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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)CordyfanFR1324297,1153129462,98414 Mar 115 Nov 14No

Trials and Imperial Tribulations

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).

 

Helia Tren’s Cell, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 15th January 2001 (Earth Date)

The sun was rising over the mountains, turning the sky a beautiful crimson shade.  Standing by the window, Helia Tren wondered how many more times she’d see this.  Her trial was still two months away, but the outcome was all but certain.  And she had no one to blame but herself.

Tren had been vaguely surprised not to be locked up in some dank, long-unused dungeon, specially reserved for those who attempted regicide.  Instead, on leaving hospital, the failed assassin had been transported to the Imperial Palace and confined in a tower room, in a little-used part of the immense building.  To be honest, it didn’t look like a cell.  She couldn’t leave, of course, with a guard on permanent duty outside, a force-shield over the window, and constant remote surveillance to ensure that she didn’t try to cheat the Headsman.

The room was fully furnished, nonetheless, with a comfortable bed, a holo-projector and a range of entertainment facilities and books.  It had obviously been someone’s bedroom at one point and was beautifully decorated, with a superb view over the city.  At least some of the time, she could lose herself in music or a book, trying to forget what she’d done and her all-too-short future.  The latter tended to wake her, screaming, in the early hours of the morning.  It was perhaps the loneliness that was the worst, however.  While her guards and attendants were nothing but correct and civil in their behaviour, equally none of them wanted to talk with the traitor.  Her family were seemingly the same and had probably disowned her.

Tren was, all in all, beginning to have serious doubts about what she’d done and the sense of angry self-righteousness that had already killed her brother, ultimately herself, and no doubt heaped shame on a once- honoured family name.

Outside, the guard knocked quietly on the door.  She couldn’t complain that they weren’t treating her respectfully, she thought wryly.  No doubt, when it was time to rest her neck on the block, she’d also be invited to do so with an equal degree of civility.

“You have a visitor,” the guard told her from outside.

“Thank you.  Please let him in,” Tren guessed it was her Advocate.

She was compelled to retain one by law, even if the old fool’s well-intentioned ideas ultimately wouldn’t save her from a death sentence.

“Father!” Tren exclaimed.

To be honest, she’d never expected to see him – or any other member of her family – again.

Caelius Tren simply opened his arms and drew his daughter in close.

“Oh Helia...  Why?” he asked sadly.

“I ask myself that fifty times a day, father,” Helia admitted, shaking her head.

“And I ask you again, daughter.  I have to understand why you and Acamos acted in such a manner...” Caelius responded heavily, sitting down on a nearby couch and taking both her hands in his. 

His daughter shook her head. “Acamos and I were angry that the Empress treated you in such a dishonourable manner.  To publicly admonish and dismiss you before the Consular Houses, when she was barely on the throne.  We thought it was a shameful act by a young upstart.  That you were guilty only of a moment’s weakness.”

Caelius could scarcely believe his ears. “ “Dishonourable”?  And a “moment’s weakness”?  Helia, I had been stealing the people’s tax money for years.  It was the least her Excellency could have done to me.  I merely lost my position and was compelled to sell one of our two houses and return half of our financial holdings to the Finance Directorate.  Which still left us in a comfortable position.  The alternative could have been a trial and thirty years’ imprisonment!”

“I know that now.  In here, I have more than ample time to consider my actions and their consequences.  We acted foolishly – and it is too late to undo it now,” Helia responded quietly.

“Those consequences may be extreme for you,” her father’s voice wavered sorrowfully. “And unhappy for your mother, sister and I.”

Helia studied her feet for a moment. “How is mother?  And Thelia?”

“Your mother has had a complete psychological breakdown, Helia.  Her treatment and recovery will be a long process.  And, I am sorry to say, that your sister does not wish to see you ever again,” Caelius couldn’t think of an easier way to say it.

Helia’s shoulders slumped. “Acamos and I were too selfish, too obsessed with our ideas of revenge for a slight that never happened...  We never even considered how it might affect you.”

It could have been worse for his remaining family, Caelius considered.  Their neighbours and friends on Sanopolis hadn’t blamed the whole Tren family for the incident.  He’d expected, at the very least, that they’d be outcast from Talluran society.  Most people had, unexpectedly, been extremely supportive, unable to imagine how they’d react if two of their children suddenly turned traitor in such public and shocking circumstances.

“For now, all that matters is that you receive the best possible defence at your trial,” he told her firmly.

“Your Advocate suggests that the best defence will be to portray you as having, somehow – in a period of temporary mental aberration – been led into this dreadful deed by your brother.  He was, your Advocate can argue, a highly manipulative individual,” Caelius suggested.

It was rather hard on his dead son’s memory, but if it saved his daughter’s life, then that was a price worth paying.  Even then, the Advocate had warned him that such a strategy had only a slim chance of success.  Having been caught in the act, it was, nevertheless, her only hope.

“No,” Helia replied resolutely.

“This is your best chance to escape a death sentence, daughter,” Caelius pressed.

“Then I will not escape it, father.  If anything, I was the one who persuaded Acamos that the Empress should die. 

“And I will not go into the trial with a lie on my lips.  We planned this stupid deed to restore the family’s honour.  If I pretend to have been mentally incompetent and blame the act on Acamos, how can I ever lift my head again?” Helia told him firmly.

If she didn’t enter a Plea for Mercy, on grounds of mental health, Helia literally wouldn’t have a head to lift, her father considered despondently.  If it were only possible, he’d gladly take her place.

“Do you understand what you are saying, Helia?” Caelius asked, almost desperately. “For High Treason, the law allows only one sentence.  The Empress herself cannot alter that!”

According to his daughter’s Advocate, Drayana had her own legal experts searching for any loopholes in the law.  The Empress had no wish to sign a death warrant or, as the law demanded in Treason cases, to stand on the scaffold and personally give the order for sentence to be carried out.  She’d already started the process to have the law changed, but the penalty for High Treason was separate from other laws and contained within the constitution.  The Consular Houses were supposed to debate constitutional modifications for at least three years – and even then the change might be rejected – so any movement in that area would be too late.

