“Historians will debate whether it was Winter Ventrosia or Riskhad Slann who was the most influential person in his life. One taught him love; the other drove him to fight for his rightful place.”
From “The Book of McKenna” - Destiny
Things had gone south very quickly for Winter Ventrosia, Lord Admiral of the Migichinan Alliance. From the command balcony over looking the Alliance Archology’s massive Strategic Information Center, she monitored a situation developing on the Alliance border with the Humanis Federation. Two hours ago, three Humanis destroyers had crossed over into Alliance space, chasing a smaller freighter.
She diverted a nearby pair of patrol craft to intercept, and dispatched the destroyer MNV Draesoneth as well. “This happens all the time,” she reminded herself. Since the Federation had a difficult time trying to slink past Migichinan patrol ships, they would send a freighter running into Migichinan space, then give chase, claiming criminals to be aboard the ship. All was an elaborate ruse for free sensor readings inside the territory of their sworn enemies.
What did not help her was the fact that another member of the Council of Lords was also present during this incident. Migichinan Warlord Riskhad Slann had made for himself the reputation of being one of the most powerful generals in Migichinan history, not to mention the most ruthless in battle.
She could feel the dreaded Warlord’s gaze on her as she finished recording her message to Zendista McKenna. Slann’s once romantic intentions toward her had long since faded, especially after that first dance she’d had with Marshal McKenna. Ever since that evening, Slann had made a point to wage a personal war against the characters of both McKenna and Ventrosia, and would do battle with them on that psychological front whenever either was in his presence. Fortunately for her, Slann was more worried about the conflict against the Humanis.
“Raison, what’s Draesoneth’s position?” She asked the enlisted man who was diligently watching a nearby monitor.
"Draesoneth is closing on the Humanis ships, velocity: 96c with a delta v at 10 per minute. Estimated time of intercept: 15 minutes, maximum weapons range in 10. Ma’am, if I may, is it wise to send the Draesoneth into battle? She’s on a cadet cruise, and half the crew has never been in a fight before. They’ll be at a disadvantage.”
“True, Raison.” Winter replied. “But the commander of that ship is the best there is, and right now, we need the best out there to make sure this stays a minor skirmish.”
“I apologize for doubting your orders, Ma’am.” Raison said, looking back at his terminal.
“No need for apologies, Rai, your concern is valid. I just hope my faith in my brother is not misplaced.”
Winter looked back up at the main tactical screen. The trajectory of the enemy ships would take them near a small colony seven light years away from the border in Migichinan space. The colony was listed as Celastrus VII. The world belonged to the X’teren Clan, and was strictly an agricultural world. If the Humanis were planning an attack on the Alliance, Celastrus would be a prime gateway. The X’teren maintained a garrison of combat ’mechs, mostly converted from agro ’mechs. If the Humanis made land fall there, there would be a massacre. She glanced at Slann.
“Now, do you see I why recommended we establish a star base on in the Celastrus System? If Draesoneth does not get there before the Humanis does, we’ll be at war in... oh, about 20 minutes. We should plan a counter attack immediately.” Slann stated arrogantly. He went to an open computer terminal to hail the Admiral of the fleet operating in the incursion zone.
Winter knew he was right. Celastrus was relatively unprotected. For her own sake and sanity, as well as for her image, she feigned fury.
“SLANN! You are not authorized to order a counterstrike, and you do not need to remind me of what has been said in chambers, General!” She deliberately left out his name as an insult. “The X’teren were against a major Migichinan Military establishment there because of the way they interpret our religion. They follow Gaia, and are pacifistic!” They maintain a militia only because we cannot always be there to protect them from raiders.”
“If we do not strike now, we will be seen as weak by our allies as well as our enemies! The Humanis are a far more serious threat than raiders or pirates, Admiral!" Slann injected, spiking his own insult towards Winter.
“A retaliatory strike without planning is unwise, not to mention illogical, Slann. We’d loose more than we gain!” She retorted.
Winter did not like the direction this was going, and she could not dismiss the feeling that Slann was more than ready to draw his sword on her. It was rare for two sitting Council Lords to pitch a Rite of Ascension outside the council chambers. She could certainly see it in the Warlord’s cold, white eyes.
