’t been, his constant philandering wasn’t Cordelia’s fault.  But my rat of an ex kept her secret until last summer,” Joyce growled angrily.

“Anyways, now she’s mine - and I’ll do what I can to make up for lost time,” she added firmly.

Joyce looked searchingly at the psychiatrist. “You might like to think about giving your father another chance.  I know it can’t be easy being the family of a military officer, but it probably isn’t so easy on the other side, either.  I’m guessing orders don’t make many allowances for family life at times...”

“You mean little things like missing most of my birthdays, graduation from High School and Med School, almost every anniversary with my mother...,” Lam raised a sceptical eyebrow.

She sighed. “You could be right.  After all, here I am, thousands of light years from home.  What if I had a family, but hadn’t really been given a choice?  Six months away, with absolutely no contact...  Not saying that my dad was ever taking trips into outer space, but who knows what he was doing?”

Much of it had probably involved sitting at a desk, Lam admitted to herself.  After all, that was an essential part of rising to the rank of General.  Nevertheless, her father had always been a doting parent when he was around, and given her unusual work with the Air Force, Lam had to admit that her perspective was changing.  Especially when viewed from several galaxies away.

Somehow, too, her own family’s issues seemed to pale slightly, when compared to the ongoing tribulations of the Summers family.  The psychiatrist decided that it might be a good idea to at least re-establish contact with her father when they returned in five months’ time.

Lam also reckoned she’d be keeping in close touch with Joyce.  They were quickly becoming friends, forced together by circumstances and, even when they returned home, this extraordinary mission would remain a common bond between them.

If they returned, an unwelcome little voice at the back of her head reminded her.  If Glorificus couldn’t be stopped, Tallura Prime was likely to be home for the rest of their days.

 

Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, Thenatrix System – 1st January 2001 (Earth Date)

Fully aware of the capabilities, locations, and operating frequencies of the local early warning sensors that were scattered throughout the system, it was a simple matter for Admiral Severan to evade detection.  The space surrounding Thenatrix was, moreover, completely devoid of the Frontier and Customs Directorate patrol ships, which were supposed to add another layer of eyes – and at least some teeth – to the colony’s defence.

As yet, there was no sign of the marauding Ch’Hanis pirate vessels, which had been frustrating efforts to supply the famine-struck world.  The Frontier and Customs Surveillance Cruisers ought to have made short work of the alien interlopers and Drayana was determined that someone – or more likely several someones – would explain their absence, in person, over the next few hours.

For the moment, the Talluran force was divided into two components.  One portion, consisting of the Light Cruiser Venatiur and the First Squadron’s Patrol Cruisers, lurked behind the second moon of Thenatrix, ideally positioned to pounce on the pirates the moment they emerged from hyperspace, to attack the incoming relief convoy.  Previous attacks had suggested the presence of spies, either on Thenatrix or Tallura Prime, as the pirates always emerged at the optimum time and place to hit the incoming merchant vessels.  This time, Admiral Severan had contemplated instructing the supply vessels to vary their approach and timing at the last moment, but had finally decided against it.  Knowing the approach route and schedule, the Talluran force could turn the tables and mount a letter-perfect, exquisitely-timed, attack on the Ch’Hanis privateers.

Meanwhile, the second, most powerful element was concealed behind the first moon.  Led by Tallura Regnatrix and the Light Cruiser Venaterix, the Empress’s flagship had been reinforced by the Seventh Battle Squadron.  The latter, a seasoned and battle-hardened Imperial Defence Force unit which regularly provided support for the Imperial Guard’s First Squadron, added two more Heavy Cruisers and four Light Cruisers to the mix.  In addition, the Seventh Battle Squadron also added substantial landing forces, almost tripling the comparatively light element available to Drayana’s personal force.

Severan was planning a simultaneous attack.  While the smaller group dealt with the pirates, the main force would commence landing operations against Thenatrix itself.  Just how aggressive these operations had to be wasn’t yet known.  The assault force could be supported by large numbers of fighters and, in the final analysis, the massive firepower of the orbiting Heavy and Light Cruisers.  No one aboard Tallura Regnatrix or the other ships wanted that, of course, but reconnaissance drones were currently criss-crossing the planetary surface, concentrating on the capital, especially the Defence Force barracks, the Governor’s Palace, the Thenatrix Consular House, and the Stargate.

Talluran recon drones set the standard for stealth in this part of the Vedda Galaxy.  Even the Tallurans’ own most sophisticated sensors had problems detecting and tracking them, unless the operators actually knew the drones were there and had a rough location fix.  No one on Thenatrix would have the first inkling they were under surveillance, until Drayana’s crack troops materialised from an Asgard transporter beam or deployed from assault shuttles.

“Let us see what we are facing...,” Admiral Severan muttered to herself, as the drones took up position above their assigned targets.

A dozen Talluran officers, of varying ranks, gathered around the holo-projector, Drayana remaining unobtrusively in the background.  She might be intent on landing at the first opportunity, but she wouldn’t ever attempt to micromanage the Imperial Guard’s operational planning.  Logan, meanwhile, also hovered at the rear, keen to see if he could learn anything new as a military professional, in addition to his personal curiosity.

The first image to appear was the Stargate, heavily fortified – and not by Imperial Defence Force troops.  Each of the three Defence Force bases was similarly surrounded, as were the two Consular Houses.

“Am I seeing things?” the Admiral exclaimed in astonishment.

“I see them, too, Admiral,” one of her subordinates couldn’t quite believe his own eyes either.

