Leytenant Ilarion Bezrodny could not decide how he felt. On the one hand, he had been entrusted with the transportation of a Praetor
to his court martial, something that, to his knowledge, had never happened before in this generation. He was aware that The Man Who Would Burn Terconia had proven himself an enemy to the Dragunovs, the Delest Branch that Bezrodny owed allegience to. And he knew that, if everything went well, this operation could kickstart his career and elevate him in the eyes of his superiors.
Everything had been planned to the utmost detail; security had been tightened for the transportation and the flight plan was classified, known only to the highest-ranking personnel. He only had to not
On the other hand, Bezrodny had been entrusted with the transportation of a Praetor to his court martial,
and, if things went wrong somehow, it was likely to mark his career forever
. The thought was sobering and enough to send cold shivers down his spine.
As his small prisoner transport vessel prepared for the cross-system jump from the Yenisei starlance exit to the Ural starlance entrance, he spared a glance towards the prisoner observation screen, on a secondary console. Praetor Dyatlov was seated on his bunk, in the brig, under close observation by two Imperial Guardsmen. He looked small
, for lack of a better word, Bezrodny thought; weary. But not nervous.What was he thinking?
Bezrodny couldn't help but wonder. Does he truly realise what will happen to him? What possessed him to do what he did?
"Sir, System Control has just confirmed our flight plan," his pilot said, drawing him back to the job at hand. "Coordinates plugged in and ready; our cross-system ETA will be just under thirty-five minutes."
"Understood," Bezrodny said, tapping in his codes for the jump drive cycle. "Proceed when ready."
Thirty-five minutes to the Starlance; then, perhaps an hour for the interstellar flight. And then, another three grueling hours ahead of them, across two more starlances, for the slog to Ihefulian.
It came as a distinctly unwelcome surprise to Bezrodny when, seven minutes into the subspace flight, his vessel's jump drive, without any warning or prompting by the pilot, decided to poke a hole in the etheric dimensional barriers and catapult them arse-over-teakettle back out into realspace.
Bezrodny came to, slowly picking himself up from the cold metal floor of the spacious cockpit area. His head hurt and his senses were still protesting, scrambled from what amounted to an emergency subspace crash transition. He could see only blurrily; and it took a conscious effort to identify the sounds emanating from the ship's comms console as human words."...ordered to power down shields and engines and prepared to be boarded. Any resistance will be met with lethal force. Any attempt to use your subspace transmitters will be met with lethal force. Please acknowledge, on a sublight frequency. Prisoner transport DPT-3561, this is the
YCS Pamyat Chesti. You are ordered to power down shields and engines and prepared to be boarded. Any resistance..."
Bezrodny clawed himself back onto the forward console, still barely registering the meaning of what he was hearing, and raised his eyes to the viewscreens. He blinked for a few seconds, still trying to interpret the blinding, blurred image that somehow did not make sense
; and then things snapped into terrifying focus.
His ship was orbiting high above the burnt-out surface of a rocky world; one of the fire-bathed inner planets of the Yenisei system. The star itself was a ball of nuclear fury, oh-so-close, and filling half of the horizon.
He was not alone. Far in the distance, not near enough for his blurry sight to make out properly, was a vague tracery of glinting silver, something like a vast spider's web, reflecting the red fire of Yenisei. And far closer, silhouetted in burnt-out black against the glare of the sun, its shadow falling dark onto Bezrodny's prisoner transport, was a Grazhdanin
Bezrodny's addled mind gaped and hiccuped at the looming threat. Under any other circumstances, he may have made the right decision. But now, as his pilot groaned, slowly regaining consciousness, and the warship crept closer, he could only think of one thing.They're here for Dyatlov. They're here to disappear him. And all witnesses.
He staggered to the comms console. He needed to get word out - let System Control know - ask for help. Frantically, he called up the frequencies for a general distress signal; and depressed the prominent panic button at the side of the console.
Ten seconds later, a graviton lance from the cruiser sliced through the shields of the transport like tissue paper and sharply sheared off the cockpit from the rest of the ship, vaporising everything ahead of the most forward bulkhead with clean, almost surgical precision.
