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Whitehaven Palace
Brandenburg
Praetoria


Metternich let out a growl as the training droid caught him by surprise and landed a solid punch to his abdomen, but he stayed quick on his toes, tail lashing behind him, sweat matting his fur. He’d been a star boxer in university, and had very nearly pursued the sport in a professional capacity. It had been helpful on his first campaign as leader of the Crown Centrist party too. At the time, the Crown Centrists had been in opposition, and Metternich had played up his reputation as the brash young fighter by participating in charity boxing matches with some of his political rivals. It was the kind of thing he’d been able to get away with back then, in the tailing years of the Pax Ashtari. He’d won the Centrist leadership after just one term as a delegate in the Low House, a shocking triumph, and the Commonwealth had felt he might be able to disrupt the status quo that had held them stagnant for so long. Now of course, he was far too dignified for charity boxing matches, and his last opponent Emden Konig, Baron Highfield, was still a little loopy all these years later despite the best efforts of the neurosurgeons. Suffice it to say no one particularly wanted to face him in the ring.

The door to Metternich’s private gym opened, his Su’urtugal guard admitting Cato Telemachus. That immediately set off alarm bells in Metternich’s mind, and the training droid got in another body blow. Metternich snarled; he’d better wrap this up. A quick feint pulled the droid off balance, then Metternich let fly the devastating left hook that had put Emden Konig in a three week coma all those years ago. His fist impacted with a force that would have killed any member of most humanoid species, and the droid went limp and toppled over for a moment. It righted itself and went into standby mode at a gesture from Metternich, and the Lord Chancellor took a long drink of water, panting to catch his breath as he gestured Telemachus over.

The Minister of the Interior looked distinctly nervous and unhappy. “What is it Cato? I’m assuming not good news,” Metternich said between breaths.

Telemachus handed Metternich a pad. Veronia Gheertz, head anchor of Praetoria’s leading newscast, The Agenda, was displayed on it, paused mid-word in a rather amusing fashion. “This is the livestream, Lord Chancellor. The original piece came in over PsiNET a few minutes ago, and I did my best to get Gheertz to sit on it, but she says it’s too juicy for that. She appreciates our relationship so she’ll spin it as best she can, but she won’t sit on it completely. It should be coming up right about now.”

Metternich tapped the pad to resume the broadcast. It hiccuped slightly as it caught up with the live stream, then settled down. “-dispatched formal condolences earlier this week, but it remains to be seen how this will affect the Asran diplomatic stance in an already tense galaxy.”

Gheertz tapped her own pad, slightly below the camera’s pickup, the modern equivalent to shuffling notes. The camera angle changed, and Gheertz looked to the new camera with what Metternich knew to be a carefully rehearsed expression, a mixture of troubled concern and trepidation, her ‘serious news time’ face. ”Breaking news out of the Colonies this hour, coming in over PsiNET from FedNat media sources.” A motion of her eyebrows indicated that Gheertz was naturally suspicious of anything that came from the Federation, as all good and proper Commonwealth citizens should be. “According to a Federation journalist on the distant colonial world of Durand, disgruntled spaceport workers have seized control of a Rolvian atmospheric cargo shuttle and taken four Rolvians hostage. Sources say the workers acted in response to rumours of imminent food shortages. Minister of the Interior Sir Cato Telemachus was available only briefly for comment just minutes ago, and told us here at The Agenda that there is indeed a hostage situation on Durand, but in the interest of the hostage’s safety he would not comment further, and would encourage all media in the Commonwealth to refrain from giving the terrorist colonials a platform on which to air their grievances. He also wished to reassure the citizens of the Commonwealth and the leaders of the Republic that a swift and decisive operation is being prepared to secure the hostages. With all this in mind, we here at the Agenda won’t engage in speculation over the terrorists’ motives, but we will turn to our At Issue panel to analyse how this might affect the galactic diplomatic situation.”

Metternich stabbed a finger at the pad to pause the broadcast as the flashy intro for At Issue began. He carefully handed the pad back to Telemachus, turned to the training droid, and promptly let out a bloodcurdling primal roar as he punched the droid’s head clean off with a sickening crunch. The droid went limp and toppled over again, but Metternich pounced on it and tore its arm off with terrifying fury. Using the severed arm as a club, he methodically bashed the droid apart, pounding its reinforced chassis into small pieces. It took all of five minutes, which Telemachus watched with fascination.