Drayana cleared her throat nervously. “Things would appear to be somewhat worse than I anticipated.”

This expedition was definitely about to turn into something more substantial than the combined anti-piracy sweep and show of force she’d originally intended.  Fortunately, Severan had come with sufficient troops, ships and equipment to deal with most likely contingencies, years of experience teaching her to always assume the worst possible contingency.  While this might not be the Admiral’s worst-case-scenario, it nevertheless came quite high up her list of situations that were best avoided.

“I will be interested to hear what explanation the Governor has for this,” the Empress continued in ominous tones.

She also wanted to know why the Security Bureau had failed to provide timely warning of the developing situation on Thenatrix.  Intelligence failures on this scale had brought down civilizations in the past.  On the other hand, it might have been – at least partially - her own fault.  On taking the throne, Drayana had massively reduced the size of the Security Bureau’s internal surveillance and counter-espionage department and budget.  Admittedly, the Political Research Directorate had seriously abused its power and authority, but perhaps she’d cut too quickly and deeply into what was, after all, a vital security organ of the Empire.

If she was even partially at fault, the Empress told herself, then it was also her duty to clear up the resultant mess and limit damage as far as possible.

“How do you explain treason of the foulest kind, Your Excellency?” Severan asked rhetorically.

Drayana winced at the implications. “Perhaps he has a valid reason for his actions.”

Suddenly, the Empress wanted to be back on Tallura Prime, teasing her tutor and having fun with her Terran friend.  But this was Imperial duty, she reminded herself sternly, her birth-responsibility, no matter how onerous the task.

“With all respect, Your Excellency, this is treachery of the worst type.  There can be no excuse,” the Admiral responded, to a murmur of assent from her staff.

“This is all your fault!” Vesarian prodded Logan in the ribs with a heavily-armoured elbow.

The USAF Colonel blinked. “What did I do?  Never even seen the damned place...”

The Imperial Guard Captain shook his head. “You were the one who invoked your great god Murphy - and Nervania, our Spirit of Chaos and Unforeseen Circumstances!”

 

Central Square, Governor’s Palace, Vis Aren, Thenatrix – 1st January 2001 (Earth Date)

Vis Aren, the capital of Thenatrix, had never seen disturbances on this scale in its several centuries of existence as a major Talluran colony.  For several days, the Governor’s Palace had been besieged by hundreds of angry citizens, demanding that he properly address the crisis that was killing their young and sick, and threatening many more with death by starvation.  Planetary Governor Thius Pyriam had simply countered by introducing ever more repressive emergency laws, which the population seemed to be ignoring - just as the furious mob were now openly flouting the curfew recently imposed. 

Now, however, the citizenry had much more to be angry about than his failure to deal with the famine.  Pyriam had placed the elected members of the Consular Houses under arrest, neutralised and disarmed the Imperial Defence Force garrison, and placed tight controls on all communications.  The streets were patrolled by former inmates of a prison colony on Thenatrix, released on condition they served the Governor during this period of crisis.  Pyriam’s thugs were, however, conspicuously small in number, only a handful of the felons having accepted his offer of amnesty.  In consequence, the main balance of power was held by a large force of Xicavvar “mercenaries”, in actuality members of their insectoid species’ regular armed forces and simply rented out to politically and financially acceptable customers.  Emotionless, ruthless, and literally bred for military tasks, the Xicavvar were ideal for Pyriam’s purposes in the short term.

Right now, the insectoids were doing what they did best.  Tall and thin, over six feet tall and of a more-or-less uniform size and appearance, the Xicavvar were bipedal, with four arms.  Their tough chitinous bodies were further protected by a layer of artificial armour, rather inferior to that worn by the Tallurans, but perfectly adequate for riot control duties.

Four arms also meant that the Xicavvar could handle heavy batons two at a time.  A double line of the mercenaries were efficiently and brutally applying their weapons at random against the stone-throwing, placard-waving citizens of Vis Aren.  The Tallurans, despite the ferocity of the Xicavvar response, wouldn’t be so easily dissuaded from registering their displeasure, however, and were gradually pushing Pyriam’s troops backwards towards the palace gates.

All at once, the well-disciplined mercenaries disengaged almost as one, and took several steps backwards.  Batons were swiftly sheathed and a mixture of plasma and electrically-powered gauss rifles aimed at the crowd.  Without warning, they opened fire and kept shooting for five murderous seconds.

At such close range, the Xicavvar couldn’t miss.  The front ranks of the crowd dissolved into a screaming, bloody mass of burnt and torn flesh and shattered bone, as literally hundreds were mown down, irrespective of age.  By the time the insectoids’ weapons fell silent, the protestors were in full, terrified flight.  The Xicavvar didn’t even bother to chase them, simply remaining in a solid, silent phalanx outside the palace.

 

Pyriam’s Chambers, Governor’s Palace, Vis Aren, Thenatrix – 1st January 2001 (Earth Date)

“By the Ancestors!  Was that necessary?”  Orman Cherius, commander of the Frontier and Customs Directorate forces on Thenatrix, gasped in horror at the carnage.

Pyriam, seemingly unmoved by the slaughter, waved a hand in dismissal. “The people will have to learn that there are consequences for disobedience.”

He turned to his compatriot. “And you, my friend, must harden yourself.  It is too late to turn back now and we must do whatever is necessary in the coming days and weeks.”