“I am well aware of the penalty, father.  But I will still plead guilty,” Helia replied stubbornly.

Sobbing unashamedly, Caelius Tren embraced his daughter once again, this time seemingly unwilling to let go.  Chances were, he wouldn’t have many more chances to do so.

 

Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 15th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Ilarius watched Caelius Tren crossing the courtyard towards the palace gates.  The man looked broken, as well he might with not only the disgrace of Imperial Censure on his shoulders, but also two treasonous children.  Not that Ilarius could fault the would-be assassin’s aims, but their motivations were foolish and their timing inconvenient.  Drayana had been uncomfortably popular with the general population and within the Consular Houses even before the assassination attempt, but now her position was downright inviolable.  That, in turn, would only make things much more difficult for the Regent and his small group of supporters.  It was very difficult to erode support for someone who was held in such high regard, especially since she hadn’t put a foot wrong in political terms since taking the throne. 

The populace, who worshipped the very ground trodden by the brat, were also an easy target for a happy story.  Only one day previously, Arius Myrnn and Livia Vispensia had quietly wed, then officially adopted Drayana.  No one could even accuse the Imperial Tutor and former Imperial Guardian of political manipulation.  Anyone who knew the Empress would also be aware that she couldn’t be played like a puppet.  But by the Ancestors, Drayana certainly excelled at playing the political game herself.  A close brush with death, a short and successful war, a thriving economy, and now this image of a loving family, shortly to be joined by the sweet little heir to the throne.  Of course the population and the media loved her.  For the average Talluran, there was absolutely nothing to dislike.

Amateurs, he snarled to himself.  Helia Tren deserved her fate simply for unrelenting stupidity.  And, of course, for placing his carefully laid plans in serious jeopardy.

The Regent had never invited Tren to join his circle of conspirators.  The former Second Proconsul for Taxation was as guilty of fraud and corruption as others, but he’d accepted the penalty levied by Drayana and sought to rebuild his life in an honest fashion.  Unlike Ilarius’ fellow plotters, notions of revenge hadn’t even crossed his mind and he remained deeply loyal to the Empress.  The Regent didn’t know whether Drayana’s leniency towards most of the corrupt former Proconsuls had been a wise move or not – only a handful were serving prison terms – but only a handful, to the best of his knowledge, were actively plotting her downfall.

He idly wondered if Caelius Tren would continue to be so loyal to the Empress when his daughter was on trial for her life.  Potentially, he could still be a very useful ally, if manipulated properly, at the right moment.  It would require careful judgement and timing, of course.  Right now, the slightest whiff of sedition, and Tren would go straight to the Security Bureau or Imperial Guard.  Any carefully handled contact and revelations about his group’s plans would, therefore, have to wait.  Ilarius was a patient man, however, and was content to wait until the pressure of events made Tren somewhat more malleable.

 

Carolyn Lam’s Apartment, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 15th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“Think I’m ready to talk now, doc?” Faith asked hopefully.

“Eleven days since the incident...” Lam mused. “Maybe we should make a start.”

“Incident?  I shot a fricking arrow straight through the guy’s head!  And out the other side!” the Slayer exclaimed.

Up to now, the psychiatrist had been reluctant to talk, on the grounds that Faith probably didn’t yet even know her own feelings on the matter.

“I killed someone, doc.  Again.  Makes me feel pretty shitty, even if it was in a good cause,” Faith sighed.

Lam studied her intently. “You signed up for this mission as a bodyguard, Diana.  Surely it occurred to you that you might have to kill, in order to defend Dawn, at the very least.  Don’t you think the Empress is equally worthy of your protection?”

“When I signed up to protect Little D from aliens, I was imagining critters with tentacles and teeth.  Kinda like the ones that tried to chow down on her outside the tavern that day.  The guy whose head I perforated?  He fricking looks like us.  Hell, with what they told Joyce about Talluran DNA and stuff, we can have their damned babies!” the Slayer protested.

“And just so you know, doc...  Yeah, I think Drayana’s worth protecting.  Shit, she’s almost made me her sister, with that whole Blood Bond custom,” she added.

“So what’s the problem?” Lam knew perfectly well, but still wanted Faith to tell her.

The Slayer gritted her teeth impatiently. “The fucking problem is that I told myself in prison I’d never kill another person.  Ever.  Then there’s the whole thing where Slayers aren’t supposed to kill people anyway.”

“Always wondered about that, Diana,” the psychiatrist studied her intently. “Is it really some kind of Slayer’s innate imperative?  Or is it a matter of indoctrination through training?  Or just a matter of conscience?”

Lam wasn’t sure herself, but it certainly mattered to the Slayers.  At least, to Faith and Buffy.  Cordelia was a somewhat different matter, as witnessed by her chosen profession, while the Varrini didn’t seem to have any scruples – at least, not beyond those of the average human - in that direction whatsoever.

“Let’s look at this rationally,” Lam suggested.

“So now I’m being irrational,” Faith muttered.

The psychiatrist waved that aside. “I said nothing of the sort.  If it was some kind of innate imperative, I think the effects would be much more severe than you’re currently suffering.  Logically, such a natural mechanism might even stop you from carrying out the deed in the first place, else why have one?  Feelings of guilt are quite normal in military and law enforcement for those who’ve taken a life.”

She’d had numerous sessions with Faith where they’d discussed her previous actions and the feelings they still provoked.  This, however, was the first time Lam had talked with the Slayer after she’d killed someone.  Given the circumstances, the psychiatrist couldn’t really say that Faith was dealing any differently than most people.  Certainly, the brunette wasn’t reacting any worse, Chosen One or not.

“Didn’t have any problems stabbing that poor old Professor in Sunnydale,” the Slayer noted sadly.

“In my opinion, we can largely put that one down to PTSD – never recovering properly from the death of your first Watcher – and the incredible stress of the Hellmouth.  Plus the pervasive influence of an experienced manipulator,” Lam assessed.

