Shtost, Centauri Republic " Lord Limari?" Cartagia Limari sighed softly. "Yes?" he asked. His private office was cramped and very utilitarian compared to what he would have used on a space station or down on a planet's surface. But this was my sanctuary and now the real world intrudes upon me. "What is it, Brandon?" His aide, Brandon, offered a salute and stepped closer to the desk. He was wearing a militia duty uniform and had a headset covered his right ear. "We have deployed the fleet as you wished. So far our scouts have found nothing to report." " Did you think otherwise?" Cartagia snorted. "Shtost has been a dead and useless system since long before the Republic rose to power. Since before our ancestors defeated the Xon. Since before the continents of Centuari Prime cooled enough to support life!" The tactical display mounted on the wall told the story plainly. The local star was a dying red dwarf with no planets orbiting it and only a few scattered asteroids, none of which were deemed valuable enough to be worth the cost of establishing mining operations. Cartagia leaned back in his chair. He spent a brief moment wishing for a decent drink, in a proper goblet and not in a zero-gee bulb. "This system is suitable only as a transfer point, a place from which we can jump to more useful systems." " Like Thormast?" " That system is no longer of use to anyone." Cartagia had not lingered in that system. The Royal Navy had smashed the world flat and slaughtered the natives. "We have to see what we can find elsewhere." Brandon rubbed his chin. "I doubt we'll find much of use in this region. The Orieni were driven away in defeat." " I know that!" A long campaign, but the Harmonious Fleet had been defeated. "Perhaps we can strike into the coreward regions of Medushaan space." Cartagia reached for a stud on his desk. A wall-mounted viewscreen flickered as he called up a starchart. Too much of coreward space was listed as uncharted. "From Arasholan, we could jump to--" " Arasholan is claimed by House Callo." " Yes, it was." Cartagia did not hide the scorn in his voice. "House Callo based themselves at Sivorn...but the Orieni ravaged that system. From the various reports my father has obtained, House Callo has all but abandoned Sivorn." " Leaving a vacumn for us to move into?" " That is our belief." The damage done to Sivorn had been the product of rumours mostly, but he was confident that they were true. "Thus far, our House has managed to avoid the worst of the war. Our House and its holdings have been left isolated and thus, we are still intact." Unlike most of the other Houses. "The Ivory Hammer has been winning honour and victories in the battles against the Orieni. Now, the Ivory Dagger is going to be the key in our ascension as a major power in the Republic." Cartagia was certain of that. "We have the firepower to deal with any threat we are likely to encounter." Brandon nodded his head in agreement. "As you say." Cartagia frowned, then turned back to his study of the wall-mounted video display. His Astuarius-class carrier was the flagship for six Balcirons, two Navasks, and a Ventrus cruiser. Brandon frowned and raised a hand to his headset. "We have a transmission from the Surrender Your Dreams." Cartagia had an eager expression on his face. The Ventrus cruiser had the most powerful sensor suite in his fleet. "Yes, what did it find?" " Commander Hugh reports that the readings are a close match to those of a standard hyperspace beacon." " I thought so!" Cartagia banged his fist down onto his desk. "There is a secret jump-route from Shtost! Something of value has come from our expedition." " Perhaps..." Cartagia frowned. "You have a concern?" Brandon nodded his head with some reluctance. It was his duty to provide a voice of caution. "My Lord, the beacon is not listed on of our charts. There is no telling where it could lead." He paused for another moment. "If it is really a beacon and not just some hyperspace artifact. An echo of some other beacon perhaps." " A sensor ghost?" " Possibly." Cartagia frowned as he considered the possibilities. Brandon stared back at him. "Have the Dreams continue its scanning," Cartagia finally said. The Ventrus cruiser really did have the best sensor suite in the fleet. "Inform me at once of anything it finds." " As you wish, my Lord." " Leave me." Cartagia leaned back in his chair again. "I need to think." " Yes, my Lord." Brandon turned and made his way carefully from the office, his magnetic-soled boots clicked on the deck. * * * Orien, Orieni Empire "Eight hundred cycles have led us to this." Aaka Hrhia heard the hollowness in his voice and he clicked his beak shut. The Blessed were in disarray and the local mindscape was in turmoil. He could feel it weighing down on his shoulders. Korst Rak stood under the Dome of Light and shuddered as the murky light fell on the other Councilors. His eyesight drifted up to the cracks in the crystalline Dome overhead. The Centauri failed to destroy us with their mass driver strikes, he thought, but, by the Living Gods, they did hurt us. The rainbows were gone. Hierophant Sarka Hihan clicked his beak, the noise startlingly loud. "We have no options left to us?" " Very few." Rak kept his voice devoid of emotion. He tried to ignore the aura of the mindscape even though he could almost physically feel it pressing down on him. "It is growing more and more apparent that we have lost this war." The council was silent. Aaka Hrhia closed his eyes. How did it come to this? he wondered. How did the chosen of the Living Gods fall into such disfavor? One of the councilors finally stirred. "Our credo has long been ‘peace through strength, order from chaos’." " I do not dispute your words, Maechue Nik." Korst Rak ruffled his golden plumage. "I dispute the reliance we place upon that credo." The Minister clicked his beak and narrowed his eyes. "We must abide by that credo and the dictates of the Living Gods." " We have...and such adherence to that credro has brought our people, and our world, to this." Korst Rak clicked his own beak. Shrieka Rak stood near the entrance way, watching silently. He wore the amethyst-trimmed uniform of the Hand of the Blessed, complete with the rank pins of a Strike Paladin. His dark eyes narrowed. " We unleashed chaos!" Korst said loudly. "We brought war to a hundred worlds. We encouraged other races to fight against the Centauri and we punished those dared strike at us. We have become of servants of chaos!" " We serve the cause of Order!" Nadak Hie shouted. g We sought to bring the other worlds onto the path of order!" Ifrit Tak, the director of the All-Seeing Eye spoke loudly. "We obeyed the dictates of the Living Gods and sought to purge the darkness from the heathens. If we had done wrong, then the Living Gods would surely have made guided us to some different decision." " Our faith sustains us!" Mezrik Shrakie ruffled his plumage. Even as disaster strikes, our faith does not waver. The Living Gods test us as we must be tested. He had been the governor of Tashasha until its destruction by Centauri mass drivers. We must be strong and overcome these...distractions. Other councilors voiced their agreement. Aaka Hrhia watched for a time, shaken by the loudness of the voices in a place where mental communion was the most common, then finally he turned his head towards the Orieni officer standing near the entrance