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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)CordyfanFR1324297,1153229463,39514 Mar 115 Nov 14No

Enemies, Alien and Domestic

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).

* Thanks to dmw for producing some excellent artwork for this story, with The Key.*

 

The Schoolroom, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 2nd January 2001 (Earth Date)

Dawn wasn’t exactly bored, but she was definitely finding it hard to concentrate this morning.  The room was warm and while Talluran medicine might be able to heal broken bones in a matter of days, the rigid foam cover on her arm was itching like crazy.  To cap it all, the Imperial tutor’s voice was almost enough to lull her to sleep.

“The Ancients were, as we have seen, one of four great races in the galaxy.  The others were the Asgard – the youngest of the group – the Furlings and the Nox...  For millennia, that alliance was more than sufficient to bring peace to many galaxies, against all manner of enemies.  And for the Ancients, the main fighting force was traditionally supplied by the Tallurans...,” Arius Myrnn droned on.

Talluran history was actually quite interesting, Dawn admitted, with lots of blood, plagues, assassination, war and other interesting stuff.  Myrnn’s voice was another matter.  She’d already had her morning Math and Science lessons from Carolyn Lam, in the latter’s capacity as Dawn’s tutor for this trip.  The SGC psychiatrist might not be particularly fond of teaching, but the youngest Summers reckoned she was quite good at it. 

Faith was of the same opinion.  The Slayer was using this trip to complete her High School equivalency studies and Lam had proven to be a particularly effective and patient tutor for her.  Even as Myrnn bored the pants off Dawn, the psychiatrist was quietly helping Faith with calculus problems at the back of the room.

Dawn allowed her eyes to stray towards the window, with a bright blue sky outside and a clear view of the mountains.  Her mother was at the museum all day today, while Faith had promised to take her to a funfair in the New City after lessons today.  Unfortunately, she’d also have her own usual travelling circus, in the shape of SG-15.  Not that Dawn disliked the SG troopers – quite the opposite - but the constant guarding was really beginning to bug her.  When she returned home, the youngster promised herself that she’d never again accuse Buffy and Cordelia of being over-protective.

It would also have been nice to have her Imperial partner-in-crime around.  The Empress had, however, been off-world for two days now, on official business.  Official business which, according to the snatches of conversation Dawn had overheard, sounded very much a small war.  She could only hope that her new friend/temporary big sister would come back soon – and unharmed.  Things just weren’t the same around the Imperial Palace without Drayana.

Myrrn’s hand abruptly crashed down in the desk beside her, scaring Dawn out of her daydream.

“Am I boring you, Dawn?” the Imperial tutor queried.

She winced, already calculating the number of lines she’d be assigned for slacking off.  The words and the tone were exactly the same as back home, the only difference being that Myrnn didn’t tend to assign detentions.

Faith’s eyes, meanwhile, narrowed.  As far as the Slayer was concerned, daydreaming in class was normal.  And if the grumpy old tutor even thought about whacking Dawn’s good hand with his damned stick, she’d stuff it up his ass and set fire to the end.

“Uh – no, sir,” Dawn responded automatically.

Myrnn just chuckled and patted her on the head, a particularly annoying habit of his. “I understand - you must be missing your fellow accomplice in mischief...  Perhaps we should cut this lesson short for the day?”

He had every sympathy for his temporary student.  Separated from her friends by several galaxies and usually surrounded by adults,  it couldn’t be easy for the young Terran.  An early attempt to place her with others of her own age, in a Talluran school, had ended in a virtual brawl, the feisty youngster quite willing to resort to her fists in the face of bullying.  Fortunately, Drayana was equally in need of company closer to her own age, even if Dawn was several years her junior.  The Empress also had to be lonely, Myrnn admitted, and if he had to oversee her upbringing again, he’d have done things very differently.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t,” Lam announced firmly from the other side of the room.

She cut Dawn very little slack in the area of her education.  Under the psychiatrist’s tutelage, the youngster was more than keeping pace with her classmates back home in the curriculum she’d covered, and Lam wanted to maintain that lead.

“I’m okay, sir,” Dawn confirmed. “But can you repeat that part about the Furlings?

 

Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, Thenatrix Tertius System, Vedda Galaxy – 2nd January 2001 (Earth Date)

Thenatrix Secundus and Tertius had been two recently established mining colonies, in the closest neighbouring solar system to that of Thenatrix itself.  As with the main colony world, the two satellite planets had also fallen victim to the Xicavvar.  With relatively small populations primarily composed of mineworkers and a very small security element, this time the insectoids hadn’t even bothered to take prisoners.  Apparently the Xicavvar wanted to repopulate these two worlds with their own people and a mere forty thousand Tallurans weren’t going to get in their way.  Whether ex-Governor Pyriam knew, or even cared, about his allies’ activities was a debatable point.  At any rate, there wasn’t a single surviving Xicavvar on the two mining planets to answer that particular question.

It was small consolation that the complete lack of a civilian population had made the Tallurans’ task much easier this time around.  As before, only the Xicavvar command ship had been seized, with the other obsolete warships and transports blasted into scrap.  With no signs of life other than insectoids on the planetary surface, the Talluran Light and Heavy Cruisers didn’t bother with an assault landing in the first instance.  Instead, they simply opened fire from orbit and kept shooting until there were no more Xicavvar life-signs.

“So what next?” the Empress asked, addressing her circle of senior officers as they sat around a circular table in her quarters aboard Tallura Regnatrix.

“You have made your point, Excellency.  To the Xicavvar and any other power who thinks you are weak...  And those back home who suggest that you do not have the stomach to be Empress.  On that basis, you could return home, fully vindicated,” the Admiral Commanding Seventh Battle Squadron suggested.

“Could I?  We have dealt with some traitors, crushed a Ch’Hanis pirate fleet, and destroyed a Xicavvar mercenary force.  We still have not established the extent to which the Xicavvar government was involved.  There is no doubt that they equipped this so-called mercenary group and certainly did not place any obstacles in its way.  But did they actively encourage and support this invasion?” Drayana pointed out.

She shook her head and continued. “Pyriam may have believed he could hire the Xicavvar for short-term gain.  From their side of the transaction, however, it was an opportunity to regain control of an area they have regarded as their own for a very long time.  And if that is the case, I would expect them to be prepared to support any seizure of territory with more substantial forces than the mercenaries could deploy.  Perhaps not until they were satisfied that the mercenary assault had been successful - and that I was unwilling to act...  But it is my guess that the Concordium must have positioned at last a small fleet within striking distance of Thenatrix.”

Having once more been invited to observe Talluran military and political deliberations, Logan continued to be impressed by this barely sixteen-year-old girl’s remarkably sophisticated strategic insight.  If he could only take the Empress, her staff and formidable fleet back to the Milky Way for a few months, the SG-15 CO was increasingly convinced that they’d quickly have the Goa’uld on the ropes.

Fleet Admiral Severan scanned a data-pad. “Our initial analysis of communications traffic to and from the captured Xicavvar command ships suggests that Pyriam’s contacts may have been limited to only one individual.”

She took a gulp from a glass of water. “All Pyriam’s communications, even prior to the Xicavvar landings, were conducted through General Zkaritz...”

