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High orbit of Ullanor Prime
Two days after the fall of Urlakk Urg

Daena sat impassively upon the bridge of the Redemption, the ordinarily formidable seeming Gloriana appearing tame in comparison to the Emperor’s own magnificent warship. Thus she had always been, the demure and silent companion following after her master where and when he bade it. Both he and fate had conspired in equal part to keep her role in these endeavors dull and unheralded in Imperial annals, but fame was not her concern. Indeed, it had been those consumed by honors and glory that had left her in such a state, the woman dutifully cleaning up her brothers’ messes. While the others who had taken part in the campaign arranged trophies and spoils, she conducted a far less glamorous phase of the war.

Gazing into a great hololithic tank depicting the Ullanor system, Daena could see the sigil of the Doomsayers on almost every world, each marker denoting women clad in silver and black taking the place of their ‘victorious’ brothers. It was all too common for Astartes to depart from the battlefield when victory was declared, leaving behind the Auxilia to complete cleanup operations. Such was grim, dirty, and dangerous work - often deemed beneath the ‘value’ of a Space Marine’s time but evidently worth the lives of the Imperial Army. One need only look upon the foreboding armor of Doomsayer Destroyer Squads scouring the system of the most minute trace of greenskin life to understand how strenuously she disagreed with such thinking.

It was perhaps surprising to a casual observer that the only world where she did not feel the need to act was Quartus, its rune dull without the glowing symbol of an active Chapter. Although Sarghaul was not known to care for the lives of mere mortals, he was known for completing tasks such as these, and the Primarch was confident that her brother would not remove forces from the planet until its surface was cleansed of every ork spore. For all of his faults, and Daena could name many, one that she could never attribute to him was a lack of thoroughness. Would he only ensure that such commendable behavior was always put towards worthy ends...

With a sigh, the demigod shakes her head before she can lose herself in a reverie, bringing the hololith to focus upon the world she was currently above - Ullanor Prime. She was neither ordered nor requested to attend to her father’s side when he descended upon its killing fields, and so had not. Her fleet had entered the system shadowing his own, and fought where and as he directed - which more often than not meant that it did not fight at all. Dispatching individual Chapters to where she deemed them best suited, she retained the bulk of her forces waiting for a command from her father that never came. That a part of her had always suspected would never come.

Regardless, she did not consider it a waste. Playing hero on the surface was pointless when her time could be better spent coordinating her forces from her command ship, one more divinity among the rabble would not turn the tide. Her Revenants had departed with her father and his finest of warriors however, and they had paid a dear price in blood and bone for their zeal. Even now her forces were recovering their bodies, usually from great mounds of corpses created during the thickest of the fighting, many having been slain alongside the Emperor’s own Custodes. Many of her siblings would consider that news a point of pride, but Daena merely filed it away with a dull recognition.

After hours of detailing orders to her Chapters, she was eventually confident that the cleanup could run itself for the foreseeable future. A corner of her lip twitched at that thought, the woman realizing that she had made a joke. It had been some time since she had managed that. With those tasks accomplished, she turned to a far more morbid responsibility, pulling open the latest reports on all under her command who had perished for Prometheus’ trumpeted victory.

A veteran. A Revenant. A newly minted Battle Sister. “My lady.” A Techmarine. A Revenant. “My lady.” A Tactical Marine. A mother. A Scout.

“My lady!” The shout finally freed her from her morose contemplations, the Primarch looking up to the power armored frame of Vairya Kurus, Legion Mistress of the Doomsayers. “My lady,” she repeated for the final time, looking down on the seated demigod with poorly hidden relief. “Malcador has forwarded us a report from your sisters. He does not order...” she began, trailing off.

“....but he implies,” Daena finished for her. “Let’s hear it then,” she said with a firm nod, vigor returning to her frame as a problem was presented to her. Quietly, a part of her wondered how the Sigilite always seemed to know when she required such diversions.

“The disturbance began on 20-63, designated Praxia by the local human population. It was brought under Compliance some time ago without serious fighting. A rebellion has broken out recently however, Lady Sekhmetara’s scribes reporting that the rebels have arms far more advanced than the local industry could produce, and of a different make than the armament of the Imperial garrison. She rendezvoused with Lady Nelchitl and engaged the enemy on the ground. Both Legions report that enemy weapons are capable of felling Astartes and that attached Knight Houses have suffered losses far in excess of what the inhabitants should be capable of.”

The feeling coursing through Daena’s body as she processed the report was less the thrill of the hunt, and more of a boulder being rolled downhill. She and Vairya consumed all available information with a mechanical thoroughness until there was nothing left of the initial report. Her demeanor shifted as she did, the lethargic woman slowly rising as if she were a spring being wound. Ullanor fell away, the bridge fell away, even Vairya fell away as curiosity morphed into obsession. A bloodhound given a scent, she began teasing and pulling at every lead from the scraps of data available. An external force interfering with the world was obvious. But who? Many foes, human and otherwise, had attempted to incite rebellion before. Many had gone so far as to arm the rebels. But none had armaments similar to these. Daena permitted herself to feel excitement as she realized that this was something altogether new.

Eventually, the Primarch was satisfied with her research and began to give her orders. Any doubts she had on following Malcador’s unvoiced request had by now long vanished. “Prepare the First through Fifth in their entireties, as well as the Thirty-Eighth, the One Hundred and Sixty-Seventh, and as many Chapters with below average bloodright that can meet us en route. Work with the Navigators to chart a course that will take us through the territory garrisoned by the Ninety-Second, we’ll replace their deployments with the One Hundred and Sixty-Seventh as we go.”

“Of course, my lady. I assume we shall take a full Administratum detachment with us?” the Legion Mistress asked, both women already knowing the answer. ‘Administratum detachments’ were an all too common sight for errands run on the Sigilite’s behalf.

