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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)CordyfanFR1324297,1153129463,00414 Mar 115 Nov 14No

Diplomacy and a Measured Punitive Response

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).

 

Medical Clinic, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 5th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Vesarian was rapidly coming to the conclusion that Slayers didn’t need very much sleep.  Personally, he was exhausted after the events of the previous day, but he refused to sleep until the Empress was out of danger.  The Centurion might be running on adrenalin, but Faith was as fresh as though she’d just risen from a good night’s sleep.  She was also determined to remain close at hand, until Drayana regained consciousness, and now felt almost as responsible for the young Empress’s welfare as she did for Dawn’s.

“I regret that I must ask another favour, Diana,” Vesarian said quietly.

Faith shrugged and smiled thinly. “If some other bad guy’s threatening the Empress, just tell me who and I’ll go kill him for you...”

“Nothing like that,” the Centurion replied quickly, pretty sure she was serious. “This involves a short trip off-world.  Helia was – ah - persuaded to tell us the source of the venom poisoning Her Excellency.  It will be night on the planet we are visiting and your excellent night vision and fast reflexes will help us catch some of these creatures.  Then the medical team will have a basis for an antidote.”

Faith was on her feet in an instant. “Let’s go.  What’re we looking for anyways?  Some humungous snake?  Giant spider?”

“A very small reptile, no bigger than your thumb, but extremely toxic.  It is called a Karax and was thought to be extinct, which is why we have no stock antidote,” Vesarian told her, while wondering what a spider was.

The Slayer frowned. “Sure the bitch ain’t playing for time?  Wanna be sure?  Give me five fricking minutes with her and we’ll know.”

The Centurion shook his head. “It has been two hundred years since anyone was poisoned by a Karax and one hundred years since the last sighting.  Residue from the assassination weapon matches records from that period, however, as do the Empress’s symptoms.  Apparently, the creature was not as extinct as the biologists believed.  And the prisoner has told us – more or less – where to find them.”

“ “More or less”?”, Faith growled. “Still thinkin’ you should let me beat the truth out of her...”

“She cannot give us exact coordinates, but it is a secret place, known only to Helia and her two siblings when they were children,” Vesarian explained.

If the would-be assassin was lying and the Empress died as a result,  Helia Tren would live to regret it.  But not for long.

“Okay, I’m guessing time’s slipping – and we don’t have much of it.  So do we jump on a ship or take the Stargate doodad?” Faith demanded impatiently.

 

 Medical Clinic, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 5th January 2001 (Earth Date) 

Livia’s shoulders slumped as she watched over her young charge.  Drayana looked so vulnerable, hooked up to all the ugly and frightening apparatus of the Critical Treatment Unit, as the poison strengthened its grip on her body.  Healer Valarien had been putting on an optimistic face, but when pressed had finally admitted that the Empress would likely be dead by sundown, if they didn’t start treatment within a matter of hours.

A team led by Drayana’s faithful Imperial Guard detachment commander was, even now, following a lead on Sanopolis.  Attempts to produce an antidote from the residue on Tren’s knife had failed, as there was just too little of the toxin remaining.  There probably hadn’t been much in the first place, as the smallest drop was sufficient to cause death, if the would-be assassin was telling the truth about her source.  Karax poison was also highly complex and almost impossible to synthesise, so they needed some of the creatures.  Even then, it would take time to produce sufficient antidote to reverse her symptoms.  Moreover, given its experimental nature and the lack of time to test the treatment, there was a real risk of dangerous – even fatal – side-effects.  Nevertheless, right now, they had no choice but to take the gamble.

“There is no change?” Arius Myrnn quietly took a chair next to Livia.

“Only for the worse...  And it took some time for the physician to admit even that much,” Livia responded unhappily.

The Imperial Tutor shook his head stubbornly. “Drayana is an exceptionally strong-willed young woman.  I believe she will survive this, no matter what Valarien might say.”

Livia smiled sadly. “You have no need to prove your loyalty, Arius.  But we must be realistic.  A strong-will – and blind faith on our part – are no match for a venom which is utterly toxic to our bodies.  We can only hope that the Centurion is successful.”

“She will survive this, Livia.  And far outlive us both,” Myrnn insisted, taking her hand.

Imperial Guardian and Imperial Tutor had a secret agreement to marry when the Empress finally reached full adulthood.  They’d worked closely together, in the service of Drayana’s family, since long before she was even born.  Each had an intense affection for the other – love might be too strong a word – but they were comfortable in each other’s presence.  At their age, both were convinced that it was probably enough.  And whether the Empress came through this alive or not, she’d always be the closest thing to their own child.

Livia dabbed her eyes. “I wish we had raised her in a kinder, gentler manner, with less emphasis on tradition and discipline, and more on allowing her to have a real childhood.  And telling her a little more often how much I loved her...”

“I think she knows that, Livia,” Myrnn assured her. “Drayana still always comes to you when she feels uncertain about something and wants reassurance.  She may not call you mother...”

“Actually, she has taken to calling me just that, recently. Even if I am more like a grandmother,” the Imperial Guardian pointed out.

Myrnn chuckled. “Perhaps.  But does she ever leave your apartments in the morning, or retire to bed in the evening, without demanding – and getting - a hug?  At sixteen years old – and as one of the most powerful rulers in the known galaxy - Drayana still looks to you for comfort, and you never fail her.”

Livia sniffed tearfully and spoke quietly to the unconscious Empress. “Please hold on just a little longer, my dear child.  Help is on its way...  And I cannot bear to lose you!”

 

The Tren Residence, Sanopolis – 5th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Faith looked up at the three-floor mansion, which wouldn’t have been out of place in Beverly Hills. “Lives well for a guy who stuck it to the taxman and got himself kicked off Tallura Prime...”

“It was less a question of non-payment of taxes, Diana, and more about appropriating those paid by others.  This is the family home and has been for generations,” Vesarian clarified, reaching for the entry buzzer.

“Back home?  IRS would have sold this from under his ass,” the Slayer replied.

The Tren residence and estate was on the coast, some way from the nearest city and outside the local transporter network, so they’d arrived here by shuttle after travelling by Stargate.  The local Civic Patrol weren’t taking any chances that angry citizens might seek vengeance against the Tren family, so there was a guard on the gate.  Thus far, the friendly people of Sanopolis – a laid-back world as much known as a resort and retirement planet as anything else – fortunately hadn’t been inclined to hurl so much as an insult.  Whatever his children may have done, it was generally accepted that Caelius Tren wasn’t to blame.

Thelia Tren, the oldest daughter in her mid-twenties, answered the door after a few minutes, hair dishevelled and one hand holding her robe closed.  The other hand held a plasma pistol.

Faith immediately stiffened, clearly about to spring, but Vesarian placed a hand on her arm.

“I thought the Imperial Guard had decided that we knew nothing of my brother and sister’s plans,” Thelia protested, lowering the weapon as soon as she was sure it wasn’t a vengeful mob, come to burn the house down.

“That remains our position,” the Centurion confirmed.

“So why are you terrorising us by calling at this hour?” the woman demanded.

“We may have a source for the toxin used on the Empress, but we need to gather more to produce an antidote.  Is there a secret place you and your sister frequented as children?” Vesarian asked urgently.

Tren thought for a moment, trying to associate her happy childhood memories with a source of poison.  In truth, they’d had several hiding places.  Then a long-forgotten memory of a seabird – alive one second, dead the next instant – suddenly came rushing back. 

She took a step back as though struck. “The Flitters?  I never...  I mean, if the news channels had said anything about the type of poison, I would have guessed immediately...  I am a fool!”

“Flitters?” a toxicologist from the Medical Clinic in Yaherin Var asked her.

“That is what we called them as children.  Tiny orange reptiles, with six legs.  We never knew the real name.  I saw a seabird eat one only once.  It died in about two seconds, so we were careful never to touch them...  There are – were – hundreds of them in our secret place.  I have not been there in years, but...  I can show you exactly where.  Though they are very fast-moving and will be difficult to catch,” she warned.

“That is exactly why we brought Diana,” Vesarian replied, as the woman rushed back inside for more appropriate clothing.

“Yeah.  Just a big lizard-catcher, that’s all I’m fricking good for...” Faith grunted laconically.

Perhaps the great service the Seer had suggested she’d perform for the Tallurans wasn’t merely a matter of stopping an assassin, but also of helping to gather the ingredients for antidote.  Still, even as a Slayer, it was one of the oddest things she’d ever been asked to do.

 

Hidden Cove, Sanopolis – 5th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“Fuck!  Fuck!  Fuck!” Faith swore, as she slithered and scrabbled her way over damp and greasy rocks on a narrow ledge.