“Who?” Drayana hadn’t heard of that one.

“A very senior figure in the Xicavvar military leadership.  According to our intel sources – which are not particularly good on their homeworld – the General may have certain political ambitions.  This is very unusual within the Xicavvar military,” Severan responded.

The Empress grimaced. “That does not really help us.  If we challenge the Xicavvar government, they are quite likely to claim that such an ambitious individual was acting outside their authority – whether or not he had orders from above.”

The Fleet Admiral smiled grimly. “We do, however, have a location for the Admiral.  A series of compressed narrow-band messages were recently sent to – and received from – Zkaritz.  The last was only an hour before we hit Thenatrix Tertius.  All of these messages, your Excellency, were focused on the Mardenius Nebula.” 

The Empress asked for Severan’s data-pad and spent several minutes scrolling through the contents, clearly trying to come to a decision.

“Mardenius Nebula?” Logan quietly asked the CO of the Seventh Battle Squadron.

The Defence Force Junior Admiral nodded. “A particularly dense nebula, several light years across, in the centre of the Demilitarised Frontier Zone between Xicavvar and Talluran space.  The Demilitarised Frontier Zone is off-limits to military vessels of either side – and the Mardenius Nebula’s composition makes it difficult for sensors to penetrate far inside.  You could hide a thousand ships inside that gas cloud, Colonel...  And no one would know, until it was too late.  Thenatrix is key to monitoring a belt of sensors on our side of the Strip, to give us early warning of anything emerging.”

“Options?” Drayana demanded.

“Return home, investigate the Nebula...  Or launch a retaliatory strike on the closest Xicavvar military facilities, inside their territory,” Severan counted off the possibilities.

“When we hit Thenatrix yesterday, I also ordered some substantial reinforcements to join us, Excellency.  When they arrive, we will have considerably expanded defensive, offensive, or deterrent options,” the Fleet Admiral added.

“How substantial?” the Empress demanded.

“Three more Battle Squadrons.  And a pair of Battleships.”

For a moment Severan wondered if she’d possibly over-reached herself.  Added to the powerful forces already in the vicinity, the Xicavvar could just as easily cry “aggressive intent” with that force massed on their frontier, within striking distance of several major colonies and fleet bases.

“Sufficient to cripple their fleet in this sector, if necessary,” Seventh Battle Squadron concurred, with barely suppressed eagerness.

Drayana waved an admonitory finger at her two resident hawks. “I am not – yet – prepared to go to war with the Xicavvar.  As we have already seen, the balance of evidence is quite compelling, but I would need somewhat more before potentially setting off a multiple-front war.”

The Empress paused. “On the other hand, I am not quite ready to simply present the Xicavvar Ambassador with a warning note.  We will rendezvous with Admiral Severan’s reinforcements and proceed to the Mardenius Nebula.  Where we will deal with any Xicavvar military presence, according to the – full - terms of current frontier treaties.”

Logan looked questioningly at the others.

“The Talluran Empire and Xicavvar Concordium Frontier Treaty states that...” Drayana tapped a screen at her elbow.

“ “The presence of any signatory’s military vessels in the Demilitarised Frontier Zone shall be cause for official complaint by the other, and may be investigated and counter-balanced with a fore of equivalent size and combat power.  Where an intruding military force is deemed to be an immediate danger to the security of a signatory, it may be attacked and destroyed with no warning”,” the Empress located the appropriate text.

To Logan, it sounded like a recipe for near-constant confrontation and possibly combat, if one or both sides were in a particularly belligerent mood.

“In other words, if Zkaritz has a force in the Mardenius Nebula, then we are legally entitled to destroy it,” Seventh Battle Squadron allowed a grim smile to crack his battle-worn features.

“We may have to move quickly, Excellency,” Severan pointed out. “If I were Zkaritz, I would be departing this region the moment I discovered that my plan had failed...”

The Empress agreed. “Speed is also a necessity for me.  I must attend The Address the day after tomorrow – preferably with this tragic affair properly dealt with.”

“A Xicavvar head hanging from your sword-belt would certainly impress the Consuls, your Excellency,” Vesarian broke in for the first time, with a chuckle.

The Address was the most important political gathering of the year.  While Drayana didn’t particularly like playing such games, it would be a further blow to Ilarius and his supporters if she returned with even a minor victory over the Xicavvar.  The Empress didn’t want to have to fight anyone at all, but she was quite prepared to make political capital out of the fact that the Regency’s foreign and security policies had left the Empire vulnerable to this sort of thing. 

“That will be quite enough of that, Centurion!” Drayana shot the commander of her protective detail a fake glare, which convinced no one.

“Shall we make full speed for the edge of the Demilitarised Frontier Zone and alert the reinforcements to meet us there, Excellency?” Severan asked, as the briefing broke up.

“Indeed.  First, we will deal with Zkaritz.  Then I will leave this force in the area for a while, just to convince the Xicavvar that we can hit them hard at any time.  And a quick return to Tallura Prime, via the Thenatrix Astria Porta, I think...,” the young Empress decided.

 

Yaherin Var University Museum, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 2nd January 2001

Joyce had to admit that she felt like a kid in a candy store.  She could spend literally months exploring this vast museum, with its innumerable works of art and artefacts.  Any lingering fears she might have been harbouring about boredom had instantly dissipated on entering the building.  She even had an expert guide.  Aquiliani might be her bodyguard, but prior to joining the Imperial Guard, she’d worked in the Museum Archive and was an expert in Talluran history. 

The icing on the cake, of course, was Academist Sulla’s offer to assist in setting up a new exhibit on Earth.  Joyce’s contribution, aside from her own knowledge and assorted pictures from Dawn’s schoolbooks, was mainly on the art and culture side.  Of particular value were the thousands of images of human artworks, part of a huge CD-based encyclopaedia of art she’d brought to use on her own laptop.  With both Buffy and Cordelia in college – albeit sporadically, given their other activities – Joyce was seriously considering returning to study for a Masters degree, so she’d brought along some study material in electronic format.  But never in a million years had she guessed it might be put to use in creating an exhibit for an alien culture’s premier museum.

Or perhaps not so alien, she mused.  While classical art and history hadn’t been her specialty since leaving college, much of what she was seeing here resembled ancient Roman, Greek, Minoan, and other pieces from assorted Mediterranean cultures.  That certainly tied in with what she’d been told the previous evening.

Arius Myrnn had decided it was time to share what he knew about the Ancients and their links with Earth.  A great deal of it was fragmentary and owed as much to the oral tradition, as to the documentary record, but much of it also made sense.  The Ancients, or Anquietas – also known as the Alterans – originally came from what was known on Earth as the Triangulum Galaxy.  Creators of the Astria Porta or Stargate network, they’d spread out across numerous galaxies in the Local Group, establishing a major presence on Earth long before modern day humans evolved there.  The first evolution of humanity, the Ancients had battled with the races of demons who also resided there, in a war of technology versus magic.  The immensely powerful demonic races were fortunately already seriously depleted by internecine warfare and beginning to leave that dimension, but they’d fought back with a plague, which decimated the Alterans on Earth.