way. "Strike Paladin, what say you?" } We are weak." Shrieka spoke clearly. It was virtually unheard of for a military officer to attend the Blessed while they were in Council but given the recent attack, it was equally unthinkable to exclude him from this session at least. At least not when the citizens hail me as the hero who broke the Centauri attack and drove them away. "We have been left staggered. Our fleets are battered almost to impotence. We no longer have the strength to conduct major operations, but the Republic seems to lack the will to further their own invasion efforts." } We have outlasted them?" } Our people remain fanatical in their dedication to the Living Gods and their desire to hurt the Centauri." Shrieka paused...his words touched on matters beyond his authourity. I can only speak of military matters, he reminded himself. "We retain the will to pay any price necessary to win, but we lack the raw military power to hurt our actually enemy." } And the Centauri?" } Their forces are numerous, but their commanders are foolish in how they commit their strength. They waste ships in doomed attacks and unimportant raids and they lack any apparent attempts at coordination. If they were to strike from all of their spearheads as one, the Hand would be overwhelmed." That was a harsh truth, but one the Council needed to hear. "We could not save Orien or Seliffe. I am not certain where the Hand could hold out." } You tell us that we could lose everything?" } It is possible, Councilor, but unlikely. The very nature of the Centauri is to attempt personal achievements and build and maintain a powerbase. They lack the ability to coordinate." } Their chaotic nature asserts itself as we knew that it eventually must." The Supreme Hierophant sounded pleased by his statement. "We can now move to crush them as they deserve." } Impossible." Shrieka stared back calmly. He could tell that Aaka Hrhia was unused to his decrees being so quickly discounted. "At present, we can barely muster the hulls necessary to patrol our remaining systems and garrison the new border worlds in sufficient strength to deter further raids. If this Council calls for another major assault, the Hand cannot guarantee success…or even its own survival." The Council Chamber fell into silence. } Peace through Strength, Order from Chaos." The words hung heavily in the air and the silence stretched out heavily after Zatek Chan's words. Aaka Hrhia could feel the aura of despair still hanging in the council chamber. Tinged with anger, true, but still predominantly despair. } We must attempt to open lines of communication." } The Centauri will know our weakness!" Mezrik argued. "They will seek to exploit it." } A risk we must take," Korst Rak countered. } We have little choice left to us." Hok Neek spoke in a soft tone. The one-time governor of Usuuthir knew firsthand how vicious and destructive the war had been. "We must make the effort." Sarka Hihan stirred and clicked his beak loudly. "Then we are in agreement?" His voice carried throughout the Dome, firm and resolute. "The Orieni Empire will enter into ceasefire negotiations with the Republic?" } To buy time," Aaka Hrhia pointed out quickly. "We negotiate only as a delaying tactic. We will push hard to regain the original pre-war borders and reestablish the rule of order on all of our worlds." He could already see the glorious future to come under his guidance. "We can rebuild our devastated worlds and when the time is right, we will strike the Centauri down." } That is our best hope for the future." } It is our only hope." Aaka clicked his beak. "My predecessor has led us to this moment. His foolishness began this war and now I am forced to attempt to salvage the situation." It really was Rrakra Hie's fault. He must have been touched by the Servants of Fire and Darkness. "We must not falter," he told the council. "Now is our time to renew our dedication to the Living Gods and the path of order." The windows looked out over a battered capitol city. Maechu Nik clicked her beak softly. "I stand here and look out at our beautiful city and I weep." Tears were dripping from her large brown eyes. Shrieka Rak clicked his beak softly. "The City of Light will be rebuilt." } Sanctoria will never be the same." The paladin agreed with her. There were gaps in the cityscape...buildings were missing, fallen to stray shots from the battle in orbit. Stray shots, he told himself. A deliberate bombardment would have razed the city or burned it to the ground. Maechu Nik closed her eyes for a moment. } Change comes...the damage done will be repaired, and the city will carry the memory of this day into the future." Shrieka was confident of that. "We will rebuild behind the shield of the Hand of the Blessed. The Empire will grow strong again." } And the Blessed will remain in power?" } Someone must guide the Empire." She looked at him. "You speak the truth." She could sense it in his thoughts. "You truly believe that the Blessed must rule." } Someone must govern," Shrieka replied honestly. "The loss of the imperial family wounds us, but the empire will continue without them. The Council interprets the will of the Living Gods...to ignore the Council is to cast aside the Living Gods." Maechu gazed eastward. The heavily cratered ground she could now see had once been low hilltops where the Aerie of Heaven had stood. "Some things cannot be rebuilt." The door to the room opened and a young Orieni stepped through. "Paladin Rak, you are requested within." } Thank you." Shrieka clicked his beak softly. "Minister." Tex Hovat's office was decorated with written verses, all framed. Awards and commendations were also framed. } I would thank you again for your timely arrival," Tex Hovat began. } My arrival was simple coincidence," Shrieka Rak replied honestly. "I had no idea that Orien itself was under attack. I was simply returning here to consult with Unity Command regarding the ongoing defense of Seliffe." } No doubt the Living Gods guided you." Ifrit Tak stepped through the doorway. His robes rustled softly and his plumage seemed to stand erect. "That is the opinion of many who have spoken of your victory." } I am but a humble servant," Shrieka replied calmly. } You are that." Ifrit clicked his beak. "Your name in on many tongues...the Living Gods have taken notice of you." Shrieka narrowed his eyes under the inquisitor's gaze. } Did you speak truly to the Council?" } I did." Shrieka tilted his head towards Tex Hovat. "The reports are plain enough, Paladin Hovat. The Hand of the Blessed has been weakened by the long struggle. Yes, Logistics Command has built thousands of new hulls since the beginning of the war, but we have lost thousands of hulls in combat. The bulk of the Hand has been deployed to the new border systems in an attempt to hold back the Centauri. Our core worlds are left with minimal patrols to maintain order and combat piracy." } Piracy does not plague the Empire," Tex Hovat replied in a cold voice. "We are not Centauri." } True enough." Ifrit Tak clicked his beak in agreement with Shrieka's own amused tone. Piracy was not a problem within the core worlds, though the border systems were plagued on occasion by neighboring races. For the empire, it was more the presence of smugglers who would carry prohibited cargoes between the planets of the empire that was the target of the patrols. Shrieka Rak clicked