The rock-strewn cave floor looked a long way down and she was sure to break something if she slipped, Slayer healing or not.  These little fuckers were lethal, she decided.  Not just because one touch of their skin would kill her – Slayer or not – but because of their sheer speed and agility.  The damned things could quite literally hang upside down from the cave roof.

Helia and Thelia Tren had certainly discovered a secluded spot for their secret haven.  A small shingle-beach at the base of precipitous cliffs several hundred metres high, it was normally accessible only by hidden paths through thick vegetation, then a hair-raising climb down a near-vertical gulley.  Fortunately, Vesarian’s team had a shuttle at their disposal, even if it barely fit into the tiny cove.

Unfortunately, the shuttle’s arrival had also sent the nocturnal creatures scuttling into a nearby cave at incredible speed.  The cavern had a very narrow entrance, but was huge inside.  Its craggy interior was also no place for someone who wasn’t preternaturally agile and sure-footed – though even Faith had her limits, after an hour of chasing her elusive quarry. 

“Sure I can’t use my fricking Zat?” she called down to Vesarian and the toxicology team.

“I am afraid not,” the Centurion called back. “But we only need three more...”

The toxicology team had been concerned that a high-energy discharge might affect the molecular structure of the poison, making the captured Karax useless.  Faith was, therefore, chasing them the hard way, bag in hand.  To make things harder, she was wearing a one-piece plastic-like hazmat suit, gloves and visor to protect her from the Karax venom, and her main illumination was a head-torch.

“Whoopee!” Faith grunted, sweating like a pig in the hazmat suit, and making an unsuccessful grab for another Karax, as it vanished into a crack in the rock.

She was certain the fricking thing had flipped her the bird before it disappeared.

“Gotcha!” Faith caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye and grabbed one of the creatures by its tiny tail.

Given the numbers of Karax in the cave, it was a miracle Thelia and Helia had survived their childhoods – or, indeed, that they hadn’t broken their necks just climbing down here.  Though it might, she reflected, have been better for all concerned if Helia had accidentally brushed against one.

“Yes....  Whooaaaah!” the Slayer’s arms wind-milled for balance as she bounded onto another ledge and almost missed her footing, though grabbing yet another Karax in the process.

If this wasn’t part of her redemption, Faith didn’t know what was.  And if it was, redemption totally sucked.

“Are you alright up there, Diana?” Vesarian called out anxiously.

“Five-by-fucking-five!” the Slayer forced out through gritted teeth.

Movement about five feet above her drew her gaze.  A much larger than normal Karax – maybe twice as large - was watching her from a protruding rock, seemingly unafraid of the interloper. This, Faith decided, was getting personal.  More than personal – it was war. 

“That’s right...  Just sit there grinning at me, you little bastard!” Faith smiled grimly and reached for her stake, strapped to the belt of her hazmat suit. 

She never went anywhere without it, though this was the first time her Slayer’s signature weapon had been drawn since arriving on Tallura Prime, and she’d need to whittle another if this worked.

The toxicologists had said they’d prefer live Karax, but that dead specimens would do at a push.  Since this one was bigger than normal, Faith decided that it probably also had a lot more venom. 

Her thrown stake swiftly turned it into a lizard kebab.  Wriggling feebly in its death-throes, the Karax tumbled to the cavern floor. 

“Who’s the man?  Oh shit...”

Rapidly followed by Faith, who overbalanced and fell a long way, landing face-first in a pool of muddy water.  The others were by her side in an instant, but a quick check revealed nothing broken and only her dignity was hurt.  Besides, she’d never had much of the latter, anyway, and the Tallurans were promptly treated to a master class in Terran profanity.

“Okay...  Do we get to go home now?  ‘Cos this world?  Not liking it so much!” Faith declared, as the final Karax was added to the collection.

 

The Schoolroom, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 5th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“This will not do, Dawn.  I do not believe you are hearing a word I say,” Arius Myrnn shook his head.

The youngest Summers would have been the first to admit that she wasn’t in the best shape this morning.  Worry about Drayana had kept her awake all night and Joyce had suggested a day away from school.  Dawn, surprising even herself had declined the offer, deciding she’d rather have something to occupy her mind, rather than sit in the apartment, worrying about her friend all day.

That, at any rate, had been the theory.  In fact, she’d shown up late for class, then her attention kept wandering.  This was the third time the Imperial Tutor had noticed her attention was anywhere but on him.  Dawn also recalled Drayana warning her that Myrnn operated a three-offences system – and she’d just had her fourth strike.

“Come up here, please,” the Tutor directed.

He didn’t seem angry, but the youngster knew that was deceptive.  The ubiquitous rod was certainly present, on the shelf behind his desk.  No doubt, she was about to receive an introduction to that particular instrument.

At the rear of the room, Lieutenant Rod Mustin, one of SG-15 who’d drawn “Dawn-Watch” for the school period today, frowned.  So did Carolyn Lam.  There was no way they’d stand by and see her punished for inattentiveness, not when her friend was at death’s door.

“I can only give you one hand, ‘cos the other arm still has this thing on it...”

Dawn quietly indicated the foam-like casing on her arm, due for removal the following day, according to the Imperial Physician.  Of course, he’d have other things to worry about right now than her broken limb.

“I do not want your hand,” the Tutor assured her.

“So you just want me to drop ‘em and bend over the desk?” she suggested resignedly.

“Just a moment...” Mustin protested.

Myrnn held up his hands. “I have absolutely no intention of punishing you,  Dawn.  For one thing, if I were to put you across the desk, the level of misbehaviour would have to be extremely high – and I would absent myself and ask Livia to perform the duty.  I also fear the Empress may have overstated my reputation as a disciplinarian somewhat.  Contrary to what she may have suggested, I do actually have some compassion, and an inability to concentrate when a friend is gravely ill does not – by any standard - constitute a fault!”

He chuckled and turned to Lam and Mustin. “Were I to treat it as such, I would be in extreme trouble from a range of sources.  Not least yourselves, but also the Empress herself.  I may be her Tutor, but she is still the sovereign.  Then there is also the formidable Diana, who I would never dream of upsetting!”

“So I don’t have to shove my boot up your...” Lam muttered quietly, then stopped herself as she realised that she was channelling Faith.

The Tutor ruffled Dawn’s hair and placed an aged hand on each shoulder. “You should know that I just received a message from Healer Valarien.  Drayana is responding positively to the antidote and is about to receive a second dose.  The poison appears to have been neutralised and they can now work on reversing its effects, which is a comparatively simple matter.  She should regain consciousness by this evening.”

Lam was slightly surprised, though she knew that Talluran medicine was far ahead of its Terran counterpart.  She was also aware it had been a close-run thing.  Without a Slayer to catch the creatures – surely the oddest use of a Chosen One’s powers in recorded history – the antidote probably wouldn’t have been available in time.

“Tonight?  Can I see her?” Dawn asked eagerly.

Lam wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Perhaps tomorrow might be a better idea.”

The youngster was about to protest, but decided it would be in vain.  Still, at least her friend would live.

“But what do we do with you for the rest of the day?” Myrnn asked rhetorically. “With your own tutor’s permission...?”

He glanced at Carolyn Lam, who merely nodded.

“I can give you a choice.  You can either return home to catch up on some rest...” the Imperial Tutor began.

“Or we could perhaps collect your mother and have a field trip,” he suggested.

Dawn was definitely curious. “Field-trip?”

“Our archaeologists recently discovered an ancient alien city in the mountains, almost perfectly preserved.  I have only just received permission to visit in the last few days,” Myrnn replied.

“Cool!” Dawn decided she liked that idea.

Mustin, meanwhile, was waving a hand.

“Lieutenant?” Lam asked curiously. “You either have a question, or you need to go to the bathroom.  Kinda old to ask...”

“Uh – can I come along, too?” the words “ancient alien city” had definitely aroused his SGC-issue curiosity.

 

Ancient City, Phardrium Mountains, Tallura Prime – 5th January 2001 (Earth Date)   

Two packed shuttles made their way through the valleys and passes of the Phardrium Mountain range, which was easily on a par in scale with the Himalayas.  All of SG-15 had insisted on accompanying the group, only a tired Faith having declined the invitation.  Logan and his men were especially looking forward to a photographic session, so they’d have something special to rub Daniel Jackson’s nose in.  Not that this trip was giving them any shortage of material.

“Mom...  Think I’m gonna pee myself!  It’s so big, it’s kinda scary,” Dawn admitted in a small voice, as they arrived at the entrance to the excavation site.

“Honey, I’m right there with you,” Joyce admitted.

