The Ihefulian system was a shining jewel in a sea of hostile space; the sole safe haven that the once-ragged band of colonists had found after years of roaming the big black. In its centre lay a red dwarf, one of the most common stars in the cosmos: a cool, enduring furnace, smack in the middle of the Corvus nebula. It did not
look welcoming. It wasn’t the paradise that the colonists were looking for. But it was orbited by a large exoplanet, right in the farthest reaches of its goldilocks zone.
Ihefulian Prime (the colonists were not
particularly imaginative) had water. And plant life. And an oxygen atmosphere. It also hosted some of the fiercest predators in the known universe, was as cold as deepest Siberia in the winter and, most importantly, was rich in heavy minerals and toxins that were a devil
to keep out of the diet of the colonists.
Ihefulian was as far from a jewel as a system can be when the first ships came screaming from the sky, their failing drives raising clouds of steam from the pristine glaciers below. It became
a jewel. Slowly
. Over decades
. As the colonists (they weren’t Delest yet, but they soon became
Delest, oh yes
) took a look around, said “Right, let’s get to work” (or “Давай работать”, or “働きましょう”, depending on the ship they got out of), rolled up their sleeves and, with sheer bloody-mindedness, ground and polished the ugly, lump-of-coal world they had been gifted with into a shining diamond.
Now, many generations later, Ihefulian Prime was heated to a (relatively) comfortable temperature by a carefully controlled greenhouse effect. Its glaciers had been beaten back, and hydroponic facilities and farmlands fed a population of billions. Its predators had been driven to near-extinction, their essence and DNA incorporated into that of the Delest, made to serve the new masters of their world. It was now the seat of a growing empire, with a young and active Empress at the helm.
And she was
at the helm, make no mistake. Unlike her predecessor, Vladimir Yama Delest, and her not-much-lamented rivals in the succession wars, Yu Ki Kohakuren Delest was a truly talented leader; a master of politics; an inspirational figure for the population and a dedicated reformer.
How much of that was due to the mentors and supporters she had chosen to surround herself with since her early childhood is debatable. What is not debatable is that she could always inspire near-fanatical loyalty to her followers – political and otherwise.
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The aircar (a big, black, blocky brute
of a thing) touched down on the landing pad of the Summer Palace, its anti-grav kicking off a cloud of dust that settled on the uniforms of the Yonsakuren honour guard. They, of course, remained impassive. There was no battle to be joined – so there was little emotion to be had.
This changed when the greying Praetor unfolded out from the rear seat and returned the welcoming lieutenant’s salute. So that
was who the Empress was expecting. The Yonsakuren knew
old Ivan. There were subtle changes in posture; eyes shifted to follow the limping admiral as he was ushered inside. Meaningful glances were exchanged. Thin smiles –thin enough to avoid the ire of their sergeant made an appearance. Predatory
The Yonsakuren knew
old Ivan. From the succession wars, when his fleet had smashed the traitor squadrons over Uuni. From the great Ural purge, after the attempted assassination of the Empress. From his ruthless crackdown on the rebellious remnants and pirates in the rim systems. There were very few reasons why he would be asked to report to the Empress in such short notice. And from a Yonsakuren point of view, all of them were good
There was unspoken agreement among the guards: whatever the future held for the Yonsakuren, it would definitely include…emotion
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The Summer Palace was not as imposing as the sprawling Imperial Residence, but it was, in its way, more beautiful. Built (mostly) with white, blue-veined marble, it was vaguely reminiscent of an Old Earth pagoda castle. It hung from a black cliff next to the massive azure expanse of the Mansiyskoe Glacier, in a tableau that Immanuel Kant would show no hesitation in pronouncing ‘sublime!’
For generations, it had served as a peaceful retreat for the members of the Imperial family and for their retinue. Yu Ki Kohakuren, on the other hand, had neither the opportunity nor, in truth, the inclination for the long vacations of her predecessors. And so, the Summer Palace, while no less serene at first sight, was finding itself hosting some rather un-characteristic hustling and bustling behind the scenes.
Ivan Dimitrievic Kalazonitov saw nothing of the messengers scrambling around, or the Palace staff labouring to host Her Divine Imperial Majesty’s administrative team to her satisfaction, or the negotiations and political jockeying that was happening behind closed doors. He was ushered directly from the landing pad to the High Solarium, where Her Majesty had summoned him for an audience, a stone-faced valet shadowing his steps, straightening his uniform and brushing invisible specks of dust from his shoulders as he went.