Dyatlov pulled himself out of blissful unconsciousness and into painful awareness with a jolt. Whatever that
had been - that stomach-churning, pressure-building lurch
that had pulled his mind and body in five different directions, it had passed; but it had left its mark on him. He realised that he was face-down on the floor; and his first attempt to pull himself up into all fours left him gagging and throwing up in a massive heave. Thankfully, he somehow managed to not overbalance and slip back into his own filth.
Carefully, slowly, he shuffled backwards, finally resting his back against the wall of his cell and taking stock of the situation.
The ship was in trouble - that much he could immediately discern. The lights had dimmed into the dull red of emergency power; and even that was flickering intermittently. The hum of the engines was dead; and it was immediately clear to him, thanks to the minute changes in the signals his inner ear sent to his brain, that the ship had lost its inertia dampeners and
was in realspace, in a slow roll. Thankfully, internal gravitics and life-support still seemed to be operational; and he could hear or feel no atmosphere leaks.
The two Imperial Guards outside were in worse condition - hardly surprising for ground-pounders, who had limited experience with subspace mishaps and crash translations. One was out cold; the other was only just moaning himself back to the land of the living.
Aaaaand yes, there was the vomit comet, as expected.
"Gaaaaah," the Guardsman croaked, "what the Hell?"
"Listen to me," Dyatlov said, urgently, leaning against the cell bars. "That
was an emergency translation. The ship is in trouble. You need to-"
He paused, as the Guardsman scrambled for his rifle.
"Shut up. Prisoner will be quiet."
Dyatlov looked at him, incredulously. "Are you serious?
In the Emperor's name, we're drifting, dead in space.
You need to check with the pil-"
"Prisoner will be quiet!"
the Guardsman cried and moved forward.Thankfully,
Dyatlov's mind distantly noted, as the rifle butt smashed into his hands, he's not stupid or addled enough to discharge a plasma weapon in here.
And then the pain hit like a hammer, and the Praetor fell back with a cry of pain, cradling his broken fingers, as the Guardsman gave a huff of approval and moved to assist his comrade.
It took more than a couple of minutes for Dyatlov to sullenly convince himself to disregard the agonising, throbbing pain and get back on his feet; just enough for the other Guardsman to have reached at least a semblance of alertness. When the Praetor dared approach his cell door again, it was to see the Guards trying (and failing) to access the forward compartments and the cockpit entrance.
"Why the hell
is this not opening?" the woman said, as Dyatlov got his first good view of what had stumped their progress: the access keypad near the door.
"Vacuum alert," he said, his stomach sinking.
The man turned around, hefting his rifle again, "I thought I told you to be quiet!""Look at the bloody keypad, man!"
Dyatlov cried, a note of exasperated authority creeping back into his voice. "Three lit red indicators in the upper left corner. Vacuum alert. The door is not opening because there's empty space on the other end of it.
Whatever's happened to the ship has vented the forward compartments. Pilot's dead."That
stopped them on their tracks, Dyatlov noted with some satisfaction.
"We can probably figure out what happened from the engineering section," Dyatlov said. "On these tubs, access is at the rear, under the red grates."
The female Guard made to say something - and then the ship shook, sharply, its slow roll coming to an abrupt halt. Dyatlov, his arms wrapped around the bars of his cell door, staggered; the Guards nearly lost their balance, but recovered quickly, bringing their rifles to high port.
There was a clank
from the front of the ship, the sound of metal-on-metal. And then, a faint hiss
; and the three red lights on the keypad winked out.
Dyatlov, recognising what was about to happen, ducked
as far back from the door as he could; the two Guards, on the other hand, were not Navy and did not have his reflexes or training. And Dyatlov did not have the time nor presence of mind to warn them.
The bulkhead door did not explode
inwards so much as it decided to leave its fittings
, accellerating from standing to a very appreciable clip of speed, catapulting metal shrapnel and the wreck of its hinges and locks throughout the brig. It hit the male Guard, spun him around like a toy, possibly breaking every bone down the right side of his body; and then clanked to a stop against the aft bulkhead.
The second Guard screamed defiance and shot through the empty doorway, once, twice, the plasma burning lines of fire in the air and dust; and then a figure blurred
through the door, low and fast, under the shots, like an animal. It closed the range in an instant, raising an arm, to catch a plasma burst on its armored gauntlet and following up the motion by grabbing the red-hot rifle muzzle and pushing it up
; and then the other hand snaked around the neck of the Guard and twisted
making use of speed and momentum.