“Elucidators and Remembrancers,” Daena replied with a simple nod, before going yet further. “The Hohenheims as well, both of them. Leave the civilians and baggage train here with the rest of the fleet, we’ll be travelling through Compliant space. Standing orders for all remaining Chapters are to scour the system of hostile xenoforms and then proceed to previous orders. No doubt there will be some outlandish ceremony, I leave attendance at the discretion of the Ladies Commander. Yekterina will remain behind as well. Little remains in Ullanor save burning and speeches, my daughters do not need my oversight for the former and my Equerry shall suffice to attend the latter.”

“Is there anything else, my lady?”

For a fleeting moment, the Primach’s eyes flicked to the sight of Ullanor Prime far below them, its verdant expanse visible from the bridge. Of the horrors her daughters had borne witness to, and of the renown that was being given over to other men. A quiet, distant, part of her enchained psyche dared whisper the word lesser, taking advantage of the fraction of a second that her thoughts had dwelled on her brothers’ fame. A vision of every voice within the Imperium singing praise to her unfurling within her mind’s eye, a possibility that could be reality if she would only just reach out and -

And then she suppressed such foolish thoughts and gave her orders.

“Prepare the Astropathic Choir. Have them send tidings to my dear sisters.”

Olympus Mons, Mars
The Olympic Palace

The Presidium of the All-Martian Congress of Soviets
Sol Martis, Mina 10, 1186 ATO

The Olympic Palace was a feat of Imperial architecture, and paranoia. Nestled upon the soaring majesty of Olympus Mons, it was the home of the Princes of Mars for generations until the Collapse and Martian Revolution. Now, as then, workers making their way to the great space elevator that rose into the heavens. But unlike in centuries past, now they looked upon a true palace of the people, where all were welcome.

Still, it was rare for an ambassador of any nation to be invited to the seat of Martian power, the meeting place of the Supreme Soviet, and account for the actions of their nation. For Ambassador Anisa M’bala, it was at least not a surprise. The actions of the Technate were not subtle, and the soviets were clamoring for an explanation.

Anisa had not long been formally appointed Ambassador, though her predecessor's work had more than calmed the way for her to assume the position without much difficulty. Coming up the diplomatic service from the Pan-Bantu Technate on Earth, there was some familiarity in Mars, for she had seen their culture and society at work in North Africa, and of course, it had granted some basis for her initial posting here. The Martian State was often a curiosity to most of the Technate’s upper, and she gathered, lower, echelons - and it still held elements of such to her, but time had bred familiarity. One hoped it would never breed contempt.

Over two hundred years ago, the Hall of the People was once a ballroom for the highest of imperial nobility to dance and scheme with one another. Now, it was a vast and foreboding chamber, with a grand dias at one end upon which the members of the Presidium sat with a far less imposing table and chair for Ambassador M’bala. She was forced to walk beneath a gallery of portraits, the visages of long dead revolutionaries lining the walls along with the everpresent red banners. The only sign of the room’s former grandeur were the ornate marble floors and glittering chandeliers, the grand imperial seal at the hall’s end replaced by the red banner of Mars.

“Ambassador M’bala, welcome. We have much to discuss with you. In the interests of time, I hope you will forgive the lack of formalities,” Premier Keqiang began. “The Technate is expanding their defensive perimeter. Explain this.”

Anisa inclined her head and responded. “I will forego a need for a request of specificity, as I would not be called here if the affairs of Lunar orbit were a pressing concern for the Presidium, the Technate Custodial Fleet is undertaking a program to solidify the current existing patrolled corridor of space utilized by Lunar mining expeditions, whilst the total details are not privy to myself, I am aware that stationary emplacements are likely to be employed as a means to reduce the amount of “raw fleet power” I quote, being deployed to this corridor.”

“The Technate intends to permanently declare a corridor of space between Luna and the Belt its own, and employ static fortifications to enforce this?” a Presidium member on one wing of the dias asked, inclining her head incredulously.

Anisa smiled pleasantly, before responding “The Presidium is no doubt aware that the Technate has been patrolling this area of space, at length, enforcing Technate mercantile law - which we understand most parties to find fair, for some time now. This is an extension of what is a matter of fact. We have been doing this alone at a time of continued civil and military unrest that has enabled the entrenchment of not insignificant raider and pirate activity, not to mention the preditations of particular powers in the system. It is now the policy of the Directorate of the Technate and the Custodial Fleet that enforces this control that the current cost in mobile assets is too high to not take this course of action. Particularly when Lunar, and, if we may, the security of a considerable portion of the Earth’s orbit falls entirely upon our Custodians as well.” Anisa paused for a moment, taking a quick glance at the members of the Presidium before continuing.

“Further, we would note that a secure shipping corridor from Luna to the Belt does not infringe directly upon Martian sovereignty, and would indeed offer exactly this, a secure shipping route for Martian merchant craft. As you know, the Technate does not enforce tariffs for vessels that do not dock at or engage in commercial activity with Technate facilities. As has been the case for nearly 200 years, we continue to provide much needed security in the Inner System in a more than fair, transparent and just manner.”

“The Technate has always had a habit of making even the most outlandish suggestions sound… logical,” the Presidium member who spoke replied, nodding her head softly at Anisa’s explanation. With a sigh, she waved her hand towards the center of the dias, the premier taking up her gavel with an expectant look in her eyes.

“On the condition that the corridor remains open to Martian shipping, and that of our fraternal republics, I see no reason to oppose the Technate’s actions. Are there any who stand opposed in light of Ambassador’s M’bala’s explanation?” Ivanova asked, followed by a period of silence and then the echoing sound of the gavel coming down upon the dias. “It is decided then. But this is not the only reason we wished to speak with you, ambassador. Comrade Eisen, if you would.”