The city, its name as-yet unknown, was actually built inside a colossal cave.  Only part of it was currently illuminated, by enormous lights mounted on the smooth walls of what was obviously an artificially created cavern.  The builders had tunnelled downwards into the rock, so that the group was actually looking down on the city from the cave mouth.  It was built entirely of stone, with perfectly straight, paved roads separating city block after city block and disappearing into the darkness.  Delicately constructed towers and spires, entirely alien in appearance unlike the vaguely familiar Talluran architecture, reached hundreds of feet into the upper reaches of the cave.

“How old?” an astonished Joyce asked Myrnn, without taking her eyes off the view.

“About half-a-million years,” the Tutor answered calmly.

“What?” Joyce, Lam and SG-15 spoke – or squeaked - simultaneously.

“But there’s no trace of erosion.  It looks as though it was only abandoned yesterday,” Sato objected.

“These are geologically stable mountains, of extremely dense rock.  The same material used to construct the city.  The entrance was blocked – we think deliberately – with rock and it lay here, empty and forgotten, for all that time.  One of our warships, testing a new deep-penetration scanner, detected the cavern and city quite by accident,” Myrnn explained.

Logan picked up a pebble-sized lump of rock from outside the cave and almost dropped it in surprise.  It had to weight at least seven or eight times that of an equivalent piece of granite.  The technology required to hollow out a cave large enough to enclose an entire city, from a substance so hard, baffled the imagination.

“So who built it?” Dawn wanted to know, snapping away with her pocket camera.

“We are ninety-nine percent sure it was a Furling city, constructed and abandoned long before we came to this area of space,” Myrnn replied.

If SG-15 had been intrigued before, now they were positively rapt.  The Furlings were the fourth of the great races, together with the Ancients, Asgard and Nox.  Up to now, the SGC knew precisely nothing about them, aside from the fact that they’d long since disappeared from both the Milky Way and Ida Galaxies.  And, it seemed, the Vedda Galaxy, too.

“We know very little about them,” the Imperial Tutor confessed. “They disappeared around the time that the Alterans chose to Ascend.  Even at that time, they were something of a nomadic people, rarely constructing permanent cities on this scale.  The flying city, such as your Atlantis, was originally a Furling concept.  Why they should build a city in such a place, obviously for concealment, we cannot say.”

“Arius told us all about the Furlings in class, mom.  I sorta imagined something like an Ewok when I first heard the name.  But they were much taller than us – about ten foot – with silver hair and skin.  And six fingers on each hand, much longer than ours...” Dawn explained.

“Six fingers?  Sounds like some of my kin on pa’s side...” Lieutenant Mustin grunted.

Logan cleared his throat. “Would it be possible for you to give us a file on the Furlings, Arius?  Back at the SGC, we only know the name, nothing else.”

“Certainly.  Though it will be a very small file and only of passing historical interest, I fear.  Perhaps when we have finished examining this city, in a century or more, then we will know more about our former allies.  For now?  It would seem that young Dawn is the Terran expert on Furlings and their culture,” the Tutor replied, as his young charge beamed.

 

Drayana’s Room, Medical Clinic, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 6th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“...The Concordium High Council is fully aware of General Zkaritz’s covert communications with Talluran rebels on the planet Thenatrix, in addition to his plans to seize the colonies of Thenatrix Secundus and Tertius.  In the opinion of the Council, the General has sufficient troops to secure the objectives, assuming that the Tallurans do not react vigorously.

“Intelligence sources are divided on the likely reaction to the loss of Thenatrix.  A number of sources believe that the Empress would respond in a forceful manner, potentially endangering much or all of the Concordium.  Others suggest that, given her inexperience, an escalation of the existing famine crisis on Thenatrix will be beyond her skills to deal with and, perhaps, result in a coup by those loyal to the former Regent.

“While an attack on the Concordium cannot be ruled out, it is the opinion of the High Council that the Empress is ill-equipped to deal with the sudden and unexpected annexation of a major planet and two colonies.  The Council cannot, of course, be seen to actively encourage or support General Zkaritz in this endeavour.  If the Tallurans respond militarily, we can claim that his was a rogue operation, not sanctioned by higher authority. 

“If a Talluran response appears to threaten our own space, then the Zaharte Alliance can be expected to support us both diplomatically and militarily.  Given that we are their only current ally – and their concomitant need to ensure the continued survival of the Concordium – the Council assesses that inter-alliance dynamics currently favour us.  Indeed, they may afford us further such opportunities...”   

“There is no doubt about this communication?” Drayana paled, feeling a sudden need to wash her hands after touching the data pad.

“None whatsoever, Excellency.  The message is an intercept of communications between high-ranking members of the High Council, made just prior to Xicavvar troops landing on Thenatrix.  Decoding it had, unfortunately, taken some time...” Paulius Vertain, Proconsul for War, assured his sovereign.

“Why the delay?” the Empress demanded, sitting up slightly in bed.

“The Imperial Guard, Imperial Defence Force, and Security Bureau all have their own intelligence branches.  With an annoying habit of playing jurisdictional games in such matters,” Vertain admitted.

Drayana’s eyes narrowed angrily.  This message could have averted the whole situation in the first instance, if it hadn’t been for military and civilian officials covering their asses.

The Empress audibly growled. “I hear the sound of heads rolling, Paulius.”

“You will have my full support, Excellency.  This problem is not a new one, but probably the first time the consequences have been so severe,” Vertain agreed.

“Thousands of my people killed and the Empire on the verge of war?  I cannot let this go unanswered,” Drayana told him grimly.

She sighed. “Unfortunately, I will have to wait until tomorrow before dealing with this.  In the meantime...  I suppose it is war, to some extent or another...”

“We would rather call it a “measured punitive response”,” the Proconsul pointed out.

“Keep that for the diplomats.  You are my Proconsul for War.  So what have you brought me?” the Empress retorted.

They both knew that there would be nothing proportionate about any Talluran retaliation.  As a sign of Imperial displeasure and a warning to anyone else who might be considering the same thing, even a limited a counter-strike would have to be massive and unmistakable in its intent.  To that end, a huge armada of Talluran warships and troop carriers was already massed within striking distance of every worthwhile target in the Xicavvar Concordium.

“The Consular Houses have voted unanimously for a military response, though the final decision is yours.  We have three options.  Option A is an all-out strike, to effectively destroy the Xicavvar as a functioning civilization, and including massive orbital bombardments of every planet, including their two core worlds in the home system,” Vertain listed their options.

Drayana shook her head firmly. “I will not countenance genocide.  You have a more measured alternative?”

“Option B is an economic blockade, enforced by the Imperial Fleet.  The disadvantage is one of time and also that the enforcement vessels would face resistance from the Xicavvar,” the Proconsul continued.

“Time as in months, no doubt...  I really need something quick and decisive,” the Empress told him reluctantly.

“As you know, the Xicavvar Empire is composed of seven worlds.  Two major planets in their home system – Xicattar and Xicazzar. A third, Xicammar, is of slightly less importance and close to the Haamarii Frontier.  There are also three smaller colony worlds, of key importance to their economy as mineral producers and industrial centres.  Then there is Aqqabaz, occupied by the Xicavvar eight years ago.  Option C involves heavy strikes against all military and industrial facilities on the three outer colonies, plus one against Xicammar.  We estimate that they would take some years to recover and their fleet would be reduced to one only just capable of defending their core interests,” Vertain concluded.

Drayana ruminated for a moment.  Even Option C would unleash a horrific level of death and destruction, within a very short period.  Given current technology, space battles and wars were short, intensely violent affairs.  Such an attack would be completed within hours of her command. 

Her command, she reminded herself gloomily.  As commander-in-chief of the Imperial Guard and Imperial Defence Forces, she had the power to set the whole Vedda Galaxy ablaze with one miscalculation.  It was a heady thought and not one she was at all comfortable with.  The last thing she wanted was to turn into her grandmother's-grandmother, a warmongering old harridan, who’d had every neighbouring species living in a state of fear.  The same Empress who had also left the present-day Empire with a formidable set of enemies as her legacy.

Unfortunately, Drayana knew there was a distinct possibility that, given a set of bellicose neighbours, she might have to prove herself in the old fashioned way.  Namely, by blasting their fleets out of space.

“Paulius, I am sixteen years old and still attending school by law, with a list of rules as long as your arm from my guardian on what I may – or may not – do.  And embarrassing consequences if I break them...  Yet I am still expected to make the final decision on taking my people to war.  And effectively, on deciding who lives and who dies as a result.  I have only ever met Xicavvar on a few occasions...” the Empress shook her head sadly.

Vertain smiled sympathetically. “That, I am afraid, is the nature of your office.  Your age might perhaps make some of your duties slightly incongruous, but...”

“...But this is my duty,” Drayana finished for him.