Cherius was already wishing he’d never agreed to help the Governor.  Pyriam was definitely showing signs of megalomania and a distinctly psychotic side to his nature, previously unseen.  Cherius cursed his own greed.  If only he hadn’t misappropriated such a high proportion of the readiness budget – and if only the Governor hadn’t discovered his actions.  One thing had led to another, with the sudden and unexpected famine threatening to reveal Pyriam’s own little scheme, when the emergency food reserves proved to be wholly inadequate and largely missing.  At first, the handful of patrol craft remaining in service had successfully dealt with the pirates, but the Governor – for reasons that were then unclear – prevailed upon his confederate to reduce the patrols and ensure they were routed away from the helpless convoys.  Meanwhile, falsified messages to Tallura Prime served to at least alleviate, if not totally reduce, any suspicions within with the Imperial hierarchy. 

Then a few nights previously, the Xicavvar had landed in large numbers and at Pyriam’s invitation.  The insectoids had moved fast, catching most of the Defence Force garrisons either asleep, or on famine relief operations.  The officers were swiftly rounded up and shot, the lesser ranks confined to barracks.  Similarly, the planetary Consuls were all confined within their debating chambers, the Stargate and communication centres seized and shut down.

Pyriam, at least, believed there was method in his own madness.  Thenatrix, plus two newly established mining colonies in a nearby system, were in an area of space conquered and settled under Drayana’s great-great-grandmother.  The Xicavvar had only signed a peace treaty reluctantly, but always vowed to bring the area back under their control.  Facing disgrace, ruin and imprisonment, Pyriam had come up with a desperate solution.  He’d bring Xicavvar troops onto Thenatrix and the two mining planets, in return for being granted overall rule.  And to prevent the inevitable Imperial response, Pyriam had a simple solution – he would have the Empress assassinated.  In the ensuing chaos, he’d claim that the Xicavvar only intervened to prevent a crisis on their own doorstep, a crisis caused by Drayana’s own incompetence and inexperience.  Then the Imperial Fleet would kick them out and the Governor would ensure no evidence remained that he’d actually invited them in.

Cherius decided that desperation had – at best - definitely clouded Pyriam’s judgement.  At worst, his brains had somehow fled in the night.  There was no concealing the Governor’s part in this affair – the baying mob outside the palace knew exactly who was at fault, for one thing.  And if Cherius had only known the extent of Pyriam’s treachery, he’d have thrown himself on the mercy of the Talluran authorities and spilled everything he knew.  Now it was too late.  Pyriam had already set his assassination plans in motion.  The young Empress might – or might not – die, a prospect which horrified Cherius, but it wouldn’t prevent the Imperial Fleet from wreaking bloody vengeance.  He and the Governor would be lucky to survive long enough to face a treason trial.  More likely, the people of Vis Aren would tear them limb for limb.

“I think perhaps another lesson is in order...,” Pyriam mused. “For wilful and massive breach of the curfew, we will have twenty hostages shot in the Central Square, at midday tomorrow.  And perhaps have another hundred rounded up and placed with the others.”

The Governor had instructed the Xicavvar to take five hundred hostages - the wives, husbands, and older children of important figures in Thenatrix society – as one means of ensuring the behaviour of the populace.  Clearly, however, the latter hadn’t taken him seriously.  If the events of this evening hadn’t taught them that he was in deadly earnest, they’d certainly know it by tomorrow.

“Governor!” Cherius gasped in horrified tones.

Pyriam patted his reluctant accomplice on the shoulder. “So formal?  We only have to keep our nerve for three more days, Orman.  The Empress will be too busy polishing her speeches and preening herself to intervene in the meantime.”

In three days, Drayana was due to appear before the combined Consular Houses of all ten planets.  The Address, as the event was known, was one of the most important dates in the Talluran political calendar and that was when Pyriam’s assassins would strike.

“How?  Who?” Cherius felt his throat constricting.

The Governor shrugged and smiled coldly. “The method, I will leave to the assassins.  As for who?  There are those within the families of those dismissed by Drayana who feel that she has acted dishonourably towards those they hold dear.  The children of one such individual feel that the stain can only be removed with the Empress’s public death.  And I will say no more for now...”

 

Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, Thenatrix System – 1st January 2001 (Earth Date)

“Admiral...  We have to stop this, right now!” Drayana was openly sobbing at the carnage, relayed live to the Flagship.

“We will, Your Excellency - and very shortly,” Severan reassured her sovereign.

If they’d calculated correctly, the pirates would be on the scene in a matter of minutes.  The moment the raiders emerged from hyperspace, they’d be attacked, with only the command and control vessel – if it could be identified – to be crippled for boarding purposes.  The others, in accordance with local practice when dealing with pirates, would simply be blasted out of space.  At the same time, the First Squadron and Seventh Battle Squadron would commence landing operations, their elite shock troops well-supported by strike fighters overhead and light armoured vehicles on the ground.

Severan glanced around the Command Centre.  The commanding officers of each major warship and every ground assault unit were now assembled aboard the Tallura Regnatrix, an easy task using the Asgard beaming technology fitted to every vessel in the force.  All of them were clearly aching for vengeance, but also keeping their emotions under control for the time being.  Their expressions didn’t bode well for either the Xicavvar or those responsible for this attempted coup.  The Admiral also guessed that no one would be putting much of a premium on prisoners.

She cleared her throat. “I know that feelings will be running high right now – and quite justifiably – but we would appreciate it if your forces could at least bring us the ringleaders of this rebellion, and the Xicavvar senior officers, alive, breathing and fit to question.  We have a great deal to ask them.”

“And the others?” an Imperial Defence Force Centurion asked pointedly.

