The Scarlet Gallery of the Imperial Palace
Brandenburg Old Quarter
“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
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.”
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
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.”