She turned away from his gaze, and focused her attention back onto the matter at hand. The patrol craft had made their intercept a few minutes ago. In the fray, one Migichinan warship had been destroyed, and two of the Humanis ships had been damaged, but holding their own. Displayed on one of many smaller screens was a video feed, showing the battle as seen from a camera on one of the patrol craft. The over-sized space fighters were dwarfed by the 250-meter long Humanis assault ships. Particle beams and blue fire from plasma cannons lanced out from all vessels. The Humanis had their hands full just trying to score a solid hit on one of the more agile Migichinan ships. The battle was disrupted by the arrival of the Migichinan warship Draesoneth, which slowed out of FTL sprint, entering the battlefield with cannons and collimators blazing. Another Humanis ship was instantly destroyed by the destroyer’s barrage. The final Humanis vessel used the destruction of the cruiser as a veil for escape. The battle was over. Celastrus was safe again, and the many of the personnel in the command center cheered.
Raison put his hand gently on the Admiral’s shoulder. “Ma’am, the Warlord’s left the ship.”
With that, Winter Ventrosia began to breathe again, letting out a sigh of needed relief.
“XO, secure from general quarters, and get me a situation report.” Ordered Captain Dunan Ventrosia as he sat down in the command chair of the MNV Draesoneth. Due to the efficiency of her crew, the Migichinan warship had been able to arrive in just enough time to save the citizens of the Celastrus colony from impending doom.
His executive officer, a clanswoman by the name of Hara Kylarn quickly assessed the situation and ordered the crew to stand down from its alert status.
“Sir,” reported Commander Kylarn, “Two enemy ships destroyed, one heading into Humanis territory at high speed. Operations are currently overseeing the rescue of survivors from the patrol ships that were lost or severely damaged. The Draesoneth sustained no damage in battle.” Commander Kylarn finished her report and saluted.
Dunan returned the salute as he rose. Normally, he frowned on such displays of respect, but since they were supposed to be on a cadet cruise, both had decided it would be best to put on a proper show for the young men and women who might one day replace them as masters of the ship.
“XO, I’m gonna get some rest. Would you make sure the night watch gets started properly this time?” Dunan asked as he headed for the lift.
“Sure thing, Skipper. We’ll try and keep the ride as smooth as possible for you.” Commander Kylarn said with a smile.
“Commander, I’ll kiss you when that day comes.” Dunan turned to a cadet next to him. “Cadet, did you know that woman tries at least once a week to find a reason to get me out of bed just to keep me on my toes?” He asked.
“Uh, no sir. I didn’t know this.”
“Son, when you get a ship of your own some day, just remember to keep your XO’s in line, or they’ll walk all over you.”
The cadet chuckled quietly as Dunan left the bridge. Only a few seconds later, he was walking into his quarters. No sooner than he had removed his shirt, the computer alerted him to an incoming message marked urgent, and bearing the Lord Admiral’s seal.
“Aw crap.” He cursed as he opened the channel.
“Dear sister, to what do I owe this call?”
“You appear to be out of uniform, Dunan.”
“Winter, when you get my age, you don’t really have the energy to go ducking behind doors and partitions whenever you see a pretty face and you’re dressed down. Besides, you’ve seen me in less”
Winter blushed. “True. Listen, I want you to come back to the Homeworld as quickly as you can. I think the Warlord is planning something, and I’d like to have you nearby in case he decides to use the big guns.”
“You don’t even have to ask. We’ll be there before you know it. Anything else, Skipper?”
“No, just hurry. I need you here, and by the way, I’m older than you are and much prettier. Winter out.” With that, the channel closed.
“Dunan to bridge.”
“Go ahead, sir.” Commander Kylarn responded.
“Commander, I just got a call from the boss-lady, and we’re to get our butts back there, pronto!”
“Understood, Skipper. Bridge out.” Outside the window, he could see the stars shift as the Draesoneth made an abrupt turn. Fortunately rescue operations were complete as the stardrive roared to life and hurtled the warship into speeds nearing one hundred thousand times the speed of light.
Slann left the center in disgust, joined by Maxaa Branwyn, his top aide and confidant. The raven-haired woman dropped in behind the Warlord and followed. Slann said nothing as he walked briskly towards the nearby section of the Archology that contained the department he reigned over.
After making his way through the security checkpoints, he entered his office, which resembled a small tactical center. Various monitors and holo-projections displayed various areas of the Archology and other locations in the Alliance. He sat behind his desk and activated his computer terminal as Branwyn went behind the bar off in the corner to prepare some cocktails.
He opened his private journals and began to review entries from years past. Many were on the subject of his hatred for Zendista McKenna, and how he had stolen the love of Winter Ventrosia away from him. One entry in particular, from four years ago, caught his attention:
Whoever may read this in the future may ask why I pursue Winter Ventrosia’s affections, and why I spent so much time doing it. I tell you why:
Winter Ventrosia is a prize worth dying for, and that prize now belongs to Zendista McKenna!