“We do not condone wholesale slaughter, Centurion.  On the other hand, our troops should not risk either themselves or the pace of the operation to secure prisoners,” Severan replied carefully.

The Centurion nodded in dour satisfaction. “Understood.”

The Admiral brought up a display. “We acquired these three targets only a few minutes ago.  Two old-model Xicavvar Destroyers – obsolete types - and an Assault Transport.  All painted in civilian colours, so they obviously want us to believe we are dealing with mercenaries.”

The Xicavvar Concordium had used such a ruse in previous confrontations, as a way of dissociating themselves if anything went wrong.  No one aboard Tallura Regnatrix was actually buying the argument, however.  In any case, though the Xicavvar ships hadn’t been anticipated in the Admiral’s initial plan, but it was simple enough to adjust.

She indicated their position. “They were hiding over the planetary pole, obviously hoping that the magnetic field would prevent detection.  We, on the other hand, were sensible enough to use an entire moon to shield our presence.”

Logan found himself vaguely recalling a Star Trek: the Next Generation episode, where the Xicavvar tactic was employed.  So the scriptwriters occasionally did get something right, after all.

The commanders of the two Seventh Squadron Heavy Cruisers exchanged grimly expectant glances.  The Xicavvar forces would be comprehensively outnumbered and outgunned on the ground, but in space the differential was even greater.

“I wish these ships to be boarded, Admiral,” Drayana interrupted, common-sense overriding the vengeful voice that was telling her to have them blasted into smithereens.

“There may be important information on the ships’ computers.  Communications with the leaders of this coup attempt, others from the Xicavvar government...  If this leads to open warfare with the Xicavvar Concordium, it will not be due to lack of information,” she vowed.

The Empress was praying to the Ancestors that it wouldn’t come to war.  The Talluran Empire could eat the Xicavvar for lunch in any armed conflict.  However, given the current balance of alliances, any such confrontation was likely to drag in every power in the area.  And that would be bad news for everyone involved.

Still, there were armed enemies on Talluran sovereign soil, killing her people and consorting with traitors.  Diplomacy could wait until every Xicavvar mercenary was dead or behind bars.

Severan had to agree. “Take down their shields, then disable their systems and propulsion with Particle Beams on an EMP setting.  Boarding teams will assault immediately afterwards.”

She returned to the other holo-displays and bank of vid-screens. “Fighters will hit major concentrations of Xicavvar forces both at the Astria Porta and outside the Defence Force barracks.  Also, the Xicavvar shuttles at the Vis Aren Spaceport.  Elsewhere, they have been assigned to provide close-support for ground attacks.  The Central Square, rather than the Spaceport, will be the primary initial landing point for assault shuttles, as part of the second wave.  Fighters are to provide defence suppression, with the buildings around the square secured by troops beamed down in the first wave.  Imperial Guard Units will beam directly inside the Governor’s Palace and the Consular Houses.”

“And this area here?” a Centurion enquired, pointing to another area apparently identified as a key target.

Severan nodded grimly. “The Civic Sports Arena.  The Xicavvar appear to be holding several hundred hostages there.  You know the standard protocol in such cases – and I see no reason to deviate from it on this occasion.”

Hostage situations within the Talluran Empire, on the rare occasion that they arose, were resolved by a brutally simple method.  An orbiting Fleet warship would simply use its Asgard transporter systems to dematerialise anyone who posed an immediate danger to the hostages.  They would then be beamed straight into space.  Unsurprisingly, no group or race had resorted to hostage-taking more than once.

“The main Xicavvar encampment will be neutralised by orbital bombardment, as will the forces outside the Communications Centre and Consular Houses.  Additional orbital fire-support may also be allocated as required, but it must be used sparingly.  I do not, of course, have to remind you that avoidance of civilian casualties is an absolute priority.  Speed of execution is vital here – we cannot afford to let this operation degenerate into a street-by-street battle.  These are our people down there...  And they have suffered enough, without us adding to their woes,” Severan warned.

“Any questions?” the Admiral finished summarising the broad outline of the operation.

One by one, the assembled officers replied in the negative, before taking their leave to plan the specific details of the operation.

“Even more than before, I would prefer that you remain aboard the Flagship, Your Excellency,” Severan addressed her stubborn Empress in worried tones.

“After what we have just witnessed, Admiral?  There is even more reason for me to personally reassure my people.  And, perhaps, to apologise for our failure to act sooner...,” Drayana pointed out sombrely.

“I will not, however, make any attempt to land until the main part of the fighting has ceased and the centre of the city is in our hands,” she offered.

The Admiral could only acquiesce, hoping that her sovereign would keep her foolish head down.  To a vengeful Xicavvar mercenary, perhaps hiding from the Talluran forces, killing the Empress might seem like a fair exchange. 

Of course, then Severan would personally lead the Imperial Fleet all the way to the insectoids’ homeworld and burn it from pole to pole.

“Aaaahhh!  Much as I love our headstrong Empress, she will be responsible for putting me in my tomb!” an exasperated Vesarian growled to Logan, as Drayana swept from the room, followed by the Admiral and his staff.

The SG-15 CO could only shrug. “If it makes you feel any better, no one will get close while I’m her last line of defence.”

It occurred to Logan that it might be better to die in Drayana’s defence, than to survive if she were injured or killed.  Else, the Imperial Guard would probably have his guts for a necktie.

Vesarian laughed shortly. “I have no doubt that you would do your utmost to defend Her Excellency, but if the worst should come to pass and a would-be assassin closes with her?  The Empress would be far from helpless.  She is her own last line of defence – both an excellent shot and expert with her sword.”