In consequence, they’d abandoned the planet for a time, scattering amongst the stars, and taking the city of Atlantis with them.  Apparently, to Joyce’s astonishment, the mythical city was real – and it was actually a colossal inter-galactic spacecraft.  In any case, by the time the Ancients returned to Earth, the oldest and most powerful of the demons had long since departed, while primitive man had made an appearance.  Having seeded human populations across a number of galaxies, the majority of the Ancients ultimately opted to Ascend, but some remained on Earth, eventually being absorbed into the various classical civilizations, where they had a massive impact on everything from theological belief systems and philosophy, to art and architecture.

Elsewhere, the bulk of the Alteran peoples also accepted Ascension as their destiny.  One subgroup who’d rejected the philosophy behind Ascension, however, were the Tallurans.  In the heyday of the Ancients, the Tallurans had been a semi-independent warrior group and now, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, they were the only major Alteran-based civilization still existing on the physical plane.  Other small groups might also still exist elsewhere, but probably not in the Vedda Galaxy.

It was mind-blowing to realise that she, Joyce Summers, now knew more about some aspects of Earth’s earliest history than anyone else back home.  Sato had sniggered and muttered something about Daniel Jackson’s head exploding with envy.  Every bit of theorising about Atlantis ever written, by both the cranks and the serious scholars, was just plain wrong, but the frustrating thing was that she couldn’t tell anyone outside the SGC about all this.

Joyce glanced up at a statue.  It was somewhat akin to the Venus De Milo, albeit with arms and slightly more slender.  Back home, they could all talk about the origins and influences of various classical art styles, but even the most reputable scholars were, she now knew, only half-correct.

“Are you still with us, or somewhere in another galaxy?” Aquiliani chuckled and tapped her on the shoulder.

Joyce realised she’d been wool-gathering for at least five minutes.  She couldn’t help it.  This was knowledge overload – even worse than being shut in a closet with Rupert Giles while he was talking about demons – and her mind just wasn’t used to absorbing so much, all at once.

“Oh...  Sorry....,” Joyce smiled apologetically. “So much to see and remember...”

“Quite understandable, especially for someone with your interests.  Even without the Imperial Tutor’s abridged version of Alteran history on your mind from last night – and I still think that three hours was perhaps too much for first acquaintance – this is a vast collection, Joyce,” Aquiliani agreed.

“At times, I wish I had continued with my chosen career on graduating from this university,” the Imperial Guard admitted wistfully.

Joyce looked at her questioningly. “From archivist and historian to Imperial Guard is a bit of a jump...”

“A jump I would not have considered making, if my father and sister had not died in a Zaharte raid on one of our outer colonies,” Aquiliani admitted.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Joyce felt as if she’d put both feet in it.

The Imperial Guard smiled thinly. “You were not to know.  And believe me, I do not regret my career choice.”

She indicated a spiral staircase leading down into the bowels of the museum. “I believe the Academist is already waiting down there for us.”      

 

Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, Mardenius Nebula, the Demilitarised Frontier Zone, Vedda Galaxy – 2nd January 2001 (Earth Date)

Logan felt his jaw bounce off the deck plating as the latest batch of Imperial Fleet reinforcements popped out of hyperspace and moved slowly into view.  The Ancestor-class Battleship was a colossal and truly formidable-looking piece of hardware.  Though of almost identical configuration, at about five times the size of the Tallura Regnatrix, the two Battleships dwarfed the six Heavy and twelve Light Cruisers clustered around them.  If Drayana was planning to send a message to the Xicavvar, this one was unmistakeable.  With shielding, armour and weaponry enhanced over the Heavy Cruiser in direct proportion to the size increase, carrying two hundred fighters, and able to deploy up to four thousand assault troops, they were by far the most powerful warships in this part of the Vedda Galaxy.

The huge Battleships were intended as a means of dealing with the greater numbers fielded by potential enemies, such as the Ch’Hanis, using advanced technology and raw firepower to take on numerically superior forces and win.  The downside was the cost and crewing requirements, compared to other ship types, but the Empress nevertheless planned to triple the existing force under current rearmament plans.

Currently, most of the existing twelve were normally kept close to Tallura Prime, as protection for the seat of Imperial authority and the Empire’s centre of gravity, but a few could always be redeployed if the neighbouring powers became too obstreperous. In this case, they could be in the Xicavvar home system in a matter of hours – and the insectoids would be only too aware of the fact.

Logan had been assiduously taking notes ever since they left Tallura Prime.  As designated military observer, it had seemed like a good idea, though the SG-15 commander wasn’t entirely sure how useful his observations might be.  In the Vedda Galaxy, competing species all maintained large fleets and constantly vied for power.  On the other hand, the vast majority of military spacecraft back home belonged to the Goa’uld, with Earth only constructing its first X-303-class vessel.  Still, he’d picked up a few useful ideas.

“So what now?” he asked Vesarian, as they stood on the observation deck, only a few thousand kilometres from the vast orange-red gas cloud that was the Mardenius Nebula.

“Shipboard sensors cannot see far into the Nebula, so we will rely on large numbers of fighters and reconnaissance drones sweeping ahead of us.  In theory, Zkaritz could be anywhere within the cloud, but in practice he is more likely to be using one of a number of known planetoids as navigational reference points,” the Imperial Guard explained.

“Then we get a battle?” Logan assessed.

He couldn’t wait to see O’Neill’s face.  Back home, SG-1 might get most of the action, or at least most of the trouble, but they didn’t get to see big honking space-ships fighting each other very often.  And Goa’uld Ha’taks didn’t count, as most of the operational SG teams had seen them on numerous occasions.  If it wasn’t for the reality of thousands of dead Talluran civilians, which was more than enough to temper Logan’s enthusiasm, this could be just like stepping into an episode of Star Trek – even Star Wars, given the size of the Battleships.

“Only if they see us coming.  With luck – and assuming we actually find a Xicavvar fleet in there – they will never know what hit them,” Vesarian responded.

“And the Empress’s big political event?  The – uh – the Address?” Logan wondered.

The Imperial Guard officer groaned. “An enormous security problem for us.  My head is already aching at the prospect...  The Empress must talk to the representatives of the Consular Houses – hundreds of them – on the current condition of the Empire, and on any initiatives she intends to introduce in the next year.  Then tradition says that she must walk around the city, meeting and talking with the people.”

“I’m not seeing the security issue – the Empress wanders around the city all the time, with you and others watching her back,” Logan pointed out.

“Not with crowds on this scale, treasonous activities on the part of some people, with the potential risk of war...  And a serious death threat hanging over her,” Vesarian replied bleakly.

 

Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 2nd January 2001 (Earth Date)

Around mid-afternoon, a small group assembled just inside the Imperial Palace gates, close to the matter transmitters.  Lessons had finished for the day – they started and finished early on Tallura Prime.  With Joyce at the Yaherin Var University Museum, discussing Sulla’s proposal for an exhibit on Earth, Faith had volunteered to take Dawn to a fair in the New City. 

