Chapter 1

The Centaurum: October 10, 2241

The Centaurum was restless. The various nobles and members were murmuring in small groups. Last week's disaster at Quadrant 17 was on everyone's lips, as well it should be. Though there had been many border skirmishes in the last ten years with the Narn, outright war had not been seen since the Dilgar invasion was ravaging across the League. But this attack… this was something else altogether.

The conversations grew livelier. Though the Centaurum had no official political parties, several groups had eventually collected out of its sometimes murky depths. Like so many other things in the Republic of this last century, two groups had coalesced around the problems with the Narn.

The younger of these two factions were the Basifs, taking their name from a reptile on Centauri Prime. This basif is a sometime hunter sometime scavenger that seemingly kills by…waiting. It spends most of its time sunning to raise its body temperature. Though it seems to live in a nearly torpid state this is not so. Once in the water it so much resembles a log or piece of driftwood that prey never even notice it. (The basif's head bears a striking outward resemblance to a Terran crocodile). Waiting is its strength. Able to go for long periods without food, it is patient enough to let the prey come to it. It then strikes, wrapping its legs and unique split double-tail around the prey and dropping to the bottom of the lake or river, where it waits. Having four lungs, two of which it can use selectively, a fully grown male basif can hold its breath for more than 40 standard minutes on average. It makes no killing blow, no torn throat or broken neck. Its weak bite does have a mild poison, but this poison is a stimulant for most species. It causes the prey to struggle more fiercely and whips up their metabolism thus making the prey use its precious air more quickly. The basif merely holds on tight and waits as its prey slowly drowns.

Like the animal, so does its namesake faction operate. They wait, lulling others into dropping their guard, allowing time and familiarity to leave their enemies with no defense. Then they can strike and wait as the surrounding circumstances they have helped to create drown their opponent. But therein also lies their weakness. Much like the animal basif, if ever a more voracious predator moves in, they are often displaced or slain. While a basif has a long impressive mouth full of teeth, it also has a very weak bite. Its claws, while stout, are curved inward. While wholly suitable for holding caught prey, the claws are unable to flex outward making them unsuitable against another predator. Its mild stimulant poison gives another predator more speed and strength and thus, the basif dies. So with the animal, also with the Basif faction. The Basifs are often unable to react swiftly to changing situation, or are overrun by aggressiveness. They feel they can often ride out the storm, though even within their own ranks, some now wonder if the Narn are the new and novel predator, come to displace the basif.

The older and more vocal of the factions are the Vorchans. Much like the resplendent bird of prey they are brash, bold, and given to decisive action. And like the same named warship, destruction follows in their wake. Bird and warship alike often hunt in groups, swirling and diving, each attack weakening the much larger prey. Confused by the multiple attacks from seemingly everywhere, the prey would eventually die, often never knowing which attack was the final blow.

Now, while here the similarity between the birds and warships change, not so for the faction that bears the Vorchan name. Like the bird of prey, the Vorchan faction has often been its worst enemy once victory has been achieved. In nature, flights of the deadly vorchans have been known to destroy each other fighting over the prey they had just so ably slain. Once their blood is up from the hunt, and the prey or enemy destroyed, they are often apt to turn on each other in their frenzy. So it has been with the Vorchan faction. All too often once the outside threat is removed, the Vorchans fall upon themselves. In victory they are often their own worst enemy, allowing the waiting Basifs to gather up the remnants of the battlefield and take the best spoils from the Vorchans, much like their namesake basifs have been known to steal prey left on the killing ground.

And so for the last 20 years or so the Basifs have felt their star rising. They had successfully kept the Republic out of the Dilgar war. They felt that much of the recent vocal public opinion seemed with them. Even Emperor Turhan was of their mind. While their opponents gritted their teeth that conquest was denied, the Basifs gathered more and more to them. Pride of arms was replaced by pride of stability. What had once been gathered as tribute was brought in by trade. Though some would argue that it was less than the tribute had been, the Basifs counseled that all Centauri should accept less. It was better that way.