In truth, the Empress knew she had no alternative.  If the Xicavvar weren’t dealt a hard enough blow to make their antennae twitch – and to give pause to any of their other neighbours – then they would inevitably see her as weak and pick the Empire apart, one piece at a time.  It might be a case of a limited war now, or a catastrophic one later, when a larger power joined in.

“Is it at all possible to vary these plans?” the Empress asked after a moment.

“Within limits, Excellency,” Vertain replied warily – the commanders waiting on the edges of Xicavvar space could do without last-minute changes and micro-management.

“Would it be possible to liberate Aqqabaz as part of Option C?” Drayana enquired.

As far as she was concerned, the Xicavvar occupation of Aqqabaz and the brutal enslavement of its people was the Talluran Empire’s shame.  It was just one more thing the Regent and his lackeys had to answer for. 

Aqqabaz was a minor power, only one planet, and not even in the same league as the Xicavvar or N’Gluk, for instance.  The world had, nevertheless, been an ally of the Tallurans for centuries.  Then during the Regency, the Empire had drawn in on itself, allowing rapacious powers such as the Xicavvar to victimise weaker neighbours.  By rights and by treaty, the Tallurans should have crushed the Xicavvar invasion at its outset, but the Regent had decided that the Aqqabaz were unimportant in the wider scheme of things.

“We have had a contingency plan to remove the Xicavvar from Aqqabaz for some time,” Vertain allowed.

“As we are using Option C, rather than A, we have some spare forces.  Especially large numbers of ground units, which will be required for any liberation.  It will require some redeployment of forces, however.  So there would be roughly a day’s delay between the other strikes and any move on Aqqabaz.  But that delay may work to our advantage, as the Xicavvar are likely to redeploy ships from the Aqqabaz system to their homeworld, as soon as our attacks begin.”

“Then we will use Option C, plus the liberation,” Drayana directed.

Vertain nodded and passed over a data pad attached to a DNA and retinal scanner. “This is the attack order.  I merely require your verification, Empress.”

Twenty seconds later, it was done.  The Talluran Empire was effectively in a state of war.  And Drayana felt sick to her stomach, having just signed the death warrants of hundreds of thousands.

“I will also need to see the Proconsul for Alien Affairs, to draft a suitable message for the Xicavvar Ambassador...  Oooohhh...” the Empress suddenly clamped a hand over her mouth, Vertain hastily grabbing a bowl from her bedside table and calling for a nurse.

 

Xicammar, the Xicavvar Concordium – 7th January 2001 (Earth Date)

The citizens of Xicammar had often complained about their comparative isolation, compared to the economically and politically privileged elite on the core worlds.  Out on the fringes of Xicavvar space, close to Haamarii territory, they tended to be forgotten and ignored on many issues.

Of course, as the world farthest from the Talluran-Xicavvar demilitarised zone, that might not be a bad thing right now.  The general consensus was that the mammals would strike back to some extent.  Perhaps not a full-scale invasion, given the likelihood of a Zaharte response, but it probably wasn’t a good time to live on one of the three minor colonies.  In any case, the planet was reasonably well protected against any sort of limited raid.  The High Council might neglect Xicammar from time to time, but even they couldn’t ignore its key importance as a ship-manufacturing and warrior-breeding world.

 

The Talluran strike fleet exited hyperspace early in the morning, just as a work-cycle was beginning on the planet and its orbital manufacturing facilities.  As Xicammar was the biggest target, the Imperial Fleet had also amassed the largest and most powerful force at this point.  The Xicavvar had eight War Cruisers and twice as many smaller vessels, backed up by a reasonably potent orbital defence system.  Against that, they faced no fewer than four of the massive Talluran Battleships and sixteen Heavy Cruisers.  It didn’t even approximate a fair fight.

Despite their obvious shortcomings in numbers and firepower, the Xicavvar warships nevertheless bravely moved out to meet the attackers, only for the Battleships to use their long-range weaponry to devastating effect, demolishing half the opposing force before they were even within range.  The disorganised survivors continued to bear down on the Tallurans, only to be shot to pieces in a storm of missiles and energy weapons fire.  In a matter of minutes, with only superficial damage to a few vessels, the Imperial Fleet ships had annihilated the opposition.  Then, still using their superior range, the Battleships systematically knocked down the orbital defence platforms one at a time, stripping away the Xicavvar second line of defence.

Utterly unopposed, the Tallurans then proceeded to knock down every orbital facility and satellite, before softening up the atmospheric defences and releasing a swarm of fighters to go after point targets on the surface.  At the same time, the Battleships and Heavy Cruisers shifted their fire to every military base and communications and transport hub on the surface, then moved on to industrial targets.

Fifty-eight minutes later, the seemingly untouchable Talluran armada re-entered hyperspace, en route to the closest of the smaller colonies, the others already receiving personal attention from other strike fleets.  What they left behind was the stuff of Drayana’s worst nightmares, with a planet effectively blasted from space-faring race to a pre-industrial economy, and suffering casualties to match.

 

Drayana’s Room, Medical Clinic, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 7th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“The resilience of youth...” Admiral Severan breathed, as she escaped from the Empress’s room and an unwelcome taste of Imperial ire.

Judging by the roasting she’d just received, Drayana was once more fully fit and healthy – and certainly not happy to be detained at the Imperial Physician’s convenience for another day of tests.

“I believe the Empress is not in a good mood,” Marcius Restiniar agreed heavily.

Severan shook her head sarcastically. “ “Not in a good mood”?  The Security Bureau never ceases to amaze me with its insights...  She threatened to put you in charge of Traffic Control for the city, Marcius.”

Drayana had taken Severan, Restiniar, and General Piretus ruthlessly to task for their continued inter-service bickering and failure to coordinate their actions, a failure which had already led to unfavourable comment from several key Proconsuls.  It was a timely reminder that the Empress had no time for incompetence or private empire-building.  She’d forcefully reminded them that there were plenty of people who could do their jobs – and an equal number of examples from the previous regime who’d been fired for failing to do so.

The Empress clearly held their respective intelligence divisions at fault, for failing to provide early warning of Xicavvar intentions towards Thenatrix.  Now she expected the trio to speedily identify and deal with those responsible.

“And I suppose you would enjoy commanding a Frontiers and Customs Patrol Cruiser, Admiral?” Restiniar shot back, reminding the Imperial Guard commander that he wasn’t the only one who’d been threatened.

“Youthful enthusiasm,” the Security Bureau supremo opined.

“Youthful impudence, more like!” Piretus growled. “There is not a mother on Tallura Prime with a daughter of that age, who would not severely warm the brat’s rear for such impertinence.”

Severan chuckled. “Having spent more time around the palace than either of you, I can assure you that Livia has shown herself more than capable of that - and on numerous occasions.”

“She fired me, Octavia,” the General shook his head, still unable to believe his ears.

“She retired you, Flaviar,” the Admiral corrected. “And not for another year.  Which, considering that you reached mandatory retirement age eight years ago and have been hiding the fact ever since, does not exactly constitute a firing...”

Piretus sighed. “The problem is, that young scamp is perfectly correct.  My understanding of political necessity lags far behind my knowledge of military strategy and tactics – and it is too late to change my ways now.  As for the bureaucratic manoeuvrings of my staff?  I should have been paying more attention.  And the commander of my Intelligence Staff will be commanding some early-warning station on an asteroid by the end of the day.”

Admittedly, retirement on some distant colony world was no longer as unattractive as it might once have seemed.  The General missed the days when he could concentrate on leading Imperial Defence Force troops in person.  The battles fought over a conference table were simply not to his taste.

“In any case, we have our orders.  Cooperate – or she’ll find a team who will,” Severan reminded them grimly, as a young Imperial Guard Decurion came around the corner.

“Can we help you, Decurion?” the Admiral asked.

“Decurion Ephichara Aquiliani, Imperial Guard Protective Division,” she saluted smartly in the presence of a very senior officer.

“Yes, I believe the Empress is waiting to speak with you...  A little matter of almost allowing her favourite Terran guest to be eaten by a Ch’Hanis,” Piretus teased – he still enjoyed making junior soldiers squirm.

“I believe that the Imperial Guard abolished the lash about twelve-hundred years ago.  Judging by Her Excellency’s mood, however, I would not be so sure that she does not intend to reintroduce it,” he added mischievously.

Severan frowned. “That will be enough of that, General.  The Decurion was also partially responsible for saving Her Excellency from a sniper.  That at least must count for something in her favour.”   

The General shrugged. “Your flogging may be halved as a result...”

“Ignore him, Decurion.  It may well be that she simply wishes to thank you for saving her life,” Severan suggested.

Aquiliani had her doubts.  If that had been the case, Diana Prince would also have been invited, especially since she’d been responsible both for shooting Acamos Tren and catching enough of the elusive Karax to produce an effective counter-agent.