“So it just comes down to me knowing that killing people is wrong, so I feel bad about it?  Seems kinda simplistic, doc,” Faith pointed out sceptically.

“Nothing simplistic about it, Diana.  If there were, we probably wouldn’t have so many murders,” Lam suggested.

“Your situation is perhaps slightly more complicated.  I’m still dubious about the Slayer imperative not to kill, but there may be something at work there.  On the other hand, you were also intensively indoctrinated during your early Slayer training with the Council’s version of “thou shalt not kill”, on top of your own conscience.  Add that to your own experiences of having taken life?  It probably won’t ever be easy for you, but it shouldn’t be for anyone.  And I doubt if you’d hesitate to pull the trigger if an innocent life were on the line again.”

The psychiatrist paused. “Would you do it again, if you had to?”

Faith sighed. “Guess so, even if I knew I’d feel like a piece of crap on the sole of my boot and have the fricking bad dreams for weeks afterwards, y’know?”

“That’s a perfectly reasonable and healthy response from anyone, let alone someone with all the added complexities of your life and the problems of your past.  And given time, you’ll come to accept that you did the right thing,” Lam decided.

The Slayer eyed her disbelievingly. “So basically, you’re telling me just to get the Hell over it?”

“Not exactly.  I’ll be here anytime you want to talk.  But bear in mind that your actions saved a good person, someone barely out of childhood - and even that’s debatable, given some of Drayana’s mischief.  And you’re fond of the Empress, so every time you see her, remind yourself that she’s only here because of you.  On two counts – taking down the sniper and collecting those lizard things to produce an antidote,” Lam advised.    

“And the idea of killing - even in a good cause - isn’t exactly an easy prospect for me either, Diana,” she reminded the Slayer.

“How?” Faith demanded.

“You mean, apart from the part where I’m a normal human being – like you - and not Jack the Ripper’s kid sister?  I’m a physician, Diana.  We take the Hippocratic oath, swearing to preserve life and never to do harm.  And remember, I’m also a civilian, not Air Force.  I’ve been trained to use weapons – the SGC made me learn, before I was allowed through the Stargate first time.  Still, never been tested, so I’m not certain if I’d be able to pull the trigger, let alone know how I’d react afterwards,” Lam reflected.     

“Never thought of that...” Faith admitted.

“That M4 carbine I brought with me?  Not for decoration,” the psychiatrist pointed out.

The Slayer nodded. “So...  We done, doc?”

“Unless there’s something else you want to discuss,” Lam shrugged.

“Nope.  And all these brain-bending sessions?  I’m sure as Hell glad you’re not charging hourly rates,” Faith replied.

Lam hadn’t really said all that much today.  It was one of their shorter sessions, but Faith still felt much better.  She was especially pleased to hear that she was handling her recent experiences just like a “normal” person – if there even was such a thing – rather than being a particularly neurotic Slayer.

The psychiatrist laughed. “I’ll waive the fee if you buy me lunch.  Aelina’s?”

“Sounds like a plan.  Maybe some of these Ch’Hanis dudes will try to eat us again...” Faith suggested, almost hopefully.

None of the Terrans had visited Aelina’s since the episode with Dawn.  In the meantime, Faith had been studying the best way to take down a Ch’Hanis – or any other alien species for that matter.  In terms of physical strength, they were a match for her – and in some ways as formidable as any Master vamp - but now she knew a few things about their anatomy.  The tough reptilians might not have many weak spots, but there were some and the Slayer reckoned she could exploit them, if necessary.

“I’d prefer a quiet lunch to a bloodbath...” Lam winced, following Faith into the corridor.

“Good morning,” Ilarius tilted his head in recognition as he walked past, en route to an Advisory Council meeting.

The Regent could only just force himself to offer an insincere smile, but he had to at least try to be civil.  The Terrans were Drayana’s friends and one of them had recently saved her life.  It would, to say the least, be politically unwise to offend them right now.

“Slimy motherfucker,” Lam muttered to his retreating back.

“Jeez!  What would your momma say if she heard you cussing like that?” Faith chuckled.

“I’d be chewing on a bar of soap.  Probably even nowadays,” Lam conceded.

Suddenly, Faith stopped in her tracks, as she realised something. “So it’s you!”

“What’s me?” the psychiatrist responded defensively.

The Slayer shook her head, with just a hint of amusement. “The fricking foul-mouth who’s been teaching Drayana bad language!”

“ “Foul-mouth”?  Talk about pots and kettles!” Lam shot back hotly.

Faith waved an accusing finger in her face. “I try damned hard not to swear in front of Little D and Drayana.  And I sure as hell don’t use some of the words Drayana’s suddenly way too fond of.  But I still get the fricking blame...”

It was pretty ironic, the Slayer admitted to herself, that she should be lecturing anyone on proper behaviour and coarse language.  But if she was making the effort, even with a vocabulary extended somewhat by prison life, then surely the psychiatrist could at least make sure there wasn’t a young and impressionable audience around, whenever she felt the need to let rip.

“Oops...  I may have accidentally let slip a few choice words around her...” Lam acknowledged sheepishly.

It wasn’t as if she was normally a profanity-spouting virago,  but occasionally certain words just popped out.

“You don’t say,” the Slayer replied dryly. “Drayana has one heck of a temper, doc.  And yesterday?  Had a tricky meeting with some of her Proconsuls – got her really frustrated.  And afterwards she went totally potty-mouth.  Poor kid didn’t realise Livia was standing right behind her.”

Lam winced. “Hope she didn’t get into too much trouble.”

Faith rolled her eyes. “Trouble?  Vesarian told me what happened.  Drayana was already on her last warning – Livia doesn’t want her passing on bad habits to her cousin.  So she got dragged away by the ear and...  I’m pretty sure you can fill in the rest.  Sixteen and an Empress – but it’s still the Talluran way.”