 

Thenatrix System – 1st January 2001 (Earth Date)

Carthug’s raiding squadron came out of hyperspace exactly on schedule and took up position just outside the orbit of Thenatrix itself.  As on the last two occasions, there wasn’t a Frontier and Customs patrol craft in sight, so the pickings would probably be every bit as easy as on the last two occasions. 

Nevertheless, the Ch’Hanis pirate was also resolved to make this his last trip to the system.  For one thing, while a market could always be found for captured food supplies, especially amongst the smaller neutral powers, it was far from the most profitable booty – even with the addition of the Talluran merchant vessels’ crews as potential slaves or – as on his own world – as a delicacy.  Carthug was, additionally, aware that this state of affairs couldn’t last forever.  Eventually, someone would start questioning why not a single supply ship was reaching Thenatrix and returning to its home-port. 

Inevitably, the Imperial Defence Forces would come sniffing around, and that would be the end.  Even the weakest of their combat vessels were more than a match for his own force, composed either of ancient Ch’Hanis warships several generations behind the current technology, or converted merchant vessels.  His own vessel, the largest and most powerful in the force, was a boxy heavy transport with sufficient armament added externally that it couldn’t be mistaken for anything but a pirate ship.  It was also slow and sluggish compared to a warship, with pitifully thin shields and no armour worth speaking of.

While his nine ships could easily deal with an undefended Talluran convoy, Carthug was also hearing somewhat worrying rumours about Xicavvar mercenaries on Thenatrix.  Rumours were always rife, of course, but this one had a certain ring of truth about it – and it presented uncomfortable possibilities.  At present, the insectoids were allied with the Zaharte Alliance, which was somewhat antagonistic towards both the Tallurans and the Ch’Hanis.  Inevitably, the Tallurans would move to clear them off Thenatrix, and Carthug had no wish to be caught between two hostile groups.

He’d expected his current ally, Jugrub, to be present with his own ships.  Perhaps the other pirate was simply delayed, thought it was out of character.  There was always the possibility that Jugrub had betrayed him, of course, but Carthug decided it was more likely that the other Ch’Hanis had fallen foul of the Talluran security forces.  In Carthug’s opinion, his business partner had always spent too much time on Tallura Prime, making such an outcome inevitable.  The Ch’Hanis mentally shrugged.  While his counterpart was useful, one less pirate fleet in the region simply meant more booty and profit for the others.

“The convoy is exiting hyperspace, at the usual coordinates,” one of Carthug’s crew announced in bored tones, checking a monitor.

The reptilian wanted a little more action than this.  Any pirate worthy of the name pirate needed variety and a challenge, whereas raiding unescorted food convoys wouldn’t even test a year-old hatchling.  At least the chief had promised a change of target after today.

“Power up weapons, boarding parties to the airlocks, and prepare to intercept.  And good hunting!” the Ch’Hanis pirate chief told all his ships’ crews on an open frequency.

Without Jugrub, the hunting would be even better than normal, he reflected with a predatory grin.  Perhaps he’d celebrate with some fresh Talluran for his evening meal tonight.  Something young and tender – a Cadet, perhaps.

Another of the reptilians suddenly looked up in alarm from his console.

“There is another group of ships approaching from behind the moon...  Imperial Fleet units!  Half-a-dozen Patrol Cruisers and a Light Cruiser!” the Ch’Hanis hissed in alarm.

“All ships prepare to retreat!” Carthug yelled into his microphone.

“Hyper-drive has not yet re-charged,” an engineer warned him in clipped tones.

“Full-power to standard engines and take us out of here,” Carthug ordered, as his big, underpowered transport sluggishly turned away from the rapidly approaching Tallurans.

Already, the Patrol Cruisers were amongst his smaller craft, which had a similar re-charge lag for their hyper-drives.  They needed a few minutes for their antiquated systems to cool down and re-initialise, but a few minutes was one thing they lacked – together with serviceable shields and suitable weapons.  Plasma blasts and missiles easily collapsed the Ch’Hanis shields, blasting the converted transports and obsolete warships to pieces in seconds.  Carthug could only watch helplessly as many years of investment and a carefully picked band of employees were blotted out in a series short-lived explosions.

The Light Cruiser Venatiur easily overhauled the last remaining pirate vessel, the Ch’Hanis return fire merely glancing off its shields.  Three return salvoes from its Particle Cannons promptly collapsed the converted transport’s feeble shields, then shut down its engines, weapons and main electronic systems with focused electro-magnetic pulses. 

Dim emergency lighting and the secondary life-support system, both EMP shielded to an extent, automatically switched on.  Carthug’s command and control ship was, however, dead in space and quite alone, surrounded by Imperial Fleet vessels.  It wasn’t exactly difficult to predict the next phase.

“All hands standby to repel boarders...” he began, hoping that the intercom was also still in operation.

His message was interrupted by a bright flash, half-a-dozen Tallurans materialising directly onto the bridge, other similar groups beaming aboard elsewhere.

Not just any Tallurans, Carthug realised, squinting through the inadequate green emergency lighting.  Imperial Guard, with their shiny black full-body Integrated Battle Armour and a reflective visor on the helmet, completely concealing the wearer’s face, all designed to intimidate.  Which they did very effectively, he recognised wryly.

“Do not resist.  You are under arrest for piracy, in the name of the Empress,” the nearest Guard informed the pirate and his crew in utterly emotionless tones, as half-a-dozen Personal Combat Weapons were levelled in their direction.