Metternich looked up at his friend. “Cato, please inform the rest of Cabinet that we’ll be meeting in full at the Imperial Palace in one hour,” he said with deadly calm. He walked to the opposite wall of the gym to activate another training droid, and Telemachus left him to demolish that one in peace while he went off to gather his colleagues.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Scarlet Gallery of the Imperial Palace
Brandenburg Old Quarter
Praetoria


It was quiet around the conference table when Metternich’s cabinet assembled before the Imperial Queen. Everyone had seen The Agenda’s coverage of the story. To her credit, Gheertz had done an excellent job of steering the At Issue panel’s discussions away from the question of food shortages and focussed them on foreign relations, a safe area where the panelists could verbally spar with one another without causing any major headaches for the government. Across the Core Worlds and most of the Constituents, the coverage would be similar enough that it wouldn’t cause problems. Certainly there were some argumentative Constituent worlds out there (Arraven came to mind), where the local media would harp on about the government’s imperialism, the plight of the poor colonials, and so on, but even on Arraven, people were far too comfortable in their lives to actually do anything about the situation. But in the Colonies, things were less certain, prompting Celia Temkins, Minister of Planetary Environments, to give voice to the question they were all thinking.

“How bad is it going to get, Cato?” She frowned, and shook her head. “Let me be more specific. I recognize that the domestic and foreign affairs situations are tied together, so let me put it this way; how bad is this going to get if all we have to deal with is rumours of food shortages?”

Metternich glanced at Temkins sharply. It was an uncharacteristically precise question from her; she usually preferred to keep things vague when it came to the Colonies. Could it be that she wasn’t as attached to her heritage out there as he’d thought? Or was she just rising to the challenge of a new crisis? Curious…

Telemachus nodded slowly. “Thank you for the specificity, Celia, that will indeed make things easier to discuss. If we only have to deal with rumours, we should be fine. Actually, even if the Rolvians confirm the shortages, we should still be fine, now that I’ve been able to use the hostage situation to raise the alert level of our Civil Order assets. That wasn’t an option when we were trying to keep things quiet, but the forward deploying we decided on did help get the alert level raised faster. If it’s just food shortages, we’re now deployed in such a way that we can crush any uprising that becomes too problematic for local authorities. In short, it won’t be good, but it won’t be too bad either.”

Temkins indicated her understanding with a slow roll of her shoulders. She glanced at Metternich, who simply gave a small shrug and gestured for her to continue, curious where the scientist-turned-minister would go. She turned to Castlereagh. “Robert, I’m assuming you sent a message off to Rolvius as soon as you heard?”

The Minister of Foreign Affairs sighed. “Yes, but it can’t possibly get there any faster than the news piece from FedNat. Hell, even that episode of The Agenda will get there a few minutes sooner over PsiNET. I’ve held off on sending specific instructions to Ribbentrop for the moment, the physical dispatch we sent when this situation started should be arriving soon enough to give him the full details. Further instructions can be sent over PsiNET as needed once.”

“You’ve always told us Vannifar’s a pragmatic sort, even if she is facing domestic pressure. What I’m actually more worried about is FedNat.”

Eyes around the table locked on Celia Temkins as she said it, but she continued doggedly. “Gods know they love playing peacekeeper. What do we tell them if they offer assistance in recovering the hostages?” She held up a hand as Mathias Bosch began to sputter in indignation. “Yes, normally we could tell them to suck vacuum, but these are Rolvian hostages. How do we convince Vannifar we’re serious about getting her people back if we won’t accept any help doing it? Cato, I’m assuming of course that accepting that help is out of the question.”

Telemachus nodded again. “An admission of impotence on that scale would shatter us. Not just Colonies, but Constituents and even a few Cores would start asking why the hell they need us if we’re going to let FedNat in to take care of a few rowdy dock workers.”

Catherine remained silent from her place at the head of the table. She wished Martuf were here, but he was off making arrangements to take care of the Durand situation; it was possible he was on his way there personally. At last she spoke. “We might be able to pin that on me,” she said quietly.

“I’m not sure I understand, your Imperial Majesty,” Temkins said with a frown.

“It’s one possibility, at least. Clement and the rest of you decide to ask for foreign help resolving the situation, but your temperamental and capricious monarch unilaterally forbids it. There’s great risk, of course, but there always is in these things.”

The rest of the table looked thoughtful. Catherine leaned forward. “It could be done the other way around too, but either way, one of us looks better internationally while the other looks better domestically. We’re all here; why don’t we kick the idea around and see if we can figure out who can take the domestic hit?”

Telemachus spoke up first, and Catherine settled back in her chair. This was a problem her cabinet could work on, a way to keep their brains busy while they waited to hear from Martuf about Durand. Hopefully the hostages would be safe soon, and the entire discussion would be moot.
Posted!
Telasis City Spaceport
Durand
Commonwealth Colonial World


Durand was a pretty miserable excuse for a planet, even for a colonial world. Far into the back and beyond of the sprawling expanse of the Commonwealth, Durand had the dubious distinction and terrible misfortune of being the last world annexed by the Commonwealth before the arrival of the Ashtar.