McKenna and I could have been close friends, if not for his devotion to duty, his love for Winter, and for the fact that he has come close to foiling my plans on a number of occasions. The fact that Winter’s father, Lord Admiral Esteban Ventrosia, allows this courtship is a bane against the traditions of our people, and he shall pay for that. What’s worse is that the Lord Chancellor and Lord Prime are encouraging this relationship for some reason. Why, I must find out. To discover this information will give me a glimpse of the future. A future I must have control of.
Slann switched over to a tactical display as Branwyn approached with their drinks.
“My Lord. Why did you interfere with the Lord Admiral as she was doing her job? Winter Ventrosia is a skilled strategist. She can handle any situation that our enemies throw at us.”
Slann selected a martini and took a sip. “Winter Ventrosia is a skilled strategist, but in the presence of her underlings, I must prove that my abilities are superior to hers.”
“As the fact that she is having a relationship with the Chief Marshall slowly goes public, any incompetence she displays can be linked to that and the fact that her affair is making her weak. My attack on her was to show her weakness to her underlings. If... if I play this right, I can reveal her relationship with a Migichinan who is not of noble blood, which is a grave dishonor on any noble house.”
Branwyn sat on the desktop. “I doubt she will lose any loyalty she’s earned. Her troops love her, and the respect for the house Ventrosia is deep. Her house is respected by both nobles and clans alike for its humanitarian efforts.”
“Precisely!” Slann smiled. “If we ruin her reputation, then the reputation of her house will be forever stained.” He took another sip of the martini. “Do not worry, Maxaa, victory will eventually be mine, one way, or another!
“But if you do become Lord Chancellor, it goes without saying that others will rise against you, Dakkoth Starkiller, possibly Winter Ventrosia herself.”
“Then I shall destroy them, just as I will destroy Awrann and McKenna. Nothing shall stand between me and the Alliance!”
The fact that the Chief Marshal had spotted him, scared the hell out of Lt. Ryn Klaive. The encounter had forced him to take the long way home in order to avoid detection, which he prayed had not happened. Any hints of being involved in inter-departmental espionage would mean the end of his career. Warlord Slann had made it explicitly known to the young Lieutenant that if caught, he would deny and disavow any knowledge of his actions. He finally made his way back to the residential sector of the Archology where his apartment was located.
He walked quietly into the apartment. It was about 10 p.m., and he knew at least his daughter would be fast asleep. His wife however, was awake and waiting for him in the living room. He began to undo his tie as he walked into the living room and the arms of his wife.
“Honey, you’re drenched in sweat! What happened?” She asked as she unbuttoned his shirt to put in the washer. She could see that he was very disturbed, and took him by the hand to lead him to the bedroom. She laid him down and straddled his back to massage his shoulders. “Tell me about it.” She said softly.
“Slann sent me out to follow Chief Marshal McKenna. He’s been preparing to challenge the Lord Chancellor in a Rite of Ascension. I... I think Slann’s going to intervene. If he does, it’s going to be one bloody mess, and I’ll be in the middle of it.”
She kissed the back of his neck. “Why don’t you put in for leave? We’ll go on vacation until this all blows over. You haven’t had one in a year, so they owe you...”
“I tried that already. Slann personally denied it and said he really needed me here. There’s no way to get out.” He was still spooked. His wife tried to comfort him.
“If you feel you’re... we’re in danger, then go to McKenna, tell him what’s going on. The marshals can protect you, and you could save the Alliance if Slann really is going to do what you say he might.”
Klaive thought about it. He knew his wife was right. McKenna was known to be kind and caring when it came to domestic affairs. If anyone would listen to him, McKenna would be the man. His wife climbed off his back as he got up from the bed and reached for a shirt.
“I have to report to Slann first, he’s expecting me. But I’m going to go talk to McKenna afterwards. I’m going to tell him everything. Take our daughter and go to your mother’s house. Stay there until I come for you.”
Lt. Ryn Klaive grabbed his sidearm from the nightstand and checked the charge. He took one long last look into his wife’s loving eyes before he left.
“Company always arrives at an inopportune time!” thought Slann. Branwyn’s uniform blouse was nearly off as the chimes of his door sounded. Slann uttered a deep growl as Branwyn hurried to close the blouse and compose herself. Slann knew he’d had no appointments scheduled for the evening, and was hoping to have at least one night to enjoy himself. His aide placed a cigar in his mouth and lit it. She was still aroused, he noticed. The sly smile and fiery eyes were still present.
“Enter!” Slann shouted impatiently.
