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Order In Chaos - The Centauri-Orieni War Part One

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Talon Spiritcat, Jan 1, 2008.

  1. Talon Spiritcat

    Talon Spiritcat Dragon Wrangler

    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."
     
    Argosh likes this.
  2. Talon Spiritcat

    Talon Spiritcat Dragon Wrangler

    Mattren, occupied Orieni Empire
    "
    Commence the attack." Stakka Chunak could feel every single bulkhead on the ancient Cleric-class mothership shudder as it slid through the jump-point. He spared a moment to utter a brief prayer that the hull of the Blessings From Heaven actually held together. Its final ride into battle for the greater glory of the Living Gods. "We must shatter the Centauri!"
    The crew raised a cheer.
    Stakka wished that he had been able to muster a stronger task force. Far too many of Redemption Fleet's hulls were small escorts, most still bearing battle damage from the First Battle of Orien. The First Battle, he thought grimly. Living Gods preserve us from there being a second!
    The crew were at their stations, watching him attentively.
    Toh Caddar limped across the deck. The Orieni officer had taken serious wounds in the Battle of Orien and really should still have been in a hospital. He offered a salute. "The task force obeys your orders, Paladin," he announced in a raspy voice.
    "
    Release all Hunter-Killers. Focus on the Tavors and the troop transports." Stakka named the priority targets with ease. Our goal is delay further attacks so those are the obvious ships we must destroy. "Scouts are a secondary concern."
    "Targets acknowledged and locked, Paladin."
    "
    Helm, take us forward. Gunners, fire at will."
    Toh Caddar clicked his beak. "By the Living Gods, we will have our victory."
     
    Alert sirens were sounding throughout the Centauri fleet.
    With a snarl, Shaal Jaddo ordered the alarm turned off. He glared across his flag bridge. "Everyone knows that we're under attack by now!" he said. "I don't need that wailing distracting me while I think."
    Colu Vantari chuckled.
    The bridge of the Splendor of Entat went quiet.
    Shaal enjoyed the silence for a moment. "Sensors, talk to me!"
    "
    Multiple signals," Jarvis reported from his station. "Two command ships and thirty plus escorts came through the jump-points. Twenty more escorts came through the jump-gate."
    Shaal frowned. "That's a strong task force." Not enough to drive him away from Mattren, but enough to cause him some serious damage. "How did the Orieni manage to pull together so many ships?" Surely they were focusing their efforts on safeguarding their homeworld!
    Colu Vantari was issuing orders over his own headset-comm. "The patrol fighters are engaging Hunter-Killers and Templars. Carriers are scrambling their reserves but it will take some time. We were at a stand down after all."
    "
    Order all ships to assume a defensive posture." Shaal Jaddo didn't think his fleet had time to do much else. Too many of my crews are taking some shore leave to recover after the battle of Orien. At his orders, of course. "Everyone knows the usual Orieni priority targets." He was pleased to see that no one was panicking and that some of his officers were already issuing orders. They know I value initiative. "Get me an ident on the flagship. Who are we about to kill?"
    "
    I'm not sure...it's an older hull design. The other ship is a Faithful Searcher." Jarvis scratched his head. "The power emissions on the warship are quite high...it's not very efficient."
    "
    Jamming from the Faithful?" Vantari asked.
    "
    Possibly, but it's not right for jamming. This is more like interference from a poorly tuned reactor."
    "
    Like something on a House Militia ship," Shaal muttered with grim amusement as he took a quick glance at the readings. We had too much of that foolishness in the early stages of the war.
    "
    Planetary defenses are coming online."
    Shaal had little confidence in the handful of stations and weapon platforms the Navy had assembled. Mattren was never deemed worthy of any powerful fortifications. Just enough to fend off Orieni raids.
    "
    It's a Cleric," Colu Vantari commented as the war-book finally found a match. "Not a Prophet or even a Pariah."
    "
    The Orieni must be desperate indeed if they're sending in those obsolete ships." Shaal chuckled. "We can handle it." For a brief moment, he had wondered if Shrieka Rak had pursued them from Orien but that feeling of alarm was fading.
    "
    No doubt of that, Admiral."
    "
    But it's still potent," Shaal Jaddo commented as the Cleric's firepower turned a slowly maneuvering Tavor, clearly caught by surprise, into a slowly expanding cloud of scrap.
    "
    It looks that way, Admiral."
    "
    Track those HKs...what is their intended target?"
     
    Explosions flared within the holotank.
    Toh Caddar clicked his beak loudly. "Results from the first strike has arrived, Paladin. We've bloodied them."
    Stakka Chunak heard his aide's report, but did not take his eyes off the holotank. Mattren was visible to the naked eye, but mounting a ground attack was not part of his plan. "Maintain course and speed. Set the laser batteries on continuous fire."
    An Orto troop carrier was burning in a dozen places as the Cleric's laser beams carved chunks from its hull.
    Steadfasts
    swept past its hull and fired their gauss cannons into a Sakar carrier. The explosive shells punched through hull armour, digging deep within the carrier's hull before exploding.
    Shining Lights
    darted through desperate bursts from anti-fighter weapons and rammed into warships.
    A Celerian warcruiser fired its own lasers and sliced a Steadfast in half.
    A Storm Front unleashed a barrage of missiles which hammered a Centauri squadron. Plasma bursts from a damaged Nalor tore the Storm Front apart before it could fire a second volley.
     
    "
    The Orieni are inflicting significant damage."
    Shaal Jaddo bit off a curse. "What's their formation?"
    "
    Nothing that matches our records of previous battles." Colu Vantari spoke up from his station. "They're operating in small groups, seemingly without any overall battle formation."
    "
    That is not standard Orieni tactics."
    "
    No, Admiral."
    Jarvis cleared his throat. "The Long March Onwards is burning...lifepods are launching but troop losses are going to be heavy."
    "
    Send in recovery teams. Get them more support fire."
    "
    The Emerald Sceptre is reporting damage to its engines and flight decks. They've been rammed!"
    "
    Where are my escorts?" Shaal shouted. "I want all ships to regroup into mutually supporting units."
    Colu Vantari rubbed his chin. "We're taking a pounding."
    "
    Pound them back!"
     
    "
    The Centauri are responding. Defensive fire is growing heavier."
    "
    I can see that." Stakka Chunak stared at the holotank. Ripples of static washed through it, making icons flicker and jump. The Blessings' reactor core was beginning to falter--it was simply too old to maintain maximum output for long. "Losses to our escorts?"
    "
    Forty plus per cent so far, but no ship has died alone. We've killed at least as many as we've lost."
    "
    The Living Gods welcome their souls." Stakka Chunak heard the groans of the bulkheads again as the Blessings ponderously changed course. "Prepare to vent the cargo bays!"
    "
    Bays are pressurized to one hundred and fifty per cent," Toh Caddar had moved to a console. "Cargo restraints are released and the crews have been evacuated. We're ready."
    Stakka paused for a quick prayer. "Open the bays!"
    As the first motherships, Clerics had been built with huge cargo bays--designed to support a task force during extended campaigns--and now those bays had been packed with Shining Lights. As the doors opened, the atmosphere in the bays pushed the fighters into space.
    "
    Activate the Shining Lights," Stakka ordered. "Standard targeting."
    "
    Confirmed."
    "
    Track that Obedient!" Darren Fusilli ordered. "Don't let it close. I want to hit that Cleric."
    "
    We've got fresh signals!" the sensor tech called out.
    Darren Fusilli muttered a curse. "Talk to me!"
    "
    The Cleric just launched a fresh wave of Hunter-Killers."
    "
    Great Maker!"
    The Vampire lurched as an Obedient raked it with laser fire. The Nalor's plasma cannon fired back and the tiny Obedient blew apart.
    "
    Anti-fighter batteries to full power!" Darren ordered. "
     
    "
    We have an eighty per cent activation rate for the second wave of Hunter-Killers." Toh Caddar offered the report in a tired voice. "HK Control is trying to bring the others online now."
    "
    Eighty per cent was above projections." Stakka had not expected more than half of the loosely packed fighters to actually activate after their improvised deployment. "The Centauri were caught off-guard."
    Explosions were blossoming within the holotank.
    "
    Their anti-fighter firepower is proving more effective than before."
    "
    They are no longer surprised." Stakka Chunak clicked his beak. "We've inflicted heavy damage, but it won't be enough to delay the invasion for long."
    "
    No, Paladin."
    "
    Order the remaining ships to scatter as per Operation Falling Embers. Signal to the fleet: exodus!"
    "
    Yes, Paladin."
    A jump-point flared as a Faithful Searcher led its squadron into hyperspace. A second group of Communion-led escorts accelerated through the nearby jump-gate.
    Stakka was pleased. A few squadrons would manage to escape from this engagement. And they would not return to Orien...no, they had orders to jump to other occupied systems and work to disrupt Centauri convoys and patrols. We are buying time for our homeworld to further prepare. Every day of delay is a victory. "Gunners, target bearing one seven mark two nine." The bridge went quiet at those words. "Maximum firepower."
    "
    Paladin?"
    "
    Gunners, you have the target." Stakka turned towards the tactical station. "Do I need to replace you?"
    "
    No, Paladin." The Phanop shook its entire body. With obvious reluctance, he turned back towards his console. "Target acquired...weapons locking on."
    "
    Fire when ready."
    "
    As you command."
     
    Jump-points flared on the displays.
    "
    The Orieni are fleeing!" Jarvis reported.
    "
    We've won."
    Shaal Jaddo shook his head. "A painful victory, Vantari. We've lost too many ships, took too much damage, from this surprise attack." He would not allow it to happen again. He didn't want to think about what losses he had taken. How much of a delay will this cost me? How will the Royal Court respond?
    "
    The Cleric is turning away from us. Escorts are gathering near it."
    "
    Interceptor teams are still engaged with the last Hunter-Killers."
    "
    Energy spike detected...the Cleric is powering up."
    "
    They're going to jump," Vantari said. "We can't get into firing range in time to stop them."
    "
    Perhaps we can track them--"
    Jarvis stiffened in his chair. "They're firing weapons."
    "
    At what target? By the Great Maker!" Jaddo's mouth hung open as the Orieni fired on the struts of the jump-gate. The laser beams cut into the superstructure and explosions glittered.
    * * *
    Ssumssha, Abbai Matriarchy
    Imagery of a devastated Tirolus faded from the holographic displays.
    The audience hall was silent as the Abbai mourned the loss of their first colony as the projectors powered down and the chamber's lighting returned to normal levels. The coral walls were a soothing pink...now they looked far too much like blood.
    "
    There is no hope of recovery now," Saanasa informed the council in a sorrowful voice. She had slipped through the Centauri blockade to return to the waters of her homeworld with a number of wounded civilians. "The damage to the ecosystem, which we first caused through our ignorance, has now become impossible for us to ever repair. Temperatures are already dropping noticeably."
    "
    We are looking at the onset of a new ice age?"
    "
    Yes, Natar. That is our projection."
    Piira, the Empress-Mother of the Abbai, slumped ever so slightly in her chair. She took a moment to study the chamber, seeking solace in the architecture. The walls of the chamber had been carved out of once-living rose-coloured coral and the floor was transparent, so that the inhabitants appeared to be literally walking on water. "Utriel has just become that much more vital to our people. It must be protected at all costs."
    The aides clustered around Unlarin Tinti stiffened as the fleet admiral stepped away from them. Her red and orange uniform stood out in the crowd. "The Castle Guard will be deployed there in greater strength. That world will be held."
    Piira closed her eyes at the thoughts of more even bloodshed to come. "What news of the Centaruri?"
    "
    House Torra has not launched any major assaults since they ended the bombing of Tirolus. They have been oddly reluctant to even mount a raid of any kind against our lesser holdings."
    "
    Perhaps they are overstretched?"
    "
    That is our theory," Tinti said. "That final attack cost them more than they could afford to spend. Our Drazi allies paid very heavily, but they were able to damage the bombardment ship seriously enough that it was forced to withdraw from the system."
    Piira sighed. "It has not returned?"
    "
    No, nor has it been sighted in any of our territorial waters."
    "
    Then there is a chance of finally arranging a peaceful settlement?"
    "
    Perhaps."
    "
    You think not?"
    Unlarin
    Puul exchanged a guarded look with Tinti, but said nothing out loud.
    Tinti cleared her throat. "It is equally possible that the Centauri will mount another even more destructive attack."
    "
    They have all but killed a living world!" the Natar said in open horror. "How much more destructive and vindictive can these creatures be?"
    "
    From reports we have obtained regarding the fighting along the Orieni border, these siege ships have been used to reduce many worlds to cratered rubble. Prolonged bombardments have destroyed everything and left the ecosystems in true ruins. Some of those worlds may never recover to a state capable of once again supporting life."
    The Abbai were silent in their shock and horror.
     
    "
    What is next on the agenda?"
    Tassa Aloo rested the datapad on the polished creepla-shell tabletop. "From our most recent reports, the Centauri and the Orieni have finally begun to negotiate a ceasefire."
    "
    They are ready to finally end this war?"
    "
    Yes, Natar."
    Piiraa, the ruling Mother of the Abbai, managed to retain her aura of serenity despite the unexpected news. She was pleased that the larger meeting had been dissolved and now her smaller circle of advisers could discuss current events in a more peaceful setting.
    "
    We should attempt to use this."
    "
    How so?"
    "
    We should encourage this action." Piiraa turned towards another Abbai who was sitting further down the table. "Tolseka, you will be the key to our efforts."
    "
    Yes, Mother."
    Piiraa gestured to one of her aides. "Prepare to record a data-crystal for delivery to Centauri Prime. I will rely on you, Tolseka, to swim there safely."
    "
    I shall do so," Tolseka replied. "Perhaps I can obtain passage with a Vree trader." Even the Centauri had not attacked the Vree. Well, not officially of course. The Vree have destroyed a number of pirates over the years. Piracy was always a risk when swimming through Centauri-claimed waters.
     
    Piiraa carefully adjusted her robes of state, attempting to muster every last piece of regal authourity which she could claim.
    A few members of her staff had gathered to watch the recording of her message.
    She took comfort in their presence. They look to me for guidance and protection. I must do what I can to keep their harbours safe.
    "
    Vitani Rafani, Emperor of the Centauri Republic." Flattery would be helpful, no doubt, as the Centauri were all known to be quite vain. And their emperor most of all. "Ruler of a Hundred Worlds, Conquerer of Systems, Defender of the Faith, Guardian of the Eye, and Slayer of the Xon." She paused for a much needed breath after that lengthy list of titles. "I bid you greetings, one ruler of a star nation to another." She would show him her quiet strength.
    "
    We have learned that you and the Orieni have finally recognized the futility of continuing this decade-long war and have begun to bring about an ending. The Abbai nation applauds this desire.
    "
    It will not be easy to bring about a ceasefire. There is little trust between you and the Orieni upon which you can build a lasting peace. It will require give and take and a mutual willingness to negotiate.
    "
    The Abbai will not take sides in this conflict. However, we do offer our services in negotiating a ceasefire between you and the Centauri. You are welcome to swim to Ssumssha, as a neutral venue. Failing that, we offer space aboard any of our ships for such meetings. We offer the services of our finest ambassadors to aid in those ongoing negotiations. We also offer our ships as a neutral venue for any face-to-face meetings.
    "
    Please consider the sincerity of my offer. I await your response."
     
    The gathered Abbai murmured softly to one another.
    Piiraa adjusted her robes again, listening to her people discuss her message. Now for my second message.
    "
    Aaka Hrhia, Supreme Heirophant of the Orieni Empire." There would be less flattery than for the Centauri. "First among Equals on the Council of the Blessed. I bid you warm greetings, one ruler of a star nation to another.
    "
    Your conflict with the Centauri has dominated the attention of the galaxy. It has raged for much too long and many worlds have suffered. Surely you can see that now is the time to end this destruction while there is still a chance of recovery.
    "
    We have learned that you and the Centauri have finally recognized the futility of continuing this decade-long war and have begun to bring about an ending. The Abbai people applauds this desire.
    "
    It will not be easy to bring about a ceasefire. There is little trust between you and the Centauri upon which you can build a lasting peace. It will require give and take and a mutual willingness to negotiate.
    "
    The Abbai will not take sides in this conflict. However, we do offer our services in negotiating a ceasefire between you and the Centauri. You are welcome to swim to Ssumssha, as a neutral venue. Failing that, we offer space aboard any of our ships for such meetings. We offer the services of our finest ambassadors to aid in those ongoing negotiations. We also offer our ships as a neutral venue for any face-to-face meetings.
    "
    Please consider the sincerity of my offer. I await your response."
     
    The room's lighting returned to normal conditions.
    "
    Hopefully they will listen to reason," Tolseka said.
    "
    We can only pray to the Great Mother that they will," Piiraa agreed. "In the meantime, we shall do as we must to safeguard our own shores."
    Tinti nodded her own agreement.
    * * *
    Alpha One, Centauri Republic
    Domius Callo cursed loudly as he stomped across the lounge's carpet. "I've lost how many freighters?" he bellowed at his son, who was also the House Militia's lord admiral.
    "A...dozen in the last month." Ramill cleared his throat, clearly uncertain of how to continue or exactly what to say. He grabbed the lapels of his jacket, to still his hands and keep them from trembling. He began stroking the braid, as if seeking comfort in it.
    "
    And you are only just telling me this now?"
    "
    Yes, Lord."
    "
    You are an idiot," Domius declared. "Great Maker preserve me, I am surrounded by idiots."
    Tilar Callo brushed a few crumbs from the breast of his jacket. The merchant lord waved at a servant to bring the tray of drinks closer.
    Ramill visibly stiffened and ignored the servants as several approached with trays of refreshments. None of them were aliens; every man was a member--if distant--of the House's bloodline. "We were unsure of the full extent of the losses. There have been...difficulties in communication recently."
    "
    Sabotage." There was a sour twist on Domius's face.
    "
    It would appear so."
    "
    What House is responsible?"
    "
    Madrin is our first thought." Ramill glanced at Tilar. "They have been envious of us for some time."
    "
    The losses have not taken place near any of Madrin's holdings," Tilar argued. "There is considerable upheaval disrupting trade and traffic through the former border regions."
    Domius grimaced. "How considerable?" He sipped at his drink.
    "
    From my contacts in the trade guilds," Tilar folded his hands on his ample lap and looked smugly across the room, "every system within four jumps of the pre-war border has been the location of raids. Every House has been suffering."
    "
    We are the preeminent trade House!"
    "
    Yes, and thus our losses are proportionately higher than the others. It is a risk we must accept."
    "
    Gah!" Domius snarled. "And who dares attack us?"
    "
    The usual privateers," Ramill scoffed.
    "
    Plus Orieni warships," Tilar added pointedly. "As well as Rogolon warships, Usuuth freighters...."
    "
    Renegades."
    "
    Threats which should have been neutralized."
    "
    The Royal Navy has failed too--"
    "
    As you have."
    "
    I will not be spoken to like that!" Tilar snarled. "Not by a merchant."
    "
    Enough!" Domius cut them both silent. "House Callo has built its reputation and wealth on its mercantile interests," he continued. "We cannot allow ourselves to become the butt of jokes. No one--no pirate, no renegade, nor any legitimate navy--can be allowed to interfere. Ramil, you have failed to provide sufficient protection."
    "
    Our militia is stretched thin, my Lord. The war effort has diverted far too many of our assets into combat situations. To give our existing convoys a full escort--"
    "
    I will not hear of your excuses. If you cannot manage to perform the duties of your rank, then I will elevate someone else to command."
    Ramill stiffened in his chair.
     