The Solarium itself was a spiderweb of glass and gilded steel, next to a terrace overlooking the glacier. It was blindingly bright and warm, despite the cold outdoors, so the Empress had chosen to slightly tint the glass for the audience, a fact for which Kalazonitov was profoundly grateful.
His arrival was announced and acknowledged; he was permitted to enter; he stepped in and waited to be addressed, as was good and proper.
The Empress was seated behind the golden lattice reserved for the most formal of audiences; she was partly hidden from view, but Kalazonitov could make out the bright glow from the dataslate she was working on and the silhouettes of the attendants who awaited her beck and call. Upon his entrance, she looked up, laid her dataslate to the side with a firm click of crystal-on-table and straightened up.
“Approach, Praetor,” she commanded.
Kalazonitov stepped forward, to the already-prepared table and kneeling-cushion, ten feet from the lattice. Slowly, carefully, he lowered his aching knees -bone and metal- to the cushion and made his obeisance.
“Command me, Bright Lady,” he said.
The Empress’ right hand moved slightly; an attendant scrambled forward with a serving tray. Exquisitely prepared tea was served on an eggshell-thin porcelain cup and placed on the table in front of Kalazonitov. The attendant bowed deeply and withdrew again.
“I have need of your expertise,” the Empress spoke again. “I am receiving conflicting reports from various sources. That is unacceptable
. I require an information source that I can trust, to help weed out those which are false. Speak concisely but withhold nothing.
“Firstly, have you familiarised yourself with all reports from the incursion front?”
Kalazonitov bowed sharply.
“I have studied all reports made available to me, Bright Lady. I am confident that I possess as much information on the incursion as possible at this point in time.”
“Good,” came the reply. “Let us, then, proceed. What are your thoughts on the current state of our available military assets?”
Kalazonitov looked up in surprise.
“It…it is impossible
to be brief on this matter, Bright Lady. Even if I were to only concisely discuss the Fleet and Army assets I am familiar with, it would take hours
, Praetor,” came the cold response. “I do not object to generalisations. And be as blunt as you need to be.”
Kalazonitov bowed his head again. “Yes, Bright Lady.” He closed his eyes and thought for a moment. “In short, then: it is my belief that our fleet assets as they stand now are unable to perform tactically in any meaningful way. Sadly, your predecessor’s budgetary policies and the succession wars have caused our research and production to stagnate
. The corruption, sadly present in all levels of Your Majesty’s administration, does not
help, I regret to say. From a quality of equipment perspective, Your Majesty’s fleets lag woefully behind most of the current competition – and are barely on par with the most primitive of the attacking species. It is impossible for us to employ these assets in any type of precise, surgical manner against our current opponents.
“That said, our ships are still capable of effectively pursuing strategic goals. We may work with older technology, but it’s tried and tested, reliable
technology. Our crews are skilled veterans of the succession wars and they know how to keep our ships running
– at least among the Border Fleets. And although our strikecraft are antiquated, our capital ships are equal, if not superior, in firepower to their analogues in our newfound allies’ fleets.
“Finally, we enjoy a benefit that our allies do not, in that our crews and soldiers are, quite literally, willing to die for you, Bright Lady. Yonsakuren or not, there is no man or woman among my sailors who would not lay their life down at your command. But this you already know, Bright Lady.
“In summation: it is my belief that any war the Dynasty finds itself in in the near future, we will begin by losing
. Possibly badly. We will, in all likelihood, suffer grave
defeats at first. But our fleets have staying power and, if our weak points are addressed decisively and in an organised manner, I believe we can win a protracted war. Especially if we join forces with the rest of humanity on this venture.”
Throughout his speech, Kalazonitov did not fail to notice a few gasps from the attendant audience. In all honesty, he had expected them. No ruler ever wanted to hear that their nation’s military power was subpar; similar objections from fleet officers during Vladimir Yama Delest’s reign had been met with scorn, willful ignorance or outright hostility
from the throne. And…suggesting an alliance? With perfidious Albion
? That was…near heresy
. But he had been instructed to speak bluntly and he thought he knew his Empress’ mind.
And then he had said his piece and there was silence. A silence that drew on, for several heartbeats.
“Please, Praetor,” the Empress said at last. “Have a drink. It would be a shame for the tea to grow cold.”
Kalazonitov bowed, with a sharp, nearly invisible smile, and picked up his cup. Lifting it carefully, he toasted the Empress and took a sip. It was a fine and slightly bitter taste, a taste that brought back memories of not-so-distant years, when he had fought to secure a young princess her birthright. It was gratifying to know that his tastes were both known and taken into account.