The Slayer folded her arms and regarded the psychiatrist in a distinctly menacing fashion. “Okay, maybe Drayana’s old enough to know better than to pop off and cuss a blue streak.  And maybe she kinda deserved it...

“But she still shouldn’t have known any of these words, should she doc?  And thing is, I feel really protective about Drayana.  Now she’s pretty much my little sister, with the Blood Bond stuff, and I never had one of those before.  So I really don’t like it when she can’t sit down properly...  Least, not when it’s partly someone else’s fault.”

Lam gulped.  Suddenly she knew how the vampires felt.

“How’s the unarmed combat training?” Faith abruptly asked.

“Uh, the Colonel thinks I’m improving,” Lam replied nervously.

“Well, how’s this for a plan, doc?  Drayana gets into trouble ‘cause of you?  Or Dawn – and I’m pretty sure Joyce would react the same way as Livia...  Me and you will have a special one-to-one training session on the mat...  Get my meaning?” the Slayer smiled placidly.

“Loud and clear,” the psychiatrist nodded vigorously – a few minutes spent sparring with Faith, and she’d have bruises on her bruises.

“And you can put Livia straight on where the blame oughta lie,” Faith added firmly, wondering if she was beginning to sound like Joyce.

Lam hastily and meekly agreed.  Pissing off the Slayer was at the very top of her Things Not Wise To Do list.

“Can we go eat now?” she ventured nervously.

 

Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, Naxia Colony, Vedda Galaxy – 16th January 2001 (Earth Date)

The Imperial Heavy Cruiser and her escort squadron emerged from hyperspace just outside the orbit of Naxia Colony.  They would only stop here for a few minutes, just long enough to contact and beam up a group of Imperial Guard who’d been engaged in survival exercises on the harsh desert world.  The Tallura Regnatrix and her three escorting Heavy Cruisers would continue on their way to Vertium.

“This is so cool!” Dawn exclaimed, gazing through a view-port at the alien world beneath.

Naxia Colony resembled pictures she’d seen of Mars.  It was also, according to Drayana, a bleak and unforgiving world, with limited water supplies and horrendous weather.  Sandstorms blowing at six hundred miles per hour and more could literally strip the skin from an unprotected person.  As a result, the colony only had a very small mining presence, with no major towns or cities, and was unlikely ever to be developed as a major population.  The harsh climate did, however, make it an excellent place for training elite military forces.

While Dawn might have no wish to visit Naxia Colony, this entire trip had been the experience of a lifetime.  It was, the youngest Summers decided, a geek’s dream come true – spaceships, alien worlds and species, and all sorts of alien gadgets.  Of course, there were only a handful of people she could ever share this with on returning to Earth.  That was a pity, Dawn decided.  She’d once accidentally discovered a website, where sci-fi geeks passionately – and often abusively - argued about the relative merits and characteristics of fictional space weapons from their respective favourite fandoms.  Now that she knew the truth, the pathetic fanboy exchanges seemed all the more ridiculous.  And unlike them, Dawn had actually been inside more than one real-life space-craft. 

Internally, Tallura Regnatrix was somewhat different to the Asgard ships.  It was designed, after all, for people who were as close to human as it was possible to be.  When all was said and done, the Tallurans were simply an earlier version – part of the First Evolution, according to Drayana’s father and tutor. 

The Empress had proudly shown her all over the Imperial flagship, almost like a teenager with her first car.  Tallura Regnatrix might be a top-of-the-line warship, but she was also effectively the Imperial yacht.  Having completed the tour, they’d settled down in Drayana’s personal suite - a very comfortable set of quarters, which basically looked like a futuristic version of a Terran teenager’s bedroom – for the remainder of the journey.

For some mystifying reason, the Fleet Centurion commanding the Heavy Cruiser hadn’t been too keen on having her along today, but the Empress had swiftly pointed out that it wasn’t exactly his decision to make.  On the plus side, Dawn had been able to leave most of the omnipresent goon squad behind.  Since she wouldn’t actually be transporting down to Vertium – Drayana didn’t want her there, in case there was an unpleasant confrontation with Sulvia’s guardians – and the ship was crawling with Imperial Guards, there was no need for Logan and his merry men.  Besides, SG-15 and Faith all deserved a break from Dawn Watch.

“I believe you may have said that ten or twenty times already,” Drayana smiled, idly braiding the younger girl’s hair.

“Yeah, well maybe this is like stepping on a bus to you.  But spaceships and stuff?  It’s all still new to me,” Dawn pointed out.

“What’s a bus?” the Empress sounded puzzled.

“Form of public transport back at home.  Just a big box with four wheels and rows of seat inside,” Dawn shrugged.

Drayana nodded absently and continued with her braiding.

“You’re kinda quiet...” Dawn pointed out.

“I must admit to being slightly nervous,” the Empress confessed.

“What’s to be nervous about?” her friend wondered.

“I have never done anything like this before.  Mother and father will be there to help – and they will legally adopt Sulvia, just as they have done with me – but as my ward, responsibility for raising her rests with me.  I have to make sure that my cousin is trained to be a good heir, but I also wish her to be happy,” Drayana replied pensively.

“You’ll be fine.  Heck, you’ve been way past great with me!  I’m sorta like the annoying kid sister, gettin’ under your feet.  Back home, someone your age wouldn’t want someone four years younger hanging with them,” Dawn suggested with a chuckle.

The Empress smiled. “You are perhaps like a younger sister and friend, combined.  Sometimes more one than the other.  Maybe if I had been raised with others my age as friends, then I might be as impatient as you suggest.  Who can say?”

She grinned mischievously. “But for the next few months – and long after, if we can find a way to keep in contact – you will be Sulvia’s older cousin.  You can help me keep her entertained and she can, as you say, get under your feet!”

Drayana had already made such preparations as possible.  Firstly, Myrnn had readily agreed that he probably wasn’t going to be the best of tutors for someone of Sulvia’s age, given that he was too set in his ways and accustomed to teaching the teenage Empress.  A much younger, albeit still experienced, tutor had therefore been hired.  Sulvia would also attend a school several days a week, so that she enjoyed the essential contact Drayana had been denied for years.