The Basifs were content that the "Great Old Days" (gods how they hated the implied capital letters in that phrase), were merely a stepping stone in the Republic's evolution rather than its culmination. With the loss of awe came tolerance; with the loss of eminence came disdain. They saw the smiles of other races across the treaty or trading table, but did not see the pity, or even contempt behind those smiles. They were content to think and believe wholeheartedly that all others thought like them, that the Vorchans and the Narn, the Dilgar and all others like them were the aberration rather than the norm. They honestly believed that talk, and negotiation, and acquiescence could solve any situation because everyone deep inside thought as the Basifs did. With the rise of Emperor Turhan they saw in one swoop this new type of peace would be achieved in their lifetime. They felt that even with the loss of the likes at Quadrant 17, if they just talked to the Narn, gave them some concessions, stood down more of the military near the neutral border, the so-called Buffer Zone, that the Narn would come around. In a perfect universe they would be right. But, this is not a perfect universe. One simple action by one man would help to shatter these ideas, and then sweep the wreckage thereof into the sea.

The man in question strode into the Centaurum, a passel of his supporters in tow behind. Lord Jentavus Roglark paused before the font, touching some of the sacred water to his lips. Always a traditionalist, he would have no more thought about speaking here without purifying his lips than he would have thought to come without his hair in its proper formal fashion. When campaigning he kept it folded up so to better fit under his command helm, but here on Centauri Prime it was furled it is antique and traditional glory. Most in the Centaurum had begun of late to keep their hair more trim, reflecting the Emperor's taste, but not so Lord Roglark. As a Vorchan of the first rank he felt to not adhere to what made the Centauri great was anathema, even if it was something as simple as hair. He was clothed from boot to neck in black, his vow to only wear black in public until the Buffer Zone was returned to Centauri rule was still in effect. Wearing the longer, older-style cape for formal occasions was also a penchant of his. A large number of Lord Roglark's counterparts had returned to the same style, much to the consternation of the Basifs in the room.

A rising star in the Vorchan faction, Lord Roglark was the military governor of Quadrant 1, right on the edge of the demilitarized Buffer Zone. He had some sort of connections as several other Houses had been passed over to give this Lord Roglark his appointment.

The Emperor entered, accompanied by his retinue of guards and his Imperial Tetrapathy, his four telepathic women. In the Centaurum he was accorded the deepest respect, but not the absolute devotion shown to him outside this chamber's hallowed walls. Business could begin now that the Emperor had arrived. The chamber grew silent as the Speaker of the Centaurum strode forth.

Striking his long stave on the floor, the Speaker called the Centaurum to order. All rose for the traditional benediction of the Great Maker and the other gods. He cast his aged glance around the hall, knowing that today's discussion was likely to be aggressive. Raising his voice he declared "The opening topic under discussion this day is the events of Quadrant 17 and the Buffer Zone!"

The perfect acoustics of the ancient chamber carried his voice to the upper gallery of the sixth tier. All waited a moment, glancing at Lord Tesu's empty seat. Governor of Quadrant 17, Lord Tesu was still conducting the battle against the Narn and Drazi at the Heptharg system. He had pled that his duties with his fleet forbade him from coming and the Emperor had not gainsaid him on that fact. He had clients who might plead his case should the need arise. While some would see only Lord Tesu's devotion to duty that drove him to be absent, many more saw the cowardice behind the veneer of his attention to duty.

Lord Roglark stood from his second-tier seat, signaling he wished to speak. The Speaker hesitated, quickly glancing at the Emperor for guidance (he was the Emperor's man). A scarcely perceptible nod from Emperor Turhan and the Speaker said, "The Centaurum recognizes Lord Jentavus Roglark!"

Lord Roglark strode to the center of the floor. Gathering his cape about him he looked every inch the throwback the Basifs thought him to be: long caped, waistcoat in addition to overcoat, the antique silver braid, the fanned out crown of hair, the white gloves, just like a vision of times past. He knew of their contempt for him, and it mattered not. He did not hate them but merely felt their time was over, and his was returning, as it should. He would grind them to dust and move onward to his enemies outside the Republic. He gazed momentarily at his brethren in the Centaurum, ally, enemy, and undecided as well. It was the last quiet before the storm.