A thin Red sitting next to the Premier looked up at Anisa, and began to speak. “Ambassador M’bala, it is no secret that the Technate is home to some of the greatest minds within Panhumanity. As the mysteries of Sol Security have inspired generations of study on Mars, we know that the same is true of the Moon. Therefore, in the interests of all sentient beings, I ask that the Technate join with us in correcting the defect that plagues the system so that it might truly serve as a guardian for all mankind.”

Anisa took a moment to consider a response, a small distant voice in the back of her mind taking her attention, if only for a moment. Anisa most certainly was not a Hecatoncheires, but like most Technate citizens she had numerous implants, and in the service, it paid dividends to be linked into the system - and Mars was important enough that there was a local connection. “Firstly, thank you for your praise, while the Presidium may have some certain things to say about our forebear corporations, one cannot deny their ability to pool talent that we have been able to draw from and emulate since the Technate’s creation.”

Anisa’s face turned more serious, as she continued. “In regards to “SolSec”, if you may allow me the contraction, we may have a convergence in opinion that would allow the pursuance of a joint task force to pool our ability to study the AI. There may be more I personally could share on behalf of the Directorate, however, such matters would not be able to be discussed in public, that is to say, on Presidium record.”

“I see. That is a very irregular request, Ambassador. However, your comments are promising, and we understand the need for state secrecy. Let the record show that we have stopped recording on behalf of the Technate, and that specifics are placed under seal until such time that they are not a threat to the Revolution. Are there any opposed?” the Premier asked, once more raising her gavel.

“Comrade Keqiang, let the record show my disapproval of so readily agreeing to closing official proceedings.”

“Your disapproval is noted, Comrade Langenbach. There is a majority in favor. The record has been sealed. Continue, Ambassador.”

“Thank you, Premier Keqiang, and thank you to the Presidium, I understand some of the concerns you may have, but this is a matter that very few outside of the Directorate and high ranking diplomatic staff are generally permitted to disclose, let alone be fully aware of.” Anisa began, taking a brief moment to collect her thoughts, and continued.

“You are aware that there is a fully sapient and independent AI acting within the Sol System, of course, that is known to us as Talus. Their primary function of course is pre-eminently of military nature, though it has since become somewhat more, and in our neighbourhood has become a not inconsequential and eminently dangerous cult leader, if you’ll forgive the quaint summary. I expect some of you are also aware that your own Intelligence Community has a number of pertinent questions when it comes to the Technate’s own publicly disclosed AI programme. As such, considering its relevance to this matter I am officially, although off public record, disclosing the existence of a sapient, unshackled AI present within the Technate, that has been operational since prior to the existence of the Technate itself and that is, as far as we are aware, of next generation inception and creation when compared to Talus and SolSec. However, we must press that this AI is not of a military nature.”

Silence fills the chamber as the Presidium members digest this revelation, before their eyes turn towards Comrade Eisen who nods as he accepts the unspoken order. “Yes, Ambassador. I understand why you would wish this revelation to be off the record. An unshackled AI that predates the Technate itself is… an interesting revelation to say the least. As I am sure you know, it is the official policy of Mars that Talus is a sentient being as deserving of rights as any other member of Panhumanity, and that it is just as capable of working great horror as any other. We extend this same consideration to the entity within the Technate, and I will personally note with great relief that it seems the being whose secrecy you have kept for so long has been far more friendly than Talus. Considering that it possesses its own free will, we would petition it to aid us in understanding, and repairing, SolSec. If I may, how does it refer to itself?”

Anisa knew the Martian’s were most likely the least to be particularly bothered by the particulars of the revelation, but she quietly released a breath she did not know she had been holding, letting it flow into her response. “Gaea has retained the naming convention of her project codename, and goes by that name. As noted in my choice there, she has also orientated to a gender matching the mythological namesake. I have no doubt that she would be happy to share a brief overview of her scope and capabilities, though I doubt intimate technical details, at a suitable time. While there is some delay, of course, with her primary self, there is a local connection built from her core technology present in the Technate Embassy to provide immediate advice and intermediate query responses, though it is itself a pale imitation. What I can disclose is that Gaea was initially, shall we say unfortunately, given prevailing attitudes present, property of one of our parent corporations. That status has of course, been rectified.”

The Presidium looks far more tense at the revelation that the AI was once considered property than they had at being told that it existed, the members taking their time to relax at M’bala’s last statement. “...very well. Comrade Eisen, I nominate you to serve as the Presidium’s liaison to Gaea,” Premier Keqiang says, half raising her gavel before stopping and turning her attention back to the ambassador. “If such is acceptable, of course.”

Anisa nodded an affirmation. “Your appointment has no objection from the Technate.”

The gavel rings out again, and Ivanova nods. “We thank you for your time, Ambassador M’bala. It would be greatly appreciated if you could provide all necessary materials to Comrade Eisen so we may begin cooperating. Hopefully, together we shall discover a peaceful resolution to the crises represented by both SolSec and Talus. Never forget that our goal is the happiness of all mankind, our digital children included.”

“The Embassy will forward all pertinent information to move forward on this issue within the next standard lunar day.” Anisa responded, awaiting final dismissal.

“That is all then, again, our thanks. Let the record show that this meeting of the Presidium has adjourned.”

Olympus Mons, Mars
The Olympic Palace

The Presidium of the All-Martian Congress of Soviets
Sol Lunae, Mina 9, 1186 ATO

Unlike the freewheeling debates - and excessive commentary - that characterized meetings of the Soviets both high and low, the Presidium met in person and retained the right to do so privately. It was one rarely exercised, but considering the news reports of the past few hours the Martian people frankly expected that they would confer without the live chats and cameras. Which did not stop the chattering Communists from discussing what they would do if they were in control, VR and plaintext forums filled with the thoughts of the Red Planet's 1.6 billion souls. And beneath it all was the unspoken promise, the unspoken threat, that if the Presidium's response erred too far from what that churning mass of panhumanity eventually decided on as appropriate every single member of that esteemed body would have to find a real job.