his beak and looked at Ifrit Tak. "The handful of reports I have been able to obtain from the All-Seeing Eye would indicate that the Centauri are duplicating our efforts." The director said nothing. } I have seen similar reports. The bulk of their Royal Navy has been committed to fighting the war and are currently tied up in the border systems." Tex paused for a moment. "Seliffe-D'Grn," she said. "Wereng-Plutak. Orien-Mattren. Kateener-Setteros. Salaki." } You have better sources than I." } I am at the heart of the empire. You are on the border." Her tone was one of conciliation, not mockery. Tex Hovat walked towards a small cabinet. "You have a position with more importance than I, Shrieka, for you guard the Gateway to Heaven." } You guard the homeworld." } And the Centauri threaten both." Tex opened the cabinet and removed a bottle of Tixlan ale. "A drink, Paladin?" } Thank you." Ifrit Tak clicked his beak. "What is your opinion then?" he asked. "What action or strategy should the Hand of the Blessed take?" } Negotiation is the most appealing option," Shrieka replied. "I do not see how else we can continue to fight. We must buy time." } Will the Centauri accept?" } They have been weakened as much as we." Ifrit Tak clicked his beak in agreement. } Supreme Heirophant?" Stakka Chunak half-raised his head crest as he studied the circlet on his arm. It bore the rank symbols of a High Paladin. "Is this a promotion then?" } Of sorts." Stakka glanced across the Room of a Thousand Fountains at Tex Hovat. The other Orieni wore her own circlet of equal rank. Her white uniform was crisp and trimmed with azure stripes. Tex did not look happy, nor was there pleasure in her words. Her plumage was drooping and she stared somewhat despondently at their surroundings. The Room of a Thousand Fountains was aptly named. Water gurgled from scores of fountains, splashing into other fountains and ponds. It flowed in small streams, vanishing under the tiled floor, only to reemerge in some fancifully worked sculpture. Stakka clicked his beak and turned back towards the other male Orieni. "I had retired from active service, you might recall. I left the prosecution of the war to my successors. I am old and no longer possess the strength to command battle fleets." } Do you deny the will of the Living Gods?" Aaka Hrhia asked in a low tone of voice. His robes rustled as he walked past a gurgling fountain. } Of course not." } Do you deny that I speak for the Living Gods?" } You are the embodiment of Their divine will. You speak for Them." Aaka stood a bit more straight and he rustled his robes of office. "Then hear my voice and know the truth of my words. You are recalled to serve the Empire in one final duty." } My spirit is strong. My flesh is willing, though weak." Aaka had to agree with that self-assessment. Stakka's once-bright plumage had grown dull and faded in the last few years and his eyes no longer shone with the bright gleam they had once possessed. "You have seen the foul sacrilege that the Centauri have wrought upon the sacred soil of Orien." } I have." The bombardment had been limited, but still devastating to many regions. "The orbital defences have proven themselves to be somewhat lacking." } Garrison Command has been chastised for their failings." Aaka glanced towards Tex Hovat. "But we are not discussing them." Tex Hovat clicked her beak. "The defences are being strengthened." She allowed herself a moment to envy the Abbai. Would that they could be incorporated into the empire, she thought. With their support, Garrison Command would make our worlds truly invulnerable. Someday they would walk the path of order and all would benefit. } We need to buy time," Aaka added. "Time to redeploy ships from secure systems to those which are threatened. Time to bring new construction out of the shipyards and into service. Time to bolster the strength of the Hand of the Blessed within this system." } To better encourage the Centauri to accept our offer of negotiations?" Aaka ignored the question. "That is your duty, Stakka Chunak. You will be given a small task force and dispatched on a priority mission." He tilted his head and half-raised his crest. "Against the Centauri?" } Yes." As if there was any doubt of his target. "You will attack the fleet holding Mattren." } Mattren?" Tex Hovat clicked her beak. "I doubt we will be able to supply you with sufficient firepower and hulls to actually defeat Admiral Jaddo and his fleet, but we hope you will be able to disable enough Centauri ships to delay any future attacks." Stakka narrowed his eyes as he saw the full scope of his mission spreading before his eyes. "A suicide mission." } Yes, but a vital one." Stakka paused to consider his options. Not that I have any choice...my duty is clear. "What ships will I be commanding?" } Battered ones." Tex Hovat clicked her beak. "The Centauri press us in a most alarming fashion. The recent attack here was merely the most blatant sign of how far they have fallen into the embrace chaos." } I saw the battle reports." } We have forced them back to Mattren, but they must be driven further back. Destroyed, if possible." Stakka stared into the triple water jets of one fountain. "And my fleet?" } There are a lot of damaged ships left. The shipyards are working at their maximum capabilities, but repairs will take time. Some of our warships are sufficiently battered that Logistics Command would prefer to scrap the hulls rather than repair." } Given the output of our factories, that makes sense." Tex blinked her eyes. } These are not normal times. Every hull is desperately needed now and we cannot afford to scrap any space-worthy ship." Aaka turned his head, his attention caught by the bright flicker of the decorative fish swimming in the waters. "Even those which are barely capable of maneuvering." } As long as they can move and shoot, they are of use." } Indeed, Paladin." Aaka turned away from the fish. "Your ships are crewed mostly by Otaki, Phalonaki, Rothir...." } Whose homeworlds are under Centauri occupation." } Yes. They are extremely motivated," Aaka pointed out. "Their resolve to engage the Centauri borders on the fanatical." } And these would be my warriors?" } Yes, they are all yours to command in this operation." Stakka knew that he would not survive this mission. But it must be done. "I accept the posting and will depart shortly. Mattren will be scoured by my forces. The Centauri will be left in disarray." } The Living Gods guide you," Aaka Hrhia told him. * * * Shtost, Centauri Republic Cartagia Limari stepped onto the command deck of the Ivory Dagger. He had taken the time to dress himself in the proper coat, with enough trim and embroidery to show off his militia rank and inherent nobility. "You wished to see me, Brandon?" His aide turned towards him with a smile on his face. "We have a hard lock on that sensor ghost from earlier." } Oh?" Brandon nodded. "It's an Orieni warship." Orieni ? Cartagia was surprised by that. And more than a bit alarmed. I expected to encounter ships from House Callo. Scouts at the very least. Great Maker! What is an Orieni ship doing here? "Just the one?" } Surrender Your Dreams believes it is one command ship, three or four escorts. They are holding station around asteroid cluster nine seven four six." Cartagia spared a brief moment of regret for the lack of any decent naming conventions in this dead