The doors opened to reveal a young officer. Slann recognized him as Lt. Ryn Klaive, a new addition to his staff. Lt. Klaive had previously served as an intelligence officer on Makor III, and had come to the staff with high praises from his previous Commander. Lt. Klaive marched into the room, stopping only after a few paces to render a crisp salute to his commanding officer.
“Lord Slann, I bring news on the movements of Chief Marshal McKenna, as you ordered.”
“Very well, Lieutenant, speak your news.” Slann took to the chair behind a large wooden desk he had retrieved as a prize from a past military campaign. Branwyn went to the fully stocked bar and poured a drink for the officers, serving Slann first.
“McKenna has been in preparations throughout the day, no doubt readying himself for the Rite of Ascension that will take place tomorrow. He was seen earlier this evening on M’Kaera’s Mount, speaking with the Lord Chancellor. They were discussing the Rite of Ascension and McKenna’s role in the future to come. Of interest, sir, was that Awrann mentioned the attraction of Lord Admiral Winter Ventrosia to the Chief Marshal. Highly against tradition, is it not?” Slann nodded as Lt. Klaive politely thanked Branwyn. He accepted the drink and took a sip. Immediately, he approved the drink. Slann smiled and raised his glass.
“To the Humanis, for the best bourbon in the quadrant and the worst enemies in the galaxy.” Lt. Klaive raised his glass as well, as Branwyn merely sipped her own drink. She hated the Humanis with a passion, blaming them for the death of her parents. No way in hell would she ever raise a glass in their honor!
“I assume you were in battle frame during your surveillance, Lieutenant?” The Warlord asked.
“That is correct, sir.” With that answer, Slann saw Lt. Klaive’s mistake. McKenna was sure to have picked up his watcher and taken evasive action. Slann would have to chastise him on that, but not now.
“I appreciate your observations. Lieutenant. Anything else?” Slann asked, showing boredom. He flashed a quick glance back to Branwyn as she undid the top two buttons of her blouse... again. Fortunately, Lt. Klaive did not notice.
“Yes sir. The Council of Lords is vocally supporting McKenna’s planned Ascension. Sir, may I make an inquiry of you, sir?”
“Of course. Speak your question.” Slann responded. It pleased him that the young man was doing his best to look strong and brave in the presence of one of the most powerful men in the galactic quadrant.
Nervously, Lt. Klaive asked his question. “Sir, normally the Rite of Ascension is not discussed as this one is. I mean, normally the Rite is preformed in a manner that there is little time to prepare:
“That is correct.” Slann responded. The warlord stopped, sensing that there was still more to come from the young officer.
“That being so, sir, why has the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Marshal made this “public,” so to speak?”
Slann pondered the question for a moment. “McKenna and Awrann want public approval for this. They want the public to support this decision. These days, the people are accustomed to an abridged version of the Rite. They are often impatient and would rather quickly get it over with and save the long oratories and dramatics for the entertainment industry. We are accustomed to just drawing a sword and lopping of one’s head when we really get pissed off about an asinine order from an incompetent officer, if we think we can do the job better. It’s as simple as that.”
“When Draesoneth created the Rite, he decided it would be honorable to give both parties time to prepare. He established the tradition that both parties make their intentions known ahead of time. Awrann and McKenna have used tradition to their advantage to maintain a legacy.”
“To their disadvantage, I have had time to prepare as well. When the time is right, Awrann will kneel down and offer McKenna his head as the Lords and minister watch. The blade will fall, and Awrann will be well on his way to the hall of heroes. Only it will not be McKenna’s sword that sends him there.”
Slann stood and went to the wall that displayed his collection of melee weapons. He took up the centerpiece, the sword of the house Callivare, the very weapon that his father had won when he had defeated the Lord Prime Callivare. He drew the blade that his father had wrestled from the female Lord Prime and had used to decapitate her, effectively ending the existence of the house Callivare.
“Yes... Awrann will go to the honored hall, and I shall be the one to send him there, not McKenna! I will gain Awrann’s power and title, and then I will gain the Alliance!”
The Lieutenant said nothing. He knew better than to anger the warlord by objecting to his plan. His heart told him that he should challenge the tyrant right there and then. But he knew the attempt would be futile. Slann would cut him down without even a thought.
Timidly, the young officer asked, “Will that be all, sir?”
“Yes, my son, you may go.”
With that, the officer saluted and hastily departed from the Warlord’s chambers. Slann slumped back down in his chair as Branwyn came over and straddled him. “I thought he’d never leave.” She cooed. She finished unbuttoning her blouse to again reveal the lace and satin bra she was wearing.