Ivanova smirked at that thought, finally freed from her wandering mind as she took in the room. It was long ago, longer than any living Panhuman had lived, the grand audience chamber of the Prince of Mars, but draped now in the red banner. Here, a Prince had declared himself Emperor, never to return from his demented quest. But that was the past, and there was history being made now.

"Comrade Keqiang? I couldn't quite catch that," a soft voice said, a baseline human man physically taking notes. Such was the secrecy of the session that automated recorders had been forbidden, and a Presidium member duly elected to serve as Secretary for the duration.

"My apologies, Comrade Langenbach," she replied after a deep sigh. "As I'm sure you are all aware, history is marching ever onward, and once more the volksgeist is made manifest. The Ustran proletariat calls out, the mistakes made with the Belt shall not occur again. This time, history will unfold as it ought and neither reactionary nor liberal shall stand in the way. Not this time. Our comrades in the Socialist Ustraian Party but await the hour, and we shall rush to their aid. Before such an hour occurs however.... 'Sometimes, history needs a push'," she quoted, to nods from the other members of the Presidium. "Comrade Camus?"

"Of course, Comrade Keqiang. Our contacts in Ustra have made significant advances arming those possessed of sufficient revolutionary potential, and our cadres in training are advancing smoothly. Additionally, we are exploring the possibility of providing munitions to the lumpenproletariat, a recommendation shall be made to the Presidium after we've discerned the extent of that particular class's reactionary tendencies within the Ustran context," she said in a gravelly voice. Camus was an orc, the Jovian creations having found their way to Mars in due time. For her, the liberation of the Ustran working class was as much a matter of history as self pride.

"Very well. Let us forestall any further discussion until we receive news from Ustra or Comrade Camus. Moving on, I have already been briefed by the Committee of State Security in the ministerial meeting prior to this on the Lunar affair, I trust you all have been similarly informed. Comrade Langenbach, add the report to the record if you would. Presently, the Technate appears to be reinforcing their zone of control in orbit of Luna, but we have reason to believe they do not intend to stop there. Presently, we are not entirely certain of their goals, but the Committee finds it doubtful they will be harmful to the Republic. Therefore, I propose that we invite the Technate ambassador to explain the situation. All in favor?" Ivanova pronounced, a chorus of ayes answering her. "Opposed?" To which there was only the sound of silence.

"Comrade Keqiang, on the matter of the Technate, we have been mulling a proposal," another man spoke up, a thin Red. Receiving the Premier's silent nod, he duly continued. "It concerns Sol Security. I have worked with the Special Committee, and I believe we are nearing the fullest extent of our understanding of its systems. At least, as far as we may without further examination of its network ourselves. The Technate however ought to have a sounder basis, and we see no reason why they would not wish to collaborate with us on this matter."

"In favor?" Yet another chorus of ayes. "Opposed?" And again, silence.

"Very well, Comrade Eisen. You shall discuss the matter with the Technate's ambassador after we have resolved the present matter. Comrade Langenbach, record the end of the meeting, we are adjourned," Ivanova pronounced. The Secretary made the final notes on his minutes before stowing them away. Not a single member of the Presidium made to leave the room.

"Our formal business has concluded. What I speak of now shall go in no record, and if nothing comes of it, shall be nothing but sound lost in the wind. If we do decide to pursue this course of action, the record shall be sufficiently accurate for posterity. Am I understood?"

A tense silence filled the room at her statement, but none of the Presidium members were surprised. Private sessions of their meetings were rare in the extreme, and such unrecorded 'after meetings' were expected. Only now could the concerns of perception and politics be thrown aside, and the doctrinally unsound be massaged into an acceptable form.

"The Legion is a threat to all Panhumanity, that much I hope we all agree upon. Talus must be dealt with, and sooner rather than later. If possible, remedying its defective codebase would be the ideal solution, but we may be forced to turn to military means." A deep intake of breath, not just from the Premier, but the entire Presidium as they all braced for the other shoe to drop.

"I am proposing we send a diplomatic mission to Venus to entreat the Empress for an alliance against the Legion."

The resulting uproar would no doubt have made fantastic entertainment, almost as certainly as it would have toppled the entire Presidium. When the dust finally settled, the vote was narrow, but in favor. As consolation, the mission would be conducted in secret, and a rough proposal was sketched out for the mission to conduct itself on Earth where only the Mediterranean separated their borders. A missive was quickly prepared for transmission to Venus, encrypted with the most intensive of ciphers, to the Martian mission in the heart of the Empire. Naturally, a hardcopy was made for their matching number on Venus, the delivery deliberately delayed so that the Venusian representative on Mars would receive the message at the same time that the Martian representative on Venus was delivering it to the imperial palace.

The Purple Chamber, Finisrol Palace
Maratilm, Jharya

Salos was loath to enter Finisrol, the grand and unrepentant modern palace at the heart of the capital of Maratilm. A standing edict passed dozens of generations prior decreed that the Emperor's seat ever renew itself, and even now construction crews were at work renovating the south portico. It was ever changing and chaotic, but worst of all it reminded the old Emperor just how far advanced his years truly were, for he now saw nothing in the structure that reminded him of his youth. All was new, and the old had been brushed away.

It was fitting then that he took up residence in the Purple Chamber surrounded by the new. Descending upon Maratilm, he had ordered every adult member of the House of Taulros to attend to him in the massive throne room, so that all his heirs may be present and know his will. For it was now his time to do something new, something that only the force of his will could make the more conservative members of his lineage accept.