“Your words are heard, Praetor,” the Empress said. “They are very interesting, indeed. There are very few advisors of mine who have adopted your stance on this matter.”
Her hand reached to the side and picked up her dataslate again. A few crystal tones echoed through the room, as she brought up the files of her choosing.
“Premier Stefan Gregorovic Xiao insists that our diplomatic position at this time is delicate and that the extensive mobilisation of forces you seem to imply will be necessary is out of the question
. Your thoughts on the matter?”
“I am not a diplomat, nor a politician, Bright Lady. It is not my place to question the authority of the Dynasty’s government. I have been assigned a position of high responsibility in the business of war
and I will perform my duty to the best of my ability. I will deploy my forces if and where I am instructed to. If my government wishes me to succeed, they will provide me with what I request. If they wish me to die trying, they only need to instruct me. I will obey my Empress’ commands.”
“I am aware
of that.” The words were uttered matter-of-factly. “The sentiment is, of course, acknowledged and appreciated, but you shall please refrain from wasting my time
with self-evident statements. Would you be averse to working with the Brittons?”
Kalazonitov was taken aback by the question. “Of course not, Bright Lady. Not if I were instructed to.”
“So, there are no bad feelings that might compromise your performance? You bear them no ill-will after the frontier wars?”
“I-I’m not sure I understand, Bright Lady,” Kalazonitov stammered. “I am a soldier. My duty is to the Dynasty, its people and its leader. I have fought the Brittons and the Guilds in the past, where it was necessary to safeguard our interests. If Your Majesty agrees with me in that working with them is now for the best, I will follow your commands. If Your Majesty does not, I will follow your commands
“I see.” The Empress did not appear completely satisfied but seemed willing to not press the issue, for which Kalazonitov was grateful. “These matters of technological inferiority to the enemy, then. Your recommendations, Praetor. Short-term
action, for now.”
“I recommend that Your Majesty takes measures to immediately
place our economy in a war footing,” came the response, immediately and without the doubt and confusion that had coloured the previous answers. “It is impossible to immediately address our technological inferiority. We should focus, instead, on making what we do have to the best of its ability. Nullify all private contracts in Archangel and Mingxing. Begin full-scale production of ships and ammunition – focus on reliable quantity over cutting-edge quality. Apply strict
oversight over the officer corps, especially in the Home Fleets – corruption is, unfortunately, rampant. Run detailed, strict
inspections on all
military equipment - primarily any ships that are deployed to the front. Deploy secret service personnel among the crews, if necessary, to weed out the most problematic elements. Make sure that our logistics chain to the front works without corruption blocking the flow of material
– this is paramount
and will decide the war. Only after all of the above are secure does it make sense to invest in new technologies. Perhaps the planetary supercomputers in Ihefulian and Uuni could be made available to the Navy and Army R & D departments?”
“I see,” said the Empress. “I note your recommendations, Praetor. I find them of interest. My final question – if the Delest were to participate in this war, against these…intruders – how large a force would you propose we send?”
“Initially, two to four fleets, Bright Lady, assuming equivalent participation from all parties,” said Kalazonitov. “Frontier forces, preferably. They should be sufficient to mire the enemy’s advance, especially if we properly coordinate with our allies. Then, constant reinforcements. It is inadvisable to deploy more battlegroups in this theatre of operations – there are simply not enough starlances
and tactical options to justify more than that.”
There was silence again.
“You are promising me a long war, Praetor,” said the Empress, finally. “No
ruler wants to hear that.”
“No, Bright Lady,” Kalazonitov protested, bowing low. “I do nothing of the sort. I believe that there is a very good chance
that we may prove victorious quickly. However, we would be fighting against an opponent whose capabilities are still unknown but evidently formidable. My duty compels me to advise you that not preparing for a long war under these circumstances is a grave error.”
“Oh?” The Empress sounded amused. “There are many advisers in my court who would consider that last remark quite presumptuous
, Praetor. And who would find themselves in direct opposition to your advice.”
Kalazonitov paled noticeably and brought his head down to touch the floor.
“I meant no offense to Your Majesty, or to Your Majesty’s officials,” he said. “Please forgive this old soldier for overstepping his bounds. I stand ready to be instructed on the foolishness of my advice by anyone Your Majesty sees fit and I will accept such instruction willingly and humbly. However, until that time, I firmly believe that my advice is to the benefit of the Dynasty, its people and Yourself, Bright Lady.”