“You and I both.” Slann replied “Keeping the dreaded Warlord of the Migichinan Alliance happy is a very important job, and unfortunately, Lt. Klaive delayed the completion of his task.” Slann punched a button on his desk that would seal his office after Branwyn’s bra fell into his lap.
“Now where did we leave off?” She asked in a hushed voice.
After what seemed to be hours, Branwyn walked to the shower connected the stateroom off Slann’s office. Fortunately for her, the rooms were connected, as she did not bother to dress.
As she bathed, her thoughts traced back to the conversation between General Slann and Lt. Klaive. The young man had seemed very nervous as he briefed the dread Warlord, nervous enough to seem in question of his true loyalties. Could the young officer be capable of betraying Slann to the Council of Lords, and if so, had he already committed the treasonous act?
As Branwyn dried off, she studied the options. She could confront him directly and question him to his actions, demeanor and loyalty. If she could expose him, the Warlord would surely praise her, and make the aide even more valuable him. There were other ways, though, ways that would be much safer but more covert.
Lt. Klaive was a devoted family man, according to his psychological profile. Tempting him with flesh would likely not go over well. Offering him status and favors might work better. Teaching him to calm down and be stronger in the presence of the Warlord might make him a better ally, and possibly even a better scapegoat.
“No,” She dismissed the idea. According to his file, he was a man of honor. The Lieutenant’s previous Commander had included that in his report. Subterfuge was the only option. Still nude, she crossed Slann’s office to her own. A brief look at the Warlord reassured her that he was still asleep behind his desk. “Excellent,” she thought to herself.
Janus D’Saad had only barely managed to pass a Migichinan customs inspection. Her new employer had made the arrangements, but damned Migichinan thoroughness demanded that her ship had to be inspected bow to stern! Paranoia had set in as they examined her flight logs, certain to find records of weapons testing during her journey. She had doctored the records, as well as other automated reports as instructed by her new employer. She had also taken the care to disguise herself. She did not need anyone to know she was an ‘accomplished’ assassin.
D’Saad shut down the engines and turned her attention to the communications station, which alerted her to an incoming message. By entering a fractal code, she de-encrypted the scrambled message. Good thing she’d remembered where she’d hidden the code book. Migichinan encryption would often introduce a fatal virus to computer systems, resulting in anything from a simple disabling of the main and auxiliary drive systems, to failing life-support systems or even initiating the auto-destruct sequence.
The screen full of numbers cleared only to reveal the silhouette of a head. Even with encryption, her employer did not want to reveal his true identity.
“Listen, D’Saad, and listen very carefully. Find and follow Lt. Ryn Klaive. Monitor his movements and report to me his actions. He is not to make contact with Zendista McKenna. Is that clear?” The silhouette asked.
“Crystal, sir.” The message ended. She found a file piggybacked to the message containing Lt. Klaive’s service records and personal data. The Lieutenant’s family would make excellent targets if he stepped out of line. She would suggest this to her employer the next time they spoke.
Lt. Klaive appeared to be a man of habit, she noted. Never missed an appointment, always successful in any assignment. Never missed an important family occasion, not even his anniversary. D’Saad sat back, if only her own husband would have been like that, she would not have been forced to kill him. “Too bad,” she thought. Then she remembered. All Migichinan men were like that. Devoted to honor at least in word. To a male Migichinan, honor seemed to be everything. They lived and died by what it would dictate. It turned her stomach.
Then she realized an honorable Migichinan would not have hired an assassin. It led her to wonder just who her employer was. The rivalry between Slann and the upstart McKenna was well known, and Slann’s honor as an officer and a gentleman was just as famous. The questions made her head hurt. It was just easier to kill. And killing for money was better than anything else in the galaxy, possibly even better than sex.
D’Saad laid out her combat armor. Designed by the Alliance Intelligence Agency, it carried an impressive sensor suite and sported a highly efficient cloaking device. Adequately called ‘demon’ class, the armor was matte black and as frightening as a nightmare. Fortunately, the previous owner had had her exact same measurements. She stopped to wonder if she ever removed that woman’s body from the hold. Didn’t matter. The assassin had other things to worry about as she put the armor on.
As she placed the helmet on her head, circuits were completed and the optics system came on line. Words from the Migichinan language scrolled in front of her eyes. She knew enough to read them, informing her of diagnostic and status reports as the electrical systems came on-line.
“Excellent.” She said as all systems checked out. Weapons and defenses were all ready and standing-by. She checked the charge on the sniper e-rifle she planned to bring along. It was ready to go. Now, to find her target.