There was a sharp crack
, followed by a wet squelch
, and the head of the Guard popped off like a soda bottle cap, thunking
and rolling on the floor like a grotesque football.
The killer did not stop moving or slow down. They were still holding the plasma rifle of the dead Guard; now they spun it around one-handed, to lay its stock upon their own shoulder, and fired one, two, three pinpoint-accurate shots into the body of her fallen comrade. The man twitched, and fell still, holes the size of fists punched through his armor by the point-blank shots.
And then, less than five heartbeats after its dramatic entry, the figure was still.
"Praetor Ishiro Dyatlov?" she asked - and it was a she
, Dyatlov realised, now that his eyes could actually track
her. Very obviously
a she, going by voice and...body type, and dressed in heavy black-and-white Yonsakuren armor, with a dark combat helmet obscuring most of her face.
"Yes," he croaked. There was nothing to gain by lying, at this point. If she wished to kill him, there was little he could do to prevent it.
"Good," she commented, drily, and stepped closer to the cell door, grabbing a hold of the bars. "The alarms have been raised. There are potentially hostile forces inbound. We do not have the time to hack the secure locks, Praetor. Step back."
Feet spread out, and heavy soles gripped the metal floor; back and shoulders and arms and muscles like steel wire bunched up and flexed
. And metal -solid bars of steel almost two-thirds of an inch thick- groaned and bent like wire, transverse bars snapping like twigs, bits of steel corkscrewing and pinging
off all over the room.
The woman -the Yonsakuren- backed off, with a huff. "There is enough space for you to step out now, Praetor," she said. "Please proceed to the exit. Rapidly
, if you please."
Dyatlov looked at the airlock viewscreen, as the boarding tube retracted and the ship pulled away from the wreck. A few hundred metres away from her, the cruiser's guns fired, a short burst; and what was left of the transport disintegrated in a flash, its small core going up.
"Is this a rescue of sorts?" he bleakly asked, still wrapped in the thermal blanket that the silently staring Yonsakuren around him had been kind enough (was it kindness?) to provide.
"No," the woman replied. "You are being recruited, Praetor."
For the first time she removed her helmet. She was old, for a Yonsakuren, with streaks of gray in her hair; but her face and body still looked stunningly youthful, as was usually the case with the Yonnies. Not to mention, Dyatlov had seen her move
"I am Vladlena Yonsakuren," she said, cooly, pinning him with her gaze. "My role is that of Chief Boarding Officer on this ship, which is the Pamyat Chesti
. These are the Yonsakuren under my command - the boarding warriors. Normally, they
would have been tasked with extracting you. But I decided that it was not for cubs like these to perform such an important mission. It was not a good fight, but mistakes would not have been tolerated. And you deserved the honour of my personal involvement. And I desired the honour of extracting you myself. Do you understand?"
"I do," Dyatlov replied. "I am grateful for your help."
"Your gratitude is insufficient to repay the debt that the Clan owes you,"
Vladlena stated, her voice still cool. "My son and the daughter of my gene-brother served under you in Terconia. Personally, as a member of their family, I still owe you her life and his good death; as for the Clan's gratitude, it is greater still and likely to grow even more, now that we have recruited you and that we will be fighting together. That is something that I greatly look forward to."
"Chief-" Dyatlov hesitated, "Chief Boarding Officer, I fear that I am lacking important information. I am grateful for your help; but I don't know what you expect of me, nor why you would endanger yourselves in this...operation. Which, by the way, seems entirely and utterly illegal to me. Borderline treasonous, some might say."
The Yonsakuren laughed all around him - a low amused rumble, that crept up and down Dyatlov's spine.
"Treason implies the breaking of bonds of loyalty," Vladlena said drily. "And loyalty goes both ways. It is not us who broke these bonds and our honour remains unstained."
For the first time, a thin smile crept onto the face of the woman. "There are some who might disagree, of course. But we have decided that their opinion is irrelevant. We are Yonsakuren, after all."
Dyatlov always pictured treason being discussed in dark rooms, with shady figures skulking and hissing poisoned words from the shadows. This was - surprisingly pleasant and tame, in comparison.