No, she decided gloomily.  At best, she’d come out of the Empress’s room reduced to the ranks.

 

Propped up on numerous pillows, Drayana was at her most formidable.  For a few minutes, she said absolutely nothing to Aquiliani, simply transfixing the nervous Decurion with a searching stare.

“I personally entrusted you with a very special duty, Decurion Aquiliani.  Was I wrong in this matter?” the Empress asked quietly, with none of the deliberate histrionics she’d employed against Severan and the others only minutes earlier.

“I can only apologise, Your Excellency,” Aquiliani inwardly wriggled with embarrassment.

“I can understand your reasoning, Decurion.  Dawn would probably have felt uncomfortable, had you followed her to the restroom.  Furthermore, I have visited Aelina’s Tavern on numerous occasions, without a guard accompanying me to the facilities,” the Empress allowed.

She frowned, tone disappointed. “Nevertheless, unlike myself, our visitors are unfamiliar with the city.  So, in spite of any grumblings she may have had, you should have followed Dawn.”

“Yes, Your Excellency,” the Imperial Guard acknowledged guiltily.

“I am prepared to overlook it on this occasion, as your conduct before – and especially since - has been nothing short of exemplary.  Particularly the part where you helped to save my life,” Drayana pointed out.

She paused. “A Note of Censure will, nonetheless, be recorded on your personnel file.”

Aquiliani knew it could have been much worse, but a personal reprimand from the Empress might have a serious impact when it came to promotion.

“And if such a lapse in judgement should happen again, I just might have you taken out and shot...” the Empress paused.

“Or – since I am not allowed to do that - at the very least, reduced to the lowest ranks and placed on latrine duty for a year.”

“I can assure Your Excellency...” Aquiliani began.

“I have not finished yet, Centurion-Quintus Aquiliani...” Drayana mock-frowned.

The Imperial Guard’s jaw dropped in surprise.  Unless the Empress was delirious, she’d just been promoted to Centurion Fifth - the most junior officer level - more than wiping out the Imperial Note of Censure.

“Do you think I am so mean-spirited that I would not reward someone who helped to save my life, Centurion?” the Empress asked in amusement.

“You have my eternal thanks,” she assured the newly promoted Imperial Guard.

Aquiliani hesitated. “It was Diana who actually detected and shot the assassin.  I was merely there...”

“If you had not been “merely there”, it is most likely that Diana would not have been, either.  She does not know this city, or our security patterns, or how The Address impacts upon the wider city.  Do not underestimate your own role, Centurion.  Else I will be genuinely angry...” Drayana responded.

“And I have not yet finished with either you, or Diana Prince, in this matter.  She, too, will receive a well-earned reward,” she continued, beckoning to the Centurion and kissing her affectionately on the cheek. 

 

Basement Storage, Yaherin Var University Museum, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 8th January 2001

The immense basement of the museum was a treasure-trove of both art and objects of every description, many of the latter non-Talluran in origin.  A few artefacts had been identified as Ancient in origin.  Often the Alteran cast-offs were either broken, or a mystery to those who were trying to unravel their functions.  Broken or not, it was all of intense interest to Joyce – even if the Furling city was still hard to top.  Given her druthers, she’d still prefer to be exploring that amazing place, but at least they’d been promised a somewhat longer visit than the mere taster Myrnn had offered three days previously.

She’d taken time off putting her exhibition together, to help Academist Sulla catalogue a large consignment of artefacts recovered from an archaeological dig, the off-world location of which was, however, highly classified.  She found that slightly puzzling, but no doubt the Tallurans had a good reason.  In any case, it was very difficult to categorise and catalogue objects when you hadn’t the faintest idea of their purpose.  For that reason, Joyce was concentrating on the almost-familiar art objects, also recovered from the same location.

“Joyce?  Would you step over here for a moment?” Sulla called from the middle of a cluster of Talluran academics, each pontificating excitedly on yet another discovery.

Surely they couldn’t want her opinion, she thought in puzzlement.  In here, comparatively speaking at least, she was the expert on Terran history and civilization – and that was as far as her supposed expertise could be stretched.

The object in question was an angular chair, made out of various metallic substances and without the slightest trace of padding.  It was also attached to a power source, though none of its light-emitting panels were currently  illuminated.  Clearly, the chair had some specific function, other than merely sitting.

“Would you mind sitting here for a moment?” Sulla wanted to prove a theory of his own.

“Don’t I get a last meal before you flip the switch?” Joyce quipped nervously.

“Sorry...  I do not understand...” the Academist replied in puzzled tones.

“In my country, one of the means of executing prisoners is the electric chair.  The condemned person is strapped in and an electric current passed through their body.  It is falling out of use, however...” Joyce explained.

One of the other Academists shook his head. “I am glad to hear it.  It sounds most cruel and barbaric...”

“I’d agree with you one hundred percent.  On the other hand, we don’t eviscerate those accused of treason, either,” Joyce pointed out, a few of the Tallurans shuffling uncomfortably.

“So you just want me to sit down?  Nothing else?” she added.

“Clear your mind as far as possible,” Sulla suggested.

No sooner had Joyce taken her place in the chair, than it abruptly tilted back and the various panels lit up.

“Oops!  What did I do?” she yelped anxiously.

“You may just have proved my theory, Joyce,” Sulla smiled.

“By itself, this proves nothing,” one of his colleagues objected.

Sulla shrugged. “We can test all of the Terrans.  If my theory is correct, the chair should not activate for any of them – except perhaps young Dawn, on account of family similarities.  Doctor Lam is upstairs in the museum.  Could someone fetch her?”

The psychiatrist was duly summoned and ushered into the chair, which failed to activate this time.  Joyce was again invited to take her place, with the same results as before.

“What exactly are you trying to prove?” Lam enquired, her scientific curiosity kicking in.

“I believe that some of the more sensitive Alteran technology can only be activated by the presence of Alteran DNA.  The chair works for us – Tallurans were Alterans, just with a somewhat independent streak, after all – but it should not work for a Terran,” Sulla pointed out.

“Last time I checked?  I was just as Terran as Carolyn,” Joyce responded.

Sulla shook his head. “But we believe that Alterans integrated into many of your ancient civilizations and interbred with your people.  Physiologically, there would seem to be no reason why not.  It also stands to reason that there would now only be a handful of your people with Alteran DNA of sufficient strength to activate this technology.”

“But I was the first Terran who tried it!” Joyce objected.

The Academist shrugged. “A huge coincidence, nothing more.  Given your small numbers, my theory might equally have remained unproven.”

“So what’s the purpose of this chair?” Lam asked, now clearly intrigued, even if she apparently wasn’t an heir to the Ancients.

“We believe it is a control device, either for navigation or weapons targeting,” Sulla explained.

Joyce didn’t like the sound of that. “Uh, weapons?”

Sulla dismissed her concern with a wave of his hand. “The chair is not connected to anything, except a power source.”

“Can I get up now?” Joyce asked hopefully.

“No!” Sulla and Lam replied together.

The Academist looked her up and down for a moment. “If I am correct, whether or not you can perform the next part will depend on the strength of your Alteran DNA markers.  Blood, hair and skin cell tests on all of your party should also help to confirm my theory.”

“Really?” Joyce quirked a remarkably Cordelia-like eyebrow at him, not entirely sure she wanted to be a guinea-pig.

Sulla, however, was in full scientific flow. “How familiar are you with the geography of our solar system?”

“I’m not exactly an astronomer, but I know the number of planets, relative positions, the type of world – that sort of thing...” his subject replied, not sure where this was leading.

Joyce had spent some time with Dawn, helping her with a homework assignment on the Talluran system.  The assignment had included studying numerous images of the various worlds.  She knew Tallura Prime was the fourth world from its star, how many moons the planet had in orbit, how many gas giants in the system versus other types of world, and so forth, though she’d still be hard-pushed to remember the names of each planet.

“Just close your eyes, relax and try to visualise Tallura Prime and its place within the solar system,” Sulla urged.

At first nothing happened, but at the Academist’s urging, Joyce persisted for a few minutes.  All at once, a slight tingly feeling surged through her body, and a full 360-degree view of the solar materialised above the chair

“Was that really me?” Joyce asked in wonderment.

The strange device, she realised nervously, must be able to somehow read her mind.

“You are the only one sitting in the chair,” Sulla pointed out, with a chuckle.

“We will have to repeat this a few times to be sure, of course.  Also with each of your party in the coming days.  Statistically, it is unlikely that any of the others carry the gene in sufficient strength to make this happen, but I must be sure,” the old Academist toyed with his white beard, clearly delighted at this outcome.

Another Academist piped up. “I am no expert in such things – and Academist Sulla’s theory requires further evidence – but it would seem to me that you must have inherited a particularly strong strain of Alteran genes, perhaps from both sides of your family.”