    The door to the lounge closed with a solid thump.
    Domius frowned. Ramill's departure had been quite forceful. Perhaps it will be enough to spur him into fulfilling his duty to our House. If he cannot safeguard our ships, then he will be replaced.
    Tilar sipped at his wine. "I had thoughts of purchasing an Orto from the Navy."
    "
    A troopship?" Domius turned around.
    Tilar nodded his head. "It has artificial gravity...that gives it a certain something. A fine quality."
    "
    For what purpose do you want an Orto?" Domius shook his head at the absurd thought. "A troopship? Something to carry armies between worlds? It seems to be a waste of our money." He picked up a crystal goblet. "We do not have armies to carry. We do not mount full-scale invasions of our enemies. Such a purchase would be a waste of money."
    "
    I was thinking that it could be outfitted as a luxury liner."
    Domius's hand froze halfway to his mouth.
    "
    The barracks could be converted into opulent suites with fine restaurants and lounges. Replace the Navy's rather pale décor with carved paneling, carpets, and artwork and it would be a jewel in our crown. The ship could be set to run along a set course through secure systems, with suitable protective escorts, and it would become quite the destination. No other House has even toyed with the idea."
    "
    There is likely a good reason for that."
    "
    Domius, cruise ships sail the oceans of Centauri Prime. Why not expand that concept to off-world travel?"
    "
    Private yachts sail the oceans. Private yachts carry the nobles to their various holdings. Even the Emperor has a selection of private starships upon which he can travel." Domius shook his head. "You are suggesting that we open up space travel to the common masses?"
    "
    They would pay well for the privilege." Tilar rubbed his chin. "For the chance to briefly taste the life of a nobleman? Yes, they would pay very well."
    "
    Madness."
    "
    Is it? Or is it an opportunity?"
    "
    No one else has tried to seize this...opportunity."
    "
    So we would be the first." Tilar chuckled. "Show some vision, Domius."
    The patriarch snorted.
    * * *
    Kateneer, Orieni Empire
    "
    We have a hard lock on the Centauri warships." Tazoon gripped the edge of his console. "They're closing on our lead formation."
    "
    All sections, brace for impact." Chas Rak did not lift her gaze from an intense study of the Guardian Of The Blessed's holotank. The Centauri had jumped out of hyperspace and were already pressing hard against Kateneer's orbital defences. "All batteries will return fire," she ordered the elderly Orieni who stood at her side.
    "
    As you command, Paladin."
    The light panels dimmed momentarily as the Prophet's reactor strained to power the laser lances and gauss cannons.
    "
    Tazoon, order the Purity of Courage Attack Wing to flank the enemy's rear." Chas Rak ordered as her Prophet shuddered under the caress of laser beams from a Centauri Optine.
    "
    As you command, Paladin."
    "
    Margok, ready the next wave of Hunter-Killers for immediate deployment."
    "
    As ordered."
    Chas Rak looked into the holotank. "We will advance on the Centauri fleet." She gestured. "I want a full strike against that Centaurum."
    "
    You hope to kill Tillo Garlan?"
    "
    Yes."
    Tazoon blinked.
    "
    Order the Revelation Of Sin to commence full-spectrum jamming. I want the Centauri to have as many difficulties as possible."
    "
    Yes, Paladin."
    "
    Adjust the fleet to the ninth defensive posture." That would move her heavier command ships to the flanks, drawing the Centauri in so that her escorts could then swarm around them.
    * * *
    Tithalis, Hyach Gerontocracy
    The sun was bright in the pale lavender sky.
    A tall Hyach glanced back towards the air-skimmer. A second Hyach was seated inside. The Hyach turned back to her other companion. "The location is suitable for you, Brakul?"
    "
    Drazi satisfied. Chana return to Elders with thanks."
    The elderly Hyach, Chana, pulled her cloak more tightly around herself. The breeze was cooler than she felt comfortable being outside in. "You might find some difficulties with your farming options."
    Brakul was smiling.
    Chana disliked smiling Drazi--they were almost as scary as an angry Drazi.
    "This world rich and lush. Soft world.
    Green Drazi see no problems farming. Green Drazi grow many things on Drathun."
    "Tithalis," Chana said.
    "
    Tithalis was Hyach name. Drathun proper Drazi name." Brakul thumped his chest with his fist. "This planet now named Drathun."
    Chana managed not to sigh. She'd been dealing with the Drazi for decades and was resigned to their abrupt nature.
    "This soft world...but Drazi ready to build."
    "The Centauri are--"
    "Centauri not a threat to Drazi. Centauri just annoyance." Brakul watched a bird fly past. "Drazi build new ships. Drazi build new fleet. Drazi fortify this world and no one take it from Drazi."
    Chana frowned again.
    * * *

    Plutak, occupied Orieni Empire
    Ensconced within his private quarters onboard his flagship, Andilo Vitari allowed himself a deep drink from a bulb of brevari. There is something wrong about drinking in zero-gee, he thought sourly. And even more so when it should be as part of a celebratory toast.
    The hatch chime sounded.
    "
    Enter!" Andilo called out.
    The hatch opened and a Centauri officer came inside. He took careful steps so that his magnetic boots remained secured to the deck. "We have completed our entry into orbit, Lord Admiral."
    "
    That, at least, is good news."
    Randis Vitari stood silently.
    "
    That is the sole piece of good news in some time." Andilo eyed his drinking bulb. He took notice of the usual opulence of his quarters--a Centaurum-class battleship had room to spare for a palatial quarters for its flag officers. "We have failed to secure Wereng yet again."
    "
    The fortifications and warships are quite formidable."
    "
    They are cadets," Andilo sneered. "With a handful of veterans to guide them. The Fifteenth Victorious Fleet have failed to secure a victory. The Sovereign's Crown alone should have been enough."
    "
    We will win eventually. The Orieni cannot spare the resources to continuously refortify the system. We will wear them down."
    "
    Wear them down? Wear them down! What kind of strategy is that?" Andilo shouted. "We should have crushed them in one glorious battle and then moved on to strike at Orien itself!"
    "
    Wereng is one of the main lines of defence for their homeworld. It makes sense that the Orieni would fortify it heavily." Randis rubbed his chin. "We can still--"
    "
    Contact CNI and have them study our sensor logs. I want a weakness we can exploit during our next attack."
    "
    As you command, Lord Admiral."
     
    The morning sun was bright and Andilo squinted as he stepped out of the shuttle and onto the tarmac. Rumbling sounded in the distance and he could see a squadron of Tigaro bombers flying overhead.
    Armed guardsmen saluted him.
    "
    We have arranged an armoured car for you," one of their officers announced. "With a full military escort, of course."
    "
    Is the city that dangerous?"
    "
    In places."
    Andilo grimaced. "It is going to be one of those mornings," he muttered.
    The other officer nodded his head in silent agreement.
     
    Andilo stepped into the office.
    "
    Brigadier Corono."
    Austin Corono froze. He managed a weak smile. "Admiral, welcome back to Plutak."
    Andilo's glare grew colder.
    "
    What brings you to the surface?" Austin licked his lips. "I could easily have arranged to shuttle up to the Sovereign's Crown to talk to you there."
    "
    Yes, but then I would have missed the warm sunshine and fresh air. And the sounds of an artillery duel." Andilo stomped across the floor. "I would have missed the entire native revolt."
    Austin's face paled.
    "
    How did you manage to mess up the occupation so badly?"
    "
    I did nothing--"
    "
    I beg to differ." Andilo snatched a stack of paper printouts from the desk top. "You appropriated a large region of land."
    "
    For a military base."
    "
    A military base."
    "
    We needed to establish a secure compound for supplies and from which we can maintain our occupation." Austin stood up. "The natives responded by taking up arms against us."
    "
    They protested your land annexation three times and provided you with nearly a dozen other locations you could have built in."
    "
    The Rhun Valley is the most--"
    "
    Beautiful?"
    "
    The river--"
    "
    Was dammed to make a lake and to provide additional defense. And to provide a source of hydroelectric power."
    Andilo grimaced. He picked up some papers off the desk top.
    Austin Corono waved his hand dismissively. "This system is meant to be a bulwark against attack. The Navy needs a secure planet from which to base ourselves. A heavily fortified compound was an obvious decision."
    "
    Secure from whom? The Kilkameshi? The Minbari?"
    "
    It seems prudent."
    "
    So you have sparked a rebellion."
    "
    My troops will crush it soon enough. The natives cannot stand up to our might."
    "They seem to be delaying you." Andilo tossed the papers onto the floor. "Have you bothered to study the natives?" he asked. "Have you taken note of their life cycle?"
    Austin frowned. "They're insectoid."
    "
    Yes, they are." Andilo nodded. The Plutkai were arthropedial beings with dark striped tubular bodies, red compound eyes, feathery antennae, and six hands/legs.
    g
    And then after ten years or so, they cocoon themselves and undergo a metamorphosis into a butterfly. Austin spoke with a sneer at the absurdity of a sentient being undergoing such a change. They spend the rest of their lives flying around. They lose their intellect and care only about sleeping, eating, and mating.
    g
    Yes...and the Rhun Valley is one of their primary habitats.
    Austin's mouth hung open.
    Yes, you great fool! You have expressed your desire to build your primary military headquarters in the middle of their retirement settlement!" Andilo shook his head. "Imbecile."
    Austin's eyes grew wide. Admiral, I will not be spoken too in that manner.
    Oh no? You do doubt expect your family name to protect you? Andilo threw his head back and laughed. You have single handedly destroyed our informal occupation and brought about an armed revolt. I will now have to spend resources I do not have to reconquer this world.
    A few minutes of attention from one Tavor would end the revolt!
    And further inflame the natives. Andilo rubbed his jaw. You are relieved of your position, Brigadier. He invested the rank with scorn. I will find someone else to govern this world once peace is restored.
    * * *

    Centauri Prime, Centauri Republic
    The Stardust Chamber was one of the palace's smaller reception halls, but it was considered to be one of the most beautiful. The arched ceiling was painted to resemble an idealized night sky. Many of the stars were really tiny lights, giving the room a feeling of a balcony at twilight.
    Vitani Rafani sipped his brevari. "Go on," he pressed.
    Vetrano Dromo cleared his throat. "Our attack against Orien was rebuffed. Shaal Jaddo has reverted to a holding action at Mattren."
    }

    We have the Orieni boxed in.:"
    }
    Yes, Majesty, for now."
    }
    I sense something in your words, Dromo."
    }

    The Orieni mounted a counterstrike. It failed to destroy the Twenty-Third Valiant Fleet, though suicide attacks did cause damage to many ships. The Orieni focused on our carriers, scouts, and the Tavors."
    }

    Of course they did."
    }

    The Orieni survivors fled into hyperspace, but they scattered to other systems and have been preying on our occupation forces."
    Vitani frowned.
    }
    Raiders are operating out of Shinshasa. Jaddo has dispatched a squadron to hunt them down, but--"
    }
    Damn!"
    }

    There's something else."
    Vitani sighed. "I'm going to need more brevari."
    Dromo paused. His own goblet was resting on a table, untouched. "The flagship fired on the jump-gate."
    }

    What?"
    }

    The jump-gate survived--the Cleric only managed one firing pass--but it was heavily damaged. Repairs are being made."
    }

    Insanity! The Orieni are animals! No one destroys jump-gates. That violated every treaty, every rational military and economic strategy!"
    }

    The gate survived. The beacon link to Orien, however, is intermittent. Admiral Jaddo is no longer certain he can follow it through hyperspace."
    }

    I see."
    }

    Yes, Majesty."
    }

    There is more?"
    }

    Yes...reports are arriving of attacks against worlds in the former borderlands. Attacks without purpose, save the sowing of terror. Ships are entering orbit of pacified planets and attacking with missiles and mass driver rounds. It is madness!"
    }

    How bad?"
    }

    We've lost our garrisons at Beta Ten, Saleh, and Addegau."
    }
    Great Maker." Vitani drained his brevari. "We still hold numerous other systems of course."
    }
    Yes, Majesty."
    }
    We should order an attack against Phanos...give us another route to invade."
    Dromo frowned. "I believe we still possess sufficient forces for that, though our reserves are being depleted at an alarming rate."
    }

    And the noble Houses?"
    }
    Are protesting our requests for ships and personnel. We have no received any further militia support in several months."
    }
    The Royal Navy fights alone?"
    }

    Oh, we still have contingents of militia, but they are not being replaced as combat casualties wear them away."
    Vitani bit out a curse. "We could have a victory but those fools in the Centaurum would rather hide their strength and plot against each other."
    }

    Indeed."
    }
    If the Republic loses this war, it will be their fault."
    }
    Yes, Majesty."





































































































































































































    Mattren, occupied Orieni Empire
    "
    Commence the attack." Stakka Chunak could feel every single bulkhead on the ancient Cleric-class mothership shudder as it slid through the jump-point. He spared a moment to utter a brief prayer that the hull of the Blessings From Heaven actually held together. Its final ride into battle for the greater glory of the Living Gods. "We must shatter the Centauri!"
    The crew raised a cheer.
    Stakka wished that he had been able to muster a stronger task force. Far too many of Redemption Fleet's hulls were small escorts, most still bearing battle damage from the First Battle of Orien. The First Battle, he thought grimly. Living Gods preserve us from there being a second!
    The crew were at their stations, watching him attentively.
    Toh Caddar limped across the deck. The Orieni officer had taken serious wounds in the Battle of Orien and really should still have been in a hospital. He offered a salute. "The task force obeys your orders, Paladin," he announced in a raspy voice.
    "
    Release all Hunter-Killers. Focus on the Tavors and the troop transports." Stakka named the priority targets with ease. Our goal is delay further attacks so those are the obvious ships we must destroy. "Scouts are a secondary concern."
    "Targets acknowledged and locked, Paladin."
    "
    Helm, take us forward. Gunners, fire at will."
    Toh Caddar clicked his beak. "By the Living Gods, we will have our victory."
     
    Alert sirens were sounding throughout the Centauri fleet.
    With a snarl, Shaal Jaddo ordered the alarm turned off. He glared across his flag bridge. "Everyone knows that we're under attack by now!" he said. "I don't need that wailing distracting me while I think."
    Colu Vantari chuckled.
    The bridge of the Splendor of Entat went quiet.
    Shaal enjoyed the silence for a moment. "Sensors, talk to me!"
    "
    Multiple signals," Jarvis reported from his station. "Two command ships and thirty plus escorts came through the jump-points. Twenty more escorts came through the jump-gate."
    Shaal frowned. "That's a strong task force." Not enough to drive him away from Mattren, but enough to cause him some serious damage. "How did the Orieni manage to pull together so many ships?" Surely they were focusing their efforts on safeguarding their homeworld!
    Colu Vantari was issuing orders over his own headset-comm. "The patrol fighters are engaging Hunter-Killers and Templars. Carriers are scrambling their reserves but it will take some time. We were at a stand down after all."
    "
    Order all ships to assume a defensive posture." Shaal Jaddo didn't think his fleet had time to do much else. Too many of my crews are taking some shore leave to recover after the battle of Orien. At his orders, of course. "Everyone knows the usual Orieni priority targets." He was pleased to see that no one was panicking and that some of his officers were already issuing orders. They know I value initiative. "Get me an ident on the flagship. Who are we about to kill?"
    "
    I'm not sure...it's an older hull design. The other ship is a Faithful Searcher." Jarvis scratched his head. "The power emissions on the warship are quite high...it's not very efficient."
    "
    Jamming from the Faithful?" Vantari asked.
    "
    Possibly, but it's not right for jamming. This is more like interference from a poorly tuned reactor."
    "
    Like something on a House Militia ship," Shaal muttered with grim amusement as he took a quick glance at the readings. We had too much of that foolishness in the early stages of the war.
    "
    Planetary defenses are coming online."
    Shaal had little confidence in the handful of stations and weapon platforms the Navy had assembled. Mattren was never deemed worthy of any powerful fortifications. Just enough to fend off Orieni raids.
    "
    It's a Cleric," Colu Vantari commented as the war-book finally found a match. "Not a Prophet or even a Pariah."
    "
    The Orieni must be desperate indeed if they're sending in those obsolete ships." Shaal chuckled. "We can handle it." For a brief moment, he had wondered if Shrieka Rak had pursued them from Orien but that feeling of alarm was fading.
    "
    No doubt of that, Admiral."
    "
    But it's still potent," Shaal Jaddo commented as the Cleric's firepower turned a slowly maneuvering Tavor, clearly caught by surprise, into a slowly expanding cloud of scrap.
    "
    It looks that way, Admiral."
    "
    Track those HKs...what is their intended target?"
     
    Explosions flared within the holotank.
    Toh Caddar clicked his beak loudly. "Results from the first strike has arrived, Paladin. We've bloodied them."
    Stakka Chunak heard his aide's report, but did not take his eyes off the holotank. Mattren was visible to the naked eye, but mounting a ground attack was not part of his plan. "Maintain course and speed. Set the laser batteries on continuous fire."
    An Orto troop carrier was burning in a dozen places as the Cleric's laser beams carved chunks from its hull.
    Steadfasts
    swept past its hull and fired their gauss cannons into a Sakar carrier. The explosive shells punched through hull armour, digging deep within the carrier's hull before exploding.
    Shining Lights
    darted through desperate bursts from anti-fighter weapons and rammed into warships.
    A Celerian warcruiser fired its own lasers and sliced a Steadfast in half.
    A Storm Front unleashed a barrage of missiles which hammered a Centauri squadron. Plasma bursts from a damaged Nalor tore the Storm Front apart before it could fire a second volley.
     
    "
    The Orieni are inflicting significant damage."
    Shaal Jaddo bit off a curse. "What's their formation?"
    "
    Nothing that matches our records of previous battles." Colu Vantari spoke up from his station. "They're operating in small groups, seemingly without any overall battle formation."
    "
    That is not standard Orieni tactics."
    "
    No, Admiral."
    Jarvis cleared his throat. "The Long March Onwards is burning...lifepods are launching but troop losses are going to be heavy."
    "
    Send in recovery teams. Get them more support fire."
    "
    The Emerald Sceptre is reporting damage to its engines and flight decks. They've been rammed!"
    "
    Where are my escorts?" Shaal shouted. "I want all ships to regroup into mutually supporting units."
    Colu Vantari rubbed his chin. "We're taking a pounding."
    "
    Pound them back!"
     
