This is the first in a series of interlude stories/vignettes taking place between Snakepit and its sequel, Stars of Iron.
Rebirth of the Janissaries
The Tollan Curia
Blue Conference Room
It was often said that the more participants in a meeting in the Imperial administration, the less weight the discussion had. Savvy commentators of Tollan politics knew the reverse rule : the really important decisions were always taken by a few characters in quiet and discreet meetings, safely tucked in the heart of the Curia building where no prying ear could listen and no loudspoken fool could interrupt.
Blue conference room didn't look like much from inside. Pale blue walls (hence its name), a display-glass surface with room for eight seats around its octogonal perimeter, a handful neutral still picture-frames, and a standard issue holodisplay stuck on the ceiling above, a silver dish contraption studded with photonic windows. It was inactive, as was the display surface. The three men sitting there didn't need any visual input for what they were discussing.
They knew each other well. It was hardly the first time they met in that way, after all.
All three were well into mature age and heir seniority showed itself in greying or white-laced hair, lines set on faces that were used to long frowns of concentration, and attentive if subtly relaxed postures, as if their inherent seriousness was tempered by self-confidence borne from decades of experience.
All wore sober clothing as befitted such senior leaders and movers, in light shades of grey. The only peculiarity was a low-key one, only apparent because of the lack of any other. One of the men was speaking softly but articulately, on his breast glinted the platinium three-pointed star of a Tollan Navy Senior High Fleet Commander, the highest rank in the Imperial armed forces, and it belonged to the highest-ranked of them all. Effectively, SHFCdr Doranis was the head of the Navy, answering to the Curia only, and he had been holding this rank since the opening battles of the Third Goa'uld War (mere skirmishes didn't count). A war that closed a long period of effortless Tollan supremacy, and whose outcome would have been much, much worse if the Empire hadn't found an unexpected ally to put a stop on Tanith's string of victories.
He knew better than anyone how complacence had nearly doomed them all. And he was determined to use the breathing space to ensure such a thing would never happen again on his watch.
"The Curia already agreed on the new military construction plan, High Commander. Therefore, I do wonder at the reason why you requested this meeting ?"
Doranis only smiled slyly at the question raised without preamble. Councilor Damoros was the Navy's best supporter in the Curia, and held considerable sway in Tollan affairs as well. And he usually went straight to the point when cajoling his opposite numbers wasn't needed. The last man remained silent. Another member of the Curia, he was junior to the game, but his past career and connections in the Diplomatic Service made him a useful ally. And he was sensible as far as military matters went, contradicting the common saw that diplomats and soldiers didn't go along.
"Indeed, Councilors. The whole package went through the vote without a hitch, and I must say I didn't expect anything else. Even Councilor Lomarr supported it without reservation. Expanding fleet numbers, bigger and more powerful weapons, hyperdrive research, it's all funded for the next ten years at the minimum. The holes in our order of battle should be plugged earlier… but we'll be stuck without a significant force projection capability for three years, at least, until the new squadrons start coming online. We need to build the hulls and train the crews, and we lost all too many experienced personnel in the war."
The two councilors nodded. This was nothing they didn't already know. The whole Navy was to be rebuilt and upgraded to bridge the gap in firepower with Goa'uld Ha'taks. Phase-shifting was yet another casualty of the war, it followed. For centuries it had remained the Tollan ace in the hole, a triumph of finesse over brute force. That era was over. Until the scientists could come up with something better (which nobody expected them to, since phase-shifting itself was still a barely-understood, reverse-engineered technology originally found in the ancient-beyond-belief artefacts whose discovery had kick-started Tollan scientific progress centuries ago) then brute force would have to do.
Fortunately, the indigenous shipborne naquadah-enhanced fusion generators could provide enough energy to rival a Ha'tak's armament, to say nothing of the planet-bound ZPF energy plants. Using their output to power a planetary shield was altogether not the best use, but they could very adequately power planetary defense batteries of oversized ion cannons. Those were already out of the drawing boards - in effect, they were oversized versions of the standard Tollan heavy gun, albeit stripped of their phase-shifting component to leave only pure, raw hitting power. Utterly unsubtle, utterly inelegant, and (hopefully) utterly overkill, since their projected firepower surpassed the shield strength of Tanith's captured motherships.