There was no point going for his own sidearm, Carthug realised, as his crew slowly raised their hands.  Not only would the low-powered weapon have absolutely no chance of piercing the Talluran high-grade body armour, but they wouldn’t even give him the honour of a quick death.  Their weapons would almost certainly be set on stun – and Carthug had no intentions of being taken alive.

The Ch’Hanis had a contingency plan for that, however.  Jugrub might – or might not – have betrayed him, but he had no intentions of betraying his partner to these cursed mammals.  Carthug slowly raised his hands, one finger brushing a micro-switch on his cuff.  Three seconds later, a small plasma grenade in his pocket detonated, the expanding fireball reducing the pirate chief and most of his unprotected crew to badly cooked meat in a fraction of a second.

The shocked Imperial Guards picked slowly picked themselves up from the deck, protected from the heat and blast by their battle armour, unlike the Ch’Hanis.  Only two seemed to have survived, albeit badly burned.  Unfortunately, their leader wasn’t amongst the survivors, the Guard commander noted.  Given that this ship had only been boarded and not blasted out of space on direct orders from the Empress, Her Excellency wasn’t going to be pleased.

 

Pyriam’s Chambers, Governor’s Palace, Vis Aren, Thenatrix – 1st January 2001 (Earth Date)

“You fool!” Cherius snarled at the Governor, as they both watched the rapidly deteriorating situation outside.

A  Xicavvar shuttlecraft screamed past the window, vainly clawing for altitude, as two Talluran fighters chased it beyond the city limits, so that they could shoot it down without harming innocent civilians.  Other fighters were circling overhead, waiting to pounce on any pockets of resistance encountered by the ground forces.  They’d already taken out point targets all over Vis Aren.  The Stargate garrison, the Xicavvar outside the Imperial Defence Force Barracks, most of the insectoids’ transport shuttles, and the mercenaries guarding the outside of the Governor’s Palace.  One by one, Xicavvar units across the city were dropping off the communications net - permanently.

Now, with the Central Square securely held by Talluran troops, assault shuttles were swooping in two at a time, to disgorge a pair of armoured hovercraft apiece, plus accompanying soldiers.  As yet, they hadn’t assaulted the Palace, but that was only a matter of time.

Pyriam seemed paralysed, as his plan unravelled before his eyes.  The Governor merely shook his head, as though he were imagining things, or dreaming.  Then, without warning, he angrily rounded on his companion.

“Stop whining!  You knew exactly what you were doing – you were well aware of the risks!” Pyriam growled, jabbing his finger at the other Talluran.

“I did not agree to commit High Treason, or help the Xicavvar slaughter our people!” Cherius retorted furiously.

The door was suddenly flung open and two of the insectoid mercenaries – their leader and his aide – stormed in, chittering so quickly that translation devices were unable to keep up and waving their multiple arms in the air.

The Governor simply sneered then, all at once, produced a plasma pistol from behind his back and dispatched the two aliens on the spot.  Pyriam gestured towards the two dead insectoids, each with a smoking hole in his chest region.

“If you wish to join them, just tell me now...,” the Governor told Cherius threateningly.

The former supremo of the Frontiers and Customs Directorate for the Thenatrix area sank heavily into chair and put his head in his hands.

 

Central Square, Governor’s Palace, Vis Aren, Thenatrix – 1st January 2001 (Earth Date)

As a means of getting from one place to another, Logan had to admit that the Asgard transporter was hard to beat.  There was virtually no sensation of travelling, unlike a Stargate, or even a Goa’uld ring system.  Drayana wasn’t wasting any time.  The instant the Empress was informed that the centre of Vis Aren had been secured, she followed hot on the heels of the second wave, despite the misgivings of her personal detail.

Drayana and Logan, surrounded by sixteen fully armoured Imperial Guards, materialised just outside the Governor’s Palace.  Two platoon-sized formations of Defence Force troops were already preparing to breach the door and storm the building, with more assembled at other entrances.

“It would be best if we wait until the Palace is fully secured, Your Excellency,” Vesarian advised from beneath his helmet, as the heavy double doors were blasted inwards and grey-armoured Defence Force assault troops charged inside.

For once, Drayana took her chief bodyguard’s words to heart, as he hustled the group behind a knocked-out Xicavvar personnel carrier.  Vesarian scanned the nearby rooftops with a professional’s eye, satisfied that no one could get a firing angle on his Empress in this position.

It wasn’t Logan’s first experience of urban combat.  He’d been on the ground when US forces went into Panama City in 1989, but that was a Boy Scout brawl compared to this.  Aside from the shooting and periodic detonation of grenades inside the Governor’s Palace, he could also still hear exchanges of fire in the distance, though they were growing fainter and less intense.  The Colonel hadn’t been part of an operation on this scale since joining the SGC and suddenly found himself wishing for the full battle armour he’d rejected a few hours earlier.  Still, hopefully he wouldn’t have to use the Personal Combat Weapon Vesarian had given him, together with a quick instructional course on its workings.  Actually, a chimp could have fired the sophisticated PCW – and very accurately at that – but the SG-15 Colonel was still relieved that the Tallurans seemed to have everything under control.  Certainly, they’d been able to isolate and systematically take out most of the main Xicavvar groups, before the insectoids dispersed, and that was a winning formula in an urban combat environment, whether on Earth or an alien world.

With the group tightly huddled together behind the disabled armoured vehicle and given his mission as Drayana’s close escort, Logan could feel her flinch – and occasionally whimper - every time a shot was fired or a grenade detonated.  The Empress, in her first exposure to combat, was completely out of her element.