There were three more people physically present in the bright room he had been led to, which seemed to be a conference hall of sorts, near the Pamyat Chesti's
bridge. One was the commanding officer of the ship, a Yonsakuren Elder of advanced years, who had introduced herself as Arurior Nadyia Yonsakuren, with a handshake that had nearly broken the fingers of Dyatlov's other
hand as well. The second was a corpulent and jovial man of middle age, who had introduced himself as Li Bai Kohakuren Delest, the distant cousin and self-proclaimed senechal of some minor princess of the Imperial Line, whom Dyatlov had barely heard about in the past. And, perhaps more importantly, and to his jaw-dropping surprise, the third person was Lady Imube herself, quick to grace him with a gentle smile and a kind word of welcome when he first entered.
There were other people attending, just not physically. Dyatlov was, again, pleasantly surprised to see Ter-Iio Akiyama teleconferencing in from Orakul
, which was piggybacking on the Pamyat
subspace tunnel on their way to the Ural Starlance. Apparently, the Orakul
had been used to scramble the navigation systems of the prisoner transport, allowing its interception by the Pamyat
. It was gratifying to see that Akiyama looked happy to see him as well. And then, there were two more Admirals teleconferencing in from out-of-system, their signals heavily encrypted and degraded, but still recognisable as belonging to the commanding officers of the 1st and 3rd Frontier Fleets.
"It is good to have you here, Praetor," Li Bai led the conversation, after refreshments had been served, by a teenage Yonsakuren attendant. "I must admit, that Her Highness disapproved most
vocally when she heard about your arrest and imminent execution."
"I-" have not even been court-martialled yet
, Dyatlov was about to say, when he realised the folly of that statement. "I appreciate Her Highness' concern, Sir, but I do not recall having ever met Her, or to have acted in her interests."
"True," Li Bai agreed, with a wry smile, "but you are a celebrity
, Praetor. Cast in a negative light, of course - but not without friends in high places. Lady Imube enjoys Her Higness' full confidence, and she sang your praises at every opportunity."
Dyatlov glanced at the noblewoman, his eyes full of gratitude; she met them with amusement and a kind smile. "Thank you, My Lady."
"It was my pleasure, Praetor," she replied. "I do not pretend to be knowledgeable in military matters, but I can recognise resourcefulness when I see it. You have strived against overwhelming odds in the defense of your country, to considerable success; and this is the kind of ruthless resourcefulness that we will need in the days to come, to be honest."
"Indeed!" Li Bai nodded, seriously. "For the Dynasty stands at the precipice of disaster, unlike any it has seen before. And we must take a stand now, or fall with it."
"My Lords and Ladies," Dyatlov said, his voice tired and his body aching. "I am sorry, but I do not understand. An hour ago, I was being taken to be-" executed
"-court-martialed. I have been held incommunicado for weeks
. I thank you for saving my life but, if I am to repay you, then I ask you to be less cryptic, and assume I know nothing
of what has been going on. With all due respect, that is."
"Very well. Dragunov and Hokke have signed a secret alliance," Li Bai said, his voice businesslike and to the point, his words striking Dyatlov like a physical blow. "They are planning to overthrow the Emperor and place Fyodor Dragunov Delest on the throne, with Nozomi Hokke Delest as Empress Consort. The Voloy and Akagi Branches are considering a similar arrangement, to counter them. Kobe is likewise declared against them. Kobe are standing alone, but are no less dangerous, thanks to their backdoor dealings with the Guilds. All in all, we are looking at a Civil War involving at least six of the thirteen Branches, with another four currently vaccilating at the precipice."
against the Emperor?"
Dyatlov's jaw dropped. For a natural-born, the idea was close to unthinkable; he knew that, for the majority of the vat-born, it literally was
"Infighting - and
open rebellion against Vladimir Yama Delest
," Li Bai said, with a quirky smile. The way he had stressed the name hinted towards something important. "I see that you do not really understand
how loyalty to the Delest Dynasty works, Praetor, do you?"
"I-" Dyatlov was at a loss of words. Loyalty was loyalty
; as it had been drilled into him since his childhood years. You should not betray - you did not
betray the Dynasty, or the Emperor. It was that simple.