Secondly, the Empress’s early memories of her bodyguards were somewhat daunting.  She’d been protected by the tallest men in the Imperial Guard, as per tradition, and while they’d always been kind to her – sometimes to the point of spoiling - it was still intimidating for a while.  Drayana had, therefore, arranged for eight of the younger female Imperial Guards to be transferred from Consular House and Proconsulate security duties, as the basis of Sulvia’s regular bodyguard.

Finally, with Livia’s help, a small suite of rooms in the Imperial Palace had been selected for the youngster, in close proximity to Drayana’s apartment.  Decorators were just putting the finishing touches to decor better suited to an eight-year-old, who was leaving her home planet for the first time in her life.  Sulvia’s rooms were also well-stocked with toys, games and children’s books, and even had their own little garden just outside.

Working with Myrnn, Livia and a few trusted members of the Imperial Advisory Council, the Empress had drawn up a programme of essential training and education.  Drayana made one major stipulation, above and beyond any others.  Sulvia’s training and education would be fun for the most part, with the more onerous elements postponed for as long as possible.

That training would, nevertheless, have to start almost immediately.  For instance, Drayana could have collected her cousin via the Astria Porta, rather than taking an Imperial Fleet squadron.  Sulvia would, however, also have to get used to space travel, so this was an ideal opportunity to acclimate her. 

“Buffy would say that was karma catching up on me...” Dawn giggled.

She smirked evilly. “Of course, Sulvia’s new cousin will have to spoil her beyond belief...”

“Don’t you dare!” the Empress wanted to avoid the new Princess Imperial turning into some kind of little monster.

“And there’s all sorts of things I so need to pass along, one little sister to another...” Dawn was enjoying this.

“And those might be?” Drayana asked warily.

“First I force-feed her every kind of sugary candy I can find.  Turn her into a hyperactive little demon...” Dawn teased.

She recalled that Buffy used to do just that to her, before the baby-sitter came.  A combination of fizzy pop and M & Ms, just before bedtime, was usually enough to have her practically climbing the walls, much to her mom’s disapproval.

“You see, being a younger sister is a real complicated thing...  One part evil mastermind, one part pain-in-the-butt, one part treacherous little snitch, and one part irresistible bundle of cuteness, who can always get around big sis’,” Dawn chuckled.

The Empress feigned a glare. “I am not exactly seeing an “irresistible bundle of cuteness” right now.  As for the rest?  Part of my Constitutional Oath was to fight evil, in whatever form it might take...”

She tossed a pillow in Dawn’s direction and picked up another. “Prepare to be destroyed, evil mastermind!”

All regal airs and pretence of Imperial dignity momentarily abandoned, Drayana pounced on the smaller Terran, belabouring her with the pillow and tickling her to within an inch of her life.  Needless to say, six foot of intensively trained Talluran Empress was more than a match for a giggling Dawn. 

Their fun was abruptly brought to an end as suddenly, an alert siren went off nearby.  It was immediately followed by a calm computerised voice, repeating over the ship’s broadcast system.

“Red Alert.  All hands assume Battle Stations.  Repeat, Red Alert.  All hands assume Battle Stations...”

Armoured screens immediately snapped into place over the viewports, as the girls stared at each other in shock.

The ship was abruptly rocked by a heavy impact, then another.  Dawn squealed briefly, as the deck briefly tilted by several degrees, as the ship’s shields took yet another hit.

“What’s happening?” she squeaked, unconsciously grabbing the Empress by the arm.

Drayana stared, wide-eyed, at her suddenly very clingy friend. “I think someone may be shooting at us!”

It certainly couldn’t be pirates.  They’d have to be insane to take on four Imperial Fleet Heavy Cruisers.  But Naxia Colony was also a long way from any frontier, so the presence of any other power’s warships was a deliberate and calculated incursion.

Vesarian hurried inside “We are under attack by Zaharte Battlecruisers, Your Excellency.  Nine of them...”

The ship shook once again, Drayana thanking the designers for the stout shields and armour on Tallura Regnatrix.  Against nine enemy vessels, of roughly equivalent power, they wouldn’t last for long, however.

“I must go to the bridge...” the Empress headed for the door.

Vesarian stopped her. “The ship is at Battle Stations, Excellency, which means that armoured bulkheads have already sealed off this section.  We must remain here, until we discover what is happening...  Unfortunately, my comm-link appears to be down, but I will try to patch your console through to the bridge.”

The Imperial Guard Centurion’s fingers flew over the control pad on Drayana’s multi-function display, as the Zaharte continued to pummel the ship’s shields.

“I suggest you both sit down,” Vesarian instructed, the whole ship shaking with every energy weapon impact, causing Drayana and Dawn to stagger and almost lose their footing.

“Fleet Centurion?  Can you give me a status report?” the Empress asked tersely, as Tallura Venatrix’s commander appeared on the screen.

Behind him, the bridge crew were working quickly but efficiently at their various work-stations.

“Zaharte Battlecruisers, hiding behind Naxia’s moon.  They have caught us between themselves and the planet’s gravity well – we cannot escape into hyperspace from here...  I have put out a general warning, to all forces and outposts, Excellency,” the commander responded tightly, clearly worried.

At that moment, the ship was hit harder than previously, the lurching ship almost flinging Dawn and Drayana from their seats, onto the floor.

“Fire in the starboard fighter bay...  Damage Suppression parties to starboard fighter bay...” the automated warning voice blasted out of the speakers once more, accompanied by a different warning siren.

Vampires and alien monsters were one thing to deal with, but this was something entirely new to Dawn, who was whimpering with terror.  The Empress also felt distinctly vulnerable and utterly useless.  Even during the assassination attempt, she’d had a chance to fight back, while the fighting on Thenatrix at least afforded her the opportunity to take cover.  On a warship, in space, her options were much more limited.  She couldn’t even see what was happening, which only heightened the feeling of defencelessness.