Inhaling deeply he intoned the ancient phrase, "I come to speak about the Republic."

The Centaurum as a body answered "We hear!"

He completed his part of the ritual "I come to speak for the good of the Republic."

The Centaurum completed their part "We hear!"

Lord Roglark began, "Conscript Fathers! I have come today to discuss the debacle of Quadrant 17! I have come to speak of the sins of Lord Tesu and by extension the sins of all within this hallowed room!" A few started at the inclusion with Lord Tesu, wondering in what way they were culpable. Some mused perhaps they were. Most of the Basif faction ignored Lord Roglark, busy preparing their own agendas. Almost as a whole the Basifs thought that as soon as this pompous windbag that looked like a relic from the Great Old Days (gods what a phrase) was finished, they would get on with the real business of the Republic.

Lord Roglark paused to let his comment sink in. He noticed the barely concealed disdain of most of the Basif faction and mused "Fools. Your contempt for your enemy has blinded you, and like your namesake, your poison has only given me strength. Today your contempt will cost you dearly."

Lord Roglark continued, "Yes sins! Do I shock you Fathers?" Some indeed seemed shocked, others merely uncomfortable. "Though how can I call us Fathers when so many of our children have been left to the slaughter?" Lord Roglark paused. Many seemed to be looking away, either in guilt or indifference. He raised his voice to a battlefield shout, "SLAUGHTER!" That snapped their heads around. "Indeed that is what it was! Nearly a quarter of a million dead, an entire shipyard destroyed, a major colony wrecked, the entire garrison slain to the last man, all ships destroyed with all hands, and the Imperial Guard reserve annihilated, including the Alecto's Pride!"

Many looked pained at that barb, especially the Vorchans. The Basifs shook their heads thinking, "Yes the loss of life was regrettable," but with such provocative examples of old might like the battleship Alecto's Pride they were less magnanimous. Better all such things were swept away. But what the Basifs, serene in their belief that most others thought their way, missed completely was that a large number of the more moderate members of the Centaurum winced right along with the Vorchans. Even the moderates were genuinely pained to see such a potent symbol of the Republic brought low. Never in their entire history had the Centauri Republic lost an Octurion-class battleship. A shift, so subtle it went unnoticed by many, washed over the room. It was like the slight chill before Mother Death enfolds you with her wings and whispers in your ear. Many of the moderate lords felt their pride of nation reawaken, their resolve solidify. Of all the Basif faction only two were aware of a shift in the mood of the room: the Speaker, and Emperor Turhan.

Of the Vorchans, many felt their pulse quicken. They saw their fellow members tightly grin, felt the new wind about to blow. They saw prominent moderates like Lord Harisha, Lord Molari, and Lord Hirso sit up straight, eyes focused in rapt attention to Lord Roglark in the center of the floor. Many minor House lords were sitting forward as if straining to hear every word despite the acoustics of the hall. Even Roglark's biggest detractor in the Vorchan faction, Lord Vezini, was sitting straighter. While the Speaker felt a fine mist of sweat break out over his brow, the Emperor looked on stoically, wishing once again that the throne had not come to him.