Durand had been a relatively prosperous independent human colony, far from the Federation of Nations’ borders. It had originally been settled several hundred years earlier by a group of religious puritans, who had wanted to place some distance between themselves and the sins of modern man. That puritannical streak had diminished over the centuries, but the great cathedrals the original settlers had built still dominated the skylines of many cities. They were huge structures rising hundreds of meters into the air, the intersection of piety and technology.

Of course, none of them were churches anymore, not after the Commonwealth had taken over. The cathedrals were the only unique or noteworthy element of Durand, as far as the Commonwealth transstellar megacorps were concerned, so they had taken them and made them their own. All had been refitted into office towers or luxury apartments for the elite of the megacorps or friends of the colonial governor’s, and in most cities they were the only structures left over 30 stories tall. The rest had gradually decayed, then been knocked down when they became eyesores that the megacorps didn’t wish to look upon.

The planetary capital of Telasil, the only remaining proper spaceport on Durand, had the largest cathedral on the planet now serving as the Colonial Governor’s residence and administrative center. At just under two hundred stories, it was a masterpiece of towering spires and flying buttresses, built of modern alloys and coated in a beautiful red sandstone native to Durand. A good thirty stories were set aside for the Governor’s personal use, while the remainder housed the facilities necessary to run the planet. It’s official title was ‘St. Fitzroy’s Cathedral’, named after the most revered figure in Durand’s local history. Everyone who actually lived on Durand knew that Fitzroy would have loathed having his name attached to the center of the Commonwealth’s oppression, so most people just called it ‘The Red Whore’.

Aside from the Red Whore and a small number of other modern skyscrapers in the downtown core, Telasil was all run down slums. On the edge of the city, situated so the noise of landing spacecraft would not disturb the governor’s beauty sleep, Thomas Maclay worked his days away as counter-grav sled operator, loading and unloading the small freighters that landed on Durand, or the atmospheric shuttles which serviced the larger freighters that couldn’t withstand re-entry. At work, the Dubrovnik-Vetroyshka corporation provided the modern counter-grav sled, but Maclay himself drove home in an old internal combustion car.

Today, he was helping unload pallets of grain from a Rolvian shuttle. The freighter it serviced was hovering high overhead, barely visible in the upper atmosphere. It was a fact of interstellar commerce that most freighters big enough to make a good profit were not designed to land on planets; far cheaper to shuttle goods on and off than reinforce the spaceframe, build landing gear, and install thrusters that wouldn’t burn the face off everyone in a five kilometer radius.

The freighter was called the RS Owakshell, and Maclay knew most of its crew on a personal basis. It was a big Poltisi cartel hauler that frequently made the ‘bread run’ out to Durand. Maclay and the other workers were about halfway through emptying the final shuttle load from Owakshell, and Captain Ragal Poltisi had come down with this load to collect payment from the Dubrovnik-Vetroyshka accounts manager. Ragal was a good man in Maclay’s books; even though he was related to the owners of the cartel, he wasn’t above pitching in on hard work. Even now he was helping unload the shuttle while the account manager assembled his pay, idly chatting with Maclay as he helped the man shift pallets onto the counter-grav sled. Maclay laughed at something Ragal said, and was about to turn the sled around when the Rolvian said something that caught his attention.

“Shame I won’t be back this way for a long while, Tom. You’re good people here on Durand.” Ragal said absently.

Maclay paused, frowning. “Whaddya mean by that Cap’n? Going somewhere?”

Ragal frowned in turn, then shook his head ruefully. “You didn’t hear? Right, course the corporate snots didn’t tell anyone who actually needs to know. This is my last haul into the Commonwealth, who knows for how long. One of the last Rolvian hauls period, actually. Politicians back home decided it’s time to play hardball with your politicians, or something like that. Gonna be some tight bellies in the Core worlds soon I’d imagine, but you lads have plenty out here.”

Maclay stared at him blankly, jaw hanging open. No more shipments? Tight bellies in the Core? What was Ragal talking about? Then it all clicked together, and Maclay snapped his jaw shut. Ragal didn’t really understand how things worked in the Commonwealth. He knew that most of Durand’s food got shipped Core-wards, and that the Rolvian imports kept the locals fed, but he didn’t understand that it wasn’t a voluntary arrangement. He was assuming colonies like Durand would simply cut down their own exports, and that the Core worlds would face shortages. But that wasn’t how things worked. Not in the Commonwealth.