With Logan still absent and playing at space battles with the Empress, they were quite a small band.  Faith, Sato and the remainder of SG-15 had been joined by Laelia Tarquinia, a keen new recruit to the Imperial Guard’s Protective Division.  The lofty young woman must have been at least six-foot-seven and was already a SpecOps veteran, prior to being selected for the elite of the elite.  She’d been brought on board at Aquiliani’s insistence that they needed another woman on the visitors’ detail, the Decurion still keen to cover her ass, before Drayana and Vesarian returned to tear her a new one for the debacle with Dawn and the Ch’Hanis.  Since no one could give her the eyes in the back of her head that were vital for taking care of Dawn, Faith was glad of the assistance.

“Okay, squirt - let’s lay down a few rules.  I know what happened day before yesterday wasn’t your fault.  And probably mine for letting you go alone.  But I also know your history back home.  Ignoring advice, climbing out your bedroom window, wandering off alone after dark...,” Faith sounded unusually earnest.

In truth, the Slayer still felt guilty for what had happened – and almost happened – to her young charge.  She was also determined it wouldn’t happen again, not while she drew breath.

“Outside the palace, you don’t go anywhere without at least one of the guards in sight.  One of SG-15, or Vesarian’ guys when they get back, or Laelia or me.  Or even the doc, when she’s with us.  Even if you just wanna go to the bathroom, then Laelia or me will be waiting outside,” she continued.

Dawn was decidedly disgruntled.  While she’d had a real scare, almost becoming a snack or slave for the Ch’Hanis – and she wasn’t sure which was worse – the youngest Summers was also aware that Yaherin Var wasn’t Sunnydale.  There weren’t vampires or demons waiting around every corner – and attacks by people-eating aliens weren’t exactly common – so she didn’t quite see what the problem was.

“Whatever,” Dawn sighed.

She was only four months from her thirteenth birthday and didn’t appreciate being smothered like this – even if she was the only reason they were out here, countless light years from Earth.

Faith really didn’t like the attitude and wondered what it might take to make the youngster see sense. “This ain’t up for negotiation, little D.  Either you do as you’re told, or else...  I’ve permission from your mom to turn you across my lap and go Slayer on your ass, if you push it on this one.  Then you’ll get another whupping from her.”

Dawn folded her arms and just rolled her eyes.

“I mean it, Dawn,” Faith rarely used her – or anyone else’s – real name, so she hoped that would help get the message across.

It was so much easier when the Empress was around.  Drayana had been trained from infancy never to go anywhere without her trusted Imperial Guard detail.  So if Dawn was with the Empress, she was automatically safe from such minor threats as hungry alien lizard-men.

Besides, it wasn’t just the clichéd sci-fi dangers she had to worry about on this world.  Aside from her charge being turned into alien jerky, or some kind of slave girl, there were also the Byzantine politics to worry about.  While all the visitors from Earth might, or might not, be targets for Ilarius’ plotting – or indeed some other disgruntled former politician – Dawn and Joyce were probably the easiest targets.  On that basis, Aquiliani had, unbeknown to Joyce, added a trio of undercover guards to help protect the latter.

“Oh please.  I’ve heard the same threat from Buffy and Cordy...” Dawn responded dismissively.

Faith exhaled and silently counted to ten, as her patience abruptly evaporated, and fought back the urge to cuss.  Suddenly, she grabbed the youngster by her good arm and began to march her back towards their living quarters, intent on dealing with this attitude problem – the hard way.

“Lemme go!  What’re you doing?” Dawn protested.

“Taking you back to your room, you little brat...  Where I’m gonna show your ungrateful butt how much I’m not kidding!  Then you can spend the rest of the fricking afternoon there.  Maybe the rest of your time here, if you won’t follow the rules...  And explain to your mom why you’re grounded and not able to sit down!” an exasperated Faith growled.

She’d done her level best to make friends with the young ingrate and, after a sticky start, appeared to be successful.  It would be particularly annoying if Dawn’s snit – and its consequences - drove a wedge between them again.  But if this was what it took to keep her safe, then so be it.

Dawn’s eyes widened in alarm. “Wait!  I’ll do what you tell me...”

The youngster realised that she’d maybe pushed just too far this time.

Faith stopped in mid-stride. “Sure about that?  ‘Cause I’m not...  Maybe we should just make doubly sure!”

“I’m sorry, Diana...  I’ll do whatever you tell me – pinkie swear!” Dawn turned on her puppy-dog expression.

The Slayer looked at her suspiciously. “Hmmmm...  Suppose I’d better trust you, squirt.  But if you let me down, even a little?  I swear I’ll find somewhere quiet – and that threat becomes a promise.  You hearin’ me?”

“I’ll be good,” Dawn nodded, until it seemed her head might drop off.

“I am sure she will not be a problem,” Tarquinia broke in, certain that the young Terran couldn’t be anything like the trouble-magnet everyone was suggesting.

“Are you not being a little hard on the child?” the Imperial Guard asked Faith in an undertone.

Faith made a face. “Uh, that’d be a fricking great big no!  Little D could get herself into trouble in an empty room.”

The Slayer decided they’d wasted enough time on this.  Either Dawn would do as she was told and everything would be fine, or she’d act her normal self and regret it.

She indicated the matter transporter pad. “Okay, folks.  Let’s go get our molecules pulled apart and scattered all over the planet...”

“You have to say that, Diana?” Dawn whined.

Matter transporters and Stargates were a novelty, just so long as she didn’t dwell on how they actually worked.  It was an easy process.  The vertical posts, each topped with a shiny crystalline globe, were scattered throughout the city.  The would-be traveller simply placed both hands on the globe and enunciated clearly where he or she wanted to go.  A millisecond later, the traveller re-materialised on another pad, somewhere else.  But what if something went wrong?

“The system is extremely safe,” Tarquinia assured them. “There are multiple back-ups and fail-safes built-in.”

“Don’t give me the techno crap.  If I re-appear with your fricking head attached, there’s gonna be trouble, sister!”  Faith assured her darkly.

 

Assassins' Apartment, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime - January 2nd 2001 (Earth Date)

“Is this really necessary, Helia?” Acamos Tren asked his sister.

“Security around the Empress will be tight.  This way, at least one of us will have an opportunity to avenge our father,” she answered.

Acamos looked pained. “By your method, there is little or no chance of escape afterwards.  Drayana’s security forces will seize you immediately – assuming that the mob do not simply kill you on the spot.  And if you survive, the charge will be High Treason.”

Helia smirked. “I do not fear death, brother.”

“Neither do I, but my method at least gives us both a chance of life afterwards,” Acamos responded, bristling slightly at the veiled accusation of cowardice – especially when his service record demonstrated quite the opposite.

His sister kissed him on the cheek. “All that matters is that we avenge father’s honour.”

“He will never forgive us,” Acamos pointed out.

Helia shrugged. “Perhaps in time he will.  Our father is a good man, but too forgiving of those who have wronged him.”

“And in two days, Drayana will pay,” Acamos agreed, adjusting the scope on his plasma rifle.

 

Funfair, New City, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime - January 2nd 2001 (Earth Date)

Despite Faith’s and Dawn’s misgivings, the group re-materialised with nothing missing and no extraneous add-ons.  It was only a short walk to the funfair, which bore a certainly familiarity to those back home.  Wild rides, sideshows, candy stands, noise and colour.  The names of the attractions were of course different, but it wasn’t exactly hard to figure out what they were offering.