system. What kind of triumph can I claim from winning the battle of asteroid cluster nine seven four six, he thought in disgust. "Alter course to intercept. We kill those ships as our first act of war." Cartagai wondered how he could spin this coming victory into something more politically useful. } You called for me, Neimous?" Udon Neesk stepped onto the flag bridge of the Righteous Return. } Yes, Force Commander. We’ve been discovered." Udon blinked at the Otaki executive officer’s harsh tone. Even with the breath mask the Otaki wore, the tone was clear. "How many Centauri ships?" } A full squadron. One cruiser-carrier, one light cruiser, a dozen or so escorts." } We were so cautious," Udon muttered. "Has the fleet maintained silent running conditions?" } Yes, Force Commander. All ships have been operating in powered-down modes. We are relying on passive sensors as well, but there is little doubt that the Centauri have detected us." Neimous gestured towards the holotank. "The carrier is already launching fighters." Udon counted the icons. Twenty-four fighters is not just a routine patrol, he noted. "Sound battle stations." He only had six Templars to defend himself. The alert klaxon began chiming. Neimous cleared his throat. "Should we attempt to jump?" } I was just down touring the engineering deck," Udon replied grimly. "Our jump-engines are still down for maintenance. Talmanek will need another four hours to bring them online." The Righteous Return was trapped. "We will defend ourselves from these Centauri and then attempt to break contact and go back into hiding. We must pray that reinforcements arrive." } Do you expect reinforcements?" } The Forlorn Seeker will have reached Hownata over a week ago. Given the current situation, the Hand of the Blessed will certainly send us whatever ships they can spare to mount diversionary raids against the Centauri rear. The Republic must be distracted and forced to recall ships from the front lines." } Otherwise the war will continue?" } Precisely." Udon glanced at the holotank. "The Righteous Return will fight. Order our escorts into the first defensive posture." That would place his Benevolent at the centre of a globe of escorts. "Maximum defensive firepower." Neimous nodded stiffly. "Order and obedience." Cartagia spared himself a moment to mutter out a curse. "Our Glaives are going to take a pounding against those ships." He had read the military briefing about the HOT refit--replacing armour with more radiators to increase engine output--but he had not expected to encounter Orieni. } Surrender is only picking up half a dozen fighters." } That's it?" Brandon nodded. "Yes, my lord." } Then we stand a good chance." Cartagia studied the globular formation the Orieni had taken. "We need to kill the command ship." } That will expose us to fire from all of their ships." } I can see that, Brandon." Cartagia rubbed his chin. Kill the command ship, but not get the rest of us killed while doing so. A tricky problem. "Can you identify the escorts?" } We're calling them corvette-class for now. We don't have precise idents until we get closer...or until they start shooting." } Excellent." Cartagia's voice was sour. "Take us in then. All ships, maintain formation." He hoped that his Phalans were up to the challenge facing them. "Commence the attack and let us know victory!" * * * Tirolus, Abbai Matriarchy A gust of wind brought the chill of autumn down into the clearing. Saasana blinked as the small portable console finished its analysis. Around her, the Binaara Commune was busy with daily activities. There were over three hundred thousand Abbai on Tirolus, mostly living in a handful of cities or in assorted mining camps. Tamara stiffened and lifted her head from the monitor. "My initial conclusions are the match of yours. The deterioration of the ecosystem is ongoing." Saasana sighed. "That is what we feared." The planet had suffered from severe mismanagement by the Abbai government during the first stages of colonization. Mining operations, and other resource extractions, had affected the atmosphere and begun a marked deterioration. "The climatic shift is proceeding along the projected guidelines." } We must find other means to repair the damage." } You think that this can be repaired?" Tamara sighed. "A planet is not a simple machine. Even the best technical minds cannot repair every fault." } I am aware of that. A planet is, in some aspects, an extremely complex and yet simple machine." } What is your plan then?" } I do not have one as yet. We must gather more data to take home." Saasanna was confident that the Abbai would be able to fix the mistakes of the past. "We will restore this world." Tamara heard the solemness of that vow. } This is meant to be the final thrust!" Petrus Torra snarled. His voice echoed from the ceiling. Drola Station was just a Mercarous-class space station in orbit of a gas giant in the outer regions of the system, but it was the centrepiece of House Torra's ongoing conquest. Isolated, he thought in disgust, when we should be dominating this system! Mikolo eyed his brother. He was seated in a chair near the lounge's window. The scene beyond was that of the blue-green streaked gas giant. A handful of warships could be glimpsed nearby as well. } The final thrust I say. A final gamble in which we risk everything. We must break through their defences and secure Tirolus." } The Emperor’s eye is finally turning towards the actions of our House." Mikolo Torra grimaced. "Without the prizes of a conquered Matriarchy to offer him…." Petrus snarled out a curse. "I will not be the patriarch responsible for the fall of this House." } Then you are resolute?" } I am, Mikolo." Petrus gestured with his hand. "I have brought you every last ship I could spare from our holdings. Celerians, Balcirons, Falennas, Taris frigates. I even borrowed a Tavor!" The Nightshade had cost him many favours to obtain. House Dei will be riding on our coattails for decades. "Take the fleet forward…level the planet." The admiral rubbed his chin. "Such a ploy will be costly." } Further delays will be equally costly!" } The Abbai are still barricaded behind their minefields and satellites." Mikolo sipped at his drink. The vintage was sweet and spicy on his tongue. "Breaking through will result--" } We cannot wait. I will risk losing ships, but we must secure that planet!" } Yes, Petrus." Petrus grimaced, the spicy liquor in his own cup forgotten. "I have said this before to you, Mikolo," he snarled. "We must win control of Tirolus. Success here will win us forgiveness from the Emperor. Failure…." His voice trailed off into silence. } Our House could fall." } It must not." The sensorium was meant to be a place of peace. Patterns of small lights blinked within the holographic traffic display like fish swimming around an aquarium. Administrator Talitha saw evidence of war and its grim necessity throughout the entire system. She brushed her hands along the base console of the holotank, feeling the roughness of the coral under her fingers. } Madam Administrator?" With a sigh, Talitha turned away from the holotank and made her way across the sensorium. The humid air was scented with the smells of the open sea, though the green-striped coral walls had been left largely unfinished, forming a natural grotto which the Abbai engineers had filled with computer equipment. "What do you