He finished reading aloud from his reply to the Chancellor of the Federation of Nations, and waited for what outrage would come.

The Emperor was pleased, though not entirely surprised, to see that there was none. He was by far the oldest person present, for all those of his generation were dead, and a great many of the next two were as well, taken in the fires of the Great War. The eldest present was his own son, Ardisol, who was in agreement with the idea to begin with, and the prince's surviving siblings tended to defer to the peace loving academic. Salos' grandchildren and their descendants would never think to speak against him so publicly, when rebuke was so certain. But still, he knew it was a false peace. One that would only last so long as he lived.

"If we are all agreed then, I shall have this sent to the humans for their response," Salos said in a soft voice, scanning the faces of his children, nieces, nephews, and their own children to see who was still inept enough to mask their dissent. He was equal parts pleased and concerned for his succession that none failed.

"Father, why are we writing only to the Federation? The Lokoid and the Kadathi sent us messages as well. Surely they, at least the Kadathi, deserve a measure of reply," Ardisol asked, the entire family looking first to him - and then to Salos to gauge his reply.

"Oh, my son, it is simple. We do not write to them for we as of yet have nothing of import to say. The Lokoid and the Kadathi respond favorably to our entreaties, yes, but we are not yet in a state to ask anything concrete of them. Worry not however, for should the crisis in the Commonwealth continue, I think we will find ourselves reconvening for such letters to be penned. Now leave me, my children, for I tire."

Ardisol tarried as the ranks of the House of Taulros left their lord to his chambers, as was his right as heir to the throne. When only father and son remains, the younger sets himself opposite the older, his wings hanging limp and uselessly from his back. "You insult those who could be friend."

"You think me miserly of my affections towards a people who are friendly towards us solely because our atrocities were committed against either their foes, or a comfortable distance away?" Salos asks, but there is no sting in his voice.

"I do, father. So long as they only see us as distant conquerors, they will aid us against common foes, but bear us no love."

"Perhaps so. Very well. Make ready your household, my son, for there are none who will think as you in my service save for yourself. Travel to Kadath, and see what love you may engender in their hearts." And so he began to write, penning a response to the Crown Princess.

Camp Kalando, Imperial Research Base
Outskirts of Point Jakurna

Janfras Camoll was annoyed, and everyone in the room knew it. The strange communication signature had suddenly vanished as soon as it had appeared, and his own genius - at least, in his words - idea had been for nothing. So it was with equal parts amazement and relief that the comms officer on duty reported that the Commonwealth wanted a word with the base.

In most any other research post, the role of Principal Investigator would go to a scientist with sterling credentials in his or her field of study, respected and cited by peers. For Camp Kalando, this was insufficient. Camoll was all of those things, yes, but more important for his current posting was his first love - xenobiology, and psychology, and linguistics.

"The Commonwealth? Unless someone's died the leader of their ground side forces is General Verenkin var Gnaesh, Szitzu. Hard nosed, doesn't take shit, is probably going to hate me. Let's do it. Give them a chirp back and see what they have to say."

Remnants of the Asrian Outpost

Raw power flowed through the Ghostseer's body, the psychic echoes of the dead amplified through him until they could take on a life of their own. Though the force of special operations troops kept a discrete distance, none could escape the unearthly feeling of their wings standing on end, and a sudden chill in their bones.

And then the dead walked the earth again, if but for a time.

The echoes were legion. Many of them tortured and broken. The flow of psionic energy warped around them like shadows. Only dim lights indicated that they truly were alive and not shade-like automatons. Never the less, the rogue Conflux forces were monstrous even as quickly fading whispers. Amid them, it was not hard to find the revenants of the Asrians. There were no commanders. They had fled after giving the last order to their Thralls. Even though the soulless automatons had no life, there was something of them that stayed behind. An imprint that was only slightly tainted by emotions. The precise orders were quickly fading but their intent was clear: ‘fight until you die’. The coldness by which that demand was given would shock any living creature to its core. It forced one to resign survival. Forsake yourself. Pay with your life. It went against everything being alive but the Thralls were not technically alive. They had given it up willingly and gladly. Some had pulled a Conflux acolyte down with them. The tortured creature’s echo no doubt wrapped around the cold psionic command. But the brightest stars in this fading, incorporeal world of whispers, echoes and dust were those of the fallen Sorcerers. Those great and powerful beings that flung psionic energy. Their echoes were strong and clung to the ground. Unwilling to release themselves. They were clear. Clear enough so the echoes carried more than just faint feelings and psionic imprints. Images and even sound rippled from the blazing psionic nuclei.

“Come die before me! I will burn you all down to ash!” One screamed as he flung empyrean flame at his enemies. Their armor melting as he felt nothing but glee. Which quickly turned to sorrow and coldness. He looked down and saw claws through him. Blood dripping from them. Sorrow was replaced with a vengeance. A clear thought rippled through the echo: "I will take you all with me." The echo ended with a blazing explosion.

Another echo crackled with thunder. Lightning destroyed all in its path as the Sorceress desperately tried to fight off the shadowy enemies. Behind her was a wreckage of a shuttle. Her thoughts were clear. A constant stream. “Sister. Sister. Sister.” Her sadness was intense. “Why didn't you listen? Why did you get on the shuttle?” It was the only deviation from her constant chant. Even when Conflux weaponry ripped through her, dooming her to her last moments, she kept repeating her chant. Until she fell unconscious.

“I am a Prince of Asra! Come at me! Die at my hand!” Another echo repeated. The Prince’s. His was not arrogant like the first echo. It did not have the intense, dreadful sadness of the second echo. There was rage but also a remarkable other thing: a sense of purpose. The echo made it painfully clear, Nautilian knew he would die. Never the less, at the edge of the abyss the Prince stood and found his place. Lightning burned his enemies. Telekinetic forces crushed armor. His echo’s images were crystal clear as well. Untouched and unsullied. They showed the culprit of the attack and the victims of the Prince clearly: Conflux Troops. Even when the lightning died down and the energy of Nautilian vanished, his resolve never changed. Even when his executioner came at him. Only when claws went through him and he laid on the floor did the echo change and emit one last sound: “Are you happy now, brother?”