“Damn shame,” Maclay said with a forced smile, then directed the sled out the shuttle’s large rear hatch. He stowed the grain in the designated container, then slunk off into the spaceport’s crowded warehouses. He flagged down another worker, not precisely a friend, but someone with a similar attitude. “Ted, where’s them mining lasers we got in yesterday?”

Ted Polis frowned. “Why you need to know Tom?”

Maclay pulled him close, looking around carefully. “Rolvians are cutting off food shipments. Just talked to Cap’n Ragal, he says it’s happening all across the Colonies.”

Polis’ face paled. “They can’t do that!”

“They’ll try, but I plan on doing somethin about it. The mining lasers, Ted.”

Polis guided Maclay to a container which contained handheld mining lasers. They were high powered enough to melt through rock, but far too short ranged to make proper weapons. Fortunately, Maclay could make do with ‘improper’ weapons just fine.

Polis circulated around the warehouse, passing word of what was happening, sending other workers to Maclay to arm themselves. Their looks ranged from desperate to determined. Many had families to feed. All understood what would happen if the shipments from Rolvius stopped.

Maclay eventually led a small mob out of the warehouse. They moved fast, running up behind the far side of the Rolvian shuttle. In scant seconds, half a dozen men were inside, holding their lasers to the pilot and co-pilot’s heads. Four others held up the Rolvian cargo-master. Five followed Maclay around the front of the shuttle, where Captain Ragal was dealing with Albrecht Berthold, the Dubrovnik-Vetroyshka supervisor. Berthold saw the workers coming first, eyes widening in shock. “Maclay! What in-” was all he got out before Maclay raised the laser and blew his head clean off. His companions tackled Captain Ragal and began hauling him back towards the shuttle. “Tom! What’re you doing?” the Rolvian asked, more incredulous than affraid.

“Sorry Cap’n, you’re a good man, but you don’t right understand the situation, and I got kids to feed. We’ll just keep you here with us for a bit, see if we can’t convince your politicians to get the grain moving again.”

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Whitehaven Palace
Brandenburg
Praetoria


“No. No! No no no no no!” Castlereagh spluttered the words in horror. “This can’t be happening. Please tell me it’s an elaborate prank of some kind!”

Metternich shook his head grimly. He was well and calm, having spent the past hour viciously assaulting training droids in his private gym. Telemachus was quiet in the corner, having been the first to receive the news of the Durand situation. It had come in - encrypted - over PsiNET from the colonial governor of Durand several hours previously. Fortunately, the governor had done everything right. He’d cordoned off the spaceport, and locked down the system. No message traffic aside from official dispatches was leaving or entering the system. The three destroyers on station had been deployed to prevent any ships from leaving either, including the Owakshell. The ships’ first officer, Keliar, was reportedly furious, but that could be dealt with later. Otherwise, the governor was simply keeping the kidnappers contained, not making any attempt to recover the hostages. He correctly understood that the odds of losing one of the Rolvian hostages were too great. The incident was contained, but it could not be kept so indefinitely.

Burn those colonial idiots! Those colossal fucking morons!” Castlereagh raged, stomping around Metternich’s palatial Praetoria office. The room seemed especially huge with just the three of them in it. Like everything in Whitehaven Palace, it was sinfully ornate too. Long ago, Whitehaven had been the Royal palace of the Dragunov dynasty, but it had been given over to senior government offices when the Imperial Palace was built.

“Calmly Robert. We can still manage this. Get a note off to Vannifar, physical copy on a diplomatic courier. Tell her we’re deploying special assets to get her people out safe, but we need a little time and we need this kept quiet,” Metternich said. “Cato, how do we get the Rolvians out safely?”

Telemachus shrugged helplessly. “Civil Order is a sledgehammer, Lord Chancellor. We need a scalpel. We’re just not equipped to deal with this kind of thing over at Interior. Even our Su’urtugal are trained wrong; they don’t generally worry about collateral damage. I’m sorry. But perhaps Martuf can offer some assistance on this.”

“That might be our solution. I’ll get to the Imperial Palace, inform her Imperial Majesty and Martuf at the same time. This is right up his alley, I’m sure he’ll have something we can do. The important thing is that for the moment, no one else knows about this.”
@Taeryn

Your other ones could get endlessly delayed or blow up perhaps? If stay on the one hyperdread course that is.