Lord Roglark, feeling his star begin to rise thundered on, "Lord Tesu was a man in over his head, and that is the last mitigating thing I will say about him. He was a political man in charge of a vital military colony, closest to our old enemies the Narn, and our new ones the Drazi. He continuously chose to ignore warnings of a strike in the making, and allowed himself to be tied down in a battle of attrition while his imperial seat was razed to the ground! And the only consolation", he paused to inhale, "The only consolation we have is that the surprise relief led by Commodore Kahan's squadron was destroyed to the VERY LAST MAN! They were destroyed defending what was Lord Tesu's charge, and in fact they prevented the destruction from being much worse!" Lord Roglark turned and bowed deeply to the silent Admiral Lord Catus, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Guard, and his Patru. In Centauri society 'Patru' was a diminutive for uncle, but was only applied to a friend of the family rather than by blood. Admiral Lord Catus had been a good friend of Lord Roglark's father Quillan. "Admiral Lord Catus, I and the entire Centaurum thank you for the Imperial Guard's dedication and service to the Republic". A few murmurs of assent came from the Centaurum. Admiral Lord Catus inclined his head in acceptance of the thanks as Lord Roglark continued, "Had the Commodore not arrived when he did, and selflessly sacrifice his ships and crew, the entirety of Quadrant 17 may have been threatened. The Immolan District may have been assaulted as well. He and his Guardsmen's willingness to die for our Republic while defending her citizens from this… this… " Lord Roglark sputtered in his swelling rage, hunting for a proper epithet for Lord Tesu, "This PIMMEL'S incompetence is beyond my ability to properly honor". There was a slight gasp at the word 'pimmel', it being a very vulgar word used to denote a male sexual organ that was of insufficient length or girth to do its job properly. Sometimes it was even used to refer to a fellow presented with the Sixth Level yet has no idea what to do with it.

At that shouted vulgarity (gutter language was rarely heard in the august Centaurum hall) the Basifs finally began to take notice. They looked around and saw contempt looking at them from all sides. From Vorchans this was common, but many of the moderate lords wore the same expression. Belatedly they remembered that they had blocked a Vorchan being named Governor of Quadrant 17 last year, settling instead on Lord Tesu. At the time the decision to have anyone other than a Vorchan in Quadrant 17 was merely another play in the infinite struggle of politics. But with Lord Tesu's epic blunder, that decision had grown into a hobgoblin on hideously long legs that had abruptly walked into the room, gibbering and defecating the entire way.

The Speaker rose from his chair, "Lord Roglark, one more outburst of vulgarity like that…"

Lord Roglark held up his hand, "Speaker, your Majesty, Conscript Fathers, I beg your forgiveness for my rude tongue. I was a soldier long before I sat in my father's place here." A slight chuckle rolled about the chamber. Many even among the moderates had also served and knew the language of the barracks. Lord Roglark gave a small smile and bowed his head slightly, looking for all the world like a small boy with his hand in the cookie jar. A moment later his face hardened and he spoke again, "But while you may forgive me Fathers, Lord Tesu's incompetence cannot be forgiven. Nor can those that put him in his current position last year. If memory serves," he turned and casually indicated the Emperor, "His Majesty had no opinion on the matter." It was impossible to tell if there was a rebuke in his voice for the Emperor. Lord Roglark turned back to the Centaurum, "My good friend Lord Brazita was suggested for the post. A proven warrior beyond reproach, and a good hand at other administrative skills, well suited for a post such as Quadrant 17". His brow grew darker as he leveled a finger at the sitting Centaurum, "Yet some within this body saw fit to put their own petty agendas before the safety of the Republic! Certain members of this body blocked Lord Brazita. You know who you are, and rest assured so do the rest of us!"

The Basifs were in total disarray. Where had this come from? Lord Roglark had helped to derail many Basif agendas in the past, but by and large Lord Refa or Lord Vezini were the Vorchan mouthpiece. This thrice-damned second-tier Roglark was undoing years of work every moment he continued. The Basifs floundered, their weapons of choice ineffectual in the face of a determined predator. They had blocked Refa many times, his naked ambition to ascend to the White so obvious. But this was an unexpected attack. Not one Basif rose to Lord Tesu's defense, not wanting to hitch themselves to such a dying horse, but one of Lord Tesu's clients, a Minor Lord Banadine began to rise, saying, "Now see here Roglark…"

Lord Roglark saw Lord Banadine rise, and raised his hands in a placating gesture, "Lord Banadine please. I know you are duty bound to defend your patron. Of all that I know of you, you have given good service to your Lord in all things. Would that you served someone else that better rewarded such loyalty." Lord Banadine sat back deflated. Lord Roglark given him the highest compliment a patron could give: he had been known, even by one of his Lord's enemies, to give good service. Yet the subtext of the compliment was clear: leave Tesu and you will be rewarded for such good service…by Lord Roglark. Banadine looked contemptuously at Tesu's other two clients: Rayann and Jindalo, neither having come to Lord Tesu's aid. Both were trying hard not to be seen. Just as Lord Tesu was nowhere to be seen.