The shades of the departed faded away, leaving only the desolate landscape of new made glass behind, and a trembling form kneeling upon the ground. With mechanical efficiency, the retinue of soldiers lifted the Ghostseer away from that place of death, and faded into the darkness of the night as the visions themselves had.

Taulron Embassy
City of Andalusia

Larthia Velansa held the envelope in his hands, doing his best to suppress his curiosity at what his Emperor had placed inside his letter of introduction to the Commonwealth's monarch. Two messages had been reposed for him to transmit to the leaders of the Commonwealth upon his arrival at the embassy, but it was that one to their queen that was by far more interesting. A physical letter, dispatched by regular courier, it had arrived some time ago under strict instructions that he must give it personally to Catherine - and that no one must read it save her. The second, far more recent, missive was sent on an emergency courier with no delay and concerned the Durand crisis.

There was a great deal of information within those simple facts, and the ambassador smiled as he began to speculate on what his sovereign had planned. The simple matter was that the physical letter was by far the more important of the two, for not only was it penned with such meticulous care, it had also been sent in such a manner to arouse no undue suspicion. While the contents of the second were well secreted, its matter was obvious to all, and the sheer speed with which it was sent would well imply that it contained nothing earth shattering.

With both due to be sent, the ambassador endeavored to simply deliver them as one to the Imperial-Queen and her Chancellor. Straightening his cranial crest, he exited the embassy, and began the long journey to the audience chamber of the only monarch whose power challenged his own. His longtime aides simply shook their heads as they made note of the jaunt in his step, for they knew that far from being excited at what he knew he was delivering, Larthia was ecstatic at not knowing.

"Remnants of the Asrian Outpost" was written by @Legion02 with my thanks.

The Imperial Senate
Maratilm, Jharya

"To my fellow Conscript Fathers, greetings," Salos intoned as he took to the floor of the Senate. Anywhere else in his empire he was Salos VI, Emperor of the Taulron, but here, nominally at least, he was simply Senator Salos. It was a game that many of his predecessors had no patience for, but the wily old man found himself taking a certain delight in it.

In response to the ritualized introduction came the usual flurry of replies, stern answers of "Welcome, Senator" came from those who dreamed of making the Senate more than an overdressed theater while his more loyal followers gave enthusiastic cries of "Hail, O Victor!", and the show carried on.

"For twenty years, we have enjoyed a peace wrought not by some outside force, but by our own hands. For twenty years, the price paid by our daughters and sons was deemed adequate for such a price. For twenty years, all the nations sat in agreement upon the order of things. But now come sounding anew the drums of war, and the day we all knew would come has arrived," he solemnly intoned, the rows of assembled Senators from every accepted race in his empire nodding and murmuring along in sad agreement.

"The Imperial Systems Commonwealth. The Federation of Nations. The Harmonic Conflux. The Urdji Civîneşra. The Imperial Union of Kadath. All have withdrawn from, or made mockeries of, the guarantor of that peace - the Treaty of Madrigasa. But a treaty stored safely within our temples, and witnessed by our gods, cannot be set aside so easily. The divine urge that the galaxy be at peace, and we shall be the enforcers of their will," the Emperor declared, more than a few taking to their feet to cheer their affirmation. Some of them might even be genuine.

"But I shall not lie to you, my faithful brothers and sisters. This is not an easy task the gods have ordained for us, nor one that can be undertaken without great effort. In the name of the gods I demand that this body declare the Treaty of Madrigasa in abeyance until all the nations return to its terms. We have had a long and prosperous peace, but it is clear that the ancient adage has come true once more. If we wish to keep this peace, we must prepare for war."

And so the shouting began, senators on all sides announcing their support or denunciation as bedlam took over the chamber.

Queen Nulla's Gardens, Trydosh Palace
Kresslon Hill, Jharya

"Sire, the Senate has finally taken a vote upon your proposal to set aside Detente," Chancellor Lauchu Vipin announces as he enters the gardens, restraining a sigh as he finds his emperor bent over a desk putting pen to paper. "My Emperor, we have teams of scribes and calligraphers that could be doing that for you."

"Yes, we do," Salos says in a murmur, etching out letters on the fine parchment with an intense care. "But I don't trust them to see the contents of this letter."

"Surely you jest, everyone employed within the Chancellery was approved by me personally," Lauchu replied, playing with the tablet in his hands to distract himself from the oddity he was witnessing.

"This is true. But I do not trust you to see the contents of this letter either," the Emperor says with a small smile before setting down his pen and breathing out across the paper to dry the ink. "Send this to Praetoria, on a regular courier run. Ensure it arrives there before Larthia finishes that absurd relocation from Corinthene. He is to deliver it into the hands of the Imperial Queen, and none other than her. To keep things fair, I'll let you in on the secret after he hands it off. Gods know she's going to show it to her Metternich as soon as she's done reading it. Perhaps before." As he speaks, he heats an ornate wax seal, impressing it upon the letter with a loud bang.

"Of course, sire," Lauchu says in a very quiet voice, all thoughts of Salos' impropriety replaced by his own for daring to intrude upon correspondence between sovereigns.

"You did not just come to tell me the results of Senate votes. The Senate votes in my favor, that is the way of things. What else do you have for me?" Salos asks in a soft tone, giving his overly conscientious chancellor a chance to regain his bearings as he folded the letter up and placed it under seal.