    "
    The Centauri are responding. Defensive fire is growing heavier."
    "
    I can see that." Stakka Chunak stared at the holotank. Ripples of static washed through it, making icons flicker and jump. The Blessings' reactor core was beginning to falter--it was simply too old to maintain maximum output for long. "Losses to our escorts?"
    "
    Forty plus per cent so far, but no ship has died alone. We've killed at least as many as we've lost."
    "
    The Living Gods welcome their souls." Stakka Chunak heard the groans of the bulkheads again as the Blessings ponderously changed course. "Prepare to vent the cargo bays!"
    "
    Bays are pressurized to one hundred and fifty per cent," Toh Caddar had moved to a console. "Cargo restraints are released and the crews have been evacuated. We're ready."
    Stakka paused for a quick prayer. "Open the bays!"
    As the first motherships, Clerics had been built with huge cargo bays--designed to support a task force during extended campaigns--and now those bays had been packed with Shining Lights. As the doors opened, the atmosphere in the bays pushed the fighters into space.
    "
    Activate the Shining Lights," Stakka ordered. "Standard targeting."
    "
    Confirmed."
    "
    Track that Obedient!" Darren Fusilli ordered. "Don't let it close. I want to hit that Cleric."
    "
    We've got fresh signals!" the sensor tech called out.
    Darren Fusilli muttered a curse. "Talk to me!"
    "
    The Cleric just launched a fresh wave of Hunter-Killers."
    "
    Great Maker!"
    The Vampire lurched as an Obedient raked it with laser fire. The Nalor's plasma cannon fired back and the tiny Obedient blew apart.
    "
    Anti-fighter batteries to full power!" Darren ordered. "
     
    "
    We have an eighty per cent activation rate for the second wave of Hunter-Killers." Toh Caddar offered the report in a tired voice. "HK Control is trying to bring the others online now."
    "
    Eighty per cent was above projections." Stakka had not expected more than half of the loosely packed fighters to actually activate after their improvised deployment. "The Centauri were caught off-guard."
    Explosions were blossoming within the holotank.
    "
    Their anti-fighter firepower is proving more effective than before."
    "
    They are no longer surprised." Stakka Chunak clicked his beak. "We've inflicted heavy damage, but it won't be enough to delay the invasion for long."
    "
    No, Paladin."
    "
    Order the remaining ships to scatter as per Operation Falling Embers. Signal to the fleet: exodus!"
    "
    Yes, Paladin."
    A jump-point flared as a Faithful Searcher led its squadron into hyperspace. A second group of Communion-led escorts accelerated through the nearby jump-gate.
    Stakka was pleased. A few squadrons would manage to escape from this engagement. And they would not return to Orien...no, they had orders to jump to other occupied systems and work to disrupt Centauri convoys and patrols. We are buying time for our homeworld to further prepare. Every day of delay is a victory. "Gunners, target bearing one seven mark two nine." The bridge went quiet at those words. "Maximum firepower."
    "
    Paladin?"
    "
    Gunners, you have the target." Stakka turned towards the tactical station. "Do I need to replace you?"
    "
    No, Paladin." The Phanop shook its entire body. With obvious reluctance, he turned back towards his console. "Target acquired...weapons locking on."
    "
    Fire when ready."
    "
    As you command."
     
    Jump-points flared on the displays.
    "
    The Orieni are fleeing!" Jarvis reported.
    "
    We've won."
    Shaal Jaddo shook his head. "A painful victory, Vantari. We've lost too many ships, took too much damage, from this surprise attack." He would not allow it to happen again. He didn't want to think about what losses he had taken. How much of a delay will this cost me? How will the Royal Court respond?
    "
    The Cleric is turning away from us. Escorts are gathering near it."
    "
    Interceptor teams are still engaged with the last Hunter-Killers."
    "
    Energy spike detected...the Cleric is powering up."
    "
    They're going to jump," Vantari said. "We can't get into firing range in time to stop them."
    "
    Perhaps we can track them--"
    Jarvis stiffened in his chair. "They're firing weapons."
    "
    At what target? By the Great Maker!" Jaddo's mouth hung open as the Orieni fired on the struts of the jump-gate. The laser beams cut into the superstructure and explosions glittered.
    * * *
    Ssumssha, Abbai Matriarchy
    Imagery of a devastated Tirolus faded from the holographic displays.
    The audience hall was silent as the Abbai mourned the loss of their first colony as the projectors powered down and the chamber's lighting returned to normal levels. The coral walls were a soothing pink...now they looked far too much like blood.
    "
    There is no hope of recovery now," Saanasa informed the council in a sorrowful voice. She had slipped through the Centauri blockade to return to the waters of her homeworld with a number of wounded civilians. "The damage to the ecosystem, which we first caused through our ignorance, has now become impossible for us to ever repair. Temperatures are already dropping noticeably."
    "
    We are looking at the onset of a new ice age?"
    "
    Yes, Natar. That is our projection."
    Piira, the Empress-Mother of the Abbai, slumped ever so slightly in her chair. She took a moment to study the chamber, seeking solace in the architecture. The walls of the chamber had been carved out of once-living rose-coloured coral and the floor was transparent, so that the inhabitants appeared to be literally walking on water. "Utriel has just become that much more vital to our people. It must be protected at all costs."
    The aides clustered around Unlarin Tinti stiffened as the fleet admiral stepped away from them. Her red and orange uniform stood out in the crowd. "The Castle Guard will be deployed there in greater strength. That world will be held."
    Piira closed her eyes at the thoughts of more even bloodshed to come. "What news of the Centaruri?"
    "
    House Torra has not launched any major assaults since they ended the bombing of Tirolus. They have been oddly reluctant to even mount a raid of any kind against our lesser holdings."
    "
    Perhaps they are overstretched?"
    "
    That is our theory," Tinti said. "That final attack cost them more than they could afford to spend. Our Drazi allies paid very heavily, but they were able to damage the bombardment ship seriously enough that it was forced to withdraw from the system."
    Piira sighed. "It has not returned?"
    "
    No, nor has it been sighted in any of our territorial waters."
    "
    Then there is a chance of finally arranging a peaceful settlement?"
    "
    Perhaps."
    "
    You think not?"
    Unlarin
    Puul exchanged a guarded look with Tinti, but said nothing out loud.
    Tinti cleared her throat. "It is equally possible that the Centauri will mount another even more destructive attack."
    "
    They have all but killed a living world!" the Natar said in open horror. "How much more destructive and vindictive can these creatures be?"
    "
    From reports we have obtained regarding the fighting along the Orieni border, these siege ships have been used to reduce many worlds to cratered rubble. Prolonged bombardments have destroyed everything and left the ecosystems in true ruins. Some of those worlds may never recover to a state capable of once again supporting life."
    The Abbai were silent in their shock and horror.
     
    "
    What is next on the agenda?"
    Tassa Aloo rested the datapad on the polished creepla-shell tabletop. "From our most recent reports, the Centauri and the Orieni have finally begun to negotiate a ceasefire."
    "
    They are ready to finally end this war?"
    "
    Yes, Natar."
    Piiraa, the ruling Mother of the Abbai, managed to retain her aura of serenity despite the unexpected news. She was pleased that the larger meeting had been dissolved and now her smaller circle of advisers could discuss current events in a more peaceful setting.
    "
    We should attempt to use this."
    "
    How so?"
    "
    We should encourage this action." Piiraa turned towards another Abbai who was sitting further down the table. "Tolseka, you will be the key to our efforts."
    "
    Yes, Mother."
    Piiraa gestured to one of her aides. "Prepare to record a data-crystal for delivery to Centauri Prime. I will rely on you, Tolseka, to swim there safely."
    "
    I shall do so," Tolseka replied. "Perhaps I can obtain passage with a Vree trader." Even the Centauri had not attacked the Vree. Well, not officially of course. The Vree have destroyed a number of pirates over the years. Piracy was always a risk when swimming through Centauri-claimed waters.
     
    Piiraa carefully adjusted her robes of state, attempting to muster every last piece of regal authourity which she could claim.
    A few members of her staff had gathered to watch the recording of her message.
    She took comfort in their presence. They look to me for guidance and protection. I must do what I can to keep their harbours safe.
    "
    Vitani Rafani, Emperor of the Centauri Republic." Flattery would be helpful, no doubt, as the Centauri were all known to be quite vain. And their emperor most of all. "Ruler of a Hundred Worlds, Conquerer of Systems, Defender of the Faith, Guardian of the Eye, and Slayer of the Xon." She paused for a much needed breath after that lengthy list of titles. "I bid you greetings, one ruler of a star nation to another." She would show him her quiet strength.
    "
    We have learned that you and the Orieni have finally recognized the futility of continuing this decade-long war and have begun to bring about an ending. The Abbai nation applauds this desire.
    "
    It will not be easy to bring about a ceasefire. There is little trust between you and the Orieni upon which you can build a lasting peace. It will require give and take and a mutual willingness to negotiate.
    "
    The Abbai will not take sides in this conflict. However, we do offer our services in negotiating a ceasefire between you and the Centauri. You are welcome to swim to Ssumssha, as a neutral venue. Failing that, we offer space aboard any of our ships for such meetings. We offer the services of our finest ambassadors to aid in those ongoing negotiations. We also offer our ships as a neutral venue for any face-to-face meetings.
    "
    Please consider the sincerity of my offer. I await your response."
     
    The gathered Abbai murmured softly to one another.
    Piiraa adjusted her robes again, listening to her people discuss her message. Now for my second message.
    "
    Aaka Hrhia, Supreme Heirophant of the Orieni Empire." There would be less flattery than for the Centauri. "First among Equals on the Council of the Blessed. I bid you warm greetings, one ruler of a star nation to another.
    "
    Your conflict with the Centauri has dominated the attention of the galaxy. It has raged for much too long and many worlds have suffered. Surely you can see that now is the time to end this destruction while there is still a chance of recovery.
    "
    We have learned that you and the Centauri have finally recognized the futility of continuing this decade-long war and have begun to bring about an ending. The Abbai people applauds this desire.
    "
    It will not be easy to bring about a ceasefire. There is little trust between you and the Centauri upon which you can build a lasting peace. It will require give and take and a mutual willingness to negotiate.
    "
    The Abbai will not take sides in this conflict. However, we do offer our services in negotiating a ceasefire between you and the Centauri. You are welcome to swim to Ssumssha, as a neutral venue. Failing that, we offer space aboard any of our ships for such meetings. We offer the services of our finest ambassadors to aid in those ongoing negotiations. We also offer our ships as a neutral venue for any face-to-face meetings.
    "
    Please consider the sincerity of my offer. I await your response."
     
    The room's lighting returned to normal conditions.
    "
    Hopefully they will listen to reason," Tolseka said.
    "
    We can only pray to the Great Mother that they will," Piiraa agreed. "In the meantime, we shall do as we must to safeguard our own shores."
    Tinti nodded her own agreement.
    * * *
    Alpha One, Centauri Republic
    Domius Callo cursed loudly as he stomped across the lounge's carpet. "I've lost how many freighters?" he bellowed at his son, who was also the House Militia's lord admiral.
    "A...dozen in the last month." Ramill cleared his throat, clearly uncertain of how to continue or exactly what to say. He grabbed the lapels of his jacket, to still his hands and keep them from trembling. He began stroking the braid, as if seeking comfort in it.
    "
    And you are only just telling me this now?"
    "
    Yes, Lord."
    "
    You are an idiot," Domius declared. "Great Maker preserve me, I am surrounded by idiots."
    Tilar Callo brushed a few crumbs from the breast of his jacket. The merchant lord waved at a servant to bring the tray of drinks closer.
    Ramill visibly stiffened and ignored the servants as several approached with trays of refreshments. None of them were aliens; every man was a member--if distant--of the House's bloodline. "We were unsure of the full extent of the losses. There have been...difficulties in communication recently."
    "
    Sabotage." There was a sour twist on Domius's face.
    "
    It would appear so."
    "
    What House is responsible?"
    "
    Madrin is our first thought." Ramill glanced at Tilar. "They have been envious of us for some time."
    "
    The losses have not taken place near any of Madrin's holdings," Tilar argued. "There is considerable upheaval disrupting trade and traffic through the former border regions."
    Domius grimaced. "How considerable?" He sipped at his drink.
    "
    From my contacts in the trade guilds," Tilar folded his hands on his ample lap and looked smugly across the room, "every system within four jumps of the pre-war border has been the location of raids. Every House has been suffering."
    "
    We are the preeminent trade House!"
    "
    Yes, and thus our losses are proportionately higher than the others. It is a risk we must accept."
    "
    Gah!" Domius snarled. "And who dares attack us?"
    "
    The usual privateers," Ramill scoffed.
    "
    Plus Orieni warships," Tilar added pointedly. "As well as Rogolon warships, Usuuth freighters...."
    "
    Renegades."
    "
    Threats which should have been neutralized."
    "
    The Royal Navy has failed too--"
    "
    As you have."
    "
    I will not be spoken to like that!" Tilar snarled. "Not by a merchant."
    "
    Enough!" Domius cut them both silent. "House Callo has built its reputation and wealth on its mercantile interests," he continued. "We cannot allow ourselves to become the butt of jokes. No one--no pirate, no renegade, nor any legitimate navy--can be allowed to interfere. Ramil, you have failed to provide sufficient protection."
    "
    Our militia is stretched thin, my Lord. The war effort has diverted far too many of our assets into combat situations. To give our existing convoys a full escort--"
    "
    I will not hear of your excuses. If you cannot manage to perform the duties of your rank, then I will elevate someone else to command."
    Ramill stiffened in his chair.
     
    The door to the lounge closed with a solid thump.
    Domius frowned. Ramill's departure had been quite forceful. Perhaps it will be enough to spur him into fulfilling his duty to our House. If he cannot safeguard our ships, then he will be replaced.
    Tilar sipped at his wine. "I had thoughts of purchasing an Orto from the Navy."
    "
    A troopship?" Domius turned around.
    Tilar nodded his head. "It has artificial gravity...that gives it a certain something. A fine quality."
    "
    For what purpose do you want an Orto?" Domius shook his head at the absurd thought. "A troopship? Something to carry armies between worlds? It seems to be a waste of our money." He picked up a crystal goblet. "We do not have armies to carry. We do not mount full-scale invasions of our enemies. Such a purchase would be a waste of money."
    "
    I was thinking that it could be outfitted as a luxury liner."
    Domius's hand froze halfway to his mouth.
    "
    The barracks could be converted into opulent suites with fine restaurants and lounges. Replace the Navy's rather pale décor with carved paneling, carpets, and artwork and it would be a jewel in our crown. The ship could be set to run along a set course through secure systems, with suitable protective escorts, and it would become quite the destination. No other House has even toyed with the idea."
    "
    There is likely a good reason for that."
    "
    Domius, cruise ships sail the oceans of Centauri Prime. Why not expand that concept to off-world travel?"
    "
    Private yachts sail the oceans. Private yachts carry the nobles to their various holdings. Even the Emperor has a selection of private starships upon which he can travel." Domius shook his head. "You are suggesting that we open up space travel to the common masses?"
    "
    They would pay well for the privilege." Tilar rubbed his chin. "For the chance to briefly taste the life of a nobleman? Yes, they would pay very well."
    "
    Madness."
    "
    Is it? Or is it an opportunity?"
    "
    No one else has tried to seize this...opportunity."
    "
    So we would be the first." Tilar chuckled. "Show some vision, Domius."
    The patriarch snorted.
    * * *
    Kateneer, Orieni Empire
    "
    We have a hard lock on the Centauri warships." Tazoon gripped the edge of his console. "They're closing on our lead formation."
    "
    All sections, brace for impact." Chas Rak did not lift her gaze from an intense study of the Guardian Of The Blessed's holotank. The Centauri had jumped out of hyperspace and were already pressing hard against Kateneer's orbital defences. "All batteries will return fire," she ordered the elderly Orieni who stood at her side.
    "
    As you command, Paladin."
    The light panels dimmed momentarily as the Prophet's reactor strained to power the laser lances and gauss cannons.
    "
    Tazoon, order the Purity of Courage Attack Wing to flank the enemy's rear." Chas Rak ordered as her Prophet shuddered under the caress of laser beams from a Centauri Optine.
    "
    As you command, Paladin."
    "
    Margok, ready the next wave of Hunter-Killers for immediate deployment."
    "
    As ordered."
    Chas Rak looked into the holotank. "We will advance on the Centauri fleet." She gestured. "I want a full strike against that Centaurum."
    "
    You hope to kill Tillo Garlan?"
    "
    Yes."
    Tazoon blinked.
    "
    Order the Revelation Of Sin to commence full-spectrum jamming. I want the Centauri to have as many difficulties as possible."
    "
    Yes, Paladin."
    "
    Adjust the fleet to the ninth defensive posture." That would move her heavier command ships to the flanks, drawing the Centauri in so that her escorts could then swarm around them.
    * * *
    Tithalis, Hyach Gerontocracy
    The sun was bright in the pale lavender sky.
    A tall Hyach glanced back towards the air-skimmer. A second Hyach was seated inside. The Hyach turned back to her other companion. "The location is suitable for you, Brakul?"
    "
    Drazi satisfied. Chana return to Elders with thanks."
    The elderly Hyach, Chana, pulled her cloak more tightly around herself. The breeze was cooler than she felt comfortable being outside in. "You might find some difficulties with your farming options."
    Brakul was smiling.
    Chana disliked smiling Drazi--they were almost as scary as an angry Drazi.
    "This world rich and lush. Soft world.
    Green Drazi see no problems farming. Green Drazi grow many things on Drathun."
    "Tithalis," Chana said.
    "
    Tithalis was Hyach name. Drathun proper Drazi name." Brakul thumped his chest with his fist. "This planet now named Drathun."
    Chana managed not to sigh. She'd been dealing with the Drazi for decades and was resigned to their abrupt nature.
    "This soft world...but Drazi ready to build."
    "The Centauri are--"
    "Centauri not a threat to Drazi. Centauri just annoyance." Brakul watched a bird fly past. "Drazi build new ships. Drazi build new fleet. Drazi fortify this world and no one take it from Drazi."
    Chana frowned again.
    * * *

    Plutak, occupied Orieni Empire
    Ensconced within his private quarters onboard his flagship, Andilo Vitari allowed himself a deep drink from a bulb of brevari. There is something wrong about drinking in zero-gee, he thought sourly. And even more so when it should be as part of a celebratory toast.
    The hatch chime sounded.
    "
    Enter!" Andilo called out.
    The hatch opened and a Centauri officer came inside. He took careful steps so that his magnetic boots remained secured to the deck. "We have completed our entry into orbit, Lord Admiral."
    "
    That, at least, is good news."
    Randis Vitari stood silently.
    "
    That is the sole piece of good news in some time." Andilo eyed his drinking bulb. He took notice of the usual opulence of his quarters--a Centaurum-class battleship had room to spare for a palatial quarters for its flag officers. "We have failed to secure Wereng yet again."
    "
    The fortifications and warships are quite formidable."
    "
    They are cadets," Andilo sneered. "With a handful of veterans to guide them. The Fifteenth Victorious Fleet have failed to secure a victory. The Sovereign's Crown alone should have been enough."
    "
    We will win eventually. The Orieni cannot spare the resources to continuously refortify the system. We will wear them down."
    "
    Wear them down? Wear them down! What kind of strategy is that?" Andilo shouted. "We should have crushed them in one glorious battle and then moved on to strike at Orien itself!"
    "
    Wereng is one of the main lines of defence for their homeworld. It makes sense that the Orieni would fortify it heavily." Randis rubbed his chin. "We can still--"
    "
    Contact CNI and have them study our sensor logs. I want a weakness we can exploit during our next attack."
    "
    As you command, Lord Admiral."
     
    The morning sun was bright and Andilo squinted as he stepped out of the shuttle and onto the tarmac. Rumbling sounded in the distance and he could see a squadron of Tigaro bombers flying overhead.
    Armed guardsmen saluted him.
    "
    We have arranged an armoured car for you," one of their officers announced. "With a full military escort, of course."
    "
    Is the city that dangerous?"
    "
    In places."
    Andilo grimaced. "It is going to be one of those mornings," he muttered.
    The other officer nodded his head in silent agreement.
     