A still-shocked Joyce glanced up at the beautiful tableau of the local solar system she’d somehow conjured up.  After this, returning to life as an art dealer would never be quite the same, she reflected.

 

Ambassadorial Reception Room, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 8th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Drayana had expected a visit, or at least a protest note, from the Zaharte Alliance the previous day.  In the past, the Xicavvar’s allies had been quick to leap to their defence, making their position absolutely clear.  This time, for reasons best known to themselves, they’d allowed the Imperial Fleet to pound the Xicavvar into submission for a full day.  The Empress could only assume that the Zaharte were making a point about their allies embarking on dangerous  military adventures, without full consultation, and reminding them who the senior member of the alliance actually was.

Of course, it was impossible to be sure when dealing with the Zaharte.  Their diplomacy could be very direct in a crisis, but at other times they were inscrutable to the point of isolationist.  Typically, their Ambassadors – the only representatives of their species who ever ventured into neighbouring powers’ space – wore a full length, hooded cloak, with only their luminous green eyes and a breather visible.  No one could even say for sure what they looked like, as none had ever been taken prisoner during a skirmish.  Zaharte ships always self-destructed when they were on the losing end of a battle and their individual soldiers likewise carried a small demolition charge, which exploded if they were killed or captured in battle.

Nor did they engage in any trade whatsoever with the surrounding powers, so the Zaharte were never encountered by civilians.  All that could be deduced from battle remains was that they were vaguely humanoid, similar in height to Tallurans, but with much more spindly bodies and limbs.  It wasn’t even clear whether they were mammalian, reptilian, or something else, though it was known that they weren’t oxygen-breathing.

Information about their society was equally sketchy.  Intelligence services estimated that they were roughly equivalent to the Ch’Hanis and Tallurans in technological capability and military power, though their form of government also remained a mystery.

“The Zaharte Alliance must protest this war of aggression against our allies in the strongest possible terms.  If you do not cease and desist, the consequences will be most severe,” the Ambassador, voice clearly generated by artificial means and distorted by the breather-system, obviously wasn’t in the mood for diplomatic pleasantries.

“Our actions are a measured and direct response to the Xicavvar attack on Thenatrix and its colonies,” Drayana replied flatly.

The last thing she wanted was a war with a major power, but the Talluran Empire would not be brow-beaten by anyone.  The bulk of the Imperial Fleet’s operations within Xicavvar space had already been completed, freeing up a powerful force which could easily strike deep into Zaharte territory if the Empire was threatened.  And the Ambassador had to know that.

“Thenatrix was the result of action by a rogue general and mercenary troops, for which the Xicavvar government cannot be held responsible,” the Zaharte responded in the same flat tones.

The electronic translator and breather unfortunately meant that speech was delivered without inflection, making it hard to read what the Ambassador was actually thinking.

The Empress deliberately snorted contemptuously. “As you and your government well know, the Xicavvar do not have mercenaries.  Their soldiers are all entirely bred to serve the government.  “Mercenary” is merely a cover for those involved in deniable operations.  I also refuse to believe that a senior officer, such as General Zkaritz, could act without the knowledge of his superiors – especially since he allegedly appropriated a large number of their most powerful warships.”

She handed over a data pad. “This is a message intercepted by our intelligence services, concerning Zkaritz’s actions.  It clearly shows that his government were quite aware of his intentions, willing to turn a blind eye.  And most interestingly, depending on your support to prevent retaliation.”

The Zaharte balanced the pad in his gloved hand. “Our specialists will have to verify the reliability and origins of this message.  We do, however, have certain indications of our own that the Xicavvar may not have been entirely open in their dealings with us...”

That admission had to hurt, Drayana decided.  The Zaharte were in a tricky position.  Right now, they only had one ally of any significance.  The Xicavvar Concordium was a useful buffer between them and the Talluran Empire and if the former collapsed, they’d be left utterly isolated.  Conversely, the Zaharte could not allow themselves to be manipulated by a weaker partner, nor make it appear as though they were.

“If this intelligence should prove to be correct, the Zaharte Alliance will accept your current operations as a legitimate response to an act of aggression.  We cannot, however, countenance any action which threatens the Xicavvar home system, nor the forces currently concentrated there,” the Ambassador offered slowly.

That was all Drayana needed to hear.  The sneaky little insectoids had both outmanoeuvred themselves and put their allies in a very difficult position.  With the Imperial Fleet having achieved all its objectives except one – which would be secured very shortly – it would be a long time before the Xicavvar were in a position to pose any kind of a problem.  Even better, since the Zaharte could not allow their ally to collapse completely, they’d ultimately be forced to assume the burden of helping with reconstruction.

“We have no such intentions, Ambassador,” Drayana assured him. “I would say that by the time you return to the Embassy, our forces will have liberated Aqqabaz from the Xicavvar.  That, however, is the Imperial Fleet’s final objective.”

“We did not concur in the invasion and occupation of Aqqabaz, so any move towards its liberation is of no interest to us,” the Zaharte responded.

“In that case, we can conclude this meeting without any undue threats and counter-threats,” Drayana smiled, effectively ending the meeting.

The Ambassador bobbed his head and was escorted from the room by an Imperial Guard. 

Gulping down a glass of water, Drayana checked her schedule.  One Ambassador down, many still to see.  The next two were the N’Gluk Alliance and Triannite Kingdom, staunch allies of the Tallurans – indeed, their ships were currently on alert, in case this confrontation with the Xicavvar escalated into a wider conflict – but also sometimes harder to deal with than her enemies.  It was, she decided, going to be an exceedingly long and tedious day of diplomatic manoeuvring.    

 

Ambassadorial Reception Room, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 8th January 2001 (Earth Date)

The Empress was both well-trained and courageous, the Ch’Hanis Ambassador acknowledged.  Most species, Tallurans included, couldn’t hide at least a trace of fear when they met his kind.  Drayana’s eyes, however, didn’t even flicker, nor did she try to hide behind her guards.  For someone who had been on the brink of death only a few days previously, she was also a picture of rude health.  Indeed, the expression on her face could only be described as frighteningly resolute – as befitted a leader who was currently at war.

He wasn’t going to make the grave mistake of underestimating the Talluran Empress.  Drayana’s training and intelligence more than made up for her extreme youth and lack of experience.  The Xicavvar Concordium was learning that hard lesson right now, at the unforgiving hands of the Talluran Imperial Fleet.  Thus far, the Empress’s powerful forces seemed to be pursuing a limited strategy, aimed at merely neutralising the insectoids as a meaningful power in the region, rather than destroying or subjugating them completely.

The Ambassador grunted to himself.  On his world, insects were swatted or crushed underfoot.  The strategy made sense, nonetheless.  Destroying the Xicavvar beyond hope of recovery would antagonise their allies within the Zaharte Alliance, removing a buffer zone between them and the Tallurans.  A Zaharte-Talluran confrontation would be one between states of approximately equal power, a somewhat different matter from the punitive exercise Drayana was currently mounting against the Xicavvar.  The Ch’Hanis suspected that the only reason the Zaharte hadn’t made any public statement in support of their allies was the relative restraint shown by the Tallurans.  He could also only suppose that Talluran intelligence hadn’t been able to establish an obvious link between the attempted assassination and the Xicavvar, else the latter’s home planet would be a radioactive ball of lifeless rock by now, in spite of the risk of wider war.

In any case, it was time to get down to the usual hypocritical pleasantries.  Both sides wanted something and it was his duty to make sure the Ch’Hanis came out of this to their advantage, while giving away nothing of value.

“The Ch’Hanis Freehold must protest the deaths of two of our citizens, in the strongest possible terms,” the Ambassador opened with a comparatively unimportant issue – his government didn’t actually care one whit that two idiot criminals had been killed on Tallura Prime.

It was Mettius Bruccian, the Proconsul for Alien Affairs, who responded.  The Empress only watched and listened carefully, clearly waiting for the right moment to speak.

“Then I suggest that your citizens refrain from abusing the trading privileges they enjoy on this world.  Your people were attempting to abduct a child and murder an old man.  They may also have been engaged in illegal smuggling activities,” the Proconsul returned smoothly.

“And on the subject of smuggling and piracy, the Talluran Empire notes your government’s continued failure to control such elements.  Or perhaps it is simply benign neglect...  We particularly note the presence of an entire pirate fleet in the Thenatrix system, under the command of an individual known as Carthug.  He and his followers have, of course, been dealt with appropriately,” Bruccian moved onto the attack.

The Ch’Hanis stored that welcome piece of information away for future reference.  Pirates such as Carthug were as great a problem within the Freehold, as they were to the surrounding powers.  They robbed, killed and enslaved other Ch’Hanis with equal alacrity.  Which wasn’t really surprising, given that his people had routinely been eating each other only a few generations previously.