The Terrans were able to blend in quite well, all dressed in Talluran clothing.  Sidearms, short swords and such like were hidden beneath the baggy jackets or cloaks, which seemed to be the standard fashion.  Formal and official wear had more than a hint of Ancient Greece and Rome about it, especially for government functionaries, but not so much for informal day-to-day use.  Even Faith had been persuaded that she ought to abandon her leather jacket and jeans, if only to avoid attracting attention.  With some muttering, the Slayer had reluctantly acquiesced.

“I’d like to win some of those for Cordy and Buffy,” Dawn indicated what seemed to be a shooting gallery, where the prizes were soft toys, loosely based on the cuter specimens of Talluran wildlife.

She pointed to her arm. “But I’m kinda stuck, with only one hand.”

“Probably couldn’t hit the target, even if you had both arms free,” Faith opined. “And not so sure I could, either.”

Her shooting was improving rapidly, Slayer senses saw to that, but it still needed work.  A screen at the back of the gallery projected a series of fast-moving blobs of light, with the shooter expected to hit them with some sort of low-powered laser rifle.  Faith was quite confident in her ability to hit a human or vampire-sized target, but high-speed dots might be pushing it for now.  Only for now, of course – a few more days on the shooting range and she was confident of giving anyone a run for their money.

“Gotta say, I know B has a stuffed pig.  But I never saw the Queen as being the stuffed toy type.  Kinda cutesy for Super-Commando Girl,” the Slayer shrugged.

Dawn sniggered. “Cordy’s really into teddy bears, Diana.  Her apartment in Sunnydale?  She’s got, like, fifty of them...  She told me that the other recruits used to laugh at her during Basic Training – and she only had one bear, then.”

“Bet they only laughed at her once,” Faith was pretty sure Queen C wouldn’t take kindly to anyone making fun of her.

“I will attempt to win some for you,” Tarquinia offered. “We use a similar system in training.”

“You keep an eye on the squirt?  I’m gonna try this booth...” the Slayer pointed to a tent.

The Imperial Guard was surprised. “You want to visit a Fortune Seer?”

“Why not?  Bit of the old crystal ball, palm-reading...,” Faith replied.

“We do not take such things lightly, Diana,” Tarquinia frowned.

The Tallurans, according to the history books, never had anyone with a Slayer’s powers.  At one time, there had apparently been magic-users, but they had ascended with the bulk of the Ancients, or their lines had simply died out.  The only remnant of mystical abilities rested with the Fortune Seers, of whom there were very few genuine individuals, of widely varying abilities, and a much larger number of charlatans.  In a fair such as this one, the Slayer was most likely to encounter one of the latter – but it might just be the real article.

“I would’ve though in your line of work, you’d rather not know what was going to happen,” Sato pointed out.

“Way my first Watcher told it, the future isn’t set in stone.  Prophecies and stuff?  Don’t always – don’t usually - tell the whole truth.  Hell, just ask B when we get back to Earth,” Faith pointed out, taking some of the local currency from her pocket and turning towards the tent.

It was dark inside the tent, the interior lit only by two candles on a table.  The Fortune Seer was dressed in a heavy black robe and cowl, just like a monk’s, and her face, concealed by shadows and the hood, wasn’t even visible.  Before Faith could say a word, the figure raised a finger to where her mouth would be, in the universal symbol for silence, then indicated a stool in front of the table.  Rows of cards, presumably the local version of the tarot, were already laid out.

“Welcome, warrior from a far-distant world,” the Fortune Seer began.

Faith had to raise an eyebrow at that.  Nothing about her appearance or dress suggested who she was, or where she came from.  Perhaps the woman had heard her talking outside.

The Seer flipped over a card, then another. “Your path has not been an easy one, Slayer of evil...  Your past has been marred by a hard childhood, then a most difficult vocation, followed by temptation, murder – even a little madness and a brief flirtation with evil...  But with your new life, you are firmly on the road to redemption...”

Faith had to blink at that and started to feel uneasy.  Not only was there no way the Seer could know that she was a Slayer, the woman also couldn’t possibly know anything about her past, especially since she hadn’t even asked any of the usual leading questions.  This certainly wasn’t Madame FullofBullshit, expert at manipulating the gullible.

Three more cards were turned over. “You are here on a mission of grave importance, to protect one who has the potential to end your world – and beyond.  But your presence here may yet also greatly benefit our world and its people...”

“Guess I’m glad to help,” Faith mumbled.

“Please be silent,” the Fortune Seer continued to turn her cards.

“For one such as yourself, the future is always cloudy, full of doubt, and constantly in turmoil.  I see danger – but you do not need me to tell you that...  Also great loss when you return to your world...  Loss which will lead to ever greater responsibility for you...,” she continued.

Faith really didn’t like the sound of that last part.  She had no material possessions worth speaking of back home and only a handful of people meant squat to her.  So if the Fortune Seer was correct, someone she cared about was going to die – and the choices were somewhat limited.  Unfortunately, the woman couldn’t –or wouldn’t – be specific.  There again, it was perhaps better not to know.

“Guessin’ that a long life and fat grandchildren aren’t an option for me, either,” the Slayer covered her disquiet with a quip.

This time, the Fortune Seer didn’t hush her client, but simply turned over the last few cards and ruminated silently for a moment. “Perhaps, perhaps not.  The nature of your Calling makes it difficult to see far into your future.  But you may be quite surprised.”

Faith wasn’t sure whether the Fortune Seer was simply trying to protect her from a prediction of an early death – which wouldn’t be news to any Slayer - or whether she really had seen a genuine future.  Either way, part of her was now wishing she hadn’t come in here.  But perhaps she was meant to.

The Slayer shook her head, feeling distinctly creeped out.  The whole predictions, visions, and prophecies thing could drive you round the bend, if you paid too much attention to them.  At any rate, the session appeared to be over.

“For one such as yourself, there is little more I can say,” the Fortune Seer offered apologetically. “There are simply too many possibilities.”

“Shoulda guessed as much,” Faith smiled thinly, holding out a handful of Blue Empires.

Somewhere under the hood, the Fortune Seer shook her head. “I will accept no payment.  If what I have seen is correct – and there is no reason to doubt it – you and your fellow travellers will be owed an immense debt by the Talluran people.  Perhaps more than one.  But you must not talk of this – and do not try to predict how you will help us.  What will be, will be...”

“Well, you gonna win the lottery, Diana?” Sato asked, as Faith stepped back out into the bright sunshine.

The Slayer shivered slightly. “After what I’ve seen?  Bit of fortune telling mumbo-jumbo shouldn’t freak me out so much.  But she was too fricking accurate about my past and who I am – without asking me a single question!  And not sure I liked some of what I heard about the future, either.”

“Want to share?” the SG-15 Exec enquired lightly.

“Not a chance!” Faith shook her head.

She squared her shoulders. “Let’s go and make sure the squirt enjoys herself properly.”

“Please...  Enough!” the shooting gallery owner almost pleaded.

Tarquinia’s shooting, predictably, had considerably depleted his stocks. 

A grinning Dawn tossed one of her many prizes to Faith. It was considerably less cutesy than the others, looking like a cross between a sabre-toothed tiger and a wolf.  The Slayer decided she liked it.