The Zaharte were clearly beginning to inflict real damage.  Any fire on a space-ship was extremely serious indeed, given its ability to very rapidly consume any and all oxygen supplies within what was, after all, a sealed vessel.

“The primary shields are down, Excellency, and escort cruiser Dhakronus is out of action.  We are returning fire, to good effect,” the commander told her. “Reinforcements are also on the way, but may be some time.”

“Fire in Engineering...  Damage Suppression parties to Engineering...  Fire in Compartment Two...” it sounded as though the ship was being shot to pieces.

All at one, the lights faded out, to be replaced with much dimmer emergency illumination.  The ship’s commander was desperately trying to draw as much power from non-essential systems as possible.  Vesarian, meanwhile, was hurriedly opening a locker in the corner, removing two emergency space-suits and helmets.

“Put these on and use the tethers to secure yourselves.  We could suffer a hull breach, or lose life support and artificial gravity at any moment,” the Imperial Guard officer told them both grimly.

Drayana had clearly been trained how to get into such suits at some point in the past.  As a regular passenger on Tallura Regnatrix, she also had a specially tailored version.  Dawn’s was somewhat larger and floppier and she struggled until Vesarian helped her into the clumsy garment and boots, adjusting straps on the legs and arms for a better fit.  Then he made sure both girls’ helmets were securely sealed, intercoms functioning, and the close-circuit oxygen system running, before securing each to the floor with a cable attached to a magnetic clamp.

Dawn’s breathing was verging on hyper-ventilation, as she fought to suppress the panic that was building up inside her.  She was going to die, light years away from her family and home, in an alien battle that had nothing to do with her.  It wasn’t fair, she was terrified, and – nearly thirteen or not – Dawn wanted her mother.

“This is merely a precaution,” Vesarian told them through his intercom system, trying to sound reassuring, another series of impacts making his attempts at comfort somewhat less than convincing.

Behind her helmet’s visor, Drayana also smiled encouragingly at her friend/surrogate little sister, forcing herself to ignore the fear that attempted to overwhelm all capacity for reason.

The commander reappeared on the screen.  He was intermittently using a breather mask, with the dimly-lit bridge now wreathed in thick smoke.  The limp bodies of several of the bridge crew were slumped over sparking consoles.

“We are attempting to disengage.  Reinforcements are only five minutes away, Excellency,” the Fleet Centurion informed her, at least trying to sound convincing.

The Empress wasn’t an idiot.  Tallura Regnatrix had obviously suffering crippling damage already and the next Zaharte salvo could blast them into atoms.

“Intruders at Airlocks Five and Nine...  All hands to repel boarders...” the computer voice was transmitted directly into their helmet intercom systems.

Drayana really didn’t like the sound of that.  The Talluran Empress would be a valuable prize to any alien attackers and there was no telling what they might do to her.  A grim-faced Vesarian meanwhile drew his sidearm and took up position by the door, while Drayana and Dawn huddled fearfully together.  Then the lights went out completely and both girls screamed in panicked reflex.

 

Basement Storage, Yaherin Var University Museum, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 16th January 2001

Surrounded by seemingly endless storage racks and lockers containing Alteran and other equally intriguing artefacts, Joyce was increasingly convinced that she’d find it difficult to return to a life of selling mere Terran art.  Not that she didn’t love her job, but the old thrill of finding and selling rare pieces of artwork would inevitably be somewhat lacking after this.  Outside the SGC and its few specialists in ancient and alien civilizations, she was uniquely privileged.  Working in the museum here exposed her, on a daily basis, to age-old technology and art.  Even Daniel Jackson didn’t have this level of access.

Joyce idly wondered if the SGC might have a suitable job for her when she returned to Earth.  She hadn’t been idle since arriving here.  Already, her laptop contained over five hundred pages of notes on Talluran civilization and history, together with whatever she’d been able to glean on the Alterans and Furlings.  In other words, exactly the sort of thing that would make Jackson swoon.

She also had to be realistic, Joyce reminded herself with a wistful sigh.  Right now, she had a small corner of expertise on the Tallurans and was learning more about the Ancients than anyone else on Earth.  Compared to the SGC specialists, however, her knowledge of the various early civilizations and how it connected with the Alterans, Goa’uld, Asgard and so forth was minimal.  Her language background was confined to some college-level Latin and she certainly didn’t have the years of academic experience possessed by Jackson and the others. 

On the other hand, thanks to the Asgard translation implant, Joyce was utterly fluent in Talluran.  Furthermore, whatever effects the Asgard technology had on the ability to speak and understand Talluran, were also beginning to impact on her capacity to read and comprehend the written form of the language.  It had taken a while to manifest itself, but that particular ability was also now becoming apparent to SG-15, Faith and even Dawn.  Given that Joyce was also learning to read Alteran in her spare time, the similarities between the two languages was making the newfound property of the implant particularly useful.

So, she considered hopefully, the SGC just might be able to use her for cataloguing alien artefacts and helping with at least some translation work.  Not that Joyce was in a hurry to go through the Stargate on a regular basis.  Visiting alien planets might be fascinating, but judging by what Logan had told her – and especially when SG-1 was off-world – half the trips seemed to end in a firefight. And Joyce certainly had no desire to follow her daughters in their high-risk activities.

She’d spent the morning working on her exhibition on Earth culture.  It was proving trickier than expected, knowing what to include and leave out.  Even reading a few of Dawn’s geography and history text books – electronically scanned and translated into Talluran – had left the locals somewhat dumfounded.  There was more cultural variation amongst the Terrans, on one planet, than across the entire Talluran Empire, on numerous worlds.  Of course, the latter had been around for an unimaginably long time, ultimately leading to a pretty homogenised culture.  Whether that was a good or bad thing, Joyce wasn’t quite sure.

Anyhow, afternoons she often had time to explore the basement storage area.  Many of these artefacts even had Academist Sulla and his experts mystified as to their original purpose.

Joyce picked up one, a twelve inch tube with a scarlet bulb-shaped device on the end.  She blushed, realising what it reminded her of, though it probably had a much more prosaic use.