It should become a one shot one kill weapon again, albeit limited to planetary defense. There were significant theoretical barriers against miniaturizing the Zero Point Field technology, as far as the Tollan scientific establishment knew. And while the completed Super Ion Cannons would devastate a attacking squadron in orbit, they could be made ineffective by ships dropping out of FTL right over the surface. A tactic which, suicidal as it first appeared, had been used successfully by Tanith's fleet.
This was the reason behind another project, this one utterly black, so black it didn't even have a name. Of the Imperial administration, only the two Councilors sitting in the room knew about it, for they had arranged funding and support through (hopefully) untraceable and covert ways. And Doranis had done his best to prevent anyone from remarking that the Empire's best hyperphysicists had been physically relocated in a remote and very secure research facility. This wasn't expected to yield practical results before years, again, but if the researchers' initial intuitions were confirmed, the Tollan Navy wouldn't have to worry about enemies hypering out right on top of the planets it was tasked with defending.
The High Commander put the glass of water down and resumed. None of the other two had said a word to interrupt him yet.
"What I'm here to talk about might be viewed as accessory compared to fleet building ad superweapons, but I think that focusing entirely on big iron would hide an important factor." He paused for effect, took a theatrical breath.
"The human factor."
Damoros blinked. "I'm not sure what you're alluding to… we are already committed to training more Navy crews, aren't we ?"
"Allow me to explain, Councilor. It's not about training technically competent men and women… it is about training warriors."
Doranis bent forward, staring intently at his interlocutors. His tone became more focused, more intense, expressing his intimate conviction across.
"When our troops found out that the very weapon they relied upon the most had lost any effectiveness against Tanith's forces, they were caught entirely unaware. Collective panic - we were unable to adapt and overcome, robbed of our single technological advantage. What did the Drakas show us, on the other hand ? They came in with even less experience against the Goa'uld and the Kull Warriors especially. Did they panic ?"
He shook his head negatively.
"No. They took losses, but the didn't panic. They didn't let fear shackle them. And they slaughtered both Jaffa legions and Kull Warriors all by themselves, using what we'd call inferior technology."
"I think I understand what you're trying to tell us, High Commander. We should emulate them. Is this it ?"
"Absolutely ! They demonstrated superior fighting spirit and skill. Something we have lost track of as we relied more and more on technological marvels to fight for us !" The high commander was now talking animatedly. "We need to return to that basic tenet of warfare : the mind of a soldier is his most effective weapon !"
"I can share your sentiment, High Commander. But how exactly do you intend to accomplish this most worthy goal ?" Assuredly, Damoros thought, the man already had an idea about it.
And it showed in the huge grin that answered them.
"Well, Councilors, the Ground Force will be expanding and recruiting and those soldiers on the ground are those who need that fighting spirit most. Who best could help us turn inoffensive civilians into professional killers ?"
"The Drakas, I take it. But as you know, they train from childhood into martial arts. Even those who weren't genetically augmented for that. I doubt the average young Tollan adult could match this level of commitment."
"Yes, yes" Doranis waved the objection away "but they don't need to reach the same level of physical performance. Nevertheless, I'm certain the Drakas could provide entirely valuable expertise, at least to train the first new classes of what should become a vastly expanded Tollan Army. And I did some preliminary inquiries already - I think they would accept."
Several days later, Eric von Shrakenberg had to muster all his self-discipline not to smirk evilly in the direction of the nearly-red Security Directorate Strategos, whose face he couldn't help mentally overlay with a certain Governor Gayner, and instead smiled suavely.
"Why, Strategos, of course I'm going to accede to the Tollans' request." His tone became even more mellow, if possible. "Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, and if they're willing to bleed for us, why not let them ?"
Even better if the very idea gives your kind an ulcer, he didn't say out loud.