"Quite right, my Emperor," the Merlovian says, clearly eager to return to form. "The missives to the Rolvians, the Federation, the Lokoid, the Urdji Civîneşra, and the Kadath are awaiting your signature and approval. I trust you will find them to your liking."

"You didn't follow proportionality with the federals," Salos muses. "My titling is more formal than hers. Why?"

"The humans are the only ones we asked for help. Using Latin was deemed an effective way to impress your majesty upon them without resorting to stylings they may find overwrought."

"And if they find the language itself an anachronism?"

"My Emperor, that is the entire point of the letter."

There was a short silence as the old Emperor considered this point before he finally shook his head. "I yield to your mastery of protocol. Send them via the soonest scheduled courier. Except for the Rolvian message, send it via PsiNET. Use a cipher that we know the Commonwealth has broken but we're reasonably certain the other powers haven't."

"Of course, my Emperor. Now then, there is the matter of proclamations.”

"Yes..." Salos says slowly as he finishes reviewing the messages. "These will do. Promulgate them immediately," he orders in a tired voice, before pressing a sealed envelope into his Chancellor's hands. "I will be at the mausoleum if I am needed."

"Of course, my Emperor."

Camp Kalando, Imperial Research Base
Outskirts of Point Jakurna

The coming of the obelisk caused a massive stir within the camp, and Captain Jouyin Heliak found herself bundled into a war room with a collection of military officials and scientists. It was the latter who were in charge of the camp, and so the young officer found herself in the uncomfortable position of having to sit and listen to the clique gush about a bunch of hellos for hours on end until the threat status of the newcomer could be verified.

And then the most ostentatious looking man she had ever seen in her entire life walked into the room, Principal Investigator Janfras Camoll. The man in charge of all official Taulron operations on Agdemnar, he was an excessively tall Yaratelmsh with an obviously artificial wingspan and even more obviously artificially colored plumage - though at least his was the result of him genetically engineering himself to grow the purple feathers instead of dyes. An eccentric and a genius, his scandals were matched only by his discoveries, and the worst thing was he knew the latter got him out of trouble for the former. Heliak hated him.

"Right right right, let’s get this settled. Giant obelisk appeared out of nowhere, no jump signature so it probably drifted, quantum communication technology - no one has that, Ashtar probably knew about it but wasn’t their cup of tea. No point in having quantum state greetings if you could just think the words into someone's minds and all. While all of you were busy gawking, I was with the boys down at the sensor array and managed to bang out something that can reply with a bare bones transmission in a similar enough way that whatever this think is doesn’t mistake us for idiots by tearing apart one of the spare neutrino detectors."

"Does that mean we can go now?" one of the other stealth corvette captains asked, the entire lot of them still chomping at the bit to get running.

"What? Oh, you guys. I'll do you better actually. Seems like everyone is confused as hell anyway so I'm lifting flight restrictions. Get out of here, especially you Heliak. The old women of the mountain want a Ghostseer for their next op and they asked you to do the delivery," Janfras said in the same casual, stream of consciousness rant he seemed to say everything in.

Half an hour later, and the Nightshade was flying low and cloaked with a mute Hateri on the cramped bridge, speeding far away from Camp Kalando just as it began to transmit back to the obelisk.


Remnants of the Asrian Outpost

Taulron special operations groups on Agdemnar fit a particular mold. Almost all were Yaratelmsh veterans of the Great War, making even the youngest older than the vast majority of soldiers who went into the field. It also meant that they had all seen a Ghostseer work before, and the women and men kept a respectful distance from the Hateri as he walked across the glassed surface that many had fought and died on.

The winds died down as the psintegrae began his grim task, ice crackling across the glass. Every emotion felt by every being left a psychic imprint upon surrounding objects, and more powerful emotions consequently leave more powerful imprints. The art of a Ghostseer is recalling these imprints, and reliving them. The mission of this Ghostseer was to find the death echo of Prince Nautilian, and plunder the remnants of his thoughts impressed upon the ground he died defending for information. But many people died at that outpost, and finding the last emotions of one was a trying task. The largest driver of failure was not enemy action, but the Ghostseer’s will breaking.

Camp Kalando, Imperial Research Base

Nestled against the energy field enveloping Point Jakurna, the scientists and engineers studiously go about researching the secrets of the Ashtar without a care for the fighting that enveloped the rest of Agdemnar. While the empire's position of neutrality and non-interference with other expeditions certainly helped allow them to do their work in peace, the massive and growing military garrison was the real reason. Every day, landing craft were delivering gun emplacements, shield generators, soldiers, and strike craft to ensure that anyone who dared attack the Taulron would regret it.

It was a splendid display of both imperial might and arrogance, a projection of official force where all too many of the great powers were hiding behind lies. No, the Taulron were brazenly working away at unlocking Agdemnar, and daring anyone to fire the first shot at them for doing so. So far, only various "rogue forces" had tested Kalando's defenses, and all had been repelled. A prestigious command for both military and academic officials, the research at Kalando was considered the core of Taulron efforts at Agdemnar.

This was wrong.

Shadowing every supply drop, every jump in system, was a small group of stealth corvettes. Slipping by in the wake of the openly declared fleet that made its run to Kalando, the flotilla of Cautious class vessels did not land anywhere near Point Jakurna. Hidden in an expanse of mountains on the far side of Agdemnar, the real focus of imperial concern grew.

For the young and impetuous Captain Heliak of His Imperial Majesty's Starship Nightshade, the daring flights to the mountain stronghold was a dream come true. Delivering soldiers and supplies for the empire's secret operations teams, ensuring that the research work of Kalando was never surpassed by anyone else's, that was real glory. But today she was not delivering nameless women and men to a base that did not exist. Today she was at Camp Kalando, her ship grounded beneath its energy fields, as the Commonwealth and the Ascendancy were busy killing each other.

"Gods, can they hurry up already?"