I'm kindof inclined towards several but I'll poll around further.
So I'd originally intended to give everyone an additional hyperdread every now and then. Do people want more of them in service or do y'all like the uniqueness of them?
@Aleranicus I have the vague impression you went on vacation maybe? If not, we should work on that thingy

The Scarlet Gallery of the Imperial Palace
Brandenburg Old Quarter
Praetoria


“Well,” Catherine said lightly as she gazed around the conference room, “Fate, it seems, is a capricious bitch.”

Metternich snorted into his teacup and Martuf grinned broadly. Telemachus and Castlereagh settled for quick smiles, but Bosch’s eyes flitted around in slight confusion, as he was far less personally connected to their monarch. The five of them were gathered with Catherine in one of the Scarlet Gallery’s official conference rooms, interacting with the ‘Imperial’ face of the Imperial Queen. The only person legally required to be there was Metternich, as part of his duty to brief the Queen on the affairs of her government twice every week. However, it had become common practice for the Lord Chancellor to bring along a relevant minister or two to provide deeper background. For the past several years, Telemachus and Castlereagh had been extremely regular members of these meetings, as the Interior and Foreign Affairs were always high-importance files. Bosch, on the other hand, had only rarely been brought along, but with increasing frequency in the year since the Message. Not exactly a good sign for galactic peace.

Martuf’s presence was simultaneously highly questionable and utterly routine. There was no law or custom that explicitly prohibited him from attending, but with no position in Her Imperial Majesty’s Government whatsoever, his inclusion flew in the face of the spirit of the law. At the same time, the officials present knew him to be one of Catherine’s closest advisors, so his presence was a given.

Catherine looked around the conference room again, a small smile fading to a more grim expression. “Yes, I expected others to withdraw from the Detente when we did, but I did not expect it so quickly. I did not expect them to do so while my government was in transit. I did not expect the nations of the galaxy to move so brazenly on the subject of Manir, and I most certainly did NOT expect the Rolvians to turn this into a summit.” She slumped in her chair and rubbed her temples, then directed her gaze at Castlereagh. “We’ve sent someone, I take it?”

“Yes your Majesty, I was able to arrange the necessary dispatches between jumps. Sir Anderson Ribbentrop left aboard the battlecruiser Audacious not long ago. A courrier boat went ahead of him to let the Republic know he’s coming. He’ll be late, but not critically so. Considering the guest list and the location, he’s there mostly to keep a low profile and make sure we get our grain shipments.”

Catherine’s eyes glittered at the reference to the grain shipments. Metternich’s mid-transit briefing had detailed how he’d arranged for various private interests to buy up all the Rolvian grain they could get, but the idea of Rolvian domestic politics threatening the stability of her realm was not designed to make her happy. She turned to Bosch next. “Speaking of grain shipments, what are our options on deploying something a little more...substantial...than a battlecruiser to keep those shipments coming?”

Bosch frowned. “Your Majesty, I made it clear to the Lord Chancellor that invasion is not a feasible option for-”

“The situation has changed, Mathias. This wouldn’t be an invasion. Why, any ships we dispatched to the Republic would be under strict orders to defend Rolvian sovereignty!”

Bosch looked around the table thoughtfully. “That...might work rather well, your majesty. Kyarguin’s on Ursuli, but First Void Lord Selissa migrated with the rest of us so I can speak to her today. Off hand, I know we have at least a task force or two close enough to the border to be available quickly.”

“I can put together a note to Vannifar’s government to go ahead of them. Well, one for her and one for her government, that is. Officially we’d just be conducting wargames near the border, flimsy of an excuse as that is, but we’d make it clear to Vannifar that those ships are ready to intervene on her behalf if she gives the word.” Castlereagh nodded as he spoke, turning the idea over in his head.

“Ah, speaking of wargames, we may have...underappreciated the implications of FedNat’s withdrawal from the treaty,” Martuf said quietly. Every eye in the room turned to him.

“Excuse me?” Metternich said with deceptive calm. “We dismissed that speech from Descroix as so much domestic posturing. A purely political response to our own withdrawal. It’s FedNat, they don’t have the stomach for war. Am I to understand that this interpretation of the situation was in error?”

Martuf sighed. He deeply respected Metternich’s capabilities, but found his temper childish and irritating. Granted, the Lord Chancellor did an excellent job of managing his temper; not controlling it per say, but finding outlets and venting it before he made any decisions. Still, dealing with it was not pleasant for anyone else who happened to be in the vicinity. “Some of those assumptions hold true, but they may have found some backbone. Their 12th fleet is conducting wargames near Rolvian space as we speak.”