    Andilo stepped into the office.
    "
    Brigadier Corono."
    Austin Corono froze. He managed a weak smile. "Admiral, welcome back to Plutak."
    Andilo's glare grew colder.
    "
    What brings you to the surface?" Austin licked his lips. "I could easily have arranged to shuttle up to the Sovereign's Crown to talk to you there."
    "
    Yes, but then I would have missed the warm sunshine and fresh air. And the sounds of an artillery duel." Andilo stomped across the floor. "I would have missed the entire native revolt."
    Austin's face paled.
    "
    How did you manage to mess up the occupation so badly?"
    "
    I did nothing--"
    "
    I beg to differ." Andilo snatched a stack of paper printouts from the desk top. "You appropriated a large region of land."
    "
    For a military base."
    "
    A military base."
    "
    We needed to establish a secure compound for supplies and from which we can maintain our occupation." Austin stood up. "The natives responded by taking up arms against us."
    "
    They protested your land annexation three times and provided you with nearly a dozen other locations you could have built in."
    "
    The Rhun Valley is the most--"
    "
    Beautiful?"
    "
    The river--"
    "
    Was dammed to make a lake and to provide additional defense. And to provide a source of hydroelectric power."
    Andilo grimaced. He picked up some papers off the desk top.
    Austin Corono waved his hand dismissively. "This system is meant to be a bulwark against attack. The Navy needs a secure planet from which to base ourselves. A heavily fortified compound was an obvious decision."
    "
    Secure from whom? The Kilkameshi? The Minbari?"
    "
    It seems prudent."
    "
    So you have sparked a rebellion."
    "
    My troops will crush it soon enough. The natives cannot stand up to our might."
    "They seem to be delaying you." Andilo tossed the papers onto the floor. "Have you bothered to study the natives?" he asked. "Have you taken note of their life cycle?"
    Austin frowned. "They're insectoid."
    "
    Yes, they are." Andilo nodded. The Plutkai were arthropedial beings with dark striped tubular bodies, red compound eyes, feathery antennae, and six hands/legs.
    g
    And then after ten years or so, they cocoon themselves and undergo a metamorphosis into a butterfly. Austin spoke with a sneer at the absurdity of a sentient being undergoing such a change. They spend the rest of their lives flying around. They lose their intellect and care only about sleeping, eating, and mating.
    g
    Yes...and the Rhun Valley is one of their primary habitats.
    Austin's mouth hung open.
    Yes, you great fool! You have expressed your desire to build your primary military headquarters in the middle of their retirement settlement!" Andilo shook his head. "Imbecile."
    Austin's eyes grew wide. Admiral, I will not be spoken too in that manner.
    Oh no? You do doubt expect your family name to protect you? Andilo threw his head back and laughed. You have single handedly destroyed our informal occupation and brought about an armed revolt. I will now have to spend resources I do not have to reconquer this world.
    A few minutes of attention from one Tavor would end the revolt!
    And further inflame the natives. Andilo rubbed his jaw. You are relieved of your position, Brigadier. He invested the rank with scorn. I will find someone else to govern this world once peace is restored.
    * * *

    Centauri Prime, Centauri Republic
    The Stardust Chamber was one of the palace's smaller reception halls, but it was considered to be one of the most beautiful. The arched ceiling was painted to resemble an idealized night sky. Many of the stars were really tiny lights, giving the room a feeling of a balcony at twilight.
    Vitani Rafani sipped his brevari. "Go on," he pressed.
    Vetrano Dromo cleared his throat. "Our attack against Orien was rebuffed. Shaal Jaddo has reverted to a holding action at Mattren."
    }
    We have the Orieni boxed in.:"
    }
    Yes, Majesty, for now."
    }
    I sense something in your words, Dromo."
    }
    The Orieni mounted a counterstrike. It failed to destroy the Twenty-Third Valiant Fleet, though suicide attacks did cause damage to many ships. The Orieni focused on our carriers, scouts, and the Tavors."
    }
    Of course they did."
    }
    The Orieni survivors fled into hyperspace, but they scattered to other systems and have been preying on our occupation forces."
    Vitani frowned.
    }
    Raiders are operating out of Shinshasa. Jaddo has dispatched a squadron to hunt them down, but--"
    }
    Damn!"
    }
    There's something else."
    Vitani sighed. "I'm going to need more brevari."
    Dromo paused. His own goblet was resting on a table, untouched. "The flagship fired on the jump-gate."
    }
    What?"
    }
    The jump-gate survived--the Cleric only managed one firing pass--but it was heavily damaged. Repairs are being made."
    }
    Insanity! The Orieni are animals! No one destroys jump-gates. That violated every treaty, every rational military and economic strategy!"
    }
    The gate survived. The beacon link to Orien, however, is intermittent. Admiral Jaddo is no longer certain he can follow it through hyperspace."
    }
    I see."
    }
    Yes, Majesty."
    }
    There is more?"
    }
    Yes...reports are arriving of attacks against worlds in the former borderlands. Attacks without purpose, save the sowing of terror. Ships are entering orbit of pacified planets and attacking with missiles and mass driver rounds. It is madness!"
    }
    How bad?"
    }
    We've lost our garrisons at Beta Ten, Saleh, and Addegau."
    }
    Great Maker." Vitani drained his brevari. "We still hold numerous other systems of course."
    }
    Yes, Majesty."
    }
    We should order an attack against Phanos...give us another route to invade."
    Dromo frowned. "I believe we still possess sufficient forces for that, though our reserves are being depleted at an alarming rate."
    }
    And the noble Houses?"
    }
    Are protesting our requests for ships and personnel. We have no received any further militia support in several months."
    }
    The Royal Navy fights alone?"
    }
    Oh, we still have contingents of militia, but they are not being replaced as combat casualties wear them away."
    Vitani bit out a curse. "We could have a victory but those fools in the Centaurum would rather hide their strength and plot against each other."
    }
    Indeed."
    }
    If the Republic loses this war, it will be their fault."
    }
    Yes, Majesty."
     
    Argosh likes this.
  3. kclcmdr

    kclcmdr Kai The Kmpire! Subscriber

    Nice update..

    The Centauri are still fuming at each other and scheming and are planning ahead to good times while still fighting a war ??!!

    There's a huge empty gap in the middle of the story ?!? No Spoiler ?
     
  4. Talon Spiritcat

    Talon Spiritcat Dragon Wrangler

    Formating error it looks like
     
  5. Great update.
     
  6. Talon Spiritcat

    Talon Spiritcat Dragon Wrangler

    Seliffe, Orieni Empire
    The afternoon sun was a bright and fiery sphere in the sky as Nadak Hie stood beside a tranquil reflecting pond. Brightly-scaled fish swam in the pond, occasionally rising to the surface in search of food. Brass chimes clinked somewhere close and singing voices rose in the distance.
    The Temple complex was one of the largest and most glorious in the Empire. The buildings and gardens and ponds and courtyards covered far more ground than many planetary capitols did. Every buildings were made of gleaming stone, inlaid with precious gems and metals to catch the light.
    Nadak Hie slowly walked past dozens of acolytes all carefully labouring at maintaining the Temple. Manual work was thought to help build up spirit and attain purity of thought. Some of the acolytes were raking the crushed stone paths. Others were polishing the inlays, or carving new designs into pristine walls.
    The main courtyard--known simply as the Courtyard--stretched for nearly a full kilometre, lined on either side with gleaming stone obelisks every ten paces. The obelisks each supported a multifaceted crystal, which caught even the dimmest starlight and reflected it back a hundredfold. In a normal sunny day, the radiance was blinding.
    And so many crystals have been removed.
    That was a sorrowing truth for the governor to accept. We've lost too many worlds to those barbaric Centauri. It will take decades to rebuild.
    An Orieni military officer was standing near a statue. He was not dressed in robes, but in a white uniform with amethyst trim. He was also wearing his feathered half-cloak.
    Nadak Hie clicked his beak in surprise at the officer's apparently formality. "Savrip, you have been waiting for me?"
    "
    Yes, Governor." Nopa Savrip spoke in a calm voice. He turned away from the Courtyard.
    "
    There is still no word from Paladin Rak?"
    "
    No, Governor."
    Nadak Hie narrowed his eyes. "He has been gone for much longer than he had originally expected."
    Savrip glanced around, but saw no one else close by. "My most recent reports indicate that Orien itself was recently attacked by a Centauri raid. No doubt Paladin Rak is being questioned on improving the local defences."
    Nadak was offended by that suggestion. "Our homeworld should not require additional strengthening. It is already the most heavily defended system in the empire." Fortification has been underway for centuries. "Even Seliffe cannot compare."
    Savrip said nothing to that.
    Nadak Hie clicked his beak, dismissing that line of thought. "Have we mustered any additional warships?"
    "A few squadrons have arrived to bolster our defenses. Sadly, they were all composed of escort-class vessels."
    "A few escort-class. I was hoping for some larger command ships. That is what we need...a
    Prophet is worth far more than a squadron of Obedients. The Centauri have likely heavily reinforced their own fleets."
    "
    That is likely." Nopa Savrip paused for a moment. "I have been giving thought to dispatching some of our scouts towards D'Grn to probe the Centauri."
    "
    That might provoke a counter attack."
    "
    Should the Centauri plan another attack, Governor, they will not need our scouts as any provocation."
    Nadak Hie clicked his beak in agreement.
    "I am confident that we can repel any attacks the Centauri might launch." Nopa spoke proudly. "Seliffe will never fall."
    * * *
    Arkada, occupied Orieni Empire
    "
    We are still in mourning at the loss of our beloved admiral, Sebastiano Kodiro." Burgao Ardo kept his voice steady as he spoke the words he did not feel. "We cannot allow our sorrow to persist...we must take steps to avenge his death."
    "To Sebastiano Kodiro!" Spencer Callo raised his goblet and drank deeply.
    The rest of the assembled officers did so as well.
    A pity we lost the fleet flagship in the Seliffe debacle,
    Burago thought. The Centaurum would have been very useful when I lead our forces back there. He savored that particular thought like a fine dessert. The Second Imperial Fleet is under my control...for the moment.
    Burago Ardo
    studied the rest of the assembled officers for a moment, his eyes narrowing. The ballroom was well decorated, with numerous servants to supply those assembled with drinks and refreshments. This should be a time to hold a serious council of war, not celebrate the death of a fool. But too many of the assembled officers, their wives, and the other lesser nobility who had recently infested Arkada, did so.
    "
    You call for a renewed attack?"
    "
    I do." Burago kept his voice calm and confident. "Seliffe remains a vital target in terms of tactical importance."
    Spencer Callo had served on several previous raids against Seliffe. He was holding a datapad in his hand, as if he would rather have been working than attending the party.
    Idiot,
    Burago thought.
    Sura Laucine glided across the parquet floor to his side. She was wearing a lace-trimmed crimson gown, with a neckline cut low enough to be almost scandalous. She wore several rings on her fingers.
    "My Lord Governor," Sura said with a curtsey. "Or should I address you as
    my Lord Admiral?"
    Burago could feel every eye focused on him now. "Sura...what are you--"
    Sura straightened and took his hand in a firm grip. "I could not stay away from a gathering of such importance." She laughed softly, giving the nearest nobles a shy smile which was not her usual expression at all. "Not every battle is fought with mass drivers and laser cannons."

    "I know that!" Burago tried to keep a smile on his face as he spoke. "Until now, you have tended to avoid me in public."
    "I had reasons for that. Just as I have reasons for joining you now." She gripped his hand more tightly. "We have an alliance, my love," she hissed, "and I would see how the others react."
    He frowned at her. "Is this just a game to you?"
    "
    It's more than that." Sura smiled again. "You are more than just a game piece."
    "
    I should hope so." Burago accepted a fresh goblet of wine from a servant.
    Sura took the second goblet from the tray.
    The servant bowed and backed away.
    The soft murmur of a dozen conversations began to fill the room.
    Burago studied the groups of Centauri.
    "We must find a new means of applying pressure."
    "
    Pressure?" Burago caught himself staring into that extremely low-cut gown.
    "
    We need to launch another attack," Sura said softly. "We need to provoke the Orieni into mounting another offensive."
    "
    I've made that argument before, but no one else agrees." He lifted his eyes towards her face. "Provoke the Orieni? Great Maker, Sura! We barely held off the Orieni in their last series of attacks against us."
    "
    They are much weaker now. They cannot hurt us...but we can smash them."
    Burago frowned.
    "
    You must have faith in the True Gods."
    "
    You sound more and more like an Orieni shepherd."
    Sura's face hardened for a moment. "Don't be a fool!" she snapped. "The True Gods will show their favour in far more tangible ways than the Great Maker has done for the Centauri, or the Vorlons do for their deluded servants."
    Burago stared at her, his eyes wide at the contempt in her voice.
    "
    You can go into battle with the knowledge that you will emerge as a hero. The Centaurum will take note of you, Burago." Her tone softened. "Your star has already begun to ascend."
    "
    But --"
    "
    You must seize the command at this moment. By the battle's end, who can truly say?" Sura laughed in her soft voice and reached for the lapels of Burago's coat, despite the others watching. "Relax," she whispered into his ear. "Enjoy the evening now and later I will help your relieve your tension before you depart for another staff conference."
    * * *
    Centauri Prime, Centauri Republic
    Vitani Rafani burst through the open doorway, leaving his escorting guardsmen standing out in the hallway.
    Vetrano Dromo turned away from the window and offered a respectful bow. "Majesty."
    Vitani picked up a cut crystal goblet from a table and took a sniff.
    "
    It is a good vintage...freshly arrived from my private estates on Jux Prime." Vetrano poured a fresh goblet from the decanter and took a sip. Then, having proven the drink was safe and nonpoisonous, he offered it to the emperor.
    Vitani shook his head. "You, at least, do not need to prove your loyalty to me."
    "
    I am honoured by your confidence," Dromo replied. "From your tone, I take it that the latest Centaurum session did not go smoothly?"
    "
    The session was more...lively than usual."
    Dromo raised an eyebrow. "Majesty?"
    "
    The Houses are growing far more fractious. It is very much like the tiresome debates in the Centaurum before this war began." Vitani moved to stand near the window. He could see the garden outside, with dozens of gardeners carefully tending the flowering bushes. "The bickering between the Houses is wasting far too much of my time. The alliances are breaking down. The Republic is fracturing."
    "
    A pity, Majesty."
    "
    There are times I'd like to just take the Royal Navy and use it as a knife to prod the Houses into acting reasonable." Vitani chuckled grimly. "Despite the challenges, I have managed to push through a decision regarding the subject of negotiations."
    "
    The war is all but over then."
    Emperor Vitani frowned as he studied his loyal friend. "With all due advice from my councilors, I have chosen to open up negotiations to end this conflict with the Orieni." He took a deep breath. "And then we can finally turn our full attention towards the internal problems of the Republic."
    Dromo frowned. "House Torra?" he asked.
    "
    House Torra does tend to rise towards the top of my thoughts."
    "
    You cannot move against Petrus just yet, Majesty."
    Vitani grimaced. "I know that." However much I would like too. "We will watch that House. Yes, we will watch it very closely."
    "
    And after the war?"
    "
    After the war, I will punish all of the guilty Houses for failing to support their Emperor and the Republic during this crisis. Yes, I will punish them most severely."
    Dromo frowned and took a sip from his goblet. The emperor's fierce temper was already becoming legendary. I will have to channel his aggression to some more productive means. Perhaps a wife? "In the meantime, Majesty, we have to consider the Republic's financial situation."
    "
    The fact that the Republic is going broke."
    "
    Yes." Dromo managed to not quite wince. He had not planned to mention it so bluntly.
    Vitani snarled a sharp and virulent curse. "How did we come to this?" he demanded. "How could we be growing broke?" He strode to the table and refilled his goblet.
    "
    The war has been costly, Majesty."
    "
    I know that."
    "
    We've had to replace our lost warships."
    "
    We've replaced the entire pre-war Navy!" Vitani snapped. "And then some," he added in a much calmer tone. He took a long swallow from his goblet.
    Dromo cleared his throat. "Many of the Houses are having difficulty in paying their taxes. A few of the minor Houses have actually...defaulted."
    The word hung in the air.
    Vitani winced. "Great Maker."
     
    The sharp sound of someone clearing his throat came from the doorway.
    Vitani turned his head to look over his shoulder. "Yes?" he called out.
    Loren Hessius stepped through the door and into the room. "Majesty." He offered a deep and respectful bow.
    Vitani turned around fully. "You have something interesting to report?" He managed to sound aloof and coldly imperial. I've been practicing that tone.
    Dromo said nothing.
    Loren took a few steps across the floor. He was one of the master shipwrights for House Hessius and the Royal Navy. "I have been compiling the data you requested from the CNI and the admiralty. I have a few preliminary reports which I can share with you right now, pending my full report."
    "
    Go on."
    Loren held up a leather folder. He extracted several sheets of crisp white paper. "If you would care to read them?"
    Dromo took one of the sheets and skimmed the writing on it.
    Vitani eyed the folder. "You have been studying that alien wreck for months." The wreckage of the Jewel Of The Republic had been found in Plutak, but the major prize had been an smashed alien ship half-buried in the Centaurum's hulk. "We had the hulk salvaged. At considerable cost, I might add, and brought across half the Republic to a secure shipyard."
    "
    All quite necessary." Loren was standing primly near the table. He had not taken a goblet. "Secrecy is a key asset for us."
    Vitani grimaced again. "I trust that you have managed to find something worth reporting."
    "
    My reports are quite detailed. As you can see--"
    "
    Yes, I can see the results of your printers. A lot of words in that folder...but do they actually mean anything?"
    Vetrano Dromo studied a hard copy report, and then tossed it back onto the tabletop next to the wine. "Please, Shipwright, give us the summary in plain terms."
    Loren stiffened, his eyes darting towards the hastily discarded piece of paper. "Plain terms?" He cleared his throat again. "Very well. The alien vessel utilizes an advanced form of propulsion. Some type of gravity-harnessing drive. My team is making a comprehensive study of it, but we’re not sure that we even understand all of the technologies used, let alone the physics which underlie them."
    "
    Can you replicate these engines?"
    "
    Not yet, Grand Admiral." Loren licked his lips and eyed the goblets on the table. "Research will continue, of course. I have some of the best researchers in the Republic studying the wreckage."
    "
    You will have all of the funding that you require," Vitani told him calmly. "This is an important discovery for the Republic."
    Dromo nodded his head in agreement. "From your report, these engines appear to be similar technology to those of the Minbari."
    "
    Yes, there were some sensor readings we obtained from running our tests which match those recorded from encounters with Minbari freighters."
    "
    And what of their warships?"
    "
    The standard sensor-jamming has generally prevented us from obtaining any accurate readings for the larger Minbari warships. Our readings on their drives indicate a gravity-based propulsion system...but we do not have hard data."
    "
    So this hulk might give us an equality with the Mionbari."
    "
    Yes, Majesty." Loren voiced his agreement in a calm tone. "Once we determine how those drives work, we can reverse engineer them for the Navy."
    "
    Superior maneuverability," Vitani mused. "Cruisers which can turn as sharply as patrol frigates."
    "
    That would be useful in many situations. We would also have artificial gravity on board our ships," Dromo mused. "Well, on board the larger ones at least. That alone will revolutionize space travel."
    Vitani frowned. "And what of their weapon systems? No doubt they are equally powerful and destructive."
    Loren shook his head. "The weaponry was destroyed when the alien ship collided with the Jewel. We have been unable to salvage anything."
    "
    Nothing at all?"
    "
    We can’t even identify the weapon components, let alone figure out what they did."
    "
    I see." Dromo frowned. "Continue working on it."
    "
    Of course." Loren offered another bow. He picked up a goblet and took a small sip. "Nice vintage. Your cellars are famed for their depth and variety."
    Vitani snorted.
    Loren realized how foolish he sounded. "We have been intrigued by the hull composition."
    "
    Yes?"
    "
    The hull material is very unusual. It is some type of semi-organic compound in nature. Unusual, certainly different to anything else we've encountered or that the other races use. But not overwhelmingly superior by any means. Our own cruiser and battleship hulls are as heavily armoured in comparison."
    "
    Interesting." Dromo rubbed his chin. He spoke in a low voice. "Majesty, rumours say that these hulls were capable of absorbing a surprising amount of firepower in battle. The shipwright's report does not sound accurate."
    "
    Perhaps they possessed some form of interception grid," Vitani replied in an equally soft voice. "A shield."
    "
    A force field or energy shield?" Dromo shook his head. "There is no such technology. None of our experiments have ever allowed us to--"
    "
    Loren, do you believe this vessel belongs to the Drakh?" Vitani asked, cutting off the admiral.
    Dromo's eyes widened.
    "
    Majesty?" The shipwright looked confused.
    "
    Dromo will authourize you to view some datafiles we have on a race calling themselves the Drakh. It is our belief that these aliens have been interfering with Republic politics. Not to mention allying themselves with the Orieni."
    "
    And you believe this wreck is one of their vessels?"
    "
    Yes, I do."
    "
    Then I will study your files with great interest."
    "
    And with equally great discretion I trust." Vitani smiled coldly. "I would hate for any of this data to become common knowledge."
    Loren offered a deep bow. "Of course, Majesty."
    * * *
    Seliffe, Orieni Empire
    The struts on the massive jump-gate crackled with energy as a jump-point flared open and a ship emerged.
    Shrieka Rak clicked his beak as the Strength Through Adversity emerged from the gate.
    "
    We have arrived at the Gateway to Heaven, Paladin."
    "
    Thank you, Navigator." Shrieka turned his attention back to his study of the Paragon's bridge. The warship's destination had never been in doubt. "I want a full scan of this system. Contact Garrison Command and have our charts and order of battle updated. No doubt Savrip has increased the strength of the local defences."
    "
    As you command, Paladin."
    Myrka Han approached the holotank. "You arew worried, Paladin?"
    "
    We have been away for a long time. The Centauri are devious and prone to launching sudden attacks. We must be prepared for an assault on this system. We cannot falter in its protection."
    A chime sounded.
    Myrka Han looked across the bridge.
    "
    We have a sensor contact."
    "
    That is hardly a surprise," Shrieka commented. "This system is the Gateway to Heaven after all."
    "
    It is a faint signal from the Vision of Truth."
    Shrieka turned to gaze into the holotank. A new icon was flashing in the depths. "Centauri?"
    "
    It looks to be so."
    "
    Has Paladin Savrip responded to the incursion?"
    "
    I have no information on that."
    "
    Sound the alert. Open a com-channel with Paladin Savrip." Shrieka Rak stepped closer to the holotank. "Get me details on that contact."
    "
    It looks like a Kendari and escorts."
    "
    A scouting party," Myrka Han pointed out. "Not a serious threat."
    "
    Any Centauri ships present in this system are a threat. They cannot be allowed to obtain data on our fortifications or fleet movements."
    "
    Yes, Paladin."
    Shrieka Rak returned his attention to the holotank. What do they want? hewondered.
    * * *
    Arkada, occupied Orieni Empire
    "
    A replacement!" Burago Ardo slammed the door behind him. "This was supposed to be my moment of glory!"
    Sura Laucine twisted around on the chaise and looked up at him with a puzzled expression on her gaunt face. She seemed calm despite his fierce entrance.
    "
    This new attack into Seliffe was meant to my chance at glory. I was going to lead a fleet into battle and elevate my star! But no, the Royal Court sends word that I am ordered to hold my fleet in position here on a defensive footing. Instead of being a great hero, I am reduced to being the host to other officers."
    "
    What is the problem?" Sura rose to her feet in a graceful motion and then walked up beside him. "Tell me, Burago."
    "
    The emperor wants to open negotiations with the Orieni!" Burgao spoke the words in a voice words dripping with utter contempt. "He wants to arrange a ceasefire."
    Sura grimaced. "Peace?" She almost spat the word out of her mouth. "Even after all of their provocations!"
    "
    It seems so."
    "
    The Royal Court has taken complete leave of it senses!"
    "
    I agree." Burago stared at her. "But I am not sure what--"
    "
    We need to do something about this." Sura turned around and paced across the carpet. "Perhaps if this newly arrived officer was to meet with an accident...."
     