“I have absolutely no idea what that was intended for,” Sulla noticed her puzzling over the object.

The eldest of the Summers women decided not tell her what she was thinking, while thanking her lucky stars that Faith wasn’t here to comment.

The Academist sighed. “There is so much we still do not know, or that remains lost – probably forever.”

He wasn’t about to mention the Empress’s pet project, a probably futile effort to recover as much of their Alteran technological heritage as possible.  The Tallurans hadn’t been lucky in the centuries after the majority of the Alterans opted to Ascend.  This was the fifth planet to bear the name Tallura Prime – so far it had survived longer than any other of their new homeworlds – and in the process, a significant portion of technological know-how and records of all types had been lost, to a variety of catastrophes.

Drayana was convinced that there was a vast cache of Alteran technology still out there, awaiting discovery.  Admittedly, there were some leads in the historical records and every so often, an archaeological team would find something useful, but Sulla wondered if the rumoured hoard actually existed.  In any case, there were several highly classified archaeological expeditions – some in very sensitive locations – currently underway.

“How much Alteran technology do you actually use?” Joyce asked.

Sulla paused and considered the question. “Major technologies?  The shields on our ships and, at least in basic principles, their propulsion systems.  Geothermal energy generators and energy capture systems, and the planetary transportation network – though we use Asgard transporter systems on our ships – are all basically Alteran.”

Other current areas, notably nanotechnology, had been pioneered from the ground-up by the Tallurans.  No doubt, the Alterans had ways of improving even these, but so far they hadn’t been discovered.

The Academist rubbed his chin. “We have two principal problems.  Even if we could obtain much of the technology that has been lost to us, our ability to replicate it is questionable.  Manufacturing expertise and capability is as important as the devices themselves.  Also, our Alteran brethren were far more advanced in energy production, using power-plants known as Zero-Point Modules, which apparently extracted vacuum energy from an artificial area of subspace – I don’t quite understand the science myself.  These were incredibly powerful – one could possibly power an entire city for months, or a ship for years.  They could, therefore, produce devices with power requirements we could not easily satisfy.”

Finding ZPM devices or, even better, rediscovering the ability to produce them, was the Talluran scientific Holy Grail.  ZPMs fitted to Talluran warships would give them almost impenetrable shields and propulsion systems of Asgard – or greater – efficiency.  If one single technology could tilt the balance of power in the Talluran Empire’s favour, it was the ZPM.

Of course, there were other promising leads and recent finds, which he wasn’t about to share with the Terran.  Joyce might be his friend, but it was just too sensitive to share right now.  The discovery of an effective cloaking system, within the ability of Talluran industry to reproduce – if only just - had been the most important to date.  No other power in the galaxy had anything approaching the Alteran cloaking system, which was to be fitted to all new warships under Drayana’s rearmament plans, and retrofitted to existing vessels.

There was, however, some knowledge Sulla could share with the woman.  He took a picture from a nearby shelf and handed it to Joyce.

She shrugged. “A ship?  A warship, I’m guessing...”

It was difficult to gauge size, without any reference point, but the holo-image was quite different from Talluran fighting vessels.  This was long and comparatively narrow, while the Empire’s warships were almost akin to a stingray in profile.

“An Alteran Fabius-class Battleship.  At one time, the most powerful ship in the known universe.  When the Alterans Ascended, Talluran designers were working on an even more potent version, powered by multiple ZPMs.  There is still nothing that could match it.  If we possessed even a handful of these today...” Sulla shook his head wistfully.

It was safe enough to tell her that, the Academist judged.  A few of his people fondly imagined finding a fleet of these formidable craft, thereby making any threats to the Empire a very doubtful proposition for an aggressor.  There were a few hints in the records, but nothing substantial enough to warrant dispatching an expedition.  Sulla was convinced that such dreams were folly.  In his opinion, the future lay in discovering small, but important, increments – such as the cloaking device.

The Academist studied Joyce for a moment.  Perhaps they could actually use her within the Empire’s most classified project.  While the Terran woman was only on Tallura Prime for a few more months, she brought a completely different perspective to the table.  There was always the chance that she’d notice something the others had missed.  Moreover, Joyce was a very limited security risk, more so even than most Talluran citizens.  As an alien visitor from another galaxy, visiting for the first time, she lacked contacts with anyone outside the Imperial circle, or even the ability to communicate with others.  The risk of a deliberate or inadvertent leak was, therefore, tiny.

“I have a proposition for you, Joyce...” Sulla began carefully.

 

Imperial Flagship Tallura Regnatrix, Naxia Colony, Vedda Galaxy – 16th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Drayana tossed her helmet onto a chair and fixed Vesarian and the commander of Tallura Regnatrix with a distinctly steely gaze. “You mean to tell me that this was simply a combat exercise?  And you neglected to inform me.  I only happen to be the commander-in-chief of the Imperial Guard...  For the purposes of leadership on the field of battle, an honorary title perhaps, but do I not merit at least a certain amount of courtesy?”

Vesarian found himself bracing rigidly to attention.  His Empress might also be a close friend, but she was still his sovereign, and he’d only seen Drayana at her most annoyed on a few occasions.  The Empress was actually much more dangerous when she was quietly angry, than when she was having an Imperial tantrum and throwing things around.  He’d observed both over the last year or so.

The Centurion cleared his throat. “It was purely coincidence, Your Excellency.  Fleet Headquarters periodically designates a group of ships at random as the subject of a Combat Exercise and Readiness Assessment.  The ship’s computer system automatically receives the scenario, then simulates it.  Only a real emergency can override the exercise simulation program.”

If there was one area where the Imperial Fleet stood head and shoulders above every other power in the region, it was in the quality of its training.  Highly sophisticated simulators were part of every warship’s central programming and, moreover, they were regularly utilised on both a random and pre-planned basis.  The sheer level of realism which could be achieved was, however, completely unknown to Drayana, at least up until now.