have to report, Madam Technician?" she asked. } My apologies for interrupting you," the technician said. "The bulk of the Centauri ships are moving." } What course?" } They swim towards us." Muath gestured to the holotank. "They swim on many courses, but all of them are towards us." } A major assault?" She knew that it had to come sooner or later. "Alert all ships to the possibility of battle. Bring the defences online." The minefields would inflict significant damage to the attackers. } Defence forces are responding." } It looks like there are new designs among the main school." Talitha eyed those particular icons. "Can you provide a full scan on those new hulls. I want to know exactly what they are." } They're out of our range." } Maybe a Seta scout can get close enough." It would be risky though and Talitha had no real wish to send a crew into such danger. We will get a close scan of them when they finally close to attack us, she thought grimly. } The Centauri have deployed their fighters. A strong screen around that new bombardment ship." Kolchat approached her side. "The Centauri have seen how we have dealt with their bombardment ship before." The firepower of the Selata base had been sufficient to intercept the asteroids the ship had flung at the planet. "They will be hesitant in committing it to battle." } They will not hesitate for long." } Our minefields have been reinforced and new satellites deployed. The Centauri have watched us labour...they know the strength of our defences." } Yet they still approach!" Taliatha heard the despair in her voice. "They will lose many lives today." } Yes, they will." } We're inside the minefield." Tavio Torra narrowed his eyes in a moment of fear at the report, even though everyone had expected to hear those words. "Full power to the sensor array!" he snapped. "Point defence will stand by!'" The Leevan was small and cramped, but still an effective minesweeper design. } Yes, Commander." } Slow to half thrust." That would give the sensors more time to detect any mines. } Scanning now." } Alert fleet command of our location. We'll attempt to clear a path." Tavio leaned back in his command chair. It begins at last.... } Take us forward," Kalika ordered in a tight voice. The Kallandra had the dubious privilege of being the first Lystalas patrol cruiser to engage the invaders. Parla, do you have a lock? Yes, Madam Annatar." Parla was caressing the sensor controls. } Then touch them." Paral obeyed and the comm disruptor fired. A moment later and both sensor spheres released their own electromagnetic surges. The minesweeper is stricken. Maybe they'll hit a mine." Kalika did not look to see who had spoken. Tensions were high. Riptide reports its own sensor spear is charged…firing." Kalika watched as the Seta-class scout fired on the small Leevan. It was hardly fair to keep targeting one small ship, but if the Centauri lost a minesweeper, the fixed defences would become much more effective. At the cost of how many lives? she asked herself. } Madam Annatar, we have a Pillum closing!" } Take evasive action!" Kalika ordered. "Full power to our shields." } Open fire!" Jono Tocari smiled and waved his hand in an overblown gesture. "Devastate them!" The bridge of his Pillum command ship was crowded with just its regular crew at their stations, but he wouldn’t trade the Diabolique for any other vessel in existence. "Let our enemies tremble!" Nola lifted his head from the sensor readings. "Abbai ships are breaking out of orbit and coming into engagement range." } Good, they're finally going to put up a fight." Jono rubbed his nose. He had a jagged scar on his right cheek, the souvenir from fighting Drazi mercenaries years ago. "I want some loot from this raid. Maybe we can get some slaves from the survivors." } First blood!" Stevos shouted as the lasers burned into an Abbai ship. } We are probing the minefields, but so far we have not fully cleared any paths." } Thank you, Bruno." Mikolo carefully studied the array of displays. The Abbai have disrupted my minesweepers with their damnable sensor jamming. "Bring the rest of the fleet around and take us forward to engage. Projected success of route primus and tertius are on schedule." Petrus was watching, but keeping silent. There can only be one admiral, Mikolo had told his brother. Conflicting orders onboard a ship will only lead to confusion and disaster. He hoped his brother would actually listen for a change. I would hate to have to order him removed from the bridge under guard.That would not bode well for House politics. Bruno stiffened. "We have new signals!" } What ships?" } Drazi!" } Drazi!" Petrus shouted from his chair. "What in the nine hells are the Drazi doing here?" Like the Abbai, the Drazi ships had no apparent problems slipping through the minefields and into open space. } Mercenaries." Mikolo grimaced as the new icons blinked to life on his display. "How unfortunate." The Drazi ships--a mingled swarm of Shrike heavy destroyers and Merlin frigates--swarmed around one of the lead Centauri squadrons. Particle beams tore into the Falenna's hull. Glaives swarmed around the Peregrine and Dragon fighters flocked to its defence. The bridge of the flagship was quiet as officers studied the raging battle. Petrus Torra bit his lip as two more of his warships exploded. "When did the Drazi arrive here?" } They've been present for some time," Mikolo admitted. "I thought we'd killed most of them off by now. Apparently more of them must have slipped through our blockade." } I dare think that the Abbai managed a better blockade than you." There was no mistaking the sneer in Petrus's voice. Mikolo made no reply. Kaschot studied the holotank with a predatory eye. "The Centauri are holding their bombardment ship well back. Any attempt to reach it will be...costly." Talitha heard the coolness of the phrase and winced. } The Drazi would happily pay the price." } But I will not ask them too!" Talitha refused to throw away lives for any reason. "We can weather their storm as we have done before." } Sometimes you must accept the direction the current flows and ride the waves to a destination you did not intend." } You would drown us all!" Kaschot stiffened. "I am trying to save this world and its inhabitants. You would do well to remember that!" } Drazi show everyone how to fight!" Fartok bellowed. "Drazi are most fearsome in space!" His Auk gunship savaged a Falenna with particle blasts. Fartok was overjoyed at being present. Only a handful of Drazi had chosen to come to Tirolous, officially to safeguard an ambassador looking to arrange for a new source of ores. And now we get to fight Centauri. It was almost heaven for Fartok and his crews. Much more satisfying than politics on Zhabar. } The breech is contained. The internal bulkheads are holding." Tavio Torra exhaled heavily. This is what a Leevan is meant to do, he reminded himself. It pays very well. "What happened to my point defence?" he demanded. "How did a mine slip past?" The sensors had recovered from the Abbai jamming weapon. } That was no mine!" } Then what--" } A Drazi Merlin just strafed us." } Drazi?" Tavio glanced at a display built into the arm of his chair. "What the hell are Drazi doing strafing us?" he asked. "We're in the middle of a minefield!" } We have other ships on approach vectors." } The Drazi are insane!" Tavio swore loudly. He could see their reasoning