Lord Roglark continued, "I digress Fathers. Lord Tesu's guilt in dereliction of duty is self-evident: Quadrant 17 is utterly destroyed." Lord Roglark sadly shook his head, the fan of hair rippling as if a breeze entered the room. When he looked up his visage was grim and his eyes glittering, "And while the pretend soldier was off playing with the simple and inane Drazi, a real soldier along with all of the other brave forlorn defenders of Lord Tesu's demented policies gave their lives for the Republic!" He paused as if caught with a momentary thought, "Wait, I am wrong. Not all of the defenders of Lord Tesu's policies died at Quadrant 17. Many of them still live, right here in this very room! Where are the brave men who allowed Lord Tesu to assume the governorship?" Lord Roglark's sarcasm literally dripped off his pointed incisors, "Who voted to let him have his fun? Where are you Conscript Fathers? Have you deserted your Lord Tesu, much like you have deserted our Republic? Shall I have the recorder read out your names for all to see?" Many of the Basifs actually began to tremble. While in the midst of the ruination of their long fought plans, they realized they had totally misjudged the pulse of the Centaurum and by extension the Republic. This throwback idiot was going to have his way today, and his retarded ilk along with him.

"Ah," Lord Roglark sighed, "there is no need to read them out loud. You know who you are." He paused as if musing before speaking again, "We ALL know who you are!"

The Speaker looked helplessly at the Emperor. He knew what would happen next. Emperor Turhan blinked slowly and imperceptibly shook his head. The Speaker closed his eyes, fighting back tears. Lord Tesu was a relative by marriage, and what was about to happen...

Lord Roglark did not disappoint them, "I call for Lord Tesu to be proscribed! All of his property and assets should be seized by the Republic and put forth for the rebuilding of Quadrant 17, and the well being of the widows and orphans of his murdered soldiers!" More than half the Centaurum came to their feet in a roar, yelling for Tesu's blood, some calling for his execution, removal of his House and other older more painful punishments for betraying the Republic.

Lord Roglark swept back his cape while raising his hands over his head, "There can be only one redress to this vomitous shame, this redolent pile of excrement that has been placed at our door! I call for an immediate declaration of war upon the Narn Regime and their barbaric allies the Drazi Freehold!" Cheering drowned out the cries of regret among the Basif, "They must pay for slipping in the door and burning our house, slaying our children!" Another deafening roar, "We must show them why you do not make war with the Centauri! They must be made to answer for their crimes down to the last generation!" Most of the Centaurum was on its feet, beating the long tables in front of them and chanting "WAR! WAR! WAR!"

The Speaker began pounding his stave on the floor, trying to call the Centaurum to order, but that heavy chant made his efforts futile. To Emperor Turhan that chanting and pounding of fists sounded like the march of boots from his short time in the military. They sounded much the same to Lord Roglark.

Lord Roglark turned away from the Centaurum, swinging his cape back around his body. As he declared the motion for war his vote was already counted. He heard the Speaker vainly shouting for order amid the chaos of the war-chant. Lord Roglark's clients were already up and calling for a vote amid the din, some one or two Basifs trying to shout it down, but they were lost in the cacophony. Many never even raised their voice, stunned into silence by their defeat. As Lord Roglark turned to leave, he caught the Emperor's eye staring at him. Though his visage was complacent, Roglark could see the burning behind the mask. "So," he thought, "our Emperor was going to let this outrage go unpunished, this defeat un-avenged. Had I not spoken, we would have scuttled off to lick our wounds and lament 'Why oh why can't the Narn just love us??' A little secret Emperor Basif: they will NEVER love us! It is them or us. And if I have to pick up our banner and shout, "Follow me!" because you can't, if I must charge and be our champion, then so be it… Lord Roglark bowed to the Emperor as deeply as custom and courtesy demanded, but no more. He then turned and left the hall.