    Burago suppressed the urge to adjust the fit of his uniform jacket. He eyed the other officers in the meeting room with a sour twist to his mouth. They should be giving me this level of attention.
    Albero Durando had arrived at Arkada with great pomp. He had a puffy face and squashed nose, not a handsome man by any stretch. He had commanded the Royal Navy’s Fifth Standard Fleet in raids against the Drazi Freehold for several years before moving to the Orieni Empire.
    Other long-serving officers offered him a toast.
    Albero drained his brevari in one swallow. "Thank you for this fine welcome. I am pleased to be here among soldiers who have fought so valiantly." Medals on the breast of his jacket glittered.
    Burago rolled his eyes.
    "
    The Second Imperial Fleet has a long and proud history and record on the battlefield. You have all fought well against the Orieni. You are to be congratulated." Albero chuckled. "I've led the Fifth Standard Fleet into countless engagements along the Drazi border. The fighting has been fierce, but nowhere near the level you have faced. The Drazi have been an annoyance...the Orieni have threatened the very existence of our glorious Republic."
    "
    The Orieni should be eliminated!"
    Burago smiled as one of his handpicked allies shouted out the suggestion.
    "
    In due time, the Blessed and their minions will be dealt with as they so richly deserve." Albero shook his head. "But this is not the right time for military action. The Royal Court has decided to turn to diplomacy."
    "
    Diplomacy?" Devin Kiro laughed aloud. "The only diplomacy they understand is the flash of a laser.
    "
    Or the impact of a mass driver."
    "Nonetheless, we are looking at a diplomatic answer to this attack."
    "And you are the diplomat?"
    "I am."
    Burago rolled his eyes again.
    No doubt the political scheming at the Royal Court had been intense. Every diplomat would have been desperate to be appointed to the negotiations to win the glory of ending the war. And every soldier would be equally disgusted by the need. "Why you, Albero?"
    The admiral turned to look across the table. "Because of my record against piracy and alien aggression. I have a valid military career, but I have not directly fought against the Orieni."
    "
    A pity."
    "
    It was hoped that the lack of direct aggression will help to make my presence a trifle more acceptable as the chief negotiator."
    "
    Do you believe that will matter?"
    "
    It might. The Orieni are religious zealots. Who can truly understand how their minds will work. One thing will set them off. Another is a good omen to be accepted." Albero picked up his refilled glass. "Understand this much of the current status quo and you will understand the thoughts of the Royal Court.
    "
    The war is effectively over." After a moment, Albero continued talking. "According to our best analysis, the Orieni no longer retain sufficient forces to conduct any major operations. However, while we can still amass sufficient forces, the Republic no longer possesses the will to use that force."
    That was likely a severe understatement
    , Burago thought. Inter-House tensions were increasing and many Houses were becoming factious and less likely to obey Imperial commands. The Republic is tearing itself apart.
     
    "
    We will dispatch a small squadron of ships to the outer edge of the Seliffe system and begin transmitting a request for negotiations."
    "
    You will send volunteers?"
    "
    I have ships in mind already."
    "
    I see."
    "
    This is a delicate matter, Admiral Ardo. We must be cautious or else we will only see a resumption of open warfare."
    "
    You say that like it is a bad thing, Admiral Durando." Burgao barely masked the contempt in his tone. "The Orieni can be beaten down further. We should only begin dictating terms of their surrender once our ships are in orbit of Orien."
    "
    That outcome is less likely than you appear to assume," Albero replied. "You should consult with the Royal Court on Centauri Prime."
    Burgao scowled.
    "
    Both of our nations are in the middle of economic meltdowns," Albero continued in a calm tone. "The Royal Court is in agreement that the Orieni have paid a high enough price for their provocations. It is our belief that the Orieni still retain the will to pay any price necessary to hurt us, but they lack the raw firepower to accomplish that goal.
    "
    We are in a similar position. We lack the reserves to conduct any further massive assaults...given the casualties we will certainly sustain from the fixed defences of systems like Seliffe, Phanos, and, of course, Orien."
    "
    So the emperor calls for surrender?"
    "
    He recognizes a simple truth. With neither side able to amass enough military force to achieve any worthwhile goal, the value of ending this struggle while it is still possible to recover." Albero paused. "We will arrange a ceasefire, we will rebuild our colonies, we will rebuild the Navy, and eventually we will destroy the Orieni Empire utterly."
    * * *
    Quadrant Seven, Centauri Republic
    "
    We must abandon the Tirolus system," Mikolo Torra announced. "We cannot hold the worlds we have seized."
    Petrus Torra shook his head. "I will not surrender our hard-won gains. Those conquered worlds are a source of resources for our House."
    "
    Not enough resources to be worth the effort of maintaining them." Mining operations were small and far too often disrupted by the Abbai. "They are not able to generate enough output to cover the costs of their garrisons. We cannot spare the ships," he argued. "Our other holdings within the Repbublic are suffering raids."
    "
    Vultures!" Petrus threw his goblet across the room and it shattered against the wall paneling. "Those damned scavengers refused to aid us in our invasion, but now they eagerly tear at our flanks to secure their own advantage."
    Commerce raids and acts of piracy were on the rise. Mikolo grimaced. "I need to keep more ships to patrol and garrison our House's holdings. Diverting ships to Tirolus is a waste of our Militia."
    "
    But we have already lost so many ships!"
    "
    I know, brother." By his rough guess, House Torra would need nearly a decade to rebuild its militia back to pre-invasion levels. A long and difficult process, not helped by our lack of powerful allies. House Torra had too many enemies...and too many other Houses willing to help them fall. "But how much longer can we afford to throw good coin after bad?"
     
    Argosh likes this.
  7. Wow, looks like things are coming to a head.
     
  8. Rastamon

    Rastamon Valar Morghulis

    Indeed.

    Looks like Sura Laucine would push the Centauri into making one more attack upon Seliffe despite the Emperor's orders for cease-fire negotiations to begin.

    As far as I know from the source books, soon after the end of the Orieni War, the Emperor indeed used the Royal Navy to bring the Houses to heel. That eventually led to a civil war that caused the Republic to shrink to mere dozens of worlds. This shrinkage would later lead to an emperor ordering the Royal Navy to go out, explore and conquer new worlds while diplomacy is pursued with the established worlds.

    One of these new worlds would be Narn.
     
  9. kclcmdr

    kclcmdr Kai The Kmpire! Subscriber

    Oooooooh.... the road to the next path of pain and suffering.... :eek:
     
  10. Talon Spiritcat

    Talon Spiritcat Dragon Wrangler

    Luckily Earth was chosen for diplomacy, not conquest
     
  11. Rastamon

    Rastamon Valar Morghulis

    By word of God, if the Centauri had found Earth a few decades earlier or later than in OTL, they would have conquered it. The mood of the Royal Court at the time saved us.

    Even then, the Royal Court of Turhan's father drew up plans for the conquest of the Earth Alliance. When Turhan became Emperor, he cancelled the plans saying that the cost outweighs the potential gains. Shortly after that, Earth's involvement in the Dilgar War proved him right.
     
  12. Talon Spiritcat

    Talon Spiritcat Dragon Wrangler

  13. Talon Spiritcat

    Talon Spiritcat Dragon Wrangler

    Seliffe, Orieni Empire
    Roberius Kiro eyed the Talvan-class cruiser's bridge displays and tried to calm his nerves. His Beaches of Selini was holding its position in the outer regions of the Seliffe system. "Are we still transmitting, Eric?"
    "
    Yes, Admiral." The comm-officer nodded his head. "On all frequencies...as ordered."
    "
    When will our signal first be detected?"
    "
    The first cycle of transmissions will reach Seliffe in twenty-nine minutes from now. Depending on the course of potential Orieni patrols, the signal may have already been detected."
    Roberius rubbed his chin, studying the displays again. "Kirk, maintain our current position." The Talvan, and its squadron of escorts, were floating in open space, well clear of any of Seliffe's outer planets. We should be difficult to ambush. No easy gravity wells for the Orieni to plot a jump-point around. A careful precaution.
    "
    Noted, Commander."
    "
    Have our escorts maintain a careful scan of our surroundings. I don't want to risk us being ambushed." Roberius frowned. I never dreamed I'd be here. Even when the Usuuth were overrun by the Orieni, I did not expect to find myself here. He had tried to avenge the Usuuth, but the rest of the Republic had only seen the Usuuth as potential slaves and once lost to the Orieni, not worth the effort of conquering.
    "
    The rest of the squadron has messaged us," Eric Kiro reported. "All ships are holding positions as ordered. No evidence of enemy contacts."
    "
    Keep a sharp watch." Roberius frowned at a display. "I wonder if they will respond to our signals?"
    "
    They should...though they might send a task force to engage us."
    "
    They might." Roberius almost hoped the local Orieni commanders would ignore the offered ceasefire and mount an attack. I could destroy them and then have an excuse to lead Tavors into orbit of Seliffe. That faint hope brought a smile to his face.
    * * *
    Nakaleen, Centauri Republic
    "
    This entire situation is intolerable." Stenos Lurshan grimaced as he watched icons slowly moving on the glowing display screen. "Intolerable I say!"
    "
    Patience, Stenos." Lartha Virago cleared his throat. "The Royal Navy does not know of our presence here. Their scouts simply located a pirate nest in the outer system and are clearing it out. It will take them some time to complete their sweep. Then they will leave."
    "
    That is a major inconvenience for us! How long will they take? I ask you that. As long as the Navy is here, none of our supply ships can risk trying to reach us."
    "
    Our supplies are sufficient to last us a year or more."
    "
    By month's end, we will be out of fresh spoo. Only the most desperate of the slave classes would eat the tinned supply."
    "
    We have plenty of brevari and other wines. Do not worry yourself unduly."
    "
    At least none of those damnable Navy ships will approach Nakaleen due to the quarantine." Stenos rubbed his chin. "That is a small blessing. The quarantine is the perfect cover for this research facility." Assuming that none of the native lifeforms ever slipped inside. He shivered at the thought.
    "
    Have you any orders for us?" Lartha pressed.
    "
    Continue to monitor the Navy's position and watch them closely." Stenos frowned. "Keep our own signals and power readings to emergency levels."
    "
    Of course, Lord Governor." Lartha cleared his throat. "This facility is under full security at all times. Given the risks...."
    "
    The quarantine is not foolproof. It has been broken by various Houses for their own purposes."
    "
    True."
    "
    We must be cautious...but we must also risk a little if we are to elevate our House's standing at the Royal Court."
    "
    Indeed. With the war drawing to a close, perhaps there will be opportunity for us to change the social hierarchy."
    "
    Our House will rise and others will fall. That is the fate ordained!"
    * * *
    Seliffe, Orieni Empire
    "
    We have confirmed the presence of a Paragon. The transponder beacon is that of the Strength Through Adversity."
    "
    It is little surprise that Paladin Shrieka Rak is present. The Hand of the Blessed must have gathered their entire remaining Navy here to mount a show like this." Albero Durando stared at the displays on his flagship's bridge as dozens of enemy ship icons flashed across them. They’ve got two Prophets, a couple of those Pariahs, even several Clerics. Along with full complements of escorts of course. Even if they’re merely members of Garrison Command, it’s still a lot of firepower right here. Combined with those orbital bases and minefields, it’s more than enough military strength to hold us off… A worrisome thought struck him. Do they have enough force to relaunch an invasion? Can they drive us back and then reconquer our worlds? He shook off the grim thought.
    Roberius Kiro cleared his throat. "The defences are quite considerable, Admiral. If they could must such strength here, then what must their home world's fortifications be like?"
    "
    Something similar to Centauri Prime I dare think." Albero stroked his beard and attempted to look calm and unconcerned. Although we rely more on mobile warships than fixed defences to safeguard our worlds. We do not fortify our most important systems nearly as much as the Orieni do their minor systems.
    Roberius Kiro grimaced. "So many ships...."
    "
    This is all just a trick!" Albero sneered. "They want us to think they are stronger than they truly are. Keep us from being ready to attack them on t heir other flanks. They want to make us reconsider any further invasion of their space."
    "
    You sound certain of that."
    "
    I am."
    "
    So now what do you suggest?"
    "
    Now we travel to the so-called Armistice Station and begin a face-to-face meeting." Albero grimaced. "Great Maker, I grow tired of negotiating with someone over a monitor. I'd much rather be sitting across a table from them."
    "
    As would I." Yannick Refa stepped onto the bridge. He was dressed in a simple uniform, suitable for the zero-gee environment of the Durando's Dagger. The Optine was a small ship, when compared to the massive Orieni command ships, but he was confident in its superior handling. Should matters devolve into a running battle, I trust that this ship can elude any pursuers. Or destroy those that it cannot outrun. "When does the shuttle depart?"
    "
    In another three hours." Albero gestured towards the bulkhead. He managed to keep his face from scowling too openly. "The Orieni wanted to begin the landing at local noon."
    "
    No doubt to satisfy some foolish omen or other."
    Albero moved closer to the other noble and lowered his voice so that the bridge crew could not overhear his words. "Are you prepared for the negotiations?"
    "
    Of course," Yannick replied haughtily. "I was selected for this task."
    "
    House Refa must have called in some pretty hefty favours to have you assigned as the Republic's chief ambassador. When I left Centauri Prime, I was under the rather distinct impression that I held that position."
    "
    You did...but the Centaurum wishes to have a proper diplomat in charge of the ongoing talks. You are an effective military officer, and you have done well so far with the first round of bargaining, but you are not likely the best candidate for arranging a long-term peace."
    Albero grimaced, then nodded his head. "I've always been better at blowing things up than talking."
    "
    And thus I will talk...and you can be ready to blast every last Orieni ship out of space should it be necessary."
    "
    I will do that with pleasure."
    Yanick smiled.
    The sterile corridors of the space station were deserted, save for occasional armoured soldiers standing guard.
    Shrieka Rak studied their surroundings as they walked. The off-white wall panels and scuffed with years of usage, but nothing too obvious or in need of replacement. The converted station had been built decades before as a traffic monitor and transfer point for ships in Seliffe's outer system. And now it becomes a diplomatic centre which will determine the fate of two empires. He was pleased to see that the guards were all looking attentive as they stood at corridor junctions.
    "
    Something amuses you, Paladin?"
    "
    No, Strek Nav." Shrieka kept his tone slightly diffident as the fleet chaplain approached him.
    Strek Nav was dressed in his finest robes which had metallic threads woven through the material, shimmering as he moved.
    Shrieka himself wore his crimson-trimmed dress uniform with his half-cloak and appropriate medal-armbands. "I was merely taking note of the guards and their obvious attentiveness to their duty."
    "
    They know that the heathens will soon be among us. Even after years of effort, we have proven to have been unable to convert any substantial number of Centauri to the true path."
    Sarka Hihan appeared around the next corner with his own escort of towering Phanop. He approached Shrieka and Strek. "I am informed that the Centauri delegation has arrived in their shuttle bay."
    Shrieka Rak clicked his beak. "We are proceeding on schedule then."
    "
    We are."
    "
    Something concerns you?"
    Shrieka clicked his beak as the Fleet Chaplain studied him. "I am worried about the Centauri deciding to destroy this station from a distance." He answered truthfully, knowing the chaplain would sense if he lied. "Should they launch such a bombardment against us, we would stand little chance of stopping it. Our lives would be lost."
    "
    The Centauri will not risk our immediate and overwhelming reprisals." Sarka narrowed his eyes. "You have contingencies in place?"
    "
    Of course. And with a trusted officer in command on my flagship." Shrieka was taking no chances. "Should any of the Centauri warships open fire, their fleet will not survive long enough to see this station's destruction."
    Sarka clicked his beak.
    "
    I do not agree with this course of action," the Fleet Chaplain complained. "The Living Gods will not look favorably upon us as we shun their dictates."
    "
    We have no choice but to open negotiations as the Council of the Blessed have commanded," Sarka told him. "We have barely managed to hold our current battle lines. We need to buy time to rebuild. The Centauri are winning this war."
    "
    The Living Gods--"
    "
    Favour us certainly, but they seem reluctant to openly enter the war at our sides."
    Strek Nav’s beak fell open at the slight blasphemy from the paladin.
    Shrieka Rak clicked his beak. "Garrison Command will fight to the last ship--to the last soldier--to hold what territory we possess. The Line and Strike Forces will sally forth to attempt to push back the Centauri, but I can not guarantee a success. We are but mortal in service to the Living Gods. We will fight, but--in all truth--without direct divine intervention, the Hand of the Blessed cannot win this war."
    "
    Your words bear an unpleasant truth to them, but we must accept what cannot be changed." Sarka Hihan clicked his beak.
    Strek Nav blinked his large eyes and clicked his beak harshly.
    "
    What else would you have us do?" Shrieka asked him.
    "
    We should continue to wave this holy war until the infidels are crushed and brought into the light of order. However, I concede that we grow weak and that a final victory eludes us. Therefore, we must negotiate to hold onto what we have left."
    "
    We will rebuild," Sarka Hihan made that comment in a low tone. "In time, we will purge the chaos of the Centauri from the galaxy. Order will always arise from chaos."
    "
    So our most ancient and holy teachings state."
    "
    We must hold to our faith." It was all that they had left.
    "
    Then we should head to the meeting room." Sarka Hihan proceeded to stride along the corridor and the others followed him.
    Two Orieni stood beside the sealed doorway.
    They saluted.
    Shrieka Rak clicked his beak and gestured.
    The door opened.
    Sarka Hihan stepped through into the room. Shrieka Rak followed after him, with Strek Nav trailing after.
    Sarka Hihan narrowed his eyes as he studied the other delegation who were entering the room from a door on the opposite wall. "Yannick Refa and Albero Durando are leading." He could vaguely sense their thoughts. A surprising amount of control and order to them...they will not be easy too-- The thought was cut off sharply. The Orieni eyed two cold-eyed Centauri. "The Centauri have brought their Mindhawks."
    "
    So they have." Strek Nav agreed.
    Shrieka Rak clicked his beak. "They will attempt to steal our thoughts and violate our minds."
    "
    They lack the ability to so," Strek Nav told him. "The Living Gods will shelter you, Shrieka Rak."
     