Drayana clenched her teeth, resisting the urge to clamp her hands over her ears and curl up into a protective ball as a burst of gunfire ricocheted off the personnel carrier.  The Xicavvar sniper was rapidly spotted and dealt with, but the Empress hadn’t felt so frightened in her life.  It was, she told herself, one thing making fine speeches and bold pronouncements, but another to face the sounds and fury of battle herself.

There was also a very real price, Drayana noted with a shudder.  Most of the bodies lying around the square might be Xicavvar, but there were Talluran troops amongst them, too.  Her soldiers, who’d died following her orders.  It was a bitter medicine to swallow.  The Empress reminded herself that she’d hardly been given a choice.  Invaders who’d seized a Talluran world - and the traitors who had facilitated that invasion - couldn’t be handled any other way.  Moreover, it might not stop with Thenatrix.

“Centurion?” Drayana said quietly to Vesarian.

“Your Excellency?” he responded, alert for any other signs of danger and in constant contact with other units in Vis Aren and the fleet in orbit.

“I am sorry.”

“Sorry for what, Your Excellency?” the puzzled officer asked.

Drayana grimaced. “For not heeding your advice.  I must admit to being afraid – very afraid – right now.”

“At least you are learning now.  As for being afraid?  A normal state of mind under fire,” Vesarian reassured her.

In the Centurion’s view, one of the young Empress’s more endearing qualities was her willingness not only to acknowledge making a mistake, but to apologise.  Many in the higher echelons of Ilarius’ Regency hadn’t known what it meant to either admit an error, or make an apology.  And certainly not someone as lowly, in their societal view, as an Imperial Guard officer.

“Where I come from, Empress, we say that if someone won’t admit to being scared in battle, then they’re either a liar or an idiot.  Either way, it’s best to keep away from them,” Logan agreed.

Whether you were pinned down by an AK-47, a Jaffa Staff Weapon, a bunch of natives firing arrows on some nameless planet - or a Xicavvar rifle - it didn’t make a whole lot of difference, the Colonel reflected.  The sensation of vulnerability and renewed awareness of personal mortality was just the same.  Which didn’t mean that he wouldn’t rather be out there with the combat troops, than playing bodyguard.

The Empress gratefully squeezed both men’s wrists, then ducked further into cover as yet another unseen Xicavvar shot off several rounds from his gauss rifle.  With a rough idea of the mercenary’s position, Vesarian promptly responded with a well-placed homing grenade.

“Apologies now will not stop me from informing your guardian, however...,” the Centurion added, Drayana unable to see whether he was smiling or not beneath his visor.

The Empress didn’t like the sound of that, sure that Livia would disapprove of her putting herself at direct risk.  Consequences would certainly follow, as sure as day followed night.  Imperial authority was one thing, but until she reached the age of adulthood, in her personal life Drayana still had to answer to her parental substitute for many things. 

Meanwhile, the assault force inside the Palace – which was much too large and grand for a planetary Governor, the Centurion decided – continued to clear the sprawling building room by room, and floor by floor.  As they advanced through the Palace, the Defence Force troops were now beginning to encounter Pyriam’s small force of Talluran turncoats.  Wherever possible, the latter were taken alive and collected for trial and - unlike the Xicavvar mercenaries who tended to fight to the death, despite being utterly outclassed - few had the stomach to resist for long.  Vesarian fervently hoped they’d also take the Governor and any confederates alive, if only to subject them to the humiliation and dishonour of a public trial and execution.

 

Pyriam’s Chambers, Governor’s Palace, Vis Aren, Thenatrix – 1st January 2001 (Earth Date)

Kneeling on the floor, hands clasped and wrists cuffed behind his neck, Cherius was watching the Governor very closely, while desperately trying to figure a way out of this predicament.  Not only was he failing miserably at the latter, but he also didn’t trust Pyriam not to do something that would get them both shot out of hand right now.  He couldn’t actually see the faces of the Imperial Defence Troops who were holding them prisoner, but something about their stance suggested that they were just looking for an opportunity to deal out summary justice.  Probably only orders had protected the two would-be rebels up to this point.  Certainly, they’d both been clubbed to the floor with considerable gusto by the first team of assault troops in the door, though Pyriam had admittedly been about to test his plasma pistol against Talluran Integrated Battle Armour, in some futile gesture.  A stun burst had very swiftly put paid to such suicidal gestures.

His stomach performed a back-flip as the doors to Pyriam’s chambers opened and he recognised the newcomers.  Imperial Guard, bearing the gold insignia of the Protective Division on their armoured shoulders.  If the Empress’s personal elite were on the planet, it also meant that she’d personally come to Thenatrix.

Sure enough, the phalanx of black armour figures parted to allow Drayana inside.  Without a word, the Empress swept across the room, pulled up a chair and sat down, resting her unsheathed sword across her lap.  Not that she intended to use the weapon, but it was still a powerful symbol of justice within the Talluran Empire.

Drayana didn’t really enjoy what she often dismissed, to Arius Myrrn’s annoyance, as Imperial Posturing.  It was, nevertheless, part of the job description and her training had included innumerable sessions on the importance of body language and presence.  The sort of thing, she admitted grudgingly, that was absolutely crucial in situations like this, especially given her youth.  The Empress had to admit that she was proud of being able to face down the most bellicose of alien ambassadors.