plainly enough--his minesweeper had to be destroyed before it cleared the minefield and so the Drazi would destroy it. "Call for support!" } No on else is in range." } Call anyway!" Aurilla cruisers moved into position and their lasers reached out to slice chunks from the hulls of Abbai ships. Laser-armed Bochi defense satellites began firing in response. A Kastona-class cruiser moved through the minefield. It s combat lasers fired and scored hits against one of the Aurillas. Taras- class strike destroyers darted towards the Kastona. Administrator Talitha closed her eyes in pain as explosions blossomed within the sensorium's holotank. } The Centauri have modified their police ships into more dedicated combat-oriented ships." } But they still die, Muath." It shocked her. The Centauri had no compunction about throwing away their lives. Abbai ships were breaking out of orbit now, moving to engage the Centauri. Kastona and Lystala cruisers, Tetrav frigates, a Nota deep scout.... } Activate the Kirov jammer satellites." } I will do so, Madam Administrator." } The gunners are prepared to engage," Kaschot announced. "If the Centauri close, we will show them our claws." Talitha shuddered. * * * Hownata, Orieni Empire } The Bearer of Joy has just arrived," Rivoche announced from where she stood near the wall of the administrator's office. Jund Vool turned away from the window. The orange-tinted sky was only proving to be even more depressing than usual for her. "And what word have they brought?" } Unity Command is outraged that Force Commander Husmack has chosen to launch an unauthorized strike against the Centauri. He is too be censured and stripped of all rank and privileges." } Easier said that done." Husmack had abandoned Hownata with over half of its defensive assets and departed to raid Shtost. Rivoche blinked. } What else?" } The Council of the Blessed has condemned Husmack as a heretic. Force Commander Fal Kor is promoted to full authourity over all Purity Of Deed Attack Wings and the fixed defences." } Is Unity Command planning to further reinforce our garrison?" } They do not say." Jund Vool turned to look at another officer. "What about the beacon?" } I do not believe the Centauri will be making any use of that beacon to attack us, even if Husmack's attack stirs them up." Wok Stanek clicked his beak. The tall Orieni sounded quite confident. "The beacon is not transmitting a very strong signal." } Too long a connection?" } The real-space ends are too distant and hyperspace is too violent a place. It will require the blessings of the Living Gods for Force Commander Husmack to actually reach Shtost." } Let him lose divine favour! I will not mourn his death if he does become lost and stranded within hyperspace!" Jund Vool's tone was heated. "I do regret the lack of the ships he has led on this fool's errand. We are weakened even with the Centauri massing at our borders." } Orien remains safe. The Centauri retreated." } For now." Rivoche stirred. Jund Vool ignored her aide. "We must continue to reinforce our garrison with every available hull. We must increase production." Kezlan clicked her beak. "That will be all but impossible...our factories are already at peak capacity." } We must find ways of improving." } We cannot! Our labour crews are already working until they are ready to drop of exhaustion. Accidents and injuries are thirty per cent above pre-war rates and climbing. By the Living Gods, we cannot maintain this pace." Jund Vool blinked. She was not used to Kezlan speaking so. * * * Tirolus, Abbai Matriarchy } Our casualties are increasing." Petrus Torra glanced at the datapad in his hand, then threw it aside. "All the more reason for you to win a victory!" he snarled. Mikolo watched the datapad slowly float through the air. "Not an easy matter to arrange," he pointed out. "Our forces have been fighting for nearly a solid day." His crews were growing tired. Supplies were dwindling. "We don't have much left to throw at them." } The Abbai can't have anything left to oppose you!" Petrus shook his head. "It's impossible to think that they've stood against you for this long." } They have because they are masters of the static defense." Mikolo had known just how difficult this assault would be. "It's not just warships and that starbase which I have to deal with, my dear brother, but the rest of their accursed defences. Minefields of staggering density. Satellites designed specifically to disrupt our inter-ship communications and jam our sensors." Petrus bit back a curse. Mikolo raised his voice. "Rhanis, what news on those Drazi?" Miklo's exec stiffened. "The last squadron has retreated to the orbit around the starbase. We think they're taking on fresh supplies." Mikolo rubbed his chin. The Drazi had proven to be quite a disruption to his plans. They had numbered less less than a quarter of his own strength, but they'd killed almost twice their number of hulls with their near-suicidal attacks. } We can resupply our own ships," Petrus said, "and then we can press our attack." } Our militia has been gutted," Mikolo pointed out. "If we retreat now, I do not believe we will be able to mount another offensive." } I will not give up our hard-won gains!" Petrus lowered his voice. "We must win here or else our House will never recover." The fighting for Tirolus had proven to be considerably more costly than even his worst nightmares had suggested. "Their defences are also gutted," he said out loud. "This is our chance!" } Are you certain then, that we must go through with this final attack?" } You've seen the reports from your militia. From your agents. The Abbai are winning the war for dominance. They have more ships overall in the system and every location they take becomes a fortified strong point which we cannot retake." Mikolo grimaced. } The emperor, damn him, has successfully scared the other houses into avoiding our offers of alliance. We have no choice left to us but to fight on alone. And our resources for that are running low." } I am aware of that fact." } We need to turn the tide of this conflict...and we must do it quickly!" } But to use a Tavor?" } That is what it will take." Petrus stood more straight, his magnetic-souled boots holding him on the deck. "Advance on the planet with every ship you still command!" Muath finished listing the Drazi losses and their impressive list of kills. "The minefields and defences have further weakened the Centauri strength." } Barely half their ships remain functional," Talitha observed in a tired voice, "but there is no sign that they are ready to break off." And less chance of them accepting a ceasefire. Kaschot listened impassively. } What can we do?" } I am not certain that we have much of a choice left to us." Kaschot gestured towards the holographic icons. "We must defend ourselves...with every means at our disposal." } More deaths?" } Better them than us!" Talitha's mouth fell open. } Fartok is more than willing to keep fighting. He only asks for fuel for his ships in exchange." Kaschot was willing to pay that small fee to keep the Drazi happy. Muath stiffened in his couch. "The Centauri are advancing!" } What course?" } They're coming directly towards the planet." } Kaamai, send the alert to all commands." Talitha swallowed. "This must be their final effort. We will weather it and then this conflict will end." } We're closing rapidly." } I can see