Metternich exploded out of his chair and flung his teacup at the wall, where it shattered into countless fragments and spilled the beverage everywhere. “Spears-and-light-and-ashes-and-fuck-and-shit-and-burnit!” The string of curses from several backgrounds flew from his mouth in a remarkably eloquent display of vitriol. It was a testament to how often this happened that none of the security personnel outside the room came bursting through the door. It was also worth noting that Catherine had long ago gotten into the habit of serving Metternich with imitation fine porcelain, not the 600 year old dishes everyone else in the room was using. His eyes turned to Castlereagh’s teacup beside him, but the minister of foreign affairs deftly slid the coffee carafe (another imitation piece) in front of the Lord Chancellor before he damaged anything that actually mattered. Metternich took the hint and seized the carafe, flinging it against the same wall as his teacup as he launched into another string of cursing. Catherine took the opportunity to pull the teapot (a genuine article) out of Metternich’s reach, while Martuf placed the pitcher of cream a little closer to the raging Lord Chancellor. Metternich turned back to the table and took a long, bracing breath, looking around the table apologetically.

“I’m sorry everyone,” he said sheepishly, but fire still lingered in his eyes.

Catherine sighed. “Clement, go ahead and toss the pitcher too, it’ll make you feel better, and we don’t have time to let you go and beat up some training droids.”

Metternich looked around the table again, but the others simply nodded their agreement. He smiled thinly, grabbed the pitcher, and shattered it too against the wall with a final curse. When he turned back to the table, he looked properly calm. “Your majesty is too kind, indulging my temper like that. Anyways, if FedNat isn’t going to be happy sitting this one out, we’ll need to seriously rethink our contingency planning. Mathias, once you’re done speaking to Selissa, please send her out to Ursuli to start rethinking potential deployments with Kyarguin var Dainar. In fact, better send all the Void Lords out there.”

Bosch frowned. “You think we’re that far along the path to war?”

“Not necessarily, but we’re certainly not progressing along the path to galactic peace. Best to get the people who run the military all together on one planet.” Metternich said wryly, and his Minister of Defense nodded. “Cato, how’s the domestic situation looking?”

“About as stable as it gets, for the moment, but I’m warning everyone at this table that the grain shipments are a crisis waiting to happen. We’re keeping a tight lid on it from our end, but I’m more worried about idle chatter from Rolvian spacers when they make their deliveries.” Telemachus looked around the room gravely.

“Can we pre-position any Civil Order assets?” Catherine asked in an equally serious tone. Ultimately the colonies were her personal responsibility, one she did not take lightly.

Telemachus frowned and twiddled his teaspoon in thought. “Not fully; there’s too many potential hot spots to cover with standby forces, and elevating our alert levels would be too noticeable. But I’m thinking now of one of our contingency plans, which would deploy Civil Order assets to a selection of ‘nodes’ in the colonies. It wouldn’t require changing alert levels, just pushing our existing assets deeper into the colonies. We don’t generally keep them that far forward - bad for morale, being out there in the boonies - but we could certainly do it on a temporary basis.”

“Let’s see about getting that done then. Now, Robert, about that communique from Kadath…”

“Blow them off?” Castlereagh grinned.

“Blow them off.” Metternich replied with a grimmer expression. “Be polite about it of course.” He leaned back in his sinfully comfortable chair. “You know, I almost wish I could tell them what’s really going on here….” he mused sadly.

“And we all know why you can’t.” Martuf said solemnly. The room was suddenly very quiet, and the warmth seemed to slip out of the air. Martuf sighed. “I owe you something of an apology, Clement, and you, your Imperial Majesty.” He held up a hand as Telemachus sat upright in his chair “Cato, I’m sure we could spend all day apologizing to or blaming each other, but I played my part getting us where we are. We needed stability and we needed it fast, and you made the right choices, some damn inspired ones too. ‘Supremacy through unity’, ‘Together, above all others’. You did your job perfectly. But my job, not so much. ‘Anticipate and mitigate threats to the realm and the ruler’. I’m not saying I should’ve seen the Message coming, but we’ve always been sitting on a powder keg, and I should’ve known a spark would come, if not what form it would take. Now…”

“Now we’re on the hexa-taur’s back. Light only knows how many souls, drip-fed nationalistic tripe, no offence Cato, for a decade, and now we have to deliver.” Catherine stared at some far off place only she could see. “It’s going to be millions dead before it’s all over,” she said matter-of-factly. “What we set in motion...but I’ll pay that price. If it means there’s a Commonwealth still standing when it’s all done, I’d kill millions more with my bare hands, if that’s what it takes. Because billions would die if the Commonwealth falls. Never forget that, gentlemen. Never forget what happens if we fail. Steel your stomachs against what must be done, because we’re the only ones who can do it. We will prevail gentlemen, we will prevail.”