“Hmmmmmm,” the Empress mused. “Time will tell. Thankfully, Praetor, I
do not consider you presumptuous – you were under orders to be blunt
, after all and you have served my interests with distinction in the past. The intricacies of being diplomatic still seem to elude you, but I can’t fault your results in the battlefield and that’s what matters, now, isn’t it?
“Very well, then, Praetor. I have a command for you.”
Kalazonitov had slightly raised his head as the Empress was speaking; now, down
it went again.
“Yes, Bright Lady.”
“You are to fully mobilise the Third Frontier Fleet. I am aware that it is understrength and lacks capital ships; funds have been allocated to reactivate the mothballed carriers Katyusha, Anastasia, Elena
, as well as the siege ship Amour
. During this period, you have the authority to recruit as you see fit
, from all branches of the Frontier navy, the Yonsakuren clan and our engineering corps. That includes
any drafted engineering personnel. Upon re-commisioning of the ships, you are to make best speed toward the front and assist the First and Second Frontier Fleets in dealing with this incursion. You will probably need to coordinate with … other local
forces as well, but apparently this is not going to be a problem for you. Any questions?”
“None, Bright Lady. I fly to strike at your enemies.”
“You will do nothing of the sort
, Praetor,” came the sharp reply. “You have not
Kalazonitov froze, his back drenched in cold sweat.
There was a moment of silence and then a soft-spoken command from behind the lattice, followed by muffled scuffing and motion. Then silence again. Kalazonitov didn’t dare
move, his forehead almost touching the ground.
“Look at me
, Ivan Dimitrievic Kalazonitov,” said the Empress.
Kalazonitov looked up.
The lattice had been pushed to the side. Yu Ki Kohakuren Delest, was there, for him to see, seated on the intricate Dynasty throne, resplendent in all her glory of grey and gold.
His forehead felt cold as ice.
This was the Empress. This was the Bright Lady.
At that moment, for that infinite heartbeat, there was nothing else in the world.
How could there be? How could he feel anything else? He was Delest.
She was the Empress.
His mind, his heart, his everything screamed at him:
LOYALTY. DUTY. SACRIFICE.
The Empress was looking down on him, her face a mask of ice.
Her eyes met his and he couldn’t look away.
– and the whole world came crashing
back in, along with his exhalation.
Yu Ki Kohakuren Delest smiled.
“Good,” she said. “Very
good, indeed. I had heard the bond of duty was strong with you, Ivan Dimitrievic Kalazonitov. And after your unwavering support of me during the succession wars, I believed
it. But I had to make sure
. Not many who are as loyalty-bound as you manage to reach positions of this high responsibility.”
something in response. He wanted to speak – but the words failed to come. This… this was impossible
. He had seen this girl before, during the wars. He had fought to keep her alive and to grant her the throne he believed she was entitled to. He was among the officers who had sheltered her in the thick of the fight. This was not the first time he had seen the face of Yu Ki Kohakuren
. But he had never experienced this before. This…what was this?
She kept smiling and her approval nearly
blotted out the sun again.
“I am your Empress
, now, Praetor,” she said, seemingly reading his mind. “Not the little princess you once fought for. Things have changed
. What I stand
for has changed. And, therefore, how you see
me has changed. You are a Delest of the old breed, after all.”
A perfect eyebrow lifted an infinitesimal fraction of an inch.
, in your case.”
The smile faded, but the amusement remained.
you are dismissed, Praetor Ivan Dimitrievic Kalazonitov.”
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Yeah, I'm going there. Since Spoon touched upon the matter of genetic obedience conditioning for the Delest
, I was always wondering how that would feel for the Delest citizens. And how interacting with a person who is your social equal would change if this person acquired a position of authority (at which point the conditioning kicks in). And how would it feel to interact with the EMPEROR of the Delest - in whom all authority resides?
So, yeah. Kalazonitov is, indeed, vat-grown. And conditioned. One of the older batches, obviously, given his age. And he has that rare 'spark' that allows some of the conditioned people to not sacrifice much of their imagination and creativity and ambition. But, he still runs on the rails of his conditioning. He still chooses to support Yu Ki Kohakuren
's bid for power because he is loyal
to her and to the Dynasty and he thinks she's the best option for the State. And once she's crowned, she hides behind that lattice, and he does his duty, on the rails as always, and then she smacks him over the head with an eyeful of DIVINE IMPERIAL AUTHORITY RESPECT ME MORTAL
and watches his reaction as he sees Yu Ki Kohakuren Delest, the EMPRESS
, for the first time. Just because she wants to use him as a tactical reformist scalpel and wants to make sure his loyalty to her is absolute.Image by artist jeffr, rehosted to avoid possible NSFW links.