    "
    Monitor them closely," Yannick Refa ordered his people in a quiet tone of voice as the door hissed open and the Orieni delegation entered the grandly named Chamber Of Discourse. "I do not trust them to stay out of our minds."
    The pasty-skinned telepath standing at his shoulder smiled. "We will know if they probe your thoughts, Ambassador Refa."
    Refa looked at the commander of the Mindhawks. "And if they should do so, kill them. Painfully."
    "
    As you wish."
    Albero chuckled.
    Yannick leaned back in his chair. "They look like the images in their dossiers, at least."
    Albero bent close. "Sarka Hihan, one of the Blessed. Shrieka Rak, paladin of the Hand of the Blessed, and a Fleet Chaplain."
    "
    They have the authourity to treat with us so we shall begin." Yannick cleared his throat. "Let us begin," he announced in a voice meant to carry.
     
    Sarka Hihan sat at one end of the long table while the Centauri sat at the other. Both delegations had drinks in front of them, along with other light refreshments supplied by their own side. There is little trust to be found at this table.
    "The ongoing war has cost our peoples greatly." Sarka managed to speak basic Centauri with a heavy accent. He had noticed the other delegations' surprise when he had first spoken his opening benediction. "Our mutual borders have been devastated. Scores of inhabited planets are now virtual wastelands and their once-thriving populations are dead. The homeworlds of many of our fellow-citizens are ruined and once prosperous colonies are now uninhabitable."
    "
    This is simple truth," Refa said. "We know the war has been costly to both of our empires, but that is the risk of war."
    "
    A ceasefire is currently in our best interests," Sarka Hihan pointed out. "Your own Emperor has mentioned this."
    "
    A ceasefire may not yet be easily arranged."
    "
    You have your decree from your emperor...we have listened to the wishes of the Living Gods. A ceasefire is required."
    "
    We have terms," Refa announced. He had a glass of brevari in front of him but so far he had not touched it. "You would be well-advised to accept them."
    Sarka Hihan blinked. As we expected...you are arrogant but I will hear you out. "I will hear them...but the will of the Living Gods must determine our fate."
    Yannick Refa grimaced. "The first and foremost term is that you will free your subject peoples and allow them to be independent of your Blessed. You will not maintain an empire built on conquered slaves."
    The trio of Orieni stirred.
    "
    Second: the hand of the Blessed will disarm, limiting itself to vessels of no more than fifty thousand tons. Corvettes and frigates."
    "
    Police ships," Shrieka Rak sneered.
    "
    The Republic will no longer tolerate the threat of future assaults from Paragons and Prophets." Refa chuckled.
    "
    That is not acceptable. We will not surrender the ability to defend ourselves from potential threats." Sarka Hihan shifted in his chair. "Nor do we see a reason to abandon our fellow-citizens to potential predation from our less-enlightened neighbors."
    "
    Are you suggesting that the Republic has plans to annex--"
    "
    We share borders with many star nations."
    Yannick looked annoyed by the interruption, but he could make no effective counter argument to that simple truth.
    Sarka clicked his beak softly.
    Albero grunted something under his breath.
    Yannick grimaced, but chose to continue speaking. "Third: the Blessed will accept responsibility for the war. They will issue a public statement to all other star-faring nations that the Blsssed provoked the Republic into this war.
    "
    Fourth: The Orieni will pay reparations to the Republic for losses sustained in the conflict."
    "
    That is extortion!" Shrieka burst out. "You cannot expect us to agree to that. Losses to your fleets and colonies are the fortunes of war. As are our own equally heavy losses. We cannot agree to pay for your rebuilding when we have our own citizens to care for."
    Sarka Hihan narrowed his eyes and stared down the long table. "What other conditions do you have, Ambassador?"
    "
    Our fifth and final term is a simple one. The Orieni government will renounce any right--now and for the future--of declaring war on the Republic." A smile played out across Refa's face. "There will be a lasting peace."
     
    "
    This is outrageous!" Strek Nav said in a soft tone. "Extortion, as the paladin pointed out."
    "
    The Hand of the Blessed will be shamed if we agree to these terms!" Shrieka Rak pointed out. "We could see a fracture of the fleet into--"
    "
    The Blessed expected harsh terms." Sarka managed to sound calm.
    "
    The Living Gods will turn their backs on us if we bow to the heathens."
    "
    I am aware of the teachings and of the will of the Living Gods," Sarka's voice had turned harsh. "I have spent much time meditating upon these facts. I communed with the Living Gods months ago. I was the chief voice who urged that a ceasefire was required."
    Strek Nav lifted his crest. "My apologies."
    "
    Accepted." Sarka Hihan took a deep breath. "Calm yourselves...the mindscape is in turmoil and your thoughts are chaotic. Seek to restore inner order so that we might confront the Centauri from a position of strength."
    "
    The Centauri blessed are quite strong. They are blocking our gifts."
    "
    Would you expect less from the Centauri, Chaplain? Those who are not blessed fear those who are." Sarka Hihan sampled the mindscape, but the thoughts of the Centauri Mindhawks were shielded.
    Several long moments passed.
    Sarka finally judged his comrades ready to proceed. "These are demanding terms you would place on us," he called out. "You expect us to agree to them so readily?"
    "
    And what else do you expect?" Yannick countered. "The Republic, from all appearances, is winning this war. We have broken your fleets and driven you out of our systems. We hold much of your territory."
    "
    Yet you were the ones to broadcast the first offer of negotiations."
    Yannick said nothing.
    "
    With that in mind," Sarka continued, "what do the Centauri offer in exchange for such concessions from us?"
     
    Yannick narrowed his eyes and paused long enough to take a sip from his brevari. "We will end the ongoing hostilities. We Centauri pledge to withdraw all of our military forces from the boundaries claimed by the Orieni Empire."
    Sarka Hihan clicked his beak. "You would have us both return to the pre-war borders?"
    "
    Yes."
    Shrieka Rak clicked his beak softly.
    Sarka glanced at him. Yes, that is an enticing offer. "Following what timeline? A slow withdrawal lasting for decades?"
    "
    No, we would complete this operation by the end of next year at the latest."
    "
    Next year according to your calendar?"
    "Of course." Yannick smiled.
    The effort to retake your former systems and bring them back under the sway of the Blessed will drain your remaining military strength. You will be too weak to threaten us for decades.
    "
    We shall retire to ponder your offer." Sarka Hihan rose to his feet.
    "
    Of course. We shall await your return."
    "May the Living Gods offer their blessings to those who are worthy." Sarka turned and walked out of the hall with the other Orieni following him.
    * * *

    Golia, Centauri Republic
    Kalinai Durando tapped a button on his datapad. "The latest delivery of finished warships are ready to be launched from the shipyards. The Royal Navy has already sent crews to take possession of those ships."
    "That is good news." Gaius Durando nodded and signed a document with a flourish. "Though hardly not expected." Golia had been a military outpost for over a century, guarding the Republic’s coreward border, as well as acting as a base from which additional exploration expeditions could be launched. The local shipyards produced
    Balciron destroyers and Aurilla cruisers. "Production efforts have been very efficient."
    "The second batch of ships--the overruns--are being absorbed into our own militia."
    "
    And the financial records are being overseen?"
    "Of course, Governor." Kalinai nodded his head. "The hulls constructed are all accounted for. The overruns, unfortunate produced with dangerous flaws, were scrapped or repaired for service."
    "
    And the Royal Navy paid for all of them." Gaius chuckled. "It is good for us to be able to expand our own militia and have the Navy pay for it." It is one way for us to recover our tax money.
    "Yes, my Lord."
    "Resources are at a premium right now," the governor announced. "The Republic is strained trying to maintain the Navy and prosecute the war. An ending to it would be appreciated...though it would affect our own business."
    "You cannot have everything."
    "No, I suppose not."
     
    Craggy-faced Golians were labouring in the gardens.
    Gaius stood on a balcony overlooking the gardens.
    "
    I have kept my agents in place, but there have been no signs of rebellion." Emilo Durando was dressed rather somberly. "The Golians are content to be our slaves."
    "I do not trust them." Gaius grimaced. "They are cowed, but only because we have a strong garrison in place." A garrison he had increased greatly since the Orieni had rampaged through so much of the Republic. Of course, two years of repair and recovery had brought House Durando great payoff.
    "
    I have agents in place to listen for rumours."
    "
    Keep an eye on them."
    "
    That is my job."
    Gaius eyed his spymaster. "There is news from the patriarch?"
    "
    Nothing of interest."
    Could Sulon is plotting against me?
    Gaius wondered. "What about Alberio?"
    "
    My agents at the Royal Court have apparently promoted Alberio to be in charge of the negotiating a ceasefire with the Orieni. He has been assigned to Seliffe."
    Gaius snorted. "A ceasefire! The Emperor is surprisingly weak. Why would he negotiate with those animals? He should be launching a full invasion, not offer a truce."
    "
    The Royal Court--"
    "Is of little importance, or interest to me." He was well removed from the political intrigues of the Court.
    I can accomplish so much more out here, without having to waste time and effort distracting the others. "Do you have any other good news for me?"
    "
    No, Governor."
    "Then leave me and return to your duties." Gaius returned his attention to the gardens.

    * * *

    Seliffe, Orieni Empire
    Yannick Refa looked across the smooth table with an oily grin on his face. "The Treaty of Seliffe is in our mutual best interests. You must agree with that."
    "It is unfair," Sarkah Hihan snapped in response. "One-sided and biased in your favour."
    "
    Oh?"
    "Look at the wording of this particular clause." Sarka threw the hardcopy onto the tabletop and it landed with a thump. "This clause
    stipulates that the Orieni are henceforth forbidden to field any type of holocaustic weaponry, while the Centauri themselves merely pledge not to employ such weaponry against Orieni worlds with a population greater than one hundred million sentients."
    "
    Your point?"
    "
    We are forbidden while you merely pledge?"
    "
    Do you doubt our words?" Refa asked softly. "The Orieni did initially provoke this war. We were justified in our response."
    "
    The Republic must take equal blame…and be equally willing to shoulder its share of responsibility."
    "
    That is a possibility."
    "Make it more of a certainty then if you wish to continue our negotiations."
    Yannick rubbed his chin.
    Sarka stared back across the table.
    * * *
    Brakos, Centauri Republic
    Rinaldo dabbed at his forehead with a lace-trimmed handkerchief and took a sip from his goblet. A canopy hung over the patio to provide shade from the blazing sun. "Go on, Forando."
    The thin secretary cleared his throat. "The accumulation of supplies at our southern research facility is proceeding on schedule. The careful ongoing transferal of non-Torra personnel off-world is working as well as we can expect, Lord Governor."
    "
    Then we can expect to completely solidify our control over this planet."
    "
    That is our plan as the patriarch laid out." Rinaldo held out his goblet out for a Centauri servant to refill. "What news do we have from Mikolo?"
    "
    He's scrambling to muster more ships for a renewed strike against Tirolus."
    "
    Another strike?" Rinaldo shook his head. "He should tell Petrus that it's a doomed failure. We don't have militia strength to continue fighting. We need to keep our own ships to hold our territory. We should not be wasting our militia in this useless war."
    "
    Petrus is stubborn--"
    "
    Petrus is a fool." Rinaldo drained his brevari. "Another military failure and perhaps the rest of the household nobles will support a motion to remove him from the position of patriarch."
    "
    Someone like you?"
    "
    Yes, Giancarlo."
    The other Centauri rubbed his chin in surprise. "You don't have the support from the other members of the family."
    "
    Not yet...but Petrus no longer has the support he thinks he does." Rinaldo stood up and paced across the patio. "I am mustering my own support." He smiled. The position of patriarch was obtainable to just about any Centauri in a household. In theory. I should be able to secure my position especially if he blunders again.
    Forando grimaced.
    "
    You have something to offer?"
    "
    Merely wondering about the position of the Royal Navy?"
    "
    What of it?"
    "
    Will the Royal Navy be willing to support a thrust against Tirolus?"
    Rinaldo chuckled. "The Royal Navy is much too heavily committed against the Orieni. Even with the potential of a possible cease-fire, the Navy is remaining on guard all along the new border." He paused for a moment. "Have you seen any patrols come through this system in the last year?"
    "
    No, Governor."
    "
    I rest my case...the Royal Navy is weak. In this region, at least. There is an opportunity for a strong leader to assume control over this border."
    "
    You?"
    "Petrus has failed." Rinaldo was smiling. "And that gives me an opportunity."

    * * *
    Orien, Orieni Empire
    "
    This treaty is a mockery, Paladin Rak." Aaka Hrhia tossed the collection of parchments onto the desk. "The Living Gods will turn their backs on us for this."
    Shrieka Rak stiffened. Three weeks of daily meetings had produced that document which Hrhia so easily tossed aside. "The Treaty of Seliffe is the only hope we have," the Orieni paladin argued. "The Centauri hold all of the current advantages, I fear. Right now, they are willing to end this war and withdraw to the pre-war borders of our nations. I believe we must accept those terms."
    "
    You are telling me that the Hand of the Blessed is too weak to stop a renewed offensive?"
    "
    I would rather not risk further conflict, Supreme Heirophant."
    Aaka Hrhia clicked his beak in disgust. "What of these reports from the All-Seeing Eye that the Centauri themselves are overstretched? Agents have claimed that the Royal Navy lacks any further reserves. They have nothing left to deploy to this front."
    "
    Wehave nothing left to deploy to this border," Shrieka countered.
    The supreme heirophant clicked his beak in irritation.
    "Rumours are not a firm foundation upon which to base a counter attack," Shrieka continued in a slightly more conciliatory tone. "If the All-Seeing Eye has been blinded to the truth, then we will march into a trap and the empire's remaining strength will be lost. Then nothing will prevent the Centauri from bringing
    Tavors into orbit of our core worlds."
    Hrhia blinked. "Your thoughts, Tex?" he asked in a soft tone.
    Tex Hovat clicked her beak as everyone's gaze shifted towards her. "The military situation is as grim as Shrieka truthfully points out. Should the Centauri retain any sizable reserves, then the Hand will be unable to hold."
    "Garrison Command will bleed any attack against our remaining worlds!"
    "But Line Command and the Elite cannot retake any of our worlds."
    "Shrieka--"
    "We have been replenished by Logistics Command, I agree." Shrieka kept his voice steady. He also kept his thoughts organized and confident in his beliefs. "We can hold the line. In theory, we
    can launch a renewed assault into the occupied systems. However, we cannot hold them. Our logistical train is all but exhausted."
    Aaka Hrhia blinked again. "Tex, you had more to say?"













    "Yes, Supreme Heirophant. We can drag out the fighting, but our defeat is likely. And should Orien be destroyed, then there will be none left to carry out the will of the Living Gods.
    "Yes, we are being forced to grant this
    so-called freedom to our fellow-citizens. I doubt that our teachings are so weak as to be cast aside by the mere removal of our presence. Most of our fellow-citizens will continue to walk the path of order even without our direct guidance."
    "
    Until they can be brought back into our fold?"
    "
    Yes. That is my goal." Sarka clicked his beak loudly. "We will grant this freedom, but the Hand will return in time to all those worlds."
    "I will arrange for Shepherds to be sent forth on wandering pilgrimages among our fellow-citizens. They will maintain the faith."
    "
    If the Centauri are monitoring our compliance with these terms--"
    "
    I will make use of ethnic agents. The Centauri will not see our involvement."
    "
    Thank you, Minister."
    Aaka Hrhia clicked his beak. "It is possible, if unlikely, that some of the Centauri who have listened to our teachings will also continue to follow the path of order. They may yet prove advantageous to us ion a future conflict."
    "
    I would not rely heavily upon that assumption."
    "
    As you say." Aaka paused. "What of the military aspects of this treaty?"
    "
    The warships?"
    "
    Yes, what of the Fleet."
    "
    We are heavily restricted in terms of how many new flagships we can build...but given our current scarcity of resources, that is not a major concern. The bulk of our ships will make use of the existing jump-gate network rendering jump-engines unnecessary."
    "
    Then we will make contact with the Centauri and accept their terms."
    Aaka Hrhia rose to his feet and paced towards the balcony. "This is a setback, but it is not a defeat. We will rebuild. We will continue to walk the path of order. We will see the galaxy brought into order and obedience to the will of the Living Gods."
    "
    As you command, Supreme Heirophant."
    "Our victory is inevitable." Aaka Hrhia had long advocated a more passive stance than his fellow Blessed--based on his opinion was that this would allow the Orieni to let the inevitable course of history progress and permit the forces of order to win at the lowest possible cost.
    I have saved us from my predecessor's disastrous plan. I will be the voice that guides us to victory.