The younger Summers paused and pointed to the Fortune Seer’s tent. “D’you think I should...?”

“No!”  It came out a little forcefully than Faith had intended.

Tarquinia looked quizzically at the Slayer, an “I told you so” expression plastered all over her face.

“That bad?” Dawn sounded scared.

“Nothing to worry yourself about,” Faith hastily assured her.

“Wanna try that?  Bet you scream like a little girl...  Maybe even puke!” In an effort to change the subject, she quickly pointed to a particularly hair-raising ride.

 

Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, Mardenius Nebula, the Demilitarised Frontier Zone, Vedda Galaxy – 2nd January 2001 (Earth Date)

“We have them!” Severan confirmed, with just a hint of a predatory glint in her eye.

They’d only been ploughing through the nebula for about an hour when a recon drone detected the Xicavvar fleet.  As predicted, General Zkaritz was using a small planetoid as a temporary navigational waypoint and assembly area for his force.  He evidently intended to settle here for a while, as there was even a modular space-station, formed by docking four large transport ships together.  No fewer than fourteen of the latest Xicavvar War Cruisers also gave Zkaritz a considerable offensive capability.

“Contact in one hour and ten minutes, at our current speed, Admiral,” the Navigation Officer confirmed.

“Recall patrol fighters, relay the contact details to all Battle Squadron commanders and inform Her Excellency,” Severan replied.

She was reluctant to wake Drayana, the Empress not having slept properly in over forty-eight hours.  With a major battle looming, however, the Fleet Admiral had no alternative.  Severan was certainly glad she’d called for reinforcements, as the original force – even with Seventh Battle Squadron – would have been heavily outgunned.  A Xicavvar War Cruiser wasn’t quite the equal of a Talluran Heavy Cruiser, like Tallura Regnatrix, but close enough to pose a considerable danger.  The two mighty Ancestor-class Battleships would, however, suffice to tip the scales decisively in favour of the Tallurans.

 

A medium-power plasma burst slammed into Tallura Regnatrix’s shields, failing to penetrate, but still rocking the Imperial Fleet flagship from end to end.  Logan clutched the edge of a currently unused science console on the bridge, keeping out of the way as the crew bustled around.  The insectoids were definitely losing.  Seven of their War Cruisers, which looked like shiny, bright green bagels to the SG-15 commander, had already been destroyed, with critical damage to most of the others.  The Talluran Battleships and Heavy Cruiser continued to fire continuously, small groups of Light Cruisers and squadrons of fighters harrying the larger Xicavvar ships. 

The latter were, nevertheless, determined to go down fighting, and missiles and plasma bursts criss-crossed the drifting gas clouds of the nebula.  One Talluran Heavy Cruiser, targeted by three War Cruisers in the first few seconds of the encounter, had been blown to pieces with no survivors.  Another was crippled, while two Light Cruisers were also dead in space.  Nevertheless, the enemy force could only last a few more minutes at most.

“All enemy forces destroyed, Your Excellency,” Severan reported, as the last Xicavvar War Cruiser disintegrated in a series of short-lived explosions.

The Empress nodded dully.  The Xicavvar might have deserved this – and more – for invading Talluran space and killing her people, but she didn’t have to like it.

“Very well, Admiral.  All ships return to Thenatrix,” Drayana replied. “And please meet me in the Briefing Room in ten minutes.”

 

“This is not over,” the Empress told the assembled group. “Far from it...  But hopefully we can now move into diplomatic mode for a while.”

“Admiral?  I would not expect the Xicavvar to be so rash, but in case of reprisals, I want you ready to respond at any point along the Demilitarised Frontier Zone until further notice.  And keep the Battleships with you, in case they need a further reminder,” Drayana ordered Severan.

The insectoids would no doubt claim that their government had no part of this, but Zkaritz could not have assembled and deployed a force of that size without official sanction.  The dance was quite familiar to diplomats and leaders all over the universe.  The Xicavvar would apologise, without meaning a word of it, while Drayana would smile and graciously accept, with an equal lack of sincerity.  Then the Xicavvar would go away and plot something underhand, probably in combination with their allies, as a means of regaining face, and the Talluran intelligence services would do their best to uncover the next plot, before it happened.  Meanwhile, her fleet would continue to cruise menacingly along the Frontier Zone, within range of any number of Xicavvar targets.

She turned to one of her personal staff. “On return to Tallura Prime, I wish to see the Proconsuls for War, Security and Intelligence, Diplomatic Affairs, and Economics and Trade.  It is perhaps time to revisit all my options...”

“I suspect that the Xicavvar Ambassador will wish to meet with you, or at least the Proconsul for Diplomatic Affairs,” Drayana’s aide suggested.

The Empress made a face as though she’d bitten into something rancid.

“The Xicavvar Ambassador can go kiss my lily-white ass...” she muttered on reflex.

“I suspect that invitation would not go down particularly well,” Severan replied, as Logan choked in the background at the utterly un-Talluran sentiment and phrase.

“Someone has been spending too much time around Diana Prince,” Vesarian suggested, clearing his throat, while privately agreeing with his sovereign.

Logan grinned at the Imperial Guard officer. “I hope it’s Diana. ‘Cause if Joyce catches Dawn saying things like that, there’ll be big trouble!”

"If your Guardian hears you saying such things, that part of your anatomy will not be "lily-white" for long, Excellency..." Vesarian reminded his charge.

"Oh shut up!" Drayana glared half-heartedly at them, her face reddening slightly.

“You all know perfectly well what I mean!  It is the insincerity which irritates me most – my own included,” the Empress admitted.

She sighed. “And speaking of insincerity, please arrange a meeting with the Ch’Hanis Envoy.  If relations with the Xicavvar deteriorate further, I may wish to make sure that at least one of our borders are secure, even if it means a few concessions.”

The last species Drayana wanted to ally with, even temporarily, was the Ch’Hanis.  On the other hand, the dislike the reptilians currently felt for the Tallurans was nothing compared to their loathing for the Xicavvar and their more-powerful Zaharte allies.  The Empress knew she’d just have to grit her teeth and bear it.

“How far to Thenatrix?” Drayana enquired.

“About three hours – we cannot open a hyperspace window inside the nebula and, in any case, the Chief Engineer has a few concerns over the hyperdrive and wishes to make some adjustments,” the commander of Tallura Regnatrix explained.

“The Chief Engineer always has concerns over his hyperdrive...,” the Empress exhaled tiredly. “But at least that gives me three hours to rest.  And unless we are about to be sucked into a black hole?  Please do not wake me until we get there.”

 

Centurion Vesarian’s Office, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 3rd January 2001 (Earth Date)

“You wanted to see me?” Faith was both surprised and mystified over Vesarian’s request for help – after all, he could call upon all the resources of the Empire, if need be.

The Imperial Guard Centurion also seemed to be a very worried man, she noted.  And if Vesarian was worried, perhaps she ought to be concerned, too.

He gestured to the Slayer to sit down. “There is going to be an attempt on the Empress’s life tomorrow.”

Faith sat up straight at that revelation. “How d’you know?  And are you certain?”