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RCNS Indefatigable
Agdemnar orbit


Sure enough, the vultures had arrived. “Ma’am, the Asrian battleship just-”
“I see it, Rammel,” Anisimovna cut off her ops officer. 8th fleet had been rather busy giving ‘chase’ to the ‘fleeing’ Ascendancy forces, but multiple signatures had blossomed on the plot while they did so, getting up to Gods only knew what. ‘Chase’ and ‘flee’ were poor word choices in this instance; the Ascendancy ships were finishing up a very orderly tactical withdrawal, back out towards Agdemnar’s FTL limit, and while 8th fleet’s vector did keep their longest range weapons on bearing with the Ascendancy, it was not a pursuit vector, just one to get Anisimovna’s own ships out of the limit. After the endless slug-fest with the Ascendancy, Anisimovna wasn’t really paying full attention to the other signatures on her plot. Atmospheric disturbances indicated stealthed ships of some kind making their way to the surface. Something large was decelerating in-system blaring a greeting to literally everyone. The Uteqx interdiction force that had blazed in for a high speed troop deployment had done their homework well; they’d come in ballistic at tremendous speed, made the minimum possible adjustments to deploy their drop pods, and been back out of the limit before 8th fleet could even contemplate disengaging the Ascendancy to stop them. The pods were on the ground in what looked to be 5 locations across the hemisphere, but they were General Verenkin’s problem now. The Asrian forces Anisimovna had been forced to ignore had just glassed a few square klicks of Agdemnar’s surface, and were now well on their way out of the limit on a course where Anisimovna couldn’t possibly intercept them in realspace. She was closer to the limit than the Asrians, so she could potentially pop into FTL for a quick jaunt and catch them inside the limit. It would behoove her to remind the Asrians they couldn’t glass whatever they pleased while Commonwealth ships were around, even rogue ones. That being said, her understanding was that the Asrian presence on Agdemnar (or what was left of it) was substantially more official than her own. It wouldn’t do to start a fight where one wasn’t needed.

Anisimovna’s attitude abruptly slipped from ‘annoyed’ to ‘irritated’ as another one of her screening cruisers went up in flames. She’d gotten through the battle with only light losses, but each one was effectively irreplaceable. She was vaguely aware that her temper and exhaustion were starting to get the best of her, but she thought of a burning world from long ago and braced herself. Sometimes messages had to be delivered, clearly and concisely.

She checked the vectors and the accel. The Ascendancy ships were just reaching the edge of the limit and beginning to engage FTL, while her own forces were not far behind. The handful of Asrian vessels headed by their battleship were still quite some distance from the limit.

“Rammel, start plotting a set of sequential jumps, each squadron as it clears the limit. Spread the fleet out a bit to cover the Asrians’ easiest exit vectors. No active targeting, but let’s stay sharp.”

The Asrians were likely assuming her ships would withdraw when they cleared the limit, and Anisimovna had avoided any course changes that might have discouraged that assumption. Consequently, they were likely surprised when her ships began flashing out, squadron by squadron, only to reappear at the edge of the limit directly in front of the Asrian formation. As the remainder of 8th fleet cleared the limit and repositioned, the Commonwealth ships steadily began blocking off easy escape routes. It would take some fairly intense maneuvering for the Asrians to avoid entering weapon range, but it was possible. The positioning of the fleet, however, could reasonably have been interpreted as hostile action under a strict interpretation of the Detente’s relevant subsections.

“This is Admiral Maria Anisimovna of Deliverance Fleet. Although I am here solely on my own authority, I believe I speak on behalf of reasonable beings everywhere when I remind the Asrian Ascendancy in general and the United Royal Navy in particular that the ‘glassing’ of planetary surfaces is, at best, a barbaric display of a total disregard for life and the worlds that support it. Kindly restrict your bombardment to more...precise delivery systems, particularly when the target is a world with significant strategic value for all parties present in this system. If it is your intent to reaffirm the Ascendancy’s propensity for resorting to excessive force, I am sure we can find a neutral conduit who would happily carry that message to the wider galaxy.”

The pre-recorded clip Anisimovna dispatched to the Asrians was not her most diplomatic work, but then, she was just a rogue admiral these days, and rogue admirals weren’t the most diplomatic types of people.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

737th Battalion Forward Operating Base
Agdemnar Surface


General Verenkin var Gnaesh glared at the woefully incomplete holo map on his projector. The outlines of the Ascendancy position not far from his own were relatively detailed. There was a blotch of detail for the Taulron presence against the shield, that one was very obvious. Otherwise, just a bunch of greyed out ‘uncertainty’ zones with flickering lines indicating tentative positions. The Rolvian research station was one such uncertainty zone, one Verenkin was happy to leave uncertain. Far too many scouts lost to ‘wildlife attacks’ over that way. There was some tentative outlining of where the Asrians had been set up, but the orbital fire on their position had been visible to pretty much the entire hemisphere, so Verenkin very much doubted there were any Asrians left there. Plenty of topographic detail covered the map, but the shield dominated the projection. Detailed readouts of its emissions shifted constantly, but no amount of scanning or probing or shooting had done anything to in any way change them.