     
     
    Argosh, Rastamon and Lightning_Count like this.
  14. Talon Spiritcat

    Talon Spiritcat Dragon Wrangler

    Tirolus, Abbai Matriarchy
    A chime tinkled through the sensorium.
    "
    Make your report, Muath." Administrator Talitha closed her eyes in anticipation of impending pain. "The Centauri are attacking?"
    "
    Their fleet is still advancing, but they are not actually within weapons' range."
    "
    But they were advancing." It was not a question.
    "
    They have stopped." Kachot sounded puzzled. She looked away from the icons floating within the holotank. "Mikolo Torra has halted his advance. The fleet is forming into a defensive posture."
    Talitha blinked her watery eyes. "The Centauri do not believe in defensive postures," she pointed out. "They believe solely in attacking."
    "
    They are not attacking." Kachot sounded almost disappointed by that.
    Talitha frowned. The other Abbai seemed to enjoy battle with a distinctly non-Abbai lust. "Order our own forces to stand by...do not advance."
    A momentary grimace flashed across Kachot's face. "As you wish, Madam Administrator."
    Talitha could see mixed fleets of Kastona and Lystala cruisers, Tetrav frigates, Nota deep scout, and other ships. The braves crews were prepared to give their lives to defend the colony...but the colony was dying.
    "
    Madam Administrator!"
    "
    Yes, Muath?"
    "
    We're getting a new signal...the jump-gate has been activated."
    "
    More ships?" The Abbai commander shook her head in disbelief. "Haven't those monsters done enough harm?" Tirolus was dying and none of the Abbai researchers could see any means of repairing the damage. Not with the Centauri still harassing us. "House Torra obviously paused in their attack so that they could gain reinforcements."
    "
    They will come now," Kachot said.
    "
    Send all crews to the highest alert."
    "
    Yes, Madam Administrator." Muath paused for a moment. "I have taken the liberty of activating an observer probe near the jump-gate." The probe was sensor-stealthed, but now that it was actively transmitting, the Centauri would detect it easily.
    "
    Download the visual for me."
    Warships surged through the jump-point.
    "
    Centauri warships."
    The Abbai exchanged nervous looks.
    "
    We have silhouettes from the ships now...Balciron destroyers, Kendari scout, Sakar-class carrier...and a Centaurum."
    Kachot bit out a viscous Drazi curse. "Aside from the destroyers, those are vessels used exclusively by the Royal Navy."
    Talitha blinked and felt her knees go weak.
    "
    House Torra has gained powerful allies," Kachot said. "We cannot hope to withstand the full might of the Republic."
    "
    We must hold. We've held back House Torra...these new ships will be unprepared to face the might of our defences."
    "So you counsel that we fight?'
    Kachot blinked. "We defend...as always."
     
    Petrus Torra closed his mouth with an audible snap. "How many ships?" he demanded.
    "Twenty-seven." Rhanis Torra fell silent.
    Mikolo Torra was studying the tactical display. "They are formed up into a defensive pattern around the Centaurum. The Sakar is launching its fighters. No heavy jamming, but the Kendari could make things difficult."
    Rhanis glanced at Petrus, then back to the militia admiral. "Do you have any orders?"
    "Hold position." Mikolo spoke quickly and with confidence. "Do not engage any other vessel."
    Rhanis issued the orders. "Bruno," he snapped, "get me transponder beacons!"
    Petrus was staring at the displays. "I was so close," he whispered.
    Bruno cleared his throat. "The destroyers are using the regular assortment of names...none of note. Kendari is Emperor's Eye. The Sakar is broadcasting as All That Glitters. The Centaurum is...."
    The pause lengthened.
    "Yes?" Petrus prompted. "What ship?"
    "The Vengeance Of Vitani."
    Mikolo muttered a curse.
     
    "
    This is a major reinforcement of our enemies." Talitha pointed to the icon of the obvious flagship. "I do not know that our remaining defences can stop so many fresh ships. Not with that Centaurum to lead them." The battleship alone was more powerful than half the Abbai fleet.
    "
    How did House Torra obtain such powerful reinforcements?" Kachot asked. "Our agents have heard only that Torra was operating without official imperial approval."
    "
    Yes, that is why we thought we could hold them back," Talitha agreed. "If the situation has changed...."
    "
    Then Tirolus is truly doomed."
    Muath cleared his throat. "Madam Administrator?"
    "
    Yes?"
    "
    We are receiving a signal…open broadcast."
    "
    Let us hear it."
    "
    Attention all ships within the Tirolus system." The voice was deep and pronounced each word very distinctly. "Attend to the presence and listen to the words of Vitani Jarah, Emperor of the Republic, Ruler of a Hundred Worlds, Conquerer of Systems, Defender of the Faith, Guardian of the Eye, and Slayer of the Xon."
    The Abbai looked at each other again.


    "
    Their emperor himself?" Talitha said aghast.
    "
    Great Mother protect us."
    "
    All Centauri forces," the voice was different to the first one. His accent was more pronounced, the voice younger. "All House forces will stand down and prepare to remove their presence from the Tirolus system. By direct decree from your Emperor, this conflict is declared ended."
    Within the sensorium, silence reigned as the amazed Abbai blinked at one another in complete disbelief.






























     
    Petrus Torra strode into the shipboard audience chamber, managing to look calm and arrogant as only a House Noble could. He was dressed in a richly decorated suit and his hair was crested as tall as he could manage. The room itself mimicked the throne room on Centauri Prime with pillars flanking alcoves and lush tapestries covering the walls.
    Vitani was seated on a replica of the Lion Throne, a handful of minor nobles and naval officers standing around him. The emperor was looking quite resplendent in a white tunic and breeches. Gold trim adorned his collar and cuffs, with silver tracery subtly showcasing his House’s insignia.
    Petrus had his own guards, of course, though he doubted they could save him should this meeting erupt in violence. For now, enjoy the sensation of artificial gravity, he thought. "Welcome to occupied Tirolus, Majesty." He offered an elaborate bow.
    Vitani glared at Petrus Torra. "Occupied, but not conquered."
    Petrus opened his mouth--
    And quickly fell silent as he caught sight of a cluster of robed Abbai standing on a tight cluster near one wall.
    Two were actually armed Drazi, but the other three were slender Abbai.
    Petrus licked his lips. "Majesty, what are these...ladies," he said after a moment, "doing here?"
    "
    The local government are attending me as I conduct a tour of the Republic's borders and its neighbours," Vitani replied. "Tell me, Petrus, have you heard anything from your friend recently?" he demanded.
    "
    My...friend?"
    "
    Yes, your dear friend. What was his name now…Kas’Vaka?"
    Petrus flinched at the name.
    Vitani leaned forward. "I am disappointed in you, Petrus. The Abbai managed to hold your militia in stalemate for years. If anything, my analysts think they are winning this private little war. However slowly, they are on the ascendent. And from all appearances, you thought that you could elevate your House back into greatness?" He shook his head sadly. "How very disappointing."
    "
    Tirolus is not yet lost, Majesty." The patriarch of House Torra was desperately attempting to find a means of salvaging the situation. "With the addition of your forces, we could drive the Abbai from this system and claim its resources for the Republic. We could--you--could lead us to Abba itself!"
    "
    I could," Vitani agreed, giving Petrus a moment of hope, "but I have neither interest nor desire in doing so. The war is over. All the wars are over. Get used to a resumption of peace."
    "
    Yes, Majesty." Petrus bowed again, to hide his grimace.
    "
    You have my sincere apologies for this unfortunate incident, Administrator Talitha." Vitani smiled warmly at the Abbai delegation. "It is equally unfortunate that other border concerns kept my attention distracted for so long otherwise I could have taken steps to end this conflict more quickly."
    "
    Your apology is accepted, your Majesty." The Abbai spoke stiffly. She caught his hidden meaning quite plainly.
    "
    House Torra will be making you a most generous offer very shortly. They will be paying reparations for this needless war which they have provoked in my name. It is an error they will not soon repeat."
    "
    Thank you again, Majesty."
    Vitani rubbed his chin. "They will not repeat their mistake."
    Petrus wilted under the emperor's imperious stare.
     
    * * *
    Ardun, Centauri Republic
    Antono Dei stared numbly through the armoured viewport, watching the warships of the Royal Navy as they circled past the station. The hulls gleamed with golden trim, rich against a deep purple. "We are humbled, Malagio."
    His wife nodded her head sadly. She was wearing one of her best gowns, with her hair bound into a tight braid.
    Antono sighed. "The emperor has destroyed House Syma. He’s humbled House Torra in Tirolus, and scattered his supporters. We ourselves have very few allies still willing to speak out on our behalf."
    "
    We tied our fortunes to Torra and now we must cut our losses."
    "
    Vitani will not forgive us." His eyes rested on his dagger which rested on a granite table top. The jewels on the hilt were glittering brightly. "Nor will he forget."
    "
    No...we challenged his authourity. He must take all steps necessary to secure his rule." Malagio walked across the thick carpet. "It is the Centauri way after all."
    "
    If we had been able to win...oh, things would have been different then. We would have become one of the High Houses. We would have become a power in the Royal Court." Another squadron of ships flew past the viewport. "Instead, our House teeters on the brink of disaster."
    "
    We gambled and we lost."
    "
    Yes. But now we must take the necessary steps to safeguard our House. I would not see House Dei cast down into slavery or worse, extinction. Our honour must not be trampled into the common muck."
    Malagio nodded her head. "Vitani was vindictive with Syma."
    "
    That was open rebellion against the Throne. In a time of open warfare no less." Antono shook his head. "Syma was an idiot." And you are not? a voice asked inside his head. "We simply...followed another House into an ill-advised attempt at securing more territory for the Republic. Our loyalty to the emperor was never in question. I stated as much in my transmission to Admiral Dromo." Antono frowned as he considered the lack of a response. Why has
    Dromo has not responded to my communique? No doubt he's waiting for Vitani to arrive in person to render imperial justice upon my House.
    "
    We have but one option left to us. We must accept all of the blame so that our relatives might be spared to eventually rebuild our House."
    Antono turned away from the window. "Yes, we will--we must."
    Malagio offered him a goblet of dark red wine. "One last drink to the honour of our House?"
    He took the glass with a warm smile. "One last drink with you, my love."
    Malagio raised her own goblet. "To honour and to love."
    "
    Honour and love."
    They drank.
    Antono lowered his goblet. "It burns just a little."
    "
    You sound surprised."
    "
    I thought lomdua was painless?"
    "
    It is." She grasped his hand one final time.
    * * *
    Hulanok, Orieni Empire
    A faint breeze made the clouds of incense swirl around the bed.
    Lurmell nearly coughed on the acrid scent. Was it always so strong? He wondered how the dying Orieni governor could still breath. I should open the window and let in some fresh air and sunshine, he told himself.
    Someone coughed.
    Lurmell stepped into the room.
    "May the Living Gods have mercy upon our wayward souls. We are broken."
    "
    Don’t say that, Governor." Lurmell blinked in the candlelight. The soft glow of that one candle gave the room just enough of a soft glow that he could see Hulanok's governor laying in his bed.
    Kezbak was bundled about with pillows and blankets, his breathing slow and heavily laboured. "Our pride has led our entire race to its fall," he muttered, taking long pauses for breath between his words. "We are humbled."
    "
    We are not defeated. The Hand retains the will to fight on and the current border is being fortified with every ship which can be spared from other duties."
    "
    Leaving worlds like Hulanok all but defenceless should that border fall."
    Lurmell grunted. "All three squadrons of Grim Defiance are in position to defend our space from any incursion. It is now only a matter of time before the Centauri are worn down and lose their will to continue fighting."
    "
    We lack the resources."
    Lurmell could not argue that. The soldiers of the Hand of the Blessed were still willing to fight, but the Strike Fleets were destroyed, the Regular Fleets were decimated, and the Garrison Fleets were barely able to police what remained of the Empire. Nearly half the Empire is currently occupied by the Centauri. That was an outrage which could not remain unchallenged.
    "
    We must rebuild our strength," Kezbrak gasped. "The Living Gods demand our obedience and our strength in their service. We cannot fail them."
    "
    No, Governor."
    "
    We cannot…."
    Lurmell watched.
    Kezbak clicked his beak weakly.
    Lurmell reached out to snuff out the candle.
    * * *
    Quadrant Seven, Centauri Republic
    The great audience chamber was quiet and still.
    "
    I, Mikolo Torra, hereby resign my commission as Lord Admiral of the House Torra Militia."
    "Your resignation is accepted." Vitani nodded his head to the other Centauri, his expression cold.
    Mikolo Torra stood with his back straight and his face calm. He wore his dress uniform, his chest bedecked with medals. He had been permitted to wear a pistol at his side. I will meet my end as a Centauri nobleman should. He allowed himself the opportunity to survey the room and enjoy its grandeur one final time.
    For announcing his retirement, the room certainly fit the bill. The vaulted ceiling was covered with numerous bright frescoes depicting each of House Torra's greatest accomplishments. The polished parquet flooring reflected sunlight pouring through arched windows.
    And the audience hall was packed with people.
    Vitani was dressed in his finest, with guards in polished armour flanking him as he sat on a dais.
    The assorted nobles of House Torra stood clustered to one side. Members of the royal court, who had accompanied the emperor, and naval officers stood opposite them.
    Petrus Torra had a glare on his face as he watched the proceedings. He was still the patriarch of the House, but other members of the family were already making the first overtures in a dozen schemes to replace him. There was a shallow circle around him, showing that no one wished to stand close by him in support of his actions.
    A servant carried a tray across the parquet floor and stopped at Mikolo's side.
    "
    Zaerus?" Mikolo asked as he studied the silver-chased goblet.
    Vitani nodded his head once. "In a cup of my finest brevari no less." His mouth twitched. "Such a waste of a good vintage."
    "I am honoured by the chance to taste it." Mikolo accepted the goblet from the servant, who bowed and carefully backed away. "I trust that the poison will not spoil the flavour?"
    "I am told that
    zaerus actually serves to enhance the flavour." The Emperor’s lips parted in a surprise smile. "I have not tried it myself, of course."
    Mikolo smiled back. "Of course not, Majesty." He raised the glass towards the emperor. "To the Centauri Republic, may it stand forever!" He drank deeply. "To the future of House Torra, may we rise again!" He took a second drink. "Your sources spoke the truth, Vitani." He handed the now-empty glass back to the servant. "It does enhance the flavour of the brevari."
    Petrus looked as if he was ready to faint.
    Mikolo felt his knees growing weak and he stumbled. "Good-bye, brother."
    Petrus winced. "Good-bye, Mikolo."
    Vitani was leaning forward in his chair.



































    Is that a hint of remorse on his face?
    Mikolo could not tell. "To your long reign, Majesty." With that, he collapsed onto the parquet floor.
     
    "
    Have the others agreed?" Corlo Dei asked, the words lost in the babble of the other bar patrons. Nothing makes noise like drunken Centauri, he thought. He'd won a lot of ducats gambling with navy officers and he hoped to win more.
    Angelo nodded his head. "Yes, for now. It was a close vote."
    Corlo chuckled. "What choice do they have?" he demanded. "Vitani has ended the wars by decree. The Royal Navy is returning to this border to enforce the emperor's rules." He grimaced at the thought. "Our Houses will suffer."
    A few other members of his crew were watching him.
    "I can see only future for us. We refuel our ships and take on fresh supplies," Corlo announced. "Then we set course for open space."
    "
    Who's our target? The Drazi?"
    "
    The Drazi. The Abbai. Fat freighters piloted by equally fat Centauri. We are privateers no more...now we're honest pirates."
    The men cheered and drained their mugs.
    * * *
    Ssumssha, Abbai Matriarchy
    The soothing coral walls of the Chamber of Discourse were indeed a relief to Shaath Mula. She had spent far too much time onboard sterile Vree craft.
    "
    You have done well, Shaath Mula."
    The researcher lifted her head to look at the woman who had just spoken. "I have only attempted to chart a safe course for our people to swim, Natar."
    The empress-other of the Abbai smiled warmly in response. "We have seen the manner and tactics in which the Centauri deploy their fighters. And the Orieni also make extensive use of these tiny craft. As do the Drazi and so many other races.
    "They are fragile things," she continued. "Such frail craft, barely able to protect their pilots during normal routine operations. During combat, they are practically suicidal."
    "
    This is true, Natar."
    "But their agility cannot be denied. They maneuver into advantageous positions and then tear apart the hulls of larger warships. Pinpoint displays of firepower allow them to disable thrusters or strip away weaponry."
    "We have begun measures to improve our anti-fighter firepower." Unlarin Puul made that comment. "We can limit the damage--"
    Shaath cleared her throat. "With all respect, Unlarin, I have made an extensive study of these craft. In many cases, the recent conflict has proven that the best anti-fighter weapon is another fighter."
    "I would not enjoy sending out schools of our own people in such craft." Puul shook his head. "They would be perish in short order."
    "That is why we brokered a deal with the Vree Guild of Merchant/Explorers." Shaath kept her voice calm. She was not used to meeting with such high-ranking officials as those who sat within this hall. "We have swum and scouted several battlefields and recovered a number of crippled Orieni hulls which have since been transported back to research facilities here."
    "
    Warship hulls or wrecked fighters?"
    "
    Both."
    Puul snorted. "Of what use are Templars to us?"
    Shaath stared at him. "I do not propose to build fightercraft of our own. At least not in the conventional sense." Silence greeted her words. "I propose to study Orieni equipment. Specifically, I would study the HK-Controller systems. Their doctrine is valid and to be admired. An automated force of drones could be deployed in both anti-fighter and anti-shipping operations without requiring risk to Abbai lives."
    "You would replicate their
    Hunter-Killer technology?"
    "Yes, Natar."
    The Natar looked intrigued. "Do you propose a straightforward copy?"
    "
    I would first swim where others have previously dived," Shaath replied, "before plunging into the uncharted depths. I foresee our own drones matching, and then eventually surpassing, the manned fighters of our neighbours."
    Unlarin
    Puul cleared his throat. "And do you believe that the police forces will be able to adapt the drone technology to larger vessels?"
    Shaath looked at the military officer. "I had not yet thought to gaze towards that particular horizon," she told him.
    "
    But it is possible?"
    "
    It is."
    Puul turned towards the rest of the assembly. "Imagine, if you can, a network of interlinked stations and ships all automated and programmed to defend our worlds from aggression. That is what Shaath Mula is offering to us."
    The assembled Abbai were silent as they digested the facts.
    "
    I see no reason not to begin funding your research," the Natar announced. "This is work I deem vital to the survival of our people."
    Shaath felt a surge of warmth at the words and tone of the empress-mother.
    * * *
    Drakh Homeworld, Stygian System
    "
    We have completed our secondary scans of the planet, Force Commander."
    Toz Zoma turned away from the holotank to look at his aide. He had been staring into the tank for hours, watching for the icons of enemy warships to appear and attack his battle group. Why are the Drakh ignoring us so thoroughly?
    Tizak was standing at his side.
    "The new scans confirm the initial reports then?"
    "Yes, Force Commander."
    Toz Zoma clicked his beak. "You sound surprised." The command deck of the Eye of the Blessed was quiet and tense. As befits a task force operating in enemy-occupied space. The task force was small, but heavily-armed and his Benevolent was the centrepiece.
    Tizak clicked his own beak. "The results are surprising. They do not match what we anticipated when this mission was proposed and the task force assembled."
    "I am listening. Speak your report."
    Tizlak straightened. "The planet has been abandoned."
    "
    You mean heavily damaged?"
    "No, Force Commander, abandoned." Tizlak gestured towards the holotank. "
    There are no remaining Drakh. Our landing teams found no one. Most of the still-surviving plant and animal life are dying, probably as a result of environmental damage caused during our initial attack, or Drakh poison. All of the buildings we have located have been destroyed. The ruins are barely recognizable as former buildings and we have been unable to locate or recover survivors or functional computer databases."
    "The planet is dying?"
    "Yes, Force Commander."
    The Orieni officer blinked in disbelief. "But our initial attack was not that thorough." Hence the return of this small strike fleet to continue the cleansing of this world. "We came here to finish the job assigned to us, in the name of the Living Gods. We anticipated another fleet engagement." And yet there had been no ambush of his task force, no desperate defence of the planet as the task force entered orbit, no viable targets for orbital bombardment...and then no disruption of his planetary mapping and then the landing of ground troops. "How can they all be gone?"
    "
    They simply are."
    "Circles of Darkness!" Zoma swore. "The Council was relying on us to make a clean sweep of things here. To take advantage of the tentative ceasefire with the Centauri to finish off the enemies of the Living Gods!"
    "
    I am aware of our orders, Force Commander." Tizlak had served with Zoma throughout the war.
    "We were supposed to jump in and purify any Drakh presence with nuclear fire. How can we do that if they have all fled?"
    Tizlak clicked his beak.
     