"This loyalty, this ingrained obeisance," Li Bai said, still smiling, "it's not magic, Praetor. It is weaved in, genetically, in the Delest and in his subject. It is a trait. Like the queen bee affects the swarm, so does the Delest of the Blood affect the vat-grown. Putting someone with the Gift on the queen bee's chamber, on the Throne, helps them - it is an advantage
. A significant
advantage. It is not
easy or intuitive, even amongst natural-borns to challenge an accepted leader, after all. But-"
"-but if their Gift is weak," Lady Imube cut in, "if the Blood is not strong in them, then others can capitalise on their weakness. Then other queens can start carving off parts of the Hive for themselves. STAND AT ATTENTION IN MY PRESENCE
Dyatlov was not vat born -knew
he was not- and yet his knees jerked in response to the harmonics of HER
voice. Li Bai winced. And Ter-Iio Akiyama's hologram jumped up in ramrod-perfect attention.
The Yonsakuren did not move a muscle.
"Hm," Lady Imube said, "Not vat-grown yourself, Praetor, but definitely someone in your family tree. Grandparents, perhaps? Sit down,
Ter-Iio Akiyama, please."
Dyatlov nodded, pale and shaken.
"Vladimir Yama Delest is a tired, old man,"
Lady Imube said, her voice cold, "and his Gift is waning
. It is, after all, largely a matter of focus
and he has lost what little of those he had, wasting away, trying to juggle his courtiers and the schemes of the various Branches. The Branches will undermine a weak ruler and they will gravitate towards a strong one as a matter of course; and Vladimir has allowed himself to grow weak."
The last word was spoken in clear condemnatory tone, as if it were a disgusting character trait, or an outright crime.
"To the Delest of the Blood, that much is instinctively obvious," Li Bai said, gently. "If that weren't the case, a civil war such as the one currently brewing would be unthinkable. The conditions
that led us here would have been unthinkable."
"This is also clear to us," Nadyia Yonsakuren cut in, her voice steel and iron. "The Yonsakuren respect leaders who will lead
, uncompromising. Fight-makers. Benders-of-Will-of-Others. Like yourself, Praetor Dyatlov. You are the Man Who Would Burn Terconia, to keep her from falling to the enemy. And, for your faithful service, Vladimir Yama Delest throws you to the wolves. This is travesty. This is abomination
. You are battle-friend to the Clan. The memory of Ermolai speaks your name with pride and the Clan echoes it. And if Vladimir Yama Delest-"
the name was spat out "-expects to have your blood, to appease the baying scavengers, then he has trampled the Pledge of Uuni in the mud and the Clan denounces him for the faithless cur
The tone was final - and another one of Dyatlov's preconceptions was shattered. Treason was meant to be alluded
to, spoken of in metaphor and innuendo. Not screamed out
in defiance. The muted 'Ayes!' from the Admirals' frequencies were also a surprise.
"Civil war is unavoidable, Praetor," Li Bai said. "But, in the long run, this is an oppportunity
, not a setback, for the Dynasty. This is a chance to place on the Throne someone in whom the Gift is strong; a leader who can bring the Branches to heel and unite the Dynasty once more. Someone who looks beyond
their own Branch and its petty interests. The Kohakuren Branch and the Imube Branch believe we have our candidate -someone whose Gift and focus surpass all others- and we are, both, willing to fight to the death to give her the chance she needs to save us all. We wish you to join us in this fight. We could use men of your vison and skill, Praetor, to lead our forces."
"Aye, say the word, Praetor Isshiro Dyatlov," Nadyia cried, with a laugh. "By the Clan, every Yonsakuren I know would call it an honour to serve with you and under you." A pause and a wink. "And under
if you can rise to the occasion, sonny." A pause. "I mean they'd like to bed
you, of course. Good fight-making mind there, brilliant
"Yes, Arurior, I think he understands," Lady Imube cut in, eyeing Dyatlov's pale face with a crooked smile - and some undisguised concern. "No need to elaborate, I'm sure you can...arrange things to both of your satisfactions...later
. For now... Praetor. Everyone here, myself included, declare for Her Imperial Highness - I'm sorry, her Imperial Majesty
Yu Ki Kohakuren Delest."
She leaned forward, and her eyes were twinkling stars. "And we would be honoured, if you would join us."
The Terconia Campaign
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