She couldn’t understand how anyone could hate the personable young Empress enough to kill her.  No doubt, it was yet another disgruntled and disgraced former politician or civil servant, peeved at being dismissed for fraud or some other misuse of power.  For her part, Faith was firmly convinced that they could use someone like Drayana in Washington DC, to root out the worst of her own country’s politicos.

“Two sources.  Firstly, the prisoners we took in Thenatrix.  Secondly, the would-be assassins’ own father...” Vesarian told her.

He explained for a few minutes.  Caelius Tren, a former Second Proconsul responsible for taxation affairs, had been one of those fired in Drayana’s initial purge.  Misappropriation of funds had seen Tren stripped of office and he’d then gone into self-imposed exile on a distant colony world.  Unlike many of his similarly dismissed contemporaries, however, he’d accepted his punishment as perfectly just and richly deserved. 

Unfortunately, his son and daughter, who’d been raised in comparative luxury and benefited considerably from their father’s ill-gotten gains, considered the whole episode to be a gross overreaction on Drayana’s part.  Helia and Acamos Tren were convinced that their father was being punished for a momentary lapse in judgement – never mind that he’d been siphoning funds for ten years – and were determined to avenge the supposed stain on the family honour.

Caelius Tren had received a message earlier that day from his children, explaining their actions and asking for his forgiveness.  The message, however, had a time delay and the former Proconsul shouldn’t, therefore, have received it until after the assassination attempt.  Some fortuitous communications glitch – the veracity of which had already been checked – delivered it a day early.  The heartbroken father might have been a swindler, but he was still a loyal subject of the Empress and he’d delivered the message directly to the Security Directorate, well aware of the consequences for this offspring.

“Acamos Tren is a member of the Imperial Defence Force.  He is currently classed as Absent Without Consent, as of five days ago.  It is, however, his specialism that is of the greatest concern to us.  Decurion Tren is a Scout-Marksman, skilled in concealment and long-range use of weapons,” Vesarian told her.

“Shit!  A frickin’ trained sniper, with a grudge.  Can’t you call the whole thing off?” Faith really didn’t like the sound of this.

And where was Queen C when they needed her?  This was definitely sounding more like her territory.

“The Address is the most important political event of the year...  And I would still cancel it in an instant.  Unfortunately, the Empress is maddeningly stubborn where duty is concerned,” the Imperial Guard officer frowned.

“Well...  How about holding the political talk-fest and cancelling the public thing afterwards?” Faith knew these were professionals, but it couldn’t do any harm to point out the blindingly obvious.

Vesarian allowed himself a smirk for a moment and looked pointedly at Faith. “I made exactly that suggestion. The Empress’s reply was short, anatomically impossible, beyond obscene, and employed words definitely not of this world – though the meaning was quite clear!”

The Slayer tried to look innocent. “Hey, don’t look at me...  Told Joyce and the Doc not to cuss around the kids.  Never hear that stuff coming out of my mouth – ‘cause that’s just wrong...”

“And I’m the heir to the Khkerrikk Star Empire,” the Imperial Guard retorted. 

“In any case, Tren’s commanding officer has reported the theft of a high-powered long-range plasma rifle and Stealth Net from the unit armoury,” Vesarian continued, clearly growing more worried by the moment.

“Stealth Net?”

“A nanotech-based fabric blanket, issued to Scout-Marksmen, which changes colour to blend with any background.  It also greatly reduces the body’s heat signature,” Vesarian replied.

“With something like that, you are so screwed.  How the Hell you gonna find him, if he’s fucking invisible?” Faith exclaimed.

“Not exactly invisible.  Perhaps ten percent of the thermal signature should visible...  And a keen eye might pick out movement, or a strange contour on a roof,” the Imperial Guard officer told her, rather feebly.

The Slayer grunted. “You should fix it so the Empress gets sick.  Laxative in her supper and breakfast, maybe.  If she can’t go more than two feet from the john, then she ain’t in any danger.”

“I am sorely tempted to try your solution,” Vesarian admitted wryly. “But will you help us?”

“Can’t really say no...  The Empress is a nice kid – doesn’t deserve to have her head shot off. ‘Sides, she’s the one who allowed us to stay here, when we needed somewhere to hide Dawn,” Faith replied.

“Just not sure how much more I can bring with me.  You’ve got a whole fricking army on your side.  I’m not a trained bodyguard.  And what’s one more pair of feet on the ground?” she pointed out.

Vesarian looked her straight in the eye. “We need every edge we can get, Diana.  You’re incredibly fast moving and agile, with better eyesight than any of us.”

“I’m good, but I can’t promise miracles.  Just so long as I don’t get blamed if anything goes wrong...” Faith replied, suddenly conscious of the responsibility.

“If anything happens to the Empress, I will bear the blame,” Vesarian assured her.

The Slayer folded her arms. “You got any way to narrow down this bastard’s likely position?”

The Imperial Guard nodded, bringing up a plan of the city, with the Empress’s route clearly highlighted, on a large wall-mounted screen.

“Much of the route from the Arena is through the Old City.  There are a limited number of places from where he could take a shot,” Vesarian pressed a button on a small control device, indicating the likely areas.

“Guessin’ you’ll flood these with cops – troops – whatever...  But there’s a lotta roof – and windows,” Faith assessed.

“He cannot easily use the Stealth Net from a window – the shooter has to be prone.  I would propose using you and one or two others in a mobile, rooftop role, moving ahead of the Empress,” Vesarian suggested.

“Makes sense.  Anyone in mind?  They’ll have to be fast on their feet,” Faith examined the map, wishing she had military training, though her Slayer instincts and abilities would certainly help.

“Decurion Aquiliani.  Despite her lack of height, she is probably the swiftest and most nimble of my people,” Vesarian proposed.

The Slayer agreed, to an extent. “Sounds ‘bout right.  But if she slows me down, I’m leaving her ass behind.”

Faith suddenly had another thought. “While brother’s playing Lee Harvey Oswald, what’s his sister gonna be doing?  Or is she the one on the grassy knoll?”

Vesarian obviously didn’t get the reference, but he’d already mulled over that question.

“Presumably, Helia is responsible for arranging the escape,” he suggested. “She has no particular skills or training that might be of use in an assassination.”

“Yeah, but she’s fired up enough to get involved in an attempt to kill an Empress.  Sorta thing that ends with your head in a basket – at best.  If I was planning this – not that I make a habit of assassinating Empresses, Kings and Presidents – and had so much of myself tied into it, y’know?  Then I’d have a back-up plan.  She doesn’t need special skills – just a pistol, or a knife, or a grenade.  Empress makes the small talk with the person standing next to her...  And lights out,” Faith suggested grimly.

The Imperial Guard agreed and nodded heavily. “The thought had also crossed our minds, but it is nearly impossible to detect a determined assassin at close range, in a large crowd, until he or she actually makes a move.”

“Guessin’ I’d just be gettin’ in the way if I joined the close detail, then,” Faith replied.

The Slayer knew she could react to a close-in threat much more rapidly than anyone in the Empress’s detail, but she also wasn’t sufficiently trained to work with them under such conditions.  Working with the Imperial Guard team when Dawn and the Empress were on a random shopping trip was one thing, but tomorrow there might be hundreds of thousands on the streets.  Slayer senses or not, spotting a genuine threat in those circumstances was best left to the professionals.