    Six hours later, Zoma was still fuming. He had been pacing the corridors of the Eye Of The Blessed for most of those hours.
    Scientists and researchers looked up from their computers as Zoma entered the primary laboratory station. "I require answers," he announced in a loud voice. "The Council of the Blessed will require answers as to the reason for our failure here."
    Naga Chin had served as the Eye's head of planetary cartography for over two decades. He clicked his beak and looked calmly at his commander. "I have a preliminary report for you, Force Commander."
    "I am listening."
    "Our initial assault was brutal and devastating. Crusader Fleet was unable to effect a full planetary saturation bombardment--"
    "Due to Drakh resistance."
    "Indeed. Although the bombardment was incomplete, a significant number of nuclear warheads detonated within the atmosphere." Naga paused for a moment. "The cobalt jackets have exceeded expectations for increasing the radiation fall-out of the bombs."
    Zoma felt a slight twist in his heart at those words. Crusader Fleet had made every effort to kill this world. May the Living Gods show mercy on our souls for these acts.
    "The bombardment was fierce and devastating, if short-lived, and resulted in considerable damage to the environment. There are signs of secondary toxins having been released--the Drakh chose to poison this world to prevent us from making any future use of it. The long-term effects are still being calculated, but I do not believe the planet will be capable of supporting life for centuries."
    "And the Drakh?"
    "It is the belief of the analysis teams that the Drakh themselves apparently destroyed any structures that survived the original assault during their evacuation. No doubt, this attempted sterilization is aimed at preventing us, or anyone else, from determining the location of the Drakh refuge for a new round of vengeance"
    "
    You believe there was an evacuation?"
    "We have found little evidence of destroyed spacecraft in orbit, though there are many impact craters on the planet. We know that some portions of their navy survived the battle and would have been able to depart from here. They would not have likely left any of their civilian population behind, knowing how we view their existence as an affront to the Living Gods."
    Very true. "Is there any evidence pointing towards their destination?"
    "
    Not as yet." Naga Chin did not sound pleased at having to admit that.
    "
    This was their homeworld though?"
    "
    Oh yes. Sufficient proof has been found to convince us that this is indeed the Drakh homeworld. Due to the fanatical and methodical destruction of the infrastructure and the biosphere, we have conducted forensic examinations of unrecovered Drakh corpses and comparisons with native animals."
    "Then we will return to Orien." Zoma's gaze rested on an image of the planet. "Someday our descendents will find the Drakh new refuge and we will exact our full measure of vengeance."
    "The Living Gods will surely reward us for our actions in their service."
    "
    Peace through strength."
    "
    And order from chaos."
     
    * * *

    Polgrath, Centauri Republic
    Ton Hessius stepped through the arched pergola. "Majesty?"
    Vitani turned away from the young noblewoman with a reluctant sigh. "Yes, Lord Hessius?" The warm breeze gusting through the extensive gardens made the tails of his coat flap.
    "
    A moment of your time?" Ton Hessius paused. "It is important."
    "
    Very well. Leave us, my dear."
    The noblewoman offered a deep curtsey, then hurried across the garden.
    Vitani watched her until she had vanished behind a flowering hedge. "What do you want, Ton?"
    A smile played across Ton’s face. "It is not what I want, Majesty, but what I have to offer you. My House's researchers have made a most fascinating discovery regarding a secondary aspect of jump-gate beacons."
    Vitani’s eyes narrowed. "How wonderful for your researchers."
    "Oh it is, Majesty, because with this discovery we are able to tap into the beacon network and use it as a carrier wave for communication signals." Ton Hessius paused for a long moment, as if daring Vitani to guess what that meant. "Real-time instant contact between different star systems. Or at least, that is what our initial tests offer."
    Vitani’s eyes grew wide. "Are you serious?"
    "Why would I lie to you, Majesty?"
    Vitani eyed him. "Why indeed?"
    "
    This is an important discovery for our people, Majesty. It will revolutionize the entire Republic."
    * * *
    Orien, Orieni Empire
    Sarka Hihan looked up, studying the spiderweb of cracks in the Dome of Light overhead. "We are a broken people, humbled by these years of challenge, but we will rebuild." He stared at the Council, daring them to deny his words. "The infidels rejoice at our failings, they celebrate our losses, and they think we will crumble into chaos.
    "
    I deny them!
    "
    The empire will rise back up from this chaos and it will be stronger for the trials and tribulations we have undergone.
    "A new year dawns today. It shall be a time of rebirth for the Empire. We shall grow stronger than we were before and we shall follow the Living Gods and bring order to all the worlds of the galaxy!"
     
    "
    A fine speech, Hierophant."
    Sarka walked down the corridor, past his aide, without slowing. He did not see statues of past Heirophants in their alcoves nor did he read the passages of scripture carved into the white marble pillars.
    "The couriers will be leaving with their recordings of your speech shortly. All of the empire will take heart at your--"
    "Those are just words, Kanatha. Sounds without meaning."
    "
    Hierophant?" The Orieni watched helplessly as the leader of the Orieni slowly stumbled down the corridor and towards the private gardens.
     
    Tex Hovat stared through the shuttle viewport at the battered hull of her Prophet. The Sanctum of Serenity had sustained significant damage during the Centauri raids, and the shipyards had not yet found time to schedule repairs.
    "
    This is not a defeat."
    Tex turned to her aide. "No, Komah, it’s not."
    The burly Phanop snorted.
    "We will rebuild the Hand of the Blessed and we will once again return to the stars and bring the benefits of order and enlightenment to the infidels. The Supreme Heirophant has spoken. The Living Gods have commanded it." She clicked her beak. "Those barbarous Centauri will be punished."
     
    Sarka brushed his hand along one of the featherferns. The leaves were soft beneath his fingers.
    "Your species has great strength, but your people have been misled by the Vorlons for centuries. They have toyed with us all."
    Sarka did not turn his head to look at the speaker. "The Living Gods brought order to us, and as we walked the path, we sought to bring order into chaos. They guided us in that task."
    "
    Your path has faltered."
    Now Sarka did turn around. "We will rebuild. We will grow stronger. ‘Peace comes through strength’," he quoted.
    "Yes, and ‘Order from Chaos’." The voice chuckled in amusement. A shadowy figure moved slightly, stepping around the shrubbery.
    "
    The Living Gods--"
    "There are other Gods you can pray too." The Centauri nobleman stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlit garden. "When the stars are right, the Time of Return will be upon us and the galaxy’s current masters will be cast into the darkness of the Abyss. The
    True Godsare quite truly beyond the concepts of Order and Chaos." He chuckled. "They promise those who will listen so very much and ask so little."
    Sarka clicked his beak softly. "I am listening, Aginor Laucine."






    * * *
    Praxis, Neutral Space
    "
    The initial reports have arrived from the surface."
    Landis Syma licked his lips. His quarters were the best that the Humbled Ambition could offer, but the Strela-class jumpship was still exceedingly cramped. "Go on, Jovar."
    The engineer looked tired. His hair crest was partially flattened and dirt streaked his environment suit. "The dome is intact, as far as we can tell. It should hold pressure once we manage to refill it from the atmospheric generators. Any slow leaks we find can be patched afterward."
    "
    Good to know. I was afraid you would find large cracks."
    "
    Nothing like that, Patriarch."
    Landis flinched. Am I worthy of that title? he wondered. Not that there are many left to dispute my claims to it. The family tree of House Syma had been pruned back quite ruthlessly by Emperor Vitani and his Navy.
    "
    I have my best technicians already working to bring the power core back online."
    "
    Then Praxis is habitable?"
    "
    It should be."
    "Excellent." Landis typed a command into the console and stared at the visual of his small and battered fleet. Two
    Tacits, a Falenna, and a Strela were all the warships he had available to defend the five Armus freighters he managed to lead out of the Republic. Freighters packed with civilians, he thought bitterly. The last vestiges of our once-great House.The emperor’s wrath had been terrible and thorough. "We’ve lost everything."
    Jovar cleared his throat. "The planet is not much to look at, but according to all reports it’s completely deserted." He gestured towards the main display. "The dome was apparently part of a mining operation, but it’s been abandoned. None of our scouts have found any trace of the builders."



































    "
    Then we’ll hide here for a time." Landis tried to put a smile on his face. "It will do for now."
    "As you command, my Lord."
    "We will rebuild our fortunes. House Syma will return to the Republic in time." He would not go begging to the emperor...but one of his descendents would return and win back the throne.
    * * *
    Centauri Prime, Centauri Republic
    "
    How was your trip, Majesty?"
    "Long and boring, Minister Lanas." Vitani
    stepped through the doors as they swung inwards on silent hinges. He stomped towards his throne with a heavy tread, barely taking note of the opulence which surrounded him. The gleaming marbled floors shone with a luster which spoke of countless hours of polishing. The lush curtains draped the arched windows. Columns supported the ceiling--largely decorative of course--but still impressive. "There was not even a single raider attack to liven things up." He gave a little sigh and slumped onto the Golden Lion Throne. "Things were more interesting when I was just the Prince-Heir and could travel in disguise." His eyes lit up. "You know, I could--"
    "
    No, I do not think that would be wise, Majesty."
    Vitani’s shoulders slumped. "No, I suppose not."
    Lanas fussed with the way that one of the heavy drapes was hanging across the window. "You have ended the war with the Abbai?"
    "
    Yes. It served no useful purpose and prosecuting it was only draining the Republic. We need time to rebuild."
    "
    And then you will go after the the Orieni again?"
    "
    Oh yes, in due time we will return to finish off the Orieni for each and every crime they have committed against the Republic."
    Lanas nodded. "As you wish, Majesty." He approached the throne. "During your recent tour of the Republic, the Centaurum has undertaken a study of the so-called Magic Bug."
    Vitani looked blankly at his aide. "The what?"
    Lanas straightened himself and took on a lecturing air. "As you are already aware, in the immediate aftermath of the Syma Rebellion, numerous allegations were made that House Syma had assassinated your father. The suggestion was that ‘the accident’ was simply too convenient for Syma to be credible."
    "
    Yes, I have heard these rumours."
    "
    The Centaurum has taken these allegations quite seriously and an investigation was launched."
    "
    And their findings?"
    "The bulk of the Noble Houses do not accept these paranoid theories. The investigation has revealed that a potentially fatal but usually inconsequential software error was prevalent in all fliers of that type and production variant. The final conclusion was that there had been no way to foresee this and create or use this flaw at just the right time and place to assassinate our emperor."
    "That’s a relief to hear." Vitani smiled.
    "
    I thought that you would find it to be so, Majesty."
    "
    And make sure that my new flier is not of that type."
    "
    I have already taken care of that particular detail."
    "
    Good."
    Lanas bowed. "Your plans, Majesty?"
    "I want a drink." Vitani grimaced. "I have another campaign to plan."
    "
    I thought the war with the Abbai was over?"
    "
    It is, despite small skirmishes with fools who should know better than to fight the Royal Navy."
    "
    And the Orieni--"
    "
    Won’t be a concern for decades at least. Regaining control over their shattered Empire will take them that long at least." Vitani reached out his hand and Lanas hastily poured him a glass of brevari. "I plan to complete my father’s ambitions of centralizing imperial authourity and breaking the power of the Houses."
    "
    Breaking their power?"
    "
    Not completely, of course, but just enough. Their independent attitudes and actions during the War nearly brought down the Republic. I will not allow them the chance to repeat that."
    "
    Yes, Majesty. You do realize that the Houses will resist this reformation?"
    "
    They will learn, or they will die."
    Lanas looked pale. "It could risk civil war."
    "
    No one has the energy for a civil war right now."
    "
    As you say."
    "
    Our spinward marches are in ruins. It will take decades at least for us to recover." Vitani turned towards the window. "Leave me." The sun was just setting.
    * * *
    Usuuthir orbit, Usuuth Coalition
    The dying world spun slowly on its axis far below the vast Drakh Templeship.
    <As scavengers we come here.> The thought echoed through the telepathic whole of the Entire. <We come to strip this world of whatever is left.> Harvestors had already dropped to the surface to gather fresh resources for the clan fleet.
    "
    Conflict is the crucible." The words shattered the silence, echoing though the empty chamber--the vast Templeship, like all Drakh vessels, was always a place of tomb-like silence. "The weak die and the strong grow stronger. Such is the nature of the universe." There was a pause. "The Usuuth have failed as a species and now we grow stronger on their leavings." A tall Drakh emerged from the cloaking shadows. "The war has ended."
    "
    Yes, this one has." Kas’Vaka stepped out of his own patch of shadows and into the dim light which suffused the chamber. He could sense the horde of gathered Priests and Emissaries watching him, evaluating him. The Templeship was less crowded and considerably more ornate than any of the other clan ships, yet that very openness felt wrong.
    "
    You deny your failure?"
    "
    I serve the holy cause, Shiv’kala," he replied and the Entire heard the certainty in his thoughts.
    The Emissary blinked his reddish eyes.
    "
    Chaos was spread far by my actions. I would not be here, on board this Zo’ra’dum, if that was not truth."
    Shiv’kala chuckled. He was a rarity among the Drakh, having been implanted with a speech symbiote, like Kes’vaka. "Do you fancy yourself to be an Emissary?" he whispered. "A sculptor of races?"
    "
    I have walked among the Centauri and the Orieni. Houses Syma and Torra danced to the song I taught them. As did Horsh Shrakie."
    "Syma’s rebellion was crushed by the other Houses. Torra was unable to ride the wake of the Abbai." Shiv’kala smiled. "Horsh Shrakie ended his own existence rather than seize greatness." His smile grew wider. "And the Orieni destroyed your colony."
    Kas’Vaka stared back with equal impassiveness.
    Shiv'kala let the silence stretch out. "I would call this failure."
    At that, the heart of the vast chamber twisted and the fabric of reality tore itself apart.
    The assembled Drakh hastily genuflected and many prostrated themselves on the cold floor.
    The insectoid form materialized, rippling into existence, as if the shadows of the room were becoming solid. Red eyes blazed and the buzzing chitter of Shadow-speech filled the Entire.
    <This was but a false defeat, for no matter who lived or died, Chaos was fed and fostered.>
    Kas’Vaka stood more erect. "I sought to obey your teachings," he told one of the dark masters of his race. "I told each nation that we saw greatness in them as prospective allies, and enlightened self-interest meant that we should work together to increase their power."
    "
    House Syma was most sympathetic to our call." Shiv’kala nodded to the other Drakh, conceding the point. "As was House Torra. More so than the Orieni."
    "
    The Orieni are too tightly bound to the Vorlons. We cannot easily sever ties of such strength."
    <The Centauri have considerable potential. We will make use of them in the next phase of the Great Game.> The shadowy voice held a grim certainty. <They will yet become champions of our cause…if they recover from this war.>
    The Entire felt the certainty of that.
    Shiv’kala blinked his eyes once. "Do you have regrets, Kas’veka?"
    "
    None."
    "
    Your Clan has been shattered by this scheme."
    "The legacy of the
    Vakaremains even if our colony was sacrificed." The Drakh spoke with confidence, staring boldly towards the insectoid master. "The great work continues."
    The Entire was pleased.
    * * *
    Orien, Orieni Empire
    Ship/Pet/Companion sang a muted song as Kosh studied the world below. The servitor race had been a loyal one, dedicated to the spreading of Order.
    Order had been shaken, but it endured. Peace had returned.
    The Centauri had stopped fighting. The Orieni had suffered and their spirits had been broken, their empire was in tatters.
    Kosh wondered if they would recover their spirit in time.
    Or ever.
    Ship/Pet/Companion sang of other worlds, sang of the beauty of Minbar.
    Kosh wondered what use the Minbari would be when the Shadows made their next play in the great game.
    Ship/Pet/Companion sang of traveling.
    Looking back at Orien one final time, Kosh agreed and heard/felt eagerness change into satisfaction as Ship/Pet/Companion broke out of orbit and headed far enough away from the sensor network to open a jump-gate without being detected.
     
     
    Argosh and Lightning_Count like this.
  15. Talon Spiritcat

    Talon Spiritcat Dragon Wrangler

    And so it ends...


    I have plans to eventually edit this monster into a generic form and see it e-published. (So if anyone plans to steal this as per Lightning Count's Dilgar War be warned, I will be watching.)
     
    Rastamon and Lightning_Count like this.
  16. Lightning_Count

    Lightning_Count Nothing ventured

    A mighty achievement, glad you endured to the end sir :)
     
  17. Rastamon

    Rastamon Valar Morghulis

    So it ends. Congratulations on that!

    The part with Kosh makes it seem like the Vorlon's fascination with the Minbari was a recent thing when in fact it has been going on for much longer than that, as shown by Valen a thousand years previous.
     
  18. MMC

    MMC

    Are you planning a story based on the next war?
     
  19. I have to say this was an incredible story, thank you so much.
     
  20. Talon Spiritcat

    Talon Spiritcat Dragon Wrangler

    Do you refer to the Great Crusade? if I do write a sequel, I doubt I'd allow the Orieni to curbstomp the Minbari. I might pen something...I left myself a lot of plot hooks.
     
  21. MMC

    MMC

    I was thinking about the second war between the Centauri and the Orieni. Based on what I know of the timeline that is when the Primus Battlecruiser was deployed, but I do like how the Centauri developed the basis of FTL Communication without couriers. That will give them a critical edge in the next war they fight.
     
  22. Rastamon

    Rastamon Valar Morghulis

    As far as I'm aware, there was no second Centauri-Orieni War until the Great Crusade. The Orieni Empire would be too broken and take over a century to recover. Meanwhile, the Centauri Republic would almost immediately plunge into civil war as the noble houses resist the Emperor's attempts to centralize the imperial government with the Royal Navy. In recovering from that civil war, the Republic would expand in new previously unexplored directions, coming across Narn and conquering it, while pursuing diplomacy with the worlds that left the Republic during the civil war rather than reconquering them.

    The Centauri Republic was beginning to deal with rebellions on subject worlds when it discovered Earth.

    Meanwhile, the Orieni Empire reformed itself and recovered its surviving subject worlds, rebuilding itself until they felt ready to go fight the Shadows during the Shadow War. It took them nearly two centuries to do this. Before the Orieni could go fight, Sheridan told the Shadows and Vorlons to go away at Coriana 6. They then went on the Great Crusade to punish the ISA (Minbari, mainly) for betraying and driving away the Vorlons.
     
  23. Talon Spiritcat

    Talon Spiritcat Dragon Wrangler

    Which was the AoG history...Mongoose had a second war a decade or two after the first. It's covered solely in the Primus deckplans book If I recall correctly. Orieni used the same fleet while the Centurion unleashed the highly advanced Primus cruisers and rampage through the rear areas.

    I'll have to check that book again to be more precise.


    An Orieni resurgence kept the Centurion distracted when the Dilgar launched their war.
     

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