“I can assure you that Ch’Hanis Freehold is doing everything possible to stamp out this plague of pirates,” the Ambassador responded. “Though we thank you for dealing with a particularly unpleasant representative of his type.”

He cleared his throat,  snake-like tongue flickering in and out. “The Freehold also wishes to communicate our deep concern at continuing hostilities between the Xicavvar Concordium and Talluran Empire, especially given the ramifications for wider security in this area...”

The Empress suppressed an ironic chuckle and decided it was time to add her own contribution.

“Surely a conflict between the Talluran Empire and the Xicavvar – and potentially the Zaharte, if it escalates – would be welcome news to the Ch’Hanis,” Drayana rose from her chair and slowly, deliberately began to pace to-and-fro.

“The Freehold always encourages and welcomes peaceful...” the reptilian began, warily eyeing the sword hanging from her belt, recent events having demonstrated that it was not just an affectation.

The Empress threw herself up to her full height and tossed her long black hair impatiently.

“I would prefer if we did not spend the next hour exchanging platitudes.  We both know that our peoples are not friends – nor likely to be such for the foreseeable future – but that does not mean we cannot have a full and frank discussion,” Drayana told him bluntly.

The Proconsul winced inwardly.  There were times when the Empress was as subtle as a fusion bomb.  Fortunately, the Ch’Hanis were a species which also appreciated a forthright approach.

“And what exactly do you have in mind, Empress?” the Ambassador chuckled appreciatively.

“Some small effort on both our parts to reduce the tensions between our respective species,” Drayana replied evenly.

She had to be careful here.  Offering too much was a sign of weakness, but a genuine effort on both their parts – if the Ch’Hanis were capable of such a thing – could benefit both, especially at a very tense moment.

The reptilian’s red eyes narrowed. “If I were being cynical, I would suggest that you were speaking as a leader who is desperate to alleviate pressure elsewhere on her frontiers.”

Drayana tilted her head to one side. “And if I were as cynical as you, I would say that you cannot afford not to talk with us.  Especially with sixty-five percent of your forces concentrated on the Zaharte frontier, relations with the Alliance at their lowest point in a century, and your generals unable to move any reinforcements from elsewhere.”

At that moment, the Ambassador desperately wanted to eat the youngster.  Preferably alive and screaming.  The fact was, the Ch’Hanis Freehold was feeling less than secure at present.  And this precocious child, thanks to her intelligence services, knew it.

“Your rearmament plan does not seem to support any moves towards reducing tensions,” the Ch’Hanis equivocated.

“Your fleet is substantially larger than ours,” the Empress retorted.

The reptilian had recently seen a classified report, suggesting that the Freehold’s fleets were less impressive than might appear to an outsider.  A numerical advantage over the Zaharte – so far as he was aware – and the Tallurans did not necessarily translate into a qualitative one.  The Tallurans, especially, were better-trained and led the way in several key technological areas, advantages which also pertained to a lesser extent with the Zaharte.  Furthermore, the Talluran economy would barely notice a military build-up on the scale proposed by Drayana – or even an order of magnitude greater – but the Ch’Hanis were feeling the strain economically.

Not that they were sufficiently weak that a war with either of the opposing powers wouldn’t be a disaster for all concerned, but the Ambassador couldn’t afford not to grasp at this lifeline.  Compared to the somewhat insular Regency which had preceded Drayana, the current Talluran leadership might be quick to respond to any provocation, but it wasn’t expansionist.  The same couldn’t necessarily be said for the Zaharte.  Certainly, the general consensus of opinion right now was that the Zaharte, not the Tallurans, constituted the greatest threat.  But would his people appear weak if he accepted her offer, whatever it was?  If he miscalculated, the Ambassador’s leaders would probably – and quite literally - skin him alive.

The Ch’Hanis nodded slowly. “You had a proposal?”

“Certainly,” Drayana gestured to the Proconsul, who activated a three-dimensional holo-display.

“Some of our latest disagreements centre on these worlds, which we have both surveyed for future colonisation,” the mineral-rich planets in question, two at one end of Ch’Hanis-Talluran frontier space and one at the other, flashed.

The Empress pointed to the planets. “These two are closer to your vital interests, so we are prepared to cede them, in return for the Freehold recognising our claim to this one, which is in a strategically important position to the Empire.”

It also helped that the single world she was currently eyeing had significantly greater potential than the other two combined, of course.

Drayana highlighted two other frontier regions. “We could also mutually withdraw a proportion of our forces from these areas and negotiate a demilitarised strip.  The area in question is of limited importance to either of us – but it is also the region where our forces are in closest proximity.  As you will no doubt agree, that is not a desirable situation.”

“Your suggestion has merit, though I am not empowered to make such an agreement without the support of the Freehold.  I can, however, pass along a favourable recommendation,” the Ch’Hanis acknowledged.

Drayana nodded. “Likewise, I have to ratify any such treaties with the Consular Houses.  But I would add another offer.  Namely, to increase the levels of commercial access for your traders, to the maximum currently allowed by existing treaties.  And to examine where said treaties could perhaps be improved...”

“And for this?” the Ch’Hanis ventured warily.

“We would expect your military to make genuine efforts at resolving our mutual piracy problem – even if this involves coordinating action on both sides of the frontier,” the Empress proposed.

She could just imagine General Piretus and Admiral Severan gnashing their teeth at that suggestion, but the military was an instrument of policy, not vice-versa.

It was all so easy, The Empress told herself, if only the politicians on both sides would accept the agreement.  Admittedly, Drayana found it rather stomach-churning to negotiate with a species which regarded every other intelligence form of life in the galactic neighbourhood as a potential foodstuff.  And which, moreover, had already chewed its way through several unfortunate species.  On the other hand, there were plenty of senior military officers on her own side who, if allowed off the leash, would hit anything that didn’t look Talluran.  Anyhow, even if an agreement with the Ch’Hanis only bought a limited period of time, it would allow her to put her rearmament plans into effect.

“Our leaders would require more detailed proposals and guarantees...” the Ch’Hanis wavered.

The Empress really smelled quite delectable, so much so that he could almost taste the tender flesh.  And no doubt feel her sword slicing through his neck the moment he bared his teeth, the Ambassador reminded himself grimly.

“As would our Consular Houses,” Bruccian acknowledged. “Perhaps together we can produce some proposals?”

That was the main reason the Proconsul for Alien Affairs was present, Drayana admitted to herself.  She’d had her fill of diplomacy for the day, to the extent that her head was beginning to throb from all the strategic calculations she’d been making.  If that was the price of avoiding a war, however, so be it.

 

Outside the Ambassadorial Reception Room, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 8th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Aside from a short time by her friend’s bedside two days previously, Dawn hadn’t spent any time with Drayana for the best part of a week.  She’d been missing the Empress’s company and was pleased that the older girl had found some time in her busy schedule for her guest.

An Imperial Guard stopped her at the door to the official Reception Room. “Her Excellency is meeting with an Ambassador right now, but if you would like to sit down, she should not be too long.”

The guard was now quite accustomed to seeing the lively young Terran wandering around.  She had the run of much of the palace and, when outside, a security detail better than most dignitaries on Tallura Prime.  He didn’t know why she and her family had been granted temporary refuge on the planet, especially under the personnel protection of the Empress herself, or why the Asgard were involved.  It didn’t matter, however.  He hadn’t seen Drayana so happy in a long time and it was a pity that her surrogate little sister couldn’t stay for much longer.

Dawn smiled at him and bounced up onto one of the chairs lining the wall of the corridor.

At that moment, the door opened and the Ch’Hanis Ambassador emerged, together with the Proconsul for Alien Affairs.  The reptilian briefly turned his head and looked curiously at Dawn, then walked on.  Suddenly remembering the attack and her close-call with death or slavery, the youngster froze in horror for a moment.  To her mind, the Ch’Hanis was sizing her up for a meal and, admittedly, the alien’s natural expression did nothing to allay that impression.

“Is something the matter?” the guard asked in worried tones, as Dawn seemed to shrink into her seat, breathing hard and shaking.

“Why – why is there one of those - those things in the palace?” she gasped out, wishing she had her Zat, or maybe a pistol, for protection.

The guard crouched down beside her, tones gentle. “That was just the Ch’Hanis Ambassador, visiting the Empress.  He will not harm you – nothing will be allowed to harm you here.”

He recalled that the young Terran had very recently had a close-call with two of the reptilians.  It was scarcely any wonder she was terrified out of her wits.  If the guard had his way, a species that regarded his own kind – and obviously Terrans – as a tasty delicacy wouldn’t be allowed within light years of Talluran space.