“Will you be carrying one of your projectile weapons, or do you wish me to issue a Personal Combat Weapon?” Vesarian enquired.

“First, I need a copy of that map, ‘cause I’m gonna be up all night learning every fricking twist and turn.  And I’ll be taking an M4 – haven’t practiced enough on your stuff.  But if I actually have to take this guy down?  Then I’ll be using my Varrini Protector’s Bow,” Faith declared firmly.

 

Old City, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 4th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“Fuckit!  Just not seeing a fricking thing!” Faith cursed, her language reverting to type as she and Aquiliani continued to scan the rooftops, always just ahead of the Empress and her entourage in the streets below.

She briefly scanned the surrounding rooftops once more with her handheld thermal imager.  The problem was, given the low levels of heat emitted by the Stealth Net, there were a hundred other sources likely to provide false readings.

“Next position then,” Aquiliani responded, calling in their position lest an Imperial Guard sniper take them out by accident.

The Slayer was already dashing off, moving at close to the Decurion’s maximum pace – especially when it was such a long way down in places.  Faith slithered around the edge of a decorative carving, onto a narrow ledge.  Their next objective was about four metres away – a similar ledge on another building, with the small drawback of a vertical drop to the street below.

Without space for a run-up, it was a challenge even for a Slayer.  Aquiliani just shook her head.

“It is too far for me to jump...,” the Imperial Guard protested.

“Don’t crap out on me now, sister.  I’ll get you across,” Faith replied confidently.

Part of her wondered if she could leap the distance, while also holding onto someone else, but every second they wasted here, the assassin could be blowing Drayana’s brains all over the street.

“Here goes nothing!”

The Slayer gritted her teeth, wrapped an arm tightly around Aquiliani’s waist and gripped her hand, then launched herself into the void, ignoring her partner’s sudden whimpering. 

The duo landed on the other side with inches to spare, barely recovering from a near-catastrophic wobble on landing.  Without further ado, Faith was already scrambling up the tiled roof and over the ridge at the top.  Aquiliani recovered her breath, tried to slow her heartbeat, and quickly followed.

Edging their way along another ledge, the pair emerged onto a large flat area of roof.  If someone intended to shoot the Empress, this was an ideal spot.  Eight separate streets converged on an open space of Saint Peter’s Square proportions, currently crowded with Tallurans.  Dozens of buildings, already patrolled by elements of the Imperial Guard and the Civic Patrol Special Security Section, overlooked the Empress’s route.  The rooftops here, however, were a confusing mass of spires, towers, gabled roofs, and decorative carvings, all seemingly designed to hide a determined sniper.  In theory, a patrol could pass within ten feet of someone using a Stealth Net, without spotting them.

Faith and Aquiliani stopped and began to sweep the surrounding rooftops.  All at once, the Slayer froze.  There was definitely someone lurking in the shadows, directly opposite, and with a rifle.  But they certainly weren’t concealed under a Stealth Net.

“Do we have anyone in that bell tower – whatever it is – over there?” Faith didn’t want to gesticulate, in case the assassin twigged that he’d been spotted.

Aquiliani quickly checked her handheld data pad. “Should be a pair of Civic Patrol troopers...”

The slayer switched her thermal imager to standard view.  Even with her enhanced eyesight, at over 200 metres, it was difficult to pick out the details of a uniform.

“Imperial Guard...,” she decided.

If this was an impostor, there were no other teams covering that particular area, if he’d neutralised the Civic Patrol.

“You sure?” Aquiliani frowned.

“Yes, I’m fricking sure!” Faith snapped, slipping the recurved Varrini bow from her shoulder.

“The Empress will be along any second,” she notched an arrow to the bow. “And I really, really don’t wanna be wrong...”

Aquiliani was yelling desperately into her transmitter, Vesarian’s far-from-dulcet tones almost blowing out the speaker.

“One Imperial Guard and two Civic Patrol personnel out of contact...,” Aquiliani repeated.

“Shoot, or no fricking shoot?” the Slayer demanded frantically, as Drayana entered the square and the crowd roared its approval.

“Shoot!” the Imperial Guard yelled, just as Faith’s target raised his rifle.

A Varrini Protector’s Bow, with an incredible draw-weight of about 700lbs, could only be used by a full Slayer – or perhaps Cordelia on a good day.  Its cross-headed armour-piercing arrow could easily penetrate the advanced alloys of a Jaffa’s body armour.  As such, Faith’s arrow went straight through Acamos Tren’s head like a hot knife through soft butter, an instant before his finger tightened on the trigger.  Unseen by the throng below, his body toppled backwards from the tower and out of sight.

 

Square of the Honoured Fallen, Old City, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 4th January 2001 (Earth Date)

There were times Vesarian wished his Empress was unpopular.  Not unpopular enough to kill, but sufficiently disliked that the bulk of the population would be wholly indifferent to her official public appearances.  The odd thing was, when she appeared in public on an informal basis, the good citizens of Yaherin Var had much greater self-control.

This was a security headache of the worst kind.  The Civic Patrol and Imperial Guard, reinforced by detachments of the Defence Force, were struggling to hold back the crowds in the narrow streets of the Old City.  The Empress wasn’t making things any easier, by constantly stopping to talk with her people.  Every complaint or suggestion they raised would find its way onto the agenda of her next Proconsular meeting – and the people knew it.  Vesarian supposed that made her a good ruler, but it wasn’t making his job any simpler.

Her Address had similarly gone down well with the thousands of Consuls from the combined Consular Houses.  If there was one thing Drayana excelled at, it was rhetoric.  She could pitch her speeches at exactly the right level and even the prospect of an assassination attempt hadn’t affect her confidence – at least outwardly – one iota.  Her ruthless quashing of Pyriam’s rebellion and crushing of an attempted Xicavvar invasion had, needless to say, further enthused the assembled politicians.  Ilarius had no doubt ground his teeth down to the gums, while politely applauding and smiling in public.

As they emerged into the vast Square of the Honoured Fallen, it was proving near-impossible to devise an optimum security strategy on the ground, given the conditions.  Drayana’s determination to carry on as normal meant that Vesarian’s Imperial Guard couldn’t get between her and the crowd.  If someone pulled a handgun, there was a good chance they wouldn’t see it until too late.  Nor, of course, did he have enough people to plant large numbers of plain-clothes personnel along the route.  All Vesarian could do was exhort his people to keep their eyes open, while praying to the Ancestors that his Empress would survive the day.

An urgent call from Aquiliani was quickly resolved.  Instead of stealth, Acamos Tren had resorted to disguise – and it had almost succeeded.  Including the Slayer among his personnel had certainly proven to be a wise decision today.

Vesarian scanned the crowd for the thousandth time as a smiling Drayana stooped to talk to a little girl and her brother, both of them offering small bunches of flowers.

Then it happened.  A young woman emerged from the crowd, only feet from the Empress, a knife glinting in her hand.  Imperial Guards were already aiming their weapons, but the Empress was between many of them and the target.  Determined to succeed where her brother had failed,  Helia Tren’s knife slashed towards Drayana’s unprotected throat.

 
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