“Admiral Severan instructed me not to tell you,” Vesarian continued sheepishly, quite shamelessly dropping the Admiral right in it.

Drayana, still clad in her spacesuit, folded her arms with some difficulty and pursed her lips. “I do not suppose that my esteemed Admiral gave you a valid reason for deceiving me?”

The cruiser’s CO decided to take some of the heat. “The Admiral has become slightly concerned at your – uh – rather casual attitude towards combat situations, Excellency.  She cites the recent battles on and around Thenatrix and decided it might be a good idea if...”

“If I had fifty years frightened off my life, just to prove her point?” the Empress finished dryly, clasping her hands behind her back and pacing to and fro.

“And what, exactly, was Dawn supposed to learn from this?  I am not exactly in the habit of exposing her to combat with hostile alien military forces,” she pointed out.

Her Terran friend still appeared pale and shaken.  While Drayana could almost see the point in giving herself such an unannounced lesson, it was less pardonable with Dawn.  Her encounter with the Ch’Hanis might have been an honest mistake, but this was entirely different.

“That is why I was slightly reluctant to bring her along this morning,” the Fleet Centurion replied uneasily.

He dipped his head in Dawn’s direction. “You have my most sincere apologies.  I was not being deliberately discourteous and normally you would be most welcome on this ship.  I simply did not wish to put you through what must have been a truly terrifying experience.”

Dawn shrugged gamely. “No big deal.  Back home I get frightened out of my wits about twice a month.  With all the sweaty fear, afraid I’ve left the spacesuit a bit funky, though...”

It was, she decided, a miracle that she’d only left sweat inside the suit.

“It is rather a “big deal”, Dawn.  You are my guest and – even more importantly – my friend.  To deliberately subject you to such an ordeal is quite inexcusable.  But I will have a few choice words with Admiral Severan later...” the Empress replied ominously – quickly reminding herself to be careful that her mother wasn’t within earshot for a few of these words.

“I presume you do not have anything similar planned for our return journey.  Or do you wish to terrify my young cousin, too?  Perhaps Admiral Severan believes that an eight-year-old could also benefit from being an unwitting participant in a Combat Exercise and Readiness Assessment...” she couldn’t resist adding.

“Of course not, Excellency,” Vesarian replied quickly.

The Empress nodded approvingly, then stopped her pacing and stared hard at the two Centurions for a long, silent, nerve-wracking thirty seconds.

“If either of you ever try to deceive me again, you will find yourself saluting officer cadets with a week’s service.  Do you understand me?” she growled.

“Understood, Excellency,” the two Centurions hastily responded, almost in unison.

Drayana decided that was enough, as the two targets of her ire visibly winced.  She’d go easy on the two Centurions who were, after all, only obeying the orders of a superior officer.  Even if Fleet Admiral Severan was theoretically junior to High Admiral Drayana.  Severan probably did have a point, after all.  And once the Empress had cooled down somewhat, she’d probably even appreciate it.

“Centurion Vesarian?  I believe Dawn has, as yet, been unable to decide which dress to purchase for the forthcoming Imperial Gathering.  Right now, I cannot think of a better person to accompany her along Dressmakers’ Street, can you?” Drayana decided that was perfect payback – there were about fifty shops selling exquisite formal wear in that area and no doubt her young friend would want to visit every one of them.

“I’ll need shoes, too,” Dawn piped up eagerly.

The Empress nodded her agreement. “You had best also schedule some time for Shoemakers’ Row, Centurion Vesarian.”

“It will be my pleasure, my young friend,” Vesarian forced a smile.

It would actually be equivalent to a spell in the outermost of the Fifteen Hells – or perhaps even an inner circle - he considered dismally, but the terrified youngster deserved some compensation.  The Centurion decided he’d buy her a small gift, perhaps a nice piece of jewellery, by way of apology for his part in this incident.  Drayana was easier to appease – she simply appreciated flowers on the rare occasions he’d inadvertently upset her.

“He can buy you lunch, too.  I know this wonderful restaurant with the most delicious desserts...” Drayana suggested lightly.

 

Imperial Research Division, Unnamed Planet, Vedda Galaxy – 16th January 2001 (Earth Date)

The Senior Researcher stepped through the Astria Porta and quickly oriented herself.  Preliminary probes had shown no signs of life on this world, but it still paid to be cautious.  A picked team of Imperial Guard Special Operations troops were already fanning out, just to make sure they didn’t have an unfriendly audience.

Situated in space previously classed as unexplored, the research team had been surprised to find that the planet actually had an Astria Porta, dating back to a time when the Alterrans were actively exploring the Vedda Galaxy.  It was certainly a long way from Talluran space, with the closest known civilization being that of the Khkerrikk Star Empire – a good reason to keep this mission covert.

The planet certainly seemed every bit as dead as the sensors had indicated.  All that was visible, as far as the eye could see, was range after range of rocky hills.  The most complex life-form appeared to be some kind of lichen, while a large red sun dominated a grey sky.  According to the scientists, this world had perhaps two centuries left, before the star’s expansion destroyed its atmosphere and left it uninhabitable.

Two centuries at least gave them some time to explore, the Researcher thought wryly, clambering aboard one of the small Gravity Cars they’d brought through the Astria Porta.  The vast ruined city was perhaps a half hours’ walk, in the direction of a huge canyon and what seemed to be a dried up riverbed.  At least their vehicles would allow them to explore a wider area, in addition to carrying a wider range of supplies and equipment.  They expected to be here for at least six months in the first instance and every minute would be used.  For all she knew, the Researcher considered, this city might contain clues to a priceless cache of Ancient technology.

She signalled to their Imperial Guard protectors that the research team was ready to move off.  One armed recon team sped away ahead of the main group, the Academists following at a more leisurely pace.

In the ruins of what had once been a thriving city, the Tallurans’ arrival had not gone unnoticed, nor was their identity difficult to guess.  The current inhabitants had been asleep for a long time – many millennia - and they did not appreciate being awakened by the Old Enemy.

 

 

 

 

 
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