Nautona, Tollan Empire
Joint Military Enclave
Three months later
Whatever second thoughts Cenor could have, now was too late. The tall wrought iron gates had closed behind, sealing the great parade field. White gravel crunched under his steps, and his curious, if mildly apprehensive gaze took in the rest of the surroundings. The Enclave was deceptively low-key, or what he was able to see. Neat lawn borders, gravel paths, white-painted wooden barracks - wooden ? How quaint ! There was a row of them along one side of the square parade ground, their length perpendicular to the border, like long rectangular boxes on low stilts, just high enough for a man to crawl under, with a short flight of steps leading to the manually-operated door. Across the grounds were another cluster of low-slung buildings, and the most noteworthy detail was the pair of banners hanging on twin poles, one of them bearing the familiar crest of the Empire, the other a blood-red, stylized winged beast that was vaguely reptilian and fierce-looking. The dragon symbol of the Domination, one the young man knew from the recruitment posters gracing the streets of his home city. In glorious vivid colors, it showed a soldier clad in an artistically-rendered version of Draka infantry armor, an oversized and brutal looking rifle held at the low ready positions, pointing down and sideways across his chest, atop a pile of dead Jaffa bodies, his booted foot crushing a screaming Goa'uld symbiote under the heel. The soldier's face was young, handsome in a virile self-confident way and smiling triumphantly, as if the universe belonged to him.
Underneath the picture, between the crests of the Imperial Tollan Navy and the Domination of the Draka, was a simple question.
"DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES ?"
It was the question Cenor had tortured himself with every single day since the invasion. Did he have what it takes to protect his land and his loved one ?
He could see how Natilis viewed the Draka soldiers in town. She loved him, he knew that. He had felt so inadequate ! Yet, the encounter with the lonely Ann Rayner had somehow made him realize that dwelling on one's misery wasn't the way to spend a life. She had suffered worse and there she was, unbroken despite the tears she had shed. A true soldier, he felt. A hero. And a inspiration for the young couple whose perspectives on life had been shattered.
And Natilis saw that strength everytime her eyes met one of the foreigners. And Cenor saw her look. And there was a message there, of that he was certain, even though she didn't say a word. And he wanted her to look at him and see the same strength, the same bravery, the same projected aura.
He wanted to become a warrior like those men. And there was the opportunity. So he took it despite any exhortation to the contrary, from some of his friends who didn't see the point in soulless violence. Of course, they hadn't been on Nautona when the Jaffas came.
And he'd walked into the recruitment office, where a cheering Ground Force NCO slapped him on the back and poured him a strong shot of brandy after he'd signed, physically and electronically, his request for enlistment. He was a bit dazed after that. And two hours later, an electronic priority-flagged message caught up with him, confirming his preliminary inductment and setting the time and day for him to start training. A short addendum warned that failure to perform was see him chucked back to civilian life with no ill effect. Save to his self-esteem, he gathered. And Natilis'. Who had, to his relief, taken the news well enough - she'd made that clear during the night. Somehow, she'd shown some of the flame he thought extinguished by the captivity and the rapes. This alone was reason enough to hold no regret, he reflected again as he met the rest of the trainees milling without direction in a corner of the parade square.
There were a couple familiar faces scattered in the crowd, and he went to them for the sake of familiarity in unfamiliar terrain. Boys his age, trying to hide their nervousness too, and they laughed together when he pointed that. There was idle chat as more draftees arrived under the mid-afternoon sun. And he was beginning to wonder at the apparent absence of supervision when a door at the other side opened, on the very construction flanked by the flagpoles. There was a plaque, but he was too far to read. Nevertheless, he reasoned that it probably was some kind of commander's office.
A man strode out, then another, and another. All three wore uniforms. Only one was Tollan silver and grey. The remaining two wore variations of the same, a tan-colored ensemble of pants and matching hip-length jacket, both a compromise of practical looseness and soldierly sternness. Ironed-out cargo-pockets figured in abundance, four visible on the jacket and two on the thighs. A brown leather belt surrounded their waist, held by a shiny brass buckle, and each wore a handgun in a prominent matching leather holster. One of them, the first to exit the building, also carried a large holstered blade on the other hip.
As they came closer, Cenor spotted additional details. The first soldier was no youngling. His lined and tanned face and grey-streaked chestnut hair showed that. He also wore silver insignias while the second one wore gold ones, but the multicolored ribbons on his chest were just as numerous and Cenor knew those to represent battles and war feats. He had no idea of their precise significance, but by the number of them he was staring at two very experienced warriors.
By then, everyone else had stopped moving and chatting and was staring as well, and the little crowd morphed into a rough line as its components moved forward to look at the newcomers.
The uniformed trio stopped four armspans from the first aspiring soldier. Standing in a vanguard formation, the Tollan one in front, they gazed at the waiting men levelly, the Drakas' faces inscrutable as they did so.
"Greetings !" the leader addressed them at last, in a clear, strong voice which nonetheless held, Cenor was sure of it, a little trepidation.