that, Cudda," Grenou snapped. He was a rarity--an Abbai who actually enjoyed combat, though he seldom got an opportunity to indulge his darker urges. The Great Father has truly blessed me, he thought. Here I have a Tetrav frigate and all the targets I could wish for. And the Kraken was a surprisingly dangerous foe. } We're closing on the Falenna." } Lock lasers on target," Grenou hissed. The cruiser filled the main display. } They've seen us!" Cudda warned. "They're firing!" } Brace for impact!" Grenou called out as a sudden wave of plasma fire swept towards them. The bolt hit the Tetrav head on, slamming into the gravitic shield and pushing the Kraken backwards. } Return fire!" Grenou bellowed. The combat lasers fired and the crimson beams raked across the Falenna's hull. The beams burned deep and explosions blossomed. } Beautiful," Grenou breathed. Nearly half a full day of battle and he was still excited by the explosion of a victim. Not an enemy, but a victim to be offered to the Dark Father. A Balciron fell out of formation as Abbai lasers burned through its hull. A Leevan minesweeper was surrounded by explosions as its guns cleared away the thick cloud of mines. On the bridge of the Glittering Beacon, Petrus bared his teeth in a snarl. "Fire mass drivers as we enter range." Mikolo grunted. "That will devastate the planet." } I know, Mikolo. I have given you an order…you will obey it!" The admiral nodded. "As you command." He turned to his com-officer. "Signal to the Nightshade. All power to the mass drivers! Stand by." He glanced towards his brother, but he could see that there would be no changing his mind. "Fire." } We have the command from the flag." Cartous nodded his head calmly. "Then lock targets." The Tavor's captain spoke with a touch of eagerness in his voice. "This time we will crack the planet open!" he vowed. The rest of the bridge crew listened without comment. Cartous smiled. We were driven away before when we made our attack...this time we will show the Abbai the true nature of warfare! "Charge them up!" The lights dimmed as the reactor shunted vast amounts of energy away from the regular systems and into the underslung mass drivers. The driver coils began spinning the rocks in the grip, in a deep rumbling that could be heard throughout the ship and which rattled the internal fittings. Cartos listened to the sound with pleasure. "Fire!" With a pair of fierce jolts, the drivers released their rounds and hurled the rocks in a diminishing halo of blue energy. } Projections are confirmed," Muath reported in a cold voice. "The asteroids will pass out of our engagement range." } Do we have anything in position to intercept?" Kaschot demanded. The sensorium was quiet otherwise. Talitha stood silently, watching. } Satellites are retasking but rocks were never programmed as targets." The Abbai who spoke did not mask the frustration in his voice. "We have a Tetrav attempting to block but--" The pair asteroids plummeted through the atmosphere, turning into massive fireballs as they struck the ground. The dust clouds were immense as they rose into the atmosphere and blossomed outwards like mushrooms. The Abbai stared in horror. } Multiple impacts…we’ve lost contact with our mining operations." Muath typed fresh commands into his console. "Massive disruptions worldwide." } This is terrible." Kaschot spoke in open horror. "How do we stop such a weapon?" } How can the Centauri do this to a world?" Talitha demanded, tears flowing down her cheeks. "They are destroying the entire ecosystem." Rhanis Torra straightened from his station as the data finished arriving. "We have solid impacts on the main continent." } Track the damage." Mikolo tried to keep his voice steady. } Order the Nightshade to recharge and continue to fire." } You heard my brother," Mikolo said. "Relay the order." } Yes, Admiral." } And get me a reading on the Drazi!" Mikolo knew that even the Abbai would mount a counterattack now. They will be desperate to kill the Tavor . Saanasa picked herself up from the ground where she had been thrown by the sudden groundquake. } What is happening?" another Abbai called out. } It's merely a tremor," Saanasa called out. "Nothing to be concerned with." The other Abbai did not look convinced. Saanasa looked around. She was not convinced either. Not with a Centauri battle fleet in orbit. But the government had not mentioned any breaches in the defence grid. The Centauri were still held at a distance. A fiery star plummeted through the clouds and towards the horizon. The object grew brighter and larger and then it was past, leaving a trail of smoke. Petrus Torra rubbed his chin. "Continue firing." } Continue firing?" } I want the planet leveled as an object lesson to the Abbai." Mikolo nodded stiffly. "It will be a stern lesson." } Let it...that world is no longer of importance to us. Let it die and become a reminder to the lesser races that such will be the price paid if they oppose the Republic." } By the Dark Father," Grenou hissed. "Such destruction." He stared at the display. A single impact had been more than enough to destroy an entire island. "If that hit a city...." } The Centauri are powering up for a second volley." } It's a thing of beauty," Grenou boasted. "It's almost a pity that we have to destroy that ship." } Maybe we can salvage that weapon afterwards." } Yes...." Grenou had allies. The Bauline Trilogy had influence, even if the rest of the Matriarchy didn't even know they existed. "The Dark Father will be pleased." } The Drazi are breaking out of orbit again..." } They show such eagerness to die." } Aye." } Let us aid them. Lock weapons on the closest Centauri vessel and open fire." Grenou bared his teeth. "For the Dark Father!" The ground underfoot shook again. Saanasa staggered, almost falling. } What is happening?" } What is causing this?" Panicked shouts echoed throughout the commune. } Find shelter!" Saanasa dropped her portable computer, hearing the components within break. She tried to find the breath to spare for a curse, but she could muster the energy. } Get our weapons into range!" Fartok snarled. "The Abbai bleed!" He raised a clenched fist, as if ready to strike his helmsman. "More speed!" That green-scaled Drazi bent over his console, as if he could will the Auk to fly even faster. } Centauri vessels on approach. They screening." } Drazi break through Centauri." Fartok was confident of that. "Drazi show Centauri true firepower." Inwardly, he was amazed at the ruthlessness the Centauri had demonstrated with their mass drivers. "Fire!" The Auk gunship unleashed a barrage from its array of particle cannons and the blasts tore into a Taras strike destroyer, tearing the small ship apart. * * * Hyperspace, Centauri Republic The bulk of the Divine Forgiveness shuddered and groaned. } The storms are growing worse, Force Commander." } I am aware of that," Husmack grunted. } Seeker Of The Nine Moons is reporting a low level interference with the hyperspace beacon." Husmack turned to his aide. "What kind of interference?" The bulkheads groaned again. } Radiation and gravitational wavefronts are increasing. We're entered a region of storms." } Did the Seeker encounter this storm before?" } No, Force Commander." Husmack stared at the holotank. While in hyperspace, there was little to see, other than the icons showing his fleet. The Purity of Deed Attack Wings were holding a