A quivering Dawn’s rational side tried to tell her that a single, unarmed Ch’Hanis would be no match for the huge, heavily-armed Imperial Guard who was now trying to reassure her.  Nor the others who were positioned nearby.  A human’s primal fear of predatory species was, however, telling her something else.

The door opened once more, Drayana herself emerging this time, grateful that the day’s intensive diplomatic manoeuvring was over.  She stopped in her tracks almost immediately.

“What is the matter, Dawn?” the Empress asked anxiously.

“You had one of these – these...” Dawn searched for the word.

“Ch’Hanis,” the guard supplied helpfully.

Drayana nodded. “Yes, their Ambassador.  We had some things to talk about...”

Dawn looked at her in horror, voice rising in both volume and pitch. “You talk to them?  They eat people!  They tried to eat me!”

The youngster jumped off the chair and ran off down the corridor sobbing, wondering how her friend could have betrayed her in such a way.

The Empress was puzzled at first, then she suddenly recognised the cause of her friend’s distress.  Cursing herself silently in terms she wouldn’t have dared say in front of Livia, Drayana realised that she should have arranged to meet Dawn elsewhere.  Somewhere she wouldn’t unexpectedly come face to face with a Ch’Hanis.

There was obviously a greater difference between them than she’d previously appreciated.  Drayana had trained for her role for as long as she could remember.  The need for diplomacy was deeply ingrained in her, no matter how disagreeable the task.  Explaining that to a twelve-year-old, with no experience of political necessity, might not be the easiest thing.  Given time, Dawn might understand, but this had been a shock to the young Terran, and no doubt she’d feel let down.

Drayana herself was still badly shaken by the near-successful attempt on her own life, though she’d never admit that to anyone except her Guardian.  The previous evening, the Empress of ten major worlds and a dozen colonies had awakened screaming, and cried herself back to sleep in Livia’s comforting arms.  It stood to reason that Dawn was almost certainly experiencing similar problems, after the Ch’Hanis attack.

“Should I go after her?” Drayana tentatively asked the guard, unsure of what to do next.

“It might be the best way, but I am no expert in such things, Excellency,” the guard replied uncertainly.

Calling herself every kind of idiot in the Talluran language, the Empress followed her friend down the carpeted passageway, albeit at a more sedate pace.

 

Imperial Palace Guest Apartments, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 8th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Halfway through preparing dinner, Joyce hadn’t expected to find herself half-strangled by a wet bundle of fear and misery.  At the back of her mind, she’d been aware that something like this would happen sooner or later.  Dawn and Drayana might get on extremely well, but they came from very different worlds and, in most respects, levels of maturity.  Her own daughter had simply panicked, which was understandable, given that it was less than two weeks since she’d been attacked by the terrifying flesh-eating aliens.  In a rational frame of mind, Dawn was intelligent enough to understand the basics of diplomatic necessity, but not when she was frightened.  When that happened, there were two results.  Sunnydale fight or flight would kick in, then afterwards Dawn would revert to scared little girl mode.

“Why would Drayana want to have anything to do with horrible things like that?  I thought she was my friend!” the youngster sniffled, resting her head on her mother’s shoulder.

Joyce smoothed some stray strands of hair out of her daughter’s eyes. “I don’t think she “wants” to, honey...”

“Then why do it?” Dawn demanded.

“People who lead countries, or planets – or whole empires, like Drayana – sometimes have to talk to people they don’t like.  Our own country, back home, has some not-so-nice allies.  But we still have might have to cooperate with them, if we have the same important interests...  It’s all part of diplomacy,” her mother replied awkwardly.

Dawn shook her head. “What interests could Drayana have that are the same as the Charnosaurs?”

Joyce laughed softly at the Buffy-esque mangling of the name. “Ch’Hanis, darling...”

“I think mine sounds better,” the youngest Summers huffed.

Her mother grew more serious. “The Empress and the Ch’Hanis are both probably interested in avoiding a war, honey.  Talking is better than killing each other, even if the Tallurans and Ch’Hanis can’t be real friends right now.”

There was a few minutes’ silence, while Dawn switched to logical mode rather than basic scream and run, and processed her mother’s elementary guide to diplomacy.

“I guess,” Dawn sighed. “D’you think she’ll be mad at me for running away like that?  Bet she thinks I’m just a scared little kid...”

Joyce refrained from confirming that analysis.  By any measure, her daughter had a right to be frightened – and of much more than marauding Ch’Hanis.  She’d been targeted by vampires before now, the last one being Harmony, to the latter’s permanent misfortune.  Then there was also a Hell Goddess who’d eat Ch’Hanis for breakfast – probably by the score.  But there would definitely be nightmares tonight, Joyce predicted glumly.

Her daughters, all three of them, had more nightmares than it was fair to ask anyone to endure.  And knowing the truth about demons and vampires, not to mention the nature of Buffy and Cordelia’s Calling, was also enough to give their mother more than her fair share of sleepless nights.

“I’m sure she’ll understand completely, dear,” she replied.

Someone abruptly knocked softly on the door.

“May I come in?” Drayana asked hesitantly, as Joyce opened the door.

The Empress felt unaccountably afraid that her young friend would reject her out of hand, before she had a chance to explain.

“Certainly,” Joyce replied, relieved that Drayana hadn’t left things to fester.

“I’ll just leave you two for a while,” she added, heading for the kitchen.

“Sorry I wigged out on you,” Dawn offered uncomfortably, as the Empress sat down awkwardly beside her.

Drayana shook her head. “It is I who must apologise.  I should not have put you in a position where you would encounter a Ch’Hanis without warning – certainly not so soon after you were attacked.”

“Mom told me that you probably didn’t really want him here, but it was all diplomacy,” Dawn allowed.

The Empress nodded, an expression of distaste on her face. “There are many alien species I must talk with from time to time.  In outlook, many are quite unpleasant in their own ways – though few regard us as foodstuffs in quite the same way as the Ch’Hanis.

“But with the security of billions of Tallurans in my hands, I must sometimes wear an insincere smile and talk softly.  When all I really want to do is send the Imperial Fleet to their world...” she admitted.

Dawn shivered. “I don’t know how you do it, Drayana.  These things are too scary, like vampires on my world.  And I’d be peeing my panties too much to talk to them!”

The Empress reminded herself that her friend/substitute sister came from a world that was infested with horrors the Tallurans were ill-equipped to deal with, but which were also fortuitously comparatively rare in the Vedda Galaxy.

Drayana smiled and tapped the hilt of her sword. “I am never totally defenceless.  It also helps enormously to have a pair of Imperial Guards standing behind me , glaring at everyone who comes to visit – regardless of who he is.”

“They don’t glare at me,” the youngest Summers allowed herself a laugh. “Except when I get under their feet.  Then it isn’t so much a glare, as...”

“As a look of weary resignation?  I attract the same, especially on Centurion Vesarian,” Drayana confessed.

The Empress shuffled her feet uncomfortably. “Are we still friends?  I promise that I will try not to expose you to my less-pleasant alien visitors in future...”

“And I promise that I won’t run away, sniffling like a little kid,” Dawn offered.

When Joyce emerged from the kitchen a few minutes later, the two friends were locked in a slightly tearful hug.  It had been a traumatic few weeks for them both.  Dawn seemed to have a permanent target painted on her and Joyce wondered if that would ever change, given who her sisters were and where they lived.  Perhaps things might improve when they moved to Colorado.  Even Drayana, who might supposedly have all the training in the world for her role, bore the weight of an entire Empire on her head – including the very real risk of a more generalised war right now - while also still getting over the fact that some of her own people might actually want her head.  Raised to the throne or not, it was a near-intolerable weight of responsibility for a sixteen-year-old to carry.  Just like a young Slayer, in many ways.      

Joyce smiled at the scene. “Empress...”

“Drayana,” the Empress requested. “I would prefer to dispense with the formality amongst my own people, but that does not seem to be possible.  But you are my friends and would rather you used my name.”

“Okay, Drayana...  Would you and Livia like to share a meal with us tonight?” Joyce offered.

Drayana nodded enthusiastically.  After a day of talking with senior military officers, Proconsuls, and alien ambassadors, the prospect of a relaxed evening meal with Joyce and her daughter was irresistible.

“I would be delighted as, I’m sure, would Livia.  I am also certain the palace kitchen staff would appreciate a chance to go home early tonight...” the Empress responded.

She smiled almost shyly, a world away from the confident young woman who’d bewitched the cynical career politicians of the Consular Houses only a few days before.

“Would you be offended if I called you Aunt Joyce?  I have no real Aunts and...” Drayana ventured quietly.

“Honey, I’d be honoured,” Joyce assured her.
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