"I am Ground Commander Ochomos, and I'm here to greet you in the name of the Imperial Armed Forces. As you probably know, this facility is under joint Draka and Tollan jurisdiction, and I share its command with my Draka counterpart" he made a formal pointing gesture with his flat hand, and the other officer nodded minutely, eyes never leaving their clinical scan of the new draftees "Cohortarch Olufsen. His role will be more executive than mine. I am for the most part dealing with the myriad administrative duties that such a facility entails." Also he didn't say, but he would be off-base most of the time. That Draka bastard was frightening, even when just sitting behind an office. "And" he pointed the other way "Decurion Hartmann will be tasked with instructing you in basic military discipline and skills." And good fucking luck.
Ochomos stared intently at the young faces in front of him. "You are Tollan, every single one of you, and I expect you to make us proud. It will be tough, and maybe not all of you will survive to graduate, but I am fully confident that in time, you will become a force to make the Goa'uld fear us again !"
He nodded and took a step back at the end of his welcome speech, prompting the Cohortarch to step forward and scan the group from one end to the other again.
"Greetings" his voice was slightly raspy, but loud and clear, and heavily accented. "I've served the Domination for twenty years, leading men like you in combat. Heavy, mudslugging combat, fighting in artillery-torn fields and burning cities. I saw rivers of blood run under my feet. I killed men with my bare hands and I listened to the wail of their women." Maybe this was overdoing it, he mused. But the lads were listening intently. "The Goa'uld and their Jaffa dogs raped your land and your girlfriends, maybe they raped you too. And you want to make them pay. That's good. But right now the lot of you couldn't harm one of those Jaffas even if he was tied to a tree !"
There was a few murmurs at that. Olufsen caught one of the boys and strode in front of him. He locked eyes. A mere second later the other one averted his gaze.
"So. You have something to object ?"
"Sir, I took fighting classes at school. I can defend myself !"
"Really ? Could you defend yourself if I attacked you ?"
"Or maybe you could try to attack me ?" The Cohortarch smiled sweetly. Behind him, Decurion Hartmann remained stone-faced, but his eyes twinkled maliciously. Commander Omochos merely watched, expecting what would follow.
The young civilian had hesitation painted on his features. But wisdom asserted itself.
"I'd rather not Sir. I suspect I wouldn't accomplish anything save hurting myself" he exhaled.
Olufsen licked his lip and his eyes narrowed for a second. Then a grin crossed his face and he slapped the draftee's shoulder amicably.
"Good lad ! At least you have a modicum of sense, I see. This might help you in the future." He stepped back and addressed the group as a whole. "I won't say I'm happy to be pulled out of retirement for your sake" actually, he was. At over sixty, he was unlikely to take part in front-line combat, and his old Janissary command had been disbanded years ago. And being here beat staying on cold, shortage-ridden Earth. His own children were adults, and he didn't have a plantation to stay attached to. Not even a wife anymore, thanks to a Yank hypersonic. The Damnyanks he hated for good personal reasons. But he'd never come to view his Janissary soldiers as cattle, as some (the bad officers, in his opinion) did. Serfs or not, they were his men, his charges, and more than once he'd gone out of his way to spare their lives. He knew that was probably one of the reasons why he had been recalled by Castle Tarleton to help train the Tollans.
Decurion Hartmann had ended his active career in Janissary Training. A little younger at fifty-three, he had apparently kept the same level of fitness after leaving active duty when the Ghouloons began to form the bulk of the Auxiliaries. And he was probably here because he was happy to have fresh recruits to torment.
The officer pursued. "But I intend to whip you into a fighting force. Or make you die trying." The latter was delivered as a quip, but he was actually dead serious. Say what you wanted about the Tollans, but their leadership had made it clear that a percentage of losses in training was perfectly acceptable, as long as the rest performed to spec in the end.
"And now I'll leave you to Decurion Hartmann, who will lead you through inprocessing. You will receive training fatigues and a standard personal effects pack. Your own stuff you'll leave to the quartermasters. If all goes well, you'll get it back when you leave this camp - whether it's in a uniform, or in a casket."
The Draka NCO took his cue and went forward, smiling amicably, although the friendliness didn't go quite up to his eyes.
"All right, children. Form up and follow me." This was the easiest day. For them.