tight formation, with no ships lost thus far. } Circles of Darkness!" the helmsman swore. } What is it?" Husmack demanded. } The beacon! It's gone!" Husmack felt a chill race through him. "Gone?" } Yes, Force Commander. The beacon to Shtost is no longer transmitting." } How long can you maintain our course?" } I'm not sure...even with coordination from the rest of the fleet, we're going to be flying blind." } The risk of being lost in hyperspace is--" } I know." Husmack grunted. "We'll have to risk a blind jump back to normal space." He raised his voice. "Does any ship detect anything resembling a planetary system?" The gravity shadows of stars were relatively easy to detect after all. Under normal conditions, he amended. } We have nothing on our scopes, Force Commander." } Then we must make an effort to leave hyperspace." He could see no other choice than a blind jump. "Even open space will give us the ability to determine our location from the stars." The database had been modified with Centauri astronomy charts taken from occupied systems. "We will find a safe haven and then continue the war." * * * Ar-Choaka, occupied Orieni Empire } We must press on," Tillo Garlan announced to his staff. "Admiral Jaddo has struck at Orien itself. Regrettably," he raised his voice to be heard over the sudden murmuring, "he has been forced to with withdraw." Brigadier Yorrick Tavastani frowned. "So you are going to target Kateener?" } At long last." Tillo Garlan nodded. "It is time." Jon Kiro rubbed his chin. "Will we be receiving additional reinforcements?" } I doubt that." Tillo shook his head. "We have sufficient might already gathered here. We have the strength necessary to attack." The officers exchanged looks. } We must push deeper into the Empire. After Kateneer, we can invade Phanos." That world was the oldest ally of the Orieni. With its conquest, we would deal a mighty blow to the Orieni. They would not easily recover from losing that world. Tillo Garlan smiled. "We will attack within the month." Tillo Garlan stepped onto the balcony and felt the breeze blowing against him. Ti was warm and carried a strong tang of salt. The watery planet was a place of atolls and sandbars for the natives to live. Xand Chume honked softly. Tillo turned his head to look at the yellow-eyed Choaka. "Yes, Governor-Elect?" He used the native's rank, though the alien had little real authourity. Whatever few scraps I choose to leave him. } Will you be departing soon, Grand Admiral?" } Are you eager to see me go?" Xand Chume honked again. "The Choaka Atolls have chosen to willingly ally themselves with your Republic. We are willing to commit our own military forces to your support." Tillo studied him, then turned back to stare at the cityscape and then the ocean beyond. } Our ancestors fought the Orieni when they first came to attack us. We held out for a long time." } But you failed and were conquered." } Truth." Jund Vool blinked. "We can support you." } The shipyards have been idle." } Sabotage was unexpected." Xand Chume blinked. "My aide, Desa Vool, has been overseeing the repair efforts. The construction of new hulls will start up soon." } Corvettes." Tillo Garlan did not sound very impressed. "The local yards are only able to build Steadfast corvettes and its variants." } The Royal Navy makes use of small ships...we can adapt to build corvettes for you as well." Jund Vool approached the railing. "If not, the Atolls will field their own fleet." } Of course." Tillo had no intention of allowing the natives to field a powerful fleet of their own. But if I use those ships as a spearhead...then they could destroy the Orieni while weakening themselves enough to no longer be a problem. He stroked his mustaches as he considered that. * * * Lisuria, Centauri Republic Cargo shuttles waited on the landing field, with teams of spacesuited loaders carrying cargo into their open hatches. The ferrocrete surface was cracked, with deep craters replacing several of the hangers. } My Lord, is this wise?" Xander Lotoru dabbed at his face with a lace-trimmed handkerchief. There was sweat on his face and dust marred his dark green jacket. There was more lace on his cuffs and collar. } Of course it is." Rickard Lotoru chuckled and turned away from the cracked window. He was clean-shaven, tall, and athletically handsome. His dark red jacket was lightly embroidered, and devoid of lace. "This colony is abandoned and this world is dying...why not make full use of its resources?" } Because it belongs to House Mollari." } Who are not here." Rickard gestured towards the window again. "Do you see much activity in their city?" he asked. "Of course not! The Orieni bombed it most thoroughly when they occupied this system." The dome was shattered and the city was open to vacuum. } And so we're simply going to scavenge it? The emperor won't be happy. House Mollari will censure us. You're going to cause a lot of trouble." Rickard allowed himself a single, loud, sigh. "Heptharg!" he shouted. An extremely large Drazi lumbered through the doorway and into the office. He walked slowly towards the two Centauri. "You call?" he said in a voice deep enough to have risen from the depths of the planet. } Yes. Kill this idiot." Xander's jaw dropped. "Wait, what did you--" } Kill Centauri now?" Heptharg asked. He lifted his arm--his scaly fingers were wrapped around Xander's throat and the Centauri's boots were barely even with his knees. Xander was making gurgling noises. } Yes, now." Rickard turned and left the office. He headed towards the main floor of the governor's mansion. This part of the city was contained within its own dome, separate from the rest of Portiatown. A slender Centauri approached him as he stepped off the staircase. He wore dark clothing and his hair was worked into a crest. "The first wave of shuttles are returning from the freighters. The operation is proceeding on schedule." } That is good news, Augustine." } I thought you would be pleased." Rickard suppressed the urge to brush his own hair a bit taller. "I am. Our patriarch will be very happy with us, I dare say." Augustine snickered. "Where is your shadow? Shouldn't he licking your boots? Or whining about the risks of this operation?" } Xander won't be bothering us." } You finally let Heptharg play with him?" } The Drazi have their uses." Augustine snickered again. } I want everything of value loaded on the shuttles by tomorrow. The convoy needs to get moving." } I know." Rickard grimaced. House Lotoru was taking a risk, traveling into the Orieni-ravaged star systems, but the payoff was immense. Abandoned colonies filled with treasures and equipment and resources. Ours for the taking, he thought. "Do you have anything to offer?" he asked. } The only thing of note is a small report from the team assigned to secure the agrodomes." } What of them?" } They found a small group of survivors hiding there." Rickard grimaced and barely managed to suppress a curse. "How many?" } Thirty-two. Commoners of course. Technicians, their wives, a few guardsmen. No one of noble blood." Augustine glanced down at his fingernails. "They demanded that we contact Quadrant Four and request further assistance from House Mollari." } I see." } Of course, they have all succumbed to serious injuries by now." Augustine said the words in a matter-of-fact voice. "You spoke correctly...the Drazi mercenaries do have their uses."