Still, there were times – like now - when Drayana wished she was back in the classroom, struggling with some hideously difficult mathematical problem under her tutor’s stern gaze.  The Empress even wondered what her future would have held if she hadn’t been born to the throne.  And as of this moment, what she really wanted was to be safely back in Yaherin Var, spending time with her temporary younger sister from Earth. 

The Ancestors only knew that, having forged close bonds in a short period of time, Dawn and Drayana would have little enough time to enjoy them.  When the visitors eventually had to return home, the Empress suspected she’d be heartbroken.

Inwardly, she crisply ordered herself to concentrate on the present – and on her duty.  That meant coming across as the very picture of unyielding Imperial justice and authority.

The two captives were dragged over to her feet, then forced to their knees again.  As a rule, Drayana invariably objected to making anyone follow the archaic practices of bowing and kneeling in her presence.  Indeed, she’d had more than one argument with the Master of Imperial Protocol – an ancient and traditional position she wasn’t even sure could be justified any longer – on the matter.  On the other hand, grovelling on the floor was exactly where the Empress wanted these two traitors and murderers of her people.

“Why did you do it?” 

It was the first question that came into Drayana’s mind and, indeed, the only one that seemed to matter right now.  The Security Department could interrogate them both further on additional links with the Xicavvar – or Ch’Hanis pirates, for that matter – but right now the Empress needed to know what had brought about treason on this scale.

“Because you are not fit to rule!” Pyriam almost spat.

Drayana blinked as though slapped.  The Empress knew a handful of those who’d enjoyed power under the previous regime held that opinion, but it was the first time anyone had said it to her face.  She rapidly recovered her composure, however.

“And you would rather see our people ruled by the Xicavvar?  Shot down in the streets when they dare to protest?” Drayana asked in the mildest tone she could muster, fighting down a most un-Imperial urge to shove her sword through his guts, and never mind a trial.

Pyriam snorted. “The insects were only a means to an end...”

The Empress shook her head and turned to Cherius, who at least had the decency to appear utterly ashamed. “And you?”

“I swear I had no part in bringing the Xicavvar here, Your Excellency.  That was arranged by the Governor.  I am ashamed to admit to being a thief and a fraudster - and of leaving the planet vulnerable to pirate attack – but I am not a traitor!  I knew nothing of his plans until the first Xicavvar landed on Thenatrix – and by then it was too late,” Cherius told her vehemently.

“I would like to see you prove that before the Tribunal,” Pyriam smirked.

Cherius ignored him. “I do not believe that he even planned this, until the famine threatened to expose his original crimes.”

“And yours’!” the other prisoner snarled, determined that he wouldn’t go down alone here.

“We have taken the Xicavvar command ships, Governor – or ex-Governor, should I say.  Also their command staffs and computer files...  The truth shall be uncovered soon enough,” Drayana responded smoothly.

Cherius lifted his head. “He plans to have you assassinated at The Address in three days’ time, Your Excellency.”

“What?” Vesarian barked, taking a threatening step towards the two prisoners.

The Empress calmly held up a hand, to forestall her zealously protective bodyguard from inflicting severe bodily damage on them.

“Cherius talks too much.  But even if you survive this time, you have made other enemies, Empress.  It is only a matter of time before one of them gets to you,” Pyriam averred.

“At least I will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are unlikely to be around to see that day,” Drayana responded coolly, as though death threats were an everyday occurrence for her.

“I do not have full details,” Cherius continued, ignoring the daggers from his former partner-in-crime. “But he claimed that the children of one of those dismissed from the Proconsulate wanted to avenge their father’s honour.”

That piece of information, Vesarian decided, fortunately narrowed the field somewhat.  He’d be in contact with the Security Department within the hour.

“If the evidence proves that you had no part in this, Cherius, then you may yet escape the treason charge...,” Drayana nodded.

“And if not, I will see both of you publicly gutted on Tallura Prime!” Vesarian grated.

And hopefully, he thought darkly, Regent Ilarius would be with them.  The Centurion was utterly convinced that he was behind at least some of the problems on this planet but, as yet, there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support that notion.

The Empress frowned and waved her bodyguard to silence. “That is not for you to decide here – or anywhere – Centurion.”

She was beginning to wonder if Pyriam was some sort of insane megalomaniac.  He certainly had a distinctly fanatical gleam in his eyes and the whole affair reeked of an ill-planned and desperate grab for power, heedless of the cost and likely consequences.  Insanity would certainly get him off the treason charge, but he’d also be locked up in a secure psychiatric facility for the rest of his days.

“I am no traitor, Your Excellency.  But if I have to face a lesser charge than treason?  I would ask that I be sent a sword...” Cherius offered.

Ritual suicide by the accused was an ancient Talluran custom, which had somehow survived to the present.  Someone accused of a serious crime and facing trial could request a sword or poison.  It was taken as an admission of guilt, but also the ultimate act of atonement.

“If you are no traitor, I would prefer that you did no such thing, though I reluctantly accept that it is your right.  You could best make amends by serving out whatever sentence you are given, then working for our people as best as you can,” Drayana thoroughly disapproved of the custom. 

“And the Ch’Hanis pirates?” the Empress continued with her low-level questioning.

“We had no part of that.  The Xicavvar would never work with the Ch’Hanis,” Pyriam retorted dismissively.

Drayana decided that made sense.  She also didn’t believe in coincidences, however.  The pirate attacks in this sector had only started when the famine developed, almost as though they knew there would be easy and undefended pickings around Thenatrix. 

The ex-Governor sneered. “Plots within plots...  It looks as though you have other enemies, Your Preciousness!”
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