Burn the Ashtar, Verenkin thought to himself. It was a common thought these days. Verenkin was, at the end of the day, a simple man. All he wanted was to put his feet up by a roaring fire on Ursuli, beer in hand, wife or two at his side, brother-husband spinning a tall tale for the brood, most of whom would hopefully be dreaming of killing him one day. Not everyone went for the ‘Var’ these days, the honorific bestowed on any Szitzu who could slay their sire or dam in single combat. A lot of Szitzu never got the chance, one of their siblings or half-siblings having done the deed long before they reached maturity. Still others had a hard time dealing with the realities of life in the Commonwealth; traveling a few hundred lightyears only to discover your target was now protected by Imperial decree was...disappointing, to say the least. There was a process to have such a decree revoked, but the bureaucrats in the directorate had evidently gotten tired of losing capable Szitzu to what they considered a ‘cultural anachronism’, and so had mired the process in the Szitzu’s greatest enemy: paperwork. All things considered though, the system worked well enough. That was really the heart of any Szitzu’s opinion on the Commonwealth: ‘good enough’. It certainly had been, until the Ashtar poked their noses in one last time.

Verenkin, and a growing chunk of the Commonwealth’s citizenry, believed that the Ashtar messenger whose soothing voice had rolled out over PsiNET had deliberately chosen to call herself Llyena just to sow division and dissent in the Commonwealth. She’d probably used a hundred different names around the galaxy, tapping into the myths and folklore of different nations, always with the same aim of sewing distrust. That was what the message was all about anyways. Assuming there was anything worth fighting for under the shield, or wherever Point Jakurna would direct them, the Ashtar had to have known their little announcement would tear the galaxy apart.

The familiar litany of curses against the Ashtar wound its way through Verenkin’s head, perhaps with greater fervor than usual. Still, his (unofficial) job was to secure Agdemnar, whatever his thoughts on the Ashtar, and secure the rock he would. His eyes flickered to the Taulron encampment by the shield, not for the first time. The Taulron and the Commonwealth had...a history. But they were damned good in a fight, and they generally had their heads screwed on right too. Verenkin had admitted to himself some time ago he was going to need help securing Agdemnar, and with none coming from home for a long time yet, he’d have to look locally. With no desire to get involved in the Rolvian science fair project, and decidedly hostile relations with the Ascendancy, that left one option...

“Wozniak!” he barked, and an aide poked his head into Verenkin’s ‘office’. “See if you can get a comm response from the Taulron, hell, send a runner if you have to. It’s time we had a chat with the birds.”

Wozniak obediently left the ‘office’, but was back scarcely an instant later. “Sir, Admiral Anisimovna reports drop pods inbound across the hemisphere, 5 landing zones. One of them almost exactly on top of where we lost contact with Recon 44-54.”

“Dammit Masha, the timing on this could’ve been better,” Verenkin growled quietly. Few were the people who could refer to Admiral Maria Anisimovna as ‘Masha’, but Verenkin was one of them. The regs might have some interesting things to say about how their professional relationship was developing, but that was one of the upsides of ‘going rogue’.

The Szitzu general looked back at his aide. “Get back on the horn to Anisimovna, see if she can manage a drone flyby of that landing sight. Then I suppose we’ll need to assemble a little expedition to see what all the fuss is about.”
Hey how do folks feel about a map? We progressing fine without one or are y'all needing some relative positions to contextualize your storytelling?
Well that's a shame. Bye!
Thought the inclusion of SPACE! magic in this setting was a pretty good indicator of how soft this sci-fi setting is. Hell call it science fantasy if that floats your goat. If this is a dealbreaker for you, know that I will dearly miss your west-wing style political briefings.

Let me be clear: I do not give a single solitary flying flapjack about astrophysics, physics, or pretty much all forms of math. The ghost of Einstein himself could appear before me right now to tell me why 1 light minute doesn't hold up, and I would still find no flapjacks to give. Asimov's corpse could rise from the grave and explain that good science is an integral element of good science fiction, and there would still be no flapjacks. No force on this earth, short of a personal phone call or direct tweet from Elon Musk, can make me care about unimportant things like reality as it applies to a space opera.
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