Strangers' Gallery
Parliament of the Sovereign Reich

The Taulron did not entreat the Commonwealth on Corinthene. No, the empire found it alien to speak with a parliament instead of their sovereign and so kept their embassies upon stately Praetoria. The appointment of the Merlovian diplomat Larthia Velansa was meant to be a sea change in Taulron-Commonwealth relations, first and foremost with him taking formal residence on Corinthene, but also because he was himself a Senator of the Empire's legislature. But as he sat at his first session of the Low House, he began to think that his arrogant predecessors had a point. Watching the Commonwealth tear up the Treaty of Detente before his eyes was enough to make even the staid ambassador consider abandoning this farce of democracy and decamp to Praetoria. The fact that this particular incident was occurring directly before his maiden speech to the House, that could only be seen as an insult. And a test.

By all accounts, Lord Chancellor Metternich was a most formidable man, and his opening salvo on the new ambassador proved it. This did not endear him to Ambassador Velansa in the least, but it did earn a grudging respect. The man was proving himself a bastard, but at least a crafty bastard. After watching the Parliament ensure that war going to come sooner rather than later, the man did the only thing he could do and got down to work. While stereotypes of Merlovians as obsessive planners with the emphasis on obsessive were overblown, even this declaration was not unexpected. Granted, the draft he had on hand was not intended to be his maiden speech, so some adjustments needed to be made, but he had tie. The Commonwealth adored its ceremonies, and the recognizance of an ambassador by Parliament was replete with them. A member of the governing party would give a speech introducing him to the chamber, and then a member of the opposition would give one questioning why he should be permitted to reside among them. Typically, these were maiden speeches for new members, and fresh orators luckily tended to drone on far longer than they ought to.

Which meant that when the Speaker called upon Larthia to defend himself, he had spent a little over an hour tinkering his address. The time it took for his full title to be announced - Senator Larthia Velansa, the Three-Hundred and Eighty-Sixth Duke of Caisrol, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary from the Court of Trydosh in the name of Salos VI, Emperor of the Taulron - gave him the last few moments he needed to finalize the speech, and away he went.

"To all you members of this most ancient and revered House, greetings," the ambassador began, stretching back into the depths of the past to grasp upon forms and protocol that were centuries old when Taulros lived. It was an opening that got the immediate attention of all Vit'azny listeners, who were of course the true audience, indulgences to their sham of democracy or no.

"I admit, I am a stranger in this place. But not only am I a stranger to this Parliament, my Emperor is a stranger to the Commonwealth. For too long, be it during days of war, or days of peace, we have acted shamefully. We considered it an insult for our monarch to not speak directly with yours, a ploy designed to trap us in the mires of bureaucracy and committees. But it is we have slandered you, the members of this body, refusing to consider the power you hold."

"Today, the galaxy has seen the power of the Parliament. Though I am aggrieved that you now withdraw from a compact of brotherhood, all shall know that this was the act of a free people who shall ever refuse the bonds of slavery. But now it is my earnest hope that this same body will hold in warm esteem the ties of friendship, and the rewards of peace."

"I arrive to you today as a stranger. Let me be so bold as to hope that when I take my leave of you, it shall be as a friend."

King Larsos's State Apartments, Trydosh Palace
Kresslon Hill, Jharya

Emperor Salos VI, Victor of the Great War, was old. For nigh on a century he had reigned, born before the Peace of the Ashtar, he was one of the few surviving people in the Empire who remembered being Pushed. His father and grandfather had supplicated themselves to this new order, and he spent much of his long reign doing much the same, only to see them vanish early in his second century of life. It had fallen upon Salos and his contemporaries to make a new peace at Madrigasa, and while he had been criticized by all sides as every possible combination of warmonger, coward, and thief imaginable, he did help forge a peace.

Then the Message came, and for the second time all expectations were thrown out. He had spent almost all of his working hours since here, in the oldest wing of the oldest palace that the Emperors of the Taulron and their predecessors had resided in. Only here did the old Emperor feel young once more, surrounded by the reminders of true antiquity. It was in these ancient rooms that something new was being born. A notion of an empire whose legitimacy stemmed from the stability it provided, rather than the destruction it threatened. It was here that both Larthia Velansa and Jouyin Heliak were given their commissions as both war and peace were waged with equal fervor.

But for the moment, the Emperor merely sat in contemplation of a galactic map. Most were far from concerns. The Lokoid as well as the fractious humans and the corporate quasi-state they had founded were all a dull color on the display, deemed likely to remain neutral unless pressed into a corner. A shade brighter and more urgent were Rolvius, the Ozil, and the Valerius, all states that one had reason to be wary of, but for now unlikely to stage an invasion of Taulron territory. Next, in far starker relief, were the Commonwealth and the Uteqx, both Great Powers facing internal unease and unrest at the current state of affairs. It would not be beyond the pale for either to declare war upon the Taulron to quiet domestic unrest. But those lights were faint candles to the blazing suns of the Harmonic Conflux and the Alduur. The former were reviled by the Empire generally and Salos personally, their practice of slavery - and more importantly, their willingness to invade other states to enslave their populaces - were a blight upon the galaxy and a constant detractor from his new vision of an empire that stood by virtue of protecting its citizens. As far as the latter, the Alduur made little secret of their hatred for any who had collaborated with the Ashtar, and not only had the Taulron made an early policy of doing so, it directly led to their position of strength in the Great War. Finally, sitting on the ancient desk next to the holo emitter, was a physical map, and that object troubled him more than the rest of his worries put together. It was nearly two centuries old and displayed the realm of the Kobiot, a race that was not just now dead, but practically erased from history. Whatever terror had so thoroughly destroyed them no doubt lurked somewhere within the stars painted on that canvas.

